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The Life and Death of a Capital

FOR LIBERALS AND leftists in Germany, Berlin has always represented the dark side of German history. As capital of the military state of Prussia, it became the grandiose center and symbol of the Reich founded by Bismarck in 1871—culturally stuffy, conservative, dull, backward, dominated by civil servants and soldiers. No wonder that when liberals and Social Democrats established a democratic Republic after the overthrow of the Kaiser, they avoided the Prussian capital. They sought to distance themselves from Berlin by holding the Constituent Assembly in the provincial town of Weimar, forever associated with the name of Goethe and Schiller, Germany’s greatest poets and writers. Weimar was, of course, far from the revolutionary turbulence and street-fighting raging across the capital in the early months of 1919, but it also provided distance from a past that the creators of the new Germany wanted to reject.

It took a while for Berlin to lose its traditional associations. Before World War I, modernist culture had flourished elsewhere, above all in Munich, the Bavarian capital in south Germany, where artists such as Vassily Kandinsky, Alexei Jawlensky, Franz Marc, and August Macke pioneered abstract and semi-abstract paintings in the group they dubbed Der Blaue Reiter—“the blue rider.” Here, too radical clubs and cabarets, little socialist or anarchist magazines, and left-wing writers and playwrights flourished in Schwabing, the bohemian quarter of the town, Munich’s equivalent of Paris’s Left Bank. Schwabing’s radicals achieved brief political prominence with the collapse of the Bavarian monarchy at the end of the war, when the journalist Kurt Eisner became head of government, looking every inch the bohemian with his long, bushy beard and his broad-rimmed floppy hat.

When Eisner was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic, a group from the ultra-left cultural milieu—including Ernst Toller, Erich Mühsam, Gustav Landauer, and B. Traven (later author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)—established a short-lived revolutionary council, which in turn was brusquely elbowed aside by hard-line Communists. The Communists’ regime did not last long either. In the spring of 1919, the legitimate Social Democratic government of Bavaria, which had previously abandoned Munich to the revolutionaries, sent large numbers of heavily armed “free corps” troops in to put a bloody end to the Communist regime.

A year later, on March 13, 1920, a similar backlash took place in Berlin, when “free corps” units and a right-wing group of the Kaiser’s former military and civil servants tried to oust the national government and install a military dictatorship. The putsch, named after its leader Wolfgang Kapp, ended differently than the counter-revolution in Munich. Workers and trade unionists brought Berlin to a halt with a general strike, the putschists lost their nerve, and democratic rule under the existing government was restored. In Munich, where the atmosphere was far more conservative, the Social Democratic government was pushed out of office under threat of military action, giving way to a right-wing cabinet. Its leader, Gustav Ritter von Kahr, was backed by the Munich police and army, and was silently supported by the Catholic conservative political mainstream, the Bavarian People’s Party. He turned Munich into a “center of order,” allowing far-right groups to flourish. One of them was the Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, who later repaid the favor by having Kahr murdered during the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934.

Cultural radicalism, banished from Munich by the counter-revolutionary clampdown, relocated to Berlin. Throughout the 1920s, the national capital became a by-word for artistic experimentation, anti-authoritarianism, radicalism, and hedonism of every variety. It became a magnet for foreigners looking for urban adventure, celebrated by Christopher Isherwood in his novels Mr. Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin, subsequently transmuted into the movie Cabaret. Crime, murder, and gangsterism were celebrated in popular culture and transformed into art by the paintings of Georg Grosz, the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, and the songs of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in The Threepenny Opera. Café life and cabaret flourished as they had done in Munich’s Schwabing district before the war. It was now in Berlin that the satirical magazines and pacifist periodicals flourished, with writers such as Erich Kästner, Kurt Tucholsky, and Carl von Ossietzky contributing to Berlin’s Die Weltbühne, “The World Stage.” Young women celebrated Girlkultur, while nude reviews and prostitution, also favorite subjects for (male) artists, laid bare the degree to which sexual liberation could also mean sexual exploitation.

