In April 1945, as the Red Army was closing its grip on Berlin, coming closer and closer to Hitler’s last refuge under the Chancellery gardens, one of his favourite pilots managed to fly a small aeroplane into the burning capital and land it near Brandenburg Gate. On board she carried a wounded future head of the Nazi Luftwaffe.
Aircraft Capitan Hanna Reitsch. Here is the story of her remarkable Berlin coup. And of her post-war denial.
In 2020, two years ago from now, our everyday lives were turned upside down by the worldwide COVID pandemic – a pandemic which still has us in its grip. Nothing is as it used to be: the virus threatens lives in both direct and indirect ways. Less than three weeks ago Putin’s army attacked Ukraine, beginning a new war in Europe – one which is on the verge of engulfing all of us as we helplessly watch the atrocities being committed, innocent civilians dying or fleeing to save their and their children’s lives.
Many of us are, quite understandably, so preoccupied with the new reality we have no time or energy to busy ourselves with the past. But perhaps now is exactly the moment to look over our collective shoulder and carefully consider what we think that we know. Maybe it is time to do what Mr Keating, the unforgettable college teacher in “Dead Poets Society”, tried to convey to his pupils: whatever you think you know looks different when instead of sitting at your desk, you stand on it and change your perspective.
Exactly a hundred years before the COVID-pandemic broke out, in March 1920, the city of Berlin found itself in the state of chaos. Reactionary militant groups marched in and threatened to upturn the new German republic using direct and indirect violence – 2020 marked the centennial of what came to be known as Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch.
Kapp-Lüttwitz-Putsch, also known as Kapp-Putsch, after the names of its two official leaders, Wolfgang Kapp and General von Lüttwitz, was an attempted armed coup organised by a group of German reactionaries. Their plan was to overthrow the post-First-World-War republican government of Friedrich Ebert and replace it with the “good old” Prussian order – which did not mean they wished for the Kaiser to return. In fact, Kapp is said to have held the former German emperor for a Weichei (coward).
The main cause for the attempted coup might have been less political than many were willing to admit: the putsch broke out because many high-rank German military were about to lose their jobs. Men whose whole lives turned around their army careers, who had been brought up to “serve their country” by waging or participating in military conflicts and wars; men who from very young age had been encouraged and supported in these pursuits by the state (like tin soldiers playing with their own tin soldiers), were about to be made redundant. The decision was made in Versailles and eventually accepted by the German government.
The disgruntlement of German troops and their leaders, still unable to accept their defeat with dignity, still kicking and screaming abuse at anyone who dared to deny them, still throwing tantrums and waving their flame-thrower hoses over the nation’s heads, almost led to another great catastrophe. In the end they failed – thanks to what should be hailed as one of the greatest moments in German history, one of the greatest examples of this nation – admittedly not exactly famous for such commendable examples of Aktionseinheit (unity of action) – closing its ranks to prevent an earthquake that could have swallowed them all. The Generalstreik (National Strike), called for right after the start of the putsch, brought the whole of Berlin as well as a great part of the country to a complete halt. And made the military and political machine behind the coup drive right against the wall.
But History is written by those who repeat their stories most often to the largest possible audience, not by those who simply record it. And so names and events are left out and begin to fade away from collective memory until hardly any trace is left.
Kapp-Putsch (perhaps also because of the catchy name?) had an easy job stealing public imagination – it had it all: Prussian military, political conflict between the old order and the new, class-conflict, Capitalism vs. Socialism and Communism, the von’s and the swastikas on German helmets.
Or maybe it is even less complicated than that? Perhaps it is this irresistible series of images – like an early form of Instagram not on computer servers but in people’s heads – that turned a failed assault carried out by disgruntled and/or traumatised men against a legal and official government of their state into a “classic”? Everybody loves a uniform. The shiny Prussian boots. The determined, stern look on moustachioed faces; the way they stand holding their weapons, the war machines they pull behind them or push before them like giant metal toys.
