Modern history



ON THE EVE OF the first great war of the twentieth century, Berlin was the second-largest city in Europe. Since unification, massive industrial growth, a breakneck expansion in construction, and a huge increase in wealth, especially for the middle and upper classes, had transformed the German capital into a boom town comparable with San Francisco or Chicago.

Great tenement blocks, often built in gloomy grey stone, spread out from the heart of the city, especially in the east. Consisting of concentric courtyards like Chinese boxes, getting cheaper as the inner courtyards became darker and more airless and the apartments smaller, such blocks were known in Berlin as Mietskasernen (rental barracks). In the west, away from the historic centre, well-to-do suburbs ate into the agricultural land and swallowed up the lake landscape that surrounded the city. The newly rich middle and professional classes wanted space and greenery. Districts such as Grunewald, Wilmersdorf, and Zehlendorf rapidly filled with desirable residences in a variety of inauthentic but grandiose styles, be they colonnaded classical villas or turreted, mock-medieval fortresses.

Bismarck’s long dominance as first chancellor of the German Empire (1871-90) saw the liberal flame that burned so brightly in the middle of the century all but die. Many liberals joined Bismarck’s reactionary project, calling themselves ‘National Liberals’ to make their allegiance clear. Middle-class Germans were content to exchange truly representative government for the wealth, power and prestige that rapidly ensued.

After unification, a national parliament or Reichstag was established. Bismarck’s trick was to make this body electable on the basis of universal male suffrage, thus superficially democratic. However, he gave its members no say over the formation of the Reich government, which remained wholly the Emperor’s prerogative. Who won how many seats was therefore only marginally important. This hybrid form of authoritarian government was Bismarck’s most problematical legacy.

The ‘Prussianisation’ of Germany continued apace. A large national army on the Prussian model, based on conscription, meant that all German males were influenced by military values. The new regime slyly transformed the liberal idea of the ‘Home Guard’ into a reinforcing element for the authoritarian status quo.

The officer in uniform became a figure of great prestige and privilege, not just in small garrison towns but even in the great, cosmopolitan city of Berlin. Officers might not beat soldiers in public any more, as they had in the eighteenth century, but they were assured of a place at the front of the queue in a store, and of a table in a restaurant. This unique attitude of arrogant invulnerability was much remarked on by visiting foreigners.

Berlin in 1914 was none the less not just a big military cantonment. It was also a great world capital and industrial centre. Especially important were dynamic new areas of manufacturing like the electrical and chemical industries. Germany quickly outstripped Britain in this ‘second industrial revolution’, and also in machine-tools and steel-making. The Reich was now the largest and most efficient industrial power in Europe and, after the United States of America, in the world. It enjoyed a literary and journalistic flowering the equal of anywhere in Europe.

So what was the problem? How did the twentieth century, which started, for Germany and for Europe, with such hope and dynamism, become the most catastrophic in history?

It is true that imperial Germany had its neuroses. So did Britain and France. Think of the Dreyfus Affair. It is true that imperial Germany was jingoistic and insecure. But anyone who looks at Britain and France at the same period will also see distasteful hyper-patriotism, and cities that were breeding-grounds for a host of verminous political movements and ominous social anxieties.1 German society was militaristic, but then what else was the early Boy Scout movement in Britain (founded by a soldier-servant of the empire in 1907) but a system of military training for boys?

It was also true that, as a counterbalance to nationalist xenophobia, Marxist internationalism had grown into a hugely powerful political force in Germany. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), founded in 1875, became the defining mass movement of the quickly expanding German working class. When the British Labour Party was not even a twinkle in Keir Hardie’s eye, the German socialist movement had a membership measured in millions, and scores of deputies in the Reichstag. Its myriad clubs, debating societies, self-help groups, trade unions, and welfare institutions amounted to an alternative society within society.

In 1881, Chancellor von Bismarck had created the world’s first comprehensive state-directed social welfare system, in great part as a means of heading off the spread of socialism among the German workers. He persuaded the Emperor to sanction a contributory welfare scheme that would protect workers from the worst consequences of poverty due to ill health or old age. In this way he hoped to bind the masses to the authoritarian status quo.

But at the same time as he introduced this welfare system, which put Germany decades ahead of the rest of the world, Bismarck made one serious mistake, which the country would pay for not just during his chancellorship but in the decades to come. The Chancellor attempted not just to hinder but to suppress the expanding socialist movement, whose members he described as ‘rats…who should be exterminated’.

