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[When visiting the German-language sites below, I suggest using Google Chrome, or another web browser which allows for easy translation of German. And if you read only one thing from this post, it should be this.]
Germany… it’s a bit of a conundrum in Continental comics.
Smack dab in the middle of Europe, it gets a lot of comics imported from other countries, mostly from neighboring Belgium and France. It has a bit of a comics tradition, especially with “Sarkasmus”. Satirical and social commentary, usually featuring tricksters, has been a literary tradition of Germany since at least Til Eulenspiegel, and even the official comics museum in Hannover, Deutsches Museum für Karikatur und Zeichenkunst Wilhelm Busch, features as much emphasis on caricature and editorial cartoons as it does on comics.
Yet, with numerous outlets for comics for both children and adults (Micky Maus Magazin sold over a million copies weekly at its peak, and there are numerous comics aimed at adults), there haven’t been many notable comics produced until recently. However, with the rise of the Internet and the worldwide popularity of manga, coupled with American publishers acquiring titles which are then licensed worldwide, there is a vibrant comics scene in Germany, and many titles worthy of export.An interesting ripple… A lot of Germans speak and read English, as the two languages are closely related linguistically, and many students learn it early in school. It is not uncommon to walk into a German comics shop and see a wall full of the latest Wednesday comics imported from the U.S. (actually Diamond UK). Fans, regardless of nationality, hate to wait for the translation, and will read the comics in the original American. Does this impact the circulation of the licensed translations? Probably not… as with America, there seems to be two markets: comics shops aimed at collectors, newsstands aimed at the general reader. Generally, with the superhero soap opera comics, the German publisher will collect multiple issues into an omnibus-style magazine, either as a thick digest, or a slimmer square-bound magazine. (Click the Panini link below for examples.)
So, here’s a brief introduction, with a few suggestions for further exploration if you’re curious.
[Anyone have a list of German comics translated into English?]
Wer ist wem? (Who’s who)
Rupolphe Töpffer, from Geneva, Switzerland, is one of the forefathers of comics, creative during the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Writing originally in French, his influence spread to Germany and the United States. (The University Press of Mississippi has published two massive volumes on his work.)
Wilhelm Busch is the godfather of German comics. An illustrator and writer, he is best known for “Max und Moritz”, a cautionary tale of two scamps. (You can read an old English translation here.) His satirical poetry caused many an uproar, and he was censored for satirizing the hypocrisy of the Catholic church.
Dr. Erika Fuchs is the second-most influential person in German comics. From 1951 until retiring in 1988, she was the chief editor and translator of Disney comics in Germany. Her high standards and references to classical German texts gained her renown among Disney fans. Her use of verbs as onomatopoeia and soundless events (such as “shiver” or “gulp”) has influenced Internet chat dialogue in Germany, where the use of such terms (such as *runs away*) is known as Erikativ. (A detailed explanation for grammaticists, linguists, and Donaldists can be found here, with animated comparisons between the original English comics and German translations. Please note that Disney comics no longer use machine lettering.)
The biggest comics show in Germany is held in northern Bavaria: the International Comics Salon Erlangen. A biennial comics art festival, it is the German equivalent of Angoulême, although not yet as crowded. (2014 attendance: 25,000) They award the Max und Moritz Preis via a jury, with one audience-voted prize. The titles are international in scope, honoring both local cartoonists as well as translated works. (Read my recap of the 2012 show.)
Those are BUILDINGS. There are 11 total. And, no, it’s not the biggest in Germany.
The other big show? The Frankurt Book Fair. A massive publishing trade show, they allow the public in on the weekend. Since comics have always been popular, publishers and organizers know to schedule events to entice fans. They even host the German Cosplay championship! Of course, there’s also an award: the annual Deutsche Cartoonpreis.
Since 2006, the Frankfurt Book Fair and Carlsen Verlag have awarded the “German Cartoon Prize for new talent”. Since 2012 the “German Cartoon Prize” in categories A and B have been awarded.
“A” stands for cartoonists who have not yet published a book. “B” is for cartoonists who have already published at least one book.
In addition to the greater part of Wilhelm Busch’s complete artistic oeuvre, the German Museum for Caricature and Graphic Art in the George Garden in Hannover is home to a collection of more than 35.000 works by internationally celebrated representatives of the art of pictorial satire.
Among those represented are such great names from the past as Hogarth, Daumier, Grandville and Goya, as well as popular “modern classics” of the world of humour such as Ungerer, Sempé and Loriot. And of course, Wilhelm Busch simply can’t be left out.
Want to follow what’s going on NOW in German comics?
Carlsen Verlag, strong in German manga, but also strong in licensed and original work
Ehapa, owned by powerhouse Egmont. As with other Egmont houses throughout Europe, they publish, almost exclusively, licensed titles aimed at kids. That means Disney, Asterix, Lucky Luke, as well as other imports. (Jaw dropping fact: Micky Maus Magazin has a weekly circulation of 125,000, and a weekly readership of 623,000! 10.7% of kids ages 6-13! Of course, adults read it too! To put that into perspective… there are some 54 million kids age 5-17 in the U.S.! Imagine five million kids reading a comic book each week….)
Panini Comics Deutschland Once owned by Marvel in the 1990s, Panini is best known in the U.S. for their sticker albums. In Germany, they license just about every American comics title available.
Reprodukt is a publisher of literary graphic novels. If you flip through their catalogs, you’ll see the usual suspects. A very good list!
Avant Verlag is a general publisher, but has a very strong catalog of original German graphic novels, as well as imports.
Tokyopop [No! Really!] Apparently, Kodansha and Viz haven’t figured out the German market yet, so Tokyopop has the German licenses for Deathnote, Bleach, Hetalia… as well as publishing local talent.
“Fritz Haarmann, one of the most brutal serial killer in Europe, worked as an informant for the Hanover police. Night after night he roamed the waiting rooms of the station looking for young, unaccompanied men. With the help of his police identification card he could gain the trust of his victims. He led them to his apartment, raped them and with a sexual frenzy, bit them in the throat.” (One of the inspiration for “M”, and the subject of Fassbinder’s “The Tenderness of Wolves”.)
E. O. Plauen was a popular, and tragic, figure in German cartooning. A master of the silent cartoon, best known for Vater und Sohn, he was arrested by the Nazi regime in 1944 and committed suicide the day before his trial.
Comics in German have now made it into the mainstream of society. For this reason, more and more publishers are now showing an interest in the new forms of storytelling that are unique to this illustrated genre. Our selection demonstrates this with a wealth of new names, who represent a broad spectrum of both subject matter and graphical techniques. It was the term “graphic novel” that first broke the ice. Booksellers and readers alike expect that the comics listed under this heading will offer meaningful content as well as a wide diversity of styles. For instance, it is now just as common to see journalism in comic form as it is to find experimental design work in terms of page architecture or picture structure.
At the same time, an intriguing development can be seen with the rapid growth in the number of literary adaptations. This means comics are tapping into entirely new strata of readership.
They are now gaining some cachet among the sort of booklovers who would, until now, have been sceptical of the quality of their subject matter.
From fairy tales to novellas and novels, every literary genre now seems to provide a suitable challenge for the comics illustrator. Publishers such as Suhrkamp and Edition Büchergilde have even launched their own special comics series for adaptations of famous works.
German-language comics have therefore broken into a field that was hitherto covered only by foreign language publications. And new opportunities are emerging for illustrators, who for years have complained about the dearth of good stories. The enthusiastic reactions of readers and critics alike to the new works make it clear that the comic has now arrived in the German book market
I've been a fan of Erik Larson's riveting brand of narrative history for years, and his latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, is his finest work yet. Suspenseful and expertly researched, Dead Wake transports the reader to the Atlantic theatre of WWI, where the luxury passenger liner Lusitania and a German [...]
The recent attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the siege in Sydney, and the Canadian parliament attack have heightened fears of the type of home-grown security threats that had been realised earlier in the July 2005 London bombings. Looking to the future, security agencies and governments have warned grimly of battle hardened jihadists returning home from Middle Eastern and North African theatres of war. For better or worse, robust internal security, heightened surveillance, and preventative law enforcement targeting suspect individuals and communities have been presented as unavoidably necessary for democratic states the world over. But in searching for security, these liberal democracies are now confronted with difficult questions about how to provide public safety and state security within the framework of the rule of law. If there are enemies within, how can they be dealt with while still preserving the civil liberties and rights of all citizens? Can the state zero in on a particular segment of the population without actively and illegally discriminating against them? One particularly thorny issue is what to do about those returning from jihadist wars. Can they be stripped of their citizenship and barred from re-entering their old homeland? Is citizenship a privilege to be revoked at will, or does the state have a responsibility to all of its citizens, no matter how unsavoury? Do seemingly exceptional times permit legally exceptional measures?
While the reality of today’s terrorist violence has upped the stakes, these legal dilemmas are not new. Prior to World War I, European states also tussled with the dilemma of what to do with citizens they suspected of disloyal or treasonous intent. One of the central preoccupations of nineteenth century Germany, for example, was what to do with elements of the population viewed as internal enemies of the state, so-called Reichsfeinde. The communities coming under suspicion then might seem surprising today; Catholics, socialists, French, Danes, and Poles. Individuals from these groups who weren’t citizens were simply expelled from the country, but for those who had the rights of a citizen, the situation was far trickier. Germany prided itself on its reputation as a state governed by the rule of law, and the law explicitly forbade capricious measures like expelling citizens. How could a constitutional state find legal ways to put pressure on its internal enemies?
