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The Hour That Breaks

Gottfried Benn: A Biography

Martin Travers

The Hour That Breaks is the first biography of Gottfried Benn to appear in English. The author of this study charts in impressive detail the complex paths of Benn’s life, through the demands of his medical practice and military involvement in two world wars, his brief political advocacy of Hitler and Nazism in 1933, to his final «comeback» in post Second World War Germany. The author also engages with Benn’s extensive body of poetry which, inventive, challenging and formally wrought, was the product of mind that was both radical and conservative. The same propensity to invention and transformation also informed Benn’s personal and professional life, giving rise to a practice of role-playing and dissimulation that the poet termed a «double life». As Travers shows in this well-written and informative biography, this was a strategy of survival of which Benn, ultimately, was as much the victim as the master. This biography also offers fresh translations of many of Benn’s poems, a number of which appear here in English for the first time.
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Chapter 6: The Crisis of the Spirit: 1933–1934

Extract

Chapter 6

The Crisis of the Spirit: 1933–1934

A State Official

On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The “seizure of power” (“Machtergreifung”) had begun. Between that date and the promulgation of the law banning the creation of new parties on 14 July, the Nazis, in a process known as “Gleichschaltung” (“systematic integration”), suspended the clauses of the Constitution safeguarding civil liberties, banned or forced into liquidation the Communist, Social Democratic and Centre parties, and incarcerated their most active members in newly constructed concentration camps. Jews were removed from positions within the judicial, educational, medical and even sporting institutions of the nation, and trade union organisations replaced with a Nazified Labour Front.

The revolutionary dynamism of the “Machtergreifung” was not simply manifest in the content of these changes; it was also evident in the style with which they were carried out: through street marches, paramilitary displays and other spectacles that allowed the Nazi Party to control the civic sphere in the new Germany. On the very evening of Hitler’s call to the Chancellery, Berlin provided the mise en scène for a mass rally that confirmed both the ideological and material victory of the regime. Contemporaries caught up in the crowds tell of “the pounding of steps, the grave solemnity of the red and black flags, the flickering reflection of the torches on the faces of the people, and songs, whose melodies sounded at the same time sentimental...

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