(William Cook’s article appeared in the Spectator, 11/15.)
Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power, Germany 1918 by Volker Weidermann reviewed
Today Munich is a prosperous and peaceful place — Germany’s most affluent, attractive city. Wandering its leafy avenues, lined with handsome apartments and shiny new BMWs, it’s hard to picture anything remotely revolutionary happening here. However, exactly 100 years ago this cosy bastion of conservatism was overrun by one of Europe’s most unlikely revolutions, led by an idealistic theatre critic called Kurt Eisner. For a British equivalent, imagine a socialist insurgency led by Kenneth Tynan. Of course, like all well-intentioned revolutions, it was doomed to fail.
For several chaotic months, Eisner’s Free State of Bavaria teetered between tragedy and farce, before succumbing to a vicious counter-revolution led by the Freikorps, the violent forerunners of Adolf Hitler’s brownshirts. Yet while Hitler’s unsuccessful Munich Putsch has become a staple of school history books, Eisner’s (briefly) successful power grab has been virtually forgotten. Volker Weidermann’s dramatic book brings the turbulent events — and, above all, the frenzied atmosphere — of that bizarre interregnum back to life.
Thankfully for the general reader, Weidermann is a journalist rather than an academic, and so this is a compact and colorful account, with the breathless pace of war reporting rather than the ponderous, long-winded prose one usually associates with German history books by German historians. Many of the proponents wrote extensively and eloquently about their experiences, and Weidermann draws heavily on these first-hand accounts to great effect. By favoring impressionistic reportage over background detail, his narrative is sometimes a bit confusing, but it gives the reader a vivid sense of what it actually felt like to live through this exhilarating and terrifying time.