To deal with these domestic threats, German authorities had to be far more inventive, using a host of strictly speaking legal but nonetheless punitive measures to harass suspect populations. Irredentists Danes in the North with German citizenship were targeted for economic ruination; French-speaking Germans were shifted out of their jobs in the militarily sensitive railways of Alsace-Lorraine; Protestant German colonists were sent to dilute the Polish complexion of the east; Jesuits were banned from the Catholic Ruhr; and socialists were pushed out of Berlin, Hamburg, and Leipzig into the countryside. New laws were passed and existing laws were reinterpreted to allow for new repressive uses. The custodians of the German Rechtsstaat sought safety not by side-stepping the law, but by passing and enforcing coercive laws that affected broad segments of the population, in the hope that the actual targets of the laws would be amongst the number affected.
Did these rather blunt internal security measures work? No. In fact, all of this was highly counterproductive. The attitude of Germany’s Danes, Poles, and French towards the German state hardened after being targeted by these legal forms of oppression, while both the socialist and Catholic political milieux went from strength to strength as a result of the experience of being suppressed. Frustrated in particular by his lack of success against the socialists, Bismarck even sought to have their citizenship revoked in the hope of forcing a definitive reckoning with those he saw as dangerous revolutionaries. But this didn’t lead to the destruction of German socialism, but to Bismarck’s own political downfall. The German constitutional state, flexible enough to offer its own forms of legally sanctioned persecution, always baulked at attempts to use unlawful or exceptional measures, despite the air of crisis that surrounded them. Even the measures they did take did little except alienate the broader population.
In their willingness to use violence to pursue their political goals, the jihadists of today are unlike the perceived threats of nineteenth-century Germany. Yet the response of constitutional states bears a remarkable resemblance to these earlier measures. No rolling state of exception or martial law has been declared. Instead, new laws are passed and old ones have been retooled to deal with newly arising threats. Now, as then, the constitutional state, governed by law, has found its own ways to apply pressure to its domestic enemies. Bespoke law, some of it good, some of it horrifying, has stretched but has not severed the commitment to legal and constitutional limits. Warts and all, the liberal constitutional state has shown itself capable of mounting its own stiff defence.
Headline image credit: Security fence by cobalt123. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
by Janosch (NorthSouth, 2014; originally published 1965 in Switzerland as Das Apfelmänchenn.)
I love a good pen name, and Janosch has one. His real name is Horst Eckert, and he is one of Germany’s most beloved children’s book authors and illustrators. He was new to me until NorthSouth revived this classic in late 2014. I’m so glad they did.
This is Walter’s story. He was the poorest man in the entire kingdom and he only had one single apple tree. A strong and beautiful tree, a nice home for a solitary cardinal. But no fruit. No blossoms. No bending branches.
Walter wishes for an apple. Just one. And when you wish with all your might, things change.
And his wishes came true, as wishes sometimes do.
(click to enlarge)
The art is loose and fiery. Full of motion and an eery calm.
But I love how this book breathes.
A page of art, a page of text. A page of text, a page of art. The contrast between Walter’s colorful (and worrisome) world and the spare white space of the words sets a comforting rhythm to a familiar story.
And the apple grows. So Walter goes to the market.
(click to enlarge)
The very worst feeling in the whole world is when other people don’t believe in your wishes.
Walter loses interest in his apple and in his wishes and in his life.
Until the dragon comes to town.
(click to enlarge)
Here’s where the breathing hitches and the white space/art space tempo gives way to one glorious spread of Walter’s wish saving the kingdom. It’s startling and ridiculous and wonderful.
And after that, Walter was careful what he wished for.
By December 1914 the Great War had been raging for nearly five months. If anyone had really believed that it would be ‘all over by Christmas’ then it was clear that they had been cruelly mistaken. Soldiers in the trenches had gained a grudging respect for their opposite numbers. After all, they had managed to fight each other to a standstill.
On Christmas Eve there was a severe frost. From the perspective of the freezing-cold trenches the idea of the season of peace and goodwill seemed surrealistic. Yet parcels and Christmas gifts began to arrive in the trenches and there was a strange atmosphere in the air. Private William Quinton was watching:
We could see what looked like very small coloured lights. What was this? Was it some prearranged signal and the forerunner of an attack? We were very suspicious, when something even stranger happened. The Germans were actually singing! Not very loud, but there was no mistaking it. Suddenly, across the snow-clad No Man’s Land, a strong clear voice rang out, singing the opening lines of “Annie Laurie“. It was sung in perfect English and we were spellbound. To us it seemed that the war had suddenly stopped! Stopped to listen to this song from one of the enemy.
“We tied an empty sandbag up with its string and kicked it about on top – just to keep warm of course. We did not intermingle.”
On Christmas Day itself, in some sectors of the line, there was no doubting the underlying friendly intent. Yet the men that took the initiative in initiating a truce were brave – or foolish – as was witnessed by Sergeant Frederick Brown:
Sergeant Collins stood waist high above the trench waving a box of Woodbines above his head. German soldiers beckoned him over, and Collins got out and walked halfway towards them, in turn beckoning someone to come and take the gift. However, they called out, “Prisoner!” A shot rang out, and he staggered back, shot through the chest. I can still hear his cries, “Oh my God, they have shot me!”
This was not a unique incident. Yet, despite the obvious risks, men were still tempted. Individuals would get off the trench, then dive back in, gradually becoming bolder as Private George Ashurst recalled:
It was grand, you could stretch your legs and run about on the hard surface. We tied an empty sandbag up with its string and kicked it about on top – just to keep warm of course. We did not intermingle. Part way through we were all playing football. It was so pleasant to get out of that trench from between them two walls of clay and walk and run about – it was heaven.
The idea that football matches were played between the British and Germans in No Man’s Land has taken a grip, but the evidence is intangible.
The truce was not planned or controlled – it just happened. Even senior officers recognised that there was little that could be done in this strange state of affairs. Brigadier General Lord Edward Gleichen accepted the truce as a fait accompli, but was keen to ensure that the Germans did not get too close to the ramshackle British trenches:
They came out of their trenches and walked across unarmed, with boxes of cigars and seasonable remarks. What were our men to do? Shoot? You could not shoot unarmed men. Let them come? You could not let them come into your trenches; so the only thing feasible was done – and our men met them half-way and began talking to them. Meanwhile our officers got excellent close views of the German trenches.
Another practical reason for embracing the truce was the opportunity it presented for burying the dead that littered No Man’s Land. Private Henry Williamson was assigned to a burial party:
The Germans started burying their dead which had frozen hard. Little crosses of ration box wood nailed together and marked in indelible pencil. They were putting in German, ‘For Fatherland and Freedom!’ I said to a German, “Excuse me, but how can you be fighting for freedom? You started the war, and we are fighting for freedom!” He said, “Excuse me English comrade, but we are fighting for freedom for our country!”
It should be noted that the truce was by no means universal, particularly where the British were facing Prussian units.
For the vast majority of the participants, the truce was a matter of convenience and maudlin sentiment. It did not mark some deep flowering of the human spirit, or signify political anti-war emotions taking root amongst the ranks. The truce simply enabled them to celebrate Christmas in a freer, more jovial, and, above all, safer environment, while satisfying their rampant curiosity about their enemies.
The truce could not last: it was a break from reality, not the dawn of a peaceful world. The gradual end mirrored the start, for any misunderstandings could cost lives amongst the unwary. For Captain Charles Stockwell it was handled with a consummate courtesy:
At 8.30am I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with ‘Merry Christmas!’ on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He put up a sheet with, ‘Thank you’ on it, and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches – he fired two shots in the air and the war was on again!
In other sectors, the artillery behind the lines opened up and the bursting shells soon shattered the truce.
War regained its grip on the whole of the British sector. When it came to it, the troops went back to war willingly enough. Many would indeed have rejoiced at the end of the war, but they were still willing to accept orders, still willing to kill Germans. Nothing had changed.
When young Ruthie finds a tattered prayer book in a box of old photographs marked Germany in her grandmother's house, she gets quite a surprise. The prayer book in written in Hebrew and German and had apparently been burned. Even more surprising - her grandmother tells Ruthie that the book came from Germany and it belongs to her father.
When Ruthie asks her dad about it, he tells her that he was born and lived a happy life in Hamburg with his family, and with lots of cousins and friends. But, when the Nazis took over the government in 1933, all that changed. Soon, Jews weren't allowed in restaurants, movie theaters, libraries, schools. Old friends became instant bullies.
Then, in November 1938, Nazis began a night of destruction, Kristallnacht, destroying Jewish business and synagogues, setting them on fire. When Ruthie's dad saw what was left of his synagogue, he also saw burnt prayer books all over. He reached for one and hid it in his coat - a reminder of the place where he had once been so happy.
One day, while he and his father were in a shop, Nazis came down the road probably to arrest the men. Ruthie's Grandpa slipped out the back door, while her dad ran home to tell his mother what happened. Days later, Grandpa came back home and told his family he had to leave, sailing for America with his son Fred.
Every night, her dad opened his burnt, tattered prayer book and prayed. Finally, in June 1939, visas arrived for Ruthie's dad, mother and brother Sid. Other friends and family members were leaving Germany, too, for Argentina and Israel. Others, sadly, had to remain in Germany.
On board the ship, after the Sabbath candles were lit, Ruthie's dad showed the prayer book to his mother, expecting her to be angry, but she wanted it to be a reminder of the good life they had had in Germany and a source of strength for the future.
Recalling what happened so long ago in his life in Germany, after making such an effort to forget it all, Ruthie's father realizes how important that burnt, tattered prayer book had been to him and how much what it symbolized is an important part of himself.
The burnt prayer book is a symbol of both the happy, good life Ruthie's dad and his family shared before the Nazis came to power, and at the same time, the terrible years that followed.
Often, when we talk about the Holocaust, it is about the mass roundups of Jews, the death camps they were sent to, and the attempt to systematically destroy an entire race of people. But nothing happens in a vacuum and neither did the Holocaust. Between the years 1933 and 1938, Jews were subject to all kinds of degrading treatment by Hitler's henchman in the SA and the SS, and by ordinary citizens who turned their backs on friends overnight.
