Is Babylon Berlin a warning for our own time?

Babylon Berlin has been the most enjoyable TV viewing for a while. A three season drama steeped in the sleazy but vibrant world of the Weimar Republic. It weaves crime stories with political intrigue and the decadent night life of Berlin in the 1920s.

And yet – it seems compelling to watch because there’s a warning for our own time. Here was a democratic Germany in the 1920s. It had an elected parliament, trades unions, combative political parties of all colours and strong feminist, anti-racist and LGBT friendly aspects to its society. And yet – it all collapsed into Nazi tyranny by 1933.

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In Babylon Berlin, you get all the warning signs flashing big, bold and red. We get a constant sense that none of this is going to end well. Young people are joining the Hitler Youth. German Jews are being disparaged and insulted as sub-human and wicked. Democratic politicians are the subject of assassination plots. All the institutions of the state from the courts to the police, army and civil service are not just corrupt but appear to be employing murderers.

Weimar is fun. Weimar is cultured. But Weimar is also in constant crisis. And eventually, the embattled middle class will give their votes to Hitler. At the end of season three we see one reason why that would happen – the 1929 stock market crash. One police officer – a typical mediocre petit bourgeois – has been trading in stocks way beyond his means and conned into doing so by silver-tongued financial salesmen. A desperate man like him will turn to extreme political solutions.

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Hyper-inflation was another curse of that era.

I have a sheet of stamps I bought years ago from around 1924 that were printed on top of to change their value by adding six or seven noughts. In addition I have a bank note from 1923 with a face value of 100,000 Marks. Here I am holding it below…

No wonder Weimar tottered so badly throughout the 1920s.

But it was also a cultural nirvana. Great artists and authors flourished in Berlin at this time. In season three, the plot of Babylon Berlin centres on the filming of a movie in the German Expressionist style. In the Weimar era, the director Fritz Lang reigned supreme making such incredible films as Metropolis and Dr Mabuse. And if you can, watch the 1920 expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Yet it was all about to end. And maybe as our own society seems to be transitioning from post-war liberal democracy to something potentially more disturbing, Babylon Berlin resonates on many levels. I strongly advise you to watch it for yourself.

Meanwhile – here are some snippets from the incredible Metropolis!

Inside the Stasi – the East German secret police!

In 2018, I appeared in the TV documentary series Forbidden History (UKTV, Yesterday) talking about a highly sinister secret police force called the Stasi. This followed a trip I paid to Berlin to see the Stasi prison cells where people were tortured for myself.

Communist East Germany collapsed in 1989. It meant the end of a totalitarian state where the secret police spied on the population using a web of 90,000 paid agents and hundreds of thousands of informers.

I’ve just visited the secret prison of the Ministry for State Security – the Stasi. It’s a grim place where agents physically and psychologically tortured political opponents of the government.

East Germany was created in the image of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was at the end of the Second World War when Hitler’s Germany was carved up between the Soviet Union, France, United Kingdom and United States. Berlin sat in the middle of Soviet run territory and was in turn divided up between the four victorious powers.

In Soviet occupied Germany, there would be no democracy, no dissent and no freedom of organisation. The East German communist government took orders from Moscow and created a Kafka-esque nightmare of a society. Show trials and denunciation were the norm, echoing the Stalinist purges of the 1930s.

A culture of informing was encouraged. Neighbours, friends, family members and even husbands and wives would spy on each other. Often with a designated code name, they would ring up the Stasi and snitch on their loved ones. Private scores were settled just by picking up the phone and spilling the beans to a Stasi operator.

Only when Stasi files became public in 1990 did people realise the extent of the secret police activity. One woman, now a German politician, discovered her husband had been reporting on her activity to the Stasi for decades. A punk singer who was seen as a bit of  rebel was in fact a spy. All over the country, listening devices were planted in suspect’s flats or even in bizarre places like nesting boxes, watering cans and even a specially designed bra!!

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The cell inside the supposed delivery van

Once somebody came to the Stasi’s attention, they would be picked up and taken to the prison I visited for interrogation. They might be dragged out of their home or simply accosted in public. The hapless individual was then bundled into what deliberately looked like a delivery van. It could contain up to five very cramped cells.

They were then driven for hours, unable to see out of the window. This would create the impression that the prison was far from their home when in fact, it might have been a mere 20 minute ride. From outside, ordinary people would have just seen a delivery van for groceries trundling past.

They they arrived at the Stasi prison. The van stopped in a holding bay harshly illuminated by strip lighting. The political detainees shielded their eyes and fell to the ground. This was followed by a strip search, an exercise in humiliation. A kind of track suit was then issued with no consideration given to size. If it was ill-fitting – so much the better. Everything was geared to dehumanising the suspect.

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Down in the “submarine”

In the basement of one building is an underground labyrinth of corridors and cells nicknamed the “submarine” – a windowless hell where the first inmates in the late 1940s and 1950s were incarcerated. With no light, prisoners hadn’t any idea whether it was day or night. Twelve or fifteen shared a single cell with one bucket to relieve themselves and a single bed to share on a rota. Many died in that darkness.

Then from the 1950s until 1989, a newer wing was used. The cells there had windows – and bars. Each prisoner had a room to themselves with toilet, bed and sink. But this heralded a new form of degradation.  Physical beatings and summary executions were replaced by sleep deprivation and months of vicious mind games.

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Keep prisoners awake by ratting the cell door

How was sleep deprived? Inmates were ordered to sleep on their back, arms to the sides and staring up a light bulb that flashed on intermittently through the night. If a prisoner fell asleep and turned on to their side, the cell door was rattled until they woke.

Sleep deprivation is a devastatingly effective form of torture. Add to that the horror of solitary confinement for months on end. Prisoners began to relish the sessions with their interrogator who came to be seen as a kind of friend. That was the intention. Bit by bit, it became easier to extract a confession.

It’s incredible to think this all carried on until 1989 and the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe. The Moscow-inspired Stalinist system was hated by most of the Left and Right in post-war Europe. But it had – and still has – its admirers. In recent years, a couple of Stasi agents have very publicly crawled out of the woodwork trying to justify what they did back in those days.

If you want to know more about the Stasi, I recommend this movie: The Lives of Others.