Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy

Review of Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, by Eric D. Weitz (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2007)

The period in Germany from the end of World War I to the Nazi seizure of power is known as the Weimar era, after the Weimar Republic that was set up to govern the country after the revolution at the end of World War I. With the Kaiser gone,a whole new form of political life was created nearly from scratch; while this volatile period opened up myriad new possibilities, it eventually ended in the Nazi takeover of the country.

Eric Weitz's portrayal of Weimar Germany concentrates on the culture, and especially the aesthetic and intellectual climate, of the time. He creates an engaging representation of the spirit of Weimar, focusing particularly on Berlin as a microcosm of all of Germany. Weitz's efforts to rescue the cultural high points of the Weimar period from the shadows of National Socialism mostly succeed in capturing the excitement of Weimar's cultural production, although they leave the reader more uncertain, rather than less, about where the emergence and broad visceral appeal of Nazism in Germany came from.

The book's subtitle, "Promise and Tragedy," encapsulates Weitz's responses to Weimar cultural and political life, respectively. He emphasizes the promise of cultural "renewal and rebirth" that was made possible by the political revolution at the end of World War I, and he concentrates on individuals whose work manifested such promise and hope for the future. Particularly in the central chapters, where Weitz concentrates on the artistic and intellectual promise that was lost, the heavy use of memoirs, writings, artworks, and other visual elements from the period effectively immerses one in the culture Weitz seeks to revive.

Among the elements of Weimar culture that Weitz finds particularly promising are modern architecture, photography, film and radio mass media, philosophy, and sexual culture. Weitz approaches these fields through the work of artists and intellectuals such as Taut, Mendelsohn, Mann, and Heidegger. Weitz does an excellent job of introducing the reader to his subjects' work and setting them in the context of their time, from investigating the"political edge" of Brecht's anti-hero Macheath (later of 'Mack the Knife' popularization), to describing the unusual uses of perspective in Moholy-Nagy's photography. This contextualization is very important for a reader trying to engage with Weimar Germany; Weitz helps the reader understand how and why the fragile, complex, and tense culture of Weimar Germany motivated these thinkers.

The excursion into film and radio does delve into popular culture and its development in an interesting fashion, but it does not draw on broad-based sources in as much detail as the individual portraits of thinkers do. The discussion of the sexual revolution in Germany comes closer to touching on the wide variety of general public attitudes and is also one of the few areas where Weitz portrays politics actively reacting to, and almost interacting with, cultural developments.

However, he sees this culture as something ultimately determined by politics and economics, even saying "as with economics and politics, so with culture." Weitz argues that economic and political factors stifled the cultural promise of the Weimar period. In his view, the widespread economic depression of the 1930s and the conflicted nature of Weimar's parliamentary politics precipitated the country's descent into Nazi rule. This underlying belief that politics and economics affect culture, but culture does not exert a similar influence on politics and economics, is one of the most confusing aspects of Weitz's approach. This almost Marxist attitude imparts an odd quality to an avowedly cultural approach to the history of the period.

The relationship between culture and politics is explicit when Weitz examines political posters. Weitz's inclusion of a variety of political posters from across the spectrum is an outstanding touch, because they communicate not just the intellectual but also the artistic elements that each party used in its appeals to the population. The difference between the conservative German National People's Party and the Communist parties is immediately evident in the contrast between the posters: the Nationalist advertisement uses an image of traditional German women reading the Bible, on a poster printed in a font that echoes archaic, distinctively German, printing styles; the Communist poster has a distinctively modern sketch of a man and a streamlined, simplified font.

Unfortunately, however, Weitz comments only in passing on some of those aesthetic elements but does not investigate the differences between parties' approaches or the reasons for different parties' use of different artistic elements and styles. Rather than looking to the same elements of Weimar culture that he highlights and praises, Weitz prefers to use standard political and economic explanations for the Nazi takeover, particularly the persistence of anti-democratic tendencies in major institutions and the level of tension and conflict involved in Weimar politics.

In fact, tension is one of the major underlying themes of the period, according to Weitz. In the artistic, intellectual, and overall cultural realms, Weitz characterizes the results of this tension as "vibrant," "active," "fast-paced," and even "particularly vital and intense." Weitz repeatedly describes artistic expressions as disparate as architecture and photomontages as "vibrant." When tension stemming from the same sources affects politics, however, it becomes a source of existential conflict, resulting in crisis. That crisis sometimes manifests itself in "hyperactive" and "kinetic" movement that Weitz characterizes as "pointless" or mere "busyness;" at other times, it results in open hostilities between nationalist elements, such as the Nazis, and revolutionary socialist or Communist parties. The choice of similar adjectives with vastly different connotations is one of the most glaring ways that Weitz apparently chooses to see the cultural aspects of Weimar Germany as positive and full of promise, while the political aspects play out to their tragic end.

Weitz portrays only some of the ways that "the Right" reacted viscerally to the developments of Weimar culture. For him, "the Right" seems to be a complex of political-economic interests who are the true enemies of the Weimar Republic and the promise of its cultural developments, with no similar overarching complex opposing it in the center or left of the political spectrum. Particularly in the areas of architecture and sexual culture, and marginally in the context of philosophy, Weitz explains the Right's response to Weimar's fragmented development with calls for reunification and blood-and-soil authenticity. Regardless, his explanations of National Socialism's widespread appeal are based more on narrating the rhetoric used by the Right and less on explaining its relationship to its social and cultural setting. Weitz refuses to connect the same features that drove some of the cultural developments he has praised so highly with the issues that made the Nazis' proposed solutions attractive to many Germans. He takes great effort to paint the Nazi seizure of power as an unusual development, particularly driven by economic concerns and an unusual political coalition of interests, not by cultural responses to the overall environment.

This book provides an engaging representation of the cultural climate of Weimar Germany in a variety of areas. Weitz describes the period as "complex, contradictory, and contested," and is particularly interested in the lessons that can be drawn about the fragility of democracies. Given this potential applicability, it is disappointing that Weitz neglects to apply the same insightful contextualization and cultural analysis that he used on architecture and art to National Socialism. As a result, he leaves the reader dissatisfied with the overall work as an explanatory narrative of how the Weimar Republic's culture tragically failed to fulfill what Weitz advertises as its promise.