The Weimar Republic was an extremely complex and diverse place throughout the entirety of the interwar years. The society and the culture that the Weimar created had several different facets and frontiers according to how one chooses to approach it. The fundamental themes of the period evolve around Political conflict, economic instability, social unrest and diverse ideologies.
In relation to this essay I shall be focusing my attention on the latter themes, as I believe that the determinants of social unrest and conflicting ideologies are paramount when investigating the social and cultural development of the Weimar Republic.
There is little doubt that pre-war and post-war German societies were very different. Prior to the Great War, under an autocratic regime, the innovative intellectuals within society felt that the institution oppressed their views and creative instinct.
In contrast, post World War one Germany brought with it an extremely diverse and radical culture. It is with the benefit of hindsight that it becomes apparent that this period was an opportunity for those pioneering modernists to sow their ideology in fertile lands.
Those observers who nostalgically refer to the Weimar years as the ‘Golden Twenties’ are clearly not referring to the socio-economic distresses of the period. Instead, as Eberhard Kolb expresses they are referring to “The eruption of new vitality, the liberation of creative forces in a short decade of unbound intellectual and artistic freedom.” (1)
In the immediate post War years rapid ideological change and economic development were evident throughout most of Western Europe. The reason why I believe that so much impetus was apparent in Germany was because the country as a whole was starting from a blank canvas. The conclusion of the War had led to the creation of the Weimar Republic, and with it democracy for the first time in German history. These factors provided the German people with the opportunity to start afresh, to create and mould a society that they would choose to be apart of.
It may be argued that the Weimar Republic was fundamentally flawed from its birth, or that diverse political and economic problems led to its downfall. Either judgment has been discredited amongst contemporary historians.
In my opinion one issue that cannot be discredited, and has withstood much scrutiny over the years, is the lasting ideological and cultural legacy that Weimar Germany left behind. In terms of cultural initiative and diversity, the Weimar Republic was without doubt one of the most advanced and modern countries in interwar Europe.
An example of this can be seen by the emergence and development of the new art scene in Weimar Germany, it was symbolic of the way many Germans had adopted a fresh innovative mindset.
John Willett declared, “It was those fifteen years between nineteen-eighteen and nineteen-thirty-three which saw the fiercest, most concentrated and least one sided contest between the modern movement in the arts and the primitive conservative resents with which it has long had to contend.”(2)
A number of intellectuals wasted no time in airing their views publicly. They gathered in the Reichstag on the same day the Weimar was proclaimed and demanded the abolition of all academic institutions and the nationalisation of all theatres, they declared, “Art should be brought to the people, and the world should be changed through art.” (3)
This declaration was the first stage of an art-based revolution that took the Weimar Republic by storm. Paul Bookbinder is of the opinion that, “Weimar Germany was on the cutting edge of developments in visual arts, architecture, theatre, literature and film.” (4)
It was through such cutting edge developments that legitimised the Weimar Republic’s dramatic rise to the capital of European culture.
A key figure that was instrumental in creating the ideology of the ‘Weimar culture’ was Walter Gropius. It was he who was the pioneering influence behind the creation of the ‘Bauhaus’. Gropius set out to train artists and craftsmen together in a single school (Bauhaus) directed by an architect. At the time it was seen as a novel and new way to break from the conventional kind of academic training which taught students to become “little Raphael’s and pattern designers.”(5)
Gropius condoned his pioneering strategy by stating, “The Bauhaus has quite consciously aimed to replace the principle of the division of labour by returning to collaborative work in which the creative process is perceived to be an indivisible whole.” (6)
Throughout the early years of the Weimar Republic the Bauhaus gained in popularity and notoriety. Willett believed that the creation of the Bauhaus revolutionised design practice and art teaching throughout the western world. It was quite simply a revolutionary initiative that Gropius had established, and was endemic of the prevailing changes in German culture.
The fundamental problems that were apparent within Weimar society started to infect and spread throughout Bauhaus ideology. It became a battleground for conflicting ideas of progress. The vigour with which each new concept was greeted at the expense of its predecessor ultimately weakened and crippled the Bauhaus initiative.
The fact that in a short period of time and in the face of adversity, Gropius’s ideology was allowed to develop and spread throughout Europe, this proves to me that Weimar culture was provocative and contagious in stages, but overall it was fundamentally radical and groundbreaking.
Walter Laqueur proclaims that a real representative of the spirit of the Weimar Republic was Thomas Mann. Mann faced what became known as the political dilemma of the Weimar intellectual. He had to choose between his conservative past and the liberal present. Mann was a monarchist prior to World War One, and a commonsense republican after it. In the middle of the nineteen-twenties Mann finally made a genuine commitment and with it an unbelievable contribution to the Weimar Republic, as in nineteen twenty-four he published Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). This publication thrust Mann into the spotlight. Not only was he Weimar Germany’s most creative writer, but he also became a symbol of the Republican culture throughout Europe.
