Zerborstene Zeit. Deutsche Geschichte 1918 bis 1945

Wildt, Michael
Neue deutsche Geschichte
München 2022: C.H. Beck Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
638 S., 12 Abb.
€ 32,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Peter Fritzsche, German and European History, University of Illinois

The kitchen table is a pretty good place from which to observe contemporary history. It is around the table that individuals tabulate losses, articulate hopes, and render judgments, and this was particularly so during Germany’s tumultuous years of war, revolution, and economic calamity. Bookended by the end of the Great War and the end of what became known as World War II, Michael Wildt’s new investigation of “Deutsche Geschichte” aims to reveal what “Menschen in diesen Jahren zwischen 1918 und 1945 bewegt hat, wie sie versucht haben, durch die Zeitläufte zu kommen, sich zu orientieren, Anteil zu nehmen und ihr Leben zu gestalten” (p. 11–12). Wildt evokes the feelings of his historical protagonists and the grain of the life they lived through diaries, the most extraordinary of which are the daily commentaries offered by Luise Solmitz, a former teacher, devoted German nationalist, and wife of a war veteran whom Nazi laws defined as a Jew, and through the back doors and side entrances that lead into the kitchen: unusual entryways explored by Wildt include the restaurants and cafes to which diplomats retreated in Locarno in 1925, Josephine Baker’s 1926 reception in Berlin as an African-American vaudeville star, the sweet 1930 movie, Menschen am Sonntag, neighbors in a small Catholic town in February 1933, the terror-swept districts of Lemberg in July 1941. Wildt moves among many Germans, usually not the politicians or officers or corporate executives. This chronological tour of Germany, travelling along its boulevards and rural lanes, provides a splendid history of experience that is augmented by Wildt’s elegant writing and sharp-eyed observation.

Headlines certainly grabbed the folks sitting around the kitchen table. Solmitz comments on just about everything: Rosa Luxemburg, whom she does not wish well, the young fellows enjoying unseemly gains in Hamburg’s inflation-era cafes, the diplomats in Locarno, Hitler’s putsch and later his rise to power, Nazi racial legislation – which she approves of as long as her husband Fredy can somehow get an exemption (which he can’t) – Lemberg in the newsreels, the bombings in the last war years, the arrival of the British at the beginning of May 1945. The Jewish diarist Victor Klemperer provides rich and well-known transcriptions of his evaluations of the direction of German society and politics throughout this period, and the small-town Catholic politician Matthias Joseph Mehs calibrates the speed of the Nazi coordination of his hometown without quite ever knowing how firm the conversions of its citizens really were. Even Paul Maik, a thirty-year old steel worker for Krupp, jumbled his notebook with politics, shopfloor happenings, the growing season in his garden, and the inflationary spiral of groceries. “Bemerkenswert ist,” Wildt notes, “die Simultanität der Aufmerksamkeit für verschiedene Felder” (p. 132). Janosch Steuwer even notes how high politics in 1933 interrupted the regular flow of a baby diary.1 Wildt’s close focus on daily lives reveals rather than obscures the perceptions of perpetrators and victims and bystanders and other witnesses; the political judgments of contemporaries are introduced in every scene, however they varied.

Twenty years ago, Wildt wrote a magisterial and quite granular analysis of the staff of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt2; in this new, much broader survey of war-torn Germans he switches keywords so that the emphasis falls not on the unconditional or the absolute but on the shattering and its fragments. He bends out, not in. This time “der Wille zum Fragment” animates Wildt so that he can get at the “Fragmentarische[s] der Geschichte, die unabdingbaren Leerstellen” (p. 16). Yet the first book steers the most recent one more than Wildt suspects, and it does so in ways that I think are justified and valuable even though they run counter to Wildt’s own stated aims. The agreeable premise of Zerborstene Zeit is to organize the material so as to avoid writing a “master narrative” and instead to bring into view “die Kanten und Zacken, die Pfade und Wege, die Lichtungen und Abgründe dieser verklüfteten Landschaft […], die wir das 20 Jahrhundert nennen” (p. 11). “Zerrissenheit” I certainly see, but I am not sure what the “Kanten” or “Zacken” are or where Wildt sees “Lichtungen und Abgründe.” These words appear in the introduction but not in the analysis. What Wildt surveys are shared experiences of war, revolution, and counterrevolution - shared not in the sense of contemporaries expressing similar responses but in the sense of them feeling part of clearly identifiable and highly consequential events. Contemporaries operated as “Zeitgenossen” on the same plane of history even as they fought each other just as Tolstoy’s characters do in War and Peace. Perhaps never in Europe’s twentieth century did private individuals associate their own fates with public events as closely as did Germans in this violent quarter-century.

