Saturday, July 25, 2009

Review of Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by Otto Friedrich, published by HarperPerennial (1995, originally 1972)

I got interested in Berlin before the war through reading Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels (I’ve also recently read the excellent The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron's Argentina by Uki Goni after reading book five in the series set in Argentina). It’s taken a while to read as its been my breakfast book and I’ve read a fair few novels whilst this has been on the go.

Before the Deluge is a social history of Berlin during the Weimar Republic from 1919 to 1933, covering traditional politics, economics, social conditions, cultural politics, the arts, and the lives of ordinary Berliners and the movers and shakers. It’s rich, dense, insightful, and full of interesting commentary and anecdotes based on the author’s experiences, documentary research, and interviews with key actors still alive in the late 1960s.

Rapidly expanding in population size, Berlin during the 1920s was a city of turbulent and vibrant change – governments coming and going; unions and the army vying for power; communists, socialists and fascists fighting running battles, assassinating rivals, and waging propaganda wars; the currency crashing to worthlessness followed by an economic boom and then another crash; cabaret, theatre, movies and music flourishing; social order becoming liberalised with widespread naturism and promiscuity at the same time that anti-semitism grows steadily; crime, prostitution and drug taking becoming rife; and the intellectual elite in psychoanalysis, physics, architecture and other disciplines flocking to the city.

What Friedrich’s book makes very clear is that there was nothing predestined about the rise of Nazism and the collapse of the Weimar Republic. It was the culmination of a complex set of contingent, relational process, not some teleological inevitability, and in Berlin the National Socialists never received more than 25 percent of the vote despite Goebbels best efforts (nor more than 44 percent nationally). Criminals have always found a route to political power. Usually it is through some kind of coup. Hitler tried this in the earlier 1920s and failed. Where he succeeded was through the democratic process. Ultimately ordinary, innocent people voted criminal minds into office thus ensuring the end of democracy and the descent into megalomaniacal nationalism. What that has tended to do is blind us to the fact that Germany was a cauldron of competing ideologies through the whole period of the Third Reich – we fall into the trap of seeing Germans at that time as a monolithic nation of fanatical fascists. And that’s what is so refreshing about Philip Kerr’s novels - Gunther is an anti-Nazi cop trying to get by in a corrupt regime.

If you want to get a sense of Germany in the 1920s and the path to fascist power, then Friedrich’s book is a great place to start.

1 comment:

Uriah Robinson said...

Great review and assessment. I like the the phrase "Ultimately ordinary, innocent people voted criminal minds into office....".
People get desperate in an economic depression and follow politicians offering easy solutions and vulnerable scapegoats.