Viewed from Bavaria’s “center of order” in post-revolutionary Munich, Berlin in the 1920s seemed the very negation of the kind of military, conservative, traditional Germany to which nationalists and authoritarians aspired. Unfortunately, little is said about this broader cultural history of the two cities in Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City, the late Thomas Friedrich’s narrative account of Hitler’s relationship with Berlin up to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. Instead, the author focuses overwhelmingly on Hitler’s personal responses, although these can only really be fully understood within this wider historical context of the contrasting fortunes of the two cities before and after World War I. 

As Friedrich notes, Hitler had been bowled over by the German capital’s grandeur when he first visited Berlin, on furlough from the front in World War I. In a letter to a fellow-soldier, he called it “a wonderful city. A real metropolis.” In 1920, Hitler still hoped it could be the starting-point for the overthrow of Weimar democracy and the creation of a nationalist dictatorship. He had been in touch with the instigators of the Kapp putsch early in 1920 and flew to Berlin when it broke out. But on arrival he was met by striking workers occupying the airport. Disguised in a false, stick-on beard—passing himself off, improbably, as an accountant—Hitler managed to get through the checkpoint, but the obvious defeat of the putsch even before he arrived surely strengthened his increasingly negative view of the German capital. Disillusioned, he denounced the fact that (as he saw it) “the Berlin of Frederick the Great has been turned into a pigsty by the Jews.” Munich, by contrast, was pure, “German,” a city from which such unhealthy influences had been thoroughly expunged.

In 1923, Germany descended into chaos as the French invaded the Ruhr, radical left-wing governments took over two German provinces, monetary hyperinflation pushed the economy over the brink, and the political system teetered on the edge of total collapse. To embittered nationalist opponents of the Weimar Republic, the moment seemed right to stage another putsch. This time, surely, it would succeed. But the failed attempt by Wolfgang Kapp three years earlier had suggested to Hitler that it was wrong to mount the putsch in Berlin, where Communists and Social Democrats, the parties of the working class, dominated the scene. Friedrich suggests that Nazi hotheads were gathering in preparation for an attempt in Berlin, but the conditions were unfavorable, and the evidence for the claim that Hitler was thinking of a simultaneous coup d’état in both cities is skimpy, conjectural, and unpersuasive. 

For Hitler, by this time Berlin was a sick, degenerate city that offered no hope for a nationalist revolution. Munich was to be the basis for Germany’s regeneration. Once he had seized power there, he could use the “center of order” in Bavaria to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Mussolini’s much-advertised “march on Rome” the previous year was one model for Hitler as he contemplated launching a putsch in Munich in 1923; another was the Turkish nationalist revolution of Mustafa Kemal, who had abandoned Constantinople and created a new, unsullied capital in far-away Ankara. “In Turkey,” Hitler declared at his trial for treason after the failure of the beer-hall putsch, “salvation could not come from the rotten center, in Constantinople. Just as in our case, the city was contaminated by democratic-pacifist, internationalized people,” meaning, of course, the Jews.

Friedrich says far too little about this sharply disdainful period in Hitler’s relationship with Berlin, preferring to skip quickly over the failed Munich putsch and move on to the period from 1924 to 1929, when Hitler began to reconstruct the Nazi movement. Yet at the end of the 1920s, Berlin proved no more fruitful a recruiting ground for Hitler and his followers than before. As Friedrich remarks, “within eighteen months of his party’s re-emergence … Hitler saw himself faced with the complete meltdown of the Berlin branch” of his party. His solution was to appoint Joseph Goebbels, at this time still a regional and rather leftish Nazi leader in the Rhineland, to rebuild the party in the capital city. Like other Nazis, Goebbels found Berlin “a den of iniquity!” and “an asphalt wasteland.” But though Friedrich tries to deny it, it is clear that his attitude was fundamentally far more positive than Hitler’s. “Berlin,” Goebbels wrote, “is the control center. For us too. An international city.”

