By Sarah Zama
Sarah Zama, who writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2018 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of inter war Germany over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. First up the entries for A, B and C.
At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ends. Germany signs an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiégne, France. It should have been the end of the Great War. It was in fact the beginning of more troubled times.
In January of that year, US President Woodrow Wilson wrote a document in fourteen points which he hoped could be the base for a peace treaty. He foreshadowed the birth of the League of Nations, a brotherhood of European nations that would foster understanding and hopefully prevent the breaking of another war. It stated the self-determination of all European countries and lay the ideas for an agreement between enemies after the war.
When the war ended, Germany was greatly destabilized, both politically and socially. Crown Prince Max von Baden persuaded Keiser Wilhelm to abdicate. But when his attempt to turn the Empire into a parliamentary monarchy failed, he placed the power in the hands of the SPD, the largest German party. He knew a drastic change was necessary because the Empire was always going to be seen as the instigator of a horrible war. But all his good-will was doomed to fail.
The declaration that the war had ended, with the acknowledgement that Germany had lost – while the population had been led to believe a victory was only a matter of time – caused rebellion and fight all over the country and a hasty declaration of a new political entity: The Weimar Republic.
These revolutionary events and the changing of government prevented Germany from actually participate in the Armistice discussion. But Germany knew of Wilson’s document, and when her representatives joined the Armistice congress, they expected the treaty to be along the same lines. They also hoped the new political entity would gain a more favourable agreement. After all, it wasn’t the republic who first entered the war.
It was not to be.
WWI had been too horrible a war, an unthinkable carnage that no one had ever foreseen coming. All nations had suffered. Germany too. But she was the one who had attacked Belgium and France, which was what had effectively initiated the conflict. And now she was on the loser’s side, cut off from all agreements. A few of the Allies – France first of all having suffered the most damage – were less than willing to give Germany any opportunity to raise its head again.
The Weimar Republic went to the Armistice meeting thinking the aim was – as it had been for one hundred years – to find a new balance that they would have negotiated. But the Allies didn’t want a new balance. They wanted to be sure a new Great War never happened again.
Many of the provisions of the Armistice – and later the Treaty of Versailles – rested on the ‘Guilt Clause’, the idea that the Great War was to be blamed on Germany alone. German people never accepted it. They blamed the republic for accepting that clause. They hated the Treaty for forcing impossible war reparations on them and the Allies for their intransigency. These hard feelings led to a surge of hyper-nationalism which entrenched itself into the political and social life of the Weimar Republic and was ultimately the republic’s doom fourteen years later.
The Weimar Republic was born from revolution in 1919 and died in totalitarianism in 1933. But in this short period (Die Goldenen Zwanziger – The Golden Twenties) it really shone, and today Weimar culture is considered one of the most influential periods for creativity – not just for Germany, but for all of humanity.
In all different aspects of life, Weimar culture was contradictory. Everything about it was extreme.
It was extremely tolerant towards everything, be it the new artistic movements or the new freedom of expression. Newspapers flourished, even the harshly satirical ones that ridiculed the republic itself. There were a number of homosexual-oriented magazines available at newsagents. Both communist and reactionaries had their own newspapers. All voices were allowed to be heard.
It was extreme in its receptiveness of all forms of avant-garde, hard-core and subversive as they might be. Influenced by the war-experience, movements like Expressionism or Dada didn’t shy away from showing the most horrid faces of war: the maimed bodies, the violent, disturbing colours, the odd angles and the shadows. The non-sense of experience. Cinema, this most modern of arts, was thoroughly explored and advanced in Germany. The cabaret became one of the most popular forms of entertainment, which displayed nudity, sexual innuendo, genre bending and political satire liberally, in ways that many considered decadent.
Nothing was too risqué.
Too extreme for many Germans, the Weimar culture was, in fact, the culture of Berlin, the old imperial capital that had found, after the war, a new, shocking, extreme, modern way of life. Many Germans hesitated to consider it their capital. They even hesitated to consider it true Germany.
With four million people, Berlin was one of the most populated cities in Europe, and many of those people weren’t Germans. The vital artistic life attracted artists from all over the world and turned Berlin into a cosmopolitan city, a place where many languages were spoken and where people who may have been considered enemies lived a fulfilling life. It was also a city with an unusually numerous community of Jews who were deeply involved in every aspect of the city’s life.
