10 May 1933: On this day in Berlin history, right-wing students organised the Nazi book burning that destroyed 30,000 works of literature, ideology and science. Some texts remain forever lost.
Four days after the raid upon Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science – as Hirschfeld himself would soon thereafter watch on a cinematic newsreel in his Parisian exile – the Nazis would take the contents of the building’s library to Opernplatz, a square in Berlin’s city centre which is today dedicated to the Socialist politician August Bebel.
Flanked by the State Opera House, a Roman Catholic church in a profoundly Protestant country, and two buildings of what is now the Humboldt University, this square embodies the 18th-century values of what was called the ‘Enlightenment.’
But the Nazis used that term, too.
Under the gaze of the newly-appointed ‘Reich Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment,’ Dr. Josef Goebbels, and not long after the mysterious Reichstag fire and its associated ‘Decree,’ the Nazis manifested one of their most strikingly-choreographed expressions of outrage on May 10th, 1933.
To mark Hitler’s hundredth day as Chancellor, right-wing students burned 30,000 books on a specially-constructed pyre: copies of novels we know today, by Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich, by Kafka, Wilde and Hemingway, by Nabokov and Dostoyevsky; works of leftist ideology, by Marx and Luxemburg; or indeed the ‘Jewish science’ of Einstein and his peers.
What was gone forever was the library and archive of Dr. Hirschfeld, its thousands of case studies and photographs documenting LGBTIQ lives.
Near-catatonic with arousal, leaping flames reflected in their glassy eyes, the students cast a stolen bronze bust of Hirschfeld into the fire: his execution in absentia. Paper burns – you know! – at 451 degrees Fahrenheit; bronze begins to melt at temperatures four times as high.
Other book-burnings would follow, in Germany and beyond. But the bust of Dr. Hirschfeld, salvaged the next morning from the chars and hidden in the street-sweeper’s canvas bag, is on display at Berlin’s Gay Museum, dented yet intact.
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History as contributed by BBS Member, Dr Finn Ballard. It is one of four events he has chosen to remember in May. Keep an eye on our blog to see which other events he picks.
6 May 1933: On this day in Berlin history, Nazi storm troopers raided Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in a deadly attack that claimed the life of a woman whose name the world ought to know.
It is often said that the first trans woman who underwent gender reassignment surgery (or what was once called a ‘sex change’) was Lili Elbe, who was immortalised – not without controversy – by the actor Eddie Redmayne in the 2015 film The Danish Girl.
But we now know of a woman who embarked even earlier upon the journey – an experimental one in those days – which cost Elbe her life.
Dora Richter, known as ‘Dörchen,’ was born in 1891, under another name, in the farmhouse of her impoverished parents. She always identified as female, and would, at the age of six, attempt upon herself a rudimentary version of the surgery she would later undergo.
She moved to Berlin, then on the cusp of becoming the LGBTIQ capital of Europe, and would live as female when she wasn’t at work. Here and there, she was arrested for ‘cross-dressing’ – this before the remarkably-progressive Weimar Republic issued its special ‘Transvestite IDs’ – and was eventually released by a judicial order which sent her into the care of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld at Berlin’s new Institute for Sexual Science.
Though synthetic hormones were not yet available, Richter was able to obtain genital reconstruction surgery, including a vaginoplasty – the creation of a vagina – becoming the first known trans woman to do so. To pay her room and board she worked as a maid at Hirschfeld’s clinic, knitting, sewing, cleaning, humming to herself all the while; a quiet, content woman.
On the 6th of May 1933, a swarm of ‘Storm Troopers’ and fanatical right-wing students burst into the Institute for Sexual Science to raid and destroy its archives, the world’s first repository of LGBTIQ history.
And there, inside her home, did this mob beat gentle Dorchen Richter to death.
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was contributed by Berlin Tour Guide and BBS Member, Dr Finn Ballard. It is one of four events he has chosen to remember this month. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else he chooses.
In the first of our 2021 Berlin Long Reads, tour guide, archaeologist and Berlin Guides Association member Nick Jackson examines the role of myth and symbols in the context of Germany after denazification and reunification.
One chronicler of darkest German history was Victor Klemperer. He starts his diaries, covering his life as a German Jew during the Third Reich, with the simple yet powerful idea of ‘bearing witness’.
At the time of Klemperer’s writing, this phrase captured the fear of the direction his world was taking, fear that his commentary was too dangerous to be shared with others. Half-way through he begins to write ‘Third Reich’ in Latin, perhaps to smudge any casual visibility. One can sense he fears that no-one will hear, fears that no-one would remember, and he fears for his life.
Klemperer also collated the new vocabulary seeping into everyday language during the Nazi period: grim phrases like ‘racial defiler’ or ‘sub-human’ as well as such new constructions as ‘fanatical will’, used to exhort belief without understanding. He also noted a new and constant use of superlatives. Klemperer called these ‘American’.
To him these were signals of a world that, if only as a linguist, he found new. He even pondered writing a separate work on these new words. They described a world he became mortally afraid of.
Language is a living thing, it does nothing but change as the world changes, sloughing the use of old words and adopting new ones on the whims of fashion. This is why the people of the UK now go to a ‘store’ or ‘pharmacy’ rather than a ‘shop’ or a ‘chemist’ or why, on the day after the UK voted for Brexit, a mainstream German TV news channel report had a studio background bearing a single word: ‘Fuck!’.
This change can be beneficial, but not always. There can come moments when we fail to understand a new world. For example, today’s newspapers carry a picture of renowned Fox News host Tucker Carlson captioned, ‘Profound change is taking place in our society’. Tucker thinks these changes are bad.