Soon Goebbels was revealing himself to be a gifted propagandist, organizing marches and mass meetings, sending armed, brown-shirted stormtroopers to break up Communist Party events, and unfolding a campaign of violence that culminated in a pitched battle with Communist paramilitaries at a railway station in the suburb of Lichterfelde. In the affluent western thoroughfare of the Kurfürstendamm, Goebbels’s thugs beat up Jewish passers-by. Meanwhile Hitler, who now considered it safe to return to Berlin, tried to emphasize the respectable side of Nazism by delivering a cautiously worded speech on May 1, 1927. None of this fooled the Social Democratic police authorities in the city, who dissolved the Nazi party and its subsidiaries a few days later “because the aims of these organizations run counter to criminal law.”

The ban on the Nazi Party was frustrated by the ultra-conservative, nationalist judges’ refusal to pass meaningful sentences on stormtroopers found guilty of acts of violence. Then, on March 31, 1928, the police lifted the ban in order to allow the Nazis to campaign in the national elections. For all Goebbels’s propagandistic genius, the Nazis did not do well in these elections, winning less than 3 percent of the vote nationwide. The election campaign in Berlin was further undermined by bitter rivalry between Goebbels and the Nazi Party's Reich Propaganda Leader, Gregor Strasser, and by constant rumblings of discontent from the stormtroopers. Yet the Nazis emerged from the election strengthened, having relegated rival far-right groups to the sidelines. And Goebbels’s weekly local paper, Der Angriff  (“Attack!”), founded the previous summer, was unfolding a skilful and demagogic publicity campaign that put the party firmly in the limelight.

Conditions for the Nazis improved still further with the campaign against the Young Plan, a rescheduling but not an abrogation of Germany’s reparations payments to the former Western Allies from World War I. The Plan allowed Hitler and Goebbels to join forces with the far more prominent and more mainstream German Nationalist Party and to use the German Nationalists’ newspapers for fresh publicity and a pitch to the Party’s supporters (almost all of whom eventually deserted to the Nazi cause). What decisively changed the Nazis’ fortunes in Berlin as elsewhere, however, was the Great Depression, which arrived in Germany shortly after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. With business and bank failures and sharply rising unemployment fueling massive discontent with the Weimar Republic and its institutions, people began to turn to the Nazi Party, largely because of its youth, its vitality, and its promise of a decisive solution to the crisis.

On November 17, 1929, the party increased its share of the vote in the Berlin municipal elections more than three times over, winning support particularly in the city’s better-off districts. Shortly afterward, in mid-January 1930, the Communists handed Goebbels a propaganda gift when they shot a local stormtrooper leader named Horst Wessel. The Nazi propagandists turned Wessel’s funeral into a massive celebration of young Germans’ willingness to martyr themselves to save their country from Communism. Wessel’s death even became the subject of a new song that was turned into the official hymn of the Nazi movement. It is a pity that Friedrich does not devote more attention to this incident, perhaps the most famous event involving the Nazi Party in Berlin before the seizure of power. (Every last detail of this incident has been turned over several times by historians.) His failure to do so is indicative of his evident disdain for personal detail, anecdote, and color that makes this, in the end, a book far duller than its topic deserves.

Wessel’s murder kept Hitler out of Berlin for several months. The Nazi leader was afraid that the Communists would try to shoot him too. Hitler meanwhile solved the internal squabbles of the party there by exiling Strasser’s brother Otto for emphasizing the “socialist” in “national socialist” over the “national,” while Strasser himself now toed the party line. During the national election campaign of 1930, Hitler scored a notable success with a major public speech at the Sportpalast, while the opening of the newly elected Reichstag—in which the Nazis had won more than a hundred seats—was accompanied by Nazi-orchestrated street demonstrations in which the windows of several Jewish-owned shops were smashed. Anxious not to alienate potential voters, the Nazis blamed all of this on Communist provocateurs, or, alternatively, declared roundly that they had not been involved in the violence at all.

