Wednesday, January 2, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Hitler’s Berlin’

By Thomas Friedrich
Yale University Press, $40, 480 pages

Adolf Hitler had a love-hate relationship with Berlin.

He loved the city for what it represented -- the focal point of Prussian power, the dynamic capital of the kaiser's empire and the political and military nerve center of the Third Reich.

However, Hitler also hated Berlin. He despised its cosmopolitan makeup and what he felt was a pervasive Jewish cultural and commercial influence on the city as well as on the whole of Germany. The resentment was pathological. A few years later, it ushered in the Holocaust, the systematic slaughter of 6 million European Jews.

The late German author Thomas Friedrich's book "Hitler's Berlin: Abused City," is a fascinating study of the politics, culture and architecture of Berlin. Berlin initially resisted Hitler's National Socialist Party. The city had a strong communist base, a powerful trade-union movement and liberal intellectuals.

Big business and the military rallied on behalf of Hitler's push for power because they thought he would revitalize the economy, enlarge the army and crush the communists and the unions. They also thought Hitler could be controlled. How terribly wrong they turned out to be.

Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 through constitutional means but not as a result of an election. He was appointed by the aging President Paul von Hindenburg, a World War I hero who disliked the Austrian-born politician who fought for Germany during the war as a corporal.

"I will employ my strength for the welfare of the German people, protect the Constitution and laws of the German people, conscientiously discharge the duties imposed on me, and conduct my affairs of office impartially and with justice to everyone," Hitler swore as he took the oath of office.
Not one of those pledges was kept.

Hindenburg, by then senile, died the following year at age 86. Hitler declared the office of president vacant, made himself the supreme leader, militarized Germany and abrogated the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919. He stepped up a campaign against Jews, communists, labor unions and his remaining political rivals.

He also sought to remake the city of Berlin to reflect the glory of a new Germany.
Hitler employed architect Albert Speer on Jan. 30, 1937, as general inspector of buildings in the country's capital. It is not insignificant that the appointment was announced exactly four years after Hitler become chancellor.

Friedrich notes that Hitler wished to create a grand city that would be a symbol of a Thousand Year Reich -- a city full of huge buildings, avenues and monuments, a capital that would dwarf Paris.
Hitler told the Reichstag, the German parliament, he needed Speer to ensure that "an overall vision be brought to the chaos of Berlin's architectural past, a vision that will do justice to the spirit of the National Socialist movement and to the character of the German capital."

Hitler never abandoned his dream of creating a grand Berlin until the closing months of World War II, perhaps because he considered himself an artist -- and politics a form of art. Historians often speculated what would have happened had Hitler been accepted to the art academy in Vienna. Some argued that he might not have entered German politics.

As for Berlin, Hitler's plan ended in the utter ruin of the city at the hands of the Soviet army. He committed suicide in Berlin during the closing days of the war.

"When Hitler took his own life in his Chancellery bunker on 30 April 1945, he took with him not only his plan for Germany's military domination of Europe but also his attempt to turn Berlin into the capital of the world, Germina -- the two plans were not only closely connected, each was a precondition and expression of the other," Friedrich writes. "Berlin continues to the present day to bear the burden of both these foolhardy schemes."

Today, Berlin is a vibrant, progressive, tolerant, multicultural capital of a reunified Germany.
Hitler would have hated the Berlin he inadvertently helped create.

Frank T. Csongos, former bureau chief of United Press International and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reported for UPI from Berlin in 1991 when it became the capital of a reunited Germany.

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