Life during the rise of Hitler?
May 25, 2007 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Life in Germany between 1929-1933?

I'm looking for (preferably first-hand) accounts of life in Germany in the early 30s, during Hitler's rise to power. The period leading up to the Reichstag fire, in effect.

Shirer's RISE AND FALL, plus the Isherwood books which CABARET is based on are obvious starting points, but what else is good and immediate?

Bonus: Shirer is persona non grata among historians these days so what are more reliable accounts of Hitler's rise to power?
posted by unSane to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Jason Lute's Berlin comic series is nice.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:56 PM on May 25, 2007

This is mostly from a later time frame than what you're looking for, but it does begin in 1933:Victor Klemperer kept a diary of daily life in Nazi Germany; published as I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years 1933-1941 (Paperback)
Excerpt from the first:

"(10th March, 1933)

Eight days before the election the clumsy business of the Reichstag fire - cannot imagine that anyone really believes in Communist perpetrators instead of paid Nazi work. Then the wild prohibitions and acts of violence. And on top of that the never-ending propaganda in the street, on the radio etc. On Saturday, the 4th, I heard a part of Hitler's speech from Koenigsberg. The front of a hotel at the railway station, illuminated, a torchlight procession in front of it, torch-bearers and swastika flag-bearers on the balconies and loudspeakers, I understood only occasional words. But the tone! The unctuous bawling, truly bawling, of a priest."
posted by frobozz at 9:21 PM on May 25, 2007

Victor Klemperer's diaries. The English title is "I Shall Bear Witness". They document his experience as Nazism went from being a fringe element in Parliament through to the end of the war.

He was a Jewish convert to Christianity who avoided being sent to the camps because he was married to an Aryan women. His diaries start in 1933 but I think you'll still find them invaluable reading. In particular he writes a lot about his interaction with other Germans and how their behaviour towards him did or did not change, and how Nazism went from being an oddity to a ubiquitous part of life.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:25 PM on May 25, 2007

Goddamn frobozz but you're quick on the keyboard.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:25 PM on May 25, 2007

Third the Klemperer. He is very reflective and so pre-1933 is covered by extension.

But you should also consider Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler (1918-1937):

Count Harry Kessler (1868-1937), the son of a German banker and an Irish beauty, was a diplomat and publisher who moved easily among the worlds of art, politics, and society. He lived in Berlin but traveled throughout Europe, always with a keen eye for the political climate of the times. His diaries encompass an extraordinary variety of people: Einstein engages him in long discussions on his theories; Josephine Baker dances naked in Kessler's drawing room; Lloyd George presides over the farcical Genoa conference in 1922. Kessler had dinner with Max Reinhardt, George Grosz, Virginia Woolf, Jean Cocteau, and Andre Gide, lunch with Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Erik Satie. His diaries encapsulate this tumultuous time frame, recording at first hand the agonizing collapse and death of Weimar Germany and the arrival of the Nazis.

posted by Rumple at 9:44 PM on May 25, 2007

(Goddamn frobozz but you're quick on the keyboard.
Ah ha ha ha. Searches of this sort turn up strange things.)

However. I also turned up (but have not read): Defying Hitler: A Memoir, by Sebastian Haffner.

Haffner alternates political analysis with accounts of how the rise of the Nazis in the 1920s and early '30s affected his attempts to build a career, keep friendships alive and kindle romantic liaisons...And his description of the way the Nazis invaded people's daily lives shines. It becomes clear how many "good Germans" struggled against impossible odds to keep their personal lives politics-free. Unfortunately, Haffner's manuscript ends with 1933...
posted by frobozz at 9:57 PM on May 25, 2007

Check out the film Bent.

In the film it references a time before Nazi repression. Mick Jagger performs as Greta/George in a clandestine nightclub scene.

Also -- there was the Social Democratic Nudist Movement during the Weimar Republic (1910-1935) --

Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture.

