Archive for August, 2009

The forgotten ones: Chancellors of the Weimar Republic

The forgotten ones: Chancellors of the Weimar Republic

Both English and German Wikipedia articles agree on the list of German chancellors during the Weimar Republic (although, if you look closely enough, they don’t necessarily agree on exact dates.)  As I reviewed the list, I found myself surprised by the fact that I really only recognized the names of six of them.  Here is the full list; the names that “rang a bell” for me are in bold.

  • Philipp Scheidemann
  • Gustav Bauer
  • Hermann Müller
  • Konstantin Fehrenbach
  • Joseph Wirth
  • Wilhelm Cuno
  • Gustav Stresemann
  • Wilhelm Marx
  • Hans Luther
  • Heinrich Brüning
  • Franz von Papen
  • Kurt von Schleicher
  • Adolf Hitler

And of those six that I recognized, only three of them came to mind as Weimar era chancellors.  Von Papen came to mind because of his role in “negotiating” with Austria leading up to the Anschluss; frankly, I’d forgotten that he was chancellor.  Von Schleicher came to mind because I recalled that he was murdered during the so-called “Night of the Long Knives“.  Hitler came to mind because … well, because he’s Hitler!  I simply hadn’t thought of him as a “Weimar chancellor”, but technically he was (though you might notice that the English page linked-to above does not list him — it seems to me that it should for the period from his election in January 1933 until he unified the offices of Chancellor and President into “Führer” in August 1934.)

So what of the other three whom I actually recalled as being Weimar chancellors: Scheidemann, Stresemann and Brüning?  Scheidemann no doubt came to mind because he was the one who proclaimed the German Republic:

Das deutsche Volk hat auf der ganzen Linie gesiegt. Das alte Morsche ist zusammengebrochen … Die Hohenzollern haben abgedankt! Es lebe die deutsche Republik!

(The German Volk has been completely victorious. The old rot has collapsed. … The Hohenzollerns have abdicated! Long live the German Republic!) [my translation]

I recalled Stresemann not primarily because of something he did during his chancellorship, but rather for his part as the vigorous negotiator for Germany in the talks that became the Dawes Plan.

As for Brüning, he came to mind simply as the last “serious” Weimar chancellor before everything, shall we say, went to hell.

And what of the ones whose names I did not even recognize?  The one that strikes me as most depressing (for having not been remember by me, someone who pretends to know a thing or two about German history!) is Wilhelm Marx.  The man served two terms for a total of more than 1100 days in office, fairly extraordinary for that time.  How can I not have remembered him?  As I review his English Wikipedia page, I see that it could be because Stresemann was still on the scene as his foreign minister during both of those terms.  Stresemann was a very important international figure, perhaps so much so that his legacy outstrips that of his superior during those 1100+ days.  Either that, or I was simply not paying attention in class!

Photo credits: The lead image for this article is a combination of three photos from the German Federal Archives which are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Germany license. In the photo are: Gustav Stresemann, Philipp Scheidemann and Gustav Bauer.

Big wins for Wikimedia Commons in Germany

Big wins for Wikimedia Commons in Germany

Germany has been a very friendly place indeed for Wikimedia Commons over the last several months, and all of us netizens reap the benefits. I’ve reaped a benefit right here, simply by putting in a rather random lead photo for this blog post. The photo is not mine, but I’m using it. Why? Because I can! Let me explain…

First there was the announcement in December of 2008 that the German Federal Archives, the Bundesarchiv, had donated 100,000 images to the Commons. Then, in late March of 2009, the Wikipedia Commons announced that they would be receiving 250,000 images under the Creative Commons license from the Deutsche Fotothek collection of the Land Library of Saxony – State and University Library Dresden (SLUB). Those images are still being uploaded to the Commons.

Because the latter collection is from Dresden, it contains a great many photos from the GDR (East Germany).  Here’s this one (cropped here in the blog post), for example, showing a “disco club” for the workers of a steel plant.  A large chunk of this SLUB archive consists of photos depicting industrial work in the GDR.


Disco club for steel plant workers. Click for original, including licensing and attribution info.

From what I’ve seen so far, I find the Bundesarchiv collection more interesting — at least the sample gallery page makes it seem so.  This picture of a Berlin street in February 1945 shows the aftermath of an Allied bombing.


Ruins on Mohrenstrasse, Berlin, 2/1945. Click for original, including licensing and attribution info.

Have a look through both collections. I’ve categorized this post under "Resources", because the images in these collections, being licensed under variants of the Creative Commons licensing family, are generally available for your use with only minor restrictions.

(Lead photo: “Ordensverleihung, Barzel, Weizsäcker“. Source: German Federal Archive. License: Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Germany.)

Berlin Wall link updates

I added ten or so links to my Berlin Wall links page over the weekend. Two of my new favorites are, unfortunately, only very useful for people who can read and understand German. The first is Hinrich Olsen’s private page, Friedliche Revolution und Mauerfall, which also has several photos so could be interesting even if you do not read German, and German broadcaster ZDF’s Mediathek, whereat you can type in a search for "DDR" and find lots of useful and interesting television clips. I particularly liked ZDF’s "Countdown Mauerfall" series, which shows clips from ZDF news on the same day in 1989 (e.g., today they will show their 17 August 1989 broadcast.)

For those who cannot speak/read German, one of the more interesting sites I linked to this weekend is Moments in Time: 1989/1990, from the federal office of civic education. It contains lots of material in English, and many of its photos are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning you can re-use them for non-commercial purposes.

Mary Fulbrook, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989″

Mary Fulbrook, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989″

By her own telling, Prof. Dr. Mary Fulbrook (University College London) conceived of the idea of writing a GDR history already in the early 1980s. I’m sure at the time she thought of some of the inherent difficulties in telling the story of a society that was, relative to the West, rather closed.

Then came 1989 and the years thereafter, when an explosion of material became available. I would guess that the sudden mountains of documents were rather daunting to specialists in German history. But Fulbrook waded through them and came out with this excellent history in 1995.

The book is divided into three sections: “The Contours of Domination”, wherein the party and state security apparatus are discussed, as well as extra-party organizations or communities (Church, labor union, academia etc.) that helped maintain control in areas where the party did not reach; “Patterns of Popular Compliance and Constraint”, where the opinions of the general populace are taken into consideration, as well as some of the Party’s strategies to mould its citizens; and “Challenges to Domination”, which begins with the June 1953 uprising and recounts some other more minor instances of uprising, then leading in to the 1980s, when the dissent took root, became more open and eventually led (as one factor) to the downfall of the regime.

It’s easy for works of history to be too dry for (shall we say) common consumption, particularly those histories that are more "scholarly" than "popular", as is the case with this book. One device that can bring the reader in early — “hook him”, so to speak — is to start off with a good human-interest story. Fulbrook does precisely this by opening the book as follows:

On Wednesday, 21 September 1961, Sieglinde M., a sixth-form pupil in Anklam, Neubrandenburg, came to school wearing a black pullover. For this, she was expelled from school and forced to ‘work in production.’

And not just poor Sieglinde, but her entire class. They were protesting the new law requiring service in the National People’s Army. This incident — one which we who were raised in western democracies would consider trivial, harmless and maybe even a little bit silly — raised alarms at the highest levels of the GDR government.

When reading the book for the first time, I considered this opening story to be important because I believe there are many intelligent people out there — particularly now, in 2009 — who attempt to minimize the dictatorial nature of the regime. (Of course, the title alone, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, had already gone quite far in assuring me that Professor Fulbrook was not one to do so!)

She begins chapter two, “Structures and Mentalities of Power”, with this rather clear statement:

The GDR was a repressive state. It was a dictatorship.

