Art and Archaeology: Books
You are in:  Home > Art > Book Reviews   •  Archives   •  send page to a friend

Headline Feed
Email to a friend


 Ute Lemper

By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 16 JANUARY 2008 — In Germany, where history informs everyday life as in few other places in Europe and in a way unimaginable in the United States, you will find a bit of the Weimar Republic (1918 -1933) during a stroll along a North Sea beach. On the resort island of Sylt, even summer conditions can be brisk, which explains the popularity of the Strandkorb-a high-backed wicker loveseat designed both to allow in the northern sun and to keep out the raw seaside wind. As you sit in your Strandkorb, there may occur a very particular event: young and attractive German women will saunter by, sensibly dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, enjoying the sea air. Behind them will stroll a team of ladies old enough to be their grandmothers, each of them stark naked. Such a parade, as inexplicable as it may appear to non-Germans and as disappointing as it will be to anyone with a keen aesthetic sense and erotic imagination, is an example in flesh and blood of what happens when Modernism becomes a period style-in this case, the Modernism of Weimar Germany.

More than novelty lies behind that, and in his new book, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton University Press, 425 pages), Eric D. Weitz provides a concise, yet comprehensive survey of life, art and politics during a crucial period in German and, indeed, world history.

It began with the loss of World War I, the abdication of the kaiser and the proclamation of a democracy under a constitution drafted in the culturally important Thuringian city of Weimar. The grandmothers on the beach can be explained by Weitz's report on the cultish fascination that arose in Weimar Germany over the nude and healthy body. With its proto-fascistic rumblings about a vigorous return to nature and the purity of the German soul, mixed with vaguely Hellenistic ideals about the perfect human form, open-air nudism was both a social and political statement.

Fascism is a type of Chauvinism that harkens back to a former glory that is part reality, myth and utter nonsense. Weitz advocates that the German form of fascism-a primal scream against Modernism and the democratic virtues of Western Civilization-was not just an accident waiting to happen. It was a tragedy that could have been prevented had Weimar Germany been better governed and, just as important, had the population been more patient with itself. As Weitz observes in his final paragraph:

Democracy can be fertile soil for all sorts of interesting debates and for the efflorescence of the cultural sprit. But when virtually every debate becomes a live-or-die question about the essential features of human existence, from the intimacy of the bedroom to the structure of the business world, when every issue is seen to carry earth-shattering significance, when there is no overarching system of belief to which most people give their loyalty, a democracy cannot long endure.

Weitz's book is one in a recent series of titles about the events that led Europe from its Edwardian peace to the Nazi period and to the Second World War that together form the "tragedy" in his subtitle. Much has been written about the Nazi era-too much, really; some of it is good, much of it is tedious and repetitive, some of the better works are soulful and contemplative, but they suffer as a group from a singular problem: what Nazi Germany perpetrated on the world (and on itself) was an evil so vast in scope, it is hard to write about without falling back on pathos, and pathos is the sworn enemy of understanding.

The less-explored question of what took Germany along the way to that horrible place is in many ways more compelling. Consider the word tragedy again: Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear aren't quite as interesting because of what happens to them as because of how they get there.

World War I began when a Bosnian Serb shot the heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo. That's a long way geographically and politically from Berlin and London; for decades, authors have struggled to explain why Europe fought a war that-as diplomatic communiqués, personal diaries, correspondence and other primary sources demonstrated-no one claimed to want. Once started, it could not be stopped except by exhaustion or outright collapse; in the end, none of the countries involved in the starting of it, even the nominal victors, won anything worth the trouble, not even Alsace-Lorraine, the border territory that France reclaimed from Germany. High on the list of those who did not want to fight what is still the world standard for pointless wars was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, according to David Fromkin in his recent book Europe's Last Summer: Who Started The Great War in 1914 ? Fromkin argues compellingly that the kaiser's wish for peace was sabotaged by his own high command and close advisors, most notably the chief of his general staff, General Helmuth von Moltke. Those who fomented war with France and Russia in 1914 thought Germany's position in Europe was in relative decline. The war had to come then because Germany would be at a greater disadvantage if it had to be fought later.

In The Pity of War: Explaining World War I , a controversial, revisionist economic history, Niall Ferguson presents his data as thoroughly as citations to the record in a well-argued court brief, proving that the kaiser's men got it wrong: Germany was on course to gain in economic power relative to its European rivals. Germany didn't need a war to solidify its place among nations: it needed only to build more Mercedes-Benz automobiles and to get the Leica camera into production quicker. (Ferguson goes as far as to conclude that, if Britain hadn't intervened on the side of France and Russia in the opening days of the war-thereby hastening its own relative decline-the E.U. could well have come along decades earlier than it did, as a consequence of German ascendancy.)

In Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World , a work of insight fashioned start to finish in wonderfully refined prose, Margaret Macmillan shows how the diplomacy of the post-war era stuck Germany with both war guilt and heavy reparations. There has been debate since then about how severe those reparations really were (Weitz notes that they would have been paid off only in 1987), but German pride was wounded and German territory was lost, and if there was one issue that united Germans of all political views it was the belief in the unfairness of it all.

As Weitz points out, the right wing of the Weimar Republic took advantage of that sentiment with its "stabbed-in-the-back" theory: because German armies were on enemy territory when the nation lost, they could only have been sabotaged by a fifth column of perfidious diplomats and politicians, and, of course, a good number of those had to be Jews. Underlying that sentiment was the brooding wish for a rematch, one that the Nazis would take hold of and use to their own warlike advantage; but none of the several Weimar governments was exactly pleased with treaty limitations on the German military, the occupation of western Germany by French and Belgian troops, and other indignities that, when later mixed with ideology and greed, would rekindle European war. No ink has been spilled debating who caused that one, giving new generations of Germans yet another reason to feel bad about themselves.