Another author, Christopher Isherwood, writing of his life and experiences in 1920s Berlin, claimed he acted as ‘a camera’. For the purposes of this article, I suggest we affix a powerful lens to our ‘camera’. This will give us an ability to observe space-time well beyond Isherwood’s mere cluster of years, and allow us to zoom out and scope decades, centuries, and beyond.
This will enable us to examine the main points of this piece. What is ‘history’, how is it created, and how does it change? Additionally, we will examine our work as guides, and the importance of what we do.
I also want to focus on some reminders of the history of the Third Reich still in Berlin, specifically Nazi-period eagle symbols, and to ponder if deliberate ‘cancellation’, i.e. ‘denazification’; the removal of reminders of history as an attempt to control and create a new future in post-war Germany, was a success or a good idea.
Like Klemperer, perhaps we too have the sense that today our world is changing, and raise an eyebrow at ‘newspeak’. No doubt future online ‘listicles’ (unquestionably approved by Word grammar & spell check) will give us a rundown. The following will surely be shortlisted and characterise the recent past:
Smooth transition of power
Let’s bring that last phrase back to today’s Berlin as an example.
Merkel be with you, and also with you…
Angela Merkel will step down as chancellor in autumn 2021. A new chairperson of her party has already been chosen. Other figures will challenge to become the candidate to take the most powerful position in the land. Political elites, other estates, and voters will lumber into a future and change the make-up of the government. They will do this without violence, and the result will become the established norm.
This is called democracy. But also, history.
On the leafy shores of Berlin’s urban lake oases, possibly still socially-distanced middle-aged German adults will discuss these developments, the recent past, the present, and the future. There is now a new, finite chunk of history – the Merkel years. They can discuss to and fro, depending on how much they remember of it. But they will all silently acknowledge that it happened. They were there, it’s part of their lives.
When we have conversations of this sort, we are discussing 16 years of ‘history’: Simply all the events, people, success, failures etc. of that period. When we debate any positive or negative elements, we do so in relation to our values systems.
Both of these, history and values (aka political beliefs), are elements of our shared ‘myths’.
In his book ‘Sapiens’, author Yuval Noah Harari confirms that the cognitive capability of Homo sapiens to create myths is foundational to our global success, specifically complex imaginary social myth structures. We are, as far as we know, the only beast able to express this.
To psychology professor Merlin Donald these myths encompass all things to early modern humans. Everything. The earth, the heavens, the people, animals, plants, all events, and all past places visited. Faith in, and an understanding and common acceptance of, these myths permit folks to cooperate together, thrive and survive.
Myths become curated memory and create ‘culture’. As time moves on, the data of this culture is remembered as ‘history’, and that history changes.
Creating ‘Mythic culture’ was a world changer. Our ability to create it started some 100,000 years ago. Later, towards the middle of the pre-pottery Neolithic period (ca.10th millennium BCE), ‘myths’ embodied, for the first time, a unified, complex modelling of the universe, a ‘tangle’ of memories, cause and explanation, prediction and therefore control.
Developing and absorbing these myths placed every aspect of Neolithic group life in relation to and in connection with them. It was this ability that saw ‘mythic groups’ coalesce, cooperate, adapt, and survive as the world around them changed, and they relative to it. It is why humans dominate the globe.
These ‘myths’ are not narrative stories as such. Myth is a manifestation of complex neurological database capabilities (synthesising most importantly memory and language) creating a world by working together, always and instantly.
Many millennia before the slow evolution of the Mythic mind, hominids had initially developed an ‘episodic’ cognitive capability. This bestowed a conscious sense of moment, and a sense of self within that moment, before it melted into another. Much later came the second stage, what’s now termed a ‘mimetic’ cognitive capability. This Mimetic culture was an ability to impart types of information at will through enhanced memory capabilities and more complex language skills, mime, facial expressions, pointing etc.
Hominids could now remember it, think it and convey it, or even teach it – like a game of evolutionary charades. Through this they could create and express more complex and useful models and social relationships (for example co-ordinated hunting strategies or indications of danger).
Then came the third leap, a Mythic culture, something else entirely. It describes through language, it remembers, it pictures, it predicts, it ‘measures’, and creates place and time. It speaks of all things that were, are, and could be, instantly connected in the hominid brain to one endless moment.
Myth creates our social (and religious) norms and governs the collective mind.
The myth is that upon which we base our identity, scattered historical fact to be sure, but
it is ‘imagined’. Our past is a memory, the present and tomorrow entirely unpredictable. All we can do is adapt now, from what went before. This gives the appearance of structure, with a dangerous possibility of introducing ‘lies’.
Telling, drumming, singing, chanting, acting out, and believing and enforcing these myths was powerful. So was dropping out of and reforming the model, changing and developing the myth. This process might have contributed to the eventual 6th M BCE collapse of most complex Neolithic communities in the Near East for example.
Importantly, these three brain capabilities did not replace each other as time passed, they connected and co-operated in harmony and still make up our cognitive process today.
A clash of symbols.
A further evolutionary step for Mythic minded sapiens is new. It’s basically now. The fourth leap would be to produce symbols that encompass, simply, ever more complex ideas within our ever-developing myth. This has been part of our world for the last, say, 45,000 years.
For example; abstract figures carved into Neolithic stone stele are simple in design and meaningful to those who gathered there (but practically unknowable to us). These symbols have a lot in common with the words I type on this keyboard ‘just’ 12,000 years later.
