Posts Tagged With: world war one

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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Hysterical Men

Lerner

Lerner, Paul.  Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Lerner’s book centers on a German debate over how to interpret the “debilitating shakes, stutters, tics and tremors, and dramatic disorders of sight, hearing and gait” that were plaguing the nation’s veterans of the Great War (1).  Throughout his book, he traces the shift from describing such ailments as the result of “trauma” to being the outward symptoms of a deeper, inner “hysteria.”  This shift represented a growing power of psychiatrists in Germany, and Lerner shows that it also had ramifications on Germany’s laws, economy, and notions of masculinity.

The work of psychiatrist Hermann Oppenheim in the 1870s and 1880s demonstrated that the stutters, tics, and tremors that some men were experiencing were symptomatic of “trauma,” which was caused by external shocks and accidents.  Oppenheim’s work was successful enough that Bismarck included trauma as a legitimate reason for claiming insurance pensions in 1889 (pg 9).  The discourse was quickly replaced by a newer generation of psychiatrists and policy makers, though, who claimed that such a connection would “pension neurosis,” or a debilitating addiction to pensions (33).  In other words, a diagnosis of “trauma” would cast the men as victims and allow them to feel entitled to pension payment from the state.  Instead, a new diagnosis emerged:  men’s tics and tremors were manifestations of “hysteria”, a deeply rooted flaw of the person’s character.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, the nationalistic, conservative psychiatrists saw the conflict as a chance to harden up Germany’s weak and hysterical men.  But, by the time that hundreds of thousands of men were complaining of trauma during WWI, the situation became more serious, particularly as the state faced paying out insurance claims to all of its veterans.  The psychiatrists used their superior social stances to launch another “war on hysteria,” which included new therapies like “suggestive preparation” (103) and other “active treatments” like electro-shock therapy.  Lerner asserts that by claiming that these hysterical men were themselves flawed, psychiatrists absolving the state of any responsibility since these men’s ailments were not caused by any traumatic event of the war.  More importantly than saving the state any moral responsibility, a diagnosis of “hysteria” (versus “trauma”) would save the state money since it no longer had to pay out insurance pensions.  So, in imperial Germany, economic concerns overlapped with scientific changes, and economics always remained intertwined with the debate (85).  Once the men were deemed “cured” they were sent to support the war effort not on the front line, but in the labor force on the home front.

But Lerner reveals that much more was a stake here than money.  “Psychiatry was at once a product of modernity and a forum for critiquing modernity” (15).  In other words, while psychiatry was itself a modern science, psychiatrists saw themselves as trying to cure the weaknesses caused by modernity.  “Curing male hysterics meant medically manufacturing proper German subjects” (7).  They attempted to define a renewed German masculinity centered on patriotism, self-sacrifice, and economic productivity.  “The specter of the male hysteric, then, haunted the German imagination as the nation progressed along the path to modernity…To the conservative, stridently nationalistic psychiatric profession, male hysterics symbolized Germany’s social, political, and economic catastrophe” (250).  Psychiatrists then attempted to shape the national memory of the war and its conclusion in clinical terms.  The loss of 1918 was then portrayed as the result of Germany’s exhausted nerves, and the November revolutions were depicted as outbursts of mass insanity.

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

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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