Whirl of the senses that spun to a halt

Berlin in the Twenties
June 29, 2007

Not very long ago, Weimar culture was the darling of the Western world's university and museumculture, providing at once a dazzling firework display of interwar modernism as well as a sad parable of a Germany that was and might have been. For contemporaries and historians alike, 1920s Berlin was Europe's Ground Zero, a veritable free-for-all that emerged from devastating military defeat, crushing war debts, economic chaos and political utopianism of all stripes. Interwar Berlin's star-studded array of artists and architects became renowned the world over, in part because Adolf Hitler's seizure of power in 1933 forced many of what later was called the "Weimar diaspora" to ply their trades elsewhere, from Pacific Palisades to Chicago to Tel Aviv.

Rainer Metzger's Berlin in the Twenties , originally published in German last year, is an effort to catch the "buzz of the city" in the wake of war and revolution. It makes no bones about its non-scholarly presentation, as evidenced in its lack of footnotes and its breathless narrative pace. In it the great and the good - ranging from George Grosz to Walter Gropius, Alfred Doblin to Dadaism, Count Kessler to Siegfried Kracauer - flit across its pages as if in a free-wheeling cabaret number, making hasty cameos under loose chapter headings.

Metzger draws on a fund of well-known memoirs for texture and perfume, calling forth testimonials to Berlin's "whirl of the senses". Anyone looking for strangeness and surprise will be disappointed, however. The great irony here is that the book's aim to revisit Berlin's garish and aggressive 1920s novelty ends up as a trotting out what have become a standard stock of diary entries, anecdotes and witness accounts. War and revolution, which fuelled Weimar culture from the very beginning - including its preoccupation with violence - receive remarkably scant coverage; equally absent is the period's abiding fascination with the new meccas of modernity, New York and Moscow. A number of cavalier assertions also beg elaboration. At one point, modernism is described as "an aesthetic concept that came from America, from the Museum of Modern Art", whereas interwar Berlin's well-documented love affair with transient cultural forms and surface styling (fashion, dance, product design, light shows) is casually attributed to Berlin's (unexplained) awareness "of its own mortality". Much of the book is suffused with the dark foreboding of "inevitable" collapse and "ultimate tragedy," wherein "the path had already been set", as if everyone at the time knew that the end was near.

But even if the text presents little that is new, the accompanying images - nearly 400 of them - are arresting indeed and make a much stronger case for Berlin's frenetic dynamism. The picture editor, Christian Brandstatter, deserves much credit for presenting the book's visual programme with such verve and rhetorical punch. Plenty of the images will be familiar to many readers, such as Bauhaus interiors and "New Objectivity" paintings.

However, peppered throughout are many rare images of Berlin's interwar street culture and its obsession with speed, action and life on the move, as seen in the photographs of Berliners bicycling, dancing, car-racing, strolling and marching in sundry political rallies. If nothing else, these diverse pictures restore the popular dimension to Berlin's muscular modernist culture, something that Metzger's emphasis on the avant-garde all but ignores.

From this perspective, the book can be seen as primarily a coffee-table celebration of Berlin's glory years, a kind of family album of the world's most famous doomed Atlantis. Yet Metzger does advance a bold thesis, if only at the end. He charges the avant-garde with unwittingly undertaking a fatal game in pursuit of "a taste of paradise", whose smashing of all idols and enjoyment of a world turned upside down ultimately played into Hitler's hands.

In Metzger's words, Hitler "found his revolutionaries in the dance halls, in the cinemas, in the revue bars... The mentality that there was indeed such a thing as paradise, and that there might be a second door leading to it, was already embedded in people. It was a product of the golden years of Berlin in the 1920s."

Whatever one thinks about the links between the cultural avant-garde and the Third Reich (and there were many, as others have argued at length), it is the presumed political power he assigns to culture itself that demands further explanation. As it stands, Metzger's abrupt conclusion reads like a slightly embarrassed reckoning with an older generation's glamorous yet reckless youth.

Paul Betts is reader in modern German history, Sussex University.

Berlin in the Twenties: Art and Culture 1918-1933

Author - Rainer Metzger
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 400
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 9780500513545

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