As Josephine Baker, the African American entertainer who became an agent of the French resistance in WW2, described it "The city had a jewel-like sparkle, the vast cafés reminded me of ocean liners powered by the rhythms of their orchestras. There was music everywhere."
Here was where the generation of the trenches expressed themselves at their fullest. The old imperial, authoritarian society had shattered, barriers and rules had become loose and young people – who had fought in the trenches or toiled at home to sustain those who were fighting – didn’t recognise the old values anymore. They wanted something new and different and sought it recklessly, never caring for what their elder could say. Some historians even suggest that young people were particularly reckless because, in some way, they sensed that this freedom would not last. That the political and economic insecurity would soon bring that freedom to an end and so they pushed on the accelerator as long as they could.
But along these people lived those Germans who didn’t recognise Berlin as their capital and thought all that freedom and modernity were in fact decadence. The women who didn’t need a man in their life were killing the nation. The Jews who controlled the artistic and cultural life were twisting the roots of true German tradition. Besides, the government was weak and treasonous and lacked the authority to lead the nation. It was in Berlin – the capital of free expression, tolerant toward everything and the contrary of everything – that all the authoritarian forces who sought to kill that freedom finally converged.
Weimar culture is often identified with its cabaret experience, and rightly so. In the cabarets springing up in every big city (in Berlin more numerous than anywhere else), the extreme, modern, free post-war lifestyle found its fuller form of expression.
Cabarets were born in France in the late 1880s and from the beginning were associated with sexual innuendo and lewd shows. This form of entertainment arrived in Germany at the very beginning of the 1900s, but at the beginning, they were very different from their French counterparts, since the authoritarian imperial society didn’t allow the freedom of the French shows. German cabarets were restaurants or nightclub where a show of singers, dancers or comedians were offered from a small stage. Nothing too risque. Nothing too extravagant.
But as the Empire died out and the republic surged, the cabarets changed the same way German urban society changed. As the republic lifted the old form of censorship, shows became bolder and more salacious. Dancers became more and more scantily dressed and their dances and songs ever more suggestive. Cross-dress wasn’t uncommon. Harsh political satire was so popular that some cabarets specialised in it. A very characteristic form of German cabaret that would become knows as Kabarett.
It was indeed a subversive form of art, where modernism and non-naturalistic (therefore non-patriotic, as some considered them) expressions found a place. Everything was grotesquely distorted, and still, it was perfectly recognisable. Characters belonging to the lower life (prostitutes, gangsters, corrupted politicians) became very familiar and even loved by the public. Expressionist décors, their odd angles that suggested anxiety and represented the displacement of the new urban life and industrial war, were also very common. So was extreme makeup, which deformed the actors’ faces.
The life that kabarett depicted was outrageously modern, extremely subversive and – in the eyes of some – utterly decadent. For most right-winged thinkers, this sort of show was clearly not enough German and altogether too degenerated, something dangerous that could taint and destroy the true German spirits. And if this was not enough, kabarett entertainment was perceived as mostly Jewish. Owners and managers were Jews more often than not. Actors, singers, musicians and, more importantly, playwrights and authors were Jews. For the Right, this made them too powerful manipulators of German culture at large. Kabarett culture, popular as it was, often became the aim of their hatred and blame.
Kabarett also borrowed a lot from an American music genre: Jazz. While America seemed to consider jazz a lesser form of music, many German composers incorporated it into their music, maybe because of its affinity with the expressionist movement and many kabarett authors – including Bertold Brecht – used it in their plays.
In the 1920s, jazz in Germany was almost as popular as in America. To many people, it sounded like the modern time they were living and in a way, it was a kind of natural counterpart to expressionist visuals.
It started very early, as early as the end of the war when many African American musicians who had fought in WWI chose to stay in Europe and work there. Europe was then discovering jazz and the social environment was more favourable to them. As jazz became more and more popular, many famous jazz players and singers came over to Europe to perform, and most of them came, obviously, to Berlin, the hotbed of European jazz.
Later in the decade, many German bands were born. The first school of jazz in the world opened in Berlin – in the US, the cradle of jazz, the first school only opened in the mid-1940s.