After two assassination attempts against the Emperor in 1878, Bismarck seized his chance. Cynically equating the respectable Left with anarchist regicides, Bismarck enacted emergency legislation to shut down the SPD. Newspapers were banned, homes and offices searched, activists and editors thrown into jail or forced into exile (especially to America). However, it was not possible for Bismarck to stop socialists putting themselves forward for election, or to prevent the foundation of unions, so long as they were not technically affiliated to the illegal party.

The periodically renewable anti-socialist law lasted until 1890. By then thirty-five socialists, representatives of the illegal movement, sat defiantly in the Reichstag. Oppression had, in fact, only made the movement stronger, more defiant and self-reliant. Bismarck’s twelve-year attempt to turn back the political tide failed disastrously.

Emperor William I died in Berlin in March 1888, a few days before his ninety-first birthday. His heir was an enthusiastic liberal, a tendency in which he was encouraged by his wife, the British Princess Victoria. Tragically, Emperor Frederick III was already ill with throat cancer. He reigned for ninety-nine days. His son and successor, William II, would rule for thirty years and lead the prosperous, united, dynamic Germany he had inherited into unimaginable disaster. He was a believer in his divine right to kingship, and of Germany’s equally divinely ordained position of world dominance, to which, in his eyes, her new strength entitled her.

At twenty-nine, when he became emperor or Kaiser, young William was quick-minded but intolerant, stubborn but mercurial, and possessed of a spectacular set of personal neuroses that reflected in important ways the insecurities of his country itself.

The new Emperor was determined not just to reign but to rule. Within two years, he had forced Bismarck out of office. He abandoned Bismarck’s subtle system of alliances, which kept Austria and Russia close to Germany, while France, still smarting from her 1870 defeat, remained safely isolated. William decided that Germany must become a real world power, and she must therefore have a navy to rival Britain’s.

William succeeded only in driving his rivals into each other’s arms. In 1894, France and Russia signed a treaty of alliance. Within another few years, Europe’s ancient enemies, Britain and France, ended hundreds of years of mutual hostility. The agreement they signed covered colonial disputes, but it led directly to a de facto alliance and eventually to a triple alliance of Britain, France and Russia. By 1914, this faced the Central European alliance formed by Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The Kaiser heaped fuel on the fire by wild rhetorical outbursts, for which he became internationally notorious. He never learned that being a great power involved great responsibilities. There were plenty of Germans who did understand this, but they were often out-shouted by a new and influential breed of ultra-nationalists. This group was particularly numerous in the prosperous suburbs of Berlin, among the officer corps, the academic élite, and the highly successful industrial salariat, especially those involved in what would later be called the ‘military-industrial complex’.

The paradox within Germany was that, encouraged by the Kaiser, the nationalist Right came to dominate establishment politics, while among the masses socialist internationalism enjoyed ever greater support. In January 1912, two years before the war, the SPD gained almost 35 per cent of the vote in the Reichstag elections and became the the largest single party. The electoral maps of highly urbanised areas such as Berlin, Hamburg, the Ruhr and Saxony were a sea of socialist red.

The success of the Left in 1912 had no moderating effect on the country’s policies. In fact, it may have persuaded the Right that their anti-democratic ends would be best served by an even more aggressive military and foreign policy, one that would rally support for the ruling élite. Rightists muttered darkly about the ‘encirclement’ of Germany by envious rivals. They complained about the alleged role of Jews in ‘undermining’ traditional authority. They talked of the inevitability of war, and of war as the solution to Germany’s internal divisions.

When the Reichstag met after the 1912 elections, the SPD’s veteran leader August Bebel, who had faced off Bismarck during the period of illegality and sat for thirty years in a parliament where he was daily insulted and humiliated by the ‘patriotic’ establishment, made a chillingly prophetic speech about the dangerous international situation:

There will be a catastrophe…sixteen to eighteen million men, the flower of different nations, will march against each other, equipped with lethal weapons. But I am convinced that this great march will be followed by the great collapse (at this moment many in the chamber began to laugh)—all right, you have laughed about this before; but it will come…What will be the result? After this war we shall have mass bankruptcy, mass misery, mass unemployment and great famine.2

The record states that his words were drowned out by mocking laughter. A right-wing deputy called out: ‘Herr Bebel, things always get better after every war!’

