Monday, May 22, 2006

BOOK: David Clay Large, "Where Ghosts Walked"

David Clay Large: Where Ghosts Walked: Munich's Road to the Third Reich. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997. 039303836X. xxvi + 406 pp.

I probably wouldn't have bought this book if I hadn't had the opportunity to get it so cheaply, only $9 from an eBay seller (from whom I bought several other books at the same time and had the whole lot shipped by surface mail M-bag, so that shipping was dirt cheap too). Yes, yes, I can see you muttering under your breath right now, ‘look at the damned philistine, the first thing he has to say about the book is the price’; but the reason for this is that I'm trying to better explain (to myself, above all) why I bought and read this book. It's not a bad book, nor uninteresting, nor poorly written; but if I had to pay amazon's price for it ($20 currently, plus shipping), I wouldn't have bought it (nor missed it), or if I had bought it nevertheless, I would be somewhat disappointed and would think the money poorly spent. I just didn't find it that interesting or that pleasant a read.

I am, in principle, interested in the origins of Nazism and of the Third Reich. I read Richard Evans' Coming of the Third Reich with great interest some time ago. I am particularly interested in the cultural milieu that made the population of Germany so susceptible to Nazi ideology; and not just the masses, the lower middle class, but also the solid middle class and the elites. This, I think, is the chief reason why I decided to read this book, for its dust jacket promises: “Large's account begins in Munich's ‘golden age,’ the four decades before World War I, when the city's artists and writers produced some of the outstanding works of the modernist spirit. But there was a dark side, a protofascist cultural heritage that would tie Hitler's movement to the soul of the city. Large prowls this volatile world, its eccentric poets and publishers, its salons and seamy basement meeting places. In this hothouse atmosphere attacks on cosmopolitan modernity and political liberalism flourished, along with a virulent anti-Semitism and German nationalism.”

Perhaps it was this paragraph from the back flap of the jacket that led me to expectations which were then a little disappointed. The first few chapters of the book do indeed tell the story of Munich's cultural scene from the turn of the century onwards, and there are many interesting things there, but after reading all that I don't feel that I understand the origins of Nazism any better than before. Perhaps, as often, I should have read more carefully. Anyhow, the rest of the book is mostly a history of Munich (and Bavaria) during the WW1, the Weimar Period, and the Third Reich; and the book ends with a few pages about Munich's post-WW2 attitude to the Nazi period. It's a perfectly decent work of narrative history, I just happened to find that I'm not really that interested in reading yet another book about the rise of the Third Reich merely because it has a specifically Bavarian perspective.

The first few chapters are about the artistic and bohemian aspects of Munich in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; as can be expected, there are many curious and pleasantly weird things here. “Not without reason was the Stefanie known as Café Grössenwahn (Café Grand Illusion)” (p. 4). There are several brief sections presenting the various notable and eccentric personalities of that scene. The psychiatrist and writer Oskar Panizza wrote “a mock detective story featuring garden plants practicing nightly masturbation. When word reached Panizza's military superiors that their unit physician had written a story about Pflanzen-Onanie, they ordered him to give up his literary avocation. He refused, and they cashiered him.” (P. 10.)

Alfred Schuler, a poet fond of silly quasi-pagan ideas, ‘racial renewal’, Nietzsche, etc., etc., “could fall into semiorgiastic transports simply by seeing a swastika design on an ashtray. ‘Swastika! Swastika!’ he would stammer, his eyes bulging.” (P. 29.) He planned to cure Nietzsche's insanity “by subjecting the thinker to the Dionysian powers of ancient corybantic dance as interpreted by a band of virile young men wearing nothing but copper bracelets’ (p. 29, but Nietzsche's sister vetoed this plan). He “became guru to some of Munich's most prominent rightists’ (p. 29).

Another notable figure of the period was the poet Stefan George; evidently very much a fin-de-siecle figure, anxious to set himself above the crowd, “he thought that poetry should be a secret code open only to the elect. [. . .] The young men who made up George's circle were subjected to a tyrannical order. They had to respect the Master's edict that all nouns be set in lowercase. They were required to recite his works by memory in a ghostlike chant.” (P. 31.)