They are both sets of external (exogenous) symbols, depicting myth data intelligible to the group sharing my cultural mythology. Those on the same team. This development is causing humankind problems today.
The idea of a myth & symbol creating our team-world is perhaps hard to digest. So, imagine this, it might be familiar:
Take this picture, add in the removed swastika symbol, and imagine trying to explain the full myth meaning of this, broadly known as ‘The Third Reich’, to someone who has little or no idea what it signifies. Perhaps an alien, or the average teenager. Many understand what it basically represents quickly and silently – but to explain it reinforces its depth, detail, and its true power as a symbol, and how much myth data one needs to grasp it fully, not just superficially.
Maybe you could conclude this lesson with a reference to the fact that the eagle is still the symbol of Germany, using pictures to reinforce a comparison between eagles – how they changed along with the history that connected them. Use the picture below from today’s Reichstag Parliament.
This is why our job as guides is important. We can do this. There are few who can deconstruct and add meaning to a symbol like this. We can build the picture, connect it to the very ground where it happened, and link it to the present. No mean skill. We remember the details. We are ‘mobile myth merchants‘, and as we shall see, important at a time of historical change.
Past Myth Takes.
Our world today is still set in frameworks of our myth history.
Think of the number of World War II references made publicly today in the UK. Recently a government minister compared ignoring Covid social distancing rules to abuses of the ‘black-out’ during the Blitz bombing of the UK in 1940/41. This period is deeply infused in many a UK identity, elements were a just, fine, and memorable hour. It is a significant part of the founding myth of contemporary ‘England’.
But this myth is crumbling and has lost relevance. A recent survey of UK students showed that when asked who Winston Churchill was, many thought he was the first man on the moon. And that was those who knew the name.
So, a crunch might come when populations become ignorant of the basic details of their myths and, when put under pressure, they fail to understand the world. When presented with an alternative future version, they lack the context to navigate misinformation masquerading as knowledge wisely.
Myth without detail is easy to absorb – like Klemperer’s above reference to ‘fanatical will’- believing without understanding.
Imagine a certain segment of rural, uneducated, blue collar US voters and how they feel, and what they think now, today, as you are reading this. Or Brexiteers (interesting – MS Word doesn’t approve of this one), or indeed pensioners from former East Germany.
Let’s examine cultural myth re-forming as a process as one world dies and another begins. It could be argued we are in such a phase now.
Around the beginning of the 3rd millennium BCE, from the metal-bearing regions of southwest Europe – Portugal and Spain – spread a cultural package that covered nearly all of what is now the EU.
A set of artefacts – distinctive ceramic types, jewellery, stone axes – becomes prevalent over a vast area. Most significantly, cremation replaces burial of the dead, an enormous spiritual and ritual change. Groups have adopted a new myth and the package that goes with it. There is a new union, all over.
Until the 1960s, this cultural spread was thought to have been the result of migrations, of ‘peoples’ moving and spreading this culture, from Spain to Ukraine, from Italy to Ireland. Though some modern DNA evidence does support perhaps small groups of men (perhaps travelling groups of skilled metal workers) moving through the regions, it seems it was more likely a post-contact adoption of what must have been an attractive, powerful, new cultural and economic package. The ‘myth’ is responsible for the spread and adoption of these materials and beliefs.
If today you sport a fake Louis Vuitton man-bag, or even wears jeans, you are participating in a similar process.
History shows us that this process can lead to violence. Deviation today from accepted myth norms provokes anger and conflict in its attempt to ‘correct’ ((Berlin, where riding your bike the wrong way or crossing the road against the lights could often can lead to verbal abuse from grumpy strangers, is a prime spot to experience trivial examples of this first hand). A more serious example might be some EU populations’ reaction to the refugee crisis of recent years.
The driver for a violent myth shift is often economic based (sometimes a result of innovation, perhaps positive in the long term) and environmental stress.
The collapse of late 2nd millennium BCE cultures over the entire Mediterranean zone in a couple of centuries is a significant example.
In two centuries, from ca.1250 BCE, the long-established Bronze Age Mediterranean states disintegrated. This catastrophe seems to have been the result of a combination of drought and a series of earthquakes, leading to a famine that precipitated huge social strife and system breakdowns in the western Mediterranean, and unleashed mass movements of people eastwards, destroying the old and forming a profoundly new world.
And economics. Bronze, or combined copper and tin, was the ‘oil’ of the 2nd millennium BCE economy. Control of its sources, processing, and distribution had underpinned the sophisticated Bronze Age state’s trade, diplomacy, and stability. Now it was slowly replaced by Iron.
If you can make a product of value from material that’s found easily, everywhere, and it’s transportable and tradable by a few folks below the radar of the governing elite’s control – then it’s over: Goodbye forever Hittites, farewell new kingdom Egypt, ciao for now Canaanites.
And new forceful myth makers arrive: say hello to Assyria, Babylon, Phoenicia, Israel, Judah, Philistines and proto-democratic Greece.
And even ‘us’. Chunks of the Old Testament, the Iliad, and the golden age of Greece, Rome and the New Testament have their roots here, and are ultimately still in our myth world (especially our language and value system) today.
A terrifying contemporary version of this episode is/will be climate change-induced systems collapse, resource conflict and mass migration, green energy economies reducing demand for petroleum products, a healthcare improvement induced shift in the working/retirement age demographic balance, inflation, and unemployment caused by the spread of automation and AI (or as alternative myth makers might say today ‘foreigners taking our jobs’). This is already causing the collapse of our myth world.