Yet she hardly takes a purely moralistic approach, which is no doubt tempting to people such as myself. But of course she is that much better as a historian by not dedicating every sentence to a black and white interpretation of the GDR. As she explains, that would be ahistorical. It would be counter-factual, because the truth of the matter is that many in the GDR did not see their own dictatorship in such black-and-white moralistic terms. In all honesty I find that truth to be somewhat painful, just as it depresses me that many who live in the eastern states of Germany today are actually longing for some kind of return to the GDR. But facts are facts, and Professor Fulbrook reports them, as well she should.

I actually read the book several years ago, and I notice now that I had turned down corners of several pages where I found passages to underline. I’ll submit just one of them here for your consideration. She’s talking about the massive amount of information the Stasi retained about people. Computer technology in the east was behind, therefore everything was kept on paper and cards:

And, as [Erich] Mielke is alleged to have commented, cards and paper have the edge over computers when there is a power failure — an important consideration under actually existing socialism. [p. 49]

Am I mistaken in finding a subtle bit of humor there? I think she’s poking a bit of fun at the regime by pointing out a weakness, in this case the very real problem of power failures, while labeling the regime with the moniker they themselves enjoyed: "real existing socialism" (real existierender Sozialismus).

Later she adds:

In retrospect, the childlike proliferation of codes and secrets, the guidelines and procedures, and the files of trivial observations couched in the self-important jargon of bureaucracy, could on occasion almost appear quite comic, were it not so tragic for those whose lives and careers were blighted in the process. [pp 49-50]

If you the history of the East German Communist Dictatorship interests you, you will undoubtedly enjoy Anatomy of a Dictatorship. (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english])

(Photo is mine, available under the Creative Commons license. For details please see the photo’s page at Flickr.)

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-08-16

  • Have chosen the Book of the Week (to be posted soon). I really really enjoyed this book this year. Books of the week appear on Mondays. #
  • If I don't actually _try_ to get followers, i wonder how many might just find me? (Probably not many!) #
  • Book received as gift from dad: — looks thrilling! #
  • RT @FAZ_Vermischtes: (german only) Flucht aus der DDR: Eine Liebe im geteilten Deutschland: … #
  • 90 y/o sentenced to life in prison in Munich for WWII atrocity. #
  • RT @historynews: [History: 1900-2000]: Germany: at Least 136 Were Killed at the Berlin Wall, Researchers Find #
  • RT @TheHistoryPress: C. Hilton describes working with an E Ger translator on upcoming book After the Berlin Wall #
  • RT @TheHistoryPress: The true story of the Nazi hunters behind the new Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds: #
  • RT @MattMoore647: The AP has started a project (flickr) on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall @ #
  • @MattMoore647 Wld be super if you could convince the bosses to release at least a few of those photos under Creative Commons! in reply to MattMoore647 #
  • Just got a personalized twitter background at #
  • Interesting story re re-publication of National Socialist newspapers (Völkischer Beobachter, etc.) #
  • readers tell their stories about where they were when the Wall came down. #
  • RT @RissmannT: 13.08.1961: Ich gedenke den Opfern des Mauerbaus und der deutschen Teilung sowie den Opfern des SED-Regimes. #
  • RT @historynews: [History: 1900-2000]: Cairo Link to Nazi Fugitive Confirmed #
  • RT @dw_germany: Poles, Germans rebury 2,000 WWII victims found in mass grave #
  • Jeffersonville, Indiana local columnist Roger Baylor recalls his summer in East Germany, 1989. #
  • Column re Alfred Döblin & Weimar Repub. Includes George Grosz watercolor, which I love! #
  • Fun to do a google image search on Grosz ( ). I love his stuff. #
  • I'm in an arty mood this Friday, so I have to share another fave of mine, Grosz's friend Frans Masereel. #
  • @MattMoore647 Is it just me or have these photos disappeared? in reply to MattMoore647 #
  • RT @WWIIToday: TIME recounts what Germany lost, Poland gained, this week in 1945 as Europe's borders are rearranged. #

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Berlin Wall link page — just starting out

No doubt about it, I’ve caught the Berlin Wall Bug big time.  This is going to be quite a year of commemorations, and I’ll be eating it all up with gusto.

