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The Messiah in the Sportpalast

by SÁNDOR MÁRAI

Born into a family of German origin in Kassa, Upper Hungary (now Košice, Slovakia), Márai was bilingual in German and Hungarian. He left Hungary hurriedly in 1919 and was soon writing articles for the newspaper Újság in Budapest and various German and Austrian papers, eventually becoming a correspondent for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung.

The following feuilleton was written before Hitler became the master of Germany. The scene is the Berlin Sportpalast, the largest indoor arena in the world when it opened in 1910 and, at this time, the setting for the rallies of the various political parties vying for control of the Weimar Republic.

On the night of the Horst Wessel commemoration Hitler speaks in the Berlin Sportpalast. People who have neither seen nor heard him will perhaps never fully understand the significance of the profoundly ominous mind-set that has developed in Germany since the war. The reality — Hitler’s version of reality and its full implications — goes far beyond anything you might read in the newspapers, or imagine. Here is that reality, drawn from the life.

1

Hitler rarely speaks in Berlin: it is Goebbels’ hunting ground. (Goebbels, moreover, like almost all of the leadership, suffers from serious paranoia, refusing, for example, to speak outside the capital unless the local party officials guarantee him an audience of appropriate size, with fee to match.) The Sportpalast holds twenty-five thousand people. A ticket costs one mark. The event is sold out days in advance.

At three in the afternoon of the meeting advertised for eight, the migration towards the horrific concrete sheep-pen is under way. For hours on end the Bülow Strasse underground pours uniformed Nazis and members of their families onto the street. The doors are supposed to open at six, but by then the faithful have somehow managed to occupy the floor and all the gallery seating. Arrangements are in place for surviving the long wait ahead, mothers of families have prepared sandwiches and thermos flasks of coffee, and the crowd sits, hour after hour, patiently munching away. At six, groups of Nazis parade into the hall. Today’s will be a great, truly representative meeting: every single Nazi regiment has sent its chosen delegates, and now four thousand, I am told, of the 226 SA, the Sturm Abteilung, come marching in, in full uniform. This uniform — leggings, riding breeches, brown shirt, with unit number and emblem on the lapel and peaked brown cap with chinstrap — is by every impartial canon of taste the ugliest and most repulsive garb that any fanatical militarist ever dreamed up, or more precisely, stole from the dress code of foreign armies. But in Berlin, where even newspaper sellers like to kit themselves out as war veterans, it is admired.

A detachment of storm troopers is now stationed around the huge podium. On it stands a long table, covered by a white cloth on which a forest of laurel wreaths and huge, many-branched candelabras await the party leadership. Other troops are positioned around the walls to cordon off the hall, and one especially prestigious unit forms a double line at the entrance, creating a long, narrow path to the podium. I think of William Tell — “Durch diese hohle Gasse muss. Er kommt” — and know how he felt.

[Ed.: “fur diese hohle Gasse muss er kommen” (“Through this ravine he needs must come.” The words of William Tell before killing the tyrant Gessner in Friedrich Schiller’s William Tell, Act III, Scene 4).

Márai changes the quotation to refer to the Führer with the sentence: Er kommt — He is coming.]

Outside the Sportpalast the arrangements have a warlike character. An area half a kilometre long has been sealed off by the Schupo, the green-uniformed Schutzpolizei (Security Police), using armoured cars, and two-man patrols with rifles and other weapons, are busy checking the identity of arrivals. Only those with tickets, and the press, are allowed in. To foreign journalists the Nazis are stiffly polite. I show my credentials, more storm trooper types clear a path for me through the crowd, and I am seated in front of the podium, where, for good measure, one of the faithful is placed beside me to explain anything I might not understand. (This is the “ordinary Nazi”, in civilian life a barman in a beer-cellar on the Olivaerplatz, whom I sought out the next day and interviewed. More of this at another time.) The Nazis in the hall are on the whole very polite. It’s always like this, with these sort of people. If they’re not actually murdering you, they’re almost pleasant. You just have to choose the right moment to meet them.

