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Weimar Germany- W,X,Y,Z

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 W, X, Y and Z.

In the 1920s, the role of women in German society shifted dramatically. Women liberated themselves. They started working outside the house, engaging in activities previously reserved to men, they discovered their sexuality and sensuality and uncovered their body.

This was a common occurrence during that decade throughout the Western World – and even in some places outside of it – but it had peculiar characteristics in every single nation.

In Germany, women had to fend for themselves through the years of war, and they continued to do so after the war ended. Before the war, only few women worked outside the house, mostly working-class women employed in the factories or in domestic service. But during the war, women had to replace men in many jobs, and slowly it became something which was considered acceptable, even desirable. After the war, work was seen by all women, especially young ones, and a means of realization and self-determination. Women of all classes entered the workforce, and even if they were mostly employed in what became known as female occupations (teachers, nurses, social workers). But they also started to enter the professions and fields previously considered eminently male. The postwar decrease in demographics, especially among men, certainly helped here. Eleven million women worked full time in Germany in 1918, which was about 36% of the whole workforce. This percentage wasn’t much higher than before the war, but the kind of jobs women held was different. They started being visible as they became bus conductors, postwomen, doctors and lawyers.

Women were the majority of the electorate in postwar Germany, a result of the many men who had died in the war, but also of the number of veterans who, injured both physically and mentally, were unlikely to vote. The republic had given women the right to vote and be voted: women held 10% of the seats in the Reichstag. No political party could afford to ignore them.

As in many other Western countries, the 1920s brought about a sexual liberation for women, facilitated by the advancement in birth control, the willingness of both women and men to use those methods and the aspiration of women to a personal realisation before dedicating themselves to the family. Besides, many German women didn’t even consider creating a family. Hardened by the war years, accustomed to providing for themselves, to work and now to excerpt their political rights, women realised they didn’t really need a man in their life. And there was after all a surplus of women as a result of the war casualties. Even women who would have chosen otherwise were forced to take up a more independent life.

The new look, the new attention to make-up and the new fashion allowing freedom of movement and the possibility to show off her forms and use them in a new, sensual way, gave women power over themselves and over men which was unprecedented. It arose in them the awareness that they could indeed do whatever they wanted.

Society generally reacted with fear and horror to this new woman. Her resistance to create a family and have children was seen as nothing short of betrayal to the nation. Her increasing affirmation was seen as dangerous for the masculinity of men that had already been gravely battered by the war experience. Like in all of the Western countries, her existence was a shock, but in Germany, the new woman was often accused of being unpatriotic and of putting in danger the fertility – therefore the future – of the nation.

The dangerous Garçonne

A newspaper article from 1927 delineated three key female types:

• The Germanic Gretchen, with her long, virginal braid, who bore all the traditional values of the German mother and wife • The youthful and Americanised Girl, who embodied all the characteristic of the woman that would in other parts of the world be called Flapper • The cosmopolitan, boyish, sharp-dressed and overall masculine Garçonne

While the Gretchen was the preferable kind of woman who responded to traditional requirements and the Girl was mostly a carefree, pleasure-seeking young thing, the Garçonne was by far the most dangerous of all.

Named after a 1922 novel by French author Victor Margueritte, the Garçonne was the most masculine and advance ‘form’ of femininity of the 1920s. Aware of her sexual and intellectual potency and able to exercise it, the Garçonne could be so much stronger than the men she loved to become troublesome. Fashion was, in general, becoming more unisex in the 1920s, but the Garçonne, with her Bubikopf crop and her men dress, would sometimes take up even the appearance of men.

It was speculated that the war allowed the birth of such a potent woman. It was on the battlefields that women first took up the appearance of men and went about men’s roles and jobs. When the war was over, they never gave up what they had accomplished on the battlefields. The Garçonne was the most apparent incarnation of that conquest.

Symbols are strange beasts. The swastika, which has been a symbol of good luck and well-been for thousands of years and among many different peoples, in the last century has taken up a completely different meaning. At least for the Western World.

The word swastika derives from the Sanskrit su, which means ‘well’, and asti, which means ‘being’, and its form – the hooked cross – probably represents the sun and its movement across the sky.

Its use dates back to Neolithic Europe. One of the firsts swastikas was uncovered in Mezine, Ukraina, and it’s thought to be 12,000 years old. The routine use of the swastika as a symbol of good fortune probably started in Southern Europe. This area is now Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with people belonging to the Vinča Culture, about 8,000 years ago. But examples of swastikas are found in many different cultures across Asia (where it is still today a symbol of good luck, for example in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism) and even in America, where it has been used by the Navajo.

In Germany, the symbol became a popular one in the XIX century when the newly formed German Empire knew the first surge of nationalism and attempts were made to connect the German people to the Aryans – the original Indo-Europeans, the first people to come to Europe.

In the 1870s German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated the site of ancient Troy in modern Turkey and uncovered more than 1,800 instances of swastikas on the site.

