Berlin, December 1918: a Christmas tale

1st World War 015

December 1918 saw the young dancer Anita Berber caught up in the political turmoil of post war Germany. On the 6th of December the tension that had been brewing between the leftwing Spartacists and the rightwing government troops descended into violence. Fighting broke out across Berlin and government troops killed sixteen Spartacists. President Ebert condemned the ‘anarchism’ of the Spartacists but the interim government was also facing problems from factions on the right. Hindenburg had demanded that the government disband the newly created soldier’s councils and return control of the army to the Reich officer corps alone. On the left Karl Liebknecht called for a world revolution and denounced both Ebert and Hindenburg.
Three days later on the 9th of December a demonstration of around 5,000 people marched through Berlin. They marched through the Brandenburg Gate and along Unter den Linden where they listened to a speech by Liebknecht calling for them to ready themselves to fight for the revolution. The next day the Deutsche Vaterlandspartei (DVP) (German Fatherland Party) dissolved and joined the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (DNVP). The DVP had only been founded in 1917 and had been prominent in promoting the Dolchstoβlegende. The Dolchstoβlegende (stab-in-the-back) legend was the convenient excuse that blamed the Jews, communists and women on the home front for the disgraceful end to the war.
Amongst all this political turmoil on the 12th of December Dida Ibsens Geschichte: Ein Finale zum Tagebuch einer Verlorenen von Margaret Böhme starring Anita in the title rôle premiered in Berlin. The reviews were good despite the film having had to compete with events on the streets. On the 17th the streets around the Brandenburg Gate were decorated with garlands and flags of red, black and white, the imperial colours. There were noticeably fewer flags in the Republic’s colours of red, black and gold. Returning German soldiers were greeted by Ebert at the Brandenburg Gate as ‘unconquered in the field of battle’. His address was reported in full in the Berliner Illustrierte. These celebrations continued the next day. Soldiers who had retreated in disorder strode down Unter den Linden garlanded as heroes. Government officials and the factions of the right treated them as heroes, despite the surrender of Germany the previous month. Thousands of Berliners turned out to watch the parades; some supportive, many others merely entertained by the spectacle. Most on the left stayed away and those who did attend remained relatively quiet.
At this time Anita met Eberhard von Nathusius. An actor and screenwriter, Nathusius was intrigued by Anita. and pursued her over the Christmas holidays. The parades of returning troops gave the city a festive feel to add to the usual Christmas celebration. Many Berliners were genuinely glad to welcome home husbands and brothers. But it was an uneasy time and celebrations in a bar could quickly turn nasty as arguments broke out over the war and how it had ended. Nathusius and Anita went out on the town despite the continued violence. Nathusius preferred to seek out the quieter, better class areas. He liked to travel in his car when he could get the petrol. Anita on the other hand loved to walk the Berlin streets no matter the danger and actively sought out the drama that was unfolding on a daily basis.
The parades and spectacle continued. On the 21st December the Spartacists held a funeral procession for their members that had been killed on the 6th. It ended with a rally in the Tiergarten Park where Liebknecht swore revenge on the murderers. This was followed the next day with more parades of returning troops. At Wilhelm Straße a large group of wounded and disabled veterans disrupted the parade. Some were wearing placards saying ‘throw the guilty ones out’, openly referring to those military leaders whom they believed responsible for their injuries. Others attempted to join the parade with the able bodied troops. The police held them back and scuffles broke out along the parade route creating an embarrassment for the government and a further spectacle for Berliners. The situation was reaching crisis point.
On the morning of the 23rd members of the People Naval Division from Cuxhaven occupied the Reich Chancellery and Hohenzollern Palace. They took Ebert hostage and demanded to receive the wages owed to them. Ebert ordered them to leave the building and return to their base at Cuxhaven. They refused but then abducted and beat Otto Wels, the city commandant before taking control of the central telephone exchange. Ebert managed to get a message out to the German Military Supreme Command, General Lequis, requesting help. Lequis mobilised his troops in Potsdam and headed for Berlin. When he arrived in the city Lequis set up his central command post at Unter den Linden near the city palace.
On Christmas Eve Anita and Nathusius went out for the evening. They were strolling along Unter den Linden when fighting broke out between the revolutionaries and Lequis’ troops. The Christmas decorations were a strange backdrop to the intermittent sound of gunfire. Nathusius was keen to hurry home but Anita decided to join in with some street singing.
‘O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, der Kaiser ist weg, um pinkeln zu nehmen’
(Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, The Kaiser’s gone to take a pee).
On Christmas day Anita sat down to a traditional dinner with Nathusius and her family at their apartment at 13 Zähringer Straße in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin. While they were eating Lequis’ troops attacked the members of the naval division and killing several fellow Germans before returning to their temporary barracks to be wished Frohe Weihnachten by their commander and president Ebert.


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