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 M, N and O.
Life in the Weimar Republic, and more prominently in Berlin, seemed to be fast moving toward the future. Avant-garde movements of every kind were almost the norm. Social mores were evolving towards equality (between men and women, between minorities and the German population at large) and new ideas were quick to take roots, then change once more.
WWI had been a dramatic caesura with the past. Young people no longer recognised values and ways of life of their parents. They were reckless and ready to adopt new values and lifestyles.
But this picture, although true, might be misleading. Life in Berlin and a few other big cities was fast and furious, but the rest of the country was far slower to catch up. In large areas of the nation, people were far less receptive of change when they were not outright against it.
Besides, even in the big cities, ‘memory’ was still a strong ideal. The strict ‘Wilhelmin’ values and ways of life were still appreciated and followed. The modernistic art movements, the new behaviours of the youth, not to mention the shockingly free attitude of the new woman – all of this was destroying everything good and German and was therefore considered unpatriotic. The old values had led Germany to her greatness before the war. Those values would bring her back to prominence. This was certainly one of the great advantages the Right had on the Left: while the Left tried to create a new, unknown future, the Right was calling for a return to something people knew all too well.
The Völkisch Movement
The intellectual base of the Völkisch Movement arose from Romanticism, a way of life and thinking that had been hugely prominent in Europe in the 1800s, and particularly in Germany, where it was born. Just like Romanticism, the Völkisch philosophy advocated a return to the traditional values of the past, which were considered more wholesome and positive. They favoured the irrational and emotional, as well as direct contact with the landscape and the soil.
To the Völkisch Movement, rural rootedness was the hart of the people (Das Volk). Being in connection to the land and the traditions connected to the land was the heart of any project of life. The movement theorised an almost mystical connection between rural people, their tradition and the land. It, therefore, rejected everything else was decadent and evil, foremost the city and the alienation it created, which was a consequence of losing contact with the land.
It’s no surprise then that many right-wing forces were also strongly völkisch, since völkisch ideals were quite clearly apt at supporting hard nationalism, as indeed they did. The Völkisch movement, on its part, gladly supported many right-wing nationalistic parties.
Völkisch ideals were often used in support of Anti-Semitism. Having no roots, in the völkisch thought, meant to be deprived of an essential life force. To them, Jews were a restless people who didn’t occupy any specific territory – and were, therefore, rootless – and mostly lived in the soulless cities. In short, they seemed to incarnate everything which was bad and unpatriotic in the eyes of the Völkisch movement.
Because of its prominence in the European history of the 20th century, it’s tempting to consider the Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeitpartei (German National Socialist Workers Party) more powerful then all the other right-wing movements of its time. In fact, it was a very small, mostly regional, not very influential party for most of the Weimar history. What really singled it out from all the other similar movements was its leader: Adolf Hitler.
The Weimar republic saw the birth of a myriad of right wing political entities, both parties and movements. In 1920 alone at least 74 of these parties could be counted on the political scene and the NSDAP (with a different name at the time), which had been founded on 5 January 1919 in Munich, was just one in the crowd.
These groups often considered themselves revolutionary because they hated many things about the old regime, but they largely were in agreement with the reactionary forces, including most keywords: order, discipline, people, nation, antisocialism and anti-Semitism. They also had ideas in common with the bourgeoisie, notably the domination of the masses by the elites and the technocratic optimization of both society and state. To some extent, they even had superficial points of contact with the Left since they advocated the protection of the workers.
Hitler, who joined the NSDAP in 1920, didn’t say anything different from what all these other parties said, but after he became chairman in 1921, what made the difference was his great oratorical talent. The movement’s strong military feel, its uniforms and the military parades, its willingness to use street violence as a means of assertion, attracted many who, like Hitler himself, were war veterans and who often had been members of the violent Freikorps in the first years of the republic. In the same 1921, Hitler formed his own paramilitary force, the Sturmabteilung (Strumtruppen) and in 1923 he tried to take the government of Bavaria with a coup – The Beer Hall Putsch.
But the putsch failed, and Hitler was arrested. While theoretically he could have faced the death penalty or at least exile to Austria as punishment for for treason, Hitler had many friends among the Bavarian politicians and police, as well as in the powerful Reichswehr and they protected him. The Judges had to be dissuaded from acquitting him entirely and in the end he served only eight months in prison and was given a mild sentence which excluded forced labour. Moreover, his trial was allowed to became an opportunity for the movement. Hitler’s passionate political diatribes in the courtroom received significant coverage, and this helped to get the movement out of its regional environment and acquire a more national profile.
When Hitler was released in 1924, he immediately realised the climate of the nation had changed entirely. The economic and political situation had stabilised, and people were far less likely to listen to old revolutionary formulas. He decided then to renovate the party. He changed the name to NSDAP (choosing every element of the name very carefully so that it would promote the party’s popularity) and upgraded its agenda. No more would they try to acquire control through a revolution, but they would win seats in the Reichstag and seize power from within the parliamentary system.
Their great opportunity came in 1929 with a new economic crisis. After the Wall Street Crash, the US recalled all their capital from Europe. Germany had been surviving their existing economic woes mostly through the Dawes Plan. When that help ceased, it was a national disaster.
