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The Brown Plague: Travels in Late Weimar and…

The Brown Plague: Travels in Late Weimar and Early Nazi Germany

by Daniel Guérin

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This is a book that is difficult for me to like because of its obtrusive political slant. Nevertheless it is a glimpse of the situation in Germany at an important historical juncture.

Daniel Guérin was a young revolutionary Socialist and French journalist when he set out on walking and bicycle tours into Germany, for a few months, just before and just after Hitler's appointment as Reich Chancellor in January 1933. So, Guérin was there when one of the greatest news stories of the century was taking place. His observations, recorded contemporaneously in his journals, and published back in France in left-wing newspapers and magazines, form the substance of this book.

He and a friend started out walking in August 1932 and, after a lift from a trucker, arrived at the edge of the Black Forest "...overflowing with an optimism . . . that perhaps I would finally find myself at the heart of the action in this youthful, modern and dynamic Germany that I had admired unceasingly since my childhood. It was here that socialism would triumph, or nowhere. It was here that the world's best organized and most educated working class had taken form."

But alas! "From the bridge at Kiehl to our arrival in Saxony, a long journey traveled sometimes on foot, and sometimes by train, we had a dominant impression: the population had already shifted to the side of the Nazis. The epidemic was widespread, and it was ravaging city and countryside alike. In every village square a tall insolent pole visible from afar bore an enormous red standard - a screaming red - scored with the black swastika. On the walls of the town hall or the schools were notice boards to which the pages of the National Socialist Daily were affixed. On tables of the beer halls, set in luxurious bindings, lay the party magazines."

In similar post-card-like descriptions he records the scenes he came across and the people he met and interviewed: from his first night at a youth hostel where the Socialist, Communist and Hitlerite youths slept in groups apart from each other and, at lights out, shouted their respective slogans - "Freiheit", "Rotfront!" and "Heil Hitler!"; through to an open air-meeting of tens of thousands of massed Brownshirts; to a book burning that stabs him to the heart, because it is Socialist literature being burnt; to bookstores with their shelves cleared of all books; to a famous meeting of the Reichstag mentioned in standard histories of the period; to a brave man who related his kidnapping and torture at the hands of the Brownshirts, despite an oath never to tell anyone of the 500 times he was repeatedly forced to stand up and then lie flat down on his face and stand up again; and other men who returned to their homes and wives after being kidnapped, who were emotionally broken and completely unable to speak of what they had endured.

As a journalist he wangled a pass to attend the meeting of the Reichstag, on September 12, 1932, "which it was rumored could well be historic." It was, and he was there. He notices the attendance of the Social Democrats, the Communists, the men of the Zentrum, the Conservative Party, and "the turbulent mass of 230 Hitlerites."
"In the Speaker's chair, a high Gothic throne, appeared a kind of large beardless doll with a disturbing jaw -- half executioner, half clown. Wearing a chestnut sport jacket with a floppy collar, elegant and impertinent, he seemed to be enjoying himself prodigiously. But when he opened his mouth the voice that emerged was as vicious as that of the giant I had seen in Potsdam. Glints of ferocity passed through the vacant eyes of this morphine addict. Speaker Hermann Goering gave the floor to the Communist deputy Torgler. With a few brief, skillful and violent words the Stalinist opened the attack against the government. . . .

"Goering, after a brief recess, announced in a cutting tone that the Communist's resolution of no-confidence would be put to a vote. Chancellor Von Papen rose, pretentious, disagreeable and very pale. With a barely visible gesture he demanded the floor. But the horrible doll in the Speaker's chair turned his head elsewhere and pretended not to see him. The second time Papen raised his finger in a determined manner. In vain. Such a sacrilege had never before been seen in a German parliament. Trembling with contained rage the Chancellor then pulled out a pink portfolio from under his arm. Walking quickly to the Speaker's desk, he handed Goering a small piece of paper and then left the chamber followed by his Barons in single file."

"The doll caught the paper in flight, tossed it disdainfully to the other side of the desk, and announced that the vote on the Communist's resolution would continue. . . ."

"Suddenly a tiny awkward monkey leaped forward from his bench. In two strides he reached the Gothic throne and with volubility and forceful gestures admonished the drug fiend. Duly lectured by Dr. Goebels, Goering then proclaimed that the government had been defeated, and that as a consequence the decree dissolving the Reichstag that Papen had taken out of his pink portfolio was null and void." In an hour, an accommodation was reached, Goring backed down and the Reichstag was indeed dissolved.

But in that scene we see, first, Guérin's typically derogatory and sneering attitude toward any who do not share his rigid view of class warfare and revolutionary Socialism; and we also see a lack of any description of the significance of what had just transpired before his very eyes. It was not farce he was looking at, it was history; and the political maneuverings of Hitler and his lieutenants were not so lightly to be mocked and dismissed. That scene was but one of Hitler's power plays as he jostled and elbowed his way toward the Chancellorship; it showed his strength and his willingness to use crude methods; and his ability to humiliate the government; and it was a historically portentous harbinger of things to come. Instead, Guérin gives us uncomprehending farce.

