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Vol. 30 No. 2 · 24 January 2008
Diary

Memories of Weimar

Eric Hobsbawm

2377 words

I spent the most formative time of my life, the years 1931-33, as a Gymnasiast and would-be Communist militant, in the dying Weimar Republic. Last autumn I was asked to recall that time in an online German interview under the title ‘Ich bin ein Reiseführer in die Geschichte’ (‘I am a travel guide to history’). Some weeks later, at the annual dinner of the survivors of the school I went to when I came to Britain, the no longer extant St Marylebone Grammar School, I tried to explain the reactions of a 15-year-old suddenly translated to this country in 1933. ‘Imagine yourselves,’ I told my fellow Old Philologians, ‘as a newspaper correspondent based in Manhattan and transferred by your editor to Omaha, Nebraska. That’s how I felt when I came to England after almost two years in the unbelievably exciting, sophisticated, intellectually and politically explosive Berlin of the Weimar Republic. The place was a terrible letdown.’

The cover of Eric Weitz’s excellent and splendidly illustrated Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy brings back memories.* It shows the old Potsdamer Platz long before its transformation into a ruin at the hands of Hitler and into Disneyland architecture in the reunified Germany. Not that daytime cafés full of men in trilbys like my uncle were the habitat of Berlin teenagers. We were more likely to think of boats on the Wannsee, a place not yet associated with planned genocide.

It is hard to remember, though Hitler made it the staple of his rhetoric in the ironic plethora of voting that took place in its last year, that the republic lasted only 14 years, and of these just six, sandwiched between a murderous birth-period and the terminal catastrophe of the Great Slump, had a semblance of normality. The massive international interest in it is largely posthumous, the consequence of its overthrow by Hitler. It was primarily this that raised the question of Hitler’s rise to power and whether it could have been avoided, questions that are still debated among historians. Weitz concludes, with many others, that ‘there was nothing inevitable about this development. The Third Reich did not have to come into existence,’ but his own argument drains most of the meaning out of this proposition. In any case, it was clear to those of us who lived through 1932 that the Weimar Republic was on its deathbed. The only political party specifically committed to it was reduced to 1.2 per cent of the vote and the papers we read at home debated what room there was in politics for its supporters.

It was also Hitler who produced the community of refugees who came to play a disproportionately prominent part in their countries of refuge and to whom Weimar’s memory owes so much. Certainly they were far more prominent, except in the world of ballet, than the much larger post-1917 Russian emigration. They may have made little impact on the old entrenched professions – medicine, law – but their impact on more open fields, and eventually on science and public life, was quite remarkable. In Britain émigrés transformed art history and visual culture, as well as the media through the innovations of Continental publishers, journalists, photographers and designers.

For the basic achievements of the Weimar Republic and the reasons non-Germans take an interest in it are not political but intellectual and cultural. The word today suggests the Bauhaus, George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Walter Benjamin, the great photographer August Sander and a number of remarkable movies. Weitz picks out six names: Thomas Mann, Brecht, Kurt Weill, Heidegger and the less familiar theorist Siegfried Kracauer and the artist Hannah Höch. One could as easily add, say, Carl Schmitt on the (rare) intellectual right, Ernst Bloch on the far left and the great Max Weber in the middle.

In 1933 only Thomas Mann and a few films had made much of a stir beyond the narrowest of niche-publics outside Central Europe, and possibly a small homosexual subculture which discovered the attractions of Berlin in the final Weimar years. Mann was, of course, an established master even before 1914. He won the Nobel Prize in 1929, though not for his Weimar masterwork, The Magic Mountain, so much as the more ancient Buddenbrooks. But who in England had heard of Franz Marc, whose blue horses adorned the corridor of my Gymnasium until the new regime removed them, together with our republican headmaster?

At that time Paris was the unquestioned capital of the visual arts, Vienna still the native home of both heavy and light music. German was not widely spoken in the West outside the transatlantic diaspora or read outside classical scholarship. Even today only German speakers recognise Brecht not just as a dramatist but as one of the great 20th-century lyric poets. About the only branch of Weimar literature that broke out of the Central European enclosure was the anti-war fiction of the late 1920s, headed by Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Naturally, it was filmed by Universal, the only Hollywood studio headed by a native German.

