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Weimar Germany- J,K,L

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 J, K and L.

The Weimar Republic's relationship with Jews was contradictory at best. On the one hand, the republic was a first time of full citizenship for the German Jewish people, who became a driving force in the political and cultural life of Weimar. But on the other, it was during the republic’s time that the Anti-Semitic path to the Shoah began being walked.

German Jews

It was after the Protestant Reformation that Jews in the German-speaking countries started to acculturate into the respective nations, but it was only with the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Rules that they started seeing real emancipatory progress. By mid-1800s, almost all European nations had met the demand for full Jewish emancipation. As the German Empire and a pan-German nation took form, German Jews started to identify themselves with German culture.

But in the wake of the stock market crash of 1873, the social climate changed dramatically. It was in Berlin, in the fall of 1879, that the term ‘Anti-Semitism’ emerged and the concept took up a distinct shape. It became a very recognizable and characterized social and political movement that reached out of the German Empire borders and spread all over Europe.

As the 20th century opened, a new epochal changed occurred. Among the many dramatic changes WWI brought about, one was a new perception non-Jews had about the Jewish community.

German Jews had mostly acculturated, many had taken pride in being German. They considered their nationality and the language they spoke as part of their identity. When WWI broke out, they volunteered in the army in great numbers, happy for the opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism.

But far from being an opportunity, the war became everyone’s doom. As it stretched over the months, circumstances worsened for the soldiers at the front but even more for the population back at home. In Germany, as the supply situation worsened on the home front in 1915, Anti-Semitic agitation by right-wind extremists and völkisch organizations rose. The winter of 1916-1917 (the ‘Turnip Winter’) was particularly harsh, with German people starving for food thanks to the British Blockade. Talk of the Jewish ‘racketeers’ and ‘war profiteers’ started and created a sense of Anti-Semitism that was never really extinguished.

Jews and the Weimar Republic

The Weimar Republic was to many German Jews a promise to complete the century-long progress of emancipation. Its liberal regime allowed for the full participation of Jews in its cultural, social and political life. But it was exactly this that made the Jewish community more apparent, spurring unfounded fears of a Jews domination.

It was right before the birth of the republic that a strong community of Eastern Jews fled Russia and other Eastern European countries, arriving in Berlin, sometimes to stay, some other en-route for other destinations. This influx of scholars and intellectuals caused a revival of interest in young Jews for their roots and their Jewish identity, which they never considered to be in contradiction to their German identity.

This revival, together with strong participation of Jews to the cultural and political life of the republic (Jews normally aligned to the SPD) created the impression in the larger German population that the Jewish community was growing exceedingly and was taking hold of the German culture.

According to the 1925 census, Jews represented only 0.9% of the German population. Not a big number. But they were mostly concentrated in six big cities, and one-third of them lived in Berlin alone, which created an overrepresentation of them in the heart of the republic.

Most Jews belonged to the middle class and were self-employed in different branches of business and the professions. As economic crises follow economic crises in the Weimar Republic, Germans started to resent Jews as economic rivals. Whether they were doctors or lawyers in the upper segment of society, or shopkeepers and merchants in the lower middle class – the two social segments more sensitive to the perils of economic fluctuation – they became the enemy.

Here’s were Anti-Semitism took hold, and the Nazi party was one that most effectively exploited this fear. Historians have pointed out that the Nazi party in its early day wasn’t noticeably more Anti-Semitic than a lot of other parties. Anti-Semitic language and slogans were used by almost all the right-wing entities – and there were many in the Weimar Republic. But the Nazis were particularly effective in the message, touching on the fears raised by the political and economic insecurity and the perception that an excessive number of Jews were involved in German cultural life at large. It has been speculated that this resulted in Anti-Semitic ideas spreading into the lower middle classes who had formerly been more neutral in the matter.

In the general climate of hyper-nationalism that losing the war had created, German was willing to believe the ‘old’ assertion propaganda that solving the ‘Jewish question’ would solve all their problems.

The Weimar Republic is often considered one of the most remarkably energetic periods in the artistic history of humanity, a roaring surge of modernism in all fields of arts, where experimentation was the norm. For a glorious – if all too short – period over the ‘Golden 1920s’ and the first part of the 1930s, while Germany went through one of the most troubling political and economic times in her history, Berlin was one of the most exciting places in Europe where an artist could be. Possibly in the world.

The Weimar constitution guaranteed to everyone the right to “express his opinion freely in words, writing, print, pictures and in any other manner,” and artists, both Germans and foreign, took this opportunity to its fullest. No aspect of the liberal life of the republic was left out. Arts often depicted the liberation of women, the free expression of homosexuals as well as the realities of the post-war era that people would have probably prefer not to see.

One of the centres of this new concept of arts was the Bauhaus in Weimar, an ensemble of artists, but also an educational institution, which offered tuition in many modern arts and encouraged the use of new materials and new industrial processes. It was also a kind of utopian social commune, and experiment just like the republic itself was.

Art was often a political assertion in the Weimar republic. This is why the reaction to the arts was likewise political. The right-wing parties and völkiesh sensibilities saw this freedom of expression as a true subversion. Art didn’t shy away from any forms of corruption, both personal and political, of sexual display and of mutilation. It depicted and scrutinised the uncomfortable realities of post-war life. It was accused to try and destroy everything that still was genuinely and traditionally German. Acting like a deforming mirror, modernistic art of all forms was considered to not a depiction of reality, but an apology of everything decadent or corrupted.