Sometimes, there is an element of disturbing fascination – it feels like fearful respect or quiet longing to have been part of it themselves – you often sense among those who keep re-telling Kapp-Putsch story with glee. But what do the story-tellers really think about their actions? Are those just filtered Instagram images, the ever-turning carousel of paroles, that they see and hear or do they really have a considered opinion? It is just a thought and by no means one limited to Kapp-Putsch only. But one aimed at making sure that the perpetrators should never get more (or better!) press than those they abused. Or even worse: that the abuse is turned around and consequently presented as virtue.
That is why when talking about the events in Berlin in March 1920 it is important to put the other side of this tale in the limelight.
The putsch, carried out by German Freikorps, voluntary paramilitary troops of strongly anti-republican hue, could have overthrown Ebert’s government: the army under General von Seeckt (even though some members of the Reichswehr supported the Ebert government) refused to follow president’s orders in order not to be forced to shoot at fellow soldiers (famous “Troops do not shoot at troops!”). This was most probably not the only reason for the army’s withdrawal – many powerful men would have welcomed Friedrich Ebert’s and the Weimar Republic’s demise.
Acting from so obviously lost a position, Ebert did the only thing he still could do: the cabinet left Berlin and got evacuated to Stuttgart. At the same time, he and the political parties supporting his cabinet called upon the People, mostly working-class citizens but by far not only (many entrepreneurs, company-owners and civic servants joined in), to go on strike. The masses responded and a general strike put everything to a halt: factories, railway stations, city transportation system, communications provided no goods or services. Berlin had no running water supply, no gas, no electricity, the public transport system froze. It should not be forgotten what that must have meant for regular people: their lives, already so horribly damaged by the sacrifices they were forced to bear for the First World War, were turned upside own again. Tens, hundreds of thousands of women and children who had nothing (bodies of their men strewn all over the war front lines); tens of thousands of war cripples with physical and/or mental wounds, old people with no-one to take care of them – they all waited in lines at the street pumps to carry some water into their dark, unheated rooms. Ironically, perhaps that is why they did not complain? Because this was nothing new – this was their life since the Kaiser, the kings and the generals decided to sacrifice the whole generation in order not to lose their face?
The Generalstreik was an incredible collective effort that deserves to be lauded – not pushed to the back of the national drawer in the hope that no-one notices before we are gone. Facing the shooting Freikorps troops (they proudly displayed and even used their machine guns on most main junctions in Berlin’s centre), flame-throwers and the armed vehicles sent against the city, people did an incredible thing: they played dead. The big machine, one whose control is necessary if you are planning violently to grab power over a country, refused to work.
Although official numbers quote 12 million participants, that number was most probably nearer 20 million. The twelve million were only the registered trade-union members – they were, by far, not the only ones who answered the call.
In fact, it went so far that high-rank members of the Reichsbank management refused to grant the putschists access to the funds (another indispensable element of any successful coup). And Albert Brecht, a man in charge of the state seals (needed to prove the legitimacy of the new “government” by being able to stamp the documents issued by them), packed them into his coat-pocket and left the building without any intention to help the authors of the coup.
Only 100 hours after the putsch began, Lüttwitz fled the country: first to Saxony and then Hungary. Kapp chose a different destination: he got himself flown out to Sweden. Both left Berlin on March 17, 1920 – 101 year ago today. Ehrhardt, commander of two Freikorps units involved in the occupation of Berlin, went into hiding in Bavaria.
With the putsch over, Friedrich Ebert’s government accepted the oath of loyalty sworn to them by those who only hours earlier tried to help set the world on fire and called for the ending of the national strike (“national” even though places like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg refused to join in). However, by then the events took a life of their own and Berlin was about to face another bloody but mostly forgotten chapter in its history: the 1920 March Revolution.
Now, if you were to stand on your desk to look at the events of March 17, 1920 from yet a different perspective, you would probably also see a small military aeroplane flying to German capital from Bavaria. Before the putsch came to its dismal end, the German capital was visited by a relatively unknown but aspiring politician. He arrived to show his support to Kapp and Lüttwitz as well as be there when the hated republic collapses.