What, looking back, was so characteristic about the culture of a shortlived German republic that nobody had really wanted and most Germans accepted as faute de mieux at best? Every German had lived through three cataclysmic experiences: the Great War; the genuine, if abortive German revolution which overthrew the defeated Kaiser’s regime; and the Great Inflation of 1923, a brief manmade catastrophe that suddenly made money valueless. The political right, traditionalist, anti-semitic, authoritarian and deeply entrenched in the institutions carried over from the Kaiser’s Reich (I still remember the title of Theodor Plivier’s 1932 book, The Kaiser Went, the Generals Remained), refused the republic totally. It regarded Weimar as illegitimate, the Versailles Treaty as an undeserved national shame, and aimed at getting rid of both of them as soon as possible.

But almost all Germans, including the Communists, were passionately against Versailles and the foreign occupiers. I can still recall as a child seeing from the train the French flag flying on Rhineland fortresses, with a curious sense that this was somehow unnatural. Being both English and Jewish (I was ‘der Engländer’ at school) I was not tempted into the German nationalism of my schoolfriends, let alone into Nazism, but I could well understand the appeal of both to German boys. As Weitz shows, the authoritarian right was always the main danger both politically and, through their persistent and popular hostility to ‘Kulturbolschewismus’, culturally.

The major centrist thinkers – Mann, Max Weber, Walther Rathenau, none of them instinctive democrats, but urged on by fear of the gun-happy right – managed to justify a democratic republic as the necessary successor to an unrestorable Reich. So, of course, did the main parties of the system: the majority Social Democrats, who had not actually wanted the Kaiser to go, and the Catholic Centre, transformed by the revolution from a confessional pressure group into a government party. Beyond these the political left, shaped largely by revulsion against the Great War, shock at the failed revolution of 1918, and hatred of the old ruling class that survived it so well, was no less rejectionist than the right. Joined by half of the anti-war independent breakaway from the Social Democratic Party, the Communist Party acquired a mass base of intransigent working-class opposition. Large enough to block the fashioning of a lasting non-right Weimar regime, this left did not wish to contribute anything to its practical politics except disgust.

For understandable reasons creative artists, radicalised by the horrors of war and the hope and fury left behind by lost revolution, were attracted to it; indeed, there are Weimar figures whose lasting achievement rests primarily on the force of their distaste for the republic. Even genuine high talents like George Grosz and Kurt Weill ceased to be very interesting when, after 1933, they arrived in the US and felt at ease. This was even more the case with lesser talents among the Expressionist writers and artists moved by pain and outrage to find temporarily memorable ways to express humourless emotion at the top of their voices. It was partly against these that Weimar found the nearest thing to its own voice after the Great Inflation, hard-nosed, unsentimental, passionate but cabaret-cool, in the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (‘New Sobriety’). For me, Weimar still speaks now, as it did in 1932, with the voice of Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera, of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, of the underrated Erich Kästner, or of the pawky political chansons of Erich Weinert.

But Weimar was more than a German phenomenon. Weitz, whose book is a superb introduction to its world, probably the best available, gets so many things about it right: not least the Berlin-centredness of Weimar culture, as distinct from pre-1914 Germany with its flourishing artistic centres in Munich and Leipzig. Yet he underestimates its role as a crucible for what after 1917 was the major generator of intellectual and artistic innovation: post-revolutionary Central and Eastern Europe. The prestige of Paris, ‘capital of the 19th century’, obscured the fact that it no longer had major innovations to offer between the wars except for Surrealism, itself largely derived from the multinational Dada of the Zurich Central European refugees.

With its seven thousand-plus periodicals, 38,000 books (in 1927) and the most formidable movie industry outside Hollywood, Germany was a vast market. With the fall of the Habsburg Empire it naturally absorbed the large surplus talent of what remained of Austria. Where would Weimar films be without Vienna, without Fritz Lang, G.W. Pabst, Wilder, Preminger or, for that matter, Peter Lorre? Its stable of stars – Conradt Veidt, Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Elisabeth Bergner – were trained under the Viennese Max Reinhardt, the chief influence on the German-language theatre business. In Berlin my family, themselves migrants from Vienna, went on living a social life largely centred on other Austrian expatriate relatives and friends.

For different but equally obvious reasons Germany was Russia’s major window to the west. Berlin was both the main centre of the anti-Soviet emigration and the first stop on the western excursions of the new Soviet intellectuals and artistic revolutionaries, some of whom published a multilingual review there. Nor indeed should we forget that, in vain expectation of the German revolution, the official language of the Comintern was not Russian but German.