In The Tattered Prayer Book, Ellen Bari has written an informative, but gentle picture book for older readers (age 7+) about those deplorable years in a way that kids will definitely understand. It is an ideal book for parents who wish to introduce their children about the Holocaust themselves before they learn about it in school. Teachers, however, will also find it to be an excellent book for teaching the Holocaust, as well.
The illustrations by Avi Katz are done in sepia-tones that are reminiscent of old photographs and burnt paper, again reflecting that balance of good and bad times that the prayer book represents.
This book is recommended for readers age 7+
This book was sent to me by the publisher
Ever since the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch in which her father sacrificed his life to save Adolf Hitler from the bullet meant to kill him, Gretchen Müller and her family have enjoyed a special place in Hitler's world. But now, in 1931, Gretchen, 17, has had the seeds of doubt about her father's sacrifice planted in her mind by none other than a Jewish reporter for the Munich Post, Daniel Cohen. Handsome and not much older that Gretchen, Daniel claims that Herr Müller's death was intentional and not only that, but was done by a fellow Nazi Party member.
And it looks like Daniel Cohen may be right - the powder burns and bullet hole on the back of her father's shirt certainly seem to support the idea that Herr Müller was shot in the back. But who and why would someone do such a thing to a man who was always so loyal to Hitler?
That's the mystery that Gretchen needs to solve and the only one who can help her is Daniel Cohen. Now Gretchen must overcome her ingrained aversion to Jews. She had always believed Hitler when he said that Jews were subhuman, but Daniel seems to be anything but.
Solving the mystery of her father's death won't be easy for Gretchen. First, there is her older brother Reinhard, a psychopath who has found an outlet for his sadistic behavior as one of Hitler's Brownshirts. Reinhard loves nothing more than going out "Jew hunting" and delights in torturing his sister. When Reinhard makes her pay for snooping in his room, Gretchen soon discovers that she has no one she can turn to. Her mother is terrified of Reinhard, yet lives in a state of denial about what he is. Then there are Gretchen's best friends, Eva Braun and Hitler's half niece Geli (Angela) Raubel, both appearing to be as loyal to Hitler as everyone else that surrounds him and neither willing to interfere on Gretchen's behalf. When even Uncle Dolf, as she has always called Hitler, also turns his back on her, Gretchen begins to question everything she has always believed.
As Gretchen comes to rely on and trust Daniel Cohen, and as Daniel begins to see the real young woman behind the Nazi facade that Gretchen must wear in public, they find themselves attracted more and more to each other. But Gretchen and Daniel also discover just how ruthless Hitler's quest for power is and why solving the mystery of Herr Müller's death may become a question of life or death for both of them.
I have been of two minds about Prisoner of Night and Fog ever since I finished it. It is a tension filled novel, that at times had my heart pounding. The last days of the Weimar Republic were filled with hunger, inflation, unemployment, and political violence as communists and SA clashes increased. Anne Blankman spares not punches when it comes to describing this aspect of in the book. Reinhard and the other Brownshirts who appear in this story are probably the most true to life characters in term of their actions and Blankman even throws in the real-life figure of Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA, and every bit as zealous in going after Hitler's enemies as Reinhard. But…
I found the plot to be weak and unfocused at times, and too often I felt like I was reading a history book instead of a novel. It was slow going a lot, followed by what should have been nail-biting tension if only I had cared more about Gretchen.
Gretchen has everything going for her as a character. She is a strong young woman, somewhat independent, or as much as one could be as part of Hitler's inner circle of admirers, and open to changing her ideas about things even if reluctantly at times, but somehow she just is cut it.
So, maybe I didn't care about her or anyone else in the book because I felt the characters didn't have much dimension. It was like I was told admirable or deplorable things about the characters, but I just never felt them to really be there. Even Hitler spoke more in slogans that dialogue. It was like a cardboard cutout was substituted for the real character. Even that fact that he also came across as lusting for Gretchen, Eva Braun and Geli Raubel didn't feel real. Maybe because most scholars believe he was asexual. Reinhard was a good picture of a Brownshirts, but also completely lacks depth and personality.
Blankman introduces us to something called Cell G, a kind of early Nazi death squad. I have never heard of Cell G before, but it was apparently the subject of an exposé that appeared in the real Munich Post in April 1932. In fact, she seems to have relied heavily on a book by Ron Rosenbaum called Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil published in 1998, especially for information about Cell G. In her Author's Note, Blankman refers her readers to this book, and even includes a pretty good bibliography.
But the thing that really annoyed me was the term night and fog.' On pages 175-181, it seems to be equated with the idea of Jewish extermination. But the term has nothing to do with the fate of German Jews and I thought this too misleading to ignore. It came into use in 1941 with the passage of the Night and Fog Decree. Its purpose was the disappearance without a trace of any resisters or saboteurs in the occupied countries. Blankman is, however, correct in associating the term night and fog with the poem "Der Erlkönig" by Goethe.
Deapite all this, at the end of the day, I would still recommend this book to anyone who really likes historical fiction, if for no other reason than because there are not many books written about these last days of what was called the Kampfzeit, or the Nazi time of struggle to gain power. You do get a sense of what it was like in 1931 and Blankman includes a number of figures like Rudolf Hess and Ernst Hanfstaengl who really were part of the Hitler entourage. Nazi headquarters really was in the Braunes Haus, where Gretchen worked for Hanfstaengle.
This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was borrowed from a friend
Today is the conclusion of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and our highlights about the final four competing nations with information pulled right from the pages of the latest edition of Oxford’s Atlas of the World. The final two teams, Germany and Argentina, go head-to-head on Sunday, 13 July to determine the champion.
Like many of its European neighbors, Germany is a country that loves football, and is one of the most competitive football-playing nations in the world. Attesting to that is their success in the semi-finals in this year’s Cup. Here are eight interesting facts you might not have known about the country that bruised Brazil’s ego.
Like FIFA host country Brazil, Germany also elected its first female leader in recent years when Angela Merkel became Chancellor in 2005.
In addition to bringing mankind the likes of Albert Einstein and Johan Gutenberg, inventor of the first printing press in Europe, Germany provides 20.6% of the world’s motor vehicles and 17% of our pharmaceuticals.
Uranium was first discovered by a German chemist, Markin Klaproth, in 1789 and boasts the fourth largest industrial output (from mining, manufacturing, construction, and energy) in the world.
Germany had a rough go of things for a while after World War II with its division into East and West factions, as well as the Cold War. The two were reunited on 3 October 1990 and adopted West Germany’s official name, the Federal Republic of Germany.
Deutschland is a leading member of the European Union as well as the 17-member Eurozone, the economic and monetary union of nations that utilize the Euro as their sole form of currency.
In terms of religion, Germany is mostly a Protestant and Roman Catholic country with a representation of 34% of the population.
Although a leading producer of nuclear power (Germany ranks sixth in the world for 4.1% of global production), following the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the country has begun phasing out its nuclear power production.
Germany is a primary refugee destination, ranking first in Europe and fourth in the world after Pakistan, Iran, and Syria.
Oxford’s Atlas of the World — the only world atlas updated annually, guaranteeing that users will find the most current geographic information — is the most authoritative resource on the market. The milestone Twentieth Edition is full of crisp, clear cartography of urban areas and virtually uninhabited landscapes around the globe, maps of cities and regions at carefully selected scales that give a striking view of the Earth’s surface, and the most up-to-date census information. The acclaimed resource is not only the best-selling volume of its size and price, but also the benchmark by which all other atlases are measured.
We became pretty solid soccer fans while living in Germany, especially around World Cup time, so on our recent return trip, we were psyched to watch games with our German friends.
For the U.S. v. Germany game, though, we were on our own in France. We planned the whole evening around the game, which aired at 6 p.m. in that time zone.
It was also the only night we could eat at the local Michelin-starred restaurant—and the night they serve a very reasonable prix-fixe menu. So we made a late reservation to fit in both, planning to watch the game at our B & B.
One big problem. After the pre-game commentator chatter, the screen went blank with a message that said something like: “This game is not authorized to be shown in this region.” We flipped around, hoping another station would carry it, but the only game on was the other World Cup match happening at the same time.
Luckily, we were staying right near the German border, so I took a 3 minute shower, hopped into a dress, and we loaded up and drove to the ferry to cross the Rhine. On the other side, my husband knocked on restaurant doors until we found one with public viewing in its little bar area.
The one long table was full of retiree-aged tennis table club members, and the only free seats were at the front with a mustachioed man who’d already had a few too many beers.
He was friendly, though, and when he found out we were American, he told us over and over how much he loved Americans and how the best possible outcome for the game would be a 1-1 tie. He reminded us many times (a few too many) that the German coach and the American team coach (also German) were best friends and how they would both want this.
If you were watching, too, you know the Americans actually lost 0-1. We were disappointed, but after the game, everyone (except the kids) was treated to house-made pear Schnapps while the table tennis team sang the German victory song (is there a name for this?). Everyone was very friendly, and when it was over, we thanked our hosts and dashed back across the river to make our 8:30 reservation.
The restaurant was lovely, with a view to a garden and a stream. The noise level was nearly silent, but our kids were completely awesome and went with the flow.
We opted for the prix-fixe menu and added on the “Festival of Desserts,” which sounded perfect. We envisioned a dessert sampler.
First course (salad above) was great, second course (some kind of meat pie) was amazing. Meanwhile the service was first-rate. Our hostess made sure to graciously inform us when we were missing something, i.e. “You can actually eat those flowers,” and, “Those table decorations are actually pretzels” (in the first photo, the rock-looking things behind the ceramic elves).
Here’s the cheese table, from which we could choose what we liked.
And then the desserts started. First, a platter of teeny tiny cookies of many kinds. Then, a pastry with gelato. Another pastry with gelato. Another….we were losing count.
