20th Century Europe, 20th Century Germany, Babylon Berlin, Berlin, Bloody May, Communism, Leon Trotsky, Netflix, Volker Kutscher, Weimar Republic
In the first season of Babylon Berlin (which on Netflix is just the first 8 episodes), Communists play a fairly prominent role, so I thought I’d spend a post sorting through the complex tangle of Communists, Trotskyites, and White Russians. Understanding Soviet politics isn’t really necessary to enjoy the story, but I think it does help.
Spoiler Alert:If you haven’t watched the first season and intend to, this post is going to give away a couple important plot twists.
Who Was Trotsky?
In October 1917, the Bolsheviks seized control of Petrograd and established a Soviet, a committee of factory workers and soldiers for the running of the city. Although Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the Bolsheviks, Lenin was not actually in Russia at the time. The coup was substantially orchestrated by Leon Trotsky, one of Lenin’s closest allies. He immediately turned to arranging peace with the Germans and in February of 1918 he finalized the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which took the young Soviet Union out of the Great War, thereby breaking the stalemate that had dominated the war for the past three years. Trotsky was reluctant to actually conclude the Treaty, since he hoped to see a Communist uprising in Germany, but bowed to Lenin’s decision to accept the Treaty. He then took charge of efforts to establish a more functional Red Army.
By 1918, Russia was already embroiled in a civil war. The Soviet Red Army was fighting to establish Lenin’s vision of a fully-Communist Russia. They were opposed by the White Russians, a loose coalition of factions opposed to the Soviets. This group was broadly nationalistic, fighting for a patriotic Russian identity (as opposed to the Soviets, who rejected nationalism as ideology and saw Communism as a literally international movement). They included aristocratic monarchists who wanted a re-establishment of the tsarist government, bourgeois liberals who wanted to establish a democratic republic of some sort, and Karenskyite socialists who wanted a less aggressive form of social democracy. A third faction, the Green Army, represented peasants who advocated for agrarian socialism and resented Bolshevik efforts to requisition supplies but were otherwise non-ideological. This war continued for 4 years, but ultimately Trotsky’s Red Army won the field. He listened to the advice of military specialists, established both concentration camps and compulsory labor camps, and aggressively worked to suppress property owners, all of which contributed to the Soviet triumph. Many Russian aristocrats and intellectuals fled the country by the end of the war.
However, just as the Soviets were achieving dominance, Lenin suffered a series of strokes that left him barealy able to communicate by March of 1922. That created a power vacuum within the Communist Party. Trotsky was the obvious man to succeed Lenin, having engineered both the success of the October Revolution and the victory in the Civil War. However, Josef Stalin used his position as chairman of the Communist Party to pack the party with his own supporters and he built alliances with two other key Bolshevik leaders, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, persuading them that Trotsky was a threat to them. Whereas Trotsky was a revolutionary of burning fervor, Stalin was essentially a pragmatist and therefore a less threatening figure to others in the Party. While Trotsky was eager to export communism to other countries, Stalin was essentially content to use Communism to establish his own power in the Soviet Union. (Such, at least, is the traditional reading of Stalin. I understand that some historians are beginning to reassess that picture of him, but I’m not familiar enough with the scholarship on the issue, so I’m going to go with the traditional picture.) As a result, opposition to Stalin, known as the Left Opposition, congealed around Trotsky (among others).
By the time Lenin died in January of 1924, Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had largely undermined his support within the Party. Zinoviev and Kamenev orchestrated Trotsky’s removal as head of the Red Army a year later. By 1926, Zinoviev and Kamenev had broken with Stalin and sided with Trotsky and the Left Opposition, but by that point Stalin was ascendant. In October of 1927, Stalin expelled Zinoviev and Trotsky from the Communist Party; two months later Kamenev and most of Stalin’s other opponents were evicted as well. Kamenev and Zinoviev submitted to Stalin, but Trotsky refused and was sent into exile in Kazakhstan in 1928. In February of 1929, he was exiled to Turkey, where he remained until 1933, when France agreed to grant him asylum. In 1935, he was forced to relocate to Norway. A year later, Stalin put Zinoviev and Kamenev on trial, along with Trotsky in absentia, and found them all guilty of plotting to kill him. Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed, but Trotsky remained a thorn in Stalin’s side, writing copiously against him even after being forced to relocate to Mexico City. Stalin made at least three attempts to have Trotsky killed. The third attempt finally succeeded when Spanish Communist Ramón Mercader wounded him severely with an ice axe (not an ice pick, as is commonly reported).
