Weimar: A Cultural History, 1918-1933.
by Walter Laqueur.
Putnam. 308 pp. $8.95.
In a rare moment of brutal candor, Adolf Hitler told representatives of the press in November 1938 that his patience was exhausted by the way German intellectuals tended to divide into quarrelling sects. He added, “Unfortunately, one needs them. Otherwise, one fine day, one could—I don’t know—wipe them out or something. But unfortunately one needs them.”
This was perhaps an inelegant admission of the Fuehrer’s own debt to the intellectuals in the days that followed his accession to power in January 1933. While many of Germany’s most distinguished scientists and artists had crossed the frontiers at that time in order to escape the brown dictatorship, there had been hordes of others who had rallied to Hitler’s standard, and these included such prominent figures as the political theorist Carl Schmitt, who abounded in plausible justifications of the Fuehrer’s destruction of the constitution; the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who in his rectoral address at the University of Freiburg acclaimed Hitler as the fate-chosen instrument for the achievement of Germany’s purpose in history; and the poet Gottfried Benn, who in a radio talk in 1933 called upon his fellow intellectuals to support the new state. Thanks to these leaders and the many other artists and writers who followed their example, Hitler’s regime was given a spurious, but impressive, respectability while it was still struggling to consolidate itself.
The Weimar republic never had the benefit of that kind of support. With distressingly few exceptions. intellectual spokesmen of all shades of opinion were united in their detestation of the constitutional system that had replaced the Wilhelmine monarchy when it collapsed in military defeat and revolution in November 1918. It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that Walter Laqueur should devote almost half of his new cultural history of the Weimar period to analyzing the reasons for this antipathy and to describing some of the forms it took.
It goes without saying that support for the republic could not be expected from Communist intellectuals, who lived in the expectation of another and more successful Spartacus week and meanwhile, in the columns of journals like Die Linkskurve, preached the message that the republic was nothing but a disguised form of fascism that would disappear when the working class recognized its true character. This view of the republican regime as a transitional stage in German history was also the stock in trade of those ideologues of the New Right of whom historians like Fritz Stern and Klemens von Klemperer have written—Moeller van den Bruck and Oswald Spengler and the half-baked prophets of the June Club and the Tat Circle, who believed that the revolution of 1918 had been an abortion that merely perpetuated the flabby liberalism and the debilitating materialism of the past and that German youth must be prepared for the more decisive overturn that would purge society of its ills and usher in the heroic age.
Mr. Laqueur believes that both of these groups facilitated Hitler’s conquest of power, the Communists because their muddled belief that republicanism and fascism were synonymous led to the fateful assumption that National Socialism would be no worse and would somehow or other hasten their own victory; the new conservatives because their idealization of violence and their creation of the myth of a Third Reich predisposed the minds of romantic youth to the destruction of the republican order. He is inclined, nevertheless, to the view that their influence was less critical than that of the academic intelligentsia and the left-wing intellectuals.
Those who bewail the violence that has disrupted university life in Germany since 1967 should remember that, in some degree, its origins are to be found in accumulated exasperation over the universities’ stubborn resistance to any change in their governance and curriculum. In the early 1960’s academic reformers were still trying by peaceful means to win acceptance for policies that republican ministers of culture had failed to effect in the 1920’s. At that time the mandarins of the academic establishment had fought bitterly and successfully in defense of their traditional monopoly of university power, and their opposition to democracy in the universities was reflected in their reprobation of democratic politics in the state. The historians, the jurists, and the Germanisten were the most stalwart defenders of the old order, although Mr. Laqueur points out that “even among the natural scientists and professors of medicine there were not a few who used every opportunity to attack the ‘system.’” Most of these had no practical alternative to the regime they opposed; they were inveterate supporters of a dead past. Their students, while absorbing their contempt for the republic, had no patience with this reactionary nonsense. They turned to National Socialism which, as early as 1929, was the strongest movement in student politics in nineteen of Germany’s universities.
