Defending Democracy? The Protests Against Werner Krauss In West Berlin, 1950
Rory Hanna | 8 December 2020
◇ Activism / Anti-Semitism / German History / Holocaust / Jewish History / Nazism
In December 1950, chaotic scenes at a theatre in West Berlin made headlines in Germany and abroad. While Werner Krauss – an actor who had featured in Jud Süβ, the Third Reich’s most infamous antisemitic film – performed in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, students and Jewish residents demonstrated against his presence. For three days, protesters clashed with police officers outside and repeatedly disrupted the play’s performances inside the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, eventually securing its early cancellation.
The demonstrations against Werner Krauss, which took place seventy years ago this month, have been largely forgotten. Yet they raised central questions for early West German society, which, following the transfer of power from Allied occupation, now had to manage its own affairs. What constituted acceptable protest, and when did acts of dissent undermine the new democratic order? Should those who had been complicit in Nazi propaganda have any place in public life? And what responsibilities did Germans have towards Jews living in the country, after the atrocities of the Holocaust?
Krauss had risen to prominence before the Third Reich, starring notably in the 1920 silent movie The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. While many actors left Germany after the Nazis’ seizure of power, Krauss stayed. He went on to play four different characters in Jud Süβ, a film commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and viewed by 20 million Germans between its release in 1940 and 1943.
Jud Süβ, which depicted the eighteenth-century Jewish court advisor Joseph Süβ Oppenheimer as a corrupt, depraved conspirator, aimed to justify the exclusion of Jews from German society. Although Krauss claimed during his post-war denazification trials that Goebbels had coerced him into taking part in the film, the final verdict in 1948 declared that Krauss had been a ‘follower’ (Mitläufer) of the Nazi regime.
The judgement nevertheless allowed Krauss to resume his acting career, and, after moving to Austria, Krauss returned to German theatre stages in 1950 for the Vienna Burgtheater’s touring production of John Gabriel Borkman.
The play was initially performed in several West German cities without incident. West Berlin, however, was different. The city was still a transit station for large numbers of Eastern European Jewish refugees, most of whom were awaiting emigration to Palestine. These refugees had already taken to the streets in 1949, in response to antisemitic tendencies in the newly-released British film Oliver Twist.
Opposition to Krauss’s arrival also came from German-Jewish community leaders and West Berlin’s two universities, where students planned a demonstration for the play’s evening premiere. On December 8, more than five thousand students, Jewish refugees, and other protesters gathered outside the theatre, with chants and placards demanding that Werner Krauss ‘go home’.
Numerous protesters attempted to penetrate the police line guarding the theatre. The police used batons and water cannons to push back the crowd, while some demonstrators hurled stones. A handful of officers and civilians were taken to hospital, and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that ‘dozens more were mauled and bruised’.
Inside the theatre, demonstrators who held tickets for the play disrupted the first act. As they were ejected from the building, the performance was initially called off. The support for Werner Krauss among other theatregoers, however, was evident when the play eventually resumed. As Krauss appeared for the second act, he was greeted with loud applause.
Disturbances continued for the next two days, however, with Jewish leaders and Berlin’s students insisting that protests would not stop until the run was cancelled. After Krauss expressed his aversion to the thought that he would be the cause of further violence, the Burgtheater called off its remaining performances.
The protests provoked outraged reactions among West Berliners. Letters to Ernst Reuter, the city’s mayor, expressed various anti-Jewish sentiments. Since Reuter had declared that the time had come to forgive Krauss, several of the letters condemned Jews’ alleged inherent vengefulness – a long-standing antisemitic conception – with one citizen claiming that ‘Jews cannot forgive’.
Not only did these letters make little or no mention of the Holocaust: their sweeping assertions also ignored other viewpoints among Berlin’s protesting Jews. Some demonstrators, who saw Krauss’s apparent lack of contrition as the main problem, outlined circumstances under which they would accept his return to public life. Gerhard Löwenthal, a Jewish student, later recalled telling mayor Reuter that the demonstrations would stop at once if Krauss apologised on stage for his involvement in Jud Süβ.
The question of what constituted ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ action was another recurring theme in the debates, with individuals on both sides claiming to defend the new political order. For Löwenthal, a departure from the Nazi past was a precondition for the success of West German democracy. Yet, as one newspaper acknowledged, theatregoers considered that they had ‘democratically’ expressed their wish to forgive Krauss.
