David Clay Large, Berlin. (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
David Clay Large, Where Ghosts Walked: Munich’s Road to the Third Reich. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).
One of the great things about teaching 15 different courses on a regular basis is that I am compelled to read more widely than may be the norm for someone in a large, highly specialized history department. It is particularly stimulating when a 20th century U.S. social historian can slip loose the bounds of his philistine training and indulge in the reading of tremendous intellectual/cultural history outside the modern American field.
I have not been exposed to German literature, history, and culture since my undergraduate years, followed by an intense period of cramming in graduate school so that I could pass my language proficiency examinations. It was, therefore, quite gratifying when I accidentally discovered David Clay Large, one of the most talented and engaging European intellectual/cultural historians I have ever read.
As I have been teaching a course on Great Depression-World War II America, I developed a strong desire to learn more about the origins of Nazi Germany. Fortunately, I stumbled across Large’s opus on Munich. Blending the tales of Marxist and fascist politics, visceral anti-Semitism, and a lot of starving (some justly so) artists, Where Ghosts Walked was a wild romp through pre-World War II Munich.
Large’s writing is a particular joy and I am especially fond of his pithy characterization of Adolf Hitler, a young sociopath and would-be-artist in Munich who failed his physical for the Austro-Hungarian Army in February 1914: “Apparently his bohemian existence had paid off, for he had the dilapidated constitution of a coffeehouse warrior.” (p. 42)
I am presently halfway through Large’s sprawling Berlin, a fine work that particularly focuses on the era from the Franco-Prussian War to the collapse of communist East Germany. If ghosts walked in Munich surely self-destructive visionaries—the good, the bad, and the ugly—haunted a city that would serve as the capital for monarchy, democracy, Nazism, and communism.
As a cultural historian Large naturally gives much attention to the performing and visual arts, along with compelling tours of seedy cabarets. “Life is not a cabaret, old chum,” readers learn. The scenes of young boys in Weimar Germany selling themselves to sex tourists so that they could buy food are difficult to forget.
Learning that actor Conrad Veidt was a cross dressing Berlin hooker in the 1920s may not have been of life and death importance to readers’ intellect, but it is certainly going to affect the way I now watch “Casablanca” and “All Through the Night.” (After Veidt fled the Nazis—go figure—he landed in Hollywood where he was instantly typed-cast. He played the nasty Nazi officer who gets blown away by Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and the nasty Nazi spy who gets blown away by Bogart in “All Through the Night.” (p. 180)
The photographs Large included in this book are of immense value. Looking at the pictures of German soldiers marching through Berlin in 1914 and then again in 1919 readers are witness to an almost science fiction-like evolution. The spiked helmets of 1914 give way to the German headgear that became infamous throughout Europe a generation later. Other unsettling images appearing in the photographs include swastikas on armored vehicles and on the helmets of some of the Freikorps. As if to anticipate the coming of Hitler, there are also mounting choruses of Jew-hatred that already have more than a whiff of “eliminationist” anti-Semitism in 1919 Berlin.
If you are not a specialist of modern Germany but wish to learn more, enjoy good writing, and wonder about the origins of many of our more recent problems with Europe, Large’s city books are the place to begin.
Kathy Toy - 5/19/2005
I am doing a research project on the bohemian counterculture in the Scwabing district of pre-WW I Munich. Apparently there is little out there about this, but a colleague of Freud and Jung, Otto Gross, was one of the prominent figures. They attempted to resist the German build-up to WW I through their anti-bourgeouis lifestyle of free sex and drugs along with a professed belief in maternal rather than paternal values. This parallels the American counterculture of the sixties and seventies and the counterculture of today, all in resistance to the prevailing paternal, militaristic culture. Does anyone know anything about this?