In those difficult circumstances, capitalists took notice of the Nazi’s rhetoric against the usual enemies: the Treaty of Versailles, the Jews, the incapable republican regime. The republic seemed unable to solve this most recent, most devastating crises, but Hitler’s passionate oratory made them believe the Nazi may be able to. So, alongside so many working and middle-class people desperate for a solution, the capitalistic powers of Germany started supporting the Nazi party, who gladly accepted their financial support behind closed doors while carrying on the usual populist policy in the open.
In the elections of 1932, the NSDAP were hugely successful, becoming the largest party in Germany in both federal elections, but they were unable to gain a majority and Hitler lost the Presidential elections to the Independent Paul von Hindenburg, who was supported by the pro democracy parties. Despite winning over many voters, Hitler was unable to win control of the country purely at elections.
But he once again played his cards shrewdly. The left were also unable to form a ruling government thanks in part to bad blood between the communists and the social democrats but Hitler was able to point to the success of those parties to spread the old fear of a Bolshevik conquest of Germany. The industrialists were the most scared by this possibility, and they lobbied for Hitler to be made Chancellor as part of a right wing coalition. Although he was reluctant, president Paul von Hindenburg finally used the constitutional provision which allowed him to pick a Chancellor himself as part of his emergency powers even if that Chancellor did not command the majority of the Reichstag.
At age forty-three, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
Occultism and spiritualism weren’t new on the scene of European society. They had been very popular in Victorian times, and when WWI broke out, people again turned to these practices and belief in search of solace.
The spiritualist movement was founded in 1848 and supported the belief that the personality would survive after death and could be contacted by livings through séance.
The 19th century saw a great advancement in many sciences. Forces that were previously invisible and explained to some extent as ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’, like radio waves and magnetism, gave rise to the idea that maybe more ‘magical events’ could be explained scientifically. And the advent of the telegraph and the telephone, which allowed communication across distances that were previously considered insurmountable, encouraged the idea that maybe even the border between the living and the dead could be crossed and communication made possible.
Occultism and spiritualism then became hugely popular with Victorians, but at the end of the century, the interest was waning.
That’s when the Great War occurred.
Occultism and the Great War
When WWI broke out the interest in occultism, although diminished, had not died out. In the terrible event of that war, when nothing was certain, and the life of people could be ended in an instant by any chance event, the possibility to see the future or to communicate with the dead became a way to cope.
Practically no family in Europe came out of the war without having lost at least one member. Many small communities lost most of their young men. Traditional ways of mourn, like prayer and religion, were never abandoned, but as occultism and spiritualism offered the possibility to contact the dead directly, many grieving families turned to them so to be able to speak with their loved ones once more and be reassured that they were well and living a good life on the other side. This was, in fact, the common message that people received: the dead had not suffered, and now they were happy and wished their family to be happy too.
Spiritualism was often called out as being the sport of charlatans, and indeed there were lots of shady individuals ready to take advantage of the grief of parents and consorts. But it also received the praise of many famous supporters, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who supported the more emotional side of spiritualism), and Sir Oliver Lodge (who looked at spiritualism more scientifically), both of whom lost their sons in the war.
Scientists taking part in spiritualism were not actually unusual. At this liminal time when new scientific frontiers opened up, the demarcation between what today we consider science and what we consider mysticism was still very blurred. Interested in the exploration of these new horizons, many scientists conducted experiments in the fields of telepathy and psychology, but also of physics and long-distance communication. In fact, it was this kind of experimentation that finally created the border between science and mysticism that we are familiar with today.
Religion also sought a similarly clear demarcation, which was particularly tricky since both religion and spiritualism believe in the existence of both the world of the living and that of the spirit.
Inside the occult and spiritualist movements, the role of women was particularly relevant. Is it then any surprise that most spiritualists were strong supporters of feminism? These movements somehow contributed to empowering women, and this is one of the reasons why they were considered subversive. But then it’s true that spiritualists tended to have different subversive attitudes toward the accepted social rules.
Occultism in the trenches
It is sometimes argued that occultism and spiritualism were not present in the trenches and that religion was the primary form of spiritual support. But the letters of many soldiers tell a different story. Several forms of superstition – especially concerning safe-keeps and good fortune chasms – were very common, but they were not considered in opposition to religion. Many soldiers just wanted to have an extra chance against the blind luck of the trench fight. Most of these safe-keeps came from home and family and so were considered a strong bond to the reasons why it was worth fighting that war.
Stories of ghosts and apparitions are common both in soldiers’ and official’s letters and it is probably no surprise. The coexistence of living and dead was a daily occurrence in the life of these people. Living and dead shared the same space in the trenches and soldiers could cross that line at any moment on the whim of chance. Nowhere the border between the two worlds was as thin as in the trenches, is it so surprising that soldiers often believed communication between the two was possible? Stories of apparitions, premonitions, warnings from the ‘other side’ abounded in the trenches. Often, like for the loved ones at home, this was a form of finding some peace in the midst of destruction.