Reviewed by Ulf Zimmermann (Department of Political Science and International Affairs, Kennesaw State University)
Published on H-German (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
A Magic Mountain?
Eric Weitz's one-volume historical treatment of Weimar Germany's politics and culture makes a welcome edition to the English-language literature that traverses the terrain covered in Peter Gay's Weimar Culture (1968) and Walter Laqueur's Weimar: A Cultural History, 1918-1933 (1974). Weitz covers this difficult material in nine chapters, sandwiched between a brief introduction and conclusion. In the introduction, Weitz notes that there was absolutely no "societal consensus on how to move forward" but nonetheless the republic was able to achieve monumental progress toward a more humane state (p. 2). Acknowledging that similar things happened in every European country, he contends, "there was something particularly intense and concentrated about the German experience in these years" (p. 2). Weitz proceeds thematically rather than chronologically, an approach that produces a number of interesting juxtapositions and conclusions. Though he cannot provide a definitive explanation of why Weimar gave rise to such an amazing panoply of different cultural expressions, his examples, which range from the well known to the obscure, give an excellent sense of the age.
In 1918, Germany had lost the war, with profound consequences. Officially, the country had been democratized, but the old social order remained intact. The center of gravity had shifted to the cities but this shift was unwelcome to the traditional elite, which responded by uniting with other opponents of the new regime. In chapter 1, "A Troubled Beginning," Weitz discusses the changes the war brought. Huge numbers of women entered the workforce; they gained some autonomy, but at the same time, they had lost their men. He illustrates this loss poignantly with Käthe Kollwitz's Pietà (1938), which commemorates the loss of her only son. Weitz sums up a resulting more general change in Weimar society: "[a]n intense desire to grasp life in all its manifold dimensions, to experience love, sex, beauty, and power, fast cars and airborne flight, theater and dance crazes, arose out of the strong sense of the ephemeral character of life, of lives so quickly snuffed out or forever ruined by bullet wounds or gas attacks" (p. 3). The war had also destroyed "conventional notions of respectability and faith in authority. This was, after all, a war instigated by the elites of Germany and Europe" (p. 3). Weitz shows them most graphically pilloried by Georg Grosz. The various artistic trends in Weimar had started before the war, but the war and ensuing democratization caused them to reach entirely new breadths, depths, and intensities. Such hyperactive engagement, Weitz rightly stresses, affected ordinary people, as attested by an unprecedented degree of political participation.
In chapter 2, "Walking the City," Weitz takes the reader on a tour of the metropolis most associated in our minds with this period. A pivotal economic center, Berlin attracted an increasingly cosmopolitan population. Walking the city and seeing its developing architecture gave one a sense of the new "modernity," as he illustrates with Erich Mendelsohn's Columbus-Haus (1928-32) and with the endless plate-glass window displays of the older shopping emporiums Wertheim and Tietz, which made the street safe for women to walk alone. From the city center, one could take advantage of an expanding network of mass transit to a new suburban apartment, built by notables like Bruno Taut.
In chapter 3, "Political Worlds," Weitz depicts the first true "mass" politics, made possible by the new media--radio, photography, microphones, and film. All of these carried political (and other) information to all corners of the country and were exploited most successfully by the Nazis. He also addresses another institutional flaw that worked to the far Right's advantage; the refusal of the courts to punish rightist political assassins. Quoting Walter Rathenau in the title of chapter 4, "Economy is Destiny," Weitz outlines the relationship of the political end of Weimar Germany and its economic decline. After turbulence and anxiety at the beginning of the period, Weitz notes, the inflation wiped out much of the middle class. The emergence of profiteers facilitated the scapegoating of the Jews. The industrial modernization that made mass production and consumption possible also in the end produced mass unemployment, exceeding, at 40 percent, even that in United States. As he concludes, constant turmoil can make people all too susceptible to facile solutions.