As I already spend a bunch of time scouring the web for Berlin Wall history, information and photos, I decided I may as well take the next step and put up a page containing links to some of the better resources I have found.  The beginnings of this endeavor are visible now at my page simply titled “Berlin Wall“.   The link is also available up on the navigation bar.

There are only a few sites listed there now, as I need to pause for the rest of today and work on other things.  But I’ll be regularly updating the set of links.  And if you have found some good web resources concerning the Berlin Wall, I urge you to go to my “Berlin Wall” page and submit a comment to tell me about it.  Or you can always write me an e-mail: just address it to bill at this domain.

Berlin Wall construction began 48 years ago today

Berlin Wall construction began 48 years ago today

After tens of thousands had fled East Berlin for West Berlin in recent months, the East Germans began to erect a physical barrier in the early morning of 13 August 1961.  Thus began the Berlin Wall’s 28 year existence.  As Germans and others celebrate — this year, 2009 — the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, more attention will naturally be given as well to this anniversary of its construction.

I enjoy looking at archives to read through immediate reactions to such big historical events.  I’ve looked today the U.S. State Department archives, specifically “Foreign Relations, 1961-1963, Volume XIV, Berlin Crisis, 1961-1962“.

An early telegram to Washington from the leader of the U.S. Mission in Berlin, Allen Lightner, speculated:

Evidently as a result of increased refugee flow with attendant economic loss to GDR and prestige to Socialist camp, East decided at recent Moscow conference of Warsaw Pact countries to proceed with fait accompli which would drastically disrupt freedom of movement within Berlin and erect frontier with respect entry into West Berlin of Sov Zone and East Berlin residents. In this way East has now taken some of the steps which it had been anticipated would follow from separate peace treaty with GDR.

As one would expect for such a momentous and dangerous event, the archives show a mix of reactions among U.S. diplomats.  On 16 August, after three days of relative inactivity on the part of the west, Lightner’s telegrams show obvious frustration:

In essence these people feel that we are facing a crisis of confidence which endangers quite seriously our position. This is based on the absence of any sharp and definite followup action since the Secretary’s statement. However this feeling of letdown is the greater because the President’s speech had had such a large readership and television following and had evoked such widespread public acceptance as a promise of firmness. I have not been impressed by German complaints of the lack of display of US military presence since sector borders were closed. I realize also that the longstanding belief that US support is the main and only German protection makes them impatient of our desire to act in concert with NATO Allies. Taking into account these prejudices and discounting numerous emotional arguments which have been made to me I am nevertheless convinced that what is described as the surrender of East Berlin to Ulbricht with all that this immediately implies has been a shock so severe that it can gravely affect our future relations, first, with the city of Berlin and its leaders, and second with the Federal Republic once the extent of the disillusionment here is recognized in Bonn.


Comment: I anticipate Berliners will label our Aug 15 letter of protest belated and tepid. No one here asking large violent action, merely some action, some proof this is not “another sample of `Hitler’s take over of Rhineland'”. I think the timetable for this crisis has been stepped up very considerably and there is real danger that Berliners will conclude they should take themselves, their bank accounts and movable assets to some other place. What is in danger or being destroyed here is that perishable commodity called hope. [my emphasis]

Berlin Mayor and future German Chancellor Willy Brandt wrote to President Kennedy personally on 16 August to express his doubts about western reactions to the crisis:

This development has not changed will to resist of West Berlin population, but has tended to arouse doubts as to determination of three powers and their ability to react. In this connection the decisive factor is that the West has always specifically invoked the existing Four-Power status.


[I] recollect not without bitterness declarations rejecting negotiations with USSR on basis one should not negotiate under pressure. We now have state of accomplished extortion, and already I hear it will not be possible turn down negotiations. In such situation, when possibility of initiative for action is already so small, it is all the more important at least to demonstrate political initiative.