So, if we recognise all this, then what to do? Can one create a new successful myth out of necessity? How can we ensure the inevitable birth of a new myth is healthy, painless and benign?
Of essential importance is the integrity of the pushers of a new myth. Merkel’s replacements will assume powerful positions within cultural norms and probably do so without resorting to violence and ‘big’ lies.
Sometimes the new group is less scrupulous. Like the Nazis. This brings us to the example of the twelve years of the Third Reich.
In 27 years Germany experienced:
The collapse of one old, familiar world, revolution, and the beginning of another interim world (1919 – 33)
The perceived failure of the interim world, replaced by a seductive, simple and powerful myth, full of lies and presented violently (1923 – 33)
The purveyors of this myth using violence to reinforce it (1920 – 45)
Large scale popular adoption of its tenets (1932 – 45)
Myth failure and termination (1943 – 45)
Denazification was an attempt to remove reminders of an old regime and construct a new and better world. In Berlin and Germany, the myth framework was deliberately overhauled and replaced, eventually creating a successful contemporary Germany. But is that really what happened?
Even today, this process is often still held up as a success. Take, for example, the second Gulf War. Regime change in Iraq can have a positive outlook, we were told, look at what was done in Germany after World War II.
Opponents of today’s modern ‘cancel culture’ movements advocating the removal of statues of slave owners etc. say it’s tantamount to ‘removing history’, and that’s bad. The response often refers to the denazification of Germany and how the removal of reminders of the Nazis leads to a peaceful myth re-launch creating today’s Germany.
So, is removal good or counter-productive? Can a new myth – in this case democracy and a law-based state structure be imposed for the greater good? Is this what happened during the denazification process?
Up to a point.
Broadly, the process of denazification was haphazard and badly organized from the start. Millions of Germans and their autobiographical interviews and paperwork had to be processed, in a language spoken by few of the disinterested folks in charge.
During the initial post-war years, with subsequent major policy shifts in 1951, the main thrust of the victors was to shun, shame, strip, and punish Germany. There was a ban on fraternization between occupiers and locals, for which hundreds of occupying troops were punished.
Those as yet unprocessed were refused employment. Factories were dismantled. Millions of Germans, basically indifferent to the Nazi regime, who could have helped in a relaunch of Germany (at least the western sectors), remained idle. There was a ban on the sharing of materials, from food to machinery. There was no money.
But didn’t denazification fund, rebuild, and re-educate the West German population, thereby helping to form today’s Germany?
As the realisation dawned that policies of punishment were failing, and minds shifted to containment of Soviet expansion, there was the introduction of a new currency in 1947/8. The Marshall Plan meant the investment a huge amount of money, but there was a whole free world for it to support – perhaps we forget that France, Britain, and others received Marshall Plan funding too. West Germans got 24 bucks a head.
It helped, but perhaps what helped more was the abandonment of the policy of funding the occupation through property seizures, the requisition of raw material, and punitive industrial shutdowns.
So, did denazification at least produce a new, future myth foundation upon which today’s democratic Germany was built? The Nazi regime had ‘educated’ a generation of Germans. Did they fully absorb the myth, and carry it for the rest of their lives?
Surveys carried out in the initial post-war years did show some tricky results. In 1945, 42% of German youth thought a ‘strong leader’ would be the best option to organize the future beyond defeat. In 1946 over 30% of Germans thought Holocaust killing had been ‘necessary’ for the security of the country.
By the 1960/70s these opinions had changed for the better. So, the new education efforts, economic programs, and provision of material benefits worked?
Educational literature from the Nazi period was withdrawn and banned, publications pulped. Pre-war textbooks were reintroduced. But those rebuilding the ‘new’ post-war German myth weren’t at school. The new generations who benefitted from a balanced education did so under their own leadership. It was later myth makers, younger generations, that examined, questioned, disagreed with, condemned, and recast elements of the ‘German’ myth in the 1960s.
By 1951 denazification had been broadly abandoned as unproductive. West Germany had its own democratic government in place. The policy was recognised as being counterproductive on many levels, and produced a feeling of persecution. This would unfortunately cheapen the official position on those who had worked in an official capacity during the Nazi period.
Those responsible for Nazi crimes would be prosecuted, but ‘followers’ and ‘lesser offenders’, categories 4 and 3 on the denazification forms (the worst being 1), now had their rights restored, and played a post-war role in all capacities.
So, by what process did the new German myth emerge? Did denazification make Germany ‘ready for democracy’? No. Germany was already ready. They had a pre-WWII tradition of peaceful politics. They had retained the myth details.
Was it hard to convince adults that the twelve years of the Nazi period had been disastrous, that they had committed unspeakable crimes, had left millions dead and reduced their country to physical rubble and political insignificance?
No, one had just to look around Berlin, anywhere in Berlin. Of course, the post-war removal of swastikas and other symbols didn’t hurt, but it was the obvious evidence of disaster in Berlin after the war that would help convince folks of the failure and destructiveness of the Nazi regime, too.
The party with the longest hold on power in West Germany (CDU) was re-formed and had already produced a party program a couple of weeks before Allied troops had conquered Germany. What denazification did achieve was to focus on how far the Nazis had strayed from civilised behaviour and to help inform the main points of the German constitution, the Basic Law, still in force today. It also reinforced the study of the period as a mainstay of educational curricula, and the ongoing nationwide construction of memorials. This dialog was crucial.