Meanwhile, as the Nazi stormtroopers grew in number and in confidence, they began a local war of attrition against the Communists, attacking their meetings and using violence organized from their self-styled Nazi “storm centers” to force the Communists from their pubs and bars. It would have been interesting to have learned more about this process, but Friedrich moves swiftly on. Despite the electoral breakthrough of 1930, he notes, Hitler was still finding it difficult to make progress in the capital. Worried, Goebbels confided to his diary that the Nazi leader was “giving too little time to Berlin” and opined that Hitler “must throw his personal weight” into the struggle there “more than he has done until now.” Yet the propaganda chief, as Friedrich points out, was forced to admit that Hitler “does not really want to do so: he hates Berlin and loves Munich. That’s the crux of the matter. He refers to Potsdam, Washington and Ankara. But why Munich?” As a Rhinelander, Goebbels did not understand the enthusiasm of his boss for the Bavarian city. But Hitler, it seems, was still thinking of transferring the capital to a smaller, purer, less degenerate center than Berlin—to Munich, which he saw potentially as resembling Washington or Ankara or Frederick the Great’s residence, Potsdam.

Thus the Nazi Party headquarters stayed put in the “Brown House” in Munich, where Hitler had an apartment, even though all the other national political parties had their headquarters in Berlin. When he visited the national capital, he stayed at an hotel and grumbled about the conditions there, telling an Italian diplomat in 1931 that it was a city without traditions, half-Americanized, half lacking in culture, and unable to provide him with the peace and quiet he needed to work. Already in Mein Kampf and in some of his early speeches he had ranted against the “bestialized” mentality of the big city, and against its commercialism—in short, against what he saw as it Jewishness. On September 12, 1931, this hostility was given brutal expression in a series of planned storm trooper attacks on worshipers as they emerged from a synagogue off the Kurfürstendamm. Some prosecutions resulted, but conservative judges handed down the most lenient of sentences to the perpetrators.

Meanwhile the Nazi stormtrooper movement was gaining rapidly in strength, tripling its numbers in a few months in late 1931. Violence on the streets and at political meetings intensified, and the national government led by the conservative economic expert Heinrich Brüning banned the stormtroopers on April 13, 1932, raiding their premises and confiscating their equipment. Yet Hitler had been forewarned, and the stormtroopers carried on, disguised as sports clubs. Nazi sympathizers in the police ensured the ban was not strictly enforced. At the same time, Brüning was elbowed aside by a more radical conservative, Franz von Papen, who became the new head of government. President Hindenburg—a Field-Marshal from World War I—tasked Papen with winning Nazi support for the plans of his reactionary entourage to revise the Weimar constitution in an authoritarian direction and expand the armed forces in defiance of the restrictions imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles.

Papen lifted the ban on the stormtroopers, and violence on the streets reached fever-pitch once more, with hundreds killed in the following months. Nazi thuggery was directed not just at the Communists but also at the Social Democrats, who had provided the most solid support for the democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic from the very beginning. On June 25, 1932, for example, a gang of stormtroopers attacked the party’s offices in the Kreuzberg district, leading to an armed gun-battle that seriously injured three men. Every day, a respectable Berlin newspaper complained, “shots are to be heard in the street.” The situation was becoming intolerable.

Hitler always used violence and the threat of violence to underpin his dealings with other parties. After the failure of the beer-hall putsch in 1923, however, he had decided to follow the electoral road to power as well. There were plenty of opportunities in 1932, beginning with a Presidential election in which he came second to Hindenburg. Amid a massive propaganda campaign, the Nazis shot to national prominence. In July they won 37.4 percent of the vote in nationwide Reichstag elections, making them the largest party in the country. As Friedrich points out, Berlin bucked this trend to some extent, with the Communist candidate Ernst Thälmann polling 23.6 percent of the vote in the first round of the Presidential election, compared to only 13.2 percent nationally; and 20.7 percent in the second round, compared to 10.2 percent nationally. In the Reichstag elections in July, the Nazi vote in Berlin increased dramatically but still only reached 28.7 percent. The combined support of the Communists and Social Democrats in the capital was almost double that of the Nazis. Thus Berlin underlined its reputation as a stronghold of the left. Again, Friedrich supplies far too little detail about the social geography of these elections, so that the forces supporting and opposing the Nazis at the polls in Berlin remain unclear.

