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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008

Before the Nazis

Germany on the brink

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You could almost suppose that Germany had no past before 1933, so massively does the Third Reich overwhelm popular thought and historical writing about the country. But it does, and one of the most interesting periods is the one immediately preceding the Nazis—the precarious attempt at democracy known as the Weimar Republic.

This fascinating era has inspired an inordinate number of commendable general studies, including Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider, Walter Laqueur’s Weimar: A Cultural History and Anton Gill’s A Dance Between Flames: Berlin Between the Wars. My personal favorite has always been Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, if only for its fond treatment of sex scandals, quirky adventures, murders and other lurid crimes.

But each era writes its own histories of earlier eras, and now we have the equally commendable Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, by Eric D. Weitz (Princeton University Press), distinguished McKnight professor of history at the University of Minnesota. More so than previous works, Weitz’s ably written and thoroughly researched book examines the politics of Weimar and explains how the republic segued into Nazi tyranny.

The Weimar Republic, so-named for the constitution cobbled together in that city by various factions, lasted from 1919 to January 1933, though by its end it was a pale shadow of its always-ailing self. As the author points out, Germany under the Kaiser had had no effective democratic tradition, so the republic, born out of chaos and anarchy at the end of World War I, did amazingly well to last as long as it did (two years longer, in fact, than the 12 years of Adolf Hitler’s proclaimed “Thousand-Year Reich”).

The label may be Weimar, but the capital was Berlin.

Weitz actually makes a greater effort than many other writers to explore the rest of the country, but the centripetal forces of Berlin are just too strong to resist. For a decade Berlin was arguably the world’s scientific, artistic and cultural center. In one chapter Weitz takes the reader on a pleasant walk through the city, observing its sights much as a flaneurof the 1920s might.

To read about Weimar is to be reminded of the stupendous number of gifted people it produced or nurtured or gave passing shelter to, and who contributed to 20th-century Western culture, a few shreds of which remain. Weitz goes into illuminating detail about their achievements and their influences, even in areas beyond their art.

Their names are legion. In music: Kurt Weill, Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg. In art and architecture: Kathe Kollwitz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Walter Gropius. In science: Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard. In stage and screen: Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, F.W. Murnau. In literature: Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Erich Kastner, Alfred Doblin.

The city absolutely teemed with artists. It likely had more newspapers than any other world-class city. Before Hollywood took over, it led the film industry, specializing in the creepy, dark and mysterious films, such as M, that are still admired today. But cabaret, if not the major art form of Berlin, was certainly what we’ve come to think of as the era’s most representative form.

Cabaret’s frenetic, bizarre and cynical acts gave expression to the overheated, amoral atmosphere of the times. Which is why some Germans—including some artists, intellectuals and average citizens—did not like Berlin. It was too modern and, well, un-German. Joseph Goebbels, later to be Hitler’s propaganda minister, despised its insolent, uppity spirit. Journalist Wilhelm Stapel complained that it was the “cesspool of the Republic, the spoiler of all noble and healthy life.”

Weitz says at the beginning of his book, “Weimar Germany still speaks to us,” and at the end, “We are drawn to the Greek tragedy of its history”—not just because of the hyperactive vitality of its culture, but because it shows us “what can happen when there is simply no societal consensus on how to move forward and every minor difference becomes a cause of existential political battles.”

The republic was brought down, he concludes, by the determined will of the established Right (a long tradition of extreme conservatism in Germany) and the radical Right (new political organizations like the Nazis) working separately toward its destruction. But behind that, few—on the Left or Right—cared enough about democracy to try to make it thrive.

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