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German History

Did the Weimar Republic have a future?

Weimar 21 August 1919

Weimar Germany is usually considered from its endpoint: Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on 30 January 1933 and the subsequent Nazi seizure of power. Generations of school pupils have been taught to think of the republic as doomed from its start in late 1918, weighed down by the pressures of a punitive Treaty of Versailles, hyperinflation, and the Great Depression. In this reading, the republic, premised on an inclusive voting system that enfranchised all men and women from the age of 20, parliamentary democracy and progressive welfare state policies, never had a future to begin with and its collapse seemed inevitable.

This assessment, however, is entirely based on hindsight, on the knowledge of those who look back at the era from a post-1945 vantage point. Such a view fundamentally disregards the perspective of contemporaries and the future that they envisaged for their republic. Their future was, to be sure, a ‘present future’, based on expectations of what would happen in the five, ten, or even fifteen years following their present situation in 1920 or 1925. 

The present future, in other words, was not something fixed or to be determined by means of chronology. It was rather a horizon of expectations that was shifting and, most importantly, open to the possibilities of different future developments.

How does our understanding of the Weimar Republic change when we interpret the period from the perspective of the present futures of the contemporaries? 

First, we see a large degree of historical optimism not only in intellectual debates, but also in wider political discourse. There was a widespread sense that the future was open and that society was malleable. This optimism was shared across the political divides, from Social Democratic trade union functionaries who hoped that US-style Fordism would alleviate the plight of the industrial workers, to Communists who admired a Soviet-style solution to the ills of capitalism and to right-wing intellectuals who posed as the ‘Conservative Revolution’, embracing technology to heal the wounds of a defeated nation.

Optimism is a notoriously imprecise analytical category. Yet even then it is necessary to challenge the conventional wisdom that the devastation caused by the First World war had rang the death knell to the optimistic nineteenth century liberal belief in progress. 

Quite to the contrary, Weimar Germans displayed a broad consensus that challenged both optimism and pessimism, and criticised both sets of outlooks for leading to a passive attitude with regard to the future. By contrast, this third strand of thinking was encapsulated in the title of the right-wing journal Die Tat (‘The Deed’) – an important buzzword of Weimar political discourse. Germans, it was agreed, should take the future into their own hands, instead of merely contemplating reasons to be optimistic or pessimistic.

A focus on the present futures allows – second – to highlight those who had an active stake in the future of the republic and supported it with dedication. Engaged republicans formed a large and committed group, belying the established, yet dated trope that Weimar was a ‘republic without republicans.’ Weimar’s republicans were active in many different fields and organizations, yet their most important pressure group was the Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold. 

Founded in 1924 mostly by war veterans, the Reichsbanner quickly grew into a nationwide body of about one million members, vastly outnumbering the veterans’ and combat leagues of the anti-republican right such as the Steel Helmet (Stahlhelm). Reichsbanner activists supported and defended the colours of the republican flag, encapsulated in the name of their league, and they were keen to emphasize that the republican constitution was best suited to serve the interests of the German nation.

Devised as a rallying point for dedicated republicans after the putsch attempts from the radical left and right in 1923, the Reichsbanner developed an optimistic outlook on the future, brimming with confidence that the enemies of the republic could be contained.

Caricature by Georg Wilke, Vorwärts no. 426, 10 September 1924. The caption reads: ‘Egon, I believe we might blow up ourselves here.’ Reproduction courtesy of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, https://fes.imageware.de/fes/web/

Focusing on the present futures of Weimar Germany’s contemporaries entails – third – a reassessment of the notion of ‘crisis’. Every historian of the Weimar republic employs the notion of an endemic crisis, in politics, the economy and many other societal fields. Most textbooks use the term as a reified notion, a compact, straightforward reality in which crisis leads to inevitable decline. 

Yet Weimar contemporaries had an entirely different understanding of the term Krisis, in the rather old-fashioned spelling that many authors of the 1920s and early 1930s preferred. For them, in line with its etymology, Krisis denoted a moment of openness and of decision-making, in which the future course of events could be mapped and shaped. Where we associate decline, contemporaries saw a potentially dangerous yet open future. 

Only those contemporaries who wanted to destroy the republic, the Nazis in the first instance, understood crisis as inevitable decline. Historians who see Weimar society as riddled by perennial crisis – as a reified notion – are running the danger of simply reiterating a narrative that was masterminded precisely by those who wanted to replace democracy with an authoritarian system.

A focus on the present futures of the Weimar Republic does not change the fact that the Nazis ultimately destroyed the democratic system. Yet this outcome was never a foregone conclusion. To state that it was means ignoring the vibrant optimism and belief in the malleability of a better future that many contemporaries held.

Studying History requires the ability to historicise, to understand the past in its own context and by its own standards and expectations. A proper understanding of the Weimar Republic relies on this ability.

Benjamin Ziemann is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield. He has published widely on twentieth century German and European history. His book Hitler’s Personal Prisoner. The Turbulent Life of Martin Niemöller is forthcoming with OUP in 2023.

This blogpost draws on ideas in the joint introduction to: Nadine Rossol and Benjamin Ziemann (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Weimar Republic, Oxford: OUP, 2021. The book can be ordered with a 30% discount by entering the discount code AAFLYG6 at the checkout.

Cover image: On 21 August 1919, Friedrich Ebert was sworn in as Reich President by the National Assembly. After this ceremony, Ebert – above the left column –, Constantin Fehrenbach, the President of the National Assembly – to the right of Ebert –, and members of the government were greeting the crowd in front of the National Theatre in Weimar. This was the festive and civic founding ritual of the Weimar Republic. Source: Wikimedia Commons 

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The War on the Football Field

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“Two World Wars and one World Cup.”

This is a frequent chant of English fans when facing their old football rivals: Germany. The chant refers to England having won the First and Second World War, and the 1966 FIFA World Cup. But what exactly is the basis for this chant? After all, West Germany had already won a World Cup in 1954, 12 years before England would win. And Germany has gone on to win three more since. Apart from the conceited nature of the chant, the comparison between war and football may seem like a harsh comparison. Can Football be compared to warfare?

Perhaps it can, on a national level. The oft-quoted George Orwell once wrote about sports: “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.” Written in 1945, but does it still hold truth today?

Any controversy between Britain and Germany in football has rarely originated in the game itself or with the players, but more often with the media and the fans. In 1966 the Sunday Mirror described the victorious England team as ‘conquering heroes’ and celebrations as the wildest night ‘since VE night in May 1945’. These kinds of descriptions have not tempered over time. Other controversial headlines throughout the years include ‘The Battle of the Krauts’, (1987) ‘Achtung! Surrender’, (1996) and ‘Job Done… Now for the Hun’ (2010).

It is not hard to imagine that these media headlines were meant as general provocations. What is more striking is the behaviour of the fans. A common English chant uses  the theme to The Dam Busters (1955) which is accompanied by arms outstretched in a mimicry of the war planes the film portrays. When Britain was knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina in 1986, 75 per cent of Brits said they supported Argentina rather than Germany, despite the Falklands conflict with Argentina having only ended four years prior, and Germany (who had not come up against Britain in that particular World Cup) being their political allies for forty years.

More recently, those who followed the Euro 2020 tournament, may remember the England-Germany match, as well as the crying German girl that dominated the screen for a short amount of time. They may also remember the abusive comments made about her online and the cheers of the English crowd. These comments included references to Anne Frank and the Holocaust and referred to the girl as a Nazi, among other offensive labels. 

What all of these examples have in common is not only lack of hesitation, but the often flagrant willingness to create connections between football and the status of Germans as wartime adversaries. It is therefore difficult to disagree with Orwell’s view on sports in the context of the England vs Germany football rivalry. Yet what should be noted (and may be a hard truth for some English football fans) is that this rivalry only appears to truly exist in England: German football fans don’t tend to reference the war when mentioning England or English fans. 

So why does British football culture seem to have merged the memory of the war and Germany’s defeat in it with football? Why is the fact that ‘we won the war’ such a defining trope for football fans across the nation? It may have something to do with envy over the fact that the German team generally dominates the English team. As Gary Lineker once remarked, ‘Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.’

But this German position of dominance has not been limited to football. By the time of the 1966 World Cup, the West German economic miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, was well under way. At the same time, Britain was losing its status as a superpower. It has often been put forward that this inferior position in various realms has led England supporters to hold on dearly to what they knew they had over the Germans: wartime victory. 

Ruth Wittlinger suggests that this issue of inferiority has also been the cause for the loss of a British identity, further aggravating emotions. She further writes that Britain holds on to a wartime memory of Germany while remaining uneducated about current-day Germany because of an ever-present memory of the Holocaust in the media and in the classroom, together with a strong focus on the war and Germany more generally speaking. Moreover, parallel developments to Nazi fascism, racism, and antisemitism have continued in the post-1945 period, such as in the form of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or the development of ‘skinhead’ culture and violence against immigrants across Europe. 

This all paints a bitter picture indeed and can also help uncover a certain hypocrisy within Britain when it comes to  its relationship with the past as well as the present, as has been humorously satirised. It has been shown before that Britain is less than willing to engage with its own uncomfortable memories, including deeply rooted issues like the romanticisation of colonialism and the question whether stolen items in the British Museum should be returned to where they were plundered from.