Adolf Hitler’s pilot that night was Robert Ritter von Greim, whom Hitler would appoint as the last head of the Luftwaffe after Göring’s betrayal in April 1945. Greim would also become the man wounded by Red Army missiles while piloting a tiny Fieseler-Storch machine over the Tiergarten in the last days of the Third Reich: the machine was landed on Charlottenburger Chaussee (today’s Straße des 17. Juni) by his passenger and colleague, a Nazi pilot, Hanna Reitsch.
But back in 1920, after landing on a wrong airfield outside Berlin, Hitler allegedly disguised himself as a bearded accountant to make it past the checkpoints controlled by the workers.
The putsch, however, was of course over by then. This event – next to many others that followed – might have heavily contributed to Hitler’s future dislike of the city (despite his initial enthusiasm expressed in a letter to a friend sent during his first visit on a furlough from the front). In March 1920 he said about Berlin: “The Berlin of Frederick the Great has been turned into a pigsty by Jews.” Thirteen years later he would turn it into a Nazi hell. What was missing to stop him and his people was, among others, the Aktionseinheit.
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In 1892 Franz Skarbina, one of Berlin’s leading nineteenth-century painters, captured a scene close to every Berliner’s heart: the city’s annual Christmas Market – an event as eagerly awaited and as important to the city’s tradition then as it is today when despite COVID-related restrictions duly vaccinated and carefully masked crowds flock to the few still open locations.
The Christmas Market painted by the artist eight years before the end of the nineteenth century was located in Berlin’s Lustgarten: in the background on the left you can see the western edge of the old Stadtschloß, the Royal City Palace, while the buildings on the right form the line of the soon-to-be-demolished Schloßfreiheit.
Schloßfreiheit was a small street which used to run along the city palace’s western front facade, separating it from the Cöllnischer Stadtgraben (now the Spreekanal). Built in 1672, it comprised ten buildings whose owners, having carried the exorbitant costs of constructing houses on very unstable, marshy grounds, enjoyed a series of financial privileges such as freedom from many forms of taxation practised in Berlin at the time. They were also free from obligation to put up royal troops at own costs -until first proper Kasernen (barracks) were built in the Prussian capital, providing accommodation to soldiers was one of the most hated, burdensome duties faced by Berliners. The very name of the street indicated its special status: Freiheit stands in German for “freedom”.
By the end of the nineteenth century this small but very central street, built by the order of the Great Elector who wished to see more life around the palace, became a permanent thorn in his distant Hohenzollern successor’s, Wilhelm’s II, side. The last Kaiser often complained about its unsightliness and its unfortunate location blocking the view from the palace towards Schinkel’s Bauakademie on the other side of the canal. Eventually and rather unsurprisingly, despite protests the tenacious emperor got his way. Demolished in 1892-1894 the street had to make room for Wilhelm’s tribute to his Grandpapa: to Kaiser-Wilhelm-Denkmal, a humongous memorial installed in honour of Wilhelm I.
As a side-note: the fact that this oversized melange of stone and bronze giants and endless collection of animal figures (Berliners referred to it as the Kleine Zoo von Wilhelm Zwo) obstructed the view just as much as the Schloßfreiheit did, did not seem to bother His Imperial Majesty much.
Lustgarten, a large plaza between the Royal Palace, the Berliner Dom and Altes Museum (flanking it from the north), was the site of Berlin’s largest Christmas Markets since 1873. Before that they traditionally took place in Breite Straße – a location used since approximately 1750 until Rudolph Hertzog, the owner of the vast department store in Breite Straße, complained about the market’s negative impact on his pre-Christmas profits. The very first ever recorded Christmas Market in Berlin opened, by the way, in 1530: it stretched between Petriplatz, Mühlendamm and today no longer existing Heilige-Geist-Straße. But mentions of Weynachts-Marckt (historic spelling) could be found in the city records of Cölln – one of the sister-cities that formed today’s Berlin – already in mid-fifteenth century.
Lustgarten Christmas Markets were a Berlin institution and a highlight of every winter. Until the end of 1893 when the construction of the new Berliner Dom brought a temporary end to the annual fair on this spot. Luckily, the idea to do away with the tradition for good – presented by the Polizeipräsidium in 1891 – found enough prominent opponents.
