Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By Gaither Stewart

“…every shadow is in the final analysis a child of light, and only he who experiences light and dark, war and peace, and rise and fall, has truly lived.”
– (Stefan Zweig: Die Welt von Gestern (The World of Yesterday)

Photo by History in HD

An unusual winter thunder storm shook Munich-Schwabing that New Year’s Eve. It seemed to Helmut like another signal that even worse things were to happen to his country in 1919. The final blast ended the most miserable year in post-World War One Europe. Frightened horses from the stables in the Reitschule /Riding Academy around the corner in Königinstrasse whinnied in a joint macabre chorus … some old enough to remember the sounds of war in the city on the Isar River. Police sirens sounded from Leopoldstrasse where street bonfires had been erected by drunken war profiteer celebrants celebrating the war’s generosity to them. Helmut sat alone in a chair near an open window of his Ohmstrasse one-room fifth floor walk-up to observe and imagine the festivities across Munich. He didn’t have even enough money to travel to his home in Koblenz to be with his mother also alone in her one-room abode.

The university student Helmut Gunderman was angry. Angry like most Germans. Helmut was angry that his father had to die in the trenches of Imperial Germany’s war. He was angry that his mother faced the poverty and the indignities of the post-war alone. He was angry at the chaos reigning in the new so-called Weimar Republic. He was angry at himself for kowtowing to the situation and faking a dedicated academic life. He was one pissed off young man.

The year of 1919 was supposed to be the year of the rebirth of new Germany. The first year student felt somewhat comforted by the historical transformation of the monarchy of the German Empire into a republic with a Constitution—the Weimar Republic—and its capital established in the city of that name. But like other students Helmut was also as confused as he was mad about what was right and what was wrong. He had joined one of the many student political discussion groups reflecting his gripes and his hopes for the future of his people combined with his faith in art and literature as indispensible anchors of sanity. Other members of the “Schwabing Art and Political Circle” agreed with his desire to walk away from the past and never look back.

In November of 1918 the Great War was winding down. The Allies were advancing toward Germany, the multi-front war was lost for Germany, and internal revolution was already taking place. The Kaiser abdicated, the German nobility was abolished and the Social Democrats proclaimed Germany a republic with its capital in the small town of Weimar.

Like most Germans Helmut kept in mind that just a few years earlier Germany’s was the second world economy and its infrastructures like its railways the envy of the world. Munich students dreamed of the return of German greatness. Nevertheless Helmut snickered at the weak, quibbling so-called Republic of Weimar. Though that town in Central Germany was a city of culture and the home of Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, Weimar seemed unfit as the capital of the world power that was Germany. So widespread was opposition to the Weimer political divisions and disabilities—to the very significance of “Weimar”—that groups like disaffected veterans and students joined the growing paramilitary organizations like the brutal and well-armed Freikorps on the one hand or discussion groups of the Communist left on the other.

At the same time Helmut met Ingrid Wolfe, a fellow student. A Munich native, Ingrid was a Communist. The German Communist Revolution had already exploded on the scene in Kiel and Berlin and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht had quickly reformed the Spartacus League, founded the Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) newspaper and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Their declared goal was the destruction of capitalism: armed workers in fact seized control of train stations, public buildings and the editorial offices of major Berlin newspapers so that Liebknecht dared declare the traitorous Social Democratic (SPD) government deposed.

However, the uprising’s timing was bad. And it came too late. The SPD and anti-communists—also many of the left—with the help of the military establishment had just as quickly organized the Freikorps—the Free Corps of war veterans who knew nothing but war and were glad to prolong the fighting. After a week of street fighting, the heavily armed and well-trained Freikorps settled the issue by killing the Communists, including both Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. By January 11, 1919 the revolution-revolt-uprising was crushed and many of the revolutionaries dead.

A de facto republic since the preceding November when the Kaiser abdicated, by February 1919 Germany had become a de jure republic when a national assembly meeting in Weimar adapted a Constitution. In its fourteen years, the Weimar Republic faced enormous economic and political problems, including hyperinflation, the political extremism of left and right paramilitaries and contentious relationships with the victors in the Great War. Resentment towards the Versailles Treaty was strong especially on the political right where there was great anger towards the treaty signatories and those who tried to fulfill its terms. The Weimar Republic fulfilled most of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles but never met its disarmament requirements—the Freicorps were only subterfuge—and paid only a small portion of the war reparations. Germany accepted the western borders of the country but disputed the eastern borders such as in Austria and Sudetenland assigned as part of Czechoslovakia.

