Weimar Culture Revisited

Weimar Culture Revisited
Edited by John Alexander Williams
Palgrave Macmillan – £50.00

Most people in Germany, regardless of age, will always tell you that once you understand the Weimar Republic, it makes it a whole lot easier to understand the eventual evolution of the Third Reich and why Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. The background, the political turmoil, the anarchic society and the intrinsically alluring culture, all combined, as if an out of control, helter-skelter ride towards inevitable doom.

In expressionist art alone, how else could one interpret such inflammatory persuasion as that remarked upon as early as 1920, by the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, in the chapter ‘Revolution and the Weimar Avant-Garde’: ‘’Of course God has melted away into butter, of course the black marketer must traffic in his goods and there must be order [Ordnung muss sind (sic)], only this spirit, this art, this science: this bourgeois filth makes us puke.’’

If such is the language within the sphere of art, is it any wonder that the Berlin of the twenties was anything other than a formulaic contradiction in terms of chaos, cabaret and consistency?

Weimar Culture Revisited is a challenging, refreshing, and altogether welcome addition to the ever-increasing, literary spectacle of said period in German history. As Associate Professor at the Department of History at the State University of New York, Young-Sun Hong has written: ‘’This culturally-informed social history liberates the history of Weimar culture from those narratives of pessimism and crisis into which it has been shoehorned by the focus on canonical works of high culture and opens up new vistas that lead the reader in unexpected directions.’’

The ‘unexpected directions’ of the ten chapters herein, cover an array of highly controversial areas including the aforementioned ‘Revolution and the Avant-Garde: Contesting the Politics of Art, 1919-1924’ by Debbie Lewer, as well as: ‘Middle-Class Heroes: Anti-Nationalism in the Popular Adventure Films of the Weimar Republic’ by Ofer Ashkenazi, ‘How Can a War Be Holy? Weimar Attitudes Toward Eastern Spirituality’ by Tom Neuhaus and ‘Sweat Equity: Sports and the Self-Made German’ by Erik Jensen. These assorted, ultimately varying, polar directions, were surely a welcoming retreat from such embittered reportage as that in a 1920 edition of Allgemeine Arbeiter-Union (General Worker’s Union): ‘’The proletarian is the prole, the prole is to one man the uneducated, the mentally deficient, an object of pity, who could taste neither the caviar of the classics nor the differentiated sauces of the present; to the other man he is the muck-raker, rowdy and immoral, the cave-dweller and the uncivilized beast.’’

Do the words opinionated, myopic and perhaps slightly tempestuous leap forth here – or am I merely missing something?

It’s hardly surprising that the diversionary tactics of Weimar cinema was so popular; as Corey Ross makes clear in ‘Cinema, Radio, and ‘’Mass Culture’’ in the Weimar Republic: Between Shared Experience and Social Division’ – ‘’As the contemporary commentator Hans Ostwald remarked, the Flimmerkiste (flicks) were ‘’the best narcotic for many thousands who wanted to be transported away from the whirlwind for at least a couple of hours in the evening.’’ For many middle-class Germans who saw their savings and incomes wiped out, the cinema had become the only affordable place to escape. The renowned linguist Victor Klemperer, for instance, confided to his diary in 1922 that cinema had become ‘’a substitute for theatre, opera, concert, and travel.’’’’

Edited by John Alexander Williams, Weimar Culture Revisited is an occasionally dense, albeit colourful re-examination of one of the most acute and influential periods of twentieth century history. It doesn’t necessarily shed significant new light, but it does nevertheless, make for both powerful and provocative reading.

David Marx


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