The protesters’ disruptive actions were labelled by opponents as a recourse to Nazi-era ‘SA methods’ which undermined the rule of law. Sympathisers, however, contended that the real threat to democracy lay in police violence and the re-emergence of overt antisemitism. The Volksblatt remarked that, while officers’ batons struck Jewish victims of the Nazis, those at the theatre who shouted ‘Jews out!’ had gone unpunished.
Werner Krauss did not perform again in Berlin until 1953: when he returned, the protests were not renewed. The following year, he was awarded West Germany’s Order of Merit. Krauss’ return to respectability before his death in 1959 could be taken as an example of what some historians have described as a ‘failure to address the issues raised by the Nazi period’. Such scholars argue that a continuation of authoritarian values and a desire for political and economic stability resulted in an indifference among most West Germans, lasting until the 1960s, to questions of ‘democratisation’.
The backlash against Krauss in 1950, however, reveals fierce debates at an early stage about the requirements for democratic renewal. While some Germans considered it necessary to draw a line under the past, others demanded that those who had worked with the Nazis apologise for their actions, or be barred from public life. Attitudes to protest also diverged: whereas demonstrators considered themselves to be carrying out a democratic duty, opponents saw them as violent troublemakers infringing other citizens’ freedoms.
Such discussions continued into 1951 and 1952, as further demonstrations accompanied the screening of new films by Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süβ. As these events, too, approach their seventieth anniversaries, it is time to reconsider the supposedly sleepy, ‘consensus-based’ early years of West Germany’s existence.
Rory Hanna is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research project focuses on student protest and activism in West Germany between 1949 and 1967.
 Susan Tegel, ‘Review Essay: Jud Süss’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 25:1 (2005), p. 156; Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion. Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife (Cambridge, Mass.: 2007), p. 154.
 Wolff A. Greinert, Werner Krauss. Schauspieler in seiner Zeit, 1884 bis 1959 (Vienna, 2009), pp. 273, 303.
 Ibid., p. 313.
 ‘Tumulte gegen den Film “Oliver Twist”’, Der Sozialdemokrat, 21 February 1949, p. 3.
 Landesarchiv Berlin (hereafter LAB) B Rep. 020, Nr. 7861, ‘Polizei-Inspektion Charlottenburg, den 9.12.1950, Betr.: Demonstrationen anlässlich des Gastspiels des Burgtheater-Ensemble mit Werner Krauss im „Theater am Kurfuerstendamm“, p. 1; ‘Tumulte am Kurfürstendamm‘, Telegraf, 9 December 1950, p. 1.
 ‘Das Schuldkonto des Herrn Krauss’, Volksblatt, 9 December 1950, p. 1; ‘Jews in Berlin Fight Police in Row Over Actor’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 9 December 1950, p. 7.
 ‘Berliners Storm a Theatre’, Manchester Guardian, 9 December 1950, p. 5.
 ‘Ein Erfolg der Jüdischen Gemeinde’, Kurier, 12 December 1950, p. 2; ‘Das Ende des Krauss-Gastspiels’, Telegraf, 13 December 1950, p. 1.
 ‘Vergeben können’, Der Abend, 8 December 1950, p. 2; LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, anonymous letter from ‘ein Lichterfelder Einwohner’, 13 December 1950. On the history of antisemitic conceptions of Jewish ‘retributive justice’, see Trond Berg Eriksen et al, Judenhass: Die Geschichte des Antisemitismus von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Göttingen, 2019), p. 117.
 Gerhard Löwenthal, Ich bin geblieben. Erinnerungen (Munich, 1987), pp. 202-203.
 Ibid., p. 203; ‘Die Unruhen am Kurfürstendamm’, Tagesspiegel, 9 December 1950, p. 2.
 LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, letter from Adolf Vollmer to Friedrich Luft (editor of Die Neue Zeitung‘s Feuilleton section), 12 December 1950.
 ‘Problematisches Gastrecht’, Volksblatt, 11 December 1950, p. 2.
 Nick Thomas, Protest Movements in 1960s West Germany. A Social History of Dissent and Democracy (Oxford, 2003), p. 13; Moritz Scheibe, ‘Auf der Suche nach der demokratischen Gesellschaft’, in Ulrich Herbert (ed.), Wandlungsprozesse in Westdeutschland. Belastung, Integration, Liberalisierung, 1945-1980 (Göttingen, 2002), pp. 245-247.