Frances Stonor Saunders writes: On 25 January 1933, the 16-year-old Eric Hobsbawm marched with thousands of comrades through central Berlin to the headquarters of the German Communist Party (KPD). When they arrived at Karl Liebknecht Haus, on the Bülowplatz, the temperature was –18°C. They shuffled and waited in the bone-numbing cold for four hours to hear the podium speeches of the party cadres. As Hobsbawm would recall much later, there was singing – ‘The Internationale’, peasant war songs, the ‘Soviet Airmen’s Song’ – with intervals of heavy silence. The red flags and banners could not dispel the greyness – of the shadowy buildings, the sky, the crowd – or the realisation that ‘the inevitability of world revolution’ had been postponed, that what faced the beleaguered movement in the short term was a reckoning: ‘danger, capture, resistance to interrogation, defiance in defeat’. Not the New Jerusalem, then, but a new circle of hell.
Five days later, on 30 January, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. On 24 February, the police, augmented by the newly enrolled ‘auxiliary police’ of stormtroopers grouped under such edifying names as the Robbers and the Pimp’s Brigade, raided Karl Liebknecht Haus. In anticipation of this, the KPD had been exfiltrating its records to private addresses. Its top officials were working out of anonymous premises scattered round the city, and secret post offices had been installed in a piano store and a coal business. But Hermann Göring, minister of the interior, was on to them – ‘My mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more!’ – and few escaped the truckloads of SA and SS who roared through the streets and snatched them, one by one, from their hideouts. They were taken to improvised prisons, beaten up, tortured and killed.
The KPD chairman, Ernst Thälmann, was arrested on 3 March, and later managed to smuggle out details of his treatment:
They ordered me to take off my pants and then two men grabbed me by the back of the neck and placed me across a footstool. A uniformed [political police] officer with a whip of hippopotamus hide in his hand then beat my buttocks with measured strokes. Driven wild with pain I repeatedly screamed at the top of my voice. Then they held my mouth shut for a while and hit me in the face, and with a whip across chest and back. I then collapsed.
‘Arrests upon arrests,’ Joseph Goebbels noted with satisfaction. ‘Now the Red pest is being thoroughly rooted out.’ By April, 25,000 communists were in ‘protective custody’. Dachau, the first official concentration camp, was set up to hold them.
Hobsbawm, whose parents had died within two years of each other, was living with his aunt in the Halensee district. He was not a member of the KPD, but of its dependency the Sozialistischer Schülerbund (Socialist Students Federation), specifically designed for secondary-school students. What now remained of its small, west Berlin cell contrived to hide its duplicating apparatus in the Halensee flat. ‘The comrades concluded that, since I was a British subject, I would be less at risk; or perhaps that the police would be less likely to raid our flat,’ Hobsbawm later wrote. He kept the rudimentary printing press under his bed for several weeks until someone came to take it away, presumably to put it to work for the printing of election leaflets.
Incredibly, given the efficiency of Göring’s ‘iron fist’ in smashing up the KPD, there was still rump enough to organise a campaign for the general election of 5 March (on his first day in office, Hitler had manipulated Hindenberg into dissolving the Reichstag). Participation in this campaign was little short of suicidal, but Hobsbawm embarked on this, his ‘first piece of genuinely political work’, protected by the fantasy that it was like ‘playing in the Wild West’: ‘We would go into the apartment buildings and, starting on the top floor, push the leaflets into each flat until we came out of the front door, panting with the effort and looking for signs of danger.’ In his diary, he confessed to ‘a light, dry feeling of contraction, as when you stand before a man ready to punch you, waiting for the blow.’ The KPD polled 13 per cent of the vote, and was promptly proscribed by Hitler’s ascendant party. Less than a month after this, in early April, an uncle arrived in Berlin to remove Hobsbawm to the safety of London, where his paternal grandfather had settled in the 1870s.
The week Hobsbawm left Berlin, Guy Liddell, MI5’s German-speaking deputy head of counter-espionage, arrived from London. The fearful symmetry in this – history throwing us a stray bone of coincidence – will become clear. [Continue reading…]