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.

FIND OUT MORE: Berlin museums shut because of Coronavirus

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.

DISCOVER: Hitler really did only have one ball

Hyper-inflation was another curse of that era. And 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 that was worth billions of Marks. 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!

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Hitler really did only have one ball

In the Second World War, British soldiers used to sing a saucy song suggesting that Hitler only had one testicle. Interestingly, medical reports on Hitler when he was imprisoned in the 1920s suggest that far from being an invention of British propaganda, the Fuhrer may indeed have only possessed one properly descended ball.

The lyrics to the song sung by soldiers varies. As a child growing up in London in the 1970s, this ditty was still being belted out by kids. We all knew the words!

Hitler has only got one ball
Göring has two but very small
Himmler is rather sim’lar
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all

British Army song – possible author: Toby O’Brien in 1939

Another version says that Hitler’s missing ball is in the Albert Hall – rhymes you see!

It’s been asserted that an even earlier version of the song had Göring, a leader of the Nazi high command, with the testicular deficit. He was said to have lost half his manhood during a Nazi failed coup d’etat in 1923 in Munich known as the Beer Hall Putsch.

It was after that 1923 attempt at a Nazi revolt that Hitler was put in prison. While under lock and key, he was examined by Dr Josef Brinsteiner. His report, alluding to the missing ball, was discovered in an archive by a professor at the University of Erlangen and published a few years ago in the German mass circulation tabloid Bild.

Here I am discussing this on Private Lives – the history documentary series presented by Tracy Borman and broadcast on UKTV and Yesterday.

It’s true – Hitler only had one

Napoleon and Hitler investigated in a new TV programme – Private Lives

From Monday 11 March 2019, I will be appearing in every episode of Private Lives broadcasting on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world. Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I’ll be covering the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:

  • Princess Margaret – the late sister of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret never stuck to the rules and caused constant scandal during her life. She’s featured in the Netflix series The Crown
  • Edward VIII – the king of England who gave up his throne to marry an American commoner and divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British Empire was rocked by Edward’s decision but what really lay behind it?
  • Napoleon – the diminutive French emperor who conquered most of Europe but was destroyed in his attempt to take Russia. His passionate affairs, tempestuous marriage and crushing defeat by the English exposed
  • Hitler – you’d think there was nothing left to say about Hitler but we delve into his fascination for teenage girls, frustrated artistic ambitions and the corrupt ambition that brought him down
  • Al Capone – the gangster known as Scarface terrorised Chicago but also had a great many admirers. The establishment seemed powerless to act as this street punk made vast profits from racketeering but eventually they got him on tax evasion
  • Peter the Great – the mightiest tsar that ever ruled Russia. A very odd character who loved dwarves, heavy drinking and women. His parties were notorious. His cruelty, even to close family, was highly disturbing.

Happy viewing!!

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Forbidden History: Insights on Jesus and James Bond!

Theakston

This month, I appear in the new season of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston. You can view it online or download from Sky. So, what can you expect to see me talking about?

  • The historical Jesus. Who was the real Jesus Christ? Forbidden History journeys through the Holy Land to find whether the Messiah really existed and the exact spot where he was crucified
  • The East German Stasi. How did communist East Germany create a ruthless secret police that got one in six of the population spying on everybody else? A fascinating trip back to the Cold War
  • Nazi Art Theft. The astonishing robbery of billions of dollars worth of art by Hitler stashed away in salt mines and other hiding places. And the brave efforts of the Monuments Men to trace priceless paintings and sculptures
  • The real James Bond. Forbidden History asks which actor in the Bond movies comes closest to the real thing? An investigation into what inspired the creation of this compelling character
  • Dead Sea Scrolls. The most incredible biblical discovery in centuries. Parchments written by a fanatical Jewish sect, the Essenes, that could have proven or disproven the existence of Christ. Yet these massively important documents were hidden from public view for decades.
  • Secret societies. All your favourite clandestine organisations under the microscope from Opus Dei to the Illuminati. Who and what are these organisations and do they really control the world?

Make sure not to miss Forbidden History broadcasting on the Yesterday channel, part of UKTV.

Ten weird facts about Hitler

Just how odd was Adolf Hitler – as well as murderous, dictatorial and war mongering. Here goes with some things you may not have known about the Fuhrer:

Adolf Hitler1. He wanted to murder his father and marry his mother

Well, that was how one German journalist summed up a man fit for the shrink’s couch. His parental relationships were very Freudian. Daddy was a brute or as Hitler ironically commented: “a tyrant in the home”.

I say ironically as the son of Alois Hitler, a low ranking tax inspector, went on to be a tyrant all over Europe. Mummy, on the other hand, was – according to a doting Adolf – “a source of goodness and love”.

2. He dodged the draft

What is it with right-wing militarists and tough talking politicians and their inability to serve in uniform? Hitler should have been conscripted into the Austrian Army during the First World War as he was born in that country. The prospect clearly didn’t appeal as he fled to Munich where a German detective eventually tracked him down forcing Adolf to return to his birthplace, Linz in Austria, where he failed an army medical examination.

3. He was referred to as a “rear area pig”

Hitler did eventually serve in the Germany Army in World War One. He later painted a very glowing picture of his war record. But veterans for years afterwards muttered about him being nowhere near the front lines. They scornfully referred to Adolf as an Etappenschwein – a glorified messenger boy scuttling between officers far from the front.