Elsewhere, he cannot forgo disdain when he describes the massed Brownshirt demonstration and the arrival of the big chiefs, "ridiculously strapped up, their fat asses compressed into their tight shorts"; or when he describes a well to do " Israelite family . . . lamenting and bewailing the unimaginable circumstances that have rent its gentle quietude, its honorable existence, its assured revenues," wishing to know what they would have to do if only the regime would leave them alone; or when he notes gaggles of enthusiastic young children and comments on these "Brunhilda's" and "Siegfrieds"; or when he finds himself in a massed demonstration by Von Papen's supporters (gentry of the ancien regime, squires, generals, industrialists, barons) and is "a bit to close for comfort to these green men. . . . Squashed between their rotundities. their shoulder straps, their Iron Crosses . . . obese, stupid, and crass reactionaries. . ."

On the big question, "Why did people do it? Why did people follow Hitler so enthusiastically?" he provides this answer:
"And above all, weariness took its toll. There was no sign of economic recovery. Would one ever find work again? The political parties had promised so much. So many posters had been read, so many leaflets had been skimmed. There had been so many electoral campaigns, so many ballots cast in vain. It was always the same old story. Even worse today than yesterday. The last liberties were being done away with, the worker's newspapers prohibited. I saw with my own eyes insolent Schupos cut off speakers who displeased them."

"And from the most disoriented workers I heard this monologue, the death knell of democratic Germany: Ah but if only leaders would work together. But this is a remote and unlikely possibility. So why shouldn't I listen to these new young saviors who promise bread and jobs, to free me from the Treaty of Versailles, and who swear they are a revolutionary socialist workers party, too? Heil Hitler!"

Guérin begins his book by describing his experiences among "the adversary, the victors of the hour. Then we shall search out our friends of the other Germany -- small groups of staunch militants who have put their fratricidal quarrels of the past behind them and who continue the struggle under the conditions of illegality and terror." Thus does he myopically dichotomize the entire population of Germany, those few who share revolutionary class-warfare goals with him, against all others as the adversary, victimizers and victims alike. He closes, in May 1933, by speaking with daring individuals who print illegal propaganda; who slip copies of the Communist sheet Rote Fahne into the pages of the Nazi newspaper Voelkischer Beobachter; who set movable rubber type into slots in a wood block to print miniature leaflets and then stick them to storefronts. And he has confidence that this other Germany, his Germany of the clandestine Socialist resistance, will prevail and bring Hitler down.

No one had grim imagination enough to foresee the years of horror and destruction to come, not Daniel Guérin, no one.

Ironically, one of his purposes in writing for his French audience was to "strip away the triumphalist prose of Nazism and reveal the bloodied body of the worker, the Jew, the 'marginal' beneath." However, back in France, before his second journey, he was "stupefied to discover that my eyewitness account was met with incredulity, even within the Socialist party. The late Oreste Rosenfeld, then editor-in-chief of le Populaire, has since admitted to me that he received many letters of protest from readers, some of which were quite vehement. Surely I was exaggerating! Surely my mind had already been made up! The French still had a lot to learn."

Nobody could imagine what was to come! ( )
1 vote Karlus | Aug 9, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0822314630, Paperback)

In 1932 and 1933, during the months surrounding the Nazi seizure of power, Daniel Guérin, then a young French journalist, made two trips through Germany. The Brown Plague, translated here into English for the first time, is Guérin’s eyewitness account of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the first months of the Third Reich. Originally written for the popular French left press and then revised by the author into book form, The Brown Plague delivers a passionate warning to French workers about the terror and horror of fascism. Guérin chronicles the collapse of the German workers’ movement and reports on the beginnings of clandestine resistance to the Nazis. He also describes the Socialist and Communist leaderships’ inability to recognize the danger that led to their demise. Through vivid dialogs, interviews, and revealing descriptions of everyday life among the German people, he offers insight into the tragedy that was beginning to unfold.
Guérin’s travels took him across the countryside and into the cities of Germany. He describes with extraordinary clarity, for example, his encounters with large groups of unemployed workers in Berlin and the spectacle of Goering presiding over the Reichstag. Staying in youth hostels, Guérin met individuals representing a range of various groups and movements, including the Wandervögel, leftist brigades, Hitler Youth, and the strange, semicriminal sexual underground of the Wild-frei. Devoting particular attention to the cultural politics of fascism and the lure of Nazism for Germany’s disaffected youth, he describes the seductive rituals by which the Nazis were able to win over much of the population. As Robert Schwartzwald makes clear in his introduction, Guérin’s interest in Germany at this time was driven, in part, by a homoerotic component that could not be stated explicitly in his published material. This excellent companion essay also places The Brown Plague within a broad historical and literary context while drawing connections between fascism, aesthetics, and sexuality.
Informed by an epic view of class struggle and an admiration for German culture, The Brown Plague, a notable primary source in the literature of modern Europe, provides a unique view onto the rise of Nazism.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:58 -0400)

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Duke University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Duke University Press.

Editions: 0822314630, 0822314576

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