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Book Review: Hitler’s Berlin

Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City

by Thomas Friedrich

Yale University Press, 2012

When the late Thomas Friedrich’s magnum opus appeared in Germany five years ago, it had a slightly simpler title than that born by the new English language translation now published in a beautiful, sturdy edition from Yale University Press. Friedrich’s title was “The Abused Capital” (Die Missbrauchte Haupstadt), with the clarifying subtitle “Hitler and Berlin.” This new English version is a crackling good translation by Stewart Spencer, who perfectly captures not only the amazing sweep of Friedrich’s prose but also the element of – believe it or not – impish dry humor that runs under the surface in virtually every chapter; this is a serious historian writing about serious matters, yes, but he’s also quite obviously enjoying the sheer virtuoso practice of his craft, and Spencer brings this out perfectly. No idea if the change in title was Spencer’s suggestion or Yale’s idea, but the subtleties of it are fascinating. One of the uncountable ancillary tragedies of World War II is that the city of Berlin – centuries old, famed for its culture and glorious architecture and sunny, cheerful people – now has a dark and permanent notoriety as the capital of Nazi Germany. It was here than Hitler planned and directed the furious aberration of his Third Reich.

Or was it in fact an aberration at all? It’s a much-vexed question – just how German were the Nazis, and just how Nazi were the Germans? – and Friedrich brings it up immediately and returns to it often:

Also at stake is a mindless local patriotism that encouraged even Hitler’s contemporaries to remark that, following the National Socialists’ assumption of power, Berlin had been ‘occupied by brown-shirted provincials,’ implying that the local variant of National Socialism, far from emerging within the city itself, had somehow been imposed on it from the outside. Fifteen years after the Nazi regime had been toppled, apologists were still claiming that the National Socialists’ dictatorship was a superficial phenomenon in Berlin and that only elsewhere was its ‘true’ character to be found. In a brief overview of the city’s history that was published in 1960, we read, for example, that ‘the twelve years of National Socialism represent not just an episode in its history but also a break in its more authentic past, from whose deeper driving forces it was forcibly alienated during this time.’

The implication here is that Friedrich disagrees with such a facile characterization – the old Hitler-as-spellbinder saw that has rightly irritated the postwar world by seeming to absolve everyday Berliners of any guilt of their own. And yet the long and marvellous first segment of his book, describing the city in the protracted, uneasy sunset of the Weimar years, very nearly gives such an impression. Friedrich has a gift for narrative, and many of the stories he tells in the first half of his book deal with those ordinary Berliners and the sense of mockery and outrage they felt at the rise of Hitler and his National Socialists in their midst in the 1920s and early ’30s. There was civic and bureaucratic resistance to the brutal centralization of power, to the marginalization of women (back to their ‘traditional’ roles as housewives and mothers), to the shrill codification of anti-Semitism. Friedrich produces many editorials denouncing the demagogue Hitler as a clown and an idiot. It’s possible to get a sense of a people first blind-sided and then basically held captive – the sense, as the book’s English title has it, of a city possessed.

Even if this was the reality (something perhaps less easily deniable by Americans who’ve just recently had the experience of a national election decided by a partisan court, two hugely expensive wars undertaken without due process, torture adopted as an instrument of policy, and weekly adjustments of something popularly known as the ‘terror level’), the balance was always tentative. Hitler and Nazism gained a vital measure of forbearance by artificially resurrecting a dead economy, but in the early years, the government nevertheless considered it prudent to obscure its future plans – lest the great mass of Berliners forcibly put an end to them? Friedrich is at his most brilliant on the subject of architecture; evil architect Albert Speer is at the heart of his book, as are numerous readings of the tenor of the times through the state of the city’s architecture. One such case involves the ‘great hall,’ a massive, unbuilt structure Hitler projected as a place for urban rallies on a gigantic scale. Berliners might have embraced such a building (a sweet-tooth for the gaudy has always marked the city), but Hitler and his planners were smart enough to know the same couldn’t be said for the building’s underlying justification:

But it presumably struck the people responsible for these plans that between 1937 and 1939 it was advisable to say as little as possible about the Great Hall in public because it was no longer possible to deny the link between the erection of this cultic building in the tradition of medieval cathedrals, on the one hand, and Hitler’s plans for another world war, on the other. The triumphal arch in front of the new South Station was to be dedicated to the memory of those German soldiers who had fallen in the First World War, so it made sense that the Great Hall marking the northern boundary of the north-south axis should ensure Hitler’s rewriting of history found its architectural counterpart in a quasi-religious edifice celebrating the victory of troops of the ‘Pan-German Reich’ in the coming world war under Hitler’s supreme command.

Recent years have seen a small number of truly first-rate historical studies of Berlin, foremost being Alexandra Richie’s Faust’s Metropolis (1999) and David Clay Large’s Berlin (2001), both of which necessarily spend a great deal of time on the same basic material as Friedrich. And since any study of ‘Hitler’s Berlin’ must be a study of a city in conflict, large sections of this book are parallel to Roger Moorehouse’s excellent recent Berlin at War.

Friedrich taps a wealth of German source material (his book has nearly 200 pages of end-notes), much of it never before sifted for a popular narrative history, and his account virtually trembles with the conflicted passions of a life-long Berliner studying these intricate questions of culpability, the always-shifting border between “Hitler and Berlin” and “Hitler’s Berlin.” Shadowing the massed facts and figures, there’s a highly charged human trauma at work in these pages. No easy answers are found, but the sheer strength and persistence of the inquiry becomes, dare one risk the word, mesmerizing. Very strongly recommended.


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