At eight, news arrives — signalled by notes on a horn — that the cars carrying Hitler and the rest of the leadership have left the Kaiserhof Hotel. They are still a long way off, but the Nazi units stiffen to attention, the audience — all twenty-five thousand people — leap to their feet, and the munching and chattering are silenced. The Führer may still be far away, but every nerve is paralysed by the approach. The eyes of twenty-five thousand people gaze, as if hypnotised, towards the door through which the worshipped figure will soon appear. Then short, sharp, brutal words of command are barked out from every side — a barracks sound, which all ears drink in with deep pleasure. Enter the standard bearers, precisely 226 of them, with huge red, white and black flags emblazoned with swastikas, to stand in a semi-circle behind the podium. A section of the party leadership, almost eighty representatives of the Reichstag, among them Prince August Wilhelm (also in Nazi uniform), take their places beside the white table. Spotlights now pick out the entrance. And thus we wait, for half an hour. The tension is almost unbearable. Twenty-five thousand people, audience and SA troopers alike, stand stiffly to attention, faces turned to the entrance, while Nazis with red-cross armbands work non-stop, ferrying those who have fainted out on stretchers. The crowd appears not to notice; it seems this is a perfectly regular occurrence.

At half past nine the loudspeaker bawls out, “Der Führer kommt.” Twenty-five thousand people raise their arms and roar back: “Heil”. When I hear this roar, I instantly understand the Nazis’ success. Only dervishes howl in this way, and those in mortal despair.

2

The howling has no end. It goes on and on, an inarticulate roar. Then, ahead of the Leader himself, his personal bodyguard, the SS, bare-headed in dark-blue uniform, make their way between the lines of troopers, followed by the most illustrious members of the party, among them Goebbels in mufti, and finally Hitler himself, in uniform, bare-headed, followed by more of his guard. Up on the podium, the inner circle. Flashes of magnesium light, photographers leaping up and down, and little girls in white presenting bunches of roses to the Messiah, who strokes their cheeks and, in almost the same motion, directs the flowers on to one or another of his aides. It is a vision, a faded reproduction from 1914. For the most trusted disciples, the reward of a few, perhaps three or four, shakes of the hand. Prince August Wilhelm, for example, is merely third in line. Imagine the effect on the supposed ‘mind’ of this mass audience as, with its own eyes, it sees the Leader favouring a royal prince, third in line, with the briefest of handshakes, then almost pointedly ignoring him.

Hitler is forty-six. [Ed.: Márai is mistaken. Hitler was then 43.] A vegetarian, slim, abstemious. Everything about him, the shape of his head, the mouth, the forehead half-covered with a fetching lock of brown hair, the way he moves his hands, is strikingly effeminate (supposedly ascetic). He takes his seat at the centre of the podium, rests his head in his palm, takes no notice of the rabble or the military parade, stares stiffly ahead. He sits likes this for ages, a full quarter of an hour, while the music plays: first the National Socialist march, then — in memory of Horst Wessel — “Ich hatt’ einen Kameraden”, with twenty-five thousand people bellowing out the words. He glances at no one. He just sits there, deadly serious, “lost in reverie”. Perhaps he is thinking of his country’s fate, perhaps grieving for the memory of the young man who died. When the music falls silent, he shades his eyes with his hand, bows his head, and remains in this posture for several minutes, motionless.

“He is deep in thought,” my Nazi minder whispers to me. His face is twisted with excitement.

In the hall there is a deathly silence. The silence of twenty-five thousand people. You cannot hear a single cough. This is not politics, not a party meeting. This is religion, worship. Then, from all around the hall, the loudspeaker roars, a steady crackle like canon fire: “Der Führer spricht!” Hitler rises slowly to his feet, brushes the brown lock from his forehead, and steps up to the microphone.

3

The faces! As he speaks I study the faces of the leaders on the podium, the faces of the eighty representatives of the Reichstag. And what faces they are! Only two show any spark of intelligence: Goebbels — small, dark, cunning, energetic, with alert, knowing eyes — and Goering, President of the Reichstag, one of the old breed of Prussian military types. And then, watery, soulless eyes; blood-red, beerbloated faces; close-shaven heads: third-class physical material. What can there possibly be in a head that gazes out at the world from eyes such as these? What confusion, what twisted obsessions? It’s all a sort of fake-militarism, a counterfeit; and not just the uniform. The bearing, the tone of voice, the whole gallumping flashy style, is just a sham. This is the gutter, militarised, stuffed into uniform. This is the mob, saluting to orders, playing at soldiers for a bowl of hot soup. This is the rabble, standardised: organised stupidity, the herd instinct mobilised, brutishness hired and feed, the boor trained to obedience and roused by the issuing of a rifle. This is the typical Nazi face, one which only a thoroughly sick society could have dreamed up for itself.