Since in the eye of the Right everything subversive was automatically Bolshevik, this artistic attitude was dabbed Kulturbolschewismus (cultural bolshevism). It would be called ‘degenerated art’ only a few years later.

Neue Sachlichkeit

In November 1918, Expressionist painters Max Pechstein and César Klein formed an artistic group whose purpose was to go beyond Expressionism. The November Group “were confident that merely by rejecting the sentimentality of prewar German Expressionism, and substituting a more realistic, sober view of the life around them, they could not only bring about a new society but usher in a ‘new man.'”

This was the beginning of what was known afterwards as Neue Sachlichkeit, which is often translated into New Objectivity but could also be understood as New Realism.

The artist who joined this movement didn’t share a style, but rather an ideal, and most of them had been in the war. Otto Dix had been a machine-gunner during WWI and George Grosz had fought in the trenches too. These artists saw with great clarity the consequences of the war, which were never good in their eyes. If the republic had brought freedom – which was what allowed them to express their opinion – it had also brought corruption, illness, deformation, both physical and intellectual. They sought to express this not by turning inside themselves and their own experience, but by depicting it as it truly was and everyone could see. The subjects of their art were the maimed veterans, the disfigured bodies and faces, the underworld with its prostitutes and gangsters, the corruption of politicians and rich industrialists.

Their realism became sometimes so extreme that it almost turned grotesque and slid into surrealism, which gave one more key of interpretation to the reality they knew.

The work of these artists was considered by the Right ‘degenerated art’ without exception.

When we think about the Weimar Republic, most likely we think about the time of the right-wing power. Certainly, many authoritarian forces were at work in the republic, but this was also the time of a Left government, one that shaped the social life of Germany profoundly.

The Weimar Republic was a relatively short experience in the history of Germany. It may even be true that the republic was too weak and unloved to ever be successful. But it was still the first democratic regime of Germany, the first time Left ideas got out of the rooms of philosophers to get into the thick of everyday life.

The SPD was a socialist party with a long history dating back to the 1800s, and when the 20th century opened, it was the biggest party in Germany. Yet, it had never been able to truly run the nation, until Prince Max von Baden consigned that power in their hands. Unfortunately, the SPD was never able to create a parliamentary majority that would actually administrate the country. Fragmentation was the keyword of the Weimar Republic. Just like the Right, the Left counted a myriad of little political entities and movements, as well as two big parties – the SPD (Social Democrats) and the KPD (Communists) – who never found any kind of agreements.

This is one of the strongest arguments against the Left: they were never able to create the cohesive coalition that would have made the difference. Adding the many political crises that arose from the lack of a strong parliamentary majority, it becomes easy to see why the population never thought that the Left was able to administrate.

The gap between the SPD and the KPD didn’t help either. Together, they were the major forces against the Right, but there was always great diffidence between the two parties. In particular, the KPD never forgot that in 1919 the SPD had preferred to side with the army to suppress the revolution, which ended in the death of many communists, including the leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The KPD always considered the SPD as good as traitors after that.

On its part, the SPD was always wary of the bond between the KPD and Bolshevik Russia. There was indeed very little room for agreement.

German Jews and the Left

The majority of German Jews gravitated toward the Left, finding there their natural political place since the Right was mostly anti-Semitic – even when Anti-Semitism was not the main point in the party’s agenda – and Zentrum was strongly Catholic.

Besides the Left suited them quite fine, since the Left acted on more liberal ideas than any previous administrator in Germany and supported freedom of expression and full citizenship rights for all Germans. The Left was also the side of the avant-garde, which was an art movement but also a way of thinking about the future.

Many of the Jews involved with politics were intellectuals. They worked in the field of communication, both for the SPD and the KPD. They were also involved in many of the revolutionary provisions of the republic. Their over-representation in the life of the republic was one element which instilled in the larger German population the idea that Jews were controlling their political as well as cultural life. Many believed that Jews were making a Judenrepublik (a Jewish Republic) out of the Weimar Republic, which added to their little love for the republic and willingness to listen to Anti-Semitic propaganda.

Left-wing intellectuals

As in many other countries, intellectuals were prominent inside the Left – at least in numbers if not in power. Left intellectuals incarnated most of the republic ideals. They were mostly pacifists. They thought the law should be equal for everyone, and more rights should be given to more people. It was them who pushed for larger participation of women and Jews to the republic life, them who wanted abortion and homosexuality to be erased as prosecutable crimes.

One would expect them to be among the strongest supporters of the republic. This was not the case. There was a divide between the Left and its intellectuals, who mostly belonged to the middle class and, in small numbers, to the aristocracy. They had little to do with the majority of the members of any Left party, who mostly belonged to the working class. The leaders of these parties (including the SPD) thought the majority of their members were not interested in abstract ideals of freedom, but rather in more pressing problems of everyday life, like employment and the inflation. This created a divide between the Left and its intellectuals, who – far from being champions of the republic –usually gave just lukewarm support, disappointed as they were of a republic that wasn’t doing a good enough job, leaving out of its action many important questions regarding freedom.

In truth, the Weimar Republic Left had many qualities and many liberal aspirations, but it never found the necessary unity to make those ideals become a reality.


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter.


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