The wholesale abandonment of elements of one, albeit short-lived myth and the adoption, or re-adoption, of a familiar other happened organically and domestically. They just remembered an earlier myth framework, and then struggled with the guilt and shame of having done what they knew to be wrong, under the pressure of the myth lords that took responsibility for them. Those that remembered the pre-Nazi period, and other untainted experts were consulted. This is important.
This piece began with the premise that cognitive evolution produced first episodic, then mimetic, and finally mythic hominid minds, which combined and wove memory into ‘culture’ and that culture’s data into ‘history’. Our three main cognitive capabilities are still with us:
When we are just ‘daydreaming’ today we still experience an ‘episodic’ world – it just is, and we are in it, we know that, and when it is so, this mind type is dominant.
When we participate in a mass gathering, a demonstration, or a religious or political event, the mimetic mind is dominant, pulling together memories and connecting them with a pale comprehension, like an individual cheering in a crowd. This can be dangerous.
But a debate, a conversation, or discussion adds a complex language component and the mythic mind is dominant for that period, connecting all three minds together.
We saw how major ancient historical and cultural change was created by myth adoption, re-working, and abandonment, and how, during later period examples, the behaviour and integrity of those offering attractive new myths was crucial.
Because great change is often precipitated in times of economic and environmental stress, and that stress can unleash horror if the new myth makers use violence, including simply violent language.
There always comes a time when people start to doubt their myth or lack the knowledge necessary to plot a path forward. Today is not the first-time folks have seen the same events or data and doubted, or disagreed about, what they have just witnessed. But now, with new media to broadcast their ideas, perhaps the individual has never had as much power, or as loud a voice to change the world.
Is this good?
The answer is, again, not really.
The new world today is increasingly generated and presented by external data and symbol stores (once a carved symbol on stone – now TVs, computers, your phone, books). This is a continuation of Neolithic period symbol development as an aid to myth expression. But it’s now utterly dominant. The pace of the presented world is dictated often by the machine. This means: If you are born into this world, and have this exposure all your life, it’s likely your ability to shift amongst and combine our three ‘worlds of consciousness’ might go unrecognised.
This is a problem.
Why? Because the coherence of our myth world is challenged by today’s unlimited corpus of external symbol data. This process provides new and unlimited imagined options. These might even spark inspiration for future real world developments of humankind – for example movie based realistic depictions of space travel – but it also provides each of us with boundless myth data alternatives to choose from.
Our ability to absorb myths binding us together and give our lives meaning is replaced by fragmented options for each individual, and their significance to bind the group and provide a structure of belonging and traditions that govern the collective is lost. Today’s unlimited options might give an impression of greater choice but this also contributes to feelings of disorientation.
A good example of how to combat this is the experience of a tour. The tour combines a narrative ( myth or ‘history’) with symbols to illustrate it – pointing out surviving Third Reich eagles or using photos for example. Through this process the guide and the guest must harness together all 3 of our cognitive capabilities to participate and establish a narrative they understand and feel part of.
This is basically the process Germany went through post World War II. But that, as they say, was ‘a long time ago’.
So, another perhaps more relevant contributor to our feelings of a ‘new world’ in Berlin and Europe today was the seismic shift of fall of the Berlin Wall and Revolution ’89.
The experience of denazification and its perceived success was held up again as a forerunner of what was also considered to be a bumpy but achievable path to German unification in the 1990s.
But it didn’t work out like that. The resulting societal fractures in former East Germany, even now, contribute to a sceptical approach to the State with real world consequences.
Disengagement, conspiracy, anger & violence, the shifting of regional mass political support to young political movements with a ‘new’ message, reminiscent as echoes from some of the dark ‘myths’ of the recent German past, perhaps stem from a miscalculation in the process of ‘de-East Germanification’.
What was the difference between denazification and the mechanics of 1990s unification? Was the presentation of a rosy new future, the re-education process, the start-up money etc. not similar? Yes, but there was a crucial difference, and again, it revolved around the German eagle symbol.
During the 1989 demonstrations in east Germany the protesters chanted ‘we are the people’. They still shared a common myth. They were a team. Then the chant changed to ‘we are one people’, a reference to a future unification. This came to pass. Flags were waved, tears were shed, the national community – the two peoples – were one.
And that was the mistake.
One of those two teams – East Germans – dissolved. Unification was ultimately the goal and what they desired, but what didn’t survive the transition was their myth world. None of it was recognised, discussed and/or absorbed into the new German framework. As the new world dawned in the ‘90s, former east Germans found themselves adrift, members of the national community, but with no digestible myth to support and to give them a sense of place in their new country.
In their haste, West Germany had not wanted to dissect East German life and absorb the bits half the country liked or that might be still viable. They just waved the flag. Success! We are all under the protective wings of the eagle once more. They forgot the details and the debate that connect our 3 minds together. This was the opposite of the post-war West German experience, they had nothing but the details to work with. Generations of Easterners will feel the resulting void for the rest of their lives.
Again, this example reinforces the importance of our guiding job. We curate the past, we bring it into a world of language and discussion, activating memories to give it meaning.
A visit to any major city may take in an historical tour or visit a museum. The latter are mechanisms whereby a ‘state’ preserves memory, its culture and history. Seeing ‘things’ is a powerful cue for memory. The memories that fill museums are conceptual, bringing home the meaning of the collection, the myth.
Our tours in Berlin generally include memorials that attempt to function in roughly the same way. Our tours themselves are more personal and semantic in content, and play an important role, too. This is the detail behind the myth, exactly the process the individual needs to comprehend a world produced by external data and symbol generators.
For this we need surviving relics of the past. Our job cannot be done as easily if they are ‘cancelled’, or what will we mobile myth merchants do?
To conclude – the idea of myth world change is not new, nor is it inherently bad. German women no longer need their husband’s permission to work, we wear car seat belts, children with the flu are not dosed with Heroin. But the danger is there. The exploitation of the uninformed by the powerful using broad emotive symbols and myth without memory and detail, particularly in times of stress, can lead to a rhyming today with the dark poetry of the past, and the clock striking 13.
Acknowledging the workings of our ‘mythic minds’ and making use of the work we do as tour guides can help defend against this.
This piece was contributed by Berlin Guides Association member, Nick Jackson. A professional archaeologist with experience in the Near East, Nick divides his time between book research, Berlin touring, Nazi bunkers, travel journalism, lecturing on WWII Europe and the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and some TV documentaries. Visit Nick’s profile to get in touch with him, or visit www.jacksonsberlintours.com for more information.
26 February 1924: On this day in history, the Beer Hall Putsch trial began in Munich.
On the 8th of November 1923 at approximately 8:30 pm, Adolf Hitler jumped on a Munich beer hall table, fired a pistol in the air, and screamed “The National Revolution has begun!” But less than 16 hours later, it would meet a bloody end, and within the week most of the conspirators would be in jail awaiting trial.
The trial against the putschists began on the 26th of February in Munich. Constitutionally as a treason trial, it should have been held at the federal high court in Leipzig, however, Bavarian politicians stepped in and ensured it would be held in Bavaria, fearing discovery of their high-level connections to the Nazi movement and the plot. The location was to benefit Hitler. ‘The king of Munich,’ as he was known, did not lack for sympathetic ears in the courtroom. Lead judge Georg Neithardt was one such admirer, allowing Hitler to make speeches and cross-examine the prosecutions’ witnesses.
The trial gave Hitler something that he desperately craved – a national platform. After each of the trial’s 25 days, national newspapers carried reports of the trial, and with it, Hitler’s message all throughout Germany. In grandiose language, he took full responsibility for the putsch but claimed that there could be no treason against a government that had signed the Treaty of Versailles. Further, he claimed that he could not be judged by the proceedings, and instead history “will one day laughingly tear up the charges of the Prosecution.”
When handing the sentence down, Judge Neithardt praised the defendant’s “purely patriotic spirit and noblest will,” yet there was no denying they had committed the crime. He found all except Erich Ludendorff guilty of treason. It was in putschists’ sentences where the judge could find room for leniency. They ranged from a minimum of probation to a maximum of five years jail and a fine for Hitler and three others. Furthermore, Hitler was saved from mandatory exile to Austria. At the pronouncement of the sentence, the audience in the courtroom burst out in loud cheers. Due to ‘good behaviour’, Hitler would serve less than 9 months of the sentence.
These sentences were lenient not only when viewed in the context of history, but also contemporary events. The Hamburg communist uprising which took place a few weeks before the Beer Hall Putsch was ruthlessly prosecuted by the state. A special court tried 443 revolutionaries and executed most of the ring leaders. If the Weimar Republic had protected itself from its right flank in the same way as the left, it may have been able to save itself from the Third Reich.
This edition of On This Day in History was written by BBS member Campbell Bews.
It’s one of four events he chose to remember in February. See our blog to find out what else made the cut.
2 February 1945: On this day in history, one of the most consequential battles of the Second World War – the Battle of Stalingrad – ends with the total defeat of Axis Forces. 6th Army Commander Friedrich Paulus surrenders and goes into Soviet custody, becoming the first German Field Marshal to be captured alive.
The battle had begun over five months before as part of the ‘Case Blue’ Summer offensives. The 6th Army was tasked with capturing Stalingrad and guarding the flanks of the army group invading the Caucasus oil fields. The city’s invasion began on the 23rd of August with a ruthless carpet bombing, turning the battlefield into flaming wreckage of twisted steel and listing concrete. When the 6th Army moved in, they were slowed to a crawl by bitter house-to-house resistance as the Soviets paid for time in their blood.
The battle would turn decisively when the Soviets launched a massive counterattack on the 19th of November. Through driving snow, they burst through the Romanian and Hungarian troops guarding the 6th army’s flanks and sealed them within Stalingrad. In response, Hitler ordered supplies to be airdropped into the city, but logistical difficulties led to a chronic lack of supplies, ammunition, and food.
Commander of the 6th Army, Friedrich Paulus had seen multiple reports of the building Soviet Armies at his flanks but had refused to believe their validity. Despite his soldiers running out of position in Stalingrad, he refused to debate Hitler’s orders or forcefully push for a breakout from the city.
With neither victory nor escape possible, Hitler expected Paulus to commit suicide. To harden his resolve, on 30th January, Hitler promoted him to Field Marshal, telling him that no one of this rank had ever been captured in German History. Ultimately Paulus’ Catholicism would not let him contemplate suicide, and he surrendered the next day. His remaining 91,000 troops would surrender two days later. Due to the terrible conditions in Soviet Gulags, barely 6000 would return to Germany.
This slice of On This Day in Berlin history was written by BBS Member Campbell Bews.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember in February. See what else made the cut on our blog.
20 January 1942: Today marks the anniversary of the odious Wannsee Conference.
Named for the south western suburb of Wannsee in Berlin where it took place, the conference is known for addressing and coordinating the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Here, plans were laid out for the mass, systematic murder of Europe’s Jewish population.
