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Book Report: Blood and Banquets

I picked up Blood and Banquets from the shelf because of the intriguing title, and found it an intriguing book. It purports to be Bella Fromm’s diaries from Weimar and Nazi Germany, mostly from 1930-1938. I say purports; I had a sense while reading it that it was highly re-written for American publication, and when I went looking, I found an article (Two Dubious Third Reich Diaries, by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr, Central European History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2000), pp. 415-422) persuasively claiming that it was entirely written in the US in 1941-1942. Still, there is no question that Ms. Fromm was a regular columnist for Berlin newspapers during those years, at least until the Nuremberg Laws made that impossible, and it seems plausible enough that, as she says, her stuff continued to be printed under other names while she was still in Germany. I would guess that the book was written from her newspaper clippings and other sources, filled in with remembered anecdotes which may have been accurate, may have happened but at different times or events, may have been exaggerated, and may have been made up out of whole cloth.

Bella Fromm herself, as a character, seems too good to be true. From a prominent and wealthy Jewish family (her uncle was Max Fromm, the wine merchant), she came into a big inheritance young, moved to Berlin, married and had a daughter, then divorced. She was a philanthropist and charity-organizer among the upper crust, and then when hyperinflation wiped out the value of her inheritance, she took work as a gossip columnist reporting on the aristocracy and particularly on the diplomatic set. The introduction is by Frederick T. Birchall, who had won the Pulitzer in 1934 for his reporting from Berlin, and he talks about how connected she was and what confidences she held. She is acquainted with the old royal family as well as with the bankers, landowners and military leaders, and is indispensable at the best and most exclusive parties, as she then reports for the newspapers how glittering and wonderful the dinner conversation was, and she trades in the gossip of the people who know the most. She stays until 1938; she is personal friends with various diplomats and their spouses, and as such is left largely unmolested as a non-Aryan, and even is able to help some other people through her connections in the foreign services.

And that all seems to be true! I mean, it’s possible she exaggerates how close she was to various people, but in broad outline, yeah, she was there. The details may be invented, but the observations are her own.

And of course I am reading this book that purports to, from the author’s note, “help clarify the great historical enigma: How was it possible for the culture-loving nation of Goethe, Schiller, and Kant, of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms, to succumb at last to the new barbarism of Adolph Hitler?” I worry, here in the United States in 2017, whether we will succumb to some new barbarism, or rather, how far we will succumb. The most fascinating part is the early years, before Hitler comes to power, when the Nazis are growing more popular but there are still clear alternatives. It’s hard to conceptualize, or at least hard for me to conceptualize, that in 1930 or so, when the Nazis were pretty much a fringe party among other fringe parties, they had a private army of 100,000 men in uniform. A hundred thousand! In a country of sixty-five million! That would be (in terms of the percentage of the populace) like half-a-million in the US right now, in uniform and marching, in opposition to the elected government. It’s unthinkable. It couldn’t be allowed. I mean, it was unthinkable in Germany in 1924, too, mind you, but the Weimar government was such a disaster by 1930 that it happened whether it was thinkable or not.

The SA was collecting money on the street and beating up those who failed to contribute. The police were largely in sympathy with the SA, and in fact many of them were in the SA. Many of the rest were veterans who couldn’t get work in a devastated economy, they hired on with the SA to beat up communists and got a uniform to wear. This is before Hitler becomes Chancellor, when the Nazis are just a small (but growing) political party, not even the largest among a hugely split parliament. The rest of the parties and factions are trying to figure out how the Nazis can be manipulated, ignored, co-opted or weakened. The brownshirts are ruling the streets.

I don’t know what lessons there are to be learned for today. I mean, I don’t think you need detailed correspondence between historical events and the present to learn lessons, but reading this book I was overwhelmed with how utterly different things are here, now, than they were there, then. Fundamentally, the Weimar government had failed by 1930, probably (I’m not an expert) sometime between the 1928 and 1930 elections when the government simply could not govern, for a variety of reasons both domestic and foreign. While there seems to be a good deal of talk about desperation in the country in the last few years, about last best hopes and swamps and the end of everything, it certainly seems to me that we have a functioning government. Even with the President firing the FBI Director who was overseeing an investigation into some of the President’s associates (among other activities, of course) it seems to me that the government is more or less working in most of the country. I don’t want to understate the challenges, and of course there is always some stuff getting worse and other things getting better, but it’s not like it was in Weimar.

At the same time, I don’t think that, when the Beer-Hall putsch failed in 1923, anyone would have believed that Hitler would be supreme leader within a dozen years, with the constitution a dead letter. Of course it could happen here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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