Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Warning from History

Potsdamer Platz, the heart of Berlin, seen from the renowned Café Josty. The famed traffic light is in the middle, and all around is the hustle and bustle of modern urban life—cars, streetcars, trucks, and pushcarts, and everywhere people walking, talking, and watching. SV-Bilderdienst/Scherl.

“Life was a complicated thing, threatened by the pulls of desire and death. Order and stability were ephemeral achievements,” Eric D. Weitz writes of Thomas Mann’s 1925 novel The Magic Mountain in his new study of the period, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. That description neatly encapsulates Weitz’s take on all the Weimar Republic, so full of hopeful promise after the deprivations of World War I and yet so divided by internal fissures that any permanent foundation could never be built. Weitz provides a panoramic view of Weimar, from the political intrigue in circles of power to the everyday life of men and women in the street (such as the Potsdamer Platz, above) to the lives and works of the artists hoping to bridge the gaps between those worlds and hold that common dream together.

A Berlin street scene 1926: the new woman out and about.

Using the writings of contemporary authors such as Mann, Joseph Roth, Christopher Isherwood, and Franz Hessel, Weitz leads us on a tour of Weimar Berlin, bringing all the sounds and sights of the streets back to life. “Just follow the unplanned adventure that happens to capture the eye,” Weitz quotes from Hessel. Electrical light brings a modern vibrancy to the city, even as the wounded veterans of The Great War haunt the shadows. Strikingly modern advertising, much of it either targeting the “new woman” or playing off her newfound allure, appears everywhere. “The streets did not thunder, they played music, a love song to the women of Berlin,” one contemporary author wrote. This “new woman” (examples of which appear above) emerges everywhere in German society, “an image of elegance and refinement, of activity and athleticism, and one that flowed from its bourgeois origins to working women, from the capital city to the provinces,” Weitz writes. The “new woman” also provides a very clear target for conservatives who see modern Berlin as “artificial” and even “parasitical,” literally draining the resources of the country in its pursuit of pleasure.

After setting the stage in terms of the social network and politics of the period (which shifted from a period of Left-Center control from 1918 through 1923 to Center-Right from 1924 to 1929 and, finally, authoritarian Right from 1930 to 1933, when the Nazis assumed full control), Weitz weaves into his narrative the impact of the arts on society. He sees George Grosz’s satiric art as indicative of how “the savagery of total war undermined deference toward authority,” leading to the disobedience and disrespect of the German people that undermined much of the Weimar reforms. In contrast, Weitz resurrects the Crystal Chain artists, a group whose letters to one another reflect German Expressionism’s forgotten “utopian tenor, a bold imagining of a harmonious and beautiful future.” “Where are you, prophets?—the heralds of the new life, telling of the new suns—moons—and stars! The millions await you!” one Crystal Chain artist breathlessly expounded. Although most exhibits today examine the angst-ridden side of German Expressionism, this strain of the movement that hoped to transform all of society through art equally captured contemporary artists’ imaginations. Later, the New Objectivity movement, led by Grosz, Otto Dix, Christian Schad, and others, picks up some of this hopeful thread during the stable middle period of Weimar, but replacing, at least in the works of Schad, the breathless fervor with “modulated tones and clean lines.”

Erich Mendelsohn, Einstein Tower, built 1920–24. Mendelsohn was one of Weimar Germany's most prominent and successful architects. The Tower was built as a laboratory and observatory in which Einstein's theories would be tested. Mendelsohn sought to capture in form the essence of relativity theory. He might not have succeeded in that venture, but the smooth exterior, recessed windows, absence of ornamentation, and overall beauty mark the building as a strikingly original example of modern architecture. On his first visit, Einstein reputedly said in admiration, “Organic!” Here the building is shown following an extensive, very successful renovation in the 1990s. Author’s photograph.

Architecture offers the most concrete means of transforming society. Architects such as Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, and Erich Mendelsohn design new buildings for the new German to live, shop, work, and study in that contrast starkly with their older surroundings. Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower (above), his first building, housed an observatory and laboratory to test Albert Einstein’s theories by researching the sun’s light. “Organic!” Einstein himself gushed upon seeing it for the first time, struck by how seamlessly the building harmonized with its natural surroundings. As with the bright side of Expressionism, Weitz goes boldly beyond the familiar Bauhaus to present the intersection and interaction of art and society. Few periods in modern history offer such a rich opportunity to connect contemporary art and society.

