- The Gravediggers, by Rudiger Barth and Hauke Frederichs. Profile. $39.99.
The Gravediggers is an oddly mesmeric book. Its impact is cumulative and circuitous - but compelling. Its chronology of one winter 87 years ago in a country half a world away is discursive, fragmented - but dramatic. Its lessons are detailed and thorough - but might be summed up in one sentence from Ecclesiastes, "time and chance are the masters of everything".
Barth and Frederichs are journalists, one having studied "general rhetoric", the other having written a doctoral thesis on piracy. Between them, they examine, proceeding a single day at a time, the 75 days between 17 November 1932 and 30 January 1933, those last two months of Germany's Weimar Republic ended with the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. In November, Hitler presided over a party in financial difficulties, which had lost two million votes at the last election, suffered chronic divisions and had no agreed plan to take power. After January, Hitler needed barely another two months to set the framework for the Third Reich, his dictatorship, the Holocaust and the path towards global conflict.
When historians focus on how the appalling costs of the Second World War, they usually try to explain the follies of appeasement, concentrating on the deluded cowards who betrayed Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1938-39. The first of many virtues in The Gravediggers is to underline the contingent, unlikely, unpredictable and reversible character of Hitler's bid for power.
To make sense of those 75 days, Barth and Frederichs draw heavily not merely on formal records but also on the personal diaries and letters of some ordinary folk. The Nazis' history of the period is tainted, depicting Hitler's accession to power as a logical, natural, indeed inevitable process. This book dispels any such illusions. As always with the Nazi period, Joseph Goebbels' extensive diaries comprise an invaluable source, all the more so because the memoir by one of Hitler's principal adversaries, Kurt von Schleicher, was stolen when Hitler's thugs murdered that former Chancellor the following year.
This bottom-up, man-in-the-street technique was used in an admirably lively way by Helen Rappaports in her Caught in the Revolution, about the Bolshevik takeover in St Petersburg 1917. Here the narrative is frequently taken out of the hands of Hindenburg, Goering, Hitler, Papen, Schleicher and the like and entrusted with much less-known historical figures. Bella Fromm, Guenter Gereke, Alfred Kerr, Theodor Leipart, Abraham, Plotkin, Hans Zehrer and many more voices function as much more than a Greek chorus. Their disparate, scatter-gun perspectives - as journalists, unionists, socialites and American drop-ins - provide a rare glimpse of ordinary people caught up in a maelstrom.
In a subtle and oblique way, Barth and Fredericks leave a reader to ponder some grave what-if's. What if Schleicher had called out the troops to back his government? What if Strasser had rallied fellow Nazis against Hitler? What if Hindenburg had been less capricious and myopic in exercising power? What if the Social Democrats had organised a united front or called a general strike? On and on the questions go, the most intriguing being: how could so much of the German Establishment persuade itself that Hitler was malleable and amenable to control?
In addition to appraising the "exciting and nerve-racking struggle" (Goebbels' estimation) in the corridors of power, Barth and Frederichs leave a bit of room for whimsy. Who knew that Goebbels was a gifted accordion player, that one critical by-election occurred in a district famous only for making meerschaum pipes, and that Hitler submitted his demands in writing lest he be misled by emotion or intemperate phrases?
As for poignancy, who could up-stage Papen when informed by a Minister that his government no longer trusted nor wanted him? "Does nobody think otherwise?", was his reply. Describing his travails in prison, one journalist concluded that: "the thick wall always makes its presence felt".
In addition, the two authors are alert to period detail to enliven the grand narrative. The first "junction-free motor road", later known as the Autobahn, opened. "Electric Christmas candles" came on sale, advertised as non-drip and "just as atmospheric" as wax ones. We can expect many more such telling insights into the workings of Weimar Germany when "Babylon Berlin" moves on to that last winter.
The day-to-day chronicle imbues the story with a renewed sense of drama and suspense. Here is Hitler fumbling with having to cope with bureaucratic procedures and paperwork. "I don't want to bother with it, but nor do I want to make a fool of myself." Every reader knows how this story ends, but we are all familiar with the final act in Shakespeare's and Sophocles' plays as well. We should not, however, assume tragedy was inexorable or inevitable.