Schuler, George and one or two others formed the ‘Cosmic Circle’, a “coterie of self-absorbed intellectuals whose views were authoritarian and protofascist” (p. 25). Thomas Mann commented on the spirit of this group: “these cosmic evenings revealed an intriguing mixture of uncompromising absolutism, hunger for grand solutions, hero worship, and eagerness for self-sacrifice in the name of purification and redemption. [Later] Mann was to locate the spiritual origins of the German catastrophe in just this kind of all-consuming megalomania.” (P. 33.)

A few observations on Spengler's Decline of the West: “Its length and turgidity may have helped make it popular in Germany, [. . .] where profundity was (and often still is) thought to be incompatible with brevity and lucidity. But the Decline's main appeal was undoubtedly its very gloominess. Because the first of its two volumes appeared in 1918, at the end of the great slaughter, it harmonized perfectly with the dominant mood.“ (P. 57.) It gained “quick and universal popularity” (ibid.).

I learnt a new word on p. 61. Thomas Mann's son Klaus remembered the lack of food during WW1: “But in trying to carry the eggs home in his numb hands, Klaus dropped them on the sidewalk. ‘It was bitter beyond description to watch the beautiful yolks, a mucilaginous rivulet, oozing away between the paving stones. [. . .]’ ” (P. 61.) The word is sort of self-explanatory — surely as soon as you see mucilage, you think of mucus, which, according to, is in fact the correct root — but still I can't help feeling somewhat fascinated by the existence of such a word. Surely it must be the perfect thing for the poser or the grandiloquent language snob (and for nobody else). Why say ‘slimy’ when ‘mucilaginous’ is so much more impressive!

There are some interesting speculations that the wartime cold, scarcity, and famine influenced some of the notable literary works of that period, not only Thomas Mann's but also the Decline of the West: “if ever a book bore the mark of having been written on an empty stomach, it was this one.” (P. 61.) Due to the lack of better foodstuffs, the Dotsche (turnip) became the staple food during the war, prompting bitter jokes about ‘Dotchland über Alles” (p. 62).

There are also a few interesting chapters about the turbulent years immediately after the end of the first world war. A socialist Council of Workers and Soldiers, led by Kurt Eisner, briefly came to power and proclaimed a republic. However, “Eisner was no Lenin. [. . .] he was entirely unprepared to advance the revolution by liquidating ‘class enemies’ or by establishing a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Nor, unlike some of the Schwabing bohemians who initially backed him, did he welcome the prospect of anarchy.’ (P. 81.) “Eisner's problem, however, was not just that he was an outsider but that he was an incompetent outsider. He was unable to shift from the world of theatrical journalism and coffeehouse philosophizing to the complex realities of political adminisration. Moreover, he was excessively tenderhearted for his new responsibilities.” (P. 84.) After losing an election, he was assassinated by a young aristocrat, count Arco auf Valley, just as he was about to resign from his post of the prime minister (p. 91). The murderer was treated quite leniently by the courts. And this is not the only such example; later in the Weimar period, Nazis who had caused trouble were much more likely to be treated leniently by the court system than when the same sort of trouble had been caused by communists. It's a sad but probably quite natural fact that judges, lawyers, and policemen are more likely to be authoritarian and conservative rather than democratic and progressive. There should be some systemic effort against this, perhaps some kind of quota system to ensure a sufficiently unbiased operation of the courts and police system. As for Eisner, “middle- and upper-class citizens were happy to see him out of the way” (p. 92), and a member of the Thule Society “desecrated Eisner's shrine [that had been set up by Eisner's followes at the site of his death] by sprinkling it with the urine of a bitch in heat; soon every male dog from miles around was lifting his leg on the sacred spot.” (P. 103).

“Ironically, if Eisner had managed to resign as he had intended, parliamentary government might have been introduced.” (P. 103.) Instead, several months of chaotic politics followed, with much bickering among various left-wing groups, efforts to establish a soviet system, etc. The 25-year-old Ernst Toller, who became the prime minister following a proclamation of the soviet republic of Bavaria, found himself besieged by “legions of cranks offering advice for the betterment of humanity. Variously, they proposed that the world's evil resided in cooked food, the gold standard, unhygienic underwear, technology, the lack of a universal language, department stores, or birth control. A Swabian shoemaker submitted a voluminous pamphlet proving (in Toller's words) that ‘modern man owed his moral sickness to the fact that he satisfied his elementary needs in closed rooms and with the need of artificial paper [. . .].’ ” (p. 111).

