Back­ground pho­to by Jakob Braun on Unsplash

On a March week­end in 1920, a car fly­ing a diplo­mat­ic flag set off towards the Reich Chan­cellery in Berlin for a meet­ing with the Chan­cel­lor of Ger­many. Only the man head­ing to the meet­ing wasn’t a diplo­mat, no meet­ing had been sched­uled, and the Chan­cel­lor of Ger­many wasn’t real­ly the Chan­cel­lor, he just said that he was.

In the tur­bu­lent hours before this strange inci­dent, there had been a coup in Berlin. As columns of troop­ers wear­ing jack­boots, and hel­mets with swastikas on them took over gov­ern­ment build­ings, the Cab­i­net fled, leav­ing in con­voy for Dres­den. In their place was installed an admin­is­tra­tion head­ed by a port­ly, bull-necked, shaven-head­ed man called Wolf­gang von Kapp, the head of the Father­land Par­ty and the crea­ture of mil­i­tant right-wing soldiers.

The caus­es of the coup were var­i­ous, the pro­gramme of the plot­ters con­fused, but Alfred Wiener, my mater­nal grand­fa­ther, was cer­tain the takeover could only mean trou­ble. The men tak­ing over were exact­ly the sort he’d been warn­ing peo­ple about ever since he came back from the war. Extreme, in the grip of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries about the betray­al of Ger­many, and, worst of all from Alfred’s point of view, con­vinced that the Jews were at the root of the country’s troubles. 

So, he rea­soned, he’d have to do some­thing about it. He per­suad­ed a friend — he was very good at per­suad­ing peo­ple — to lend him his diplo­mat­ic car, drove straight through the armed ranks of the rebels and stopped at the Reich Chan­cellery. Then he got out, demand­ed to see Kapp, some­how suc­ceed­ed in doing so, and remon­strat­ed with him about antisemitism.

In the cir­cum­stances, Alfred was per­haps for­tu­nate that with­in a cou­ple of days the putsch had col­lapsed, with Kapp flee­ing in a taxi with a knot­ted sheet con­tain­ing his belong­ings secured to its roof. If the plot­ters had suc­ceed­ed, it’s unlike­ly Alfred would have sur­vived very long. 

The con­fronta­tion with Kapp was clas­sic Alfred behav­iour. It was phys­i­cal­ly brave, almost fool­hardy; it was clear-sight­ed, under­stand­ing the threat the extrem­ists posed to Germany’s Jews; it was pre­scient, see­ing before oth­ers did what might lie ahead for Jews; it took per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty for the fate of his fel­low jews; and it rep­re­sent­ed his almost lim­it­less faith, his almost bound­less opti­mism, that ratio­nal argu­ment and insist­ing on the truth could change things.

This roman­tic idea of his nation made what hap­pened to him a par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant tragedy. 

These char­ac­ter­is­tics were respon­si­ble for tak­ing him in his life and career from tri­umph to dis­as­ter before tri­umph again. They were to be praised as the qual­i­ties of a great man and crit­i­cised as the beliefs and behav­iour of a naif. They saw him rise to become one of the lead­ers of Ger­many Jew­ry and to hold that posi­tion through the tumul­tuous twen­ties and into the thir­ties as the Nazi threat grew. And he took them with him into exile when a meet­ing with Her­mann Göring and its men­ac­ing after­math made it obvi­ous that he would have to leave Germany. 


At the end of 1918, Alfred Wiener had returned to Berlin after more than three years of fight­ing in the war, to the real­i­sa­tion that his bat­tles were just beginning. 

He had respond­ed to his army call-up in April 1915 with­out the slight­est hes­i­ta­tion or reser­va­tion. He felt a strong sense of nation­al attach­ment and duty, a view rein­forced among many Ger­man Jews by a desire for the defeat of Rus­sia, the coun­try of bar­bar­ic pogroms. He had fought on both the West­ern and East­ern Fronts, waged war with heavy artillery and armoured vehi­cles, act­ed as an inter­preter in the Ger­man-Turk­ish cam­paign, and edit­ed the army news­pa­per in Jerusalem and Dam­as­cus. And he had almost died. A severe bout of dysen­tery came close to end­ing his cam­paign, and his life, at the begin­ning of 1917. For his gal­lantry he was award­ed two medals — the Iron Cross (sec­ond class) and the Iron Cres­cent. Both these acco­lades were sol­id rather than spec­tac­u­lar, but Alfred was proud of his service. 

There were lots of things peo­ple said about Alfred — that he was humor­ous, that he was book­ish, that he was bald from a young age, that he made friends eas­i­ly, that he was hard work­ing, that he was opin­ion­at­ed; after his death, news­pa­pers were full of attempts to cap­ture his looks and his per­son­al­i­ty and what made him so beguil­ing. But if he were asked, he would have want­ed any descrip­tion to start with the fact that he was German. 

He was born in 1885 Pots­dam, and one of his clos­est asso­ciates, the great soci­ol­o­gist Eva Reich­mann, remarked after his death that:

When he pro­nounced the very name Pots­dam” you could hear in his sonorous voice the dis­tant echo of a clar­i­on call. He loved Pots­dam and was imbued with its his­tor­i­cal tra­di­tion. Up to his last years, he used to meet some of his for­mer class­mates once a year; so con­vinced was he of the mys­te­ri­ous spir­it of Pots­dam” as he con­ceived it, that when I once asked him if he was not afraid that there might be Nazis among the old boys, he replied with­out hes­i­ta­tion, as if stat­ing an indis­putable max­im: Of course not, they are from Pots­dam Gymnasium.” 

He main­tained through­out his life, this strong feel­ing of belong­ing to his coun­try and cul­ture. This roman­tic idea of his nation made what hap­pened to him — his exile, the loss of his nation­al­i­ty, the way the Holo­caust engulfed his fam­i­ly, the destruc­tion of the lib­er­al val­ues he asso­ci­at­ed with his country’s bet­ter nature — a par­tic­u­lar­ly poignant tragedy. 

From Two Roads Home: Hitler, Stal­in, and the Mirac­u­lous Sur­vival of My Fam­i­ly by Daniel Finkel­stein. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of Dou­ble­day, an imprint of the Knopf Dou­ble­day Pub­lish­ing Group, a divi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House LLC. Copy­right © 2023 by Daniel Finkelstein.

Pur­chase your copy of Two Roads Home: Hitler, Stal­in, and the Mirac­u­lous Sur­vival of My Fam­i­ly by Daniel Finkel­stein today.

Daniel Finkel­stein is a week­ly polit­i­cal colum­nist at The Times of Lon­don. For­mer­ly an advis­er to Prime Min­is­ter John Major, he was appoint­ed to the House of Lords in 2013. He recent­ly became a direc­tor of Chelsea Foot­ball Club. He is mar­ried with three chil­dren and lives in Pin­ner, a sub­urb of Lon­don. He is grand­son of Dr. Alfred Wiener, founder of the Wiener Library, the world’s old­est Holo­caust archive, where he is a patron.