Thomas Mann was without doubt a by-product of the literary freedom that the Weimar culture promoted. I believe that if it was not for the advancement of Weimar society Mann’s works may never have reached the acclaim to which they are now held throughout the world.
One of Weimar Germany’s most notable Socio-cultural advancements was seen in the reinvigoration of the theatre. Expressionist plays by Ernst Toller and George Kaiser to name just a couple became a national institution. Kolb declares that they were followed with an “Intensity that can scarcely be imagined today.”(7)
The outside world watched Germany develop into a world theatrical metropolis. It had the most influential producers, the most renowned actors and the most knowledgeable audiences. During the early Weimar years the most prestigious theatrical productions were conveyed in Germany, and Germany alone.
One of the major reasons for the overwhelming support of the arts in Weimar Republic was the fact that they had always been decentralised since her unification. Due to this historical dimension, the cultural modernisation of the Weimar Republic was not confined to Berlin. Its origins spread throughout the nation, even to the smaller provinces.
The experience of the Great War and the unsettled years that followed was not unique to Germany. All over Europe an entire generation of creative and receptive people had been deeply affected by the travesty.
In the immediate post-war years Hungary and Russia followed a similar cultural and development path to Weimar Germany. The hopes of some of the artistic forms of the revolutionary movement seemed “almost as high-flown during the first months of the Weimar as in Russia or Soviet Hungary around the same time.”(8)
Further weight can be added to this claim with the above countries sharing similar cultural manifestations. Mass theatre and a viable attempt at a ‘Proletarian culture’ was the underlying theme in all three countries. The above detail helped create a sense of solidarity between the artistic avant-gardes in all three regions.
The question of why neither Russia nor Hungary followed Weimar Germany’s example in becoming one of the most advanced cultures in Europe is a complex issue. The simplest explanation would follow along the lines that, after their original avant-garde similarities the uniqueness and pragmatism of the revolutionary process led the nations to differing ideologies and political systems. It is quite apparent that the systems adopted by Russia and Hungary did not promote and develop the creative spirit that was so vital in Weimar society.
The direction that the arts took during the Stresemann years stir up much debate amongst avid historians. Contemporaries such as Laqueur believe that the Dawes plan brought a level of economic stabilisation that derailed the expressionist movement. He states that, “The repercussions were felt in literature. Language became unecstatic, the treatment of subjects realistic, there was no longer an overwhelming desire to break away from old forms”. (9)
I personally disagree with Laqueur’s judgement. The economic revival that took place following the influx of American loans could only have assisted the arts movement. Surely Germany was receiving the best of both worlds; radical solutions supported by a reputable level of wealth. In cultural terms, this allowed for further expansion in architecture, theatre and opera.
If indeed any of the radical impetus behind the arts movement waned during the middle years of the Weimar, the improvements in social welfare during this period more that made up for it.
The Weimar Republic inherited a severe housing shortage of approximately one million homes from the previous regime. Once the inflationary period had stagnated the government took the drastic measure to apply a fifteen percent rent tax as of nineteen twenty-four. The revenues from this policy would be relocated and ploughed into a strategy of mass construction.
In my humble opinion, this policy witnessed the most profound socio-economic success of the Weimar regime. By means of planned states support, eighty-one percent of the two point eight million houses built between nineteen-nineteen and nineteen thirty-two were in part publicly financed.
I think it is fair to say that the economic re-housing policy that was implemented by the Weimar government endorsed and legitimised the German assent in becoming one of the most advanced, and more predominantly, a modern countries in Europe.
Kolb furthers my analysis by proclaiming that, “Housing may be regarded as the sector in which Weimar policy brought lasting results for large sectors of the population, which were visible to all and also served as a model in foreign countries.”(10)
The creation of a mass culture was most definitely triggered by the invention of mass media. In the inter-war years the Weimar press expanded rapidly and began to develop and produce new forms of literature and broadcasting mediums. Willet states that the broadcasting medium’s of the period “Retain a certain freshness due to the relative newness of the media in which they were conveyed, photo journalism, the documentary cinema, broadcasting and sound recording, all of which were being developed by some highly original talents.”(11)
It was the cinema that prospered most and developed to meteoric levels throughout the Weimar years. Kolb estimates that in the mid nineteen-twenties, two million people went to the cinema daily, and in Berlin alone forty million tickets were sold in just nineteen twenty-four. Cinema became a key tool in creating modern day icons and creating mass ideology. Peter Lorre reminisces about Fritz Lang’s film M “As he peers at the mark on his back.”(12) And Marlene Dietrich’s “swinging legs in the blue angel.”(13)
It was outrageous images such as these that intrigued the German public, and turned certain cast members into overexposed icons. The deeper associations connected with modern day film enhanced the long-term appeal of such productions, There radical edge has given them longevity to this day.