There are some that say we simply can’t help it, relying on Ad Populum arguments about pride and suggestions that Germans ‘deserve it’. Others present more nuanced arguments interpreting the supporters’ behaviour as a reflection of British pride, attempting to recapture the wartime spirit that brought the British people together. Others still think it is all just good fun and not offensive, that these football chants are harmless and there are bigger issues in football to worry about. The fact that these contrasting opinions exist and have been published in major outlets is proof enough that the question remains a hot topic.

So the question remains: is all this about modern British pride, or are the chants a reflection of a bitter longing for a better past? Are we remembering our own values when we chant “Ten German Bombers,” or are we making sure Germany doesn’t forget that they lost theirs during the first half of the twentieth century? If we are so keen to avoid facing our own problematic past as a nation, is it really fair that British football fans keep reminding Germany of theirs? It is difficult to agree that football fans’ anti-German chants are not quite a serious problem when you don’t have to look far to find examples of violence and insults towards Germans, or when an emotional little girl is abhorrently called a Nazi.

Matthew Brundrett studied History with Psychology at Keele University, and has recently completed an MA in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently continuing his MA research related to the First World War with a view to obtaining a PhD. Matthew can be contacted via matt.brundrett@sky.com.

Cover image: England and Germany fans outside Cologne Cathedral, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Should Germany Ban a Neo-Nazi Flag?

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In recent months, the German media and top-level politicians have been up in arms about public outings of a flag that has been traditionally used by Neo-Nazis. During demonstrations of Covid-19 deniers, and most famously during an attempted storming of the Reichstag in Berlin, the German parliament building, on 29 August 2020, the Reichskriegsflagge (Imperial War Flag) was displayed by members of the crowd. What is this flag, why do Covid-19 deniers use it, and are there good reasons to ban its public display?

When the North German Federation was established in 1867 as a first step towards German unification, the new political entity needed a flag for the use of the merchant navy and its (very few) warships, which were mostly run by Prussia. The colour scheme for both was black-white-red, which combined the Prussian black and white with the red of the Hanse cities Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck. The war flag (Kriegsflagge) of the military navy added an Iron Cross, since 1813 a Prussian military decoration, and the Prussian eagle in the centre, with black-white-red confined to the top inner corner, the canton.

Upon the founding of Imperial Germany in 1871, the colour scheme and flag design were kept, with only minor tweaks implemented in 1903. In 1892, however, the flag for the military navy was renamed: henceforth, it was called the Reichskriegsflagge (Imperial War Flag). At this point, the flag was still only relevant for its original purpose: to make German warships identifiable on international waters, in accordance with international law.

This only changed when the Imperial Navy was massively expanded in the wake of the 1898 Navy Laws, and became henceforth a cornerstone of the collective imagination, most prominently among radical nationalist pressure groups. 

During the First World War, the use of the Imperial War Flag expanded even further. It was not only used in propaganda and on picture postcards, but also in advertisements for chocolate and sparkling wine. A painting by Hans Bohrdt encapsulated the deep sense of belligerence and nationalist defiance that was now associated with the flag. Imagining a scene from the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914, it shows a sailor of the light cruiser SMS Leipzig. In the moment of his imminent death, he waves the Imperial War Flag at battleships of the Royal Navy. 

The Weimar Republic continued to use the established Imperial design of the flag until 1921, because the command officers of the much-diminished military navy stalled. But from 1922, a new design with the republican colours black-red-gold was in place. 

Already since the moment of defeat in November 1918, however, the Imperial War Flag had become a symbol of radical rejection of the new republican order, regularly used by right-wing Freikorps and other military desperados. When the Navy Brigade Ehrhardt entered Berlin during the Kapp putsch in March 1920, they displayed the flag as a matter of course. In Bavaria, a proto-fascist league was renamed as Reichskriegsflagge in 1923. During the Hitler putsch in Munich on 9 November 1923, none other than Heinrich Himmler – not yet a member of the NSDAP, but a member of the league Reichskriegsflagge – held a flagstaff with the eponymous flag.