It was extolled by the Nazis [except for "the gays"]:
"After World War I, Weimar democracy unleashed freedom in Germany. Homosexual groups sprung up all over, and by 1929 an umbrella group called the Union for Human Rights claimed 48,000 members -- more than any gay group in Germany today. Berlin, the homosexual capital of the Roaring Twenties, boasted a gay and lesbian bookstore, scores of bars, and more than 25 gay publications.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany... [evident is] ... the terror that descended on gays that same year. March 4: A Berlin newspaper records a number of gay bars closed by the Nazis. May 6: The Nazis loot Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Studies. May 10: A chilling photograph shows clean-cut young Nazis rummaging through books about to be burned; one book, which several laughing youths are pointing at, is opened to a photo of Magnus Hirschfeld.

The Nazis' obliteration of Germany's thriving gay movement sends a warning that reverberates through the cautious organizing of the '50s, the psychedelic explosion of freedom in the '60s and '70s, and the angry street activism--often tied to AIDS--of the '80s and '90s."*
Check out Stephen Spender's The Temple (written 1928; published 1988). It is a novel, yet an account of his "response to the bronzed Germans -- the Children of the Sun -- their friendships, parties, sexuality, naturism (especially their cult of the naked body) and all the gauche hedonism that was soon to vanish under the Nazis."
posted by ericb at 11:33 PM on May 25, 2007

Ute Lemper's album "Berlin Cabaret Songs" (available in both german and english) gives an excellent flavour of the music that was listened to in the more decadent clubs of Berlin in the twenties. My cd includes analysis of the lyrics/timeperiod as well.
posted by saucysault at 4:07 AM on May 26, 2007

Um, Klemperer is great, but he starts with Hitler's coming to power, and the poster wants stuff from before that. I recommend Anton Gill's A dance between flames: Berlin between the wars and especially Alfred Döblin's amazing 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (and the Fassbinder movie made from it, one of the best things ever done for TV).
posted by languagehat at 8:32 AM on May 26, 2007

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss tells the story of a Jewish author (Lev Nussimbaum aka Essad Bey) from Azerbijan who ends up in Germany around this time to go to school.
posted by krikany at 8:34 AM on May 26, 2007

Slightly off topic: Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil is fascinating.

unSane - Why is Shirer persona non grata?
posted by lukemeister at 8:44 AM on May 26, 2007

1933 by Philip Metcalfe explores the turning-point year of 1933 as seen through five people who represent vastly different points of view within Germany at the time. It has been nearly twenty years since I read the book, but since it is still on my shelves I must have found it a valuable resource and insight into the times.
posted by kuppajava at 9:20 AM on May 26, 2007

Robert Whalen's "Bitter Wounds: German Victims of the Great War 1914-1939" is not entirely what you are asking for but I recommend it anyway -- it's about German veterans of WWI, how they were received at home during the 1920s (not well) and their importance in undermining the (pretty progressive) Weimar Republic. These war-mangled veterans were very supportive of Hitler actually.

Anyway, it's a great, not overly-academic read with a lot of firsthand testimony and it will definitely provide some insight into Hitler's 1930s success and why people supported him.
posted by bluenausea at 10:00 AM on May 26, 2007

Bitter Wounds sounds like it would definitely be relevant. Hitler won the Iron Cross in World War I, Goering was a fighter ace (he commanded the Red Baron's unit at the end of the war), and other Nazi leaders were World War I vets. Vets also made up the Freikorps and SA "Brownshirts." Hitler's experience during World War I was formative.

Wikipedia mentions some criticism of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:
he general complaint is that the title lacks the level of scholarly attention, use of sources, and quality of writing necessary to qualify it as a "scholarly" or "academic" work. Nonetheless, they accept it as a usable popular history or a passable narrative for the beginner.
Shirer also wrote Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:00 AM on May 26, 2007

lacks the level of scholarly attention, use of sources, and quality of writing necessary to qualify it as a "scholarly" or "academic" work

Jesus Christ, so what? (Not aimed at kirkaracha, obviously, who's just answering the question "Why is Shirer persona non grata?", which I was wondering too.) Man, if there's one thing I hate it's historians who can't write a readable sentence smugly dumping on outsiders who trespass on their bailiwick and write a book that actually sells. When I was 13 or 14 I ead The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and it absolutely shook my world. In some sense I've never recovered from it—it gave me (perhaps too early in life) a vivid sense of how horrible people can be to each other and probably contributed to my becoming an anarchist and a pacifist; furthermore, it kept me from becoming too anti-Israel even after I learned how badly Israel was behaving. I will never, ever forget what was done to the Jews and why they have every reason to be paranoid.