Inevitably, this cultural mix fertilised Weimar and eventually Western culture. The Bauhaus was throughout its existence a collective of Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Russians, Swiss and Dutch. It is characteristic that what amounted to a ‘Constructivist international’, as John Willett described it, was set up by a collection of Hungarians, Dutch, Belgians, Romanians, Soviet Russians and Germans at a meeting in Weimar with prospective headquarters in Berlin. This was the culture that German émigrés imported into their countries of refuge.

The central international role of Weimar Germany in 20th-century science is equally easy to overlook. Einstein and Max Planck gave glory to Berlin, while Göttingen under Max Born was, with Cambridge, the catalyst of the revolution of quantum mechanics, the ‘boy physics’, whose communal idiom, like the language of international Communism, was German. Heisenberg, Pauli, Fermi, Oppenheimer, Teller all worked or studied there. The most dramatic evidence for the centrality of Weimar Germany are the 15 science Nobel Prizes won by Germans in its 14 years, a number it took the subsequent fifty years to equal.

This was the last time Germany was at the centre of modernity and Western thought. It might have held out better if the Weimar Republic had been followed not by Hitler’s wrecking crew but by a more traditional reactionary government. Yet in retrospect this option was as unreal as was the prospect of stopping Hitler’s rise by a comprehensive anti-Fascist union. The fact is that no one, right, left or centre, got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism, a movement of a kind that had not been seen before and whose aims were rationally unimaginable. Not even his intended victims fully recognised the danger. After the summer election of 1932 which left the Nazis as much the largest party, but short of a majority, the (Jewish) editor of the Tagebuch, a left-liberal weekly we took at home, published an article whose headline struck me even then as suicidal. I still see it before me: ‘Lasst ihn heran!’ (‘Why not let him in!’) A few months later, with very different intentions, the reactionaries around the aged President Hindenburg manoeuvred Hitler into office thinking that he could be controlled.

All attempts to make the Weimar Republic look more firmly established and stable, even before the world economic cataclysm broke its back, are historical whistling in the dark. It moved briefly through the debris of a dead but unburied past towards a sudden but expected end and an unknown future. For our parents it promised only an unrecoverable past, while we dreamed of great tomorrows; my ‘Aryan’ schoolmates in the form of a national rebirth, Communists like myself, as the universal revolution initiated in October 1917.

Even its few years of ‘normality’ rested on the temporary quiescence of a volcano that could have erupted at any time. The great man of the theatre, Max Reinhardt, knew this. ‘What I love,’ he said, ‘is the taste of transience on the tongue – every year might be the last.’ It gave Weimar culture a unique tang. It sharpened a bitter creativity, a contempt for the present, an intelligence unrestricted by convention, until the sudden and irrevocable death. Moments when one knows history has changed are rare, but this was one of them. That is why I can still see myself walking home from school with my sister on the cold afternoon of 30 January 1933, reflecting on what the news of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor meant. A few days later someone brought the duplicating machine of the SSB, my Communist schools organisation, to store under my bed. They thought it would be safer in the flat of a foreigner. But from now on nowhere was safe. Still, it was a strange and wonderful time in which to discover oneself and the world in a Berlin that looked like the potential capital of the 20th century, until the barbarians took over. When I go there today, I still feel it has never recovered from 1933.

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Letters

Vol. 30 No. 3 · 7 February 2008

The (Jewish) editor of the Tagebuch who published the article ‘Lasst ihn heran!’ (‘Why not let him in!’) which struck the young Eric Hobsbawm as ‘suicidal’ was Leopold Schwarzschild, the most brilliant, but now largely forgotten German journalist of the interwar period (LRB, 24 January). Under his leadership the Tagebuch, which was founded by my great-grandfather Stefan Grossmann in 1920, provided the most substantive analyses of the last years of the Weimar Republic. When it returned as the Neue Tagebuch in Paris in July 1933, it quickly established itself as the leading exile publication and reported authoritatively and consistently on the preparations for war that had begun almost immediately after Hitler’s assumption of power. Indeed, Schwarzschild warned in the first issue of the Neue Tagebuch that ‘“war" was the only area in which the National Socialist movement was completely clear and unambiguous’ and therefore a ‘gradual, but unstoppable descent into some form of violent conflagration’ was inevitable.