Members of the Navy Brigade Ehrhardt, an anti-republican Freikorps, display the Reichskriegsflagge on 13 March 1920 in Berlin during the Kapp putsch.
Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskriegsflagge#/media/Datei:Bundesarchiv_Bild_119-1983-0007,_Kapp-Putsch,_Marinebrigade_Erhardt_in_Berlin.jpg

After the Second World War, the Federal Republic, established in 1949, found legal means to ban the use of Nazi flags and insignia, most prominently the Swastika, first by declaring it a public order offence, and since 1960 via a designated clause in the penal code. Yet this did not affect the Imperial War Flag in its 1867 to 1918 version, as this was legally a marker of the sovereignty of Imperial Germany, not a Nazi symbol. Ever since the 1950s, this distinction has given ‘old’ Nazis – for instance former members of the Waffen-SS – and neo-Nazis licence to display the Imperial War Flag in public.

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the neo-Nazi usage of the flag was limited. The floodgates were only opened when Germany won the football World Cup in 1990, and with the German reunification that took place a few months later. Ever since, members and sympathisers of the neo-Fascist party NPD, but also skinheads and other unorganised Neo-Nazi groups have used the Imperial War Flag in their marches and other public outings. When the movement of Covid-19 deniers – much stronger in Germany than in most other European countries – emerged in 2020, the use of the flag became even more prominent, and a regular feature among those who are unified in their radical rejection of the parliamentary democracy of the Federal Republic.

German football fan displays the Reichskriegsflagge in Dresden, ca. 1990. Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskriegsflagge#/media/Datei:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1990-1105-008,_Dresden,_Fußballfan_mit_Reichskriegsflagge.jpg

Could the public display of the Reichskriegsflagge be banned? Pending a detailed legal discussion, it probably could, either by labelling it a public order offence or by adapting paragraph 86a of the penal code, thus taking into account that also flags without a Swastika can be used to express Neo-Nazi sympathies. 

Should the Reichskriegsflagge be banned? There are good reasons to do so, as it is essentially used as a proxy for the banned Nazi flags that include Swastika symbols, but with the same rationale: to express a fundamentalist rejection of parliamentary democracy. Historically speaking, the Imperial War Flag has been used for that purpose ever since 1919. Ultimately, such a ban would also close a loophole and remove a legal anomaly, because the Imperial War Flag design that was in place from 1933 to 1935 can still be shown, even though it was a national emblem of the Nazi State.

Benjamin Ziemann is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Weimar Republic (Oxford: OUP, 2021). An extended German text on the topic of this blog post has appeared in the Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 69 (2021), issue 3: https://metropol-verlag.de/produkt/zeitschrift-fuer-geschichtswissenschaft-69-jg-heft-3-2021/

Cover Image: The painting ‘The last man standing’ by Hans Bohrdt (reproduction on picture postcard, ca. 1916). Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskriegsflagge#/media/Datei:Hans_Bohrdt_-_Der_letzte_Mann_(Ansichtskarte).jpg

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Defending democracy? The protests against Werner Krauss in West Berlin, 1950

Proteste gegen Werner Krauss

In December 1950, chaotic scenes at a theatre in West Berlin made headlines in Germany and abroad. While Werner Krauss  an actor who had featured in Jud Süβ, the Third Reich’s most infamous antisemitic film – performed in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, students and Jewish residents demonstrated against his presence. For three days, protesters clashed with police officers outside and repeatedly disrupted the play’s performances inside the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, eventually securing its early cancellation.

The demonstrations against Werner Krauss, which took place seventy years ago this month, have been largely forgotten. Yet they raised central questions for early West German society, which, following the transfer of power from Allied occupation, now had to manage its own affairs. What constituted acceptable protest, and when did acts of dissent undermine the new democratic order? Should those who had been complicit in Nazi propaganda have any place in public life? And what responsibilities did Germans have towards Jews living in the country, after the atrocities of the Holocaust?

Krauss had risen to prominence before the Third Reich, starring notably in the 1920 silent movie The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. While many actors left Germany after the Nazis’ seizure of power, Krauss stayed. He went on to play four different characters in Jud Süβ, a film commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and viewed by 20 million Germans between its release in 1940 and 1943.[1]

Jud Süβ, which depicted the eighteenth-century Jewish court advisor Joseph Süβ Oppenheimer as a corrupt, depraved conspirator, aimed to justify the exclusion of Jews from German society. Although Krauss claimed during his post-war denazification trials that Goebbels had coerced him into taking part in the film, the final verdict in 1948 declared that Krauss had been a ‘follower’ (Mitläufer) of the Nazi regime.[2]

The judgement nevertheless allowed Krauss to resume his acting career, and, after moving to Austria, Krauss returned to German theatre stages in 1950 for the Vienna Burgtheater’s touring production of John Gabriel Borkman.[3]

The play was initially performed in several West German cities without incident. West Berlin, however, was different. The city was still a transit station for large numbers of Eastern European Jewish refugees, most of whom were awaiting emigration to Palestine. These refugees had already taken to the streets in 1949, in response to antisemitic tendencies in the newly-released British film Oliver Twist.[4]

