On This Day | 20 July 1944: Stauffenberg and the plot to kill Hitler

20 July 1944: On this day in Berlin history, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg – along with the help of a number of other co-conspirators – attempted to assassinate the Nazi dictator and launch a coup d’état in “The 20th of July Plot”, a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie, a.k.a. The Plot to Kill Hitler.

At this time, Allied forces were stalled in Normandy and several members of the German Army General Staff and Army High Command feared that Hitler was leading Germany and its people into the abyss.

Claus von Stauffenberg was executed for his part in Operation Valkyrie: the plot to kill Hitler.
Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (1907-1944)

Over the course of WWII, senior staff officer Stauffenberg came to realize the criminal character of National Socialist policy. Following a severe injury that cost him an eye, his entire right hand, and two fingers on his left hand, Stauffenberg was transferred to the General Army Office of the Army High Command in September 1943. This is when he came in contact with a circle of opponents of the Nazi regime, including his new superior, General Friedrich Olbricht, who’d been a driving force behind the military efforts toward staging a coup against Hitler since 1938.

Olbricht informed Stauffenberg of his plans of a coup and put him in contact with Ludwig Beck and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler who, by July 1944, had created a circle of a range of senior German soldiers and officials committed to the idea that only the murdering of Hitler would create the conditions for a successful takeover of power.

So on this day – 74 years ago – Stauffenberg made his way to the so-called “Wolf’s Lair” in East Prussia (current day Poland) and was able to smuggle a time bomb in his briefcase. He succeeded in taking it into the meeting with Hitler, which had been transferred from a concrete bunker (where the effects of the blast would have been deadly) to a small wooden building on ground level. Stauffenberg primed the bomb to go off with his three remaining fingers, pushed his briefcase under the oak map table and left the meeting (and building) to answer a fictitious telephone call.

Unfortunately, someone else present around the table, possibly irritated at stubbing his foot on the case, pushed it further under the table where it stopped behind a thick oak support just before the bomb went off.
The explosion killed four people, destroyed the building, but left Hitler dazed, deaf, his clothes in shreds, and with an injured arm.

By this point, Stauffenberg was on his way to catch a flight back to Berlin, but had seen the explosion from a distance and assumed right away that the assassination had worked. He arrived at the War Ministry where he and his co-conspirators tried to take over the building; but as news began to filter through that Hitler was not dead, the situation was suddenly reversed. Stauffenberg was soon shot – but not killed – arrested and then taken with his co-conspirators to the War Ministry courtyard and executed by firing squad.

Unfortunately, Hitler’s power would now reach a new peak in Germany. The Nazis’ wrath of revenge for this attempt on his life was initially aimed at those directly involved in the attempted coup with more than 170 people – in at least 55 trials before the People’s Court – sentenced to death.

Upwards of another 150 people involved in the coup attempt, or merely “suspected”, were initially imprisoned without trial and eventually murdered as late as April 1945.

The destroyed Wolfsschanze after the plot to kill Hitler
The Wolfsschanze, after the explosion. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-025-12 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Moreover, in August 1944, this attempt on Hitler’s life prompted him and Heinrich Himmler to launch “Operation Thunderstorm” which called for the arrest of all politicians from the former Weimar Republic, in order to prevent a potential democratic reconstruction in Germany. This resulted in the imprisonment of more than 5,000 people – many of whom did not survive.

Stauffenberg, and all of those who helped him in the plot to kill Hitler, put their lives on the line to end the National Socialist dictatorship of Germany in July 1944. And if the war had stopped shortly thereafter (and it’s quite possible that it may not have – but if it had), millions of military casualties and innocent lives could possibly have been saved, as it’s very likely that it would’ve provoked the Allies to at least reconsider their Unconditional Surrender demand of Nazi Germany.

At any rate, Stauffenberg and those who assisted him, are heroes for trying to end the life of the most ruthless, blood-thirsty, evil men in history.

Today, in the courtyard where Stauffenberg and his co-conspirators were brutally murdered on July 20, 1944, is the entrance to the Memorial of the German Resistance Museum, which informs us about those individuals and the network of peoples who risked their lives standing up to National Socialism during the Third Reich.

James McDonough

This edition of On This Day in Berlin History was written by BBS Member, Jim McDonough

and originally appeared on our Facebook page.

On This Day | 19 July 1988 : Bruce Springsteen plays East Germany

19 July 1988: On this day in Berlin history, Bruce Springsteen played the largest ever concert in the history of East Germany.

On a dusty field next to a race track in the district of Weissensee, an estimated 300,000 people gathered from all corners of the republic to see “the Boss” play. Although only 160,000 tickets had been sold, the sheer mass of the crowds forced organisers to open the gates, a rare moment of disorder in the strict communist society.

Bruce Springsteen played the Largest concernt in the history of East Germany on 19 July 1988
Bruce Springsteen playing at Weissensee, East Berlin | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1988-0719-38 / Uhlemann, Thomas / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The concert was approved by East German officials as a way of appeasing a citizenry who were becoming ever more enticed by life beyond the iron curtain. Springsteen was deemed acceptable by the powers that be due to his working class background and his critical stance on US society. Instead of acting as a release valve however, Springsteen’s epic 4-hour performance offered East Germans an invigorating taste of the freedom which lay just out of reach.

Stasi officials, planted among the crowd that day, surely questioned their superiors’ decision to allow the concert when the ecstatic crowd engulfing them began hollering “Born in the U.S.A.” at the top of their lungs. Adding to their concern, the working class hero from New Jersey then pulled a paper from his pocket and began in somewhat wobbly German a short speech which his East German chauffeur had translated for him.

I am not for or against any government,” Springsteen began “I have come to play rock and roll for you in the hope that one day all barriers will be torn down.” As the crowd roared he launched into Chimes of Freedom, a rousing anthem for the downtrodden written by Bob Dylan.

The speech didn’t make it onto the slightly delayed television coverage broadcast, nevertheless these words and the reaction of the crowd must have sent an ominous chill down the spine of the East German leadership.

Some believe Bruce Springsteen’s concert in Weissensee that day was the spark that started the fire which, 16 months later, would engulf the country in revolutionary fervour and bring down the Berlin Wall. More pragmatic observers point to wider political developments, such as growing pressure from West German politicians and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika.

In truth, the fateful events of November 9th, 1989 were a culmination of many things. For those who attended the concert that day though, there’s little doubt that Springsteen’s performance energised their desire for change and spurred them and their compatriots on to the revolution which would change the world.

However you look at it, the legendary concert of July 19th, 1988 is an integral and inspiring part of Berlin’s history.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition 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 summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day | 1 July 1989: The first Love Parade

Love Parade 1996
Love Parade 1996, am Großen Stern | Photo by Gerd Danigel CC BY-SA 4.0

1 July 1989: On this day in Berlin history, a crowd of around 150 people gathered on west Berlin’s Wittenbergplatz to take part in the very first Love Parade.

Unperturbed by the drizzle, the brightly dressed rabble set off down Kurfürstendamm. Among the writhing crowd rolled three flatbed trucks, their trays loaded with giant sound systems filling the surrounding streets with the rhythmic bleeps and beats of techno. The bemused onlookers, suddenly distracted from their coffee and cake, surely didn’t know what to make of this peculiar procession with its strange pounding music invading the city’s most expensive shopping district. For the police accompanying the demonstration, the peaceful demeanour of the attendees must have come as a relief. Far from the violent protests of Kreuzberg, these youngsters were marching in the name of “Friede, Freude und Eierkuchen” (“Peace, Happiness and Pancakes”). Clearly there would be no need for batons or tear gas today. What no-one could suspect, neither those watching nor those taking part, was that this ragtag procession would grow to become the largest techno party in the world.

The Love Parade was the brainchild of locals DJ Matthias Roeingh known as Dr Motte, and artist Danielle de Picciotto. The creative couple wanted to coax the magic which they had discovered in the underground clubs and parties of West Berlin into the open. Techno had arrived in the embattled city via England and had already begun to captivate its young citizens. It was an exciting new sound which seemed a perfect fit for the abandoned spaces of war ruined Berlin and one which de Picciotto and Roeingh felt could unite the disenchanted masses of their marooned city in a positive movement. According to all involved the first Love Parade was a resounding success. When, unexpectedly, the Berlin wall fell a few months later, it was the driving bass beat of Techno that would come to define the wild cultural revolution which followed.

Love Parade 2001
Love Parade 2001 | Photo by Arne Müseler | CC-BY-SA-3.0

Over the next decade, the Love Parade would boom, reaching a reported 1.5 million attendees in 1999. With this massive increase in scale, organisers sought out a new stomping ground in the four lane causeway of Straße des 17 Juni. Built during the nazi regime as part of Adolf Hitler’s planned transformation of the city, the boulevard, originally intended for Nazi military parades, now became the centre of an annual celebration of unity, acceptance and freedom.

As the Love Parade grew though, so too did its opposers. Many bemoaned the growing commercialisation of the event, pointing at floats like that provided by Lego and claiming it had merely become a PR vehicle for corporations. The state government of Berlin, tired of footing the growing bill for security, medical staff, and the clean up, revoked the parade’s status as a political demonstration. Now organisers would have to cover those expenses on their own. Disillusioned by these issues, Dr Motte decided to sell ownership of the Love Parade in 2006 to Rainer Schaller, owner of Germany’s largest fitness centre chain McFit.

Under new ownership, the Love Parade departed for the heavily industrialised Ruhr area of Western Germany. Over the next four years it would be held in Dortmund, Essen and Bochum before reaching a tragic conclusion in Duisburg in 2010. During the event, the first to be held in a fenced off area, overcrowding of a particularly confined space led to the deaths of 21 people with a further 600 injured and many more traumatised. Despite glaring oversights during the planning procedure, courts rejected the legal case against the organisers stating there was no evidence of negligence, a decision which remains fiercely controversial to this day. The Love Parade disaster of 2010 was a horrific end to an event which had begun with such optimism in the summer of ‘89.

What began with three trucks, homemade costumes and a smattering of free spirited Berliners, grew into one of the largest parties on the planet. For many, the grim fate of the Love Parade exemplifies the damaging effects of commercialisation and greed. In spite of this, plans are reportedly afoot to revive the iconic dance party in Berlin in the summer of 2022, with Dr Motte again at the helm. Although this may seem unimaginable in today’s society of social distancing and isolation bubbles, perhaps, under the right management, a Love Parade is exactly what the world needs now to recover from months of fear and isolation.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition 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 summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day | 22 June 1990: The Removal of Checkpoint Charlie

22 June 1990: On this day in Berlin history, the infamous control post at Checkpoint Charlie was hoisted off its foundations, placed on the back of a lorry and driven away. This simple act, executed to the sounds of a military brass band, was the closing stanza in a story which began in the messy aftermath of World War Two.

The Checkpoint Charlie control post was removed on 22 June 1990
Removal of the infamous Checkpoint Charlie control post marked a new era | Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-0622-028 / Grimm, Peer / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Situated at the official crossing point between the U.S. and Soviet sectors of Berlin, the unassuming steel hut – as well as its smaller wooden predecessor – had been a conspicuous outpost on the front line of the Cold War for generations. Its removal, watched by thousands around the world, represented the easing of East-West tensions in Europe and the beginning of a bright new age in Berlin.

Attending the ceremony that day were representatives of the four powers which had occupied their respective sectors of the city since 1945 (France, Great Britain, USA and the Soviet Union). Seven months after the peaceful revolution of November 9th 1989, they were in Berlin to coordinate the withdrawal of their military forces, as well as to iron out the process of German reunification. Among the guests of honour seated before them was former mayor of West Berlin, Willy Brandt. In office when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, Brandt was one of many looking on that day – whether leaning from the windows of surrounding buildings, standing to attention in uniform, crouching behind the lens of a camera or even peering from beyond the East German border – who had witnessed very different scenes at this volatile flashpoint between east and west.

Collectively they had held their breath as, 29 years earlier, US and Soviet tanks stared each other down, engines revving and arms at the ready, just one shot away from nuclear war. They had mourned the brutal death of Peter Fechter, the 18 year old East Berliner gunned down by East German border guards and left to bleed to death in the death strip, just metres from the freedom he sought. Most recently they had joined the celebrations just a few months prior when the traffic barriers were raised and thousands flowed freely through the checkpoint, embracing the stunned border guards and revelling in their new and unexpected freedom.

Checkpoint Charlie, 2008
Checkpoint Charlie, 2008 | Image by Hajotthu CC BY 3.0

It was these events and more which were running through the onlookers’ minds as they watched the diminutive beige Porta-cabin dangling on the end of a wire cable above them. For the citizens of that long divided city Checkpoint Charlie had been a beacon of hope and for some it’s departure was bitter sweet. But, with the iron curtain in tatters and the Soviet Union heading towards dissolution, the time had finally come – as British foreign minister Douglas Hurd so poignantly put it – “to bring Charlie in from the cold”.

Today, the only things blocking one’s path at the historic site of Checkpoint Charlie are selfie seekers and tour buses. The hut one finds on location, complete with sandbag bunker and American flag, is a replica of the original wooden building. The building which was removed with such ceremony 31 years ago can be found in the Allied Museum in Dahlem, a suburb in the west of the city.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition 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 summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day | 22 June 1941: Operation Barbarossa

22 June 1941: On this day in history, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. With a force of over 3 million, it is widely recognised as the largest invasion in military history.

Map showing Operation Barbarossa - the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union
Axis Invasion of the Soviet Union, 22 June to 25 August 1941 | Image courtesy of The Department of
History, United States Military Academy

After stunning successes in western Europe, Hitler was certain that victory over his ideological enemy to the east would be swift and decisive. Spurred on by this misguided belief, the German military was completely unprepared for what they would encounter on their advance. An unfathomably vast land, a tenacious and seemingly unlimited opposing force and brutal winters would ensure Stalin’s Red Army eventually gained the upper hand. Despite the failure of the German offensive, the invading forces would inflict untold misery on the Soviet population during a horrific wave of violence which, 80 years later, the world is still coming to terms with.

The invasion of the Soviet Union had long been central to Hitler’s vision. He had raved about the need for Lebensraum, or living space for the German “Volk” since his days as a rabble-rousing upstart in the beer halls of Munich. This desire was clear to any who had read his book Mein Kampf, published in 1924. For Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Operation Barbarossa should have come as no surprise. Nevertheless, despite continued warnings – not only from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill but also from Soviet diplomats and spies – it seems that the Soviet leader was caught off guard. Although many aside from Stalin saw the Nazi offensive coming, no one was prepared for what followed.

Operation Barbarossa saw German troops crossed the Soviet borde1r on 22 June 194
German troops crossing the Soviet border, 22 June 1941 | Photo by Johannes Hähle

The eastern European theatre of World War Two was not merely a war of expansion, this was a war of extermination. Following the German front line were SS Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads, whose task it was to round up the civilian population and murder anybody deemed undesirable by Nazi ideology. These mass shootings, such as that of Babi Yar outside Kiev in which 30,000 people were shot in just two days, would claim the lives of around 2 million innocent people, including 1.3 million Jews. As the war progressed, new more efficient forms of mass murder would arise in the form of industrial killing centres like Auschwitz and Treblinka. It was here in the east where the depravity of Nazi ideology would reach its full and horrifying extent.

“Kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down” this sentiment was repeated like a mantra by Nazi leadership during the planning stages of their eastern offensive. In practise, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. The “Great Patriotic War” as it’s still known in the former Soviet states, galvanised a vast and fragmented population, arousing a fierce nationalism which would spur their soldiers on all the way to Berlin. The atrocities committed against their country folk, the evidence of which was clearly seen during the Red Army’s advance towards Europe, only heightened the soldiers’ lust for revenge.

Operation Barbarossa is recognised as the definitive turning point of World War Two, perhaps only matched by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour later that year, which would ultimately tip the balance against the Axis powers. By bringing the Soviet Union into the war, Adolf Hitler had unknowingly sealed his fate as well as that of his so-called Third Reich. Today, we remember the date not only in terms of a large-scale military offensive, but as a turning point in human history. The massacre of Jews, Sinti and Roma, Slavs, Homosexuals and many more in the gas chambers, ghettos and killing fields of eastern Europe, prove the importance of combating the vilification and dehumanisation of certain groups of people. A lesson which, 80 years on, is as relevant as ever.

Chris Cooke - Berlin Tour Guide
This edition 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 summer. Keep an eye on our blog to see what else made the cut.

On This Day | 29 May 1917: John F. Kennedy is born

President John F. Kennedy was born 29 May 1917
President John F. Kennedy

29 May 1917: On this day in history John Fitzgerald Kennedy, descendant of Irish immigrants and son of an ambassador, would be born into one of the United States’ most formidable political families.

The future 36th President enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Massachusetts and spent a dilettante season as a ranch hand before enrolling at Harvard to study international affairs. He embarked upon a tour of Europe immediately before the outbreak of World War Two, and wrote a thesis on the Munich Agreement which would later be published under the title ‘Why England Slept.’

Despite the various health complaints which left him in lifelong pain, he served in the US Navy, and once had to swim to safety when his patrol boat came under fire from a Japanese destroyer. Following VE Day, Kennedy returned his attentions to politics, and was elected to the House of Representatives in the early days of the Cold War. A decade on, he announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination. Though many found him too green, he would defeat Richard Nixon to become, at 42 years old, the youngest elected president. His presidency would last for only half its term, before his assassination on November 22nd, 1963.

Berlin fondly remembers the speech which JFK gave at the Rathaus (town hall) in the American-occupied borough of Schöneberg, to an audience of 120,000, less than six months before he would be murdered. Speaking in solidarity with the West Berliners and promising to protect them from Communist encroachment, Kennedy proclaimed:

“All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.

And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words,

Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Since a ‘Berliner’ is also a certain foodstuff (as is a hamburger, frankfurter, and so on) people to this day leave doughnuts on the steps of Rathaus Schöneberg each November 22nd.

 

This edition of On This Day in history was written by BBS member Dr Finn Ballard. It’s one of four events he chose to remember in May. See our blog to find out what else he picked.

On This Day | 26 May 1940: The Battle of Dunkirk begins

Have you heard of ‘Dunkirk Spirit,’ or seen Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film on this remarkable mass evacuation?

Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation
Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation | Image via the Australian War Memorial

26 May 1940: The ten-day Battle of Dunquerque which would culminate in the flight of Allied forces from France across the North Sea to the British mainland began on this day in history.

After the winter-long stalemate nicknamed the ‘Phoney War,’ the German Army had moved with astonishing speed – not least, new research concludes, due to the quantity of amphetamines they were consuming – and meticulous planning, occupy the Low Countries and bypass the Maginot Line on which France had relied.

The capitulation of France within weeks had marked for Germany one of the most spectacular military victories in world history. As the Germans ploughed on toward Southern France and the calamity worsened, both French troops and the British Expeditionary Force found their efforts at counter-attacks frustrated and, to evade total encirclement, were compelled to retreat.

British troops were lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk
British troops were lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation | Image via Imperial War Museums

After a visit to Paris left him dismayed by the despondent state of French high command, Churchill began planning ‘Operation Dynamo,’ the evacuation of 338,000 troops by sea. Civilian fishing vessels and lifeboats (the ‘little ships’) were pressed into action to assist the Royal Navy.

The soldiers, strafed by the Luftwaffe, abandoned their weaponry and leapt homewards. Thousands of French troops were captured, to become prisoners of war. Almost all the best troops Britain and France had to offer had been either evacuated to the United Kingdom or had been killed.

The Germans sliced their way south, toward Paris, like a knife through butter.

Yet the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands led the Battle of Dunkirk – described by Churchill as a ‘miracle’ – to be received as a success back at home. Following the German capitulation in 1945, Dunkirk become emblematic of an indomitable British fortitude – and pluckiness.

This edition of On This Day in History was written by BBS Member Finn Ballard.

It’s one of four events he chose to remember this month. Take a look at our blog to see what else is covered.

Berlin Long Reads | Different Shades of Red: The Weimar Republic and the Divided Left

In the latest edition of our Berlin Guides Association Berlin Long Reads series, BBS member Campbell Bews explores the rift between the SPD and KPD – from ideological cracks to the conflicts, betrayal and violence of politics in the Weimar Republic.

A column of swastika-helmeted troops snakes into a dark Berlin. Their boots clap loudly on the cobblestones as they march in tight formation through the Brandenburg Gate and close in on the Reichstag. They lower the flag of the Republic and replace it with their own, deposing the elected government. Workers who awake to see the takeover heckle the paramilitaries and are fired on in reply. The sun rises on a Berlin under occupation. The date is the 11th of March 1920, the ‘Kapp Putsch’ had just begun.

Their forceful occupation of Berlin allowed the Free Corps (returning WWI proto-fascist militias) to seize the capital but not to hold it. The forces on the left, united in opposition, mobilise against it. Social Democrats, Communists, and trade unionists cannot prevent the military takeover, but they can deny their labour. A general strike brings the usually bustling city to a standstill, as trains refuse to move, the electricity is turned off and the economy grinds to a halt. Wolfgang Kapp, the eponymous putsch leader threatens, begs and attempts to bribe them back to work, but to no avail. With declining prospects, Kapp negotiates a surrender. The united left has defeated the coup in less than 100 hours.

The Kapp Putsch was defeated by a united Left
Free Corps militia hand our leaflets during the ‘Kapp Putsch’
| Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R16976 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

The Kapp Putsch stands as a mirror opposite to the Hitler seizure of power 13 years later. Instead of fighting a united front, Hitler was faced with a fractured left-wing opposition, which he was easily able to overcome. The strength of the left was similarly powerful in both Kapp’s and Hitler’s seizure of power. In the 1920 election (held three months after the coup) the SPD, Independent SPD and Communists (KPD) won a total of just under 42% – a near high point for the Weimar Republic. In the 1933 election (held just after the Reichstag fire, under suppression by the Nazi led government), the SPD and KPD won just under 31% – a drop but still a broad coalition of the population. Added to the left’s strength were their own armed groups, returned WWI soldiers councils in the 20’s and party paramilitary groups Iron Front (SPD) and Alliance of Red Front-Fighters (KPD) in the 30’s. Undoubtedly Kapp and General Lüttwitz were not as tightly organised as the Nazis, but they may have succeeded had the left not so vigorously opposed them.

So why was there no coordinated opposition against Hitler? A simple answer would be that there was very little coordination. Even on the day that Hitler was sworn in as chancellor, the majority of the SPD executive committee dismissed an alliance with communists, fearing they would co-opt the resistance and draw away their supporters. The KPD on the other hand, made little to no distinction between the Nazis and the ‘social fascists’ in the SPD. It is clear that between the two right-wing coups there emerged an unbreachable gap between the two left-wing parties. This piece will explore how this rift came about, beginning with ideological cracks within the SPD of the German Empire and pushed further apart by the conflicts, betrayal and violence of Weimar Politics.

1871 – 1914 Big tent of the SPD

Communists and social democrats were all contained within the broad church of the SPD during Bismarck’s German Empire (1871 – 1918). Due to the Party’s appeal to the urban proletariat, their support grew in lock step with the German Empire’s own rapid industrialisation. On the eve of the First World War in 1914, they had 1,085,905 members, 90 daily newspapers and were the largest political party in the Reichstag. However, the system created by Otto von Bismarck ensured that the reins of power remained in the hands of the conservative Prussian military aristocracy, so while the SPD were able to (often indirectly) influence policy, they could never truly govern.

Without the pressure of governing, they could focus on building a party bureaucracy and managing internal ideological disputes. Like many traditional labour movements, it was divided much between its ‘minimalist’ and ‘maximalist’ wings of the party. The ‘minimalists’ favored winning gradual improvements for working people within Germany by working within the system and winning voters at the ballot box. They occupied much of the bureaucracy of the party and therefore the leadership, such as union leader turned party chairman, Friedrich Ebert. On the other end of the spectrum were the ‘maximalists’ who favored global solidarity with the working class and Marxist revolution to overcome the system, which featured prominent leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. But while the gap between their political outlooks was extreme, their collective commitment to the party’s ethos of debate settled by compromise and common cause meant the party’s frictions stayed within the party. That was until the earthquake of the First World War.

Friedrich Ebert was the head of the SPD and first president of the Weimar Republic
Friedrich Ebert

1914 – 1918 SPD at war: Nationalism or Socialism?

Whether to support or oppose the war was the most momentous decision in the SPD’s history and created an impossible split between the two factions. According to maximalist socialist doctrine, maintaining international solidarity among workers was a paramount, so therefore an imperialist war was unthinkable. However, the minimalists understood that in 1914 Germany, the war was seen as a righteous defence of the German fatherland. If they committed themselves to principled socialist opposition, they would jeopardise their gradual gains and doom themselves to electoral suicide and state repression. The high tide of war washed away almost all opposition. Voting to approve war credits, SPD co-Chairman Hugo Haase declared: “We will not desert our fatherland in its hour of need.” The party leadership agreed to a suspension of regular politics out of national solidarity, effectively aligning with the militaristic state and neutering their opposition.

German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914.
German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914.

 

Many of the ‘maximalists’ were disgusted by their party’s capitulation. Their response was limited by state and SPD repression. When they called for strikes and an end to the war in 1914-15, the party imposed new editors for their papers and the police jailed their leaders. Karl Liebknecht, who voiced his opposition in the Reichstag to financing the war in December 1914, would have his parliamentary immunity revoked and he was later jailed. His incarceration did not stop his organising, as he and Rosa Luxemburg would found the group eventually known as ‘The Spartacists’. In the January 1916 charter, Luxemburg pushed against the SPD’s support of the war and called it a ‘betrayal’, but believed in taking over the party rather than beginning anew.

The War became the fulcrum point for relative popularity within the workers movement. While the war went well, the institutional minimalists held sway, but as it became a bloody quagmire, the maximalists began to predominate among workers. In this way, both factions were strapped to a horse of which they had little control. Each year the First World War dragged on, the circumstances tilted in the maximalists’ favor. Every winter brought new misery, as the turnips replaced potatoes and sawdust replaced flour. In 1916, Germany produced 23 million tonnes of potatoes (half of their pre-war crop), and by 1917 the general population was only receiving 1000 calories a day – 40% less than at the start of the war. Despite deteriorating conditions, the German Army was on the verge of victory on the Eastern front and Chairman Ebert clung to the hope that victory on the battlefield would solve the crisis.