Wildt wants to avoid the “verführerische Blick aus der Retrospektive” so as to blot out the “triumphalist” advance of history (p. 12). Nonetheless, a red thread is clearly visible running through the twelve chapters, and what the thread delineates is the accumulating power of a counterrevolutionary, highly illiberal German nationalism that ultimately preempts mostly imagined threats to the German nation in murderous warfare that escalates the Great War into the Greatest (most terrible) War. No one should deny the promise of the end of the ruinous war, the downfall of the Kaiserreich, and the achievements of revolution: at the time, the November 1918 Revolution was the biggest, most popular event that had occurred in German history. But Wildt notes (and deliberately checkmarks) the half-hidden spaces of counter-revolution early on in his narrative: the persistent apocalyptic language of a final reckoning beginning with Ludendorff in January 1918; the gratuitous violence of anti-Bolsheviks in January and March 1919; the extensive precincts of the “city of Hitler,” as Thomas Mann described Munich in 1923; the frightened appraisal of the bolstered-up German Nationalist public among the German diplomats assembled in Locarno in 1925; the willful as well as clichéd racist commentary surrounding Josephine Baker; the rapid rise of the National Socialists in 1930 – although swastikas were scrawled all over the place long before Hitler appeared on the scene – all of which does culminate in a non-determined way with the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 and the installation of a racialized Volksgemeinschaft that came to be broadly accepted until the very end of the war.

Frankly, the Nazis are the big thing in German history in the twentieth century. They are so in terms of consequence, in terms of open support, and in terms of the political terms they popularized. They gathered up in an unprecedented way all sorts of sectors of German society and vectors of sentiment. That bigness is why this book is written, as it leans on the end of the long shelf of so many other books published on the topic in previous years. Of course there was no unanimity in 1933 or even 1938, but the extraordinary rise of the Nazis overrides any methodological “Wille zum Fragment,” at least in my reading of Wildt’s Zerborstene Zeit. One wishes it would have been fragments. The poignant accounts of Nazi Germany’s victims do not alter the might the Nazi phenomenon exerts on this and many other narratives of German history. The history Wildt wants to write in a centrifugal way is a history that forces much more centripetal conclusions.

Could Wildt have resisted the centripetal forces more effectively to get at “Vielzeitigkeit,” even if the promise of “Vielzeitigkeit” is overloaded? I think so. As Wildt himself argues in an understated way, the German Revolution manifested itself as a massive mobilization of sentiment rooted in notions of popular sovereignty in ways that made the break with the Kaiserreich more and more clear: socialists, Bolsheviks, anti-Semities, bourgeois interest groups, Nazis. Both republicans and fascists were creatures of the revolution. Yet the old days did not suddenly disappear. In his “Winterreise” through Germany in 1933/34, Patrick Leigh Fermor could still discern a Germany rooted in the past: castles crumble on pinnacles, a town reproduces an “an authentic Christmas card feeling” (“at last”), tavern decor reminds him of “Grimms’ Fairy Tales”.3 Watching again the films Menschen am Sonntag and Berlin – Symphonie einer Großstadt, I noticed the old-fashioned scenery in and out of which Bubiköpfe dart. Well into the 1920s, nationally minded Germans celebrated the Kaiser’s birthday in public events. The Fridericus Rex films were actually the big hits in Weimar. These celebrations eventually languished, updated as they were by ceremonies dedicated to Schlageter or Hindenburg or other popular causes, a case of new time cancelling old time. Newspapers were filled with this sort of cancellation: the last horse-drawn omnibuses in Berlin discontinued service in 1923, although there were still 1,199 horses in use on omnibus lines in 1919, down from a high of 4,960 in 1911. Hans Fallada popularized one of Berlin’s last horse-drawn taxicabs in “Iron Gustav”’s well-publicized 1928 trip to Paris. (You can still catch a glimpse of horse-drawn transport in Symphonie einer Großstadt and Menschen am Sonntag.) As Eingemeindung, urban renewal, and electrification transformed the metropolis, old narrow-passaged neighborhoods such as Berlin’s “Fischerinsel” or Hamburg’s “Gängeviertel,” also known as “Little Moscow,” stood out more. Even in typography, in advertisement, Fraktur competed with sans serif. The sense not only of time passing from old to new but a sense as well of the new characterized by incessant change from new to new to new animated Siegfried Kracauer’s reflections in Straßen ohne Erinnerung. Ullstein’s Tempo appeared in 1929 to keep up with the times: “Not – wie noch nie – Ansprüche wie noch nie”.4 Incidentally, it is interesting to note the prominence of clocks and wristwatches and the calibration they enforced in films such as Menschen am Sonntag (“10:00 Nikolassee”) and Emil und die Detektive. And yet, just to stay in Berlin, you could take the subway from Wittenbergplatz to Alexanderplatz and land in a completely different world populated with completely different people. “Zwischen dieser hier und jener dort liegt ein großer Riß,” observed Alexander von Stenbeck-Fermor. “Berlin: Das sind viele Städte, viele Landschaften, viele Menschengruppen. Bürger. Kleinbürger, Proletarier, Lumpenproletarier und die Schichten, die dazwischen sind – jede Gruppe führt ihr eigenes Dasein. Am Alexanderplatz treffen sich die vielen Welten.”5