Opposition to Krauss’s arrival also came from German-Jewish community leaders and West Berlin’s two universities, where students planned a demonstration for the play’s evening premiere. On December 8, more than five thousand students, Jewish refugees, and other protesters gathered outside the theatre, with chants and placards demanding that Werner Krauss ‘go home’.[5]

Numerous protesters attempted to penetrate the police line guarding the theatre. The police used batons and water cannons to push back the crowd, while some demonstrators hurled stones. A handful of officers and civilians were taken to hospital, and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that ‘dozens more were mauled and bruised’.[6]

Inside the theatre, demonstrators who held tickets for the play disrupted the first act. As they were ejected from the building, the performance was initially called off. The support for Werner Krauss among other theatregoers, however, was evident when the play eventually resumed. As Krauss appeared for the second act, he was greeted with loud applause.[7]  

Disturbances continued for the next two days, however, with Jewish leaders and Berlin’s students insisting that protests would not stop until the run was cancelled. After Krauss expressed his aversion to the thought that he would be the cause of further violence, the Burgtheater called off its remaining performances.[8]

The protests provoked outraged reactions among West Berliners. Letters to Ernst Reuter, the city’s mayor, expressed various anti-Jewish sentiments. Since Reuter had declared that the time had come to forgive Krauss, several of the letters condemned Jews’ alleged inherent vengefulness – a long-standing antisemitic conception – with one citizen claiming that ‘Jews cannot forgive’.[9]

Not only did these letters make little or no mention of the Holocaust: their sweeping assertions also ignored other viewpoints among Berlin’s protesting Jews. Some demonstrators, who saw Krauss’s apparent lack of contrition as the main problem, outlined circumstances under which they would accept his return to public life. Gerhard Löwenthal, a Jewish student, later recalled telling mayor Reuter that the demonstrations would stop at once if Krauss apologised on stage for his involvement in Jud Süβ.[10]

A poster for Jud Süß, 1940. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The question of what constituted ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ action was another recurring theme in the debates, with individuals on both sides claiming to defend the new political order. For Löwenthal, a departure from the Nazi past was a precondition for the success of West German democracy. Yet, as one newspaper acknowledged, theatregoers considered that they had ‘democratically’ expressed their wish to forgive Krauss.[11]

The protesters’ disruptive actions were labelled by opponents as a recourse to Nazi-era ‘SA methods’ which undermined the rule of law.[12] Sympathisers, however, contended that the real threat to democracy lay in police violence and the re-emergence of overt antisemitism. The Volksblatt remarked that, while officers’ batons struck Jewish victims of the Nazis, those at the theatre who shouted ‘Jews out!’ had gone unpunished.[13]

Werner Krauss did not perform again in Berlin until 1953: when he returned, the protests were not renewed. The following year, he was awarded West Germany’s Order of Merit. Krauss’ return to respectability before his death in 1959 could be taken as an example of what some historians have described as a ‘failure to address the issues raised by the Nazi period’. Such scholars argue that a continuation of authoritarian values and a desire for political and economic stability resulted in an indifference among most West Germans, lasting until the 1960s, to questions of ‘democratisation’.[14]

The backlash against Krauss in 1950, however, reveals fierce debates at an early stage about the requirements for democratic renewal. While some Germans considered it necessary to draw a line under the past, others demanded that those who had worked with the Nazis apologise for their actions, or be barred from public life. Attitudes to protest also diverged: whereas demonstrators considered themselves to be carrying out a democratic duty, opponents saw them as violent troublemakers infringing other citizens’ freedoms. 

Such discussions continued into 1951 and 1952, as further demonstrations accompanied the screening of new films by Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süβ. As these events, too, approach their seventieth anniversaries, it is time to reconsider the supposedly sleepy, ‘consensus-based’ early years of West Germany’s existence.

Rory Hanna is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research project focuses on student protest and activism in West Germany between 1949 and 1967.

Cover image: protesters against Werner Krauss, demonstrating with placards and torches in front of the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin, 10 December 1950. Photographer: Associated Press. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, http://www.bildarchivaustria.at/Preview/353430.jpg


[1] Susan Tegel, ‘Review Essay: Jud Süss’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 25:1 (2005), p. 156; Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion. Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife (Cambridge, Mass.: 2007), p. 154.

[2] Wolff A. Greinert, Werner Krauss. Schauspieler in seiner Zeit, 1884 bis 1959 (Vienna, 2009), pp. 273, 303.

[3] Ibid., p. 313.

[4] ‘Tumulte gegen den Film “Oliver Twist”’, Der Sozialdemokrat, 21 February 1949, p. 3.