Although they ignored these cranks, Toller and his cabinet colleagues came up with lots of pleasantly bizarre ideas anyway. Gustav Landauer, the education commissar, “required newspapers to print the poems of Hölderlin and Schiller on their front pages” (p. 111). “The housing commissar froze all rents, ordered that unused lofts in the city be turned over to artists for studio space, and decreed that henceforth all houses must be built with the living rooms above the kitchen.” (P. 112.) And “someone in the government found time to decree that henceforth the German name for Bavaria, Bayern, should be spelled with an i rather than a y.” (P. 112.) Actually, most of these ideas sound splendid — I wish I lived in a country like that! But actually all of this is nothing compared to the antics of the commissar for foreign affairs, one Dr Lipp, who was actually insane and sent telegrams to Lenin and the pope complaining that “the ‘fugitive Hoffmann took the toilet key to my ministry with him [. . .] the hairy gorilla hands of Gustav Noske [. . .] are dripping in blood’ ” :-)))

After the war and the revolutionary years immediately following it, “Berlin emerged as one of the world's cosmopolitan cities, [while] Munich embraced virulent nationalism, racism, and provincialism” (p. 123). This was partly due to a reaction to the bohemian and modernist heritage of the previous decades (which were never universally popular with Munich's population), but partly it was an amplification of tendencies present in that heritage itself: “Munich's bohemian culture itself harbored darker admixtures of racism, insularity, and hero-worship. Now war and revolution had generated a climate of hatred and anxiety in which the darker dimensions of Munich's prewar culture and society could come to the fore.” (P. 124.) Munich “combined extreme conservatism with a defensive parochialism” (p. 195); many right-wing forces joined hands in this attack on modernism, liberalism, cosmopolitanism, etc.: “In matters of the intellect, Nazis and Bavarian conservatives found plenty of common ground” (p. 196). The Nazis appointed themselves Munich's “unofficial guardians of family and national values. [. . .] Favourite tactics included setting loose packs of rats in theaters and throwing stink bombs during performances.” (P. 207.) The campaign against the Jewish actress Tilla Durieux: “on the advice of the conservative Bayerische Kurier, some members of the audience emptied chamber pots in the hall” (p. 207). In 1924, a Berlin newspaper proclaimed Munich “ ‘The Dumbest City in Germany’ ” and semi-jocularly blamed it on the beer: “ ‘Hitlerism, von Kahr, hate-filled judges, the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten—all these are easily explained by 500 liters of beer [i.e. the yearly consumption by an average Munich male].’ ” (P. 210.) Many artists and intellectuals left Munich and its poisoned atmosphere. A notable exception was Thomas Mann, but then he seems to have been quite a political conservative during the WW1 and immediately afterwards; and even he was increasingly unhappy with the course of events, though he still hoped that Munich may change for the better (p. 212–3).

The 1920 right-wing putsch led by Wolfgang Kapp was rather a failure: “like so many putschists before and since, Kapp and his allies were unprepared to govern what they had so boldly seized. [. . .] President Ebert's officials, in a cruel but brilliant act of sabotage, had hidden all the rubber stamps before fleeing.” (P. 136.)

Here's another anecdote illustrating the pro-right-wing sympathies that were so widespread among the police and other parts of officialdom. “When one citizen came to [Police Chief] Pöhner and asked if he was aware that there were “political murder gangs” operating in Munich, he replied, ‘Yes, but not enough of them.’ ” (P. 141.) But admittedly, if we can disregard for a moment the fact that this statement supports right-wing murder gangs, we must admit that it's really splendid: there's marvellous sort of let-them-eat-cake cynicism about it, just the sort that I like best.

There are a few interesting anecdotes about the 1923 hyperinflation on p. 159: a 100-trillion-mark banknote was issued in November; the American consul commented on his poker games: “ ‘It was quite a thrill to raise a trillion’ ”; and “A woman waiting in line to pay fo groceries with a basket of money turned her back to chat with a neighbor; when she turned around, she discovered that someone had tipped out the money and stolen her basket.”

[To be continued in a few days.]


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