Surely the cookies had counted as dessert #1. There were supposed to be five desserts in total. Surely the gelato counted for one and the pastry counted for another, right? Wrong. The desserts kept coming, and we slowed down so much that we started getting two at once. The cookies hadn’t even counted as part of the five.
Not only that, but the kids had gotten (included) a dessert of their own, so they couldn’t help us out so much. Still, we were determined to do our duty and eat every bite. On top of the five desserts + cookies + cheese course, there was a tiny truffle course where we could choose our own adventure. How could we say no?
At one point I said, “If they bring another dessert, I’m going to cry,” and we all started laughing, on the verge of breaking the Code of Near-Silence.
Finally we ate our way through the last plate, now having finished enough dessert for about ten people. The last plate was probably my favorite, some kind of cherry cake (pictured above). We rolled out, giggling to ourselves.
My son said the other day, “Let’s never take the circus of desserts next time.” Amen. Maybe just 1/10 of it.
Below is a picture of one of the children’s desserts.
And in case you’re wondering yes, I threw the whole gluten-free eating thing out the window that week. I paid for it the next week, but it was well worth it!
In the first autumn of World War I, a German infantryman from the 25th Reserve Division sent this pithy greeting to his children in Schwarzenberg, Saxony.
11 November 1914
My dear little children!
How are you doing? Listen to your mother and grandmother and mind your manners.
Heartfelt greetings to all of you!
Your loving Papa
He scrawled the message in looping script on the back of a Feldpostkarte, or field postcard, one that had been designed for the Bahlsen cookie company by the German artist and illustrator Änne Koken. On the front side of the postcard, four smiling German soldiers share a box of Leibniz butter cookies as they stand on a grassy, sun-stippled outpost. The warm yellow pigment of the rectangular sweets seems to emanate from the opened care package, flushing the cheeks of the assembled soldiers with a rosy tint.
German citizens posted an average of nearly 10 million pieces of mail to the front during each day of World War I, and German service members sent over 6 million pieces in return; postcards comprised well over half of these items of correspondence. For active duty soldiers, postage was free of charge. Postcards thus formed a central and a portable component of wartime visual culture, a network of images in which patriotic, sentimental, and nationalistic postcards formed the dominant narrative — with key moments of resistance dispatched from artists and amateurs serving at the front.
The first postcards were permitted by the Austrian postal service in 1869 and in Germany one year later. (The Post Office Act of 1870 allowed for the first postcards to be sold in Great Britain; the United States followed suit in 1873.) Over the next four decades, Germany emerged as a leader in the design and printing of colorful picture postcards, which ranged from picturesque landscapes to tinted photographs of famous monuments and landmarks. Many of the earliest propaganda postcards, at the turn of the twentieth century, reproduced cartoons and caricatures from popular German humor magazines such as Simplicissimus, a politically progressive journal that moved toward an increasingly reactionary position during and after World War I. Indeed, the majority of postcards produced and exchanged between 1914 and 1918 adopted a sentimental style that matched the so-called “hurrah kitsch” of German official propaganda.
Beginning in 1914, the German artist and Karlsruhe Academy professor Walter Georgi produced 24 patriotic Feldpostkarten for the Bahlsen cookie company in Hannover. In a postcard titled Engineers Building a Bridge (1915), a pair of strong-armed sappers set to work on a wooden trestle while a packet of Leibniz butter cookies dangle conspicuously alongside their work boots.
These engineering troops prepared the German military for the more static form of combat that followed the “Race to the Sea” in the fall of 1914; they dug and fortified trenches and bunkers, built bridges, and developed and tested new weapons — from mines and hand grenades to flamethrowers and, eventually, poison gas.
Georgi’s postcard designs for the Bahlsen company deploy the elegant color lithography he had practiced as a frequent contributor to the Munich Art Nouveau journal Jugend (see Die Scholle).In another Bahlsen postcard titled “Hold Out in the Roaring Storm” (1914), Georgi depicted a group of soldiers wearing the distinctive spiked helmets of the Prussian Army. Their leader calls out to his comrades with an open mouth, a rifle slung over his shoulder, and a square package of Leibniz Keks looped through his pinkie finger. In a curious touch that is typical of First World War German patriotic postcards, both the long-barreled rifles and the soldier’s helmets are festooned with puffy pink and carmine flowers.
These lavishly illustrated field postcards, designed by artists and produced for private industry, could be purchased throughout Germany and mailed, traded, or collected in albums to express solidarity with loved ones in active duty. The German government also issued non-pictorial Feldpostkarten to its soldiers as an alternate and officially sanctioned means of communication. For artists serving at the front, these 4” x 6” blank cards provided a cheap and ready testing ground at a time when sketchbooks and other materials were in short supply. The German painter Otto Schubert dispatched scores of elegant watercolor sketches from sites along the Western Front; Otto Dix, likewise, sent hundreds of illustrated field postcards to Helene Jakob, the Dresden telephone operator he referred to as his “like-minded companion,” between June 1915 and September 1918. These sketches (see Rüdiger, Ulrike, ed. Grüsse aus dem Krieg: die Feldpostkarten der Otto-Dix-Sammlung in der Kunstgalerie Gera, Kunstgalerie Gera 1991) convey details both minute and panoramic, from the crowded trenches to the ruined fields and landmarks of France and Belgium. Often, their flip sides contain short greetings or cryptic lines of poetry written in both German and Esperanto.
Dix enlisted for service in 1914 and saw front line action during the Battle of the Somme, in August 1916, one of the largest and costliest offensives of World War I that spanned nearly five months and resulted in casualties numbering more than one million. By September of 1918, the artist had been promoted to staff sergeant and was recovering from injuries at a field hospital near the Western Front. He sent one of his final postcard greetings to Helene Jakob on the reverse side of a self-portrait photograph, in which he stands with visibly bandaged legs and one hand resting on his hip. Dix begins the greeting in Esperanto, but quickly shifts to German to report on his condition: “I’ve been released from the hospital but remain here until the 28th on a course of duty. I’m sending you a photograph, though not an especially good one. Heartfelt greetings, your Dix.” Just two months later, the First World War ended in German defeat.
Life is pretty comfortable for Gabriella Schramm, 13, called Gaby by friends and family. Living in 1932 Berlin, her upper middle class family is better off than most Germans at the time. Her father is a renowned scientist, teaching astronomy at the University, and is friends with Albert Einstein. Her mother, an former pianist who gives lessons at home now, hob nobs with Baba, a well-respected Jewish society columnist for the only newspaper in Berlin that isn't pro-Nazi. Gaby's older sister, Ulla, is scheduled to begin studying at a conservatory in Vienna next year. And Gaby, who loves to read anything she can get her hands on, including Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Mark Twain and my personal favorites Rainer Maria Remarque and Erich Kästner, is looking forward to reading Heinrich Heine's poetry in Gymnasium after summer vacation.
But things are beginning to change, both within Gaby's family and all over Germany. First, Ulla insists on remaining in Berlin for the summer instead of going to the family's lakeside vacation home, claiming she has a bookkeeping job at the cabaret where her boyfriend Karl, an engineering student, works. But when Karl and Ulla come to visit, Gaby begins to suspect that Karl is a Nazi supporter. She had already suspected the same thing of the family housekeeper, Hertha and the man who maintains their Berlin apartment building. In fact, Gaby has noticed a significant increase in the number of Brown Shirts (SA) and Black Shirts (SS) all over Berlin despite the ban on them.
Back in school after vacation, Gaby and her best friend Rosa are overjoyed to begin studying literature with the very beautiful, kind, well-dressed Frau Hofstadt, who is picked up everyday by a mysterious limousine. But, at home, the talk is more and more about the political situation, which in 1932 is all over the place, though everyone is relieved when the Nazis loose seats in the Reichstag (Parliament), hoping that that will be an end to Hitler and his Nazi party.
But that's not what happens at all and through all kinds of twists and turns, Hitler is named Chancellor by President Hindenburg at the end of January 1933. And with amazing speed, Gaby watches her previously safe, happy world fall completely to pieces.
The period 1919-1933 was such a complicated time in German history and politics. The Nazis referred to it as the Kampfzeit, the time of struggle to gain acceptance and power for their radical policies. Lasky covers only 1932-1933 in Ashes and kudos to her for successfully tackling it in a novel for young readers. There is lots of talk about events that actually happened, and Lasky provides enough information to understand it without overwhelming or boring the reader.
Ashes is a well-written novel, and although it is a little slow in places, given the time and place of the action, it is indeed a worthwhile read. I particularly loved that each chapter begins with a quote from a book Gaby loves and which foreshadows what happens in that chapter. And since Gaby witnesses the Nazi book burning on May 10, 1933, it is all the more poignant a reminder of some of what was lost in that tragic event.
The novel is told from Gaby's point of view, which gives us her very subjective, but very astute observation, not only of what is happening around her, but how she thinks and feels about it all, A fine example of that is when she witnesses her former math teacher, Herr Berg, being removed from her school by the Nazis for being Jewish, and disappears. The reader feels her shock, disgust, sadness and despair all at the same time.
Some of the scenes may feel a little cliche and I am not the first person to realize that Karl resembles Lisle's Hitler Youth boyfriend from The Sound of Music, and that there is a scene similar to one in Cabaret, in which everyone in an outdoor Biergarten joins a Hitler Youth in singing a Nazi song. But, these scenes also make a necessary point (and people have traditionally joined in singing in Biergartens in Germany, it wasn't just a Nazi thing to show support).
Ashes is a nice contribution to the body of Holocaust and World War II literature and on its own, a very interesting book about a very complex time made accessible by good research and skillful writing.
