Posts Tagged With: cultural history

Weimar Germany: Promise & Tragedy

Weitz

Weitz, Eric D.  Weimar Germany: Promise & Tragedy.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

In this survey of the German Weimar era that is both open to a non-academic audience and helpful to scholars, Weitz offers a well-written and engaging look into a vibrant, bygone age.  The majority of the book is dedicated to studying Weimar’s vivacious, multi-faceted and lively culture.  That is not to say that Weitz ignores politics, but he does aim to show that the Weimar Republic was more than just unstable politics, more than just a prelude to the Third Reich (5).

A main theme of Weitz’s book is the Weimar Republic’s perceived relationship to modernity.  He convincingly shows that the idea of modernity was on Germans’ minds and at the heart of political debates, artistic movements, and even city planning.  In one chapter, Weitz leads readers on a leisurely stroll through Weimar Berlin, letting them experience the hustle and bustle of Berlin life “first hand.”  He refers specifically to the Romanische Café, what he calls the “perfect symbol of Weimar politics and society.”  It’s “lively, democratic, engaged, and divided and divisive, unable to speak beyond its own circle” (77-78).  People of different backgrounds and political loyalties met in the café, yet each gravitated to their own tables and corners; they were democratic and diverse, yet broke themselves into small cliques.  To Weitz, this was how the Weimar Republic itself worked.

During the Weimar period, artists and architects attempted to create Gesamtkunstwerke (synthetic works of complete artwork), like Bruno Taut and Martin Wagner’s “Hufeisen,” an apartment complex shaped like a horseshoe so that every occupant could see all other apartments, thus fostering a sense of community (181).  Other artists believed that architecture and paintings could fundamentally change society for the better.  Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, for example, felt filling society with modern architecture would take mankind into the modern world by transforming and harmonizing society (194).  Department stores helped usher in the New Woman by carving out a “safe” space for women in the public sphere (55).  New technology allowed for classic operas and symphonies to be presented to the new “masses,” while also creating new forms of artwork and consumption: films.  But not everyone was happy with this new culture, with its new gender norms, economic system, and modes of authority.  Conservatives of all colors protested on the streets and in the Reichstag.

This cultural vitality coexisted alongside (and also contributed to) political instability.  The republic was hit by a series of crises, and the Great Depression in particular became a crisis of the republic’s legitimacy (122).  The warding off of groups into smaller fractions was a symbol of the inefficiency, not vitality of democracy.  By 1928, there were forty-eight parties in the Reichstag, rendering it difficult to legislate.  A series of constitutional articles, (particularly Article 48) gave the Federal President (who otherwise had no direct power on the daily governmental business) unprecedented authority over the Chancellor and Parliament, setting up a “presidential dictatorship,” that for Weitz signaled a political overthrow of democracy in Germany five years before the Nazis took power (351).  The Nazis, Weitz argues, simply tapped into the new rhetoric of the radicalized Right, gaining success only by using mass mobilization and new inventions to spread their message of a return to stability and prosperity.  Ultimately, Weimar’s failure came from its instability, the fact that scores of factions were taking stabs at it from every angle.  The final blow came when a handful of conspirators (conservative government men and big, industrial businessmen) helped the Nazis to power (358).

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The Alternative Culture (Lidtke)

Lidtke

Lidtke, Vernon L.  The Alternative Culture: Socialist Labor in Imperial Germany.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1985. 

This book is about the creation and maintenance of a Socialist sub-culture in the German Kaiserreich (1871-1918).  As such, it is a work of cultural history that highlights the importance of symbols, festivals, and other events in the formation of a Social Democrat identity.  Lidtke’s book argues that the Social Democratic labor movement “presented German society with a radical alternative to existing norms and arrangements” (7).  This ‘alternative culture’ was not radical in that it wanted to overthrow the imperial government in a swift revolution.  Instead, it was radical in the sense that it “embodied in its principles a conception of production, social relations, and political institutions that rejected existing structures, practices, and values at almost every point” (7).

This book focuses on socialist culture rather than socialist politics, and as a result, we get a feel for what it was like “on the ground” for the members of the Social Democratic party and free trade unions.  Lidtke is careful to emphasize that even though he is talking about an alternative culture, this “social-cultural milieu” was not a single, uniform mass with a clearly defined ideology.  Instead, “diversity held its own against total uniformity” (191).  So, inside the social labor culture there was diversity and contradiction; this was an unavoidable result of the many different individuals that made up its ranks.  In order to appeal to this variety of people, the Party, unions, and voluntary associations hosted a variety of types of events.

It is in exploring these many different internal facets of this social-cultural milieu that Lidtke’s book is at its strongest.  Lidtke argues that while Party and free trade union events were at the center of fostering a larger social labor identity, other more “peripheral” events, like those hosted by voluntary Vereine, had more of a direct impact on the rank-and-file members of the SPD (21).   At these events, workers (and to a lesser extent, their wives) could socialize at taverns, the work floor, picnics, choirs, gymnastic clubs, chess clubs, public lectures, book readings, etc.  These social events shouldn’t be seen as frivolous, Litdke argues.  These were important sites of cultural negotiation where members helped construct what being a Social Democrat meant.  “Sociability, and all frivolities that implied, could not be cast aside without undermining the whole structure.  Personal attachment, familiarity, and fellowship among acquaintances created emotional bonds that were just as important for the vitality of the cultural world of the labor movement as party loyalty and ideological commitment” (74).

But this level of internal diversity had to be kept under a common umbrella of ideology, or else there wouldn’t be a movement.  In this light, larger festivals that brought all of the diverse Social clubs together fused individual experiences into a coherent whole (101).  Through Arbeiterbildung, the Party was able to help frame the larger ideological framework of the ‘alternative culture.’  The Party hosted lectures, courses, and readings for its members, but ultimately, “socialist ideas spread among workers far more effectively by word of mouth…than through individual readings” (191).  So, the Party ideologues had to be careful when presenting specific ideologies for fear of alienating some of their members.  As a result, the ideological symbols “of labor movement clubs, as with all symbols, were appropriately broad and even ambiguous.  They had to be” (74).

Lidtke’s work shows that internal diversity was not a sign of weakness, but of vitality.  While it first seems that this milieu lacked tight cohesiveness, internal diversity becomes less important when you compare it to the larger Germany society and the differences from the rest of imperial Germany become apparent.

For more books on German history, see my list of book reviews, here.

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