The German defeat of the Tsarist regime, the Revolution and the subsequent treaty of Brest-Litovsk would instead have the opposite effect Ebert intended, helping the revolution spread into Germany. The victory of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and the toppling of the Tsar shifted the centre of socialist politics from the institutional gradualism of Berlin to the revolutionary Marxist-Leninism of Moscow. This influence would be particularly important for the later KPD as their policy became almost entirely dictated by the Soviet Union. The focus on national politics within the SPD was viewed with disdain by Lenin, who saw an international revolution as inevitable.
Shortly after victory in the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks set about spreading propaganda into the POW camps of the Imperial Germany Army. They released these 165,000 soldiers back into Germany to spread revolution. A wave of propaganda flooded west from Russia – even Soviet ambassador Adolf Joffe arrived in Berlin with a briefcase stuffed with revolutionary pamphlets. This agitation of the workers would bear fruit. When Germany erupted into revolution in 1918, the revolutionary slogan of ‘peace and bread’ and demands to form workers and soldiers collectives would be on many lips.

1918 – 19 Revolution and consolidation: Two views of Weimar

The 1918 German Revolution unleashed by mutinous sailors in November spread like a contagion infecting workers, soldiers and then the population at large. It was a movement united against the German Empire and the war, but not on which system would replace it. On the 9th of November, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, which left the leaders of the SPD and the Spartacists attempting to get in front of events and direct them. From the balcony of the City Palace Karl Liebknecht declared a socialist republic; from a window of the Reichstag Philip Scheidemann (SPD) declared just a republic. In the throes of their own revolution, the Russian Revolution loomed large. Ebert was at pains to consolidate the toppling of the Kaiser into a liberal democratic republic, and prevent a further ‘social revolution’ which he professed to ‘hate like sin.’ Rosa Luxemburg saw the inclusion of the liberal parties as proof that the SPD had become ‘lackeys of the bourgeoisie.’ The Spartacists aimed for social revolution, which included the expropriation of property from major businesses and land from the major estates. They pledged to not do so by force ‘except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian mass of all of Germany.’ The fight over the Great War was over, but the SPD and Spartacists seamlessly shifted to another binary struggle, whether to support or overthrow the liberal republic.

While the two parties had competing aims, they had wildly different resources to achieve them. As the largest pre-war party, the SPD had an established press organisation, leadership among the unions, clear hierarchical power structures within the party and leaders within the union movement throughout Germany. They did not seek to find common cause with their former left wing allies and instead used this power to present the Spartacists as the worst excesses of the Russian revolution. One SPD leaflet claimed they would “incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands.” The Spartacists on the other hand were a new and diverse coalition; a far left faction first within the SPD then the Independent Social Democrats (USPD – a wing of pacifist SPD members who had broken from the party in 1916) and by December 1918 a faction of the newly established Communist Party (KPD). They drew their strength from the demobilised soldiers and young people who flocked to their rallies hungry for action. A number of hardliners within the SPD advocated provoking these supporters and took the provocative step of attempting to remove their leftist choice of Berlin police chief. Pushed by the SPD and their radical supporters, Karl Liebknecht felt that waiting until the majority of the proletariat was on their side was untenable. When Spartacists called for rebellion on the 7th of January they could command 500,000 protestors but their lack of organisation meant they could only command a few thousand armed supporters scattered throughout Berlin.

Spartacist militia during the Berlin uprising, 1919
Spartacist militia during the Berlin uprising, 1919

 

The Spartacist uprising and its subsiquent defeat and murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919 (covered brilliantly by my colleague here) would make enemies of their rivals on the left. The SPD’s accommodation of big business, the army and liberal parties to establish the Weimar Republic left it with few friends to their left flank to support them politically against the Spartacists. Looking right, Ebert instead turned to the power of the army to crush the uprising. A combination of Free Corps (right wing militias) and regular army units were given the order and flooded into Berlin. Spartacist rebels occupying buildings were shelled into submission and then given no quarter as their leadership were sent scattering. Through likely torture of a confidant, the locations of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were revealed. Once the Free Corps had seized their enemies, they were never going to be allowed to leave alive. They were brutally murdered on the 16th of January, less than two weeks after the rebellion had begun. Ebert had managed to save his republic, but only by sacrificing his former comrades to anti-republican right wing militarists. Their blood would always stand between cooperation between Communists and Social Democrats.

The Weimar Republic was stained with the blood of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg
Soviet-zone stamp commemorating Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

 

1919 – 1923 Early KPD: ‘Theory of the offensive’ and the ‘United Front’

The destruction of the Spartacists further motivated the KPD to overthrow the Weimar system, but their righteous fury was not entirely shared by their voters. Many workers did not support further revolution, as shown by the Berlin union workers from AEG, Schwartzkopff and other factories who met in Humboldthain to call for an end to the Spartacist uprising, in favor of inter-left solidarity. Even after the uprising’s bloody end, the SPD base within the unionised workforce remained steadily behind them. Workers remained loyal to the party they had always voted for and in the 1919 Federal Elections the SPD had their best ever showing of nearly 38%. Despite this, the KPD were encouraged by the Comintern (the communist international organisation dominated and funded by Moscow) to attempt to follow a ‘theory of the offensive’, and wait for an opportunity to overthrow the government. One such opportunity came after they had combined with the USPD and SPD to defeat the Kapp Putsch in 1920. A 50,000 strong ‘Ruhr Red Army’ of KPD workers, having participated in the general strike, refused to demobilise which led to Ebert again calling in the army. The Ruhr uprising was followed the next year by the ‘March Action’, which featured an attempted general strike and several uprisings throughout the country. These local movements lacked national support to bring about revolution and were again crushed by the army. Voters did not respond well to what many saw as attempted coups. The 1921 ‘March Action’ particularly damaged their reputation and cost the party nearly half of its supporters in a matter of months.