Weitz ably documents the struggles, often verbal, often just street brawls, that developed between the left and the right as paramilitary organizations roamed the fractious landscape during the Weimar period, looking for trouble and finding plenty of it. Hyperinflation, the Great Depression and the outright thuggery of groups such as the Freikorps and the NSDAP (the Nazis) assured there would be little of the domestic stability that Mitteleuropa craved. What is interesting, as the story unfolds, is that, no matter how bad it got, there appears to have been no particular sentiment, not even among the most conservative elements of society, for a return of the monarchy, even though, with the former kaiser living next door in the Netherlands, all one needed for his restoration was a national consensus, a suitable car and a tank of gas. But Germany under the Prussian Hollenzollern emperors had only been a unified nation since 1871. What the right wing wanted was not a return to a Prussian-dominated Germany but to something bordering on the medieval, which is what they got, and more, from the Nazis when they took power in 1933, ending the Weimar Republic not with a whimper but a bang.

It has been said that Germans are at their most creative when depressed, and the Weimar period had enough misery to serve as muse for all the arts. Weitz finely summarizes the tensions in German philosophical thought. He explains the clean break from historicism in architecture to the radical simplicity of the Bauhaus movement, giving due notice to the easy way that the Bauhaus style could slip into banality and institutionalized sterility. In photography, the undervalued August Sander (the subject of a memorable and long-overdue retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2004) is shown as an astute chronicler of Germany through his portraits, singly and in groups, of its ordinary citizens. Weitz's technique is to convey the general by detailing key specifics, so he can perhaps be forgiven for spending time with Sander and with the Hungarian-born Bauhaus photographer László Moholy-Nagy , even as he neglects the brilliant Erich Salomon. But Weitz is a young man; there will be time for other books.

Modernism in German theater meant embracing the Brechtian technique of "epic theater," in which the audience is kept aware that it is watching a performance, with no pretense of a suspension of disbelief. Weitz's case study here is Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, that theatrical kick in the teeth of bourgeois respectability. As with many innovations from the Weimar period, Brecht's style of stagecraft, with its jarring assaults on audience sensibilities, is still widely practiced in Germany, most notably by the Berliner Ensemble, which Brecht founded. A few years ago, the Berliner Ensemble put on a raucous Richard II during which bizarrely groomed actors sprayed so much water onto the stage and nearby seats that, while seated one night in a box dangerously close to the stage, I put up my umbrella. Some experiments are more successful than others, and for me, German epic theater is to theater what current American diplomacy is to diplomacy: brutish, full of itself, and incapable of generating much sympathy for even its more noble intentions.

We all know how the Weimar story ended. Fifteen years of democracy and social and artistic experimentation strained the national patience to the limit and then over it. Weitz makes a compelling argument that, but for political blunders, the Nazis, who never got a majority vote in any election and who actually lost seats in the Reichstag near the end, would not have made it to power. Many of the great people who fill Weitz's pages with their accomplishments soon departed: Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weil, Walter Gropius and others came to the United States, a land that, with its vibrant democracy and social conservatism must have been a paradox to a Weimar artist for whom democracy and conservatism were constantly at odds. As Weitz correctly notes, many of the great artists of the Weimar era were never able to repeat their successes in places that offered them safety and stability. Then again, the art of passion tends to be a youthful art, since passion, in both inspiration and execution, does not age well.

Along with Weitz's heroes, Germany lost many of the kind of ordinary citizens photographed by Sander; one of the odd effects of the end of Weimar Republic was that its culture thereby became perhaps Germany's most important export. (In 1934 and 1937, each of the two sides of my own family left, carrying along their German literature, their Modernist and Art Deco furniture and silver, their Germanic stoicism, a dash of Angst , and a Leica camera.)

For Germany, it would take two tries to get democracy right. Because of Germany's geography and its inherent economic strength, the failure of the first attempt would have global repercussions. It would have been better for all had it succeeded, but Germany, even in its failures, is more fascinating than most other nations in their successes. The more you know it, the more you respect it, as is clearly the case for an American author named Weitz, who has given us a book worthy of its subject.

Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy
By Eric D. Weitz

Hardcover: 432 pages
Princeton University Press (September 2007)
ISBN-10: 069101695X
ISBN-13: 978-0691016955

Alan Behr practices intellectual property law at the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. He writes frequently on cultural affairs. His last review for Culturekiosque was of The Warhol Economy by Elizabeth Currid.

Related Calendar Recommendation:

Ute Lemper: Angels Over Berlin, Paris and the World

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Sex, Glitter and Doom in the Weimar Republic

Henze's Phaedra: Radical Composer Offers Few Surprises Unter den Linden

Germany by the Book

Film Review: Shadow of the Vampire

Comment: Documenta 12

The Photographs of August Sander

German Film Competes for Oscar: Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

Before Expressionism: Art in Germany circa 1903: An Exhibition for the 100th Anniversary of the Busch-Reisinger Museum

Mensch, Schröder - Photographs by Dieter Blum and Konrad R. Müller

Karlheinz Stockhausen is Dead

[ Feedback | Home ]

If you value this page, please send it to a friend.

Copyright © 2008 Euromedia Group, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.