“Babylon Berlin” is the TV show I can’t stop thinking about.
This week I’ve been watching “Babylon Berlin,” a television show about detectives in Weimar Germany, which has so captivated me that I barreled straight through the new season and then started rewatching the whole series from the beginning.
The show is a noir detective series, set in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which weaves together pulpy violence, glamorous musical numbers paying homage to legendary Weimar cabarets, and the political fragility that ultimately gave rise to the Nazis and global catastrophe.
I know, that is … a lot. If handled badly, the political story lines could seem like a cheap way to raise the stakes of otherwise soapy plot points. But it doesn’t come out that way. And after reading the first novel in the series by Volker Kutscher that the show is loosely based on, I’m struck by the way that the TV adaptation uses trauma so effectively as a way to integrate history and politics into the characters’ day-to-day lives.
The book version of its protagonist, Gereon Rath, was drafted in World War I but never saw battle. But in the show, Rath is a veteran of trench warfare, which has left him with post-traumatic stress disorder so severe that in early episodes he cannot function without a daily regimen of morphine.
You might think, from that description, this is another version of the increasingly common “trauma plot,” skewered so effectively by Parul Sehgal in this 2021 New Yorker essay, in which characters are given traumatic back stories as a shortcut to complexity and motivation, or as a way to extort sympathy for characters who might otherwise leave readers and viewers cold.
But after returning to the beginning of the series, I think “Babylon Berlin” is doing rather the opposite. Although it’s omnipresent among characters on the show, trauma is not presented as particularly emotionally compelling, and certainly not as an interesting personality trait or as a cheap way to add depth. Instead, the show uses it as a way to draw the past damage and humiliation of Germany’s defeat in World War I into the show’s present day, and by extension the fragile politics of Weimar Germany.
The war had officially ended a decade before the events of the show. But the presence of so many veterans with PTSD brings the war, and the shame many felt about defeat, into people’s workplaces, homes, churches, marriages and politics.
In the first episode, Rath is partnered with a senior police officer who refers to traumatized veterans as “broken automatons,” and implies that they contributed to Germany’s defeat. “On the front those chickens folded in droves,” he tells Rath, not yet realizing that the younger man feels it, too. It is a taste of a message that grows stronger over the course of the show: that veterans with PTSD suffer, but danger derives from the delusions of their fellow countrymen who cannot cope with the shame of defeat.
Later in the season, medical students and faculty walk out of a psychiatry lecture in outrage simply because the speaker, a psychiatrist, suggested that PTSD was a real disorder that ought to be treated.
“The closed institutions are bursting with those ill-fated comrades,” the lecturer says. “Many of them are war heroes! Systematically removed from our midst, from our everyday life, because they remind us of a disaster which is being glorified by certain circles in our society.”
A student shouts back to call them “washouts” who “sully the reputation of our army.” Someone calls them “cowards and shirkers,” as attendees stream out of the hall.
“It’s good that they’re all gone!” says another. But by then, of course, the audience has seen that they are anything but gone: They are so obviously present everywhere in the city that to deny their existence is to insist on a collective myth.
But that was, of course, exactly what was happening. The audience learns more about the that collective myth later on, when the same police officer who spoke so contemptuously of “broken automatons” gathers former army compatriots to commemorate a battle they fought.
As a young boy narrates the battle, the group of middle-aged men gathers around a table of model trains, solemnly tossing down firecrackers to depict a British artillery attack on toy soldiers. They chant that the German Army was “undefeated in the field,” and its loss was because of betrayal by the social democrats — a reference to the antisemitic “stab in the back” myth, which falsely claimed Germany had only lost because Jews and leftists forced a premature surrender.
Once we see policemen and politicians so unable to cope with the reality of their colleagues’ trauma that they try to erase its existence, it feels like only a matter of time before they resort to more extreme action to try to push their shame away.
If, as Sehgal argued, revealing psychological damage feels like a cheap way to justify action, starting with psychological damage makes action feel grimly inevitable, like a nation-level version of Chekhov’s gun — the trope of an object that appears early in a story only to play a pivotal role near the end. Once we see old men playing at military glory with toys in the first act, we know we’ll see them try for the real thing by the third.
The show is fiction, but the broader story of shame, fragility and violence plays out so often in history that it starts to feel like not just a rhyme, but a chorus.
To read more about that, you might start with “Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,” by Kathleen Belew, a historian at Northwestern University. She details how the American white-power movement coalesced around a sense of betrayal in the Vietnam War. In 2021, my colleague Katrin Bennhold and I wrote about the links between that movement and political extremism in the United States today, including the groups that participated in the Jan. 6, 2020 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Then, perhaps, cross the Atlantic. When I went to France in 2017 to report on the far right’s rising popularity, I was struck by how strongly the ghosts of the country’s colonial past in Algeria seemed to haunt its modern-day politics. Many interviews turned spontaneously to grievances over the lost glory and displacement that occurred when France gave up its former colony. And if you want to go a step further back in history, this article by Terrence Peterson, a historian at Florida International University, examines how myths of global communist conspiracy shaped the French strategy during the Algerian war itself.
And for hints of how that chorus might play out in Russia, now a year into its invasion of Ukraine, read this excellent article by my colleague Anatoly Kurmanaev, about the convicts who joined a mercenary group fighting alongside the Russian Army and are now returning home with military training, battlefield traumas, and few prospects for a better life.
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