Love or Nothing: The Real Greek Parallel with Weimar
Of all the operas written during Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919-33), probably the most haunting is the last.
Kurt Weill’s The Silver Lake, written with playwright Georg Kaiser, tells the story of two losers—a good-hearted provincial cop and the thief he has shot and wounded—as they make their way through a society ruined by unemployment, corruption and vice.
After spending a week again in Greece - amid riots, hunger and far right violence - I finally understood it.
The opera was meant to be Weill’s path back into the mainstream. It was his first break from collaborating with Bertolt Brecht, and was scheduled to open simultaneously in three German cities on 18 February 1933.
But on 30 January Adolf Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor.
The first performances of The Silver Lake were disrupted by Nazi activists in the audience and on 4 March 1933 it was banned. The score was torched, together with its set designs, in the infamous book-burning ceremony outside the opera house in Berlin.
It is easy to see why the Nazis didn’t like The Silver Lake. Weill was Jewish; the Nazi theatre critics found the music “ugly and sick”. Moreover the plot contains an allegory of the political situation on the eve of the Nazis’ rise to power.
But there has always been something else about The Silver Lake that goes beyond politics. Something hard to fathom.
Spending time in Greece, as the far right Golden Dawn party breaks up theatre performances with impunity, and street violence is common, I finally know what that something is.
The Silver Lake is ultimately about how people feel when they switch from resistance to hopelessness. And about how strangely liberating hopelessness can be.
Greece right now is a place with a lot of hopelessness. Its own prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has compared its atmosphere to that of the Weimar Republic.
“Greek democracy stands before what is perhaps its greatest challenge,” Mr Samaras told the German newspaper Handelsblatt. He said social cohesion is “endangered by rising unemployment, just as it was toward the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany”.
The comparison seems plausible: there are far right gangs meting out violence on the streets - a report last week identified more than half of all officially recorded racial attacks as perpetrated by people in paramilitary uniforms. Every demonstration ends with tear gas and baton charges.
There is mass unemployment. There is the collapse of mainstream parties. The press and broadcast media are struggling to remain independent, indeed solvent.
Yet the comparison with the “end of Weimar” only holds if you know nothing about the Weimar Republic itself.
Sadly this condition is common. School students are rightly taught lots about Nazi Germany - but not very much about the detail of how it came into being.
Here’s a short summary. In the elections of 1928 the Nazis, who had - like Golden Dawn in Greece - been reduced to a splinter group in the years of economic recovery, got just 2.7%.
But in March 1930, as the Wall Street Crash cratered the German economy, a cross-party coalition government of the centre left and right collapsed. It was replaced by the first of three “appointed” governments - designed to avoid either the communists or the now-growing Nazis gaining power.
It was led by Heinrich Bruning. Faced with a recession, Bruning followed a policy of austerity, while keeping Germany’s currency pegged to the Gold Standard (much as Greece as follows a policy of austerity dictated by euro membership). This made the recession worse.
As unemployment rocketed, so did the Nazi vote: in a shock breakthrough they came second in the elections of September 1930, with 18%. But Bruning was determined to crack down on both the right and left: he banned the Nazi paramilitary organisation, the sturmabteilung, along with the rival communist uniformed militia.
As recession worsened, the Nazis grew massively: they won the election in 1932, gaining 14 million votes (37%). The socialists and communists combined polled higher. And the parties of the centre collapsed. Yet the presidential system of appointing governments now allowed these very centrist parties to go on ruling Germany - now under a new Chancellor, the aristocrat Franz Von Papen.
Von Papen unbanned the Nazi stormtroopers in June 1932 and, as historian Ian Kershaw puts it in his definitive biography of Hitler: “The latent civil war… was threatening to become an actual civil war.”
By the end of 1932, with the communists now also growing rapidly, the political establishment made one last final attempt to keep Hitler out of power. Right wing general Kurt Von Schleicher was appointed chancellor, and tried to form a government with everybody from the left wing of the Nazis to the socialist trade unions. But this too fell, opening the door to Hitler.
Kershaw wrote: “Only crass errors by the country’s rulers could open up a path [for Hitler]. And only a blatant disregard by Germany’s power elites for safeguarding democracy - in fact, the hope that economic crisis could be used as a vehicle to bring about democracy’s demise and replace it by a form of authoritarianism - could induce such errors. Precisely this is what happened.” (Hitler: Hubris)
These names - Bruning, von Papen, Schleicher - troublesome though they are to remember, should be as famous as the words Stalingrad, Arnhem and Dunkirk.
These were the men who tried and failed to use a mixture of austerity, tough policing and what we might now call “technocratic” rule to save German democracy. They failed.
And herein lies the parallel with Greece: a country committed to austerity, whose centrist parties are clustered into a coalition which represents the forces of conservatism and social democracy. The coalition sees itself as the last bulwark against a government of the far left and is trying to crack down on extremism using a police force which has itself been criticised for extremist leanings.