Negotiations for the incorporation of the Nazis into a new government dragged on, frustrated by Hitler’s insistence that this could only happen if he was appointed as the government’s head. The Nazis began to run out of money and steam. In the November 1932 elections the party lost two million votes, and in Berlin its support dropped to 721,000 votes, while the Communists increased their support to 861,000, with the Social Democrats coming in a strong third, at 647,000 votes. The circle around the President acted upon what they perceived as the Nazis’ weakness and entered negotiations with them again. Under the threat of civil war posed by the rampaging stormtroopers, Hitler managed to get himself appointed head of a coalition government on January 30, 1933, with conservatives, including Papen, in the majority and hoping to keep him under control.

Less than a month later, on February 28, a lone, deranged Dutch anarchist burned down the Reichstag building, providing an excuse for the government to blame the Communists, suspend civil liberties, and begin the mass arrest of its opponents. Elections held in March 1933 still failed to deliver an overall majority for the Nazis, who required the votes given to their conservative partners to get over the 50 percent barrier. In Berlin the Communists managed to garner one-quarter of the vote even in the face of the mass terror unleashed by the Nazis. But now the Nazi assault on Berlin really began. Soon some 200 makeshift “unofficial concentration camps” had been set up in the capital, many of them little more than cellars or warehouses, where hundreds of Communists and Social Democrats were tortured and murdered. Mass violence underpinned the Nazi seizure of power at every level, and by the summer of 1933 the other political parties had been dissolved, the conservatives pushed aside, and all major institutions brought under Nazi control.

Hitler was now finally free to remold Berlin according to his own idea of how a great world capital city should look. Alongside an assault on “degenerate art,” satirical cabaret, jazz, and all the other things that had so disgusted him about the city in the 1920s, Hitler now unfolded plans, as his secretary Rudolf Hess reported, for “turning Berlin into the great metropolis of the new German Reich.” A vast new sports complex for the Olympic Games of 1936 would be constructed, then new boulevards crisscrossing the city from north to south and east to west (one of which, renamed the Street of 17th June after the popular uprising against Communist rule in East Germany in 1953, is still there). A vast triumphal arch was to be built, along with a huge Great Hall, and a grandiose new airport terminal at Tempelhof (also still there, though no longer in use). Massive demolition and clearance schemes began to make way for these projects. Few were completed, and much of what was, such as the new Reich Chancellery building, perished in the bombing of World War II.

Hitler’s continuing distaste for Berlin was demonstrated even in his megalomaniac scheme to make it into the new capital of the world. The remodeled city was no longer to be called “Berlin”; it was to be renamed “Germania.” All traces of what the Nazi leader had so despised about it in the 1920s were to be removed. Friedrich mentions these intentions, but fails to see their significance for Hitler’s relationship with Berlin. Instead, the book advances the unpersuasive claim that “Hitler identified with the city,” when all the evidence shows that he only identified with his own idea of what it should really be.

This lack of real historical insight, repeated elsewhere in its pages, is one of many disappointing features of this book. The story it tells is familiar, the details mostly well known, the writing colorless; time and again, the opportunity is lost to convey the character of the city and its inhabitants through anecdote and quotation. We are told very little about its social and political geography, and nothing at all about its municipal government. Hitler’s Berlin contains not a single map of the city. This is not so much a book about Hitler and Berlin as a narrative of the rise of Nazism in general terms, as it happened in the German capital, drawing not on local sources but on well-known documents like Goebbels’s diaries and Hitler’s speeches. Indeed, because of Goebbels’s role as Nazi leader in Berlin, he features more prominently in the book than Hitler does.

In the five years since the book was published in German, moreover, a great deal of research has appeared about Berlin during this period, so that the book was out of date even before it was translated. Friedrich was a long-term museum curator in the city, not a professional historian, and while he was effective at presenting well-known facts to a wider audience, this book demonstrates, regrettably, that he did not really know to do original or innovative historical research. Given the highly critical reception the book received on its publication in Germany in 2007, it is puzzling that Yale University Press thought it was worth bringing out in English at all.

Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College at Cambridge University and author of The Third Reich at War, published by the Penguin Press in 2009.