By Sarah Zama
Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of 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. Today we have the entries for D, E and F.
Germany had been a Kaiserreich – an Empire – for over fifty years. In this time, many rights had been extended to a larger population. It could also be said that democracy had advanced, although the government responded to the Kaiser rather than the Reichstang – the Parliament.
During the dramatic times at the end of WWI, in the hope of creating a change that would please the Allies, Kaiser Wilhelm gave the Chancellorship to Crown Prince Maximilian von Baden, who had always been viewed as of more liberal bent. After trying unsuccessfully to turn the Empire into a parliamentary monarchy, von Baden opened the Reichstag to the SPD. He immediately started to negotiate with the United States a possible peace but didn’t find the favour he was hoping for.
The sense that the war was ending, and Germany had lost, arose in the country. The rebellion spread all over Germany, picked up by the bigger personalities of the Communist party.
Hoping this would calm things down, by removing the main connection between Germany and the war, Max von Baden resigned his Chancellorship in the hands of the SPD leader, Friederich Ebert and urged Whilhelm II to abdicate.
This happened on 9 November 1918. Trying to prevent the communists from proclaiming a socialist republic which would end up under the influence of Russia, one of Ebert’s fellow party men, Philipp Scheidemann, proclaimed the Republic of Germany without any consultation.
Only afterwards, in the town of Weimar in Thuringia, away from the mess in Berlin, could the democratic Reichstag write its own constitution.
For the short time it lived, the Weimar republic was indeed a beacon of democracy. It allowed large parts of the population to take part in the political life, a few for the first time ever – it was, in fact, the first German regime which granted the right to vote to women and full citizenship to Jews.
Engulfed, like all the Western world, in the dramatic social changes of the beginning of the 20th century, the republic embraced it and made it its own.
Freedom of expression was widely recognised, giving rise to an extraordinary diversity of papers, magazines and publishing houses. Philosophy and literature flourished. Many artistic movements – Expressionism, Dadaism, the Neue Sachlichkeit to mention only a few – were at home in Germany and found there their highest form of expression. New ways of creating design, using new materials and new industrial processes arose (The Bauhaus).
In a society that had been extremely strict under the Empire and had known the rebellion after the war, sensuality and sexual impulses became an ever more common way of expression especially when meeting the sexual liberation common to all the Western world. It was in Germany that the first institute for the study of sexuality was founded by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, who was an activist in the movement for the rights of homosexuals. The Reichstag even discussed the practice of abortion and contraception, and whether they should be available freely.
It has often been speculated that the republic – born in messy times and always moving on rocky ground – never really had a chance for success.
Socialists, social democrats and communists, who you might have thought should have been the republic’s paladins, never supported it as much as they could have, thanks to the violent crushing of socialist revolts at the Republic's creation. This was not the Worker's Republic they'd hoped for.
And on the right, the Republic also had many enemies who gladly pointed out its weaknesses.
One weakness was the political divisiveness. The republic parliamentary situation was always shaky. There was never a majority who could safely govern because even inside the same political areas, there was no agreement. Both the Left and the Right were divided into many smaller groups and entities that seldom came to an agreement. This created mistrust in the population, who generally believed politicians were corrupt and selfish. This mistrust was good soil for any kind of conspiracy theories.
The most followed was the Dolchstosslegende – the stab in the back. It theorised that Germany was actually winning the war (Many Germans had firmly believed it to the end because they were led to believe so) and the November 1918 surrender was engineered by socialists, liberals and Jews in Germany’s civilian government. It wasn’t at all the result of military defeat or exhaustion. The fact that the new bourgeoisie government signed the hated Treaty of Versailles and that the military generals didn’t even participate in the meeting made this belief even stronger. Many right-wing parties used this theory for gaining momentum, and none better than Hitler’s NSDAP.
Weakness meant the inclination of the republic was to come to terms and compromise with forces that were their natural opponents. For example, in the revolutionary times, the government compromised with the army in order to crush the Spartacists, in spite of the Reichwehr being one of its strongest enemies.
Today, though, historians tend to agree that the SPD had very little choice. The compromises they accepted were not out of indecision but of weakness, having their backs against the wall and little institutional support. If they hadn’t accepted them, the republic’s life would probably have been even shorter.
But maybe the ultimate weakness of the republic was the exceptional power the constitution gave to the president. In times of crisis, he could ignore the Reichstag and take his own decisions, as the old Emperor would.
This constitutional provision is widely considered one of the main causes that would eventually allow the Third Reich to rise to power.
It is often argued that it’s easier to say what Expressionism was not, rather than to say what it was. Diverse and eclectic, this movement stressed deconstruction rather than building, individuality rather than the communion of feelings and experiences, making it inherently difficult to define.
Some say that rather than being a way to creating art, a distinguished style or method of creations, Expressionism was more of a state of mind. The way artists felt about themselves, their society and the future of that society was more important than the way they expressed that feeling.
