Capital Punishment: Extract from ‘Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City’ by Thomas Friedrich

HItler's Berlin

HItler’s Berlin: Abused City

In Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City, Thomas Friedrich explores how the German capital captivated Hitler’s imagination and how he sought to redesign the city to align with his obsessions and ambitions. In this exclusive extract from the book (translated by Stewart Spencer) Friedrich explains why the history of the dictator’s relationship with the city needs to be told.

Extract from Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City

Bernhard Sauer begins his recent study of the history of the Storm Troopers (SA) in the Brandenburg district of Berlin by observing that historians have until now paid little attention to National Socialism in Berlin and, above all, to the history of the SA in the city. This is true. Indeed, it defies belief that more than six decades after the end of the Third Reich there is still no comprehensive account of the National Socialists (NSDAP) in Berlin – the very city that had to be subjugated by the party before it could extend its murderous dictatorship to the remainder of Germany and, later, to much of the rest of Europe.

This state of affairs is all the more grotesque in that the NSDAP itself needed little more than four years to publish an official account of the history of the SA in the Brandenburg district of Berlin, an account that appeared in 1937 on the occasion of the celebrations marking the seven hundredth anniversary of the founding of the city. However meretricious as a piece of propaganda, it none the less contains interesting material on the organizational history of the SA’s origins in Berlin and on the way in which it saw itself.

Hitler’s Berlin makes no attempt to fill this gap, but by examining Hitler’s relations with Berlin it seeks to examine the local variant of National Socialism and blaze a trail through the dense undergrowth of misunderstandings and prejudices that have long obscured that relationship. This undergrowth has for decades prevented historians from attempting an evaluation of the question based on a critical analysis of suppressed or unknown facts – in spite of, or at least in the face of, the growing flood of publications concerned with Hitler and National Socialism.

Also at stake is a mindless local patriotism that encouraged even Hitler’s contemporaries to remark that, following the National Socialists’ assumption of power, Berlin had been ‘occupied by brown-shirted provincials’, implying that the local variant of National Socialism, far from emerging from within the city itself, had somehow been imposed on it from the outside. Fifteen years after the Nazi regime had been toppled, apologists were still claiming that the National Socialists’ dictatorship was a superficial phenomenon in Berlin and that only elsewhere was its ‘true’ character to be found. In a brief overview of the city’s history that was published in 1960, we read, for example, that ‘the twelve years of National Socialism represent not just an episode in its history but also a break in its more authentic past, from whose deeper driving forces it was forcibly alienated during this time’.

In what was for a long time arguably the most important biography of Hitler, Joachim Fest sought an alternative interpretation: rather than exculpating Berlin by seeing it as the innocent victim of external forces, he regarded Hitler, conversely, as a psychological misfit who, hostile to big cities, was confused by the modernism of Berlin:

The hectic madness of Berlin, which was then entering its famous, or notorious, twenties, only heightened Hitler’s dislike for the city. He despised its greed and its frivolity. [. . .] As if he were once again seventeen years old and arriving in Vienna, he stood baffled and alienated by the phenomenon of the big city, lost in so much noise, turbulence, and miscegenation. He really felt at home only in provincial circumstances and was, despite all his sense of being an outsider, permanently fixated upon provincial moral rectitude.

This characterization of Hitler overlooks certain essential aspects of his personality. How could a man ostensibly terrified of the urban jungle at the same time have enjoyed visiting Berlin’s Luna-Park? How could he have praised the Tiller Girls and been an avid cinema-goer, a boxing fanatic and a man who was mad about cars? Hitler’s undeniable aversion to certain aspects of the cultural life of the Weimar Republic, especially those found in Berlin, has often been seized on as evidence of his general aversion to the capital. Writers have argued that he was forced against his will to leave Munich, with its view of the Alps, and that he ‘never liked Berlin’ and ‘never concealed his dislike’.

Such claims are generally based on little more than a handful of quotations from Mein Kampf. A more recent study has described Hitler’s dealings with Berlin as a ‘love–hate relationship’: his attitude to the city, we are told, was ‘deeply divided’ and ‘invariably troubled’. Like most politicians of the extreme right, he felt ‘an aversion to cities and to metropolises as such’. ‘On the one hand, his rejection of modern – urban – forms of existence was fundamental to his whole outlook, while on the other hand he was fascinated by the organism of metropolises in general and of Berlin in particular.’

SA propaganda march on the outskirts of Berlin (c.1928)

SA propaganda march on the outskirts of Berlin (c.1928)

While earlier studies have sought to ascribe Hitler’s attitude to Berlin to his alleged feelings of resentment, to his likes and dislikes and to psychological causes bound up with such emotions, Hitler’s Berlin attempts a concrete analysis of the changing political situation in order to show how his attitude kept shifting. This does not mean that Hitler’s emotional life will be excluded from our discussion, only that it is not the determining factor. Just as Hitler related his political, strategic and tactical decisions to the historical situation of the day, modifying or altering them where necessary, so his attitude to Berlin was dependent on the importance that he attached to the city in the light of changing political circumstances.

Ultimately this was not an emotional relationship that could be measured on a scale extending from love at one extreme to hatred at the other. Rather, it was what one might call an instrumental relationship, albeit one that was susceptible to change. This explains why, in the days before he became a politician, Hitler regarded the city as ‘wonderful’ because it was an expression of visible power and grandeur. At the time when the party was being built up, it was a resource centre and a place to forge contacts and to plot conspiracies. In keeping with its function within the country’s national, economic and social infrastructure, it was a place for party-political experiments, a place where variants of the National Socialists’ claims to power could be enforced, a place where the SA could limber up and advance its claims to be the ‘battering ram’ of the workers’ movement, a place, finally, where anti-Semitic attacks could be staged, Nazi rituals could be rehearsed and the conquest of the public arena could be planned in detail.

In order to describe this process of instrumentalization in all its various manifestations, I felt it advisable to concentrate on the years before the National Socialists’ seizure of power, not least because the vast amount of available literature is in inverse proportion to the rise of the NSDAP from a tiny sect to a splinter group, and finally to a movement that embraced the masses. It is also this instrumentalization of the city for party-political ends that allowed Berlin to be ‘violated’ long before the transfer of power to the party made it possible for Hitler to treat the city as a kind of lab rat on which he could try out his architectural experiments and ideas on urban planning. From the outset, Hitler’s view of Berlin as a living organism on which to conduct experiments intended to reconfigure it meant that he not only lost sight of the overall structure of a conurbation that numbered four million souls but that that infrastructure was in fact a matter of profound indifference to him.

The massive and mysterious concrete building that was erected on the border between Tempelhof and Schöneberg in the summer of 1941 in order to test whether the ground would support the weight of the triumphal arch that was planned for this spot continues to weigh figuratively on Berlin, functioning as a symbol of the way in which the city remains oppressed by Hitler’s legacy, a legacy that still affects Berlin and that will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The late Thomas Friedrich grew up in Berlin and spent his adult life there. He was a museum curator and for many years was project leader for history at the Museum Education Service in Berlin. Hitler’s Berlin: Abused City is available now from Yale and is translated into English by Stewart Spencer.

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