During the confusing year of 1919, then in the next years, Helmut hardly knew what to do with his time. The university was practically shut down. Lectures were sporadic. He read German classics—Goethe and Schiller and old and new American literature—from Melville to Hawthorne, from Ezra Pound to Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. And he walked the streets. And he watched. Crazy things. Mean things. Groups of young men in new brown uniforms. Marching in small groups. Or sitting orderly, stiffly along the sides of the rear platforms of brand new troop trucks. Communists? Reichswehr, the regular German Army? No, they looked different. Whose were they? Who financed them? One said big industrialists. Maybe foreigners. How did they fit into the picture Helmut saw? Then he began frequenting the beer halls, the huge downtown multi-storied establishments of each of Munich’s major breweries with restaurants and meeting halls that Germans have always loved: the Löwenbräukeller, the Paulanerbräu, and the Hofbräuhaus where the new man on the scene, Adolf Hitler, had quickly become a popular speaker.

Ingrid was always erratic. So Helmut’s evenings consisted of waiting for her. She might come. If so, then at unexpected times; maybe early evening when she brought along food. Or late nights after some cell meeting or party function when she brought only her political excitement and her naked body slipping into his bed. Then they might spend most of the night making love or sitting and talking at the window looking over the darkened city except for the one arc light far down Ohmstrasse. Or she might spend an hour in his arms only to abruptly break away for an urgent appointment in Freising or Ramersdorf, leaving Helmut more indecisive than ever about what to do.

Ingrid was never subtle, just said she had to go. Despite his kisses, she dressed and left. He let it go. What could he do? What was he to do he wondered just as he had when he’d seen the specter of the Allies advancing on Koblenz and the Rhineland. Advancing closer and closer toward his home town on the confluence of the great rivers Rhine and Mosel.

Mornings, if Ingrid was still there, she peered over the railing of the tiny balcony and watched the street for police-looking types in green uniforms staked out along Ohmstrasse. She knew she was under observation.

In November 1918, King Ludwig of Bavaria had abdicated and Bavaria was declared a People’s State and the leader of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, a politician named Kurt Eisner became Minister-President. Eisner advocated a socialist republic but distanced his party from Russian Bolsheviks, guaranteeing private property but unable to provide public services. In January 1919 Bavarian elections he was defeated and in February was assassinated by the right-wing nationalist Arco-Valley.

That February night, hour after hour passed and no Ingrid showed. Was she involved? Eisner had never sounded very Communist to Helmut. And since she hated the word Social Democrat and continued her mysterious life style, he concluded that her sympathies lay elsewhere. So it was no surprise when in April the Bavarian Soviet Republic was established in Munich. Räterepublik Baiern—republic of councils or soviets—sounded more like his Ingrid. When it demanded independence from the Weimar Republic, Ingrid was harried and worried. Then when one month later it was crushed by the German Army and the paramilitary Freikorps, Ingrid didn’t appear at all and Helmut was terrified for her. Was she arrested and jailed at Stadelheim Prison out in the western part of the city? Executed along with thousands of others?

In the confusing period that followed Helmut never understood exactly where Ingrid really stood on the left. Or what her role was. By 1922 he was speaking like a clairvoyant, a Hellseher, telling Ingrid and anyone he could confide in that they were all headed toward tragedy: Ingrid and himself, Munich, Germany, Europe. And that the price would be high. Much higher for an entire people than that paid for the much more limited German imperialism of the Kaiser.

Helmut was not a Bavarian. He was a Rhinelander. But he was politically shrewd and understood that the crazy, wild events occurring in Munich reflected the confusion in his country as a whole. A disorder, a chaos that could lead people into worse, much worse, directions than the grand imperialistic aspirations of the past. Into directions from which there was no return. And not only in a Germanized East Europe, the Prussian Kaiser’s Mitteleuropa as in the Balkans. In his opinion only a minimum of prescience was required to see that wild inflation and defeatism was not the real threat to the future Germany. Rabid nationalism was the threat. And militarism and revanchism and totalitarianism. Moreover, during the German Revolution in Berlin, many other sub-states of the Deutsches Kaiserreich, the Deutsches Reich, or German Empire, harbored secessionist desires as did Bavaria.