Hans Surén, German Gymnastics. A wide variety of individuals and groups advocated nudity as the path to wholeness and, for those on the Right, the revival of the German spirit. Exercises in the nude, bathed in sunlight, would restore the individual and collective body and soul weakened by the corrupting influences of modern society. Surén’s book, Man and Sun, was wildly successful. G. Riebicke, Galerie Bodo Niemann, Berlin.

Even the human body became a work of art, as figures such as Hans Suren cultivated a cult of the body (above), hoping to transform society through the perfection of the individual physically. Sex takes center stage more openly than ever before in German culture. “Germans would leave behind the stuffy, rigid, and authoritarian society of imperial Germany… and a constrained and hypocritical sexual morality,” Weitz shows. “To be modern meant to be democratic, and it also meant a freer, more open attitude toward bodies and sex.” In this new openness, Hannah Hoch, through her striking photomontages, examines the place of the “new woman” in this freer sexual environment. Weitz wonderfully positions Hoch’s work within the conflicting themes of the era, which both celebrated and exploited women and their sexuality. “The panopoly of images” in Hoch’s work, Weitz concludes, “is a controlled chaos, that of modernity itself.”

From an art history perspective, Weitz offers many fascinating takes on the social-cultural interchange of the period. Just by highlighting the hopeful side of Expressionism and raising the profiles of Mendelsohn and Hoch, he adds depth and fullness to the familiar caricature of Weimar. However, I found myself often longing for more. I imagined a discussion of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene (recently exhibited at the Neue Galerie; my review here) adding nuance to Weitz’s virtual “stroll” through Berlin’s streets, especially in the context of the “new woman.” A brief extrapolation into the Nazis’ contrasting vision of architecture as capable of transforming society versus the plans of Mendelsohn et al would have been exciting. The picture of the nearly nude men exercising looks so much like a still from one of Leni Riefenstahl’s films that I can’t believe that Weitz resisted the urge to telescope his vision a little further (or even look back to the art of Hans Thoma for the roots of this body cult in German art and society).

The Tiller Girls, one of a number of very popular female dance revues, renowned for their precision movements and high kicks.

Ultimately, of course, Weitz is a historian, and he excels at tying together so much of the multiverse of Weimar that it seems unfair to complain of what he doesn’t do when he accomplishes so much. With the precision of the dancing Tiller Girls (above), Weitz never missteps in showing the roots and consequences of the Weimar years. Most importantly, like any good historian, Weitz writes with an eye not just on the past but on how the past speaks to the future. “Weimar Germany still speaks to us,” Weitz says at both the beginning and end of the book, “perhaps most often as a warning sign.” Weitz overturns the conventional narrative that Nazism inevitably followed Weimar. “Weimar did not just collapse,” he writes. “It was pushed over the precipice by a combination of the established Right, hostile to the republic from its very founding, and the newer extreme Right.” Arguing that the Nazis never won more than a third of the votes in any free election, Weitz confronts the idea that the German people wanted Nazi rule. Instead, Weitz reveals the nexus of common interests between groups in power that conspired through a chain of events to launch Adolf Hitler and his followers into leadership roles, always believing that their extremism could somehow be "contained."

But how does that speak to today? “Weimar… demonstrates the limits of elections as a criterion for democracy,” Weitz writes. “Democracy needs democratic convictions and a democratic culture that ripple through all the institutions of society, not just the formal political ones.” When the churches, army, and courts all hold views opposite to those held by the majority, they add up to a recipe for disaster, regardless of how votes are tallied. The Nazis stepped into the breach of German disequilibrium when no other group could muster the energy to fill that vacuum. Naomi Klein’s recent book The Shock Doctrine calls this phenomenon “disaster capitalism,” borrowing from the ideas of economist Milton Friedman of how broad changes in governmental policy can only be done in times of social chaos, such as the challenges to civil liberty after September 11th, the free market experimentation in Iraq after the American victory, and the remaking of New Orleans minus the displaced poor after Hurricane Katrina. Weitz never explicitly connects the events of Weimar with those of recent American history, but the implication is crystal clear. One of my favorite documentaries on the Nazi period is the 1998 BBC documentary The Nazis—A Warning from History. Eric D. Weitz’s Weimar Republic: Promise and Tragedy offers a similar warning from history as well as the hopeful argument that even the most seemingly powerful and inevitable political movements are not destined to happen but only require that good people do nothing to stop them.

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of this book as well as the images from the book.]


Tree said...

This is a book I definitely would enjoy! Thanks for this post.

Bob said...

Glad that you enjoyed it, Tree. If you find the period interesting, he really puts it together well.