By 1930, Trotsky had founded the International Left Opposition to oppose Stalin within the Communist Party, but by 1933, it had become clear that Stalin had complete control over the Party, so the ILO evolved into an organization that operated outside the Soviet Union. In 1938, its members founded the Fourth International in Paris to foment what they considered true Communist revolution.
Babylon Berlin’s Trotskyites
The first episode shows a conspiracy to smuggle of a trainload of phosgene gas from the Soviet Union into Germany. Unbeknownst to the people who smuggling the gas, a group of Trotskyite rebels in the Soviet Union have attached a single train-car filled with gold bars to that train. The Trotskyite leader in Berlin, Alexei Kardakhov (Ivan Shvedoff) wants to get his hand on that gold to send it to Istanbul to help fund Leon Trotsky’s struggle against Josef Stalin. That gold is the fortune of a dead White Russian whose daughter, Countess Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janusauskaité), is working with Kardakhov. He thinks she’s a loyal Trotskyite, but actually, she’s just using the Trotskyites to get the gold out of Russia for her own purposes. The phosgene and the gold act as MacGuffins throughout the first two seasons.
As soon as the train arrives in Berlin, Svetlana contacts the Soviet ambassador and rats out the Trotskyites. The ambassador sends a couple of thugs to their hideout, where they are running an underground printing press, and massacres everyone except Kardakhov, who survives by hiding in a latrine. He spends the rest of the season on the run, desperately trying to find a safe hiding place, not realizing that Svetlana has sold him out until it’s too late.
The show makes little effort to delve into the quarrel between Stalin and Lenin. That’s fair, since the gold is simply a MacGuffin and not really a key issue in the show’s plot, and even the Trotskyites other than Kardakhov are gone after the third episode. But as this blog points out, the show’s depiction of the Trotskyites and the Communists in general is rather backward. The only hint of their ideology is Kardakhov’s statement that he wants to save his country. So the show seems to think that Trotskyism is about the Soviet Union. But as we’ve seen, Trotsky was deeply concerned about fostering Communist revolution across Europe, whereas Stalin was largely disinterested in spreading communism outside the Soviet Union.
One of Stalin’s strategies for sidelining the original Bolshevik true believers in the later 1920s was to appoint them as ambassadors to other countries. That got them out of the Soviet Union, which reduced their ability to influence developments in the key Soviet institutions (like the Communist Party). For much of the 1920s, the Soviet ambassador to Germany was Nikolay Krestinsky, who was one of Trotsky’s supporters until 1927. I’m not clear whether he was still in that post in 1929, when the first season occurs. In the show, the ambassador is the fictitious Col. Trochin (Denis Burgazliev), who appears to be a loyal Stalinist. It seems a bit improbable that the Communists could have pulled off a bigger slaughter than the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago and then smuggle all the corpses out of the city without anyone noticing.
In fairness to the show, the Trotskyites are trying to foster a revolution in Berlin with their underground pamphlets. They are printing pamphlets encouraging Berlin workers to support a Communist rally on May 1stin favor of the Fourth International. Since the Fourth International isn’t even a concept in 1929, the show’s gotten its timeline wrong.
The Bloody May Incident
The show does a better job with its depiction of what became known as Blutmai, the Bloody May Incident. Leftist thought in Germany in the 1920s was broadly represented by two different political parties. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had formed in the 1860s was a Socialist party focused on the rights of factory workers. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was an explicitly Communist party founded in December of 1918 after the suppression of the Spartacist uprising. Its founders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, had split from the SPD, which they came to regard as their archenemy. The SPD enjoyed considerable electoral success during the 1920s and was able to implement a range of legislation including welfare laws, veterans’ assistance, and regulation of working conditions. In Berlin, the SPD controlled the police force because one of their members, Karl Zörgiebel, was the police chief.
In contrast, the KDP was by the mid-1920s a pro-Stalinist organization and advocated for Communism fairly effectively. It too performed well at the polls, generally getting about 10% of votes. It maintained a paramilitary organization, the Rotfront, to protect KPD meetings from violence by the police and the Nazi Sturm Abteilung (the infamous SA or ‘brown shirts’). But because of its rivalry with the SPD, the two left-leaning parties were generally unable to organize a common opposition to the emerging Nazi Party.
In 1928, Zörgiebel banned public demonstrations in Berlin as a threat to public safety, since political demonstrations were usually accompanied by violence on the part of the Rotfront, the SA, or both. However, the KPD perceived this ban as an attempt by Zörgiebel to weaken the KPD, which was making electoral gains in the city. The KPD’s two major leaders, Walter Ulbrich and Ernst Thälmann, called for a major protest on May Day, the international Socialist/Communist holiday. They informed the police of their intended parade routes and rallying points, perhaps hoping for a confrontation that would give them grounds to push for a repeal of the ban on demonstrations.
However, when May 1st rolled around, most of the unions opted for demonstrations and rallies within their factories. Zörgiebel’s police kept an eye on the protestors, but comparatively little happened beyond the dispersal of a few parades until late in the day when the factory workers left the factories. The police, eager for a fight, waded in with truncheons and brawls broke out. The police retaliated with water cannons.
The conflict escalated on May 2nd as workers erected barricades and the police began going door-to-door in working-class neighborhoods, arresting supposed troublemakers. The police responded to the barricades by sending in men with machine guns and armored vehicles, and running gun-battles ensued. When the smoke finally cleared on the 3rd, 33 people were dead (none of them police) and 200 injured. Zörgiebel sought to depict the workers as the cause of the violence, but the evidence points to the police as the ones who brought most of the guns. The government banned the Rotfront and the rift between the SPD and the KPD became permanent. The violence, which was perceived to be between the two left-wing parties, give Hitler fuel for his argument that the Communists were a threat to social order.
In the show, the police are prepared for the protest with a speech by Zörgiebel (I think) about the need to prevent anarchy. The protest takes the form of an enormous parade complete with Soviet flags and chants of “Berlin stays red!” The police are armed with truncheons. As the police march toward the parade, one of the protestors throws a rock and a large riot ensues in which the police are shown as being the real aggressors. Gereon (Volker Bruch) and his partner Bruno (Peter Kurth) are assigned to search nearby apartments for illegal firearms. They are shown breaking into apartments and tossing them indiscriminately for weapons, finding only one 18thcentury musket.
But then they stumble across barricades and are forced to take cover in a doorway as an armored car drives down the street firing indiscriminately. A group of protestors unfurl a large red flag from a third floor balcony and the police accidentally shoot two women standing on the second floor balcony just below it. Gereon rushes into the women’s apartment and after finding the women badly wounded, he goes to find a doctor, Dr Völcker (Jördis Triebel), who turns out to be a fiery Communist agitator. But it’s too late to save the women, both of whom die from their wounds. In later episodes, Dr Völcker leads protests about the violence, depicting the women as martyrs of police brutality and accusing the police of orchestrating a cover-up.
The police, desperate to point the finger at the protestors, find a police office who happens to have been accidentally shot in a completely unrelated incident and put him forward as proof that the protestors were seeking to kill police. Gereon eventually realizes this is untrue.
The show’s depiction of the Bloody May Incident is essentially true, although it collapses three days of protests into a single day. I’m unsure whether the incident with the two women actually happened, and Dr Völcker is fictitious. I also don’t know if the details about the fake police victim of violence is true. But the show is correct that the worst violence came from the police, that they were indiscriminately searching apartments but failed to find much evidence of an armed plot, and that they were widely perceived as the aggressors and as covering up what actually happened.
In general, the show does a fair job of trying to capture the instability, tension, and violence that was coming to characterize Berlin in the late 20s. The Communists are a clear presence in the series and ever-present poverty helps the viewer understand why Communism was a popular ideology at the time. But the show makes only token efforts to explain actual Socialist and Communist ideology, assuming that the viewer will either understand the essential ideas or else not care about them too much. The Communists are generally presented sympathetically, especially Dr Völcker, who is one of the few characters who doesn’t seem to have a hidden agenda.
The show only provides glimpses at the bigger political picture around the events. There is no mention of the SDP at all, so the police appear to be representatives not of the Socialist movement but of the capitalist establishment. More seriously, the Nazis don’t appear until late in the second season and the viewer would be forgiven for thinking that Hitler hadn’t yet emerged as a political force in German politics. In reality, Hitler was a rising force by 1928 and the SA were a major factor in the street violence of the period.
Want to Know More?
Babylon Berlin is available on Amazon if you want to own it, and by streaming on Netflix. The novels by Volker Kutscher are also available: Babylon Berlin, The Silent Death, and Goldstein.