[5] Landesarchiv Berlin (hereafter LAB) B Rep. 020, Nr. 7861, ‘Polizei-Inspektion Charlottenburg, den 9.12.1950, Betr.: Demonstrationen anlässlich des Gastspiels des Burgtheater-Ensemble mit Werner Krauss im „Theater am Kurfuerstendamm“, p. 1; ‘Tumulte am Kurfürstendamm‘, Telegraf, 9 December 1950, p. 1.

[6] ‘Das Schuldkonto des Herrn Krauss’, Volksblatt, 9 December 1950, p. 1; ‘Jews in Berlin Fight Police in Row Over Actor’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 9 December 1950, p. 7. 

[7] ‘Berliners Storm a Theatre’, Manchester Guardian, 9 December 1950, p. 5.

[8] ‘Ein Erfolg der Jüdischen Gemeinde’, Kurier, 12 December 1950, p. 2; ‘Das Ende des Krauss-Gastspiels’, Telegraf, 13 December 1950, p. 1.

[9] ‘Vergeben können’, Der Abend, 8 December 1950, p. 2; LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, anonymous letter from ‘ein Lichterfelder Einwohner’, 13 December 1950. On the history of antisemitic conceptions of Jewish ‘retributive justice’, see Trond Berg Eriksen et al, Judenhass: Die Geschichte des Antisemitismus von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Göttingen, 2019), p. 117.

[10] Gerhard Löwenthal, Ich bin geblieben. Erinnerungen (Munich, 1987), pp. 202-203.

[11] Ibid., p. 203; ‘Die Unruhen am Kurfürstendamm’, Tagesspiegel, 9 December 1950, p. 2.

[12] LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, letter from Adolf Vollmer to Friedrich Luft (editor of Die Neue Zeitung‘s Feuilleton section), 12 December 1950.

[13] ‘Problematisches Gastrecht’, Volksblatt, 11 December 1950, p. 2.

[14] Nick Thomas, Protest Movements in 1960s West Germany. A Social History of Dissent and Democracy (Oxford, 2003), p. 13; Moritz Scheibe, ‘Auf der Suche nach der demokratischen Gesellschaft’, in Ulrich Herbert (ed.), Wandlungsprozesse in Westdeutschland. Belastung, Integration, Liberalisierung, 1945-1980 (Göttingen, 2002), pp. 245-247.

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Delight, Dismay and Disbelief: Reactions to the Death of Hitler, 75 Years Ago

Hitler_salute_in_front_of_lamppost

It is 75 years since Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. His death continues to generate considerable public interest thanks to both continuing forensic discoveries about his biological remains, and the persistence of outlandish tales of his postwar survival. While no serious historian believes in the latter, it is worth considering how confused reporting of Hitler’s fate in spring 1945 created a climate ripe for the flourishing of such legends.

The first formal declaration of Hitler’s death came late on the evening of 1 May 1945 via a radio broadcast by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Sombre music and drum rolls gave way to the momentous announcement: ‘our Führer, Adolf Hitler, has fallen. In the deepest sorrow and respect, the German people bow’. It was, proclaimed Dönitz, a ‘hero’s death’, Hitler falling in battle while fighting valiantly against the ‘Bolshevik storm’.

‘Hitler Dead’ screamed countless international headlines the next day. The bold, dramatic and matter-of-fact statement left little room for ambiguity. Hitler had met his end, National Socialism was vanquished and the Second World War was effectively over. The Daily Herald printed a caricature of a burning Nazi emblem under the slogan ‘WAStika’. The cover of Time magazine simply struck Hitler’s face out with a large red cross.

The media’s response to Hitler’s passing was predominantly one of intense relief. ‘The whole building cheered’, recalled Karl Lehmann, a member of the BBC Monitoring unit. Numerous editorials depicted it as a moment of universal liberation – ‘a terrible scourge and force of evil has been removed’, declared the Lancashire Daily Post.[1] The sense of catharsis continued into the VE Day celebrations a few days later when the burning of Hitler’s effigy typically formed the high point of the UK’s festivities.

In the midst of this jubilation, however, there was widespread uncertainty about the precise cause of death. Dönitz’s talk of Hitler ‘falling’ in battle filled the first wave of international news reports, but many of the accompanying editorials urged caution about accepting this at face value. There was suspicion that either the Nazis were exaggerating the circumstances of his demise to foster a ‘Hitler legend’, or that they were peddling an entirely false narrative to distract from his retreat from the scene. Questioned on the matter during a White House press conference, President Harry S. Truman insisted that he had it ‘on the best authority possible’ that Hitler was, indeed, dead – but conceded there were no details yet as to how he died.

