Couldn’t Happen Here

If you know me, you might know that I spent my last year of college in Germany.  I’ve always had a curious fascination with the place: it’s a nation that didn’t exist until the late 19th century and then spent the first half of the 20th century trying to take over the world-and committing moral suicide along the way.  It was then torn in two and rebounded to become (at least the Western part) one of the most successful countries in the world.

I’ve always wondered how the nation spun into the moral decay that led to World War II and the Holocaust.  The world was in a bad time in the 1930s (sound familiar?) but the Germans responded in their own uniquely offensive (both militarily and morally) way.  Recently I’ve been reading Christopher Isherwood‘s The Berlin Stories, which gives a sense of what the atmosphere was like in the early 1930s before the Nazis came to power.  He chronicles the time and it offers a bit of insight into what life was like in a  nation humbled and bankrupted by the Versailles Treaty, wracked by hyperinflation and desperately searching for strong leadership – be it from the Right or the Left.

Here’s a striking passage:

Berlin was in a state of civil war [Isherwood is returning to it in late 1932].  Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon.  Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines.  In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assilants had disappeared.  Otto got a gash over the eye with a razor in a battle on a fair-ground near the Copernickerstrasse.  The doctor put in three stitches and he was in hospital for a week.  The newspapers were full of death-bed photographs of rival martyrs, Nazi, Reichsbanner and Communist.  My pupils [he was a teacher] looked at them and shook their heads, apologizing for the state of Germany. “Dear, dear!” they said, “it’s terrible.  It can’t go on.”

The murder reporters and the jazz-writers had inflated the German language beyond recall.  The vocabulary of newspaper invective (traitor, Versailles-lackey, murder-swine, Marx-crook, Hitler-swamp, Red-pest) had come to resemble, through excessive use, the formal phraseology of politeness employed by the Chinese.  The word Liebe, soaring from the Goethe standard, was no longer worth a whore’s kiss.  Spring, moonlight, youth, rose, girl, darling, heart, May: such was the miserably devaluated currency dealt in by authors of all those tangoes, waltzes and fox-trots which advocated the private escape.  Find a dear little sweetheart, they advised, and forget the slump, ignore the unemployed.  Fly, they urged us, to Hawaii, to Naples, to the Never-Never-Vienna.  Hugenberg, behind the Ufa [a film production company], was serving up nationalism to suit all tastes.  He produced battlefield epics, farces of barrack-room life, operattas in whch the jinks of a pre-war military aristocracy were reclothed in the fashions of 1932.  his brilliant directors and camera-men had to concentrate their talents on cyncially beautiful shots of the bubbles in champagne and the sheen of lamplight on silk.

And morning after morning, all over the immense, damp, dreary town and the packing-case colonies of huts in the suburb allotments, young men were waking up to another workless empty day to be spent as they could best contrive; selling bootlaces, begging, playing draughts in the hall of the Labour Exchange, hanging about urinals, opening the doors of cars, helping with crates in the marekts, gossiping, lounging, stealing, overhearing racing tips, sharing stumps of cigarette-ends picked up in the gutter, singing folk-songs for groschen in courtyards and between stations in the carriages of the Undergorund Railway.  After the New Year, the snow fell, but did not lie; there was no money to be earned by sweeping it away.  The shopkeepers rang all coins on the counter for fear of the counterfeiters.  Frl. Schroeder’s astrologer foretold the end of the world.  “Listen,” said Fritz Wendel, between sips of a cocktail in the bar of the Eden Hotel, “I give a damn if this country goes communist.  What I mean, we’d have to alter our ideas a bit.  Hell, who cares?”

As an aside, this is almost certainly what life was like in Sarajevo in 1992.  When I was in Germany I knew a girl who had been to Croatia for a holiday in 1990.  She remembered that every night there were fistfights between men in the street; the next year, the war began.

It was a similar situation in Rwanda in the years leading up to the genocide in 1994.  The UN was reporting that there was violence in the streets attributable to many parties – the military, politicized youth mobs and various ethnic groups.

Someone is going to write a fascinating paper one day talking about how nations respond to crises: the U.S. in the 1930’s peacefully overcame the displacement brought on by economic disaster and became strong; the Germans projected their issues outward onto the rest of the world whereas Yugoslavia/Rwanda collapsed into horrific civil wars.  I’d love to know why each responded in its own way.