The Weihnachtsmarkt did not return to its central location until 1934 – a change enthusiastically welcomed by Berliners who missed the Lustgarten event. No wonder then than as soon as the Second World War ended, the first post-war Christmas Market opened right there, too.
Despite ice-cold wind, ruins, hunger and luck of nearly every thinkable facilities, it began on December 9, 1945. For many survivors, especially for children, it was the first opportunity to have a cup of hot barley-malt-coffee and a warm sausage in a a very long time. Despite Berlin’s division into East and West, the Lustgarten remained the market’s venue for the next thirty years, albeit only for East Berliners (West Berlin’s main Christmas Market occupied – and still does – today’s Breitscheidplatz). The last one closed in January 1974.
“What is it that happens in an inflation? The unit of money suddenly loses its identity. The crowd it is part of starts growing and, the larger it becomes, the smaller becomes the worth of each unit. The millions one always wanted are suddenly there in one’s hand, but they are no longer millions in fact, but only in name.” Elias Canetti Crowds and Power
On September 21, 1923 German government – the leaders of the Weimar Republic – issued first one-billion banknotes in Berlin. Overnight people turned billionaires and yet at the same time, just like in Canetti’s quote, they lost everything.
With German hyperinflation already in full swing, the number of noughts following the actual price became almost immaterial. All of a sudden a tram ticket in Berlin cost three million Marks – a small slip of paper allowing you to take public transport on a one-way trip was worth as much as complete life-savings of some of Berlin’s pensioners.
Not surprisingly, exorbitant (and completely unpredictable) food prices were the most acute problem. They had the most direct impact upon people’s lives and occasionally even decided about life or death as such. The number of suicides – including what is known as “extended suicides”, where parents took their children with them to spare them suffering – exploded as well.
The despair is hard to conceive of – the despair and blank horror which were quite vividly described by Leonhard Frank in his 1963 book Links wo das Herz ist (“Left Where The Heart Is”):
Back then every day the Mark tumbled deeper and deeper into the abyss (…) The savings books of millions of little people, who for years saved penny to penny to live on in their old days – these savings books became nothing but paper. The devastating misery pushed thousands of these robbed, hopeless, old people into suicide.
And still the tidal wave of price-hikes seemed to take no end. By June 1923 one egg cost 800 Marks (a year earlier it was 0.22 Mark so the price went up by a mind-boggling number of percent!) but come November it further skyrocketed to 320,000,000,000 Marks per piece.
Just to give you a perspective: before the First World War people spent 2.6 Marks on one kilo of butter (the average price in Berlin). More or less a decade later, in November 1923, you were confronted with numbers which required a firm grasp of maths to deal with in the first place: the price of the same kilo of butter reached 5.6 trillion Marks.
November of 1923 was the month when German currency effectively hit the rock bottom – according to experts the old Mark lost 99% of its purchasing power. Since the Weimar Republic had no gold reserves to speak of (the Kaiser and the First World War literally bled Germany of most of its assets), the government of Gustav Stresemann – who took over from his predecessor, Wilhelm Cuno, in August the same year – chose to bind the new currency they planned to introduce as the saving measure to the value of real goods. To land property to be exact. Hence the new currency’s name: Rentenmark means as much as “Mortgage Mark” (Rente being a German term for “mortgage/rent” and the reason why a person living off property leasing is sometimes still referred to as a Rentier).
On November 15, 1923 this new currency, Rentenmark, made its debut. The exchange rate between it and the old Mark was 1:1,000,000,000,000 (1012) – one to a trillion. But by the next morning Berliners and the rest of Germany woke up to the Weimar Republic whose currency was suddenly worth something again: within 24 hours the price of one dollar went down from 4,210,500,000,000Mark to 4.20 Rentenmark.
The charade saved not only German economy but also the state as well as – dramatic as it might sound – people’s lives. When a year later the new legal tender (Rentenmark was introduced as a currency but not the legal tender of the Republic) and the Reichsmark, replaced the stand-in money, all seemed to have slowly calmed down. However, although unlike upon its arrival, the misery did not vanish overnight, life began to become more bearable.
Until only several years later, on October 29, 1929 the New York Stock Exchange came crashing down, pulling the rest of the world with it into an ever bigger abyss.
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