Weimar: A Cultural History by Walter Laqueur. 308 pp. Perigree, 1974 .
The four note motif running through the chorus of The Threepenny Opera’s ‘Barbara Song’ is a crowded bunch of notes – it moves like a dancer stepping on his own toes – and seems to be just about the most cynical, corrupt, sleazy and sexually knowing four-note motif in music.
“Nice chaps” who knew “how to treat a girl with due respect” once tried to court the young Polly Peachum. But Polly was armed with a code of chaste behaviour that, in Joanna von Koczian’s 1958 performance, is explained first with a facetious tone of wide-eyed sincerity and then, in the next chorus, with a shocking cynical cackle:
Ja, da kann man sich doch nicht nun hinlegen!
Ja, da muß man kalt und herzlos sein.
Ja, da könnte so viel geschehen,
Ja, da gibt’s überhaupt nun: Nein.
(Oh, you can’t lie back, you must stay cold at heart!
Oh you must not let your feelings show.
Oh, whenever you feel it might start,
Ah, then your only answer’s: No.)
Dropping the punchline to her hilariously sick joke, Polly reveals to her horrified parents the reason why this code has allowed her to be seduced by the murderous criminal Macheath (aka Mac the Knife): he was “someone who didn’t ask at all…as he’d no idea of treating a girl with due respect, I could not tell him ‘No.’”
[The 'Barbara Song' performed by Joanna von Koczian.]
Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s vision of Victorian Soho – a doppelgänger for Berlin of the nineteen-twenties – is totally corrupt. Polly’s father Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum is an entrepreneur who supplies to the city’s beggars costumes and prosthetics “that will touch the hardest of hearts.” Macheath’s best friend is the Police Sheriff Tiger Brown. This crooked pair remember army days in India in the ‘Cannon Song’:
If it should rain one night
And they should chance to sight
Pallid or swarthy faces
Of uncongenial races
They’ll maybe chop them up to make some beefsteak tartare!
Here we have the Weimar Republic as it is lodged in the popular imagination: a place of sexual debauchery, poverty, corruption, violence and decadence. The idea of decadence – not just in the moral sense, but also in the sense of the end of civilisation, a doom – was of course prominent on both right and left amid the political and economic shambles of postwar Germany; according to Walter Laqueur in his Weimar: A Cultural History, it was a sense of finis Germaniae. But surely this sense of doom is also a retrospective attribution on our part; Weimar culture is coloured by our knowledge of the horror that was to totally destroy it.
The period left behind a mass of cultural relics, much of it still vital: The Magic Mountain (1924), The Threepenny Opera (1928), Metropolis (1927) and M (1931), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), the work of Kokoschka and Kandinsky. The Weimar settings of films such as Cabaret (1972, based on Christopher Isherwood’s wonderful Sally Bowles stories), Woody Allen’s Shadows and Fog (1992), even Ingmar Bergman’s maligned Serpent’s Egg (1978), as well as the performances of cabaret revival singers like Ute Lemper, have maintained the milieu in the public imagination.
Walter Laqueur calls Weimar “the first truly modern culture”. His book covers the establishment of the Republic after World War I; the intellectual hostility to the Republic from both the factional idealistic left and the chauvenistic idealistic right; novels, plays, music, art and architecture; university life; operetta, coffeehouses, cinema, jazz and cabarets. Of course “as much a part of the Zeitgeist as the Bauhaus, The Magic Mountain, Professor Heidegger and Dr Caligari,” writes Laqueur, “[were] knickerbockers (even Thomas Mann wore them), mass tourism, the growth of department-stores, the death mask of l’Inconnue de la Seine, the hit songs of the period, occultism, nudism, the immense impact of radio and the cinema.”
To the left intellectuals, the democratic Weimar consitution did not compare to their utopian vision of society and had to be scorned. As in many other countries, the left was viciously factional and hence politically ineffective. Inevitably there was much hatred and squabbling between the communists and the Social Democrats.
On the other hand, the right intellectuals (they resented the description) viewed the new constitution as an unpatriotic insult and Weimar culture as decadence and degenerancy: kulturbolschewismus (cultural Bolshevism). This was a vague term “assuming in all earnest that Dada, Brecht’s refrain Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral [“Feed us before you preach to us”], or Walter Mehring’s Merchant of Berlin represented the aesthetic theory and the moral philosophy of Marxism-Leninism.” In reality the contemporaneous Soviet attitude to the arts was equally anti-Modern (this was the period of girl-meets-tractor socialist realism). But Laqueur concludes that these intellectuals ultimately played little part in the rise of the Nazi thugs. The Nazis were bluntly anti-intellectual.
According to Laqueur Berlin was not the sole cultural locus of Weimar Germany. Frankfurt, Munich, Dresden, Hamburg, Breslau and Leipzig were each major centres for arts and ideas. And German literature at the time had “no spiritual or geographical centre” – not even, as might be expected, at the famous Romanische Café in Berlin which is evoked as a “literary caravanserai” populated by school reformers, revolutionaries, thieves, junkies, vegetarians, and the salonkommunisten, a group that included such fascinating characters as the great Dada satirist and painter Georg Grosz.