SS general Reinhard Heydrich – who called and chaired the meeting – communicated that this would amount to approximately 11 million Jews. His figure was not just with Nazi occupied countries in mind, however, but was intended to encompass all of Europe – including neutral territories like Switzerland and Ireland. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws would act as the criteria to decide who was considered Jewish and Heydrich summarized that the extermination camps in occupied Poland would be used for the killings.
The meeting brought together 6 high-ranking members of the SS and 9 senior government officials, including the state secretaries from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior.
The inclusion of government officials was key. Part of the conference was informing agencies that would be relevant to fulfilling the “Final Solution”. Despite careful euphemistic wording, the participants knew mass murder was their goal and the meeting wasn’t as much about whether the government would take part as it was how to organize policy to enact it.
Although violence and discrimination towards Jews began immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the Wannsee Conference signifies a clear, methodical shift towards highly organized extermination.
26 January 1945: On this day in Berlin history, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler entered the Führerbunker under the gardens of his Reich Chancellery in Berlin.
With the bunker acting as the final headquarters for the Nazis, Hitler was joined by much of his senior staff – as well as dozens of medical and administrative personnel. In April, 1945 – nearing the end of World War II in Europe – his long-time lover, Eva Braun and propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels would also take up residence here.
The Führerbunker itself was actually a complex of two connected bunkers – the upper Vorbunker (1936), and the lower Führerbunker (1944). Made with the intention of withstanding the strongest known Allied bombs at the time, the Führerbunker was deeper underground than the Vorbunker (about 8.5 meters or 28 feet beneath the surface) and offered even more protection. The roof boasted almost 3 meters (9.8ft) of thick concrete.
Although Hitler attempted to make life underground more comfortable by bringing in furniture and oil paintings from the Chancellery, conditions were nonetheless desperate. The bunker laid underneath the water table of Berlin, creating a very damp environment and the unremitting noise from the bombings would make sleep difficult.
By April 16, 1945 the Soviet Red Army would enter Berlin, marking the beginning of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. As Soviet troops encircled the city, Hitler’s final visit to the surface above occurred on his birthday – April 20, 1945 – when he awarded young boys from the Hitler Youth the Iron Cross medal for bravery.
Less than forty hours after marrying Eva Braun in the bunker, Hitler and his new wife eventually committed suicide on April 30, 1945.
This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member Chris Moniz.
It’s one of four events he has chosen to remember this January. See what else makes the cut on our blog.
8th October 1923: On this day in Berlin History, Berlin’s Tempelhof airport opened its gates for the very first time. From that time until its closure in 2008, Tempelhof was to be centre stage for the German capital’s aviation history.
The original layout was dramatically changed in 1935 when, two years after Adolf Hitler took control of Germany, construction began on what British architect Sir Norman Foster was to call “the mother of all airports”. The 1.2 km long main terminal building (designed by Ernst Sagebiel to resemble an eagle with wings spread) is still one of the largest buildings in the world.
During cold war division the airport was marooned West Berlin’s window to the world, a vital connection during Stalin’s blockade of the city in 1948/49. The subsequent airlift, in which U.S., British and commonwealth air forces flew in almost 2,500,000 tonnes of vital cargo, ensured the pilots as well as the airfield a special place in the hearts of the embattled locals.
After reunification, plans were made to replace the three existing commercial airports with one. Despite the construction running around four times over budget and ten years behind schedule, the last flight left Tempelhof in November 2008.
In 2010, the space (an area larger than Monaco) was given over to the public. The Tempelhofer Feld has since become one of the inhabitants’ favourite green spaces and encapsulates that unique blend of history, re-invention and freedom which is quintessentially Berlin.
This slice of On This Day in Berlin History was written by Berlin Guides Association member, Chris Cooke. It’s one of four noteworthy events he’s chosen to remember this October. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.
On this day one of the most controversial events in modern German history occurred when the Reichstag – the national parliament building and symbol of Germany’s young democracy – was the target of an arson attack just shy of a month after Hitler’d been appointed Chancellor of Germany.
The person apprehended at the scene and the one whom the Nazis not only blamed for the crime but eventually executed for it, was a 23 year old unemployed Dutch construction worker named Marinus van der Lubbe who had been on a lengthy trek across Central Europe, trying to work his way to the Soviet Union, a state which he greatly admired. As a teenager, he trained to become a mason, entered the Dutch labor movement and joined the Communist youth movement not long thereafter. But he soon came to dislike the party’s strict code of discipline and authoritarian structure, and left it in 1931 to join a radical anarchy-syndicalist organization. After getting as far as Poland, decided to head back west and arrived in Berlin on February 18, 1933.
With the Nazis in power, he felt that the left was being ruthlessly suppressed. A believer in direct actions since his anarchy-syndicalist days, he thought it was time for the unemployed and those who felt deserted on all levels to protest against the bourgeois state and send a direct blow to it, and he decided that he was going to be the one to do it.
Arson was the method he chose.
After unsuccessfully attempting to burn down a welfare office in the Berlin district of Neukoelln, and then that district’s city hall, and finally the former Berlin royal palace three days prior, he decided to spend his last remaining money on matches and lighters on the morning of the 27th, and as historian Richard J. Evans would write – “he sought out the supreme symbol of the bourgeois political order that, he thought, had made his life and that of so many other unemployed young men a misery, and decided to burn down the Reichstag.”
Even though several leading historians on the subject, like Evans, believe that van der Lubbe most likely set the fire, it still isn’t exactly certain that he had. Yet, what’s important to see is the bigger picture in all of this.