By the end of the nineteen twenties Germany had assembled the most cinemas of any European country. Added to this the fact, by nineteen thirty Weimar Germany created and produced more films than all other European countries together.
This indicates to me that a civilised and intellectual culture was evident in the inter-war years, and also that Germany was at the forefront of advancements in media productions.
It has to be noted that although Weimar society might have developed into one of the most advanced and modern countries in Europe, It was never a united state.
What some people saw as the expansion of horizons and the breaking of outworn imperial ties, others, namely traditionalists saw it as unwanted decadence and a shift away from traditional Germany. This increased the deep-rooted antagonism towards the Republic within the conservative and nationalist clique.
Throughout its lifespan the Weimar Republic contained a society marked simultaneous by change and an inability to adapt to the change. It was the tension between the structures and ideology inherited from imperial Germany and the new age modernism that was evident in the immediate post-war years, that promoted such intense levels of artistic freedom. It became ironic that the very factors that contributed to the advancement of German culture also ultimately led to the downfall of the regime. While the revolutionary attitude of the period combined with political instability created the perfect ambience and setting for cultural diversity to prosper. It only heaped further socio-economic pressures on an already fading Weimar government.
Henry Pachter said in an autobiographical fragment, “It is a matter of historical injustice to say that, for all its shortcoming, the Weimar Republic was one of the freest states that ever existed, that it afforded the working classes greater opportunities for collective improvement than any other European state at the time.” (14)
The legacy of the republic will live on for many generations. It says much for the Weimar culture and its search for fresh horizons that from nineteen forty-five to the present day the majority of new artistic ideas and forms have deep routed origins in the nineteen twenties period.
To conclude, by means of the evidence I have brought to light in my essay it would be extremely naï¿½ve of any observer to discredit the cultural impact that the Weimar years had on European ideology. Laqueur is of the opinion that “As one of the main cradles of cultural modernism its place in history is certain.” (15)
There is little doubt in my mind that despite its all too obvious political and economic failings, in terms of society and culture the people of the Weimar Republic had the privilege to be apart of one of the most advanced and modern countries in Europe.
1. H. Mommsen, The rise and fall of Weimar democracy (1996).
2. I. Kershaw (ed.), Weimar: Why Did German Democracy fail? (1990).
3. E. Kolb, The Weimar Republic.
4. K. Bullivant (ed.), Culture and Society in the Weimar Republic (1977).
5. J. Willett, The Weimar years: a culture cut short (1984).
6. P. Bookbinder, Weimar Germany.
7. W. Laqueur, Weimar, a cultural history, 1918-33, (New York, 1974).
8. R. Bessel and E.J. Feuchtwanger(eds.), Social change and political development in Weimar Germany (1981).
9. T. Elsaesser, Weimar cinema and after: Germany’s historical imaginary (2000).
10. E. Eyck, A History Of The Weimar Republic, (Oxford, 1962).
11. T. Elsaesser, Metropolis (2000).
(1) E. Kolb, The Weimar Republic, p. 83.
(2) J. Willett, The Weimar years: a culture cut short (1984), p. 7.
(3) W. Laqueur, Weimar, a cultural history, 1918-33, (New York, 1974), p. 110.
(4) P. Bookbinder, Weimar Germany, p. 250.
(5) P. Bookbinder, Weimar Germany, p. 254
(6) W. Gropius, ‘Bauhaus Memorandum’, (Weimar, Feb 3rd, 1922), in Whitford (ed.), p. 134.
(7) E. Kolb, The Weimar Republic, p. 86.
(8) J. Willett, The Weimar years: a culture cut short (1984), p. 9.
(9) W. Laqueur, Weimar, a cultural history, 1918-33, (New York, 1974), p. 137
(10) E. Kolb, The Weimar Republic, p. 90.
(11) J. Willett, The Weimar years: a culture cut short (1984), p. 7
(12) J. Willett, The Weimar years: a culture cut short (1984), p. 7
(13) J. Willett, The Weimar years: a culture cut short (1984), p. 7
(14) H. Pachter, Weimar Etudes, (New York, 1982), p. 91
(15) W. Laqueur, Weimar, a cultural history, 1918-33, (New York, 1974), p. 277.