The socialist patriarch would be dead within a year. Another year after that, booming, brilliant Berlin would be a city at war. A city of hunger. A city of despair.

When the guns fell silent on 11 November 1918, the Kaiser had been overthrown, and his people were no longer the envy of Europe. A ruthless blockade by the British navy had all but prevented the importing of food into Germany.

Rural areas managed to survive, but the cities starved. Berlin suffered worst of all. Its huge population and its remoteness from fertile growing land contributed to a food crisis that was already a fact as early as the first winter of the war. In February 1915, Berlin saw the introduction of bread rationing. In 1917, the potato crop, on which the city had depended since the time of Frederick the Great, failed. For the first time since the Thirty Years’ War, rats became candidates for Berlin’s dinner tables.

By 1918, meat consumption was down to 12 per cent of pre-war levels, that of eggs to 13 per cent, and of fish to 5 per cent. Thousands died from hunger and from diseases associated with malnutrition. The rampant black market created vast resentment. Although many of Berlin’s large Jewish population served bravely at the front, Jews were perceived as complicit in increasing corruption.

In the end, even German technical know-how, discipline and courage could not overcome the numerical and industrial superiority of the Allies, especially after America joined the war in 1917. One last German thrust in the west during the spring of 1918 at first promised success, but the Allied line held and the advance petered out.

Though still fighting on enemy territory in France, Belgium, Italy and the Balkans, Germany had shot its bolt. In October 1918, a liberal ministry under Prince Max of Baden began to consider peace. By early November, there was open revolt in the streets of Berlin and other cities. The Kaiser went into exile in Holland. A republic was declared.

Peace on the battlefield brought no peace of mind. How could it be, asked those conditioned by the egoistic, ultra-nationalist assumptions of the pre-war years, that a nation with its armies still holding out on foreign soil, could suddenly collapse? Treachery, was their answer. The legend of the ‘stab in the back’—invincible Germany betrayed by Jews and revolutionaries—became accepted by many as fact.

Berlin in 1920, expanded by reorganisation, had a population of around four million. The working class part of it—mainly in the east—was thoroughly Red.

The problem was, the labour vote had split. In 1914, the majority of the SPD experienced a similar fit of patriotism to the rest of German society. It voted for the war and joined the ‘siege truce’ (Burgfrieden) announced by the Kaiser. As the war dragged on, and the urban masses suffered, and the slaughter of Germany’s young men reached intolerable levels, the SPD split between the still-loyal main party and the USPD or Independent Social Democratic Party, which took a pacifist and subversive stance. And then there was the far Left, which coalesced around an extreme anti-war, revolutionary grouping led by a vigorous Russian apostle of ‘scientific’ political violence, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known as Lenin.

When the monarchy fell, the Leninists, known as the Spartakist League (after the slave rebels in ancient Rome, followers of Spartacus), remained tiny in number. None the less, they enjoyed support in rebellious units of the army and navy. So risky was the situation in Berlin that the assembly set up to frame the new republic’s constitution had to be held in the provincial town of Weimar. The new state was known as the ‘Weimar Republic’.

The declaration of a republic did not satisfy the far Left. Lenin had seized power in Russia in November 1917, and his Soviet dictatorship was a beacon to idealists of all kinds. In January 1919, the Spartakists attempted a similar revolution in Berlin. To defeat them, the Social Democratic government had to find a strong arm, which it did not itself possess. It was forced to call on the former imperial army.

The Prussian army duly put down the rebellion. After its suppression, a group of officers abducted and murdered the Spartakist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Both had opposed the uprising but been overruled. Their bodies were found in the Landwehr Canal, between what would later be West and East Berlin. No one ever stood trial for the killings.

In 1920, a 27-year-old First World War veteran and member of the USPD joined a large chunk of his chosen party in peeling off to combine with the newly founded KPD (Communist Party of Germany), which had arisen from the ruins of the Spartakist movement. Many years later, he would claim that even while in the army he had been a firebrand Spartakist. In fact, Leipzig-born Walter Ulbricht had shown no previous sign of extremism. However, once he was in the new Leninist party he rose rapidly and showed himself to be a true believer with a gift for organisation.

In 1924/5, Ulbricht was one of the first young German Communists to undergo ideological training at the new Lenin School in Moscow, established by the Communist International (Comintern) to educate future leaders of the international revolution. His exceptional loyalty to Moscow and its political line would characterise his entire career. Possessed of a high-pitched voice, the result of a severe throat infection in his teens, and a strong Saxon accent (mercilessly mocked by his enemies), his humourlessness and general lack of likeability were also the stuff of legend.