Walter Rathenau was the Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic
Demonstrators in front of the Reichstag following Walter Rathenau’s murder. | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00099 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

Fearing a further erosion of support, the KPD shifted away from the ‘theory of the offensive’ towards a ‘united front’ policy seeking inter-left solidarity. The two years between 1921-23 and a brief moment in 1926 saw the golden period of cooperation between the members of the communists and social democrats. This realignment was in part to increase their support but also a response to the increasing threat of right-wing terror, as paramilitary groups like the Organisation Consul assassinated over 350 opponents in the early Weimar period. Their 1922 murder of foreign minister Walter Rathenau prompted seething outrage and mobilisation of millions of republicans and leftists who rallied throughout Germany to condemn the violence. The KPD led a push to unite with the SPD and USPD to protect the republic against rightist terror, which was labeled the ‘Berlin Agreement’. Furthermore, the KPD was able to influence many SPD members to support the 1926 referendum to expropriate the nobilities’ land without compensation (reminiscent of the contemporary Deutsche Wohnung enteignen campaign). The SPD leadership were sceptical, but were pushed to support the movement by the popularity of the idea with their supporters. The referendum gathered 14.5 million votes but fell a few million votes short of succeeding. This initiative and the Berlin Agreement demonstrated that even after the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, a policy of inter-left cooperation was effective at mobilising for common goals and against shared enemies. Unfortunately, this was a brief phase and changes within the Communist Party would undermine further coalitions.

1924 -25 The rise of ‘Social Facism’

The Communist Party of Germany was born in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and as such, was always heavily influenced and funded by the Soviet Union. With Lenin’s death in 1924, however, it increasingly came under the iron grip of Joseph Stalin. The Comintern had always encouraged world revolution, but was transformed into a tool for Soviet Union foreign policy goals. From 1925, Stalin was concerned with the Weimar Republic’s financial reliance and closer ties with the capitalist West. He purged intellectuals from the ‘right’ faction of the KPD who proposed solidarity with the SPD in favor of leaders who would shift course with Stalin’s whims. The former dock worker turned firebrand communist organiser, Ernst Thälmann was such a man.

Ernst Thälmann monument located in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.
Ernst Thälmann monument located in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. | CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Thälmann became party secretary in 1925, and hardened the rhetoric against the SPD who he labeled ‘social fascists’ at every opportunity. He took his cues from the Comintern’s 1924 assertion that: ‘fascism and social democracy are two sides of the same instrument of big capitalist dictatorship’. This was more than a rhetorical shift. In the 1925 second Presidential Election (following the death of Friedrich Ebert), the pro-Weimar Parties decided to unite behind the Christian Centre candidate Wilhelm Marx against the rightist monarchist, general Paul von Hindenburg. The right faction within the KPD counseled that they should not run a candidate in order to not split the left wing vote. However Thälmann overruled them and decided to stand for election, winning 2 million votes. Wilhelm Marx was therefore denied the KPD support, and lost to Hindenburg by a margin of 750,000 votes. Thälmann’s equivalence between social democracy and fascism meant that he did not see the danger in handing the Weimar Presidency to a militarist who would eventually give the keys of power to Adolf Hitler.

1929 – 1933 NSDAP Rising: The approaching storm

As the storm of Great Depression would begin to sink the Weimar Republic, and the monster of National Socialists (NSDAP) would emerge, and the divisions within the left would deepen. The NSDAP made a sudden re-entry into politics in the 1930 elections when they took 18% of the vote and from then on they would (almost) always increase this share. Their popularity led to thousands joining their SA militia as they sought battle with their enemies on the left. Ernst Thälmann was energised by the street battles against the Nazis on one hand, whilst on the other sharing their aims of bringing down the Weimar Republic. They formed a voting block with the NSDAP to bring down the SPD Prussian state government and a motion of no confidence against Heinrich Brüning, two decisions that greatly favored the Nazis. Thälmann assumed that the Nazi toppling of the republic would usher his party to power. As he said in 1932: “Hitler must come to power first, then the requirements for a revolutionary crisis [will] arrive more quickly.” It was comments like this that led some in the SPD to treat communists and Nazis with equivalence. Leader Otto Wels declared in 1931 “Bolshevism and fascism are brothers. They are based upon violence, upon dictatorship, even if they may still appear socialist and radical.” The SPD attempted to thwart the Nazis by working with any democratic parties in the Reichstag, but as more anti-republicans were elected, their choice of potential allies declined. This led to the strange proposition of supporting the candidacy of Hindenburg (the lesser evil) against Adolf Hitler in the 1932 presidential election. Intransigence on both sides meant concentrating on the wrong foe, all while the right grew in strength.