Because the same symbol had been found among the archaeological remains of the Germanic tribes, a connection between Germanic and Greek people was made, concluding that both descended from the Aryans.

At the beginning of the XX century, the swastika as a symbol of German nationalism was very common and recognizable. Many nationalistic parties used it. So when Adolf Hitler devised a flag for his party in 1920, it was only natural that he thought to use the swastika. With a black swastika rotated of 45 degrees inside a white circle against a black background, the new Nazi flag evoked the idea of nationalism and the colours of the old Empire.

One of Hitler’s first actions as new Chancellor was to abolish the Weimar Republic flag. On 22 April 1933, he decreed that the new flag of Germany would be the old imperial red, white and black tricolour which would always be flown in conjunction with the swastika flag.

In Europe, the swastika was well on its way to lose its original meaning and take up a completely different one.

In 1928 Karl Mannheim devised a completely new concept of generation. Not just the natural regeneration of a population, Mannheim theorised that a generation shares a common dramatic fact that influences and forms every concept, every belief, every behaviour of that particular group of people that lives in the same time, place and cultural environment.

There’s no doubt that WWI formed the generation of Weimar. The young people who fought in the trenches thought their elders, their parents, their fathers and mothers, could not understand what that meant. The experience of war was so intense and life-changing that those young men truly believe nobody but others like them could understand. They did know that their fathers’ world was gone forever and its values with it, and so they thought their elder could teach them nothing useful and they had to create their own new world, with their own new values. Besides, they were not scared of experimenting. Any novelty was worth trying.

For women, the war meant emancipation and independence, for young men, the war meant a new ideal, a new way of life and new expectations.

The patriotic soldier became the model to strive for. Strong, brave, physically apt and handsome, noble in spirit, he would give his life gladly for his nation and his people. It seems a very positive ideal, but it often turned on its head. Because this was the virile ideals, the contrary of it – or what it was perceived as contrary – became dispiseable: ugliness, immorality, cowardice, weakness. These characteristics were often attached to ‘the other’, the outcast, like Jews, homosexuals, but also intellectuals and even former soldiers who couldn’t cope with the experience of the war or were permanently disabled.

The 1920s saw the rise of the new woman, but also the strong reaffirmation of masculinity.

The Frontgeneration (literally the Generation who'd been to the Front lines) started to come together right after the war, in the messy world of the Revolution and then the Weimar Republic. At first, they gather in organisations that were almost secret societies, to share the experience that non-veterans could hardly understand. These youths sought to create a new world, different from the one which died in WWI. They utterly refused the passivity of their elders and wanted to act. They refused to look back at the past and tradition and stubbornly looked ahead. They felt that they had fought a war that had taken all certainties from them, but had also given them the skills to create a new reality that rested on the values they had learned in the trenches: bravery, courage, camaraderie.

These values of the trenches soon merged with the new nationalism, which brought these ‘secret societies’ to the light. Paramilitary forces of every kind were born, entities that sought to recreate a romanticised version of the experience, the brotherhood of the trenches. The virile affirmation of national pride often turned into violence, since for these youth that had fought in the trenches, violence was a part of life that they were ready to use again.

The Weimar Republic was a heavily militarised society, where the elders came from a Prussian cultural upbringing and the young came for WWI. Seeing a future of peace was probably hard for everyone.

The Zentrum (the Centre Political Party) was founded in the 1870s to protect the rights of the Catholic minority and was always held together by its commitment to Catholicism.

In the years of the republic, it shared some views with the Left. It supported the welfare state, for example, and worked for an international understanding among nations. Its leader Matthias Erzberger helped to uphold the Weimar constitution and supported parliamentary democracy. The Zentrum also worked for the preservation of the federal states – the Länder.

At the same time, the Zentrum shared views with the Right. It advocated a patriarchal system of cooperation at home and was quite conservative about the nation’s defences.

Despite being part of the government coalition for most of the history of the Weimar Republic, the Zentrum was never a faithful supporter. As a catholic party, they ill-tolerated a republic that was considered ‘marxist’, whose ideals and provisions – vote to women, openness to Jews and homosexual, tolerance toward the decadent forms of art – were hard to uphold. The Zentrum greatly preferred the monarchy, especially considering that the Empire had made religion one of the pillars of its power. In fact, the Zentrum was not opposed to the idea that a strong man should guide the nation.

In 1930 a member of the Zentrum, Heinrich Brüning, was appointed as Chancellor of a minority government, with the Reichstag mostly formed by Communists and the newly successful NSDAP. Brüning tried to appeal these forces by proposing a more nationalistic policy that was mostly rejected by the Reichstag so that he was forced to govern by presidential emergency decree time and again. It is believed that this opened the way to the fatal use of that same act in the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933.

And so it was right in the Reichstag, the seat of the democratic government, that the Weimar Republic found its end.


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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