Stenbeck-Fermor repeatedly emphasized political fractures. Intersected by twenty-three tram lines and nine omnibus lines, Alexanderplatz was in a state of constant movement and perpetual construction: “Auf Holzzäunen kündigen Schilder Leihhäuser an. Hakenkreuze sind auf die Bretter gekennzeichnet. ‘Heil Hitler!’ oder Sowjetsterne ‘die rote Front marschiert!’” (p. 195). From the roof of the gigantic Karstadt department store on Berlin’s Hermannplatz you could hear the noise that sounded like “the trundle of the underground subway.” It came and went in rhythm, “three times.” “Probably voices chanting in chorus. ‘Hail Moscow’? Or ‘Germany, Wake Up’? You could not really understand the words. They were too far away”.6

Unfortunately, Wildt does not explore in a forthright manner the literary construction of this “Vielzeitigkeit.” Seated around the table, we don’t see the pictures pinned up in the kitchen: the photographs of the sons and fathers who died in the Great War, the commemorative reproductions of the Kaiser or the postcards of Hitler or Lenin or Marx or the picture postcards of Lilian Harvey or Brigitte Helm that Fermor and Stenbeck-Fermor noted. Some people dreamed of the Third Reich, others of Sowjetdeutschland – milieus we don’t really see in this German history – and yet other people cultivated a more reconciliationist attitude toward their times – Sebastian Haffner described how wartime nerves relaxed in tennis and flirt by the end of the 1920s. Films like Menschen am Sonntag or Thomas Mann’s 1925 short story, “Unordnung und frühes Leid,” also cherish the moment rather than the past or the future. All the while, the Nazis were digging up eternity, an authentic, timeless, very definable Germany which by 1933 buried the Social Democrats who had become paralyzed by their own sense of obsolescence. In time, in this “Zerborstene Zeit,” the postcards of Lenin and Marx were burned just as later were the photographs of the “Führer”; the movie stars stayed pinned up.

The difference implied by “Vielzeitigkeit” or “Kanten” or “unten” and “draussen” remains insufficiently amplified. Reviewers have foregrounded the chapter that opens with Josephine Baker’s arrival onto Berlin’s nightclub scene in 1926 as unexpected and refreshing. Wildt expertly deciphers the racist rhetoric that greeted and condemned her performances. And yet the ubiquitous Harry Graf Kessler could just as well have served as the “conferencier” for this as well as other chapters – Baker on the Kudamm is a circumscribed and not altogether illuminating window onto race. Perhaps color and the color line could have been explored through W.E.B. Du Bois who, as one scholar puts it, cherished a “love affair” with Imperial Germany on account of his years as a student in Berlin in 1892–94, but who also returned to Germany for a long year in 1936 reporting in more critical terms for the Pittsburgh Courier, at the time the most influential African-American newspaper in the United States.7 Questions of colonialism and anti-colonialism are also posed by the prominent presence in Germany of Subhas Chandra Bose, the former Indian Congress leader, in the years 1941–43, during which time he met with Hitler, Himmler, and others, delivered radio broadcasts to large Indian audiences back home, and married a German woman with whom he had a daughter who still lives in the Federal Republic.

Michael Wildt is an accomplished and innovative historian. Zerborstene Zeit is a daring and, in the face of Nazi mobilization, the embrace of which Wildt knows all about, ultimately unconvincing entryway into the transformative history of people in Germany between 1918 and 1945. I think one great value of the book is the way the propositions of the introduction turn on themselves in the text to reveal the concentrated violence of a “rassistische Volksdiktatur” – Wildt’s words (p. 301) – the historical and popular foundations of which the chapters of this book in fact reveal. This is all a matter of constructive debate thanks to Wildt’s willingness to dare to move from the “Generation des Unbedingten” to the “Zerborstene Zeit”.

1 Janosch Steuwer, Ein Drittes Reich, wie ich es auffasse. Politik, Gesellschaft und privates Leben in Tagebüchern 1933–1939, Göttingen 2017, p. 64.
2 Michael Wildt, Generation des Unbedingten. Das Führungskorps des Reichssicherheitshauptamtes, Hamburg 2002.
3 Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts, London 1977, pp. 48, 56, 116.
4 Tempo, 4 Nov. 1931.
5 Alexander von Stenbock-Fermor, Deutschland von Unten. Reise durch die proletarische Provinz 1930, Stuttgart 1931, p. 203.
6 Karl Aloys Schenzinger, Der Hitlerjugend Quex, Berlin 1932, pp. 109–110.
7 Kenneth Barkin, W. E. B. Du Bois' Love Affair with Imperial Germany, in: German Studies Review 28,2 (May 2005), pp. 285–302.

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