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Saturday, May 12, 2018

Babylon Berlin: Eye Opening History



I can't think of a better time - or maybe worse time - to watch a 16-episode German series (streaming on Netflix) about the police in the Weimar Republic in 1929, just a few years before the Nazis won a plurality in the Reichstag, Hitler became Chancellor, and by 1934 had seized power, ended democracy, and declared himself Führer.   Weimar police detectives are comprised of people who would give their all to save democracy and people bent on destroying it.  Police on the street often react with deadly force to protests, unable to distinguish peaceful demonstrators from those with darker motives.  Politicians are much the same.   The parallels to our age of Trump, who has systematically attacked the press and other bulwarks of democracy, are obvious and chilling - more than chilling, given that we know how this battle turned out in Germany, and the impact of that result of the rest on the world.

But it turns out that what most people think happened in the Weimar Republic, its inescapable doom at the hands of the Nazis, is not the entire story, or is at very least vastly oversimplified.  In that difference between our casual understanding of history and what Babylon Berlin so vividly shows, may reside some real hope for us here in 2018.

That commonly accepted history shows the clever Nazis - not just Hitler, but Joseph Goebbels, who earned a PhD from the University of Heidelberg and was a master of propaganda - seizing on events, creating events, playing the people to get them to view democracy as weak and elect the Nazis to power.   That part is true is enough, but I always wondered why the Weimar Republic was such an easy target.  Babylon Berlin shows us in compelling detail that it wasn't just the Nazis that brought democracy down, or an aged President von Hindenburg who would appoint Hitler Chancellor after the Nazis gained democratically-elected power in the Reichstag.  It was, instead, the Nazis and a logically almost impossible array of powerful allies who beset the Weimar Republic and ultimately tore it to pieces.

The uneasy alliance between the Nazis and the Communists is well known, and was effectively portrayed in A French Village, another masterpiece about a slightly later period. But the full extent of this partnership between these two false champions of the workers is laid bare in Babylon Berlin, including a secret base in the Soviet Union where the German air force, outlawed in the Treaty of Versailles, is being rebuilt - not by the Weimar Republic but by German super-nationalists and rogue elements of the German military.

And even that was not the worst of it.  Joining the Nazis and the Communists in their hatred of democracy were a powerful group who never even pretended to be parties of the people: monarchists who yearned for a return of Kaiser Wilhelm II.   This was a group of generals and captains of industry (if they weren't already Nazis), and included some of the very police who were supposed to protect the Republic.  (Though we haven't gotten to the 1930s in Babylon Berlin yet, Wilhelm himself expressed both hatred and admiration of the Nazis, at times wrongly thinking that they were his ticket to restoration.)  With Nazis, Communists, and monarchists all attacking the institutions of democracy at various levels, each in their own interlocking ways, and the Weimar Republic not understanding, over-reacting, or not reacting to these dire threats at all, it didn't stand a chance.

And yet that's why I find this story ironically hopeful for those us in 2018.  Trump may be a pawn of white supremacists here in the United States.  He may have gotten some indirect support from the radical left who stayed away from the polls or didn't vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  But we have nothing even remotely like the monarchists in our country.  And, fortunately, we don't have a parliamentary form of government, where a democratically-elected plurality can aspire to seize power.

I haven't said anything about the specific stories and acting in Babylon Berlin, because I believe they're all secondary to these profound political lessons.   But they portray those lessons beautifully and unforgettably.  The heroes are Inspector Gereon Rath, haunted by his experience on the front in the Great War;  Charlotte Ritter, a flapper and part-time prostitute who does clerical work in the police department and wants to become a detective; and August Benda, head of the Weimar political police, Jewish, and the only person who glimpses the imminent future of Germany which we in 2018 know all too well.  (All three roles are impeccably played by Volker Bruch, Liv Lisa Fries - you may recall her from Counterpart - and Peter Kurth - and, while we're at it, hats off to series creators Henk Handloegten, Tom Tykwer, and Achim von Borries)  The action is non-stop, including a gun duel on top of a train (an homage to The Great Train Robbery), a breath-taking reconnaissance mission by air, and all kinds unexpected deaths, near-deaths, and suspense scenes that will keep you on the edge of your anxieties.

As an historian of technology, I should also mention that Babylon Berlin contains some significant details and lessons about the state of German technology in 1929, which was more advanced in some ways that ours in America at that time.  Their train system, their phone system, was just a little further along at that time than the rest of the world's, and gives yet another reason why the Nazis would do so well, so quickly, at the beginning of the Second World War.

See Babylon Berlin (from the novels by Volker Kutscher) for an indelible and instructive lesson in harrowing history that will stay with you for the rest of your life.





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