The Reichstag fire came one week before the very critical March 5th national elections were going to take place – elections on which the Nazis were banking (as already the largest party currently in the Reichstag) to increase their representation in the parliament and win a 2/3 majority of the seats so that they themselves could democratically vote out the democracy and install a one party dictatorship under Hitler. Yet, this fire came as a godsend to Hitler and the Nazis as it conveniently enabled them to use the fire as a pretext that a communist uprising was occurring and thus convince President Paul von Hindenburg to take action the following day by using his presidential powers to evoke Article 48 (an article that allowed the Weimar president to legally rule by decree) of the Weimar Constitution and as a result, suspend basic civil liberties and essentially bestow ultimate power to the Cabinet (i.e. Hitler).
Therefore, after the Nazis successfully convinced old Hindenburg that the government was under attack, Hindenburg issued the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (also referred to as the the Reichstag Fire Decree) to:
– Immediately put restrictions on free expression of opinions, including the freedom of the press and on the right of assembly and association
– House searches without warrants were now permissible
– Mail and telephone privacy now suspended
– Restrictions on property rights were now permissible beyond all legal limits.
In other words, the Reichstag Fire Decree would now ultimately serve as the “legal” basis for the imprisonment of anyone considered to be opponents of the Nazis including politicians, journalists, writers and basically anyone who’d been loyal to the Weimar constitution. This decree, ‘valid until further notice,’ would now provide the legal pretext for everything that was about to be unleashed in the next few months as the National Socialists continued on their path to seize ultimate power in absolute earnest.
Moreover, because of the events that would unfold so perfectly well for Hitler and the Nazis after the fire – as they now began to eliminate anyone who stood in their way of establishing a one party state – this is why it’s believed that van der Lubbe didn’t set the fire, but rather it was the Nazis themselves. Books have been published on this and students working on PhDs have argued this; yet at the end of the day, we’ll never know for sure who was fully responsible – it’s indeed one of the greatest mysteries of modern German history.
Professor Eric Weitz and author of the book, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy once said in a lecture: “It’s not so important to understand who set the fire; it’s more important to understand who benefited from it – which of course were the Nazis.”
With the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (The Reichstag Fire Decree) only 22 days old and having served as the “legal” basis for the arrests of thousands of opponents of the Nazis up until that point, Hitler and the National Socialists were on the brink of fully recruiting the remaining nationalist parties in the Reichstag to pass a law that would turn over all government functions to Hitler himself.
Before this could happen, as far as Hitler was concerned, a ceremony that would underscore the National Socialists’ politics of propaganda and terror needed to be triumphantly held to illustrate a glorified connection between the traditional powers of the “old Reich” and Hitler’s “young” and “dynamic” Nazi movement.
Always the dramatist, Nazi propaganda head Josef Goebbels staged the inauguration of the new Reichstag (following the national election of 5 March) in the “Day of Potsdam” by convincing President Paul von Hindenburg to go to Potsdam and give his blessing to the new Nazi regime 86 years ago today. Even today’s date – March 21 – had symbolic significance to the “old Reich” for it was the date on which Otto von Bismarck had first opened the all-German Reichstag following the German Unification of 1871.
In addition to a motorcade parade through Potsdam, the main ceremony took place in the Garrison Church, located just blocks away from the Potsdam City Palace – which had served as the second official seat of the dynastic Princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Kings of Prussia, and German Emperors of the House of Hohenzollern for nearly three centuries. Moreover, the Garrison Church had been the final resting place of Hitler’s hero and one of the most influential monarchies in European history, Frederick the Great.
With the last Crown Prince of the Hohenzollern dynasty – along with his brothers – in attendance, the ceremony got underway just after noon local time. Hindenburg marched down the nave of the church while decked out in his gray field marshal’s uniform and carrying his spiked helmet in his left hand. Just before reaching the church’s Imperial Gallery, the old general paused and saluted the empty pew of the last Prussian King and German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Hindenburg then reached the altar, turned, and gave a brief homily that would consecrate the Nazi regime:
“May the old spirit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today, may it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany, united in herself.”
Hitler, who was wearing a black suit with striped pants (a far cry from his usual brown stormtrooper uniform and high boots), responded with:
“Neither the Kaiser nor the government nor the nation wanted the war. It was only the collapse of the nation which compelled a weakened race to take upon itself, against its most sacred convictions, the guilt for this war.”
Having gone to the altar himself, Hitler looked down on Hindenburg, who had taken a seat in the front pew near Goebbels and Reichstag President Hermann Goering. Hitler then looked at Hindenburg and addressed the “old Reich” directly:
“By a unique upheaval in the last few weeks, our national honor has been restored and, thanks to your understanding, Herr Generalfeldmarschall, the union between the symbols of the old greatness and the new strength has been celebrated. We pay you homage. A protective providence places you over the new forces of our nation.”
After uttering these words, Hitler stepped down from the altar, bowed to Hindenburg, and shook his hand – producing one of the most infamous photographs in modern history.
Yet at the end of the day, this melodrama inside the Garrison Church at Potsdam was more than a triumphant ceremony. This was the moment in which Hitler – the leader of the young and dynamic Nazi movement – proclaimed the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich” in the presence of the symbols of Germany’s glorified past.
A national mood of euphoria in this new “Volksgemeinschaft” (People’s Community) had been born and it unfortunately resonated with broad parts of German society throughout the country. Along with this wave of enthusiasm, the collective optimism of the German people – which hadn’t been felt since 1914 – began to blossom as well, with only limited opposition to this new national hysteria.