It is to the left-wing intellectuals, the large body of radical journalists, writers, artists. professional men, and undomiciled academicians on the fringes of the literary world that Mr. Laqueur pays particular attention. These people rejected the republic, for the most part, because they felt that it had betrayed them by failing to live up to their own unreasonable expectations of it, because it had made compromises in order to survive, because it had not purged the bureaucracy or abolished the Reichswehr, because it had been practical rather than idealistic. Politically. they were homeless because they could not tolerate party discipline. Contemptuous alike of the opportunism of the Social Democratic party and the rigidity of the Communists, they added to the fragmentation of Weimar politics by forming short-lived splinter-groups of their own, conscious of their isolation and compensating for it, Mr. Laqueur argues, by an increasing degree of irresponsibility and extremism. Thus, Kurt Tucholsky, the greatest German satirist since Heine, brought grist to the mills of the Right by broadcasting his conviction that the German spirit was poisoned almost beyond recovery and that “German democracy [was] a façade and a lie.”
Mr. Laqufur does not believe that the Weimar republic failed because of the trahison des clercs—there were too many other factors at work to justify any such theory—but he does not doubt that they made a powerful contribution to its woeful lack of prestige or, if you will, of credibility. And he finds it ironical that the left-wing intellectuals in particular should have participated in this process, since the republic, after all, protected ideals that they themselves professed. It stood for the kind of freedom that promoted the flowering of talent and encouraged experimentation. “With all its defects, the Weimar republic was more sympathetic, or at least less antagonistic, to modernism than any other political system of the day.” All the preconditions for a cultural revolution existed in the years in which the republic struggled for its life.
The nature of that revolution Mr. Laqueur describes in two very comprehensive chapters on “the rise and decline of the avant-garde” and a highly diverting one called “Berlin s’amuse.” In the former he describes the principal literary and artistic movements of the period with economy but not at the expense of insight and judgment. His view of Expressionist drama is much like that of the professor in Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” who sighed over “artists of the modern school, who stand on the stage in strange and . . . utterly affected dancing attitudes and shriek lamentably”; but he is warmer in his treatment of Brecht, and even of Piscator, and his judgment of achievements in the field of poetry and the novel is generous to a fault. “Collectively,” he writes, “this was perhaps [German literature’s] richest period. It is not easy to think of many novels or poems written during the 1860’s, the 1890s, or the 1960’s which are worth re-reading; it is not at all difficult to prepare such a list of works published during the 1920’s.” This is incautious. Mr. Laqueur may find support in his unwillingness to re-read the novels of Spielhagen, Freytag, or Raabe from the 1860’s, or even the poetry of Storm or Conrad Ferdinand Meyer; but Dehmel and Liliencron and the Rilke of the Cornet and the Stundenbuch were writing-in the 1890’s, and Fontane’s Effi Briest (1895) and Der Stechlin (1898) compare favorably with any novel written in the 1920’s. Nor would it be hard to make a good list for the 1960’s (Grass? Böll? Siegfried Lenz? Bobrowski?) But in general the point is sound. as are Mr. Laqueur’s comments on the richness of the visual arts and of the architecture of the Weimar period.
As for the film, compared with the wretched German products that are shown yearly at the Berlin Film Festival, those of the 1920’s seem evidence of a golden age. Mr. Laqueur does not approach the German cinema with the portentousness that inspired Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler. “It is dangerous,” he warns, “to read too much into the content of the films of the period: whether they provide a key to the depths of the German soul, let alone to subsequent trends in German politics, is at best a moot point.” What is beyond doubt is that Weimar was as much the age of Fritz Lang and Marlene Dietrich and Richard Tauber as it was of its thinkers, and the works of these artists, which still have the power to entertain and move us. are additional testimony to the cultural abundance of the period.
To students of German history Weimar has always had a special fascination, partly, one supposes, because it is so easy to regard it as doomed and death-laden. In the 1960’s this interest spread to a wider public, for, at a time when large numbers of the American intelligentsia were disaffected with their political leadership, a parallel seemed obvious. It was, Mr. Laqueur holds in his concluding pages. a parallel of limited value. as most parallels with the past are Weimar is a part of history, in which, as one of the principal cradles of cultural modernism, its place is secure. The combination of elements that produced its peculiar genius is not likely to recur.