Weimar Germany has always held a special place in my imagination, as it has so many elements I find interesting in history and fiction. A weak moderate government, torn between the extreme Left and Right, the constant threat of a military coup, and a seedy underbelly where vice, crime, and corruption scurry, all the byproducts of a failing society.
There’s a litany of great Weimar fiction such as Rosa and Shadow & Light by Jonathan Rabb, The Sleepwalkers by Paul Grossman, and Berlin Burning by Damien Seaman. The era exudes rich atmosphere to plunge your characters into; decadent nightclubs, gangsters, political corruption, and conspiracies. Your villains can range from serial killers, a popular choice given the real-life figures of Fritz Haarmann and Peter Kürten, to gangsters, to political extremists in the Reichswehr, the KPD, and of course, the Nazi Party. We’ll get to them later.
Full disclosure here, this is a review of the TV Series and not the novels.
In most Weimar Republic fiction, detectives are the most common protagonists since it’s part of their duty to run around Berlin and peek into the seediest parts for our enjoyment. The protaganist in Babylon Baerlin is Gereon Rath, a welcome edition to Weimar Republic heroes. Originally from Cologne, he comes to Berlin on assignment. He is partnered with Bruno Wolter, the grizzled veteran archetype with shady connections. Bruno is a great character, one who you alternate between distrust and slightly less distrust.
Rounding out the main cast from the first two seasons (series, if you’re a Brit) is Charlotte ‘Lotte’ Ritter, an office worker at Police Headquarters and part-time sex worker in a nightclub, run by an Armenian gangster. There are far more characters than that but I haven’t even gotten into the plot yet, which is pretty daunting.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll only offer a summary. A rogue faction of Trotskyites hijack a train bound for Germany, which sets off a chain of events. Everyone wants this train for different reasons; a cross-dressing White Russian refugee (who may or may not be a Communist) wants the gold hidden inside, the Soviet Union, who wants to keep their cooperation with German Reichswehr a secret, and the Reichswehr itself, who want the weapons it is carrying.
The cooperation between the Red Army and the Reichswehr is a fascinating yet forgotten nugget of history. In 1922, alienated from the rest of the world, the USSR and Germany entered into a mutual assistance pact, the Rapallo Treaty. With post-World War II hindsight, it’s ironic to think of the Germans and Soviets cooperating, but these weren’t the strangest of bedfellows. In the 1920s and early 1930s, there was a genuine fear in media outlets and fiction that German, and also Japan, would go Communist. While we know the Reichswehr was anti-Bolshevik almost to a man, France was seen as the primary enemy to gain revanche on. The Soviets would be taken care of in due time.
Part of what makes this series so enjoyable is that it tries its hardest to toss aside historical hindsight. We know Germany will go Nazi in a few years but for the average German in 1929, the Nazis were a tiny, fringe party. Hell, they didn’t even have a branch of the party in the capital until 1926 when they tried to gain ground in ‘Red’ Berlin, with its staunch leftist constituents and decadent, cosmopolitan atmosphere. They weren’t even the biggest far-right party in Germany then. That dubious distinction goes to the DNVP, the German National People’s Party, who would be eclipsed by the Nazis during the Great Depression.
Until the second to last episode, we don’t even see a swastika, a brown shirt, and there’s only one passing reference to Hitler. The Nazis feel forced in this series, like a bizarre ‘fan service’. Since everyone knows who they are, let’s throw them in. Their scheme involves posing as Communists (or maybe they switched sides?) manipulating Lotte’s friend, a maid, into planting a bomb in the desk of her employer, the head of the Political Police. Councilor August Benda appears to stand in for Bernhard Weiss, the highest-ranking Jewish official in the Berlin Police, who the Nazis mockingly called ‘Isador’.
His assassination allows the mysterious Colonel Wendt to take his place, who may or may not be a Nazi but definitely has connections to the Black Reicshwehr. This was really my only complaint about the series, other than its length (but I think all shows are too long these days). Weimar Germany had so many interesting factions, culture, and politics churning within it, that this series is a perfect opportunity to explore lesser-known aspects of this brief but fascinating period in history.
Enter, the Black Reichswehr, which are arguably the true villains of the series. This group was a sort of shadow army of the Weimar Republic, meant to circumvent the Versailles Treaty, which limited Germany’s military to 100,000 men. Drilling in secret, these men were supposed to an underground reserve system of trained soldiers should Germany be invaded or for the future wars planned by the General Staff. The thought of Germany being invaded isn’t far-fetched, since the French did exactly that in 1923 and were harassed by agents of the Black Reichswehr.
My point is that I hope this series takes its time in dealing with the Nazis and continue to focus on lesser-known aspects of the era. But until then, Babylon Berlin has my attention and not only will I be back for season 3 but until then, I think I’ll check out the novels. Come back later for my thought on that.
The TV series is currently on Netflix but you can Buy The Book Here
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