A fellow young party official at that time, Ernst Wollweber, recalled:

He was regarded as incredibly hard-working, always willing to take the initiative, extremely solid: he had no vices and no obvious weaknesses. He didn’t smoke, he did not drink, and he had no personal associates. He was not friends with anyone in the Party.3

Another contemporary recalled returning by train from a conference with several comrades, including Ulbricht. The earnest young activist from Leipzig spent the whole journey talking politics, while the others, having had enough of such talk during the long speeches and discussions, just wanted to enjoy the passing countryside and unwind. Ulbricht had no sense of these simple human compensatory mechanisms.

While with the KPD delegation that attended the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern in Moscow in November 1922, Ulbricht was present at a meeting addressed by Lenin himself. Though only fifty-two, the great revolutionary suffered a stroke in May of that year, but had recovered sufficiently to speak at the congress. In December 1922, another, much worse, seizure laid him how. He withdrew from politics and died in January 1924. Walter Ulbricht never ceased to remind colleagues that he had breathed the same air as the founder of Marxism-Leninism, and discussed vital matters of world revolution in his sacred company.

At home, the KPD showed worrying signs of independence during the early 1920s, resisting ‘Bolshevisation’ (that is, Russification) of its organisational structure and electing to senior posts comrades the Soviet leadership didn’t like. Ulbricht helped organise a counter-coup. Ernst Thälmann, a Hamburg-born transport worker and Moscow loyalist, became leader of the KPD. Henceforth, strict adherence to the Soviet line was enforced. In 1927, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Josef Stalin, made it official Comintern policy that any Communist, anywhere in the world, must hold the defence of the Soviet Union to be his or her unshakeable duty.

In 1926, Ulbricht was elected to the Saxon provincial parliament, and in 1928, he switched to Berlin as a KPD member of the Reichstag.

Ulbricht actually spent most of the next parliamentary session back in Moscow, representing the KPD at the Comintern. During his second sojourn in the Soviet Union, Ulbricht was admitted to membership of the CPSU as well as to the Executive Committee of the Communist International. Soon after his return co Germany, Ulbricht was elected to the Politburo of the KPD, the élite leadership. In November 1929, he became Party Secretary for Berlin and Brandenburg.

Ulbricht was now in charge of one of the real Communist strongholds. Recent elections for the Berlin city government had seen the KPD garner a quarter of the vote and become the second-largest party after the SPD. In some areas, its vote had exceeded 40 per cent. Ulbricht became one of Germany’s most controversial politicians, making inflammatory speeches and going head-to-head with the Nazi Gauleiter of Berlin, Josef Goebbels.4 The ‘limited civil war’ between Communists and Nazis in the streets of Berlin contributed powerfully co the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Ulbricht, a keen apostle of political violence, was as much responsible for this as Goebbels. The bruisers of the KPD’s paramilitary ‘Red Self Help’ fought pitched battles with Goebbels’ brown-shirted thugs.

Though still in his mid-thirties, Ulbricht was already a key member of the German Communist Party’s leadership. He was linkman par excellence between Moscow and Berlin, as familiar with Red Square as with the Potsdamer Platz. To Walter Ulbricht, the sufferings or joys of the people of Berlin were then, and would be thirty years later, strictly subordinated to the needs of international Communism.

Germany had been knocked to the ground by defeat in 1918.

In the years immediately following, the horrors of hyperinflation devastated Germans’ savings. In June 1920, the rate of exchange stood at 50 marks to the dollar, a year later 101 marks, and by July 1922 550 marks. Then the French invaded the Ruhr industrial area to enforce payment of reparations, and the whole German economy went crazy. In June 1923, the dollar stood at 75,000 marks and two months later at 10,000,000. By the autumn the rate of exchange reached that of one dollar="4,200,000,000" marks. The far Right claimed the Jews were responsible; the far Left, including the KPD, blamed the militaristic Prussian aristocrats, known as Junkers, and the war-profiteering capitalists.

On 9 November 1923, an obscure ex-serviceman with the gift of the gab tried to talk the authorities in Munich into supporting his planned coup against the ‘Reds’ in Berlin. His name was Adolf Hitler. In Saxony, the Communists attempted their own putsch. Ulbricht was heavily involved.

