There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Mayor Marion Barry got in a world of trouble when he compared the District’s federally appointed financial control board to German despots after they demanded that Department of Human Services Director (and beloved crony) Vernon Hawkins be axed. District politicos and the press interpreted Barry’s statement as a baldfaced reference to Nazism and took turns hammering him for unforgivable insensitivity: “We have not had a Holocaust here,” D.C. Council Chairman Dave Clarke told the Washington Post. “You don’t take everything that is unjust—and I do think the city is being treated unjustly—and call it Nazism.”
Duly chastened, the mayor backpedaled, insisting he was referring to “German dictators before World War I.” The whole city laughed.
It’s hard to imagine Barry relaxing with a copy of The Germans: Double History of a Nation, but the mayor was actually standing on pretty firm historical ground. Germany’s history of despotism is every bit as rich as, say, the District’s tradition of cronyism under Barry. From the founding of Germany as a unified state in 1871 until the end of World War I, Germany’s rulers did pretty much as they pleased (much like Barry during his first few terms, come to think of it). The only popularly elected body was the Reichstag, which had virtually no power and was routinely ignored on key decisions, which brings to mind the D.C. Council.
Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that it’s not the control board but Barry who shares tactics with Germany’s dictators. To begin with, Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor, “showed an open mind to the just grievances of the working class,” in the words of historian Kurt F. Reinhardt. Like Barry, Bismarck had a visceral feel for the pain of the underclass.
At first blush, Barry would not have been a soul mate of the famed Kaiser Wilhelm II, who ruled Germany from 1888 until the end of World War I: The Kaiser was a rigid, militaristic type who never deviated from his daily routine, and even his staunchest critics gave him credit for aggressively pursuing a well-defined set of goals. But outward differences belie their common traits. Witness, for starters, this appraisal of the Kaiser’s financial management skills: “The present Kaiser actually wound up year after year with a tremendous deficit, and his court, outwardly splendid and richly endowed, was more penurious than that of the meanest prince of the Empire,” wrote the Baroness Von Larisch in her kiss-and-tell book, Secret Life of the Kaiser.
The Kaiser also shared Barry’s penchant for lecturing on nutrition. Arthur N. Davis, the Kaiser’s American-born dentist, reported in his book, The Kaiser As I Know Him, that he told the Kaiser that Berlin’s elite joked about eating a full meal before attending the state’s meager banquets. “That’s good,” thundered the Kaiser. “The Germans are too fat, anyway. The majority of people eat too much.” Davis didn’t say whether the Kaiser mentioned carbohydrates, protein, and fruits.
And for all we know, Barry may have been tearing a page out of the Kaiser’s book when he has skipped town in times of crisis. In November 1908, the Kaiser took a leisure trip through Austria in the midst of a huge diplomatic flap. In his absence the German parliament debated the affair and its ramifications for imperial Germany. The Kaiser’s jaunt prompted ridicule from the press and his political opponents.
The coincidences reach even further back in history. Ninth-century ruler Charles the Great, for example, lured great Italian thinkers and artists to his court by awarding them high-paying sinecures. A few centuries later, Frederic I distinguished himself by squandering the country’s resources on quixotic ventures: Six times he raided Italy with no more success than Barry’s war on potholes. And a proclamation of 18th-century Emperor Frederic II sheds light on Barry’s constant need for attention: “The satisfaction of reading my name in the newspapers and then in the book of history has seduced me.” (But Maximilian, a 15th-century ruler, bore more of a resemblance to Council Chairman Dave Clarke than to Barry. According to historian Emil Ludwig, Maximilian would occasionally “fly into such towering rages that he would grow incoherent…and [he] often dressed slovenly.”)
Still, the search for Barry’s despotic double in the annals of Germany ends with a more contemporary case: Erich Honnecker, the last ruler of East Germany. Honnecker presided over a crumbling country with a demoralized populace. Food was so scarce, services so threadbare, and life so grim that East Germans risked getting shot to vault the Berlin Wall to find freedom. Thank God the District’s refugees have nicely paved bridges and highways to make their escape.—Erik Wemple