Reporter leo lania is rediscovered: the wallraff of the 1920s

He investigated undercover, wrote against Hitler and fought for the right of journalists to refuse to testify. Now Leo Lania’s work is being rediscovered.

Leo Lania’s report, the "Hitler-Ludendorff Trial," marked the high point of one of the most brilliant journalistic careers of the Weimar Republic Photo: Imago/ZUMA/Keystone

In March 1933, the National Socialist Volkischer Beobachter published an inflammatory article entitled "The Jewish War Begins." It is a gruesome document of hatred directed against a single man: Leo Lania, the most influential Jewish journalist of the Weimar decade. He was the "tone-setting warrior of the Jewish army" and had declared war on the German people.

Adolf Hitler, already editor of the Volkischer Beobachter for more than 12 years, had only held all the strings of power since January 1933. However, he and his newspaper had been engaged in a personal feud with Lania since 1922. With a forged letter of recommendation from Benito Mussolin’s brother, the left-wing Lania had sneaked into the editorial offices for a week as an undercover reporter and won the trust of Hitler and Ernst Rohm. In the dark beer halls of Munich, he had been out with them at night, but when his cover crumbled, he had to flee headlong.

His subsequent report, the "Hitler-Ludendorff Trial," marked the climax of one of the most brilliant journalistic careers of the Weimar Republic.

Leo Lania, born Lazar Herman in Kharkiv in 1896, is largely forgotten today – unlike his colleagues Kurt Tucholsky and Egon Erwin Kisch. The Viennese publishing house Mandelbaum Verlag has now reappraised the work and life of the star reporter, journalist and theater director and, in addition to Michael Schwaiger’s extensive biography "Hinter der Fassade der Wirklichkeit" (Behind the Facade of Reality), has also reissued his most successful novel "Land des Zwielichts" (Land of Twilight). In it, the life of a man in a constant race against the threatening signs of the times unfolds, equipped with a remarkable moral compass and driven by the conviction that only democratic populism could defeat the demagogues of his day.

Endangered freedom of the press

In cultural life, Lania, hated by Hitler and praised by Lenin, takes a central role as a critical reporter. In the process, he fought for one of the cornerstones of German press freedom in a constant dispute with the Weimar authorities: the "Lex Lania," in a slightly modified form, still guarantees journalists their right to protect their sources in court today.

When the rising journalist Lania arrived in Berlin in 1921, two news agencies dominated the press: the nationalized "Wolffs Telegraphisches Buro" and the "Telegraphen-Union" (TU). In the turmoil of the post-war days, the national conservative industrial magnate and media mogul Alfred Hugenberg had then also bought the TU in order to use it to stock the thousands of local papers of the Weimar Republic. The editorial offices were still printing the TU’s pre-written columns and editorials when Hugenberg had long since become economics minister in Hitler’s first cabinet.

As Schwaiger, who has a doctorate on Lania, also traces in his biography: "Those who controlled the thousands of local papers were able to set themes and foment a climate of fear." At the Romanisches Cafe, Berlin’s leading intellectual meeting place, Lania spent nights discussing the endangered diversity of the press with U.S. journalists.

Then he saw the time to act had come: He founded his own news agency, the "International Telegraph Agency" (intel). He had no money, but he had good contacts among Berlin’s concierges. He persuaded one of them on Friedrichstrasse to lend him his telephone after sunset. Thus, late at night, Lania could get the news of the day ahead from his Viennese contacts and was one step ahead of his Berlin competitors. The Viennese editorial offices did not close until a few hours after the Berliners.

In New York, Lania develops his idea of democratic populism

"The intel started with a staff of six people: Director, Editor, Telephonist, Secretary, Stenographer and Messenger Boy," Lania describes the project in his autobiography. "The six people were really only one: me."

He worked to exhaustion, writing the news at night and delivering it in the morning to his Berlin subscribers, mainly the Social Democratic press. Then, unexpectedly, the "intel" died in 1923 from the greatest epidemic of its day: hyperinflation. On November 11, 1923, the exchange rate peaked at 631 billion marks to one U.S. dollar. Lania had to give up. The battle against the printing presses of the Hugenberg empire seemed lost for the time being, even though the left-liberal Weltbuhne, for which Lania also wrote, continued to call vehemently for the "fall of King Hugenberg.

He devoted himself entirely to his reportage from the Weimar underworld. Undercover research at the Volkischer Beobachter enabled him to penetrate deep into the details of an upcoming putsch. In November 1923, the time had come; nearly 2,000 National Socialists, led by Hitler and former General Ludendorff, attempted to overthrow the state government in Munich. The Weimar Republic was still able to put Hitler in his place: He was arrested and, in a spectacular court case, sentenced to five years in prison, of which he served nine months.

Between the jingling of orders and his own politics

Lania’s court report, the "Hitler-Ludendorff Trial," is now finally available again in complete form in the journal Schreibheft (issue 87). It is a grotesque picture of the cynical conspirators predicting their own politics between the jingling of their orders. These frustrated ex-generals also gave Lania access to the Republic’s illegal arms market.

The Versailles Treaty of 1919 had not only blamed the Germans for the war, but also prescribed demilitarization. The black market was boiling – and the traces led Lania from the paramilitary National Socialist milieu to the highest government circles. His months of research in the "jungle of volkisch gangsterism," as he described it years later in exile, resulted in the 1924 research volume "Rifles on the Move."

This time, the outcry goes beyond the Republic abroad. An indictment for treason led to a wave of solidarity among the press and left-wing parties, which ultimately resulted in the "Lex Lania". In a slightly modified form, it still allows journalists to refuse to testify in court for professional reasons – in Lania’s case, to protect an informant.

But Lania, at the height of his career, came under increasing pressure in Berlin as the National Socialists triumphed. In the fall of 1932, a few months before the seizure of power, he left the country for good.

Victim of a bankrupt world

His 1934 novel Land im Zwielicht was written in exile. It follows the Jewish World War II soldier Kurt Rosenberg and the refugee daughter Esther Mendel into the decline of the Weimar Republic. Both protagonists are driven by the awareness of being part of "a generation that had not yet discovered night culture, but for whom death was no longer a secret, simultaneously rushed forward and pushed back, victims of a bankrupt world that did not want to admit its collapse at any price".

The fact that Lania’s linguistically powerful pathos seems overly moralizing in places is probably due to the circumstances of its writing. Nevertheless, the novel remains a brilliant insight into the disorientation of the postwar generation. Lania suspected that the nightly Charleston in the disinhibited bars of Berlin, between political assassinations and the daily gnawing inflation, was a dance into the abyss.

Six years after the British one, a German edition of "Land im Zwielicht" finally appeared. Lania was now living in New York and working in the "Office of War Information," the U.S. propaganda office. There he further developed his idea of democratic populism. This was to mobilize European youth against the backsliding after the war.

Although he remained pessimistic after the end of the war, he met someone in New York whom he trusted with this democratic populism: Willy Brandt. He ghostwrote his autobiography, "The Road to Berlin." It is also Lania’s path back to Berlin. When Leo Lania died of a heart attack in Munich in 1961, Brandt arranged for a grave of honor in Berlin-Zehlendorf.

It is a great good fortune that the Schreibheft and Mandelbaum Verlag are now making this work available to the public again.

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