Failed Experiment

In 1950, when the East German authorities demolished the Royal Palace in the center of Berlin, they retained a single piece of the façade that was incorporated into the new Foreign Ministry. This allowed them to preserve the balcony from which, on November 9, 1918, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the short-lived German Workers’ Republic. A few blocks away, but on the other side of the line that divided East and West Berlin, a plaque marked the spot where, on that same November day, Philipp Scheidemann announced the formation of what would become a moderate parliamentary regime, named after Weimar, the city where its constitution was written. For both postwar German states, the fate of Germany’s first democratic experiment was of fundamental significance. In the East, the apparent lessons of the failed revolution of 1918 lived on, while in the West, people struggled to avoid the constitutional flaws and political errors that had brought down the Weimar regime.

At the dawn of a new century, almost nine decades since Liebknecht’s and Schiedemann’s proclamations, almost six since the creation of an East and West Germany, and almost two since the former’s disappearance, the memory of the Weimar Republic has faded, its lessons have lost their power to instruct or provoke—it has, in other words, become history. And yet, Eric Weitz insists in the first sentence of his new book, “Weimar Germany still speaks to us.” The book’s jacket suggests what he thinks it has to say: here we find not an image of revolutionary crowds or marching storm troopers, but a picture of two men in business suits facing one another across a table, drinking coffee and talking. Those who knew Berlin before the Second World War would recognize that they are sitting outside the Café Josty in Potsdamer Platz, whose famous four-way traffic light is visible in the background. They are part of a deeply modern, urban scene, full of movement and energy as people go on about their private business. We can almost hear the streetcar’s rattle and the automobile’s brakes.

The Berlin in which the Café Josty played such a prominent role is among Weitz’s most important characters. “Weimar was Berlin, Berlin Weimar,” he writes. One of his best chapters is “Walking the City,” a tour of Berlin’s neighborhoods that captures the capital’s vitality and diversity, elegance and squalor, creativity and dullness. Informed by a careful reading of contemporary observers, especially Franz Hessel and Joseph Roth, as well as his own acute visual imagination, Weitz’s affectionate portrait of the city is a remarkable accomplishment.

Closely tied to Weitz’s celebration of Berlin is his account of three makers of architectural modernism, Bruno Taut, Erich Mendelsohn, and Walter Gropius. Taut was best known for his housing projects, whose graceful lines and careful design attempted to provide healthy, pleasing domestic spaces for ordinary men and women. Mendelsohn—surely the greatest architect of the three—built department stores and office buildings that were both harmonious and fanciful. Gropius, of course, was instrumental in creating the Bauhaus School, one of those clusters of genius that dotted Weimar Germany’s cultural landscape. The work of these three men, Weitz writes, “heralded a new, modern era, a world that would be creative, joyous, and dynamic, in harmony with both nature and frenetic urban industrial life. Their buildings evinced the very best of the Weimar spirit.”

In addition to the fine chapter on architecture, Weitz treats photography, film, music, literature, and philosophy. He also has an excellent chapter on economic and social developments, which includes new material on advertising and consumption, as well as a concise account of inflation and stabilization. In his chapter “Bodies and Sex,” Weitz traces movements to promote sexual emancipation, physical and mental health, and women’s rights. Like Taut and Mendelsohn, the leaders of these movements emerge as the true heroes of Weitz’s story. “Later generations,” he concludes, “can applaud the efforts and engagement of the sex reformers, whatever their limitations, and wonder whether, in sexual matters, we have really traveled all that far from the 1920s.”

Because he has wisely chosen to concentrate his attention on a few prominent figures and works, Weitz’s account of culture is necessarily selective. While one might quarrel with some of his choices, overall these chapters provide a well-informed, sophisticated analysis of Weimar’s greatest accomplishments and their lasting significance.

These accomplishments, Weitz argues, were the result of the revolution of 1918, which “unleashed one of the greatest periods of artistic and intellectual creativity in the twentieth century.” This, it seems to me, may overestimate the importance of 1918 as a turning point: in a number of areas, particularly architecture and the visual arts, the roots of Weimar’s accomplishments extend into the years before the war. I am also somewhat skeptical of the connections Weitz makes between conservative opposition to the Republic’s cultural accomplishments and its political collapse. He correctly insists that Hitler’s rise to power was not inevitable and that the crisis of the Depression was an indispensable cause. He is also correct to stress the importance of the Nazis’ tactical alliance with the “respectable” Right. But I think he exaggerates the role of conservatives’ hostility to cultural change as a source of this alliance. There is no doubt that conservatives, and especially conservative Christians, did not like many aspects of Weimar cultural and social innovation, including what they regarded as attacks on traditional family values and sexual morality. Yet these issues were far less important than nationalism and anticommunism in forging ties between conservatives and right-wing radicals. Weitz overstates his case, therefore, when he writes that “perhaps more than anything else, the rhetoric deployed by the Christian establishment made the Nazis salonfähig, that is, acceptable in polite society.” The political significance of the Protestant establishment was limited (to say the least), while the Catholics were divided between defenders and opponents of the Republic.

Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy will not replace the standard political accounts of Weimar’s unhappy history. Those who want to understand the political tragedy of the first German republic will still turn to surveys like Hans Mommsen’s The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy, Gerald Feldman’s monumental study of the inflation, and William Sheridan Allen’s classic portrait of the Nazis’ rise to power in a single town. But Weitz’s book is, and will likely remain, the best introduction to the historical setting and rich legacy of Weimar culture. And this, as he convincingly argues, is the Weimar that speaks most clearly to us.

Published in the 2008-02-15 issue: 
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James J. Sheehan, a frequent contributor, is Professor Emeritus of History at Stanford University.

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