Documenting the Decline and Fall of the Weimar Republic

One German-Jewish doctor’s collection of campaign materials from 1919-1933 would certainly have been lost had he not deposited them in Jerusalem’s National Library before his death at the hands of the Nazis.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

German-Jewish eye doctor Arthur Czellitzer had a keenly developed sense of history. In the glory days of the Weimar Republic, from 1919 to 1933, Czellitzer collected campaign materials distributed by Germany’s various political parties. After the Nazis’ rise to power, his collection numbered about 800 items, including leaflets, announcements, ads and newspapers.

“He had a high awareness of politics and history. He collected the materials industriously, filed them, cataloged and dated them,” says Dr. Stefan Litt, a curator at the archives department at the National Library in Jerusalem. “He collected the materials at train stations and sometimes he simply pulled them off billboards,” Litt says.

Before the war, Czellitzer, who was born in Breslau, managed to escape from Germany to Holland, but from there he was sent to the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where he was murdered in 1943, at the age of 72.

His name and his collection would certainly have been forgotten had he not had the foresight to deposit the collection in Jerusalem’s National Library in 1936, three years after the Nazis came to power.

“We don’t know how he transferred the material from Germany to the Land of Israel,” says Litt. “Maybe he mailed it. Maybe he came here himself. The only thing we do know is that the material was deposited here and we don’t know how.”

A few months ago, completely by chance, Litt pulled a few boxes off the shelves of the National Library archive. “Out of sheer curiosity I came across a gray box stuffed with papers. When I started rummaging through it I found this collection,” he says. “It has been here since the 1930s. In the 1950s it was put in the box. And in 2012 we found it again.”

In an attempt to determine the origin of the collection, Litt located a number of letters mixed in with the campaign materials. They contained medical information and were addressed to Dr. Arthur Czellitzer.

A quick search found that, alongside his work as an eye doctor, Czellitzer also pursued an interest in Jewish genealogy. He established the Society for Jewish Genealogy in Berlin in 1924 and published a journal called “Jewish Genealogy,” which came out until 1938 as a monthly. In his own lifetime, he had the misfortune of watching his research, as well as his memoirs and the family trees he drew, help the Nazis carry out their persecution of Jews.

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the Nazis’ rise to power on January 30, 1933. Nine years prior, the Nazis had won only 3 percent of the votes in the December 1924 elections, and had only 14 representatives in the legislature.
The turning point came in the elections of 1930, following the international economic crisis, in which the Nazis won 18.3 percent of the votes and garnered 107 representatives in the parliament.

Then, in July of 1932, with 37.4 percent of the vote, the Nazis became the largest faction. And in November that same year, they won 33.1 percent and 196 seats. President Paul von Hindenburg tapped Adolf Hitler to form the government, and on January 30, 1933, Hitler came to power.

Dr. Czellitzer’s collection serves as an excellent documentation of those years. “This collection, together with other materials that are in the library, recount the tragic path of the first German democracy - the Weimar Republic - to dictatorship and the abyss,” says Litt. “Up until 1933, many parties were players on the German political stage, representing the whole political gamut - from the left to the right, from the Communists to the German nationalists and the Nazis,” he says. The low electoral threshold meant many parties were elected to the German parliament, Litt explains. This made it difficult to establish stable coalitions and paved the way for numerous elections.

“In every election the parties produced campaign materials distributed among voters by hand - leaflets in the street, or putting up posters and taking out ads. Along with that, political newspapers published special editions in advance of the elections,” says Litt.

Such materials were printed by the tens of thousands, but their life expectancy was short. After they were read, they were discarded. As a result, only a few survived, either in private hands or public collections, such as the collection that ended up at the National Library.

One of the oldest documents in the collection is a poster for the elections to the German national assembly held on January 19, 1919. These were the first German elections in which women were allowed to participate. After the January 1919 elections, the Weimar Republic was established.

Alongside it is a campaign poster for the German Democratic Party, of which Walter Rathenau was a member. ‏(Rathenau eventually became the German foreign minister, the only Jew to attain such a senior position in any German government to this day‏). On the poster, the party promises to eliminate inflation, which is depicted as a ghost.

Another poster in the collection, one for the German National Party, shows the German national character Deutsche Michel pulling a wagon out of the quagmire. A Communist party poster mocks Hitler, who is depicted as having just murdered the rights of workers with his sword. A German National Party poster shows a grotesque image of a Jew plastered all over buildings, from banks to the stock market, the cinema and the press.

A selection of items from the collection was made available to the public online on Friday, on the National Library website, under the link “From Democracy to Dictatorship: 80 Years Since the Fall of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Rise to Power.”

A German National Party poster: Waving the old flag of monarchic Germany.Credit: National Library in Jerusalem
An ad for the January 1919 election, the first in which women could vote.Credit: National Library in Jerusalem
A campaign poster for the German Democratic Party vowing to eliminate inflation.Credit: National Library in Jerusalem

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