The unreal republic

The Weimar Republic Sourcebook
August 4, 1995

When Siegfried Kracauer reviewed The Blue Angel, he suggested that the film was "a private tragedy that in this version and today concerns no one very much", because it affirmed a forgetting and concealment within the republic. What is disclosed as a subtext in the Kracauer piece is how the Weimar Republic was a battleground of contending forces - the old versus the new, generation against generation, ideology contra ideology.

Many of the 3 documents contained in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook testify to acts of containment in which reality was covered up or disposed of in the name of illusion. The editorial selection clearly acknowledges this. While giving due prominence to the exciting mass and high cultural developments of the time, the use of other contemporary materials necessarily goes beyond the standard models of political, constitutional, and economic writing to embrace something of the "history of everyday things".

This is one of the ways we have read a society which had a botched birth and an ignominious death. As Count Harry Kessler wrote in his diary when he attended the swearing-in of Friedrich Ebert as Weimar's first president: "All very decorous but lacking go, like a confirmation in a decent middle-class home." A Wilhelmine middle-class family, one suggests, rather than one struggling through the fluctuating fortunes of Weimar, where a central contention embedded within the contesting spaces of modernity was the search for wholeness, whether coming from the extreme right, the centre, or the extreme left.

Theodor Heuss observed that everybody had become "infatuated" with the idea that "Democracy 'atomises' the people by turning the individual, as a fundamental elector cut off from the social estate and heritage, into a political factor", thereby fragmenting the "German spirit". Of course, such notions, as Heuss pointed out, were not peculiarly German. As many of the documents illustrate, artistic and cultural commonplaces were being fed not only into words such as organicism, Volk, Fuhrer, and Reich by manipulators and underminers, but also into corporatism and rationalisation within mainstream groups.

Social reform, as the trades unionists and the Social Democrats saw it, could be achieved through technological progress: workers' councils and employer/employee co-operation were enshrined in Article 165 of the constitution, where "Workers and employees are called upon to co-operate, on an equal footing, with employers in the regulation of wages and the conditions of labor, as well as in the general development of the productive forces."

The differences between what contending factions thought of the rationalisation of industry had their effects in other areas of social and cultural life. If Weimar design-architectural groups are synonymous with modernity, several extracts in this sourcebook strike one as being portentous in their dealings with the physical and psychological construction of a post-war world and often feed into organic fantasies of omnipotence at once frightening and amusing.

The socialist architect, Bruno Taut, sometime advocate of a return to the country from the urban horror of the cities, could unintentionally echo the traditionalist "Blood and Soil" movement and develop a specifically American approach. In his The New Dwelling: the Woman as Creator, he writes of the house as a "space where a woman will adopt a new organisation for her work and, with due consideration to the given circumstances, arrange to perform individual chores (. . .) according to a plan." His thoughts on mass housing illuminate not only how "scientific" rationalisation would show how a woman's "energies could best be extended", but point to a concern about the woman's place in Weimar society.

Elsa Herrmann wrote of the "New Woman" in 1929 that she "has set herself the goal of proving in her work and deeds that the representatives of the female sex are not second-class persons exisiting in dependence and obedience." All well and good, but the principle of wife and mother first was hard to eradicate and the image of the woman was often connected to "Americanism", a malaise that Stefan Zweig called "that terrible wave of uniformity that gives everyone the same". In order to overcome this conformity, Gottfried Benn argued that man would throw his civilised trappings aside, at which point he would ponder "his incalculably ancient but unrelenting murderous, anti-dualistic, anti-analytical struggle and rouse himself once again to a final formula: constructive intelligence."

The cultural pessimism of the Weimar Republic is a strong thread in the The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, and the compilation runs from government documents, through book extracts, to on-the-hoof journalism, and is divided into six sections which embrace 30 specific chapters dealing with such topics as democracy, the rise of Nazism, mass media, the Jewish community, sexuality, design, and crime. The writers include everyone from 1932's Miss Germany to Horkheimer, Hitler to Ossietzky. The cultural atomism shown in this book feeds into a dialogue and by cross-referencing, the reader is able to go some way towards a coherent picture of cultural, political, and social life in the Weimar period. There are useful introductions to each section, while the political chronology and the brief biographies give a succinct view of Weimar history. It seems strange, however, that the editors should defend their right to retain "instances of offensive racist and sexist language": the book clearly tells us something about our own Alltagsgeschichte.

Paul Titchmarsh has taught 19th and 20th-century literature at King's College, London and in eastern Germany.

The Weimar Republic Sourcebook

Editor - Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg
ISBN - 0 520 06774 6
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - $55.00
Pages - 826

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