Maybe Ingrid was right. Internationalist Communism sometimes seemed to him the least of worries. And why not close relations with Russia, Bolshevik or not? We have so much in common..

I, the author, will intervene in this story precisely at this point to remark that since I did not witness these historical events personally. However, I did live for many long years in the city of Munich, in the same places in which Helmut lived but in times that might seem vastly different from the times he is experiencing. But that is not the case. In fact, times and events have proceeded rather orderly, however dialectically, one thing leading to its opposite in my times. Post-World War II as in post-World War I. As a student at Munich University I perceived in my friends and acquaintances the same sense of hopelessness that follows war and destruction. And I saw in the Munich student and youth world—even more than did Helmut—a sense of shame and of vindication, this time NOT against an unfair Europe but for what had been perpetrated by their own government in their name against peoples of East and West. But I also perceived a growing resentment against the winners of the war, this time seen as exploiters and occupiers. I perceived the emergence of a new internationalist leftist generation in Germany in contrast to the nationalistic racist revanchist generation of their fathers.

In March 1918, the avid German nationalist, Anton Drexler, had formed the party that eventually took the name of German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiter Partei, DAP). A new man on the scene, the Austrian serving by special dispensation in the German Army, Adolf Hitler’s first DAP speech was held in Munich’s famous Hofbräukeller on 16 October 1919, speaking only to one hundred and eleven people. Hitler later declared that this was when he realized he could really “make a good speech”. At first, he spoke only to relatively small groups, but his considerable oratorical and propaganda skills were appreciated by the party leadership. While still formally a lance-corporal in the German Army and not even a German yet, the Austrian Hitler became chief of propaganda for the party in early 1920. Hitler’s magnetism and his words that everyone wanted to hear began to make the party more public. He organized its biggest meeting yet of two thousand people on 24 February 1920 in the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus, Munich’s most famous beer hall. The student Helmut Gunderman had seen placards announcing the event and arrived in time for a seat near the speaker’s rostrum. It was in this speech that Hitler enunciated the twenty-five points of the German Workers’ Party manifesto. giving the organization a bold stratagem with a clear foreign policy (abrogation of the Treaty of Versailles, a Greater Germany, Eastern expansion and exclusion of Jews from citizenship). The manifesto was clearly anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist, anti-democratic, anti-Marxist and anti-liberal.

On the same day as Hitler’s Hofbräuhaus speech the DAP changed its name to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (“National Socialist German Workers’ Party”, or Nazi Party). Over Hitler’s objections the word “Socialist” was added by the party’s executive committee in order to appeal to left-wing workers.

After that success, Hitler began lecturing in various Munich beer halls. Helmut rushed to keep up with developments. His avid presence was noted and he was asked more than once to identify himself. “Student!” he always answered, which pleased the organizers who wanted to appeal also to intellectuals.

In that same February of 1921 a small “hall protection” had been organized, which by the autumn of that year was called Sturmabteilung (Storm Detachment), or SA. But Hitler drew the crowds. So that by the end of that year party members numbered two thousand. In that period the new Nazi Party (NSDAP) recognized that without him, the party was dead, so he was granted full powers and became party chairman. During 1922 and 1923 Hitler’s Nazi Party created two organizations that would have great significance: the Hitler Youth and a guard unit that eventually became Schutzstafel, the dreaded SS. With this organization behind him Hitler—perhaps inspired by Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922—decided that coup d’ètat was the right strategy to seize control of Germany. Hitler loyal elements within the German Army helped the SA Brown Shirts to procure barracks and modern weapons but the march order never arrived because Hitler was arrested, tried and sentenced to prison for a failed beer hall putsch. Pardoned a year later, Hitler—a man in a hurry as are most eventual tyrants—used the time in a Bavarian jail to dictate the first volume of his book, Mein Kampf to his deputy Rudolf Hess.

Perhaps because of the fact that even he could be jailed, Hitler then determined that power was to be achieved not through revolution outside of the government, but rather through legal means. In December 1924, just after Helmut completed his first diploma, German federal elections the still new NAZI Party garnered 6.6% of the vote, 1,918, 329 voters for the movement. From then on it was a gradual but apparently unstoppable march to power in 1933. Adolf Hitler knew the German people; he knew the thinking of the German people better than they themselves. He knew their anger. And he knew also their inherent need for order. Ordnung muss sein!

Stefan Zweig underlines that Germany has ALWAYS been a class society so that Germans could not take seriously a leader who had never finished elementary school and moreover made his name in Munich beer halls. Not as the leader of the great German people. Even when Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor in 1933, the public was convinced it was a only a temporary arrangement and that German Ordnung would soon return and a properly educated person of the leadership class would assume power. In these times however, Ordnung on a national scale was more important that freedom and law. Zweig recalls Goethe saying that disorder was worse than even lawlessness. Alles ist in Ordnung! Everything is in order is an important expression in German. However Hitler also understood the guilelessness of the Allies, their willingness to believe any promises that furthered peace. People of the world simply refused to believe the unbelievable that was soon upon them. So Hitler had much help from outside his own party and his own organizations: Kaiser true Monarchists and Wittelsbachs in Munich considered Hitler their man; Nationalists believed he was preparing the road for them; heavy industry felt Hitler—whom they had been supporting for years—as protection against Bolshevism; the petite bourgeoisie saw him as a savior. Even Social Democrats did not oppose him because they saw in him the nemesis of their arch enemies, the Communists. The Left had been neutralized in such a way that there continued to be bad blood between the Communist Party (KPD) and the Socialist Party (SPD) that prevented them from working together—even contrary to orders from Moscow. The KPD portrayed the SPD as the primary bourgeois threat to socialism in Germany. This lack of cooperation, with the Communists seeing the Socialists as betrayers of the Revolution, and the Socialists seeing the Communists as under the control of Moscow, later redounded to the advantage of the Nazi Party, since only a parliamentary coalition of the KPD and SPD could have prevented the Nazis from coming to power. Even at the height of their influence in the Reichstag, they did not have enough delegates to resist such a coalition.

Not even did rich Jewry understand. Many Jews believed the German state apparatus and its holy Constitution were morally better than they were.

The most varied political parties saw Hitler who promised something to everyone as their friend.

Then there was and remains is the touchy question of foreign aid, especially from the US of A. When did it begin? How much did it count in the successes of Nazism? Nor how much responsibility does it bear for the evil and destruction it provoked.

Since 1930 President Hindenburg had backed the long established class Chancellorship. But the Great Depression, exacerbated by government policies of deflation, caused a surge in unemployment. Germany was bankrupt. Result: in 1933, Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor with the Nazi Party being part of a coalition government. Within months, the famous Reichstag fire—the burning of the Parliament building in Berlin—and the so-called Enabling Act that gave Hitler wide powers wiped out constitutional governance and civil liberties. Hitler’s seizure of power meant government by decree without legislative participation. The republic ended, democracy collapsed, and a single-party state began the dictatorship of the Nazi era.

As time passed in the late 1920s, Ingrid visits became ever less frequent so that by the time Helmut had his Doctorate in German and Anglo-American studies and left Germany for Oxford where he did post-doctoral studies, he had not seen her for a year or more. On his return to Munch in the fateful summer of 1933, he asked and learned from the old student friend who worked for one of new agencies that a certain I. Wolfe from Munich had been interned in the first Nazi concentration camp in Dachau near Munich. Professor Gunderman never heard from her again.

Helmut by the time of the outbreak of war in 1939 had joined the Nazi Party in order to keep his professorship. In 1942 he was called to military service, quickly commissioned an officer, assigned to General Paulus’ Sixth Army in Russia, was taken prisoner by the Red Army at Stalingrad and never returned to Germany.

An after note: After a visit to Nazi Germany, the Asheville writer, Thomas Wolfe, published a story in the New Republic, I Have a Thing to Tell You. He price was high: his books would be banned in Germany and he would never again be able to visit the country that he loved. The story of a few months after he returned to America from Germany is a powerful piece that concludes with a touching goodbye. “To that old German land with all the measure of its truth, its glory, beauty, magic and its ruin,” Wolfe wrote, “to that dark land, to that old ancient earth that I have loved so long—I said farewell.”

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