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.
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.
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!
In the Second World War, British soldiers used to sing a saucy song suggesting that Hitler only had one testicle. I always assumed this single ball slander had no basis in fact.
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.
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.
Just how odd was Adolf Hitler – as well as murderous, dictatorial and war mongering. Here goes with some weird facts you may not have known about the Fuhrer:
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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”.
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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.
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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.
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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.
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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.
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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.
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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!
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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”.
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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!
HITLER WEIRD FACT: 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.
The Nazis ran the 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 and the Nazis were 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 in this movie on the Nazis was spot on and you empathise completely with the doomed plotters.
Musical: “The Sound of Music” (1965)and “Cabaret” (1972)
The Nazis have been taken on in musicals. The Sound of Musictells 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.
Ditto 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.
Sentimental and whimsical: “Life is Beautiful” (1997) and “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972)
My least favourite movie type on the Nazis is the very sentimental and treacly 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.
Dark comedy: “The Producers” (1967) and “The Great Dictator” (1940)
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.
Out and out propaganda: “Triumph of the Will” (1935)
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 Willin 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.
The Man in the High Castle – does it tell us anything about the real American Nazis of the past?
2018 will see the return of the grim dystopian TV series The Man in the High Castle – an imagining of the United States conquered by both the Nazis and Japanese at the end of World War II. Several years after the conquest, the east coast is depicted as firmly part of the Third Reich. Americans in SS uniforms enforce Nazi race codes dictated to them by their masters in Berlin.
The real American Nazis
You might wonder what kind of American in real life would ever salute the swastika? Though since the 2016 riot in Charlottesville and the proliferation of extreme right wing accounts on Twitter – it’s getting sadly easier to imagine such a terrible thing.
The truth is that there has been a long history of Americans flirting with Nazism.
Just months before President Franklin Roosevelt took the country into World War II, American Nazis held a huge rally at Madison Square Gardens. The German American Bund, an organisation aspiring to be the Nazi party of the United States, was led by a naturalised American, born and educated in Germany, called Fritz Julius Kuhn.
A rally of American Nazis in the 1930s
Some of the footage of that rally has only recently been re-discovered and turned into an excellent film short by Marshall Curry. It’s truly chilling to watch:
Throughout the 1930s, he rallied a large number of German Americans and fans of Hitler. Click HERE to see some startling copyright images of Nazis marching in America at that time. You almost have to rub your eyes to believe what you’re seeing.
Although Kuhn staged some disturbingly well attended spectacles, he met opposition from other German Americans opposed to Hitler, the Jewish community and both federal and state authorities.
But in spite of protests by anti-Nazis, the fascists continued to openly recruit. For example, supporters of the German American Settlement League, another Nazi front organisation, organised a youth camp in Yaphank, New York state in 1938.
On that occasion, the assistant district attorney moved fast to arrest some of those involved on the grounds they were working for a foreign power….Germany.
He could not tolerate young people saluting the Nazi flag and pledging allegiance to the Fuhrer instead of the US President. Here is the assistant DA explaining why he had to take action against the youth camp:
Kuhn met Hitler in 1936 – the year Germany hosted the Olympics. But he got a cool reception. Most likely, Hitler didn’t want to provoke Washington when he was planning his various invasions of Europe.
Kuhn was eventually imprisoned in late 1939 for embezzling funds from the Bund. In 1943, he was stripped of his US citizenship. Then he was deported to Germany. Unfortunately for him, Hitler and the Nazis had been wiped off the face of the earth. Kuhn was put on trial and sentenced to ten years in prison. Here is a news report from the time where he tries to plead his innocence.
In the years after World War II, you’d have thought that being a Nazi would have been beyond the pale. Scenes from liberated concentration camps showing emaciated survivors disgusted millions of decent people across the world. But not one man: George Lincoln Rockwell.
Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazis of the 1950s
Rockwell formed the World Union of Free Enterprise National Socialists in 1959 – shortened a year later to the American Nazi Party. He is widely regarded as the founder of today’s white supremacist movement in the US.
Speaking with his trademark and rather cartoonish pipe stuck in his mouth, Rockwell opined that black people should be returned to Africa and unbelievably, advocated exterminating Jewish people. Unlike other Nazis, he didn’t attempt to deny the holocaust so much as embrace it.
He also exhibited another common trait of the extreme right – rank opportunism. Convinced he could get elected US president, Rockwell decided to swallow his hatred of Latino and Slav-heritage Americans to build an anti-Jewish and anti-African American white power coalition. But more incredibly, Rockwell flirted with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X.
In 1961, he and a group of fellow American Nazi Party members attended a Nation of Islam rally – with permission from the organisers – in the belief that they held a shared hatred of Jews.
It’s an uncomfortable fact that Malcolm X was present, though not NOI leader Elijah Muhammad. The Nazi leader fantasised about a grand alliance with the NOI:
Can you imagine a rally of the American Nazis in Union Square protected from Jewish hecklers by a solid phalanx of Elijah Muhammad’s stalwart black stormtroopers?”
Mercifully, this alliance never materialised. But it’s a stain on the history of the NOI. In the end, Rockwell’s hatred of African-Americans trumped his ability to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad’s racialised version of Islam. Malcom X later split with the NOI’s black separatist ideology and sent Rockwell a threatening telegram in 1965.
This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans….you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation…
Rockwell was assassinated in his car while on a launderette run. He’d apparently forgotten the soap powder and returned to his vehicle when he was gunned down in 1967. His assassin was John Patler, a member of Rockwell’s own party.
Patler’s real name was Yanacki Patsalos but he changed it to Patler in the belief that sounded a bit like Hitler! A social misfit from a Greek family that had migrated to the US. As a young man, he had fallen into gang activity as well as being discharged from the Marines for his Nazi activity. He got twenty years for the killing.
Today’s American Nazis
Anti-semitism and white supremacism are on the rise today in the United States. A recent media report highlighted the growth of hate crime against the dwindling Jewish population in Yaphank – the New York state town that planned to have a Nazi youth camp in 1938. Incredibly, the German-American Settlement League still operates in that town and only recently has a ban on non-German descent people buying property been lifted.
The 2016 riot at Charlottesville evidenced that the extreme right is still able to dragoon disaffected white males into action. Many of them dream of an America run by the jackbooted racially pure.
But that nightmarish vision is highly unlikely – even allowing for Donald Trump! Nevertheless, those of us who value democracy and harmony in our society must remain vigilant against a resurgence of fascist hate politics.
Here is the trailer for the forthcoming season 3 of The Man in the High Castle
I was in the Gore Hotel’s lovely Tapestry Room this week filming for the fifth series of Forbidden History presented, as ever, by Jamie Theakston. It’ll be aired in the Spring of 2018. I’ll be appearing in all six episodes and some great topics will be featured:
Who was the real historical Jesus?
The mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls
The horror of the East German secret police – the Stasi