Among those located in Washington, you can see as early as 14 August, the day after construction began, the beginnings of the treatment of the event as a fait accompli as shown in McGeorge Bundy’s summary of his discussions with others:

The Department’s proposal for a riposte is likely to be the ending of the travel permits which have been issued by the three powers in West Berlin to East Germans who want to visit allied or neutral countries. This was used a year ago in response to East German harassment of civilian traffic, and it worked well. No one thinks it will cause a reversal of policy this time, in the light of the much more serious causes of this much larger action. But it is argued that it will give some pain, since it will cut off East German access to allied countries and to those neutral nations which play along.

I find this argument unconvincing. I doubt if we should take little actions in reprisal against this big one, especially when the punishment is unrelated to the crime. The only good argument for this action is that it has been discussed among the 4 Powers before as a possible retort to border-closing, and there may be some Allied worry about our “reliability” if we don’t support it now.

Incidentally, I find agreement in both Joe Alsop and George Kennan to these three conclusions: (1) this is something they have always had the power to do; (2) it is something they were bound to do sooner or later, unless they could control the exits from West Berlin to the West; (3) since it was bound to happen, it is as well to have it happen early, as their doing and their responsibility.

It reminds me of the opening pages of Rainer Eppelmann’s memoir, Fremd im eigenen Haus (Amazon US, UK, DE). Eppelmann’s father had papers showing him as being registered in West Berlin, whereas the family home was in the east. The parents agreed that the father should remain in the west (where work was more plenty):

Both [parents] were absolutely convinced that the Wall, erected brick-by-brick in front of the eyes of the world, would not remain for long. The West would never allow it! [My translation and emphasis]

In the Hausarchiv: Wiener Zeitung, 4 November 1945

In the Hausarchiv: Wiener Zeitung, 4 November 1945

Amateur history nerd that I am, I’m quite pleased to have married into a family which has retained all sorts of books, newspapers and magazines dating from about 1920 onwards.  The “In the Hausarchiv” series gives an occasional look at the things I’ve come across in our own “house archive”.

Today’s “In the Hausarchiv” features the Sunday, 4 November 1945, edition of the newspaper the Wiener Zeitung.  The lead article’s headline reads “Bardossy war der Verräter” (“Bardossy was the betrayer”).  It concerns the trial in Budapest of the former Hungarian Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy, later convicted of war crimes and then executed in 1946.

Reading through the article, I was surprised at how condemnatory it seemed for something written on just the second day of the trial.  You can see that from the headline alone, but also within the text, with passages such as “[Bardossy] did everything within his power to quash any remaining vestiges of Hungary’s independence and force it to become  a vassal of the Germans.” (My translation.)  The article purports to report on Bardossy’s testimony, yet I imagine Bardossy came nowhere near describing his own actions with such self-condemnation.

But of course the tone of the article is not that surprising when we remember that these were still the early months of the occupation of Austria by the Soviets, the Americans, the British and the French.  The Soviets, in particular, would have been most interested in portraying a Hungarian fascist in this way.   Only later did I realize the byline of the article reads “TASS”, the Soviet news agency.  You can see “TASS” in the photo accompanying this entry.  I simply didn’t notice it when I first read the article.

One other very short article caught my eye.  I assume the article, which is rather anecdotal and offers no information as to the date of its events, describes an event that happened before the end of the war and therefore while the National Socialists were still in power.  A certain August Herat, lorry driver, turned down cash and instead accepted 10 sacks of potatoes, 450 kg of peas, and some pork fat for transporting potatoes for Marie Baburek, who owned a stand at the Naschmarkt.   During his trip he also received a goose and 6 liters of wine.  But bad luck: Ms Baburek decided to snitch on him for this obvious violation of wartime commerce laws.  The unlucky Mr. Herat was fined 200 Reichsmark (which is why I assume this occurred during the National Socialist regime — though perhaps the Reichsmark were still in circulation in November 1945 as new currency was awaited?) and sentenced to six months in prison.

