Pre-war Berlin in “Before the Deluge” by Otto Friedrich

The Goodreads algorithm that predicts books that you might like is getting to know me exceptionally well. I used to ignore the recommendations that Goodreads made for me, because they seemed totally off. But increasingly, I find that I check out the book summary, and it is entirely up my alley. Dang. Kudos to you, Goodreads programmers.

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I love to read up on German history, ever since my LDS mission there in 2009. But I’m very particular about the kind of books I read. It seems all Americans want to know about Germany is World War II– but there is SOO much more there than Hitler and Nazis and Blitzkrieg!! I do enjoy learning about World War II history as well, but I want to capture an image of Germany as a whole. This book certainly does discuss aspects of World War II and Hitler, but I was intrigued by the author’s approach; the book is about Berlin in the interlude period between World War I and World War II in the era of the fragile democracy between Imperial Germany and the Third Reich. So the events leading up to Nazi Germany. And you would be surprised– the events in the book show that Nazism was by no means a foregone conclusion. In addition, the author covers more than politics and military matters– the “important stuff” that most history books focus on, with maybe a tad of economics. Brecht tries to capture a complete picture of Berlin– the arts, including film, drama, architecture, art, and music, and literature; science (you have to mention Einstein, right?); crime; scandals of the era; and entertainment. It’s probably the closest you could be to experiencing 1920s Berlin that you can get. It’s massive in scope, and very well executed.

The book is organized chronologically, with each chapter being dedicated to a year between 1918 and 1933. But superimposed on this apparently linear structure is a series of interviews with former residents of post-war Berlin, quite similar to the last book on Germany on read Stasiland. Some are still living in Germany, while others are in America and Britain. Interesting to note that when the book was written, the Berlin Wall was still up, and a couple interviewees mention experiences behind the wall as well. As such, the reader should be warned to keep track of “when” they are. The mix of interviews and history bring the portrait of Berlin to life that the author is seeking to achieve.

The first revelation for me was the leftovers from Imperial Germany. For some reason, I have always felt that after WWI, Germany became an insta-democracy. Well, it did. It happened nearly overnight. But Germans themselves still felt a national pride, and they felt that it was missing once the Kaiser abdicated. The new democracy was looked on as weak and despicable. The conservative movement was essentially a desire to go back tot the old imperial days. Remnants of the old Imperial order got carried over into the new democratic government, perhaps best exemplified in the form of President Hindenburg, the former general and war hero under Kaiser Wilhelm during WWI. These citizens weren’t Nazis by any means. In fact, they found Hitler despicable. But as the current government apparently failed and failed again at solving foreign and domestic issues, including runaway inflation and resolution of war reparations, the Nazis increasingly seemed to be the only ones who could get things done.

Building off the previous note, I also learned how fragile the Weimar republic actually was, as the government of that era was known (I learned it’s called the Weimar republic because that’s where the constitutional convention was held due to unrest in Berlin). And for several reasons. First, the fall of the empire brought a call for Revolution with a capital R. Before the Nazis were even on the scene, Communists were trying to claim Germany for Bolshevism. Immediately after the Kaiser fell, a Communist named Liebknecht nearly walked into the Reichstag and declared a People’s Republic as a satellite of the USSR. Secondly, the mixture of both conservative imperialists and radical leftists left very few middle-of-the-road types to keep a democracy running. I liked this summary of the situation from the author: The troubles that were to come stemmed not from the Constitution, which, like all Constitutions, was simply a piece of paper, but from the society that the Constitution was supposed to represent. It was a society fiercely divided against itself, divided not only between extremes of radical and conservative ideology but between classes, regions, and religions… Richard Watts has observed, ‘The constitution… drafted at Weimar… began and would end as a document in search of a people.'”

I really liked Friedrich’s analysis of the Weimar Constitution. Built into the apparently democratic Constitution were some fatal flaws that ultimately led to the republic’s demise. I suppose you can’t blame everything on the Constitution, but it sure sped up the process:

It had been drafted by Hugo Preuss, a professor of law at the University of Berlin, a liberal, and a Jew. Since Germany had had little experience with a constitutional government– neither had most other nations, for that matter– Preuss had pieced together what he considered the best features of all functioning systems. Like America, the new “Weimar Republic” would have a strong president, elected by the people; like Britain, it would have a Chancellor responsible to the legislature; like France, it would protect minority interests through proportional representation; like Imperial Germany, it would retain, though on a limited scale, the autonomy of the provincial state governments. In retrospect, we know that the Weimar Constitution had dangerous weaknesses. Provincial autonomy permitted the Nazis to flourish in Bavaria under the protection of compliant state authorities; proportional representation caused such a proliferation of small parties (at the end there were forty groups in the Reichstag) that representative government came to a standstill; and the famous Article 48 which empowered the President to rule by decree, eventually led to the installation of Adolf Hitler in the Chancellery.

I loved learning as the story of Berlin unfolded. In addition to Hitler, the only names most people know are the big Nazis (Goebbels, Goering, Himmler). You do learn a little of their backstories. But for me, this gives you a false impression that the Germans just like of gave up and accepted Hitler’s regime. It was a lot more gradual. Hitler had to play by the rules (kind of) at first. I was surprised that Hitler was still electable after, you know, overthrowing a state government (Bavaria). That would kind of be held against you in a national election, right? You learn of Dadaism, the artistic movement that rejected meaning (Tazar, Breton, Pacabia). You learn about musicians pushing the boundaries (Shoenberg, Busoni). You learn Communist writers of the day discontented with the current system, but also dedicated to a kind of submission (Brecht, Piscator). You learn about the leaders of the Communist movement calling the massive strikes that Berliners were so good at (Liebknecht, Luxembourg). You learn of some of the unpopular politicians who took the blame for the government’s failures (Rathenau, Erzberger). You learn of the former imperial generals and commanders who played a big role in the next regime (Groener, Hindenberg, Ludendorff). You learn of the machinations in the military (Seeckt, Schleicher, Luettwitz). You learn of the more competent and the very incompetent Chancellors (Ebert, Scheidemann, Streseman, Bruening, von Papen). You learn about internal power conflicts within the Nazi party (Roem, Strasser). OK, clearly I was more interested in the politics and power struggles. Some of the discussion of arts and literature is fascinating, but other times I felt like a novice and couldn’t appreciate it fully. The most engaging parts in these sections were where I already had an in (like learning of the production of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which I had the opportunity of seeing). But some of these folks seem long forgotten. I tried finding some of the mentioned authors on Goodreads, and hardly any titles appear. Still, I liked the big picture approach and seeing how ideas developed over time.

Excellent book. The favorite book I have read on Germany thus far!

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