4. Hitler was a late riser – even during World War Two

You might think that the impetuous dictator, having committed Germany to wars on many fronts, might get up and manage the situation on a daily basis. But Hitler never seems to have shaken off the bad habits he acquired dossing around as a wannabe art student in Vienna. He went to bed very late often asking for a special apple cake to snack on – referred to by his staff as “Fuhrer Cake”. And this was at the height of WW2 with cities being blitzed and German troops dying by the thousands in the Soviet Union.

5. Hitler had an affair with his niece

OK, it was his half niece. Does that make it better? Geli Raubal was 19 years younger than Adolf Hitler. He made Geli his housekeeper then suffocated her with creepy attention. After she had an affair with Adolf’s chauffeur, Geli was forbidden to leave the apartment. Eventually, she grabbed a gun and fired it into her own chest committing suicide.

6. Maddest marriage vow ever

When Hitler eventually agreed to marry Eva Braun – another women he fell in love with who was again, way younger than him – she had to recite some very odd Third Reich marriage vows. This included “I am an Aryan” and “I have no hereditary disease”. Nice.

7. Hitler read books – really horrible books…

Yes, Hitler had a very large library. Surprising considering the number of books he burnt. But the reading matter was a bit unpleasant including such delightful tomes as Henry Ford’s International Jew and Alfred Rosenberg’s Zionism as an Enemy of the State. Probably read late at night with a slice of Fuhrer Cake!

8. Worst dinner party guest

Hitler thought he was a great after dinner speaker. And who was going to disagree? After a late lunch – when he had finally got out of bed – he would discourse on his favourite subjects – normally something to do with the Jews or the virtue of blonde hair and blue eyes. Between 1941 and 1945, a total of 1,500 of these rambling monologues were recorded for posterity. Magda Goebbels – wife of his propaganda minister – described the content as “tedious”.

9. Hitler fleeced the state

Adolf Hitler liked to project an image of self-sacrifice and Spartan living. Nothing could be further from the truth. He built up, in today’s terms, a multi-billion fortune. Every copy of Mein Kampf earned him royalties and the dreary book was in every school, college and public institution. He even earned copyright fees on his own image – including stamps and posters!

10. Hitler believed the world would go vegetarian

In one of his Table Talks, Hitler opined that the world of the future would be totally vegetarian. Hard to believe that he argued this on moral grounds while sending millions of human beings to gas chambers and firing squads. But the Fuhrer maintained it was wrong to cause death in order to fill the dinner table.

 

Top movies about the Nazis

Worst dictatorship in history that plunged Europe into a devastating war and murdered millions in concentration camps. So, how has the movie industry depicted the horror of Adolf Hitler. Well, let’s take a look:

Gritty realism: “Downfall” (2004)

A brilliant German movie about Hitler’s final days in Berlin as the Soviet Red Army and Allied forces closed in on the city, leaving it a smouldering ruin. An incredibly atmospheric film that captures the claustrophobic atmosphere in the bunker where Hitler was holed up. Bit by bit we see the Third Reich crumbling leading to the Fuhrer’s suicide.

Tense thriller: “Valkyrie” (2008)

In July, 1944, a group of German military officers tried to blow Adolf Hitler and the Nazi high command up as they met at the so-called Wolf’s Lair. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the one-eyed hero who tries and fails to implement the mission. Casting was spot on and you empathise completely with the doomed plotters.

The Nazis have been taken on in musicals. The Sound of Music tells the story of a singing family against the backdrop of the Nazi takeover of Austria. Made twenty years after World War II, it’s not an in-depth look at German fascism, more a romantic tale in which the Nazis intrude.

cabaretDitto Cabaret, another love story set in the Weimar republic. Starring Liza Minelli, that movie is based on a story by the English poet Christopher Isherwood. Again, it’s not really about the Nazis but they do turn up at the end of the movie to spoil everything, closing down the fun night life of Berlin.

My least favourite Nazi era movies are the very sentimental films about life in concentration camps. I realise that many moviegoers adored Life is Beautiful, about a father resorting to comic routines to obscure the nightmare of concentration camp life from his son, but I found it unbearably mawkish. Twenty five years before, comedian Jerry Lewis made a similar movie called The Day the Clown cried. It was so bad that even Lewis insisted it should never be released – and thankfully it never was.

Comedy is a genre that’s had mixed results. The director Mel Brooks featured a fictional musical called “Springtime for Hitler” in his musical The Producers, which was in deliberately bad taste but very funny. In contrast, I’ve never known what to make of Charlie Chaplin’s well-intentioned but unwatchable comic take on Hitler, The Great Dictator. Might have worked when it was made in 1940 as an anti-Nazi film but today it’s just clunky and cloying.

Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl

Then of course, there are films the Nazis made themselves heroising their dictatorship. The in-house director for the Third Reich was a woman called Leni Riefenstahl. Technically very proficient, she glorified the Reich in a movie called Triumph of the Will in 1935. It’s more of a fly on the wall documentary with no voice over that bombards the viewer with rallies, goose-stepping SS and endless speeches by Hitler and others. Riefenstahl managed not to get imprisoned after the war and died in 2001 aged over 100.

Portraying Adolf Hitler is still a very emotive subject. But the further we move away from World War II and the Holocaust, the more it seems that directors are prepared to take on the subject in ways that would have once seemed unthinkable. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, Hitler was a demonic figure. The debate now is to what extent he can be depicted as a human being without diminishing what he did.