Weimar Republic Presidential Elections of 1932
Presidential Elections of 1932 | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13355 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

With the depression worsening in 1932 and the system fraying under an endless round of elections, the left had one last chance to resist before their destruction. An ‘Urgent Call for Unity’ was demanded in a letter by public intellectuals including prominent artist Käthe Kollwitz, and writer Heinrich Mann calling for a ‘united front’ within the KPD and SPD. Communists from outside the Comintern supported this view, such as exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who called for ‘a comprehensive and systematic general offensive’, asserting that Thälmann’s ‘united front from below’ (grassroots action with SPD voters but not the party) was not enough to resist fascism. Within the SPD, there was growing panic with the situation. Friedrich Stampfer, a member of the executive committee and previous anti-communist, began to advocate for a common front. He attempted to go straight to the source of political power and carry out negotiations with Soviet Ambassador Chintschuk, aiming to normalize relations with the KPD. However they came to nought. There was one massive roadblock preventing a final, last ditch defense against Fascism; the intransigence of Joseph Stalin. According to historian Robert C. Tucker, Stalin viewed the SPD’s foreign policy preference for Britain and France as a larger threat to the Soviet Union than a potential fascist Germany. He was the architect of the KPD’s aloofness to an alliance. This decision would be a massive blunder in the short term, with the complete annihilation of the KPD, and in the medium term, when Hiter’s armies came close to doing the same to the Soviet Union. When Thälmann finally opened his eyes to the threat of fascism it was too late. KPD leadership penned an open letter to mobilise with the SPD on the 27th of February 1933. The next day the Reichstag would burn and within a week the majority of these men would be in concentration camps or exile.

The strength of the Fascist movement in the 1930s was such that their eventual victory even at the time seemed inevitable. Inter-left solidarity was a slim hope but it was all they had. The leadership of the SPD can be held mostly responsible for turning a factional rivalry into a heated feud, when they provoked and then violently ended the Spartacist uprising. It was the influence of the Comintern on the KPD, however, which made any practical healing of this rift impossible. Stalin made a calculated trade-off; destroy the Capitalist Weimar Republic in exchange for sacrificing the KPD to the nascent Nazi state. There are contemporary parallels that can be drawn from this sorry history. We live in an age of growing authoritarianism and unprecedented economic and ecological challenges and yet building political coalitions has rarely been more elusive. An intensive focus on personal and ideological differences often means we are unable to see common goals and combat mutual threats. The communist and social democrat rivalry is one of the many examples of just how ruinous this can be.

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Campbell Bews

This Berlin Long Read was written by BBS Member Campbell Bews.

Visit hie profile using the link about to learn more about him and the tours he offers.

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Bibliography:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/14.htm

https://web.archive.org/web/20110718232941/http://www.ebert-gedenkstaette.de/ebert_leben1918.html

Bois, Marcel ‘March separately, but strike together!’ the communist party’s united-front policy in the Weimar Republic

Boes, Tobias.Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy

Broue, Piere The German Revolution 1917 -23

Hett, Benjamin Carter The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic

Lemmons, Russel Hitler’s Rival: Ernst Thälmann in Myth and Memory Hardcover – Illustrated, March 1, 2013

Smaldone, William Confronting Hitler: German Social Democrats in Defense of the Weimar Republic

Tucker, Robert C, Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941

Joachim Neumann talks Tunnel 57 with BBS members

Berlin Wall Memorial by David Montero
Berlin Wall Memorial | Photograph by David Montero

On Tuesday 18th May 2021, members of the Berlin Guides Association seized a very special opportunity: an online encounter with Joachim Neumann, a witness to the history of the Berlin Wall who took part in the building of several escape tunnels underneath it. In the 90-minute session, Neumann gave us a fascinating account of the challenges of the ‘conspiratorial’ activities, the moral implications and the tunnel-building itself.

After leaving East Germany with a ‘borrowed’ Swiss passport in late 1961, Neumann became part of a group of young people in West Berlin who dedicated much of their free time to helping other East Germans to escape from the GDR. They started out as just eight like-minded people, mostly close friends or relatives. The tunnels they built were improvised, narrow and often unstable. Neumann, being a student of civil engineering at Berlin’s Technical University, was in charge of planning & construction.

Joachim Neumann was involved in digging Tunnel 57
Tunnel 57 location marker | Photo by N-Lange CC BY-SA 3.0

Over 130m long, they went underneath the Berlin wall, the border fortifications and the restricted-access residential zones close-by. Many of the escape helpers had personal motives for digging up to 10m deep into the Berlin soil, like wanting to help friends who had stayed behind. In Neumann’s case it was his wife-to-be (who had been arrested and imprisoned for over a year in the GDR after her first failed escape attempt).

He managed to get her out, together with 56 other people through the famous “Tunnel 57”.

The escape helpers relied on a large informal support network, among them the messengers who had to get information to people in East Berlin waiting for a chance to escape. These couriers had to be foreigners or Germans from West Germany, as West Berliners were generally not allowed to visit the other part of the city in the 1960s.

In his later life as an engineer, Neumann specialised in this field of construction and was even involved in the building of the Channel Tunnel between England and France!

This meeting with Joachim Neumann, coordinated by Alazne Artetxe, was organised by Edo Schreuders from the Berlin Wall Memorial.

This piece was contributed by BBS Member Konstanze Deeters.

Learn more about organised escape assistance at riskingfreedom.de.

On This Day | 10 May 1933: The Nazi Book Burning on Opernplatz

Nazi book burning Berlin
Students gathered and burned 30,000 works | Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14597 / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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.

Magnus Hirschfeld's archives were destroyed in the book burning
Magnus Hirschfeld’s archives were destroyed in the book burning | The Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0

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.