This book is recommended for readers age 11+
This book was purchased for my personal library
One hundred years ago today, far from the erupting battlefields of Europe, a small German force in the city of Tsingtau (Qingdao), Germany’s most important possession in China, was preparing for an impending siege. The small fishing village of Qingdao and the surrounding area had been reluctantly leased to the German Empire by the Chinese government for 99 years in 1898, and German colonists soon set about transforming this minor outpost into a vibrant city boasting many of the comforts of home, including the forerunner of the now-famous Tsingtao Brewery. By 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region. Given its further role as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy, however, Qingdao was unable to avoid becoming caught up in the faraway European war.
The forces that besieged Qingdao in the autumn of 1914 were composed of troops from Britain and Japan, the latter entering the war against Germany in accord with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Alliance had been agreed in 1902 amid growing anxiety in Britain regarding its interests in East Asia, and rapidly modernizing Japan was seen as a useful ally in the region. For Japanese leaders, the signing of such an agreement with the most powerful empire of the day was seen as a major diplomatic accomplishment and an acknowledgement of Japan’s arrival as one of the world’s great powers. More immediately, the Alliance effectively guaranteed the neutrality of third parties in Japan’s looming war with Russia, and Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sent shockwaves across the globe as the first defeat of a great European empire by a non-Western country in a conventional modern war.
In Britain, Japan’s victory was celebrated as a confirmation of the strength of its Asian ally, and represented the peak of a fascination with Japan in Britain that marked the first decade of the twentieth century. This culminated in the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition in London, which saw over eight million visitors pass through during its six-month tenure. In contrast, before the 1890s, Japan had been portrayed in Britain primarily as a relatively backward yet culturally interesting nation, with artists and intellectuals displaying considerable interest in Japanese art and literature. Japan’s importance as a military force was first recognized during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and especially from the time of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan’s military prowess was popularly attributed to a supposedly ancient warrior spirit that was embodied in ‘bushido’, or the ‘way of the samurai’.
The ‘bushido’ ideal was popularized around the world especially through the prominent Japanese educator Nitobe Inazo’s (1862-1933) book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which was originally published in English in 1900 and achieved global bestseller status around the time of the Russo-Japanese War (a Japanese translation first appeared in 1908). The British public took a positive view towards the ‘national spirit’ of its ally, and many saw Japan as a model for curing perceived social ills. Fabian Socialists such as Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) and Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) lauded the supposed collectivism of ‘bushido’, while Alfred Stead (1877-1933) and other promoters of the Efficiency Movement celebrated Japan’s rapid modernization. For his part, H.G. Wells 1905 novel A Modern Utopia included a ‘voluntary nobility’ called ‘samurai,’ who guided society from atop a governing structure that he compared to Plato’s ideal republic. At the same time, British writers lamented the supposed decline of European chivalry from an earlier ideal, contrasting it with the Japanese who had seemingly managed to turn their ‘knightly code’ into a national ethic followed by citizens of all social classes.
The ‘bushido boom’ in Britain was not mere Orientalization of a distant society, however, but was strongly influenced by contemporary Japanese discourse on the subject. The term ‘bushido’ only came into widespread use around 1900, and even a decade earlier most Japanese would have been bemused by the notion of a national ethic based on the former samurai class. Rather than being an ancient tradition, the modern ‘way of the samurai’ developed from a search for identity among Japanese intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century. This process saw an increasing shift away from both Chinese and European thought towards supposedly native ideals, and the former samurai class provided a useful foundation. The construction of an ethic based on the ‘feudal’ samurai was given apparent legitimacy by the popularity of idealized chivalry and knighthood in nineteenth-century Europe, with the notion that English ‘gentlemanship’ was rooted in that nation’s ‘feudal knighthood’ proving especially influential. This early ‘bushido’ discourse profited from the nationalistic fervor following Japan’s victory over China in 1895, and the concept increasingly came to be portrayed as a unique and ancient martial ethic. At the same time, those theories that had drawn inspiration from European models came to be ignored, with one prominent Japanese promoter of ‘bushido’ deriding European chivalry as ‘mere woman-worship’.
In the first years of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance contributed greatly to the positive reception in Britain of theories positing a Japanese ‘martial race’, and the fate of ‘bushido’ in the UK demonstrated the effect of geopolitics on theories of ‘national characteristics’. By 1914, British attitudes had begun to change amid increasing concern regarding Japan’s growing assertiveness. Even the Anglo-Japanese operation that finally captured Qingdao in November was marked by British distrust of Japanese aims in China, a sentiment that was strengthened by Japan’s excessive demands on China the following year. Following the war, Japan’s reluctance to return the captured territory to China caused British opposition to Japan’s China policy to increase, leading to the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923. The two countries subsequently drifted even further apart, and by the 1930s, ‘bushido’ was popularly described in Britain as an ethic of treachery and cruelty, only regaining its positive status after 1945 through samurai films and other popular culture as Japan and Britain again became firm allies in the Cold War.
Headline image credit: Former German Governor’s Residence in Qingdao, by Brücke-Osteuropa. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Time passes quickly. As we track the progression of events hundred years ago on the Western Front, the dramas flash by. In the time it takes to answer an e-mail the anniversary of another battle has come and gone.
We have celebrated the fumbling British skirmishes at Mons and Le Cateau in late August, but largely forgotten the French triumph at the Battle of the Marne which first stemmed and threw back the German wheeling attack through Belgium into Northern France under the Schlieffen Plan. We have already bypassed the spirited Franco-British attempts at the Battle of the Aisne in September to take the Chemin des Dames. The Race to the Sea was under way: the British and German Armies desperately trying to turn their enemy’s northern flank.
Throughout, the performance of the British Expeditionary Force has often been exaggerated. Imaginative accounts of Germans advancing in massed columns and being blown away by rapid rifle fire are common. A rather more realistic assessment is that the British infantry were steadfast enough in defence, but unable to function properly in coordination with their artillery or machine guns. The Germans seemed to have a far better grip of the manifold disciplines of modern warfare.
Yet everything changed in October. The Germans were scraping the barrel for manpower and decided to throw new reserve formations into the battle. Young men with the minimum of training, incapable of sophisticated battle tactics. They were marched forward in a last gambler’s throw of the dice to try and break through to the Channel Ports. To do that they needed first to capture the small Belgian city of Ypres.
One might have thought that Ypres was some fabled city, fought over to secure untold wealth or a commanding tactical position. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ypres was just an ordinary town, lying in the centre of the fertile Western Flanders plain. Yet the low ridges to the east represented one of the last feasible lines of defence. The British also saw the town, not as an end in itself, but as a stepping stone to more strategically important locations pushing eastwards, such as the rail centre at Roulers or the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge. For both sides Ypres was on the road to somewhere.
The battle began in mid-October and soon began to boil up. Time and time the Germans hurled themselves forward, the grey-green hordes pressing forwards and being shot down in their hundreds. The British had learnt many lessons and this was where they finally proved themselves worthy adversaries for the German Army. On the evening of 23 October young Captain Harry Dillon was fighting for his life:
A great grey mass of humanity was charging, running for all God would let them, straight on to us not 50 yards off. Everybody’s nerves were pretty well on edge as I had warned them what to expect, and as I fired my rifle the rest all went off almost simultaneously. One saw the great mass of Germans quiver. In reality some fell, some fell over them, and others came on. I have never shot so much in such a short time, could not have been more than a few seconds and they were down. Suddenly one man – I expect an officer – jumped up and came on. I fired and missed, seized the next rifle and dropped him a few yards off. Then the whole lot came on again and it was the most critical moment of my life. Twenty yards more and they would have been over us in thousands, but our fire must have been fearful, and at the very last moment they did the most foolish thing they possibly could have done. Some of the leading people turned to the left for some reason, and they all followed like a great flock of sheep. We did not lose much time, I can give you my oath. My right hand is one huge bruise from banging the bolt up and down. I don’t think one could have missed at the distance and just for one short minute or two we poured the ammunition into them in boxfuls. My rifles were red hot at the finish. The firing died down and out of the darkness a great moan came. People with their arms and legs off trying to crawl away; others who could not move gasping out their last moments with the cold night wind biting into their broken bodies and the lurid red glare of a farm house showing up clumps of grey devils killed by the men on my left further down. A weird awful scene; some of them would raise themselves on one arm or crawl a little distance, silhouetted as black as ink against the red glow of the fire. [p. 287-288, Fire & Movement, by Peter Hart]
Some of the Germans had got within 25 yards of Dillon’s line. It had been a close run thing and after they had been relieved by the French later that night the French reported that some 740 German corpses littered the ground in front of his trenches. This was the real war: not a skirmishes like the earlier battles, this was the real thing.
The German attacks continued, followed as day follows night, by French and British counter-attacks to restore the situation. The Germans nibbled at the Allied line but were unable to achieve anything of importance. Yet for all the sound and fury, over the next few days the front line stayed relatively static. The German troops were flagging in their efforts. After one last effort on 11 November the Germans threw in the towel. They would not break through the Allied lines in 1914. The British and French lines had held. Battered, bruised, but unbroken. The First Battle of Ypres had confirmed the strategic victory gained by the French at the Marne. The German advance in the west had been blocked, if they sought victory in 1915 they would have to look to the east and attack Russia.
The 1914 campaign would prove decisive to the war. The utter failure of the Schlieffen Plan, designed to secure the rapid defeat of France, meant that Germany would be condemned to ruinous hostilities on two fronts. This was the great turning-point of the whole war. The pre-war predictions from the German strategists that they could not prevail in a long-drawn out war against the combined forces of France and Russia proved accurate, especially when the British Empire and United States joined the fight. The German Army fought with a sustained skill and endurance, but after 1914, the odds really were stacked against them.
Back when Quercus books was starting out (even before they were called Quercus) I wrote a piece for them as proof of concept for a planned volume called Days that changed the World (to follow on from the successful Speeches that changed the World). In the end it became a book by Hywel Williams. I really liked my sample piece, mocked up for the Frankfurt bookfair, and now, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d like other people to be able to read it.