If Wehrmacht and Gleichschaltung: Aspects of German History in the Years Between the Weimar Republic and the Adenauer Era, by Professor Ezekiel Q. Spiderbrains, had been available instead, 1) I wouldn't have read it, 2) if I had tried I would have retreated in bafflement after hacking my way through the first chapter or two, and 3) if I had somehow worked my way through the whole thing it wouldn't have had much emotional resonance. But by God it would have had all the charts and references needed to establish it as a Serious Work!

Shirer was a superb reporter and a compelling writer; of course he wasn't a scholarly historian (nor did he pretend to be), and that's a Good Thing. There's a place for scholarly historians, and there's a place for those who assimilate their data and turn it into a book normal people can read with pleasure. The latter will make mistakes here and there, but that's not really important; a reader whose curiosity is aroused can consult scholarly sources and find out all about the details and controversies. But someone has to create the interest in the first place, and it ain't gonna be Prof. Spiderbrains.
posted by languagehat at 11:35 AM on May 26, 2007

Er, that would be "read," not "ead."
posted by languagehat at 11:36 AM on May 26, 2007

I would recommend two books:

The Weimar Republic Through the Lens of the Press, by Torsten Palmer and Hendrik Neubauer. An absolutely fabulous resource, crammed with pictures by German photographers of the period 1919-1933, focusing on the daily life of the people, with wonderfully detailed accompanying text and the original press captions. (The book under another name, same content)

The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J Evans. A fantastic, detailed history of the period. Evans lectured me at university, and is a great writer.
posted by WPW at 12:23 PM on May 26, 2007

No worries, languagehat, I thought the same thing. I've always loved history (and I've read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich twice), but the reason most people hate it as a subject is because the life gets sucked out of the stories by ivory tower douches like that. Also, I don't recall Shirer saying anything other than basically, "I'm a reporter. I was there. This is what happened." If he didn't claim to be writing a serious history, it doesn't make a lot of sense to criticize him for not writing one. Plus, isn't he a primary source?
posted by kirkaracha at 2:08 PM on May 26, 2007

Response by poster: re: Shirer, I agree wholeheartedly with everyone here. RISE AND FALL is a thrilling book. My grandfather had a copy on his bookshelf and I started reading it when I was 11 or so. I read it again when I was thirty. It's one of my favorite books, because, whatever else is true, he was there. Certainly a life-changing book. And sensationally resonant these days too.
posted by unSane at 5:25 PM on May 26, 2007

I also turned up (but have not read): Defying Hitler: A Memoir, by Sebastian Haffner.

I can highly recommend this book.
posted by caek at 6:00 PM on May 26, 2007

Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night offers a contemporary (post-1933) feminist science fictional analysis of developments in Germany at that time. It's not very academic, but it is very enlightening.

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is either a homage to this book, or a blatant rip, depending on your point of view.
posted by meehawl at 11:57 AM on May 27, 2007

Oh, and in terms of academics, Louis Snyder's Encyclopedia of the Third Reich is an invaluable source book for research. It's an extensive A-Z of Nazi institutions and players for from the 1920s to the 1940s, a kind of Hitchhiker's Guide to Nazism. You can use it either as to supplement your reading and follow the cross-links, or read A through Z to gain an understanding of just how comprehensive and yet contingent was the seizure of power and the monopolisation of public and private life by the Nazis.

Snyder lived through the rise of aggressively reactionary anti-Modernist Romantic Nationalism in Europe and actually published Hitlerism, the Iron Fist in Germany in 1932, warning of the inevitable catastrophe that lay ahead. He was basically ignored.
posted by meehawl at 12:06 PM on May 27, 2007

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