Both rebellions failed. The right-wing seizure of power, however, was put down with kid gloves. Hitler received a couple of years’ comfortable imprisonment, where he wrote a confused and toxic memoir called Mein Kampf (My Struggle). The Communist rebellion was suppressed much more brutally. It was clear which violent radicals the establishment considered the greater danger.

Something had to happen to stabilise Germany. A government enjoying wide support across the political spectrum came to power. The talented banker Dr Hjalmar Schacht organised a revaluation of the mark that gave domestic and foreign creditors some confidence again.

By the mid-1920s, with the currency stabilised, the economy buoyed by foreign loans, and the country enjoying relative political and social peace, Germany made a recovery. The arts and sciences flourished Germany supplied more Nobel Prize winners in the 1920s than any other nation—and with the dead hand of the imperial censors removed, Berlin became the freest, frankest—some would say, most licentious—city in Europe. By May 1928, Hitler’s National Socialists, who had briefly flourished in the middle of the decade, won only 2.5 per cent of the vote and were down to a mere dozen Reichstag deputies, less than the tiny Bavarian People’s Party.

None of this brought back the property and the savings that millions of Germans had lost in the inflation, but at least there were jobs and money moving around the system. Germany had got back on his feet and was walking upright, albeit with a slight limp.

The 1929 American stock-market crash and the consequent economic depression hit Germany harder than any other European country. Foreign loans were called in, banks collapsed, and export markets (always a great source of German prosperity) shrank drastically. The country seemed to fall even lower than before. Hopelessness spread once more throughout Germany, like a cancer thought beaten that returns with new virulence.

The depression hit skilled working-class and white-collar workers especially hard. The political extremes began to recruit successfully. In September 1930, the Nazis won 107 seats to the KPD’s 77; in July 1932, 230 to 89; in November 1932, 196 to 100. Almost half the deputies in the Reichstag represented parties that rejected parliamentary democracy. The situation was even worse in Berlin. Although in the capital, with its strong socialist and liberal traditions, the Nazi vote never reached 30 per cent,in July 1932 the Communists were not far behind them on almost 25 per cent. The once-dominant Social Democrats now ranked third. Berlin’s streets were in constant uproar. Knives, knuckle-dusters, firearms, and even explosives were used in battles that really did resemble engagements between armies in a vicious little civil war.5

By the end of January 1933, the civil war was over. The Nazis had won.

According to one story, the 85-year-old Reich President, First World War hero Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, peered out of his palace window on the night Hitler became chancellor. A torchlit parade was sweeping down Unter den Linden. The first thing he saw was a regular army unit, moving in perfect marching time. He smiled with senile pride. There followed a bunch of brown-uniformed Nazis. Street thugs, whose attempts at marching failed to conceal shambling, often drunken gaits. The President rubbed his ancient eyes and turned to one of his staff.

‘Ah,’ murmured the man who had routed the Tsar’s armies at the battle of Tannenberg in 1914, ‘I did not know we had taken so many Russian prisoners!’

New elections, held with Hitler controlling the levers of government, gave the Nazis a majority. The Communist Party was forbidden. Walter Ulbricht went into hiding, initially sheltered in their garage by a family of Social Democrats. He was one among a handful of prominent Communist leaders who managed to avoid arrest.

Absurdly, while individual Communists risked their lives to oppose the Nazis, a bitter power struggle broke out between the surviving leaders. The Comintern had no notion of the urgency of the situation. Hitler’s rise to power was not a final situation but a temporary phase, Moscow insisted, just a predictable stage in capitalism’s death-throes. The Social Democrats and other anti-Nazi parties were to be combated as savagely as before.

Meanwhile, the Gestapo was sweeping up remaining members of the anti-Nazi underground into concentration camps. While the Communists, an instinctively conspiratorial party, might survive a little longer, they too were doomed. Admitting defeat, Ulbricht travelled first to Moscow, then to Paris. There another prominent German Communist, Wilhelm Pieck, was setting up a Central Committee in Exile.

Ulbricht remained the ice-cold, loyal servant of Moscow, for whom the party could do no wrong. At the end of that catastrophic year, 1933, he glibly announced: ‘Developments have confirmed the correctness of the KPD’s strategy and tactics.6

He and the other surviving Communists would return to Berlin under circumstances that before 1933 only a madman could have imagined. Berlin would lie in ruins. The red, hammer-and-sickle flag would flutter over what remained of the German Reichstag.

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