“Every wall will fall some day”
It was 6.57 pm on Thursday 9 November 1989. In a press conference Günter Schabowski, head of the Berlin section of East Germany’s ruling party the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), was trying to answer a question put by an Italian journalist.
Earlier that day at the Politburo (Cabinet) meeting, the continued hemorrhaging of East German citizens to the West, through the increasingly open borders of its communist allies, had been discussed. It was decided that a system of permits would be introduced to allow travel into West Berlin. It was Günter Schabowski’s role to answer questions at the subsequent press conference, but he had only returned from holiday towards the end of the meeting and so missed much of the discussion. The question the journalist had asked was about this very issue of travel into West Berlin, so Schabowski was handed a piece of paper to help him give an answer. It was a press release intended for publication the following day. No one meant for him to read it out loud but that’s what he did. He was then asked when this would actually happen. Unaware of the proposed timetable he mistakenly announced to the surprised group of journalists before him that ‘this is immediate, without delay’.
‘As far as I know, this is immediate, without delay’ Günther Schabowski, Head of Berlin SED, 6:57pm
Within minutes the news wire services AP (Associated Press) and DPA (the German Press Agency) were reporting that East Germany had opened its borders to the West. The citizens of East Berlin flocked to the crossing points in the Wall hoping to gain access. Outnumbered and unprepared the border guards didn’t know what action to take. Telephone calls to their superiors apparently said ‘we’re flooding’ as they held back the ever-increasing crowds. Finally, around 10.30 pm at Bornholmer Strasse they bowed to the inevitable and opened the crossing. After 10,315 days stretching across 28 years the antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Protection Wall), the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain across Europe, had finally fallen.
‘I won’t believe it until I’m on the other side’ unknown East Berlin woman
‘We’re flooding’ East German border police
The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was the pivotal moment in a dramatic year across Europe. This followed in the wake of the new philosophies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) coming from Mikhail Gorbachev in The Kremlin. The Poles with their powerful Solidarity trades union were impatient for reform and on 5 April the communist government there agreed to hold free elections. In May, Gorbachev came to West Germany to meet with Chancellor Kohl. He informed Kohl that the Brezhnev doctrine was over – that Russia was no longer prepared to use force to control the satellite states that comprised the Soviet Union. At once the government in Hungary announced its intention to begin the dismantling of the Iron Curtain along the border with Austria. The floodgates were open.
East Germans began pouring into Hungary en route to what they hoped was a new life in the West. The scale of the exodus was unprecedented. Some were allowed through into Austria while others who were turned back ended up camping in the grounds of the West German Embassy in Prague in Czechoslovakia.
A weekly peace vigil had begun on Mondays in the East German city of Leipzig. At first the numbers were small, but despite sometimes violent police action they grew. On 4 September there were a thousand demonstrators – by 16 October there were 120,000. Loudspeakers proclaimed their words of opposition throughout the city:
We, the people, demand:
the right to free access of information
the right to open political discussions
the freedom of thought and creativity
the right to maintain a plural ideology
the right to dissent
the right to travel freely
the right to exert influence over government authority
the right to re-examine our beliefs
the right to voice an opinion in the affairs of state
The Leipzig protests
Gorbachev had returned to Berlin as guest of honour for the 40th anniversary of the East German state on 7 October. In front of the Palace of the Republic the celebrations turned to protest as the crown cried out for Gorbachev to help them. The demonstration was broken up by the police with a thousand arrests. In a warning to the SED Gorbachev announced ‘Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben’ (whoever comes too late is punished by life). In East Germany this was seen as a tacit acknowledgement that the old order was over. Following Gorbachev’s comments and the ever-increasing demonstrations against him, East German President Eric Honecker, who as late as June had claimed the Wall would last for another ‘50 or 100 years’, resigned on 18 October.
Honecker was the original builder of the Wall. More than two and a half million East Germans had escaped to West Germany between 1949 and 1961, an unsustainable drain on the communist state’s resources. Because of this the first East German President, Walter Ulbricht, had secretly decided a wall must be built. He sought the then Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s permission to make his plan a reality. At midnight on the morning of Sunday 13 August 1961, Honecker, responsible for security on the SED Central Committee and so the overseer of the construction of the Wall, sealed the border with West Berlin while the citizens in the east slept. In preparation for the day he had stored 25 miles (40 km) of barbed wire and thousands of fence posts in barracks around the city. This was brought out and the Wall was erected behind a line of 25,000 armed police, posted every six feet along the border.
The resignation of Honecker saw him replaced by another hardliner, Egon Krenz, but the exodus from East Germany continued apace. On Tuesday 7 November the government of East Germany resigned en masse appealing to the public that ‘in this serious situation, all energies be concentrated on keeping up all functions indispensable to the people, society and the economy.’ The plan was that the ministers would remain in office until a new government could be formed. The next day the entire Politburo also resigned. However, the Central Committee of the SED unanimously re-elected Egon Krenz as leader. That afternoon party members elected a new Politburo who would meet for the first time the following day under Krenz’s leadership. The rapid changes in the administration and personnel were perhaps the reason for Günter Schabowski’s confused announcement on the fateful evening.
As night fell on 9 November a street party spread all across West Berlin that lasted several days. As each East German Trabi drove across Checkpoint Charlie its driver honked its horn and was cheered by the masses. East German border guards joined the celebrations and were presented with flowers by delighted West Berliners. East Germans were pouring into West Berlin with no money, so it was quickly announced that possession of an East German passport would entitle the bearer to free public transport and museum admission across the city.
‘Berlin was out of control. There was no more government, neither in East nor in West. The police and the army were helpless. The soldiers themselves were overwhelmed by the event. They were part of the crowd. Their uniforms meant nothing. The Wall was down.’ From a personal account by Andreas Ramos, a Dane in Berlin
‘Soon after the announcement was made, my family and I went to the wall with hammers and chisels in order to help knock it down. There were hundreds of people there already. I was surprised at just how difficult it was to break a piece of wall off: it was made of such hard material. Looking at gaps which others before me had managed to create, I could see the thick iron wires which were between the concrete layers making up the wall. One thing I did notice about the wall was that the West side was covered in graffiti and the East was perfectly clean: the East Berliners were not allowed near the wall. I had fun knocking away at the wall, and did manage to break of small chunks, which I still have today.’ From a personal account by Louise Hopper, then a 14 year old English girl living in West Berlin
Tear down the wall
The next day, Friday, saw the announcement of free elections in East Germany to take place the following year. Then, on Sunday 12 November, the Wall was opened at the historic Potsdamer Platz (Potsdam Square) by the mayors from each half of the previously divided city. Walter Momper, Mayor of West Berlin proclaimed ‘Potsdam Square is the old heart of Berlin and it will beat again as it used to.’ Six weeks later the historic Brandenburg Gate, was also reopened in front of enormous crowds.
Systematic demolition of the Wall began on 13 June the following year and Germany was finally reunited on 3 October 1990. However, a watching world that had been caught in the grip of the Cold War for so long remembers 9 November 1989 as the day it ended – the day the Berlin Wall fell.
This novel opens on October 27, 1942. Helmuth Hübener, 17, has been imprisoned on death row in Plotzensee Prison, Berlin, charged with high treason against the Third Reich. He had hoped the court would show lenicency because of his age, but that hope was now gone. Sentenced to death, Helmuth recalls, in a series of flashbacks, the events in his life that led him to this day.
As a young child living in Hamburg, Helmuth hears his grandparents talk about their dislike of the Nazis and their leader, Adolf Hitler and Opa's predictions that Hitler wants war. But Helmuth likes playing with his toy soldiers and thinks maybe he will be a soldier when he is old enough to fight.
But when Hitler seizes power in 1933, Helmuth sees everything around him change. Teachers and schoolmates show their support for the new chancellor and begin harassing the Jewish students, Germans are told to boycott Jewish stores, enforced by SS and SA destroying their businesses. Un-German books and movies are forbidden, and Helmuth is afraid that means Karl May's beloved stories about America's wild west, until his brother Gerhard tells him they are Hitler's favorites, too.
In 1935, Helmuth's mother begins seeing a Nazi named Hugo Hübener. Hugo changes everything in their home and after the two marry, moves the family away from Opa and Oma.
In 1938, at age 12, Helmuth begins a new school, where he is immediately labelled a troublemaker by his teacher, a Nazi. He is punished by having to write an essay with the title "Adolf Hitler: Savior of the Fatherland." Helmuth knows he must bite the bullet and write the essay his teacher expects and in the end, even his teacher has to admit that he is a talented writer. Helmuth is also required to join the Jungvolk, the younger version of the Hitler Youth.
When his older brother Gerhard is inducted into the army in 1939, he is sent to Paris for training. Once the war begins, Helmuth suspects that the Reich's radio is not giving the German people the truth about what is going on. When Gerhard returns from France, he bring a new forbidden short wave radio back with him., but hides it and tells Helmuth to leave it alone. At first, Helmuth resists the temptation to listen to it, but after a while he can't resist any longer and each night, sets up the radio to hear the BBC broadcasts done in German. And just as he suspected, the German people are indeed being lied to about German successes in the war.
Helmuth, who is a devout Mormon and who practices his faith throughout, convinces his two best friends from church, Rudi Wobbe and Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, to help him create leaflets transcribing the BBC broadcasts to be distributed all over Hamburg.
Helmuth, Rudi and Karl are turned into the Gestapo by a supposed friend, put on trial and sentenced. Helmuth is the only one sentenced to death for high treason. He had promised Rudi and Karl he would take full responsibility, so they were only sentenced to imprisonment for a few years (which were shortened more when Germany lost the war).
It is through the flashbacks, that Bartoletti skillfully shows us Helmuth's development from a child who enthusiastically supports the Nazis to an adolescent who critically questions what he sees going on around him to a courageous young man willing to risk death in order to tell people the truth about Hitler and the Nazis. It makes for a very powerful story.