He had recommended letting Hitler in in the wake of the regional elections in Prussia in April 1932, in which the NSDAP gained a 36.3 per cent share of the vote, not after the general election three months later as Hobsbawm claims. His argument, based on the premise that the basic democratic institutions of the republic were still intact (an important qualification), was that Hitler would be neutralised if he had to share responsibility for German economic and foreign policy. By the time the general election in the summer produced a 37.3 per cent share for the NSDAP, Franz von Papen was in the middle of dismantling the last vestiges of the Weimar Republic, having already, in breach of the constitution, dismissed the Prussian government. In those conditions any coalition with Hitler was unthinkable for Schwarzschild. In a sense, Hitler’s fortunes had already peaked, as demonstrated by his humiliation by Hindenburg in August and the electoral defeat suffered by the NSDAP in November 1932. As Schwarzschild argued in February 1933, Hitler was already beaten when victory was presented to him.

Andreas Wesemann
London E8

Vol. 30 No. 4 · 21 February 2008

I am puzzled by Eric Hobsbawm’s claim that ‘the prospect of stopping Hitler’s rise by a comprehensive anti-Fascist union’ was ‘unreal’ (LRB, 24 January). Hobsbawm undoubtedly understands the scope and limits of ‘counterfactual’ history far better than I do, but it seems to me that the combined strengths of the Social Democrats and the Communists – electorally, industrially and in street mobilisation – would have been adequate to block Hitler’s rise. Certainly the Social Democrat leaders were treacherous and murderous, but the Communist line of describing Social Democrats as ‘social fascists’ undermined any possibility of unity. Hobsbawm must surely recognise that his former comrades bear a large part of the responsibility for the tragic defeat of 1933.

Ian Birchall
London N9

Eric Hobsbawm refers to many well-known figures in literature, the arts and science whose work placed Weimar Germany ‘at the centre of modernity and Western thought’. A striking omission, as in many discussions of Weimar culture, is any mention of the pre-eminence of German research of that period in psychological as well as physical science, a pre-eminence that was shattered by Nazism and the Second World War. Whether or not Weimar’s political destruction by the Nazis was inevitable, there was nothing inevitable about the way in which the dominance of Gestalt theory and related anti-positivist approaches in the early interwar period was superseded by behaviourism. This was a consequence, not of a clash of paradigms within the academy, but of the destruction of Frankfurt’s world-renowned research programme and the persecution and flight of its leading representatives. Max Wertheimer found refuge, along with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, at the New School for Social Research in New York. They were Jewish, as were Kurt Koffka and Kurt Lewin, who also emigrated to the United States. Wolfgang Köhler, not Jewish, was forced to emigrate after defending his senior Jewish colleagues and junior colleagues accused of Communist sympathies. None of these scientists, in contrast to some émigré German physicists, ever had access to research resources in the US equivalent to those they had lost in Germany. German psychology of the 1930s prefigured many ideas current in modern cognitive science. The Nazis, having destroyed it, went on to refashion the discipline around eugenics and ‘race science’.

Chris Sinha
Havant, Hampshire

Eric Hobsbawm writes: To show that everybody underestimated Hitler before his appointment as chancellor of Germany 75 years ago, even his announced victims, I chose to quote the title of an editorial by Leopold Schwarzschild to the effect that, in the words of your correspondent Andreas Wesemann, ‘Hitler would be neutralised if he had to share responsibility for German economic and foreign policy’ (Letters, 7 February). I did so deliberately, since Schwarzschild was a Jew, deeply opposed to the Nazis and an intelligent and well-informed observer of the political scene. The argument that this was a less suicidal proposition because written after the Prussian elections of April 1932, when the Nazis scored 36.3 per cent of the votes and not (as I mistakenly wrote) the national elections three months later, when they scored 37.4, will not hold water. Hitler could certainly have been stopped in 1932 though not by ‘the basic democratic institutions of the republic’. Indeed, he was blocked by the right in the summer of 1932. But in January 1933 the nationalists and reactionaries may well have been encouraged by the Nazis’ electoral setback in November 1932 in their own suicidal belief that Hitler could be controlled as part of a coalition government of the right. They were mistaken.

Ian Birchall will agree that the Comintern’s lunatic thesis about the ‘social fascism’ of social democracy demonstrates that gross underestimate of the Nazis I noted in my piece. But, even if both sