To mark the release of Konrad H. Jarausch’s Out of Ashes, we continue with our series of vignettes describing some of the most compelling moments of twentieth century European history, many of which are discussed in Jarausch’s book. Today we remember the descent into Totalitarianism. Loop back to our earlier post on the birth of Modernism here.
October 1917, The October Revolution. Centuries of imperial rule implode as revolutions sweep through Russia, triggering political and social changes that would lead to the formation of the Soviet Union. Food is scarce and mounting civil unrest eventually culminates in open revolt, forcing the abdication of Nicholas II, the last Russian czar. On October 24th, the Bolshevik Red Guard initiates a coup with the takeover of government buildings and the Winter Palace in Petrograd, seizing power from Kerensky’s interim government. The storming of the palace, an iconic symbol of the revolution, will be immortalized in Eisenstein’s 1927 film, October.
October 1922, The March on Rome. Italian society is in disarray in October, 1922, when 30,000 fascist blackshirts mass on the outskirts of Rome. Fearing arrest, their leader Benito Mussolini remains safely in Milan until King Victor Emmanuele II invites him to form a new government: he takes the train to Rome (first class) where he is appointed prime minister. A former journalist (not to mention an egomaniac) well-versed in manipulating a news story, Mussolini fakes pictures of himself marching with the blackshirts and subsequently claims to have led a mythical army of 300,000 to Rome on horseback.
Feb. 27 1933, The burning of the Reichstag. On the evening of Feb. 27, 1933, alarms sound. The Reichstag, the German Parliament building, is in flames. Firefighters rush to the inferno, but too late: the embodiment of democracy in Germany is completely destroyed. A young, mentally disturbed Communist Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe is arrested in due course. Many see the charges as a pretext, but opportunistic Nazi leaders waste no time issuing an emergency decree abolishing all civil rights enshrined in the Weimar Constitution. It will be 75 years until van der Lubbe (long since beheaded for the crime), is pardoned on the basis that his conviction was politically motivated.
April 26, 1937, The bombing of Guernica. It is 4 pm on a Monday in the Basque village of Guernica, and a group of German bombers are spotted over the hills. Today is market day, and over 10,000 people are in the town, which is widely considered the cultural and spiritual capital of the Basque people. During a relentless three-hour siege aimed at breaking the Basque resistance to Nationalist forces, the town is blanket-bombed, while fighter planes ruthlessly pursue and gun down anyone who tries to flee. Women and children huddle and die in cellars; the town square is surrounded by a wall of flame. Guernica is systematically and utterly destroyed: 1,600 civilians—one third of the population—are killed or wounded. Pablo Picasso will later depict the attack, considered the first aerial assault on a civilian population, in the famous anti-war painting, Guernica. Beneath a fallen horse with a gaping wound, a dismembered soldier is depicted; his severed hand still holds a broken sword from which a flower grows.
A Q&A with Konrad Jarausch can be found here.