The Boy Who Dared is historical fiction based on a true story and is one of the reasons why Helmuth's story is so compelling. I think that it is important for today's readers to understand that not everyone in Germany supported Hitler and his politics, but so many chose to remain silence about their feelings, like Helmuth's mother who told him that silence is how people get on sometimes. (pg 95) In fact, we never really know how Helmuth's mother really feels. She married a Nazi, but her family was basically against Hitler.
At the back of the novel, there are photographs of Helmuth, his friends and family, as well as an extensive, not to be skipped over Author's Note explaining how Bartoletti researched the novel and the people she interviewed.
Helmuth was the youngest resister of the Third Reich to be executed. His story really makes you stop
Helmuth, age 16
and think about whether or not you might have had the kind of courage of your convictions that Helmuth had. Did his actions impact anyone who knew him or read the leaflets he wrote? Except for his stepfather, Hugo, who did become a changed man after Helmuth's execution,we will never know, but hopefully Helmuth's story will inspire others to find courage within themselves to speak out against injustice and lies regardless.
If you are moved by The Boy Who Dared, and would like to know more about what life was like for young people like Helmeth during the Third Reich, then be sure to look at Susan Campbell Bartoletti's excellent nonfiction book Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow.
Scholastic offers an extensive lesson plan/discussion guide for readers of The Boy Who Dared which you can find HERE
This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was purchased for my personal library
I attended a screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1980 film Lili Marleen at the Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist series at Lincoln Center last weekend, and it was an extraordinary experience. This is one of Fassbinder's weirdest and in some ways most problematic films, a movie for which he had a relatively giant budget and got lots of publicity, but which has since become among the most hard-to-find Fassbinder films (which is really saying something!). Despite a lot of searching, I didn't come upon a reasonably-priced copy of it until I recently discovered an Australian DVD (seemingly out of print now) that was a library discard.
The story of Lili Marleen is relatively simple, and is very loosely based on the wartime experiences of Lale Andersen, whose performance of the title song was immensely popular, and whose book Der Himmel hat viele Farben is credited in the film. A mildly talented Berlin cabaret singer named Willie (Hannah Schygulla) falls in love with a Jewish musician named Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), whose father (Mel Ferrer) is head of a powerful resistance organization based in Switzerland, and who does not approve of the love affair or Robert's proposal of marriage. A Nazi officer (Karl Heinz von Hassel) hears Willie perform one night, is captivated by her, and guides her into recording the song "Lili Marleen", which unexpectedly becomes a song beloved of all soldiers everywhere on Earth. Willie becomes a rich and famous star, summoned even by Hitler himself, while Robert continues to work for the resistance and ends up marrying someone else. By the end of the war, Robert is a great musician and conductor and Willie seems mostly forgotten, many of her friends dead or imprisoned, and Robert lost to her. She had no convictions aside from her love of Robert, but that love was not enough. (I should note here that there are interesting overlaps between the film and Kurt Vonnegut's great novel Mother Night. But that's a topic for another day...)
I was surprised to find that Lincoln Center was using the German dub of the film rather than the English-language original (it was a multinational production, so English was the lingua franca, and, given the dominance of English-language film, presumably made it easier to market). It was interesting to see Lili Marleen in German, but unfortunately the print did not come subtitled, and so Lincoln Center added subtitles by apparently having someone click on prepared blocks of text. The effect was bizarre: not only were the subtitles sometimes too light to read, but they were often off from what the actors were saying, and when the subtitler would get behind, they would simply click through whole paragraphs of text to catch up. My German's not great, but I was familiar with the film and can pick up enough German to know what was going on and where the subtitles belonged, but I missed plenty of details. The effect was to render the film more dreamlike and far less coherent in terms of plot and character relations than it actually is. Not a bad experience, though, as it heightened a lot of the effects Fassbinder seemed to be going for.
Afterward, I said to my companion, "That was like watching an anti-Nazi movie made in the style of Nazi movies." I'd vaguely had a similar feeling when I first watched the DVD, but it wasn't so vivid for me as when we watched the German version with terrible subtitling — my first experience of Nazi films was of unsubtitled 16mm prints and videotapes my WWII-obsessed father watched when I was a kid.
Lili Marleen was controversial when it was released, not only because it is probably Fassbinder's most over-the-top melodrama, a film that defies both the expectations of good taste and of mainstream storytelling, but also because it arrived at a time when what Susan Sontag dubbed (in February 1975) "fascinating fascism" was on the wane (The Damned was 1969, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS was October 1975, as if to bring everything Sontag described to an absurd climax) while interest in earnest representations of the Nazis and the Holocaust was on the rise (Holocaust 1978, The Tin Drum 1979, The Last Metro 1980, Playing for Time 1980, Mephisto 1981, Sophie's Choice 1982, The Winds of War 1983, etc.). Lili Marleen is much closer to The Damned (a film Fassbinder loved) in its effect than to the films with similar subject matter released in the years around it, and so its contrast from the prevailing aesthetic regime was stark, leading to what seems to have been in some critics utter revulsion. It's notable that Mephisto, a film with very similar themes* and a significantly different aesthetic, could win an Oscar, but though Germany submitted Lili Marleen to the Academy, it was not nominated — and I'd bet few people were surprised it was not.
Even though it exudes the signs of a pop culture aesthetic, Lili Marleen can't actually be assimilated into the popular culture it was released into, partly because the aesthetic it's drawing from is passé and partly because it is deliberately at odds with conventional expectations. In a chapter on Lili Marleen in Fassbinder's Germany, Thomas Elsaesser writes that "coincidence and dramatic irony are presented as terrible anticlimaxes. With its asymmetries and non-equivalences, the film disturbs the formal closure of popular narrative, while still retaining all the elements of popular story-telling."
At the time of its release, there was much handwringing about the ability of works of art to create a desire or nostalgia for fascism in audiences, and Lili Marleen became Exhibit A. Heins quotes Brigitte Peucker: "One wonders whether, in Lili Marleen, Fassbinder’s parodistic style is not unrecognizable as parody to most spectators, and whether his central alienation effect, the song itself, does not instead run the danger of drawing us in." This is absurd. Fassbinder's style is parodistic, but it's also much more than that — it is multimodal in its excess — and I have about as much ability to imagine an audience member getting a good ol' nostalgic lump in the throat and tear in the eye while watching it as I have the ability to imagine someone watching Inglourious Bastards and mistaking it for Night and Fog.
Heins paraphrases Peucker as apparently thinking that "the often repeated title song may ultimately generate more sentimental affect than irritation". I can't believe that, either. For those of us who are not especially misty-eyed about the long lost days of the 1,000-year Reich, the song becomes as grating as it does for the character of Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), who gets locked in a cell with a couple lines of the song playing over and over and over again. What begins as sentimentality becomes, through repetition, torture.
The song is repeated so much that even if it doesn't irritate, it is stripped of meaning, and that's central to the point of the story, as Elsaesser describes:
When Willie says, "I only sing", she is not as politically naive or powerless as she may appear. Just as her love survives because she withdraws it from all possible objects and objectifications, so her song, through its very circularity, becomes impervious to the powers and structures in which it is implicated. Love and song are both, by the end of the film, empty signs. This is their strength, their saving grace, their redemptive innocence, allowing Fassbinder to acknowledge the degree to which his own film is inscribed within a system (of production, distribution and reception) already in place, waiting to be filled by an individual, who lends the enterprise the appearance of intentionality, design and desire for self-expression.
One of the things I love about Lili Marleen is that its mode is utter and obvious kitsch, undeniable kitsch. It highlights the kitschiness not only of the Nazi aesthetic (which plenty of people have done, not least, though unintentionally, the Nazis themselves), but to some extent also of many movies about the Nazis. (I kept thinking of the awful TV mini-series Holocaust while watching it this time, and Elsaesser makes that connection as well.) We love to use the Nazis and the Holocaust for sentimental purposes, and representations of the Nazis and Holocaust often unintentionally veer off into poshlost. To intentionally do so is dangerous, even as critique, because it is too easy to fall into parody and render fascism as something absurd and ridiculous, but not insidious. The genius of Lili Marleen is that the insidiousness remains. It's what nags at us afterward, what lingers beneath the occasional laughter at the excess. There is a discomfort to this film, and it's not just the discomfort of undeniable parody — it is the discomfort of realizing how easily we can be drawn in to the structures being parodied: the suspense, the action, the breathless and improbable love story, the twists and turns, the pageantry, the displays of wealth and power. Our desires are easily teased, our expectations set like booby traps, and again and again those desires and expectations are frustrated and mercilessly mocked.
It's worth thinking about the place of anti-Semitism in Lili Marleen (and Fassbinder's work generally), because this was also part of the uproar over the film, an uproar that was really a continuity of the complaints about Fassbinder's extremely controversial play Garbage, the City, and Death. While not as brazenly playing with anti-Semitic imagery and language, Lili Marleen does give us a very powerful Jewish patriarch in Robert's father, played by Mel Ferrer, a character that can be seen in a variety of ways — certainly, he is an impediment to Robert and Willie's romance (clearly wanting his son to marry a nice Jewish girl), but I also think that Ferrer's performance gives him some warmth and grace that the Nazi characters lack. Nonetheless, while Lili Marleen is very obviously an anti-Nazi film, it's not so obviously an anti-anti-Semitic film (though there is a quick shot of a concentration camp, and Willie redeems herself by sneaking evidence of the camps out of Poland). Heins writes:
It cannot, of course, be concluded that the Absent One of all of Fassbinder’s films is The Jew, or that the sense of danger created by an unseen presence is racialized or nationalized, as it is in Harlan’s film [Jud Süss]. The malevolent other of Fassbinder’s films is more properly patriarchy and the police state, acting in the service of a repressive bourgeois order. In the case of Lili Marleen, however, we must conclude that Fassbinder did fail to effectively counteract the Harlanesque paranoid delusion of total Jewish power, if only because The Jew in this film is described as capitalist patriarchy’s main representative.