A significant part of the audience consists of the elderly; the rest are mostly very young. Middle-aged men are few and far between, and I haven’t seen a single attractive woman: such women clearly seek other kinds of amusement at this hour. However I have seen others of their sex, listening tearfully to Hitler in unspeakable excitement and dabbing their eyes with trembling hands. I am seized by the worrying sensation of having been locked in this hall with twenty-five thousand lunatics. It is not a pleasant feeling.

4

They already know the text. Tonight it’s exactly the same: “I started with three hundred; today twelve million stand behind me. I am the chosen leader of fifty per cent of the German electorate — (not true) — tomorrow sixty per cent, the day after that eighty per cent; and one day I shall have a hundred per cent. (All this for the thirteenth year running, monotonously, always the same.) “In the Third Reich I will mobilise capital, I will give everyone work, I will wipe out the ancient enemy — (the Jews and the French) — I will purify the race: I am the leader.” (verbatim). I cannot believe there are many sitting in the hall who would be surprised if he ended with, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Clearly this is no longer a political faith. It is simply a faith. The Messiah is under no obligation to account for himself, only to make revelations. He appears, walking on water, and speaks.

Goebbels listens, with head raised. His is perhaps the only face in the building that betrays any sign of actually thinking. If this man ever says anything serious, what emerges will prove very uncomfortable.

5

What the Leader declares is familiar, commonplace. As he proclaims it, in this hall, it is probably convincing. Faith is everything. And besides, loudspeakers are very persuasive, difficult to shout down. The speech is one that you drink like boiling water. It has no taste or smell, but it is boiling, and it scalds.

In the courtyard outside, a sombre double line stands guard over the car park reserved for the top brass and the Leader. I don’t wait for the meeting to end; I leave as soon as Hitler has finished speaking. The bodies of huge luxury limousines loom all around me. I’ve never seen so many mammoth cars. When it’s a matter of maintaining status and dignity, the money flows freely enough from the coffers — and there’s nothing left for actual running costs.

In the dead, frozen streets police order the rare passers-by to move on. A few steps further, and I am back on the familiar, lively night face of a Berlin thoroughfare.

The German population is large and of many different persuasions. Only one fifth listen — whether from conviction, calculation or in the throes of despair — to the Messiah who stands at this moment before his believers in the thick magnesium light blazing down on the Sportpalast podium.

This fifth will never reach sixty million, as the Messiah knows perfectly well by now. But this same fifth of the sixty million does immeasurable damage, creates real mischief, and is capable of causing unrest for many years to come: for Germany, for Europe, and for the world.

So long as this one fifth sticks together and holds fast, there can be no question of peace. I tell you, you should see those faces!

29 January 1933, Újság (Budapest)

The day after this was printed, Hitler was appointed Chancellor.

Translated by Len Rix.
Translation first published in The Hungarian Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 185, Spring 2007.
This post was published on Monday, November 30th, 2009 8:08 pm. It has been categorised under Germany History Newspapers and been tagged under , , , , .
Comments
  1. Baron v Hetterscheidt
    1 December 2009
    4:35 am

    And what is the point of this nattering?
    Unending breast beating about the Nazis is a game which the Left plays for intelligent and sinister reasons of their own. Why, Mr Cusack, have you of late decided to play their game?
    The Right should stop feeling guilty about Hitler. He was not one of us. He did not inherit the mantle of the old Right, but filled a void left by our removal from the scene, a removal effected by the Left, and in particular by idiots like Wilson and criminals like Clemenceau. They are the real enemy, not to mention their friends who created the Soviet Union.
    Let’s hear a bit about how awful they were for a change, particularly since they and their heirs are still ruing the roost.

  2. 1 December 2009
    10:01 am

    Baron, surely you missed Mr. Cusack’s point!

  3. kd
    1 December 2009
    11:11 am

    Thou doth protest too much, Baron.

  4. Andrew Cusack
    1 December 2009
    11:35 am

    I hardly think this piece is breast-beating about the Nazis! Rather, it is a fascinating first-hand account of a Nazi rally and an excellent example of a feuilleton.

    Márai was an average novelist but an excellent feuilletonist. Alas, his novels are gaining a new appreciation in English translations, while (to my knowledge) only three of his feuilleton pieces have ever been translated into English (thanks to the Hungarian Quarterly): The Fountain Pen, a brief rumination about pens, and The Barber of Basel, recording the words of a loquacious Swiss barber.