Expressionists maintain – with a certain amount of truth – that Expressionism had always been present in German arts, no matter how far back one looks. But 1905 is the generally accepted date of birth of the movement, as that is the year when four architecture students established the group of Die Brücke (The Bridge) in Dresden. Their intention was to create something new by looking back at a more authentic life and ways of feeling, one which modern humanity had lost.
The term itself is thought to have been coined by Czech art historian Antonin Matejcek in 1910, primarily to oppose this form of art to Impressionism. Expressionist artists never called themselves such.
In truth, Expressionism had started to manifest even before the beginning of the 20th century, in the last stages of Impressionism, to which it consciously opposed itself. While impressionists tried to express the world around them in new, less stylised ways, expressionists sought to express what was inside the human being by projecting it outside. Art came from within them, from their personal experience made universal. They tried to give a visual form to their times of anxiety when German society – like all European societies – was moving from an agricultural lifestyle to new, urban ways of life, with all the sense of alienation, and powerlessness that came with it.
Many expressionist artists took part in WWI. Many lost their lives during the war. The ones who survived turned their attention to the horrors of war, expressing their feelings, their anxiety, their damaged souls with art that consciously tried to elicit an emotional reaction by creating shock.
German Expressionism was primarily a visual arts movement. Its language was one of jarred lines, crooked shapes, violent, unnatural colours. Especially after WWI, it concentrated on the more grotesque physical human characteristics in an expression of the horrors of war that is hard to ignore.
The highest form of Expressionism was probably on stage, in the theatres, but especially in cinema. This medium that was in itself new and unexplored gave the opportunity to create a new language made of the stark contrast between light and shadow and the crocked, alienated, crazy shapes that were common in other expressionist visual arts. Literature also adhered to Expressionism. It gave voice to the inner feelings of the soul in a hallucinated, often broken narrative that produced stream-of-consciousness pieces rather than true narration.
When Expressionism died is still up for debate. Some critiques say it started to lose steam in the mid-1920s because its abstractedness both of language and concept was difficult to understand to a majority of the public. It is sure, however, that the rise of the Third Reich, which dabbed all modernistic art as degenerated, whipped it away. And so Expressionism, which was the defining visual form of the Weimar Republic, died together with it.
It would be misleading to think that Germany was the only nation where authoritarian ideologies became popular after WWI. In fact, all European nations let themselves be fascinated with this kind of ideologies, spurred by the difficulties of emerging from the destruction of the war and by the necessity to deal with profound and unexpected social changes.
After the war, many old regimes had fallen and nations were experimenting with new forms of government. Germany, with her experiment of democracy, was far from being an isolated case. But in a continent where monarchy had been the norm for centuries, learning to manage a republic was hard for the politicians as well as for the population and after five years of struggles across lands and social strata, people’s patience was very short. They wanted to see results. They wanted to go back to prosperity as fast as possible, and they also didn’t want to deal with all the changes that were happening and destabilising the community no less than the war had already done. Whoever could promise them that was welcome.
This was a common attitude, but in Germany, there was also a peculiar cultural expectation that pushed people further.
At the end of the war, German culture wasn’t homogeneous. It was composed of many different ethnicities united by language and history, but the Prussian culture was dominant. Strict, regulated, not prone to emotional reactions, the Prussian culture found in the military organization and way of life its higher incarnation, which then spread into all aspects of everyday life. It was from this culture that the Führerprinzip – the Principle of the Leader – arose, originally a very high philosophical concept coined by the pacifistic Social Darwinist Hermann von Keyserling. This concept, of natural leaders, caught on and in the 1920s, many philosophers – such as the pro Nazi Martin Heidegger and the anti Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer – wrote and spoke about it and the hope that a Führer would appear.
The Führer was the ultimate leader. He was connected to his land and to his people in an almost mystical way. He would dedicate himself totally to the welfare of the nation, and he would inspire his people to do the same. This was the key point. The true Führer would inspire people to act, not act in their stead and would never seek dominance because his task was to lead his people to a better life of fulfilment, not to dominate or manipulate their lives.
Bonhoeffer, in his famous 1933 attack on Hitler, stated that a real Führer should himself always remind his followers of his own limits and their responsibilities, otherwise his followers would always turn him into an idol and thus he would cease to be a leader. Great stress was placed into the limits of the Führer, because it was in those limits that freedom and fulfilment for everyone would have been kept save.
Disappointed as they were with the results – or lack thereof – of the republic, many Germans started to hope, even to call, for the appearance of a Führer. Especially young people – most of all young men who had had their baptism of fire in the trenches – turned to the Führerprinzip as a solution for the many problems of the republic. It was obvious that the democracy, with the endless discussions and the many voices, wasn’t able to lead Germany out of troubles, but a strong personality who deeply cared for the nation might be able to do it.
So it isn’t all that surprising that when such a person seemed to appear and presented himself as such, people turned to him. Little they knew that the Führer in flesh and blood they were getting was a far cry from the ideal figure they longed for.