The fall of the Weimar Republic and the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933 is usually best told by the creative. After all, Weimar is remembered not only for its economic and political chaos, but also for its explosive cultural outpourings: in film and theatre, in the galleries and in its enduring portrait of the world following the Great War.
Christopher Isherwood wrote brilliantly of the period in Goodbye to Berlin, which was successfully translated to the screen by director Bob Fosse as Cabaret. More recently, the magnificent German television series Babylon Berlin underlined the decadence of Weimar as it was threatened constantly by political pressures, especially from the Communists (KPD) and the Nazis (NSDAP).
Historians Hauke Friederichs and Rüdiger Barth, in their book The gravediggers, have been meticulous and insightful while examining the daily decline and fall of the Weimar Republic over the last winter of its existence, until 30 January 1933.
This is an engrossing book, for it opens each day with quotes from the newspapers of the time, ranging from the Communist Die Rote Fahne to the Nazi Der Angriff. This sets the stage for the intimacy of incessant Berlin intrigue. No political party has a majority in the Reichstag, which obliges the ageing wartime hero president, Paul von Hindenburg, to appoint chancellors who rule by decree.
The dishonourable Nationalist, Franz von Papen, has fallen to be replaced by the defence minister, General Kurt von Schleicher. The Nazis’ lust for power and Adolf Hitler is ensconced in a suite over at the Kaiserhof Hotel. Outside, against a backdrop of increasing anti-Semitism, mass political rallies compete with street battles.
All the major parties, including the Social Democrats, have their own militias. Weimar Germany is not so much unstable as utterly without a compass during the hardship of the Great Depression.
For ordinary Germans, hardship is a constant companion.
But for those who move between the presidential quarters and the Reichstag, it is a world simply of conspiracy, intrigue and manoeuvre. Chancellors and cabinets are temporary. Ambition is permanent.
We know how all of this will end, but The gravediggers maintains a depressing momentum.
What emerges is how fragile the Nazi bid for power happened to be.
Despite Moscow’s pronouncements to the KPD, there was no inevitability of fascism. As Joseph Goebbels observed, the NSDAP was broke. Divided over the resignation of leadership rival Gregor Strasser, the Nazis were in electoral decline.
The most accurate assessment of Hitler resides with American writer Dorothy Thompson: ‘He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised and insecure. He is the very prototype of the little man.’ Oh, and a mass murderer in embryo.
Bertolt Brecht satirised Hitler’s arrival in power in his immortal play The resistible rise of Arturo Ui, in which Hitler is a mere mob boss and Berlin is Chicago. Brecht knew his subject all too well and he also understood that it is only when the world stood up to the bastard that his end became clear.
The gravediggers is eloquent testimony to the collapse of Weimar Germany and what became inevitable when those charged with the custody of the German state failed to stand up to the bastard.
The lessons are not to be forgotten.
Stephen Loosley is the book and film editor of The Strategist.
This article was published by ASPI on October 26, 2020.