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Neighbors and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin, 1929-1933.

Neighbors and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin, 1929-1933. By Pamela E. Swett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xvi plus 337 pp.).

Many of our current understandings of how the Nazi regime functioned after 1933 would not have been possible without the perspectives provided by the "history of everyday life" (Alltagsgeschichte). Alltagsgeschichte has shown that ordinary Germans were not passive objects of Nazi rule but historical subjects who actively participated in the construction of the Nazi dictatorship. Alltagsgeschichte has less often been deployed in historians' attempts to understand Hitler's rise to power before 1933. Some historians have concentrated on the reasons why more and more Germans came to vote for Hitler. Others have focused upon the conservative elites who lifted Hitler into power because they wanted to destroy Weimar democracy and replace it with an authoritarian system. Historians interested in the role played by German workers have pointed to the disastrous effects of the divisions between Social Democrats and Communists which prevented a broad front of organized resistance to Nazism. Few have, however, investigated the relationship between the dissolution of the Weimar Republic and the "politics of everyday life" in working-class neighborhoods during the Depression. The achievement of Pamela E. Swett's challenging new book is to show that this question deserves more attention than it has so far received.

Swett argues that the Depression fundamentally transformed the nature of politics in heavily working class districts of Berlin, making local issues, conflicts and actions far more significant than they had been before 1929. As the politics that mattered to working-class Berliners became ever more local, and as politics moved from the institutions, associations and meeting halls to the streets, it became more and more difficult for any of the existing political parties to control their constituencies. Swett insists that "political radicalism was foremost a local response to the erosion of cultural norms and power structures in Berlin's neighborhoods rather than the product of party control and ideology"(p.294). The local politics of Berlin neighborhoods or Kieze were increasingly directed against the intrusions of "outside" authorities and claimants to power such as the police, social workers and even the very political parties (Nazis, Communists and Social Democrats) that wanted to speak for ordinary Berliners.

Swett grounds her analysis in a thick description of the social geography of 1920s Berlin and of the local neighborhood relationships of Berlin workers with a particular focus on the Nostizstrasse Kiez in Kreuzberg. Patterns of housing, transportation networks and leisure time activities all receive detailed attention. Swett then discusses the challenges to local social structures and power relationships and the tensions injected into family and neighborhood life by the onset of the Depression in 1929. Particularly important conflicts developed along the fault-lines of gender and generation. Swett provides an excellent discussion of the ways in which the Depression eroded male work-centered cultures and dissolved the ordering sense of time as well as the meaning and purpose that these cultures provided. Women were kept constantly busy with unpaid domestic work, which only became more demanding as the Depression required new strategies for family economic survival. Men were reduced to "killing time" on street corners. Swett argues that men responded to their disorientation and humiliation by withdrawing into a local culture of radicalism from which women were excluded: "It was through radical politics that many men sought to halt the dissolution of male authority in the home and neighborhood" (p.91). The Depression hit younger men even harder than their fathers and older brothers. Youth unemployment rates were astronomical. Many young men never even entered the labor market. Increasingly targeted by the police and by social workers as potentially delinquent and dangerous, young unemployed males experienced the loss of control over their lives and their neighborhoods even more intensely than older men. It is not surprising, then, that young, unemployed men were among the most active participants in the kinds of violence Swett sees as attempts to re-assert claims to local power and control over local territory.

Swet's discussion of the culture of local radicalism explores the political options available to Kiez inhabitants during the Depression. Despite its attempts to present a more militant image, Social Democracy failed to gain electoral ground from its main competitors, the German Communist Party and the rising Nazi movement. Both of these extreme political movements provided simple answers to complex problems and offered workers their own different versions of discipline and order. Swett warns, however, that the political attitudes of ordinary Berliners in working-class neighborhoods cannot simply be equated with the ideas and actions of these two radical parties. Even within heavily "red" neighborhoods, the political orientations of inhabitants were considerably more diverse than we might expect. Formal political allegiances could often be quite transitory, especially amongst young people. Alongside and often at odds with the party-political radicalism of the Nazis and the Communists, a neighborhood-based, frequently violent radical culture developed which functioned according to its own rules (p. 1 87).

Swett's most challenging argument is that the often violent attempts of ordinary Berliners to defend or re-assert both real and symbolic control over their own neighborhoods during the Depression, helped to pave the way for Hitler's triumph in 1933. Swett points to the paradoxical consequences of local cultures of radicalism which "fostered strategies that, though the intention was to reestablish neighborhood power hierarchies, served to undermine community cohesiveness and ultimately eroded any chance for democratic stability" (p. 294). She suggests that as violence became more frequent and intense, Berliners increasingly came to accept it as a "normal" feature of Depression politics. This normalization of violence in turn prepared Germans to submit to the institutionalized terror and state-directed violence of the Nazi regime after 1933. Swett does not, however, tell us whether she thinks the role played by this local radicalism in Weimar's demise was comparable in its effects to the impact of the snowballing Nazi vote or to the intrigues of conservative elites. Readers may, therefore, find it difficult to know precisely where this book should be situated in the existing terrain of explanations for Hitler's rise to power.

David F. Crew

The University of Texas at Austin
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Author:Crew, David F.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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