This post didn’t go up yesterday because of some trauma.
Another in the series. It was supposed to be available in March. I had ordered Before the Deluge: A portrait of Berlin in the 1920’s by Otto Friedrich because it was on Bowie’s Top 100 list. It took so long to arrive I forgot why I ordered it. The state ditched the private company that had been transporting interlibrary loan books. What used to take two or three days now takes weeks, in this case nearly two months. The librarians are on the receiving end of public vitriol for something that’s not their fault. Plus there are piles and piles and piles of books in the hallways, in offices, behind the circulation desk. They are a hazard to the staff. I’ve decided if the library is any closer than Stamford, I’m going to pick it up myself. This of course represents a huge detriment to the environment and a greater waste of my time.
With the rant finished, I found Deluge more than worth the wait. This portrait of Berlin is frightening, depressing, and necessary. It should be required reading for high school and students, along with policy makers and politicians.
The Berlin of the 1920s bears a frightening resemblance to our own country in 2016 . Before Hitler ever appeared, there were individuals and groups vilifying minorities, especially Jews, even though a great many of them worked in leadership positions in government as well as in institutions of higher learning, the arts, and finance.
Opening with the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1918, Deluge paints an image of a society in transition to a dark and appalling place. I skimmed the tedious discussion of politics but relished the descriptions of the great flourishing of the arts in the city. The creators bear names that endure to this day: Kurt Weill, Bertholt Brecht, Russian emigré Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Mann. Actors Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich make an appearance. Not all were born in Berlin, but everyone contributed to the rich and vibrant culture of the city. Will Lin-Manuel Miranda be our Brecht/Weill?
Friedrich synthesizes the state of creativity with a quote from Austrian import Arnold Schoenberg: “”Beauty appears only from the moment when the unproductive begin to miss it … Before that point it does not exist.” (p. 178) Have Americans started missing beauty yet?
Deluge also offers an insightful analysis of the Bauhaus style of architecture. We learn the history of Dada and the parent of “happenings,” those art/game/drama events of the 1960s and 1970s.
Friedrich observes, “In Berlin, as in most of the Western world, 1929 was the year of euphoric prosperity.” (p. 278). Of course it didn’t last.
Soon a few warning showers turned to a downpour. Unemployment and poverty increased among the peasants. The new decade brought inflation that ate away at wages. Company owners slashed salaries and laid off employees. The homeless gathered in tent colonies.
The city began to decay. British/American author Christopher Isherwood wrote, “A peculiar and all-pervading smell of hopeless decay (rather like the smell of the inside of an old cardboard box) came out of the interiors of these grandiose houses now converted into pretentious slums.” (p. 305)
The Reichstag could not govern because of bitter divisions among the members (Congress vs. Obama, anyone?), and the economic situation deteriorated. Goebbels, Goering, and Hitler built their influence and began driving crowds to a frenzy.
Friedrich wrote Before the Deluge while he served as an editor at Time. He had worked as a journalist in Europe and the United States. His clear prose leavens the decadent subject matter with bracing directness.
He rounds out the book with interviews, among them W.H. Auden, of people who survived the deluge and its aftermath. These are among the strongest aspects of the book as they add immediacy and liveliness to a subject that has the feel of a Cat 5 hurricane gathering strength.