In chapter 5, "Building a New Germany," Weitz assesses the new architecture more closely. Like some of the new art, it began in romantic expressionism but soon adapted itself to the sober reality of housing masses of people. He traces this transformation adroitly via another of Mendelsohn's buildings, the earlier "Einstein Tower" (1920-21). Housing projects--mostly apartments--were more modestly functional, but architects like Taut and Martin Wagner emphasized efficiency as well as equality, with windows allowing light in everywhere. Chapter 6, "Sound and Image," treats the similarly functioning and democratizing radio and photo technology, which became instantly popular in the 1920s. Weitz uses the work of László Moholy-Nagy and August Sander to illustrate the respective abstract and documentary art forms photography could produce. He recalls the early high points of film reached in Weimar and offers an exemplary snapshot of the creative exports it would produce: Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann had all worked on Menschen am Sonntag (1930) in Berlin before becoming Hollywood greats. The enhancement of phonographs and radios with electric amplifiers and speakers allowed listeners freedom to be almost anywhere to hear a concert or a political tirade. This new relationship raised not only academic questions (are films and recordings art?) but also "moral" ones (isn't it a little dangerous to have all these people sitting together, so democratically in the dark?). These problems exercised the conservative imagination and instigated the "Schmutz and Schund" legislation of 1926, which Weitz appropriately marks as the beginning of the end for Weimar.
In chapter 7, "Culture and Mass Society," Weitz provides the obligatory treatment of the authors of Die Dreigroschenoper (1928). He also treats others, however, like Siegfried Krakauer, who exemplifies the new opportunities the Weimar Republic could afford even a lower middle-class Jewish boy, and philosophers like Martin Heidegger, who demonstrates once again that even brilliant thinking does not necessarily guarantee good judgment. Weitz has done best here, though, by singling out Hannah Höch, whose photomontages made patently visible the racism and sexism that ruled all too rampantly toward the end of the era.
In chapter 8, "Bodies and Sex," Weitz shows more specifically the new seize-the-day attitude that the war experience and the general relaxation of sexual attitudes had encouraged. Sex reformers saw their efforts as part of the larger democratization, and they found support for their activities at the mostly SPD-run municipal level. The occurrence of a sexual revolution, Weitz notes, is substantiated by the eighty to ninety million new condoms that were now sold every year. The churches were, of course, virulently opposed to all "radical" socialism and individualism, but the "new woman" came under special attack, since she personified to them the breakdown of traditional society and its values. Weitz aptly concludes, "[s]exually emancipated women, Jewish businessmen, communist revolutionaries--all rolled into one, the nightmare vision of the Right" (p. 329). Chapter 9, "Revolution and Counterrevolution from the Right," traces that reaction. Thinkers like Oswald Spengler, who had amalgamated socialism and nationalism, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who had conjured a "Third Reich," deplored the urban spirit and made the National Socialists salonfähig with their ostentatious rhetoric. The Nazis used this rhetoric and "formed Germany's first Volkspartei, that is, a people's party with members from all across the social spectrum" (p. 343). The Nazis were by far the best organized of the right-wing parties of the age. They successfully portrayed themselves as the party of law and order by putting down the very disorder its members themselves fomented.
In the conclusion, Weitz reiterates his earlier contention that "it is impossible ever 'to prove' why, at a particular time and place, a culture flourishes" and that "there are no definitive answers to the question of why this particular moment, this particular place, proved so creative" (p. 362). He may be right, although other authors have made more explicit attempts. For instance, Roger Shattuck answered a similar question about "the origins of the avant-garde in France" in The Banquet Years (1968). Such questions may also be amenable to quantitative analysis, as Weitz hints via the data on voter participation and condoms he cites. Richard Florida also demonstrated such approaches with his discussion of a "creative class" in connection with "creative" cities, while Peter Hall has linked a whole series of explosively creative eras with cities, including "Berlin 1840-1930" as "the pioneer technopolis."
Finally, I was surprised at Weitz's decision to use Thomas Mann and The Magic Mountain (1924) to represent Weimar Germany because there are more emblematic texts of the era. One thinks of Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), Erich Kästner's Fabian (1931), Hans Fallada's Kleiner Mann--was nun? (1932), Vicki Baum's Menschen im Hotel (1929), Irmgard Keun's Das kunstseidene Mädchen (1932), and even Hermann Hesse's Der Steppenwolf (1927), which speaks to human alienation in modern cities. Even so, given the recent surfeit of publications on Weimar Germany (and Berlin), Weitz has done a fine job of integrating much of this material (highlighted in a short bibliographic essay) into a fresh new synthesis. His particularly judicious selection of illustrations--color plates and black and white--makes the volume a well-rounded resource for students and scholars alike.
. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002); Richard Florida, Cities and the Creative Class (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization (New York: Pantheon, 1998).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Ulf Zimmermann. Review of Weitz, Eric, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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