That point is astute, though for me it highlight the (sometimes dangerous) complexity of Lili Marleen: by employing certain features of Nazi storytelling, by putting clichés (aesthetic, narrative, political) at the center of his technique, and by seeking to wed this to the sort of anti-capitalist, anti-normative-family ideas common to his work from the beginning, Fassbinder ends up in a bind, one that forces him to trust that the various opposing forces render all the clichés hollow enough that performing and representing them does not give them new validity or justification — that the paranoia and delusion remain legible as paranoia and delusion. I think they do, but I feel less certain of that than the certainty I feel against the old accusations of glamourizing Nazism.
In addition to the title song, Lili Marleen includes an ostentatiously schmaltzy score by Fassbinder's frequent collaborator Peer Raben. It's schmaltzy, but also very sly — as Roger Hillman points out on the Australian DVD commentary, Raben includes brief homages to composers and works that the Nazis would not have looked fondly on, such as Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah. This technique is similar to the film's entire strategy: to booby-trap what on the surface is an overwrought deployment of old tropes.
Finally, a note on the acting: sticking with the concept of the film as a whole, the acting is generally a bit off: sometimes wooden, sometimes unconvincingly emotional. (It's acting a la Brecht via Sirk via Fassbinder.) The more I watch it, though, the more taken I am by Hannah Schygulla's performance. On the surface, it's an appropriately "bad" performance, one redolent of the acting style of melodramas in general and Nazi melodramas in particular. And yet Schygulla's great achievement is to find nuance within that — hers is not a parodic performance, though it easily could have veered into that. Instead, while abiding by the terms of melodramatic acting, it also gives us a transformation: Willie starts out awkward, not particularly talented, a sort of country bumpkin ... and she becomes a poised, distant, sculpted icon ... and then a refugee from all she has ever known and loved. There's still a sense of possibility at the end, though, and one Schygulla's performance is vital for: a sense that Willie may reinvent herself, may find, in this newly ruined world, a path toward new life.
Elsaesser suggests that Lili Marleen can be seen within the context of some of the other films Fassbinder made around it:
the three films of the BRD trilogy — shot out of sequence — are held together by the possibility that they form sequels. If we add the film that was made between Maria Braun and Lola, namely Lili Marleen which clearly has key themes in common with the trilogy, then Lili Marleen's status in the series might be that of a "prequel" chronologically: 1938-1946 Lili Marleen, 1945-1954 Maria Braun, 1956 Veronika Voss, 1957 Lola. Four women, four love stories, four ambiguous gestures of complicity and resistance.
It could be a tagline for so many of Fassbinder's films, not the least Lili Marleen: Ambiguous gestures of complicity and resistance. For a world entering the era of Thatcher, Kohl, and (especially) Reagan, Lili Marleen was a most appropriate foil.
------------------- *In one scene of Fassbinder's film, Willie looks through a magazine and we quickly glance a picture of Gustaf Gründgens as Mephistopheles.
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Maggie Steele, the storybook heroine who vaults over the moon, has been attracting thousands of visitors from around the world. So many visitors, in fact, that she’s using a time zone map to keep track of them all.* People are … Continue reading →
It is well known that someone set fire to the Reichstag in Berlin on the evening of 27 February 1933 – eighty-one years ago. It is also well known that Hitler’s new government took this opportunity to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree, gutting the Weimar constitution and effectively initiating a 12-year dictatorship. Many readers will know that ever since 1933 controversy has raged about who actually set fire to the Reichstag: was it the first step in a Communist coup, was it a Nazi conspiracy to supply a justification for their Decree, or was the rather confused young Dutch stonemason Marinus van der Lubbe telling the truth when he claimed he had set the fire himself?
Firemen work on the burning Reichstag, February 1933. Item from Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
One matter that is less well known, however, is just how much, and for how long, various intelligence services have taken an interest in these questions.
Spies were a part of the story from the beginning. In March 1933, a senior officer of Britain’s MI5 named Guy Liddell traveled to Germany to make contact with the newly reorganized German Secret Police (soon to be christened the Gestapo) and its leader, the brilliant but sinister Rudolf Diels. At the time, one of the main tasks facing Diels and his officers was the investigation of the Reichstag fire. Liddell wrote a long report on his experiences in Germany, noting among other things that the weakness of the police evidence against Marinus van der Lubbe led him to the view that “previous conclusions that this incident was a piece of Nazi provocation to provide a pretext for the wholesale suppression of the German Communist Party were amply confirmed.”
After the Second World War, Rudolf Diels and the small group of his former Gestapo subordinates who had investigated the fire in 1933 faced a difficult legal situation. To varying degrees they had been involved in Nazi crimes (including the thoroughly corrupt fire investigation itself) and they had to navigate the tricky waters of war crimes and “denazification” investigations and prosecutions. One of their real advantages, however, was their intelligence experience – coupled with their undeniable anti-Communism. This made them attractive to the Western Allies’ intelligence services. Rudolf Diels was, for many years, a key paid source on politics in Germany for the American CIC (military counter intelligence). His payment, as recorded in a written contract from 1948, was 12 cartons of cigarettes per month, supplemented now and then by ration cards and cans of Crisco – the real sources of value in Germany at the time. A few years later one of the leading figures in the West German Federal Criminal Police (BKA) complained to American intelligence officers that overly-zealous prosecutions of ex-Nazi police officers were a Cold War danger. They were weakening the BKA to the point that West Germany itself would become “a push-over for Eastern intelligence services” and thus “a weak link and danger point in the whole Western defense system.” The CIA officer who recorded these comments noted that they were “worth attention.”
One of the things that Diels and his former subordinates had to worry about was the testimony and the book of a man named Hans Bernd Gisevius, who accused them of covering up Nazi guilt for the Reichstag fire as well as involvement in a number of murders. Gisevius had himself been a Gestapo officer in 1933; from there he went on to serve in Germany’s military intelligence service, the Abwehr, during the war – and became active in the resistance that led to the famous Valkyrie plot. Diels and Gisevius hated each other. Around 1950 many well-informed people – no doubt including Diels and Gisevius – thought these men were both candidates to head the newly created West German domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. When Diels and Gisevius argued about who set the Reichstag fire – which they did both publicly and vitriolically – it is hard to overlook the fact that they were competing for jobs and influence in the emerging West German intelligence sector.
The Cold War also explained why the infamous East German Stasi spent many years and considerable effort doing its own discreet research into the Reichstag fire and the people who had been involved in it. Above all the Stasi hoped to find information that would discredit prominent East German dissidents, along with ex-Nazi police and intelligence officials in West Germany. The Stasi also tried to recruit at least one well-known western Reichstag fire researcher to be, in Stasi-speak, an “unofficial employee.”
But the most important link between intelligence services and the Reichstag fire came in the form of a man named Fritz Tobias, who from the 1950s to the 1970s was a senior official of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the West German federal state of Lower Saxony. Earlier, in the 1940s – by his own account at least – he had served as a “scout” for the British Secret Intelligence Service. This meant that, while working on a “denazification” tribunal, he was supposed to keep his eyes open for former Nazis who might be useful to the British.
In 1951 Tobias started devoting his spare time – by his account, only his spare time – to research on the Reichstag fire. By the late 1950s his work was already becoming known, and, to some German officials, somewhat troubling. Tobias could and did use the powers of his office to get information. He was able to get access to classified documents that were closed to the public, and on at least one occasion he brought a prosecutor along with him to question a retired judge who had evidence to give about the fire. Was this all really just a spare time project? In the early 1960s, when Tobias’s lengthy book on the Reichstag fire was published (lengthy in German anyway – the English translation cut it by about half), Tobias used agents from the Office for Constitutional Protection to threaten academic historians who disagreed with his arguments, and blackmailed the director of a prestigious institute with classified documents revealing that director’s Nazi past. There seems at least a possibility that Tobias’s work was really an official commission. When asked about this while testifying in court in 1961, Tobias declined to answer because of his duty to maintain official secrets.
Why would German security services in the 1960s care about who had burned the Reichstag? There are several possibilities, admittedly only speculative. Tobias’s book, like Rudolf Diels’s before him, was to a considerable extent an attack on Hans Bernd Gisevius. Gisevius had made himself very unpopular with the West German government through his advocacy of a policy of neutrality in the Cold War and his friendship with gadflies like Martin Niemöller. There are materials in the FBI’s file on Gisevius (and yes, the bureau had one) that seem likely to have come from a German security service. There is also the issue that all the state and the Federal West German governments were very much on the defensive in the early 1960s about the number of senior officials they employed who had bad records from the Nazi era. Tobias’s own state of Lower Saxony was one of the worst offenders in this regard. Tobias’s book was very much a defense, indeed a glorification, of those former Gestapo officers who had worked with Rudolf Diels – one of whom, Walter Zirpins, had an office just down the hall from Fritz Tobias at the Lower Saxon Interior Ministry.
These spies and their various schemes make up a fascinating, if murky, part of this murky historical mystery.
Benjamin Carter Hett, a former trial lawyer and professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author of Burning the Reichstag, Death in the Tiergarten and Crossing Hitler, winner of the Fraenkel Prize.
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Some of my sketchbook characters decided to spend the month in a wonderful cafe called "Ninas Café Klatsch" here in Hamm, Germany. I took them there last night so they can watch Ninas guests having delicious cupcakes and soups for the next 4 weeks.
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Veronika Samartseva is an animation director from Germany, who specializes in analog animation techniques. Her award-winning films have been shown at international festivals worldwide. After her graduation from HFF Konrad Wolf Babelsberg, Veronika joined the Berlin-based animation collective Talking Animals. Recently she started teaching animation at the BTK University of Design.