Terrace of the Romanische Café, Berlin (Photo: H. Hoffmann)
Laqueur puts the great Thomas Mann in the category of ‘Republican Classics,’ those who were “real representatives of the spirit of the new Republic.” Mann was a bürger, “a conservative socialist in politics, a conservative innovator in literature,” who did not assume the role of “educator or prophet.” Major writers of the 1920s included Stefan George and Hermann Hesse, but those who best captured the zeitgeist were Heinrich Mann (elder brother of Thomas), Jakob Wassermann, Alfred Döblin (whose Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) is “unrivalled in world literature as a symphony of big city life”), Arnold Zweig, Leonard Frank, and Lion Feuchtwanger.
But it was the stage that was most expressive of the spirit of the age: most notably in the productions of Max Reinhardt, as well as Reinhardt’s antithesis Leopold Jessner and the proletarian theatre impresario Erwin Piscator.
Bertolt Brecht – “anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment, anti-respectability” and for all his Marxism “basically not a political animal” – wrote Baal (1923), In The Jungle of Cities (1923) and with Kurt Weill the very successful Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny (1930). Laqueur is somewhat puzzled by Brecht’s impact and endurance: he feels the plays are inconsistent in quality, and Brecht’s idea of “Non-Aristotelean epic theatre,” which was “meant to show man not just in his individuality but in his dependence on society,” did not take off. Laqueur’s praise goes to Carl Zuckmayer’s obscure comedy The Captain of Köpenick (1931).
On the limitations of looking to literature to explain Weimar, Laqueur concludes: “It is possible to understand the spirit of the twenties without George, Hesse, The Magic Mountain; it cannot be understood without reference to the mood of the survivors of Langemark, Verdun and the Somme.”
Although we tend to associate Weimar with the apex of the Expressionist movement, “periods of cultural history hardly ever coincide with those of political history,” Laqueur explains. “Roughly speaking, the great break with cultural tradition occurred, in Germany as elsewhere, between 1905 and 1914.”
Expressionism, as defined by Laqueur:
…totally rejected aesthetic standards: the painters were fascinated by ugliness; the composers threw harmony overboard, gradually moving towards dissonance; the poets and playwrights were preoccupied by the madness of great cities, parenticide and rats emerging from rotting corpses…underlying all this was the wish to shock a self-satisfied, satiated world and the artists’ enemies, which included the state, the middle classes, the philistines and authority in general…Beauty was a lie, ugliness was true, because it depicted man in all his weakness and spiritual poverty. The purpose of art was not to cater to aesthetic taste but to give expression to the most basic religious, individual and social experiences.
Laqueur considers it “a movement in the Romantic tradition, perhaps the most extreme form of Romanticism that ever existed.”
Germany had world-class orchestras and conductors such as Furtwangler, Klemperer, Walter, Kleiber, Toscanini. But musical revolution had occured before the war in Vienna and Paris: Debussy’s impressionism, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Schönberg’s atonality. By the time of the Republic even Richard Strauss was a “classic rather than a revolutionary.”
Likewise with visual art: the most important artists of the Weimar period had already exhibited before the war. The Dresden group Die Brücke (centred around Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, Ludwig Kirchner and Emile Nolde) painted ambivalent city scenes that reflected the same malaise as the Expressionist poets. But after 1913 the group split and the Expressionist mode was to diminish, particularly in the work of Schmidt-Rottluff and Heckel. Still, the work of alumni of Die Brücke as well as that of Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Carl Hofer, Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and (not mentioned by Laqueur) George Scholz has left a remarkable imaginative vision of the Weimar era:
Georg Grosz, Suicide, 1926
Otto Dix, The Salon 1, 1921
Georg Scholz, Self-Portrait before an Advertisement Pillar, 1926
The circus and carnival world had its fascination for artists such as Max Beckmann:
Max Beckmann, Carnival (Fastnacht), 1920
Then there is the real avant garde:
Wassily Kandinsky, White Cross, 1922
The working class never took to this avant garde; as Paul Klee said, “Un trägt kein Volk” (“We are not rooted in the people and are not supported by it”). Modern art, particularly work by Kandinsky and Klee, was denounced by critics as “gangsterism, un-German, a ferment of decomposition, Bolshevist.” But the greatest attacks were aimed at modern architecture, particularly towards Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus school. Ironically, it was this architecture that became Weimar Germany’s most enduring legacy in the rest of the world.
Why was Weimar Germany such a dynamic place for the arts? Laqueur concludes that the Weimar era had “an abundance of talent as well as of sources of conflict, combined with the political freedom which made experimentation possible.” Weimar: A Cultural History is a useful cultural survey of an era in twentieth century history that inevitably continues to fascinate.
[I have quoted from both the Desmond I. Vesey/Eric Bentley and Ralph Mannheim/John Willett English translations of The Threepenny Opera. The Otto Dix and Georg Scholz paintings are from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s website. The Georg Grosz painting is from an online article by Mario Vargas Llosa.]
[Postscript 7 March 2008: Eric Hobsbawm's essay on his youth in Weimar Germany appeared on the London Review of Books website on 24 January. It is much recommended. Hobsbawm in turn praises Eric D. Weitz's recent book Weimar: Promise and Tragedy.]