    As for our dear commenting baron, he no doubt suffers from having heard too many harangues about Nazism and the Right. We, here, have always ignored such false and misleading associations, and so they fail to irritate us, but rather pass like water off a duck’s back.

    True conservatives of the old school have never felt guilty about Hitler, because they know they were never responsible for Hitler. (Indeed, many of them put great effort in exasperated attempts to kill him that failed, variously, through cowardice, technical failures, or just plain bad luck).

  5. Baron v Hetterscheidt
    1 December 2009
    12:08 pm

    “Protest too much”?
    The insinuation being?
    The Nazis present precisely zero threat to what is left of our world; the Left remains a fatal one.
    Concentrate on that fact, all of you, and then act on it. Only then might we emerge from the present horror with something of our civilization intact.

    I will agree with Mr Cusack that as pure reportage Herr Grossschmied de Mára’s (his real name) paragraphs are full of interest. But then again so is most contemporary reportage about any period which has since been falsified by ideology.

  6. Liz S.
    1 December 2009
    12:09 pm

    Fascinating piece!

  7. kd
    1 December 2009
    1:09 pm

    The lure of fascism (it attracts both the Right and the Left) remains a threat to civilization.

    “Falsified by ideology” means what exactly?

  8. Andrew Cusack
    1 December 2009
    1:59 pm

    BvH doubtless means that the period has been falsified by ideology in the sense that it has falsely recorded Nazism as a philosophy of the “Right” rather than a phenomenon distinctly of the “Left”.

    Nazism’s only real connection to the conservatism was its skillful ability to manipulate German right-wing politicians who, as BvH as pointed out, suffered from the vacuum caused by the Left’s abolition of monarchism, etc.

    “Fascism” in the broader sense is a much abused word. In the sense that it presages the merger between capitalism and socialism that — arguably — is taking place today, one could say it “remains a threat to civilization”. However, I very much doubt we will see fascism proper ever again. Despite the prognostications of Fox News, the Obama personality cult is nothing like the Duce’s personality cult. (Mussolini’s was both more tasteful, more widespread, and more enforced). Fascism is, more or less, dead.

    As for the ridiculous term “Islamofascism”, Islamism is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish from fascism completely. The term is merely used by those tired hacks and pundits who seek to use a typical leftist term of abuse, either 1) to highlight the Islamist threat, or 2) to bolster the neoconservatives who have adopted the Islamists as their bête-noire.

  9. kd
    1 December 2009
    3:53 pm

    Interestingly, and perhaps unintentionally, you hit the nail on the head, Andrew. Fascism is both a philosophy of the Right and a phenomenon of the Left. (The same could be said for the “neoconservative” movement.)

    I agree with you that fascism is a much abused word. So is socialism, communism, capitalism, and even democracy.

    I certainly hope we’ll never see “fascism proper” again. Unfortunately, history has a way of surprising us.

  10. Paddy
    1 December 2009
    5:43 pm

    Mr Cusack,

    thank you for yet another most fascinating post. I appreciate these living snapshots of critical moments in our history.

    Some years ago I read a book called “Guns or Butter” by an RHB Lockhart (found in a charity shop in Edinburgh for a pittance). He’s an interesting chap:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._H._Bruce_Lockhart

    In this book he travels through eastern europe in 1938 and is well received at the highest levels by all of the little monarchies across that continent. He arrives in Vienna the day after the Anchluss and the description of the atmosphere at the time comes out well.

    As for the argument about whether Hitler was of the left or of the right, I feel that he is in fact correctly placed as of the right.

    Yes, he held very “socialist” views in many ways, but he ultimately wanted to increase national strength and bring the german Reich forward through enlargement. He would have definitely never considered himself as fitting in with the figures of the left, but rather as fitting in with the figures of the anti-democratic right such as the Prussian Kings of old, Bismark and his old comrade “dictator-as-regent” Ludendorf. He believed in great leaders arriving throughout time to act for Germany and that narrative has nothing to do with the left. He was accepted as the leader even by the conservative establishment in the beginning because of his successes – feeding the people, annexation of German inhabited territories, humiliation of the UK/France over Munich etc…

    Of course, the Weimar republic was a failed state that couldn’t even feed it’s own people: this is how Hitler’s rise was possible.

    Any association of modern conservatism with Germany under Hitler is just pure hogwash.

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