The press were right to question the death-in-battle scenario invented in the Dönitz broadcast. Stationed in Flensburg, over 270 miles away from the death scene, the Admiral was reliant upon information fed to him by colleagues in Führerbunker, namely Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Head of the Party Chancellery Martin Bormann. The pair had already delayed sending definitive news of Hitler’s passing, prompting Dönitz to misdate the fatal moment to the afternoon of 1 May, rather than the 30 April. They also neglected to supply details of what, exactly, had occurred, leaving Dönitz to fill in the gaps for himself. As it transpired, he was not the only person speculating on Hitler’s fate.

United States made propaganda forgery of Nazi German stamp. Portrait of Hitler made into skull; instead of “German Reich” the stamp reads “Lost Reich”. Produced by Operation Cornflakes, U.S. Office of Strategic Services, circa 1942, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Futsches-Reich-Briefmarke-UK.jpg [accessed 29 April 2020]

The Western Allies, anxious to puncture martyrdom myths before they could take hold, swiftly countered Dönitz’s heroic imagery by reviving rumours of Hitler’s previously failing health. The Soviets, meanwhile, denounced reports of Hitler’s death as a ‘fascist trick’ to conceal his escape from Berlin. Even when reports of a Hitler suicide emerged from 3 May, debate continued as to whether the Nazi leader had shot himself or taken cyanide – poison being perceived by the Soviets as a particularly cowardly (and thus eminently appropriate) way out for Hitler.

What, though, did the general public make of all this? Within hours of the Dönitz broadcast, the New York Times and the social research organisation Mass Observation were gauging reactions across Manhattan and London respectively. At first, the news appeared anticlimactic; people who had longed for this moment felt disoriented, numb or empty now it was finally upon them. As the implications sunk in, Hitler’s death raised optimism that the war might finally be over, but dashed hopes that the public would see him brought to justice. ‘Too bad he’s dead’, mused one young New Yorker, ‘he should have been tortured’.[2]

The overwhelming reaction to news of Hitler’s demise, though, was one of disbelief. Some sceptics perceived the whole affair as a Nazi ruse, with Hitler just waiting to ‘pop out again when we aren’t looking’. Others foreshadowed modern-day accusations of ‘fake news’, directing their cynicism towards the contradictory explanations printed in the Allied press for Hitler’s demise. Mistrust of Nazi propaganda was also, understandably, common with one Londoner reflecting, ‘I don’t believe he died fighting. They just said that to make it seem more – you know – the way he’d have wanted people to think he died… I think personally he’s been out of the way for a long time now.’[3]

Ultimately, the competing versions of Hitler’s death ensured that the timing and cause of his demise became quite fluid within the public imagination. This, together with initial Soviet refusals to disclose the recovery of an identifiable corpse outside the bunker, created a vacuum in which all manner of rumours could take root. By contrast, the death of Benito Mussolini was commonly regarded with satisfaction because the deliberate display of his body rendered it an indisputable fact. It was only in 2000 that images of Hitler’s jaw (alongside a fragment of skull erroneously attributed to him) were publicly exhibited in Moscow, demonstrating how documenting the truth about his fate has proved a protracted process, and explaining why the Nazi leader has managed to remain so ‘alive’ in public discussion for all these years.

Caroline Sharples is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Roehampton.  Her research focuses on memories of National Socialism, representations of the Holocaust and perpetrator commemoration. She is currently writing a cultural history of the death of Adolf Hitler. You can find her on Twitter @carol1ne_louise.

Cover image: Adolf Hitler, prior to 1945.

[1] Lancashire Daily Post, ‘Hitler’s Exit’ (2 May 1945), p.2.

[2] New York Times, ‘City Takes Report of Death in Stride’ (2 May 1945), p.9.

[3] Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, Topic Collection 49/1/1: ‘Hitler Indirects’, Hampstead, 2 May 1945.

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Thirty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Is Germany Still a Divided Nation?

West_and_East_Germans_at_the_Brandenburg_Gate_in_1989

In 1989, as the Berlin wall fell, Willy Brandt made the somewhat rash prediction that the two halves of Europe belong together and would now grow together. The Cold War represented a frozen dynamic in which everything was subordinated to the needs of a bipolar world order. For Germany, this had meant that the period from 1945 to 1989 also froze its own national dynamic into glacial stasis. There was movement within this stasis but it was so slow to the naked eye that it appeared that nothing could ever change. What the Cold War also did, however, was to gloss over the fact that the two halves of Europe, and with them the two halves of Germany, were not one country in some sort of suspended animation, but were historically fundamentally different anyway. East Germany was not simply a hidden bit of West Germany waiting for the wall to fall but had its own history and trajectory. Most importantly, the history of East Germany reached back much further than 1945.

Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, had always been suspicious of Prussia and areas east of the Elbe. This was a position he had taken already in the 1920s and even as early as 1918 he had argued that western Germany and France should come together in a Rhineland league as defence against the Prussian Behemoth.  Given that by 1947 the decision was made in Washington and Moscow to divide Germany not only into zones of occupation but states in themselves, it is no surprise that Adenauer became what Kurt Schumacher of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) called “Chancellor of the Allies”. Adenauer did everything he could to prevent a new unification of East and West Germany, all the while protesting that German unity was his highest priority.

It is often forgotten, for example, that Schumacher and the SPD saw the division of Germany as the division of the German working-class too. What it also did was divide the confessional make up of Germany. If Germany had been united in 1949 then Protestant voters influenced heavily by East German Protestant parties (not to mention the Nazis) would have been demographically in the majority.

The splitting of Germany meant that West Germany had a majority of Catholic voters who tended to look west to the Rhineland or south to Rome for their ideological affiliations. The East German Communist Party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), looked East and to Moscow for their ideological underpinnings. By the 1970s, when Erich Honecker took over the leadership of Party and state, the transition to an officially loyal Eastern bloc country was complete. This turn to the Soviet and the Brezhnev social contract was complemented by a re-Prussianisation of the German Democratic Republic. In that same constitution, any reference to Germany as a single nation, which had been present in the 1949 and 1968 constitutions, was removed. They even went as far as banning the words of the national anthem because they talked of German unity:

Risen up from under ruins

Turned to face the future land,

Let us serve you for the better,

Germany, united fatherland.

What is more, Johannes Becher had composed the lyrics so that they could be sung to the tune of what has become the German national anthem, composed by Haydn and Fallersleben. The state and the Party became ever more closely enmeshed and offered absolute social security, full employment (especially for women), and even the outlawing of unemployment as a concept. In return for this security came greater repression, an increased role for the Stasi in its operations against any dissent and a marginalisation of opposition forces. East Germany became a society fully infused with the rule of the Party.

The problem, as with all Soviet bloc parties, was that they had no political legitimacy. The thing that characterised East Germany under Honecker was the absolute primacy of politics over economic considerations. Buying off the working class is always an expensive business and a hyper-centralised system of political control over economic development led to intrinsic inefficiencies. The fulfilment of plans laid down by the central authorities became much more important than efficient production and distribution. Whatever the weaknesses of a market economy may be – and there are certainly many – in competition with a centrally planned system in which the primacy of politics ruled supreme, it was clear by the mid-1980s which system was stronger.

Thus, perestroika (or economic restructuring) was actually far more important than glasnost (democratic openness) and Gorbachev’s reforms were at base about making the Soviet economy more efficient and responsive to market demands. In many ways, China has had the perestroika without the glasnost, reintroducing market imperatives backed up by the absolute authority of state and Party. But East Germany too had a restructuring of the economy forced upon it by marketisation coming from the West after 1989. Almost all leading positions in the East are still occupied by West Germans and the resentments of the East are in part a response to this sense of living under “occupation”. Paradoxically, the main leaders of the populist movement in eastern Germany Gauland, Höcke et al are themselves West Germans who have shifted east in order to lead what they call the “completion of the revolution (Wende)” of 1989.

The problems facing eastern Germany 30 years after the fall of the Wall are multi-layered and complex:

  1. East Germany was always a different country.
  2. Socio-economic resentment against the West plays a significant role in a “what has West Germany ever done for us?“ discourse (apart from the 2 trillion Euros that has flowed from West to East).
  3. The primacy of economics over political considerations, though much weaker than in China, stands in stark contrast to SED rule.
  4. Demographic change as young people, especially women, move west has exacerbated the sense that it is region “left behind”.
  5. AfD populist voters therefore tend to be mostly male and mostly those who spent their childhood in the GDR.
  6. Ostalgie (left-wing nostalgia for the GDR) has now become Nostalgie (right-wing nostalgia for an as yet ill-defined past German nation).

In short, it is unlikely that the tensions between East and West Germany will be resolved in the near future. Germany has always been a country of uncertain borders and shifting cleavages and we may have to face the fact that the two halves of Europe are not growing back together quite as easily as Brandt hoped.

Peter Thompson is Reader Emeritus in German at the University of Sheffield specialising in the post-war history of the GDR and German unification. He founded The Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at Sheffield in 2008, and was co-editor with Slavoj Zizek of The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia (2013).

Cover image: West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1989.

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