When we think of culture in the Weimar Republic, we think of experiments in modern aesthetics: Dadaism, expressionism, Bauhaus architecture, "the new woman".
Here, Corey Ross reminds us of what we forget. Beyond a small Berlin elite, culture meant something different to ordinary Germans. It meant pensioners and housewives crowding into small cinema shops to watch Ben-Hur. It meant Charlie Chaplin drawing larger crowds than any politician when he visited Berlin in 1931. It meant 7 million people enrolled in dance courses in the dance-crazed mid-1920s. It meant the financial crisis of 1929 being played to the tune of the popular hits Yes, We Have No Bananas and We're Boozing Away Granny's Little House - which sold millions of records but could not be heard on the radio. What was broadcast instead was pedagogic fare: lectures, literary features and "boring music in shit-minor and allegro", as one particularly dissatisfied manual worker wrote in to protest.
I found Ross' book a highly rewarding read, not just because of the colourful details. Covering more than half a century of German history, from 1890 to 1945, it weaves together a wide variety of subplots to argue its point: the rise of mass media - press, film, gramophone, radio - shaped a new kind of popular culture that changed the nature of politics, and would be rather skilfully exploited by the Nazis. Ross shows that, since the 1890s, the new mass media gradually moved consumerism and politics closer. Election campaigns began to rely on advertising techniques, and ordinary people began to expect constant sensory input. "A new sensual landscape of popular culture" was born, leading to the rise of early forms of "politainment".
Ross gets as close as possible to the mass audiences of the time to reconstruct their experiences and expectations. It is a brave endeavour, given the obvious difficulties and the scarcity of suitable sources. But his efforts are repaid. The inclusion of overlooked media - recorded sound and advertisements - ensures a fuller picture of how average people were exposed to mass media. Most media histories do not mention dance halls and shop window displays, but this one does. (We learn about a butcher sculpting Hitler's bust out of lard and bakers selling swastika-shaped loaves - zeal that was not approved by the leadership.) It also helps that Ross, unlike some German historians, is not opposed to fun. He defends the masses' right to simple pleasures against the efforts of contemporary bourgeois elites to censor "smut and trash" and to use the mass media as tools of education.
Mass entertainment was not false consciousness, not manipulation or distraction from real needs, Ross insists, but an art form. Here, as elsewhere, Ross' main focus is on class. His imagined audience is urban, male and working class; women's experiences are accounted for but hardly shape the argument.
Defending mass culture has its perils when Hitler's rise to power looms in the background. This is why the book's chapters on Weimar are worth a closer look. Guided not by the bourgeois discourse about mass culture but by patterns of media use, Ross concludes that Weimar's cultural modernity was limited. Nor did the spread of radio, sound film and other mass media promote social levelling and cultural uniformity; new media could even reinforce class distinctions and deepen the urban-rural cleft. The contribution of mass media to the making of modern Germany rather lay in the expectations fuelled by advertising and constant visual and aural stimulation.
Politicians of all parties, relying on concepts of "mass psychology" and marketing, debated how to access voters' emotions, entertain the public and win the "battle of images". The anti-republican movements, most of all the Nazis, ran emotionally engaging campaigns, assaulting the senses with images, rituals and innovative lighting. By contrast, the governing parties were stuck with the democratic but dry rationality of civic education courses. The republic ran up a "sensory deficit" via a lack of rituals and symbols, which made it vulnerable in a nation of tabloid readers and cinemagoers.
On the whole, Ross' points mesh well with most of the current research on Weimar culture and National Socialist propaganda. While his study does not break entirely new ground, it admirably pulls diverse strands together to make a convincing argument. The book is clearly written and thus extremely useful as a synthesis of popular culture and politics between 1890 and 1945. My students will be treated to Ross' chapters on Nazi propaganda, which are far better than other texts available. But the book might also appeal to the general reader with an interest in the roots of Nazism.
Media and the Making of Modern Germany: Mass Communications, Society and Politics from the Empire to the Third Reich
By Corey Ross
Oxford University Press
Published 14 August 2008