High-Speed History

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Dec. 14, 1932,Germany’s head of state, President Paul von Hindenburg, a former general, a Prussian’s Prussian, hosted a party in honor of Ernst Lubitsch, a German Jew who had emerged as one of Hollywood’s finest directors. As two German writers, Rüdiger Barth and Hauke Friederichs, relate in “The Last Winter of the Weimar Republic,” another guest asked Lubitsch why he no longer worked in Germany. “That’s finished,” he replied, “nothing good is going to happen here for a long time.” Less than two months later, von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Germany’s chancellor.

The Last Winter” is a day-by-day retelling of Weimar’s final collapse. After a brief introduction, its authors turn their attention to Berlin on Nov. 17, 1932, a day dominated politically by the question of who should become Germany’s new chancellor. According to custom, the job should have been offered to Hitler, leader of the largest party in the Reichstag, but the Nazis had lost ground in elections held earlier in the month, and those who still controlled Germany were not ready for Hitler, not quite yet. “The Last Winter” concludes on Jan. 30, 1933, when, after weeks of intricate maneuvering deftly sketched by Messrs. Barth and Friederichs, von Hindenburg hands the chancellorship to Hitler.

. . . .

[T]he pointillism that comes with being written diary-style is effective, and even when the detail is trivial, it can be startling: Goebbels played the accordion? We are told that the outgoing chancellor, the clever and devious Kurt von Schleicher, displayed little emotion as he said farewell to his cabinet, although one colleague observed that “this experience has been a matter of life or death to him.” A little over a year later, von Schleicher was murdered by the SS during the Night of the Long Knives; the dangerous game, well described in this book, that he had been playing had come to an end.

What comes clear in the authors’ account is how few understood the extent of the abyss that lay ahead. Normal life went on: Department stores held linen sales in the week that Hitler took over. Well, why would they not? And then there were the politicians who thought that, by bringing Hitler into what they imagined was a coalition, they could use and control him—a view initially shared by many, if not the Swiss journalist, quoted by the authors, who wrote that “a bear is still a bear, even if you stick a ring through his nose . . . .”

The authors’ account of the January day Hitler was named chancellor is understandably focused on the Wilhelmstrasse, Berlin’s government quarter, but they keep to the mosaic approach that serves their narrative so well. As expected, there are torchlight parades and a brawl between communists and Nazis. But we also read of an American labor organizer discovering that there are no tickets left for the play he planned on seeing, and of a group of German writers deciding their best option is to wait things out. One, Carl von Ossietzky, warns that the nightmare will last longer than they think: In an epilogue, it’s revealed that he will be in a concentration camp within months. The more the reader knows about the horrors to come, the darker “The Last Winter” seems.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (sorry if you run into a paywall)

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