Welt Online shows child victims of the Berlin Wall

Welt Online shows child victims of the Berlin Wall

November 2009 will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many German publications and websites are therefore dedicating a great deal of time and space to commemorating the event.

The online presence of the German newspaper Die Welt posted on Monday a photo essay of five children who died because of the presence of the “Wall” (the term is used broadly to describe the entire border between East and West Berlin, including the Spree River, which, as you will see, plays a significant role here.) I include here a brief English summary of each entry:

  1. Cengaver Katranci, an 8 year-old Turkish immigrant in West Berlin, fell into the water from the banks of the Spree River in October 1972. A fisherman wanted to help him but decided against it, knowing that the whole of the river at this point was found within GDR borders. West Berlin police tried to summon boats from the east to save him, but failed. It took 90 minutes for a boat from the east to finally begin the search. His body was found two hours after he fell in.
  2. Siegfried Kroboth, a five year-old, also fell into the Spree from the west in May 1973. West Berlin police saw him in the water but could do nothing. Occupants of an East Berlin border post did nothing. Only hours later did divers from the east fish out his body.
  3. Cetin Mer fell into the Spree on 11 May 1975, his fifth birthday. His body was retrieved two hours later. After this event, the east and west finally agreed on a warning system by which border police could raise alarm and call on rescuers.
  4. Giuseppe Savoca, the 6 year-old son of Italian immigrants, fell into the Spree on 15 June 1974. Border guards on the eastern side saw this and reported it. Shortly thereafter, a boat belonging to the eastern border troops came by but simply kept going. Only after receiving orders did the boat crew fish out the young boy’s body.
  5. The East German parents of the 15 month-old Holger H. wanted their son to grow up in freedom.  In 1973 they attempted to escape by hiding in boxes in a lorry of a friend from West Berlin.  During the wait at the border post, Holger began to cry.  His mother covered the baby’s mouth, but because Holger had a middle-ear infection his nasal membranes were swollen and he was therefore unable to breath.  He suffocated in his mother’s arms.

The photo accompanying this blog post shows part of the Spree river going through Berlin. Credit: flickr user Murdoch. / CC BY 2.0.

“Auschwitz” by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt

“Auschwitz” by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt

Auschwitz (Amazon US, UK, DE [english], DE [german]) is probably my favorite of the history-related books I’ve read so far in 2009.   Young Stalin (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [german]) comes in a close second, but it’s off-topic in this blog!

I first discovered Auschwitz because one of its authors, Robert Jan Van Pelt, testified on behalf of Deborah Lipstadt in the libel suit brought against her by David Irving.  I read Lipstadt’s History on Trial (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english]), in which she mentions Van Pelt on several occasions.  I found the description of his testimony concerning architectural evidence at Auschwitz to be very interesting and thought I’d follow up by reading the book he co-authored with Dwork.

The book begins by sketching Auschwitz as an “ordinary town with an ordinary 700-year-old history.”  The town was established as German (“Auschwitz”) but had long periods of being Polish (“Oswiecim”).  Even at its German founding it was in the close vicinity of several Polish towns.  It was, in other words, a border town, a fact which played a very important role in its future.   After the total polonification of the area, Germany made several turns towards the East (1700s, 1800s); though Germans tended to see these movements as returns towards an East that was naturally theirs.

I’m close to embarking on an overly-detailed look at the book, but I’ll stop now (well, soon) and simply say “read it” if you are at all interested in that part of history.  As a non-professional, I’m not in any position to critique or formally review the book, so I can only tell you what I particularly liked about it: the inclusion of some early history of Auschwitz/Oswiecim; the portions of its National Socialist history that pre-dated its use as a concentration camp (we immediately — and rightly — think “concentration camp” and “gas” when hearing Auschwitz mentioned, so it was interesting to read about the pre-concentration camp days it spent under the National Socialists), the fascinating detail of the architectural record and the evidence it provides as to how Auschwitz was actually used.

Highly recommended (of course, since it’s a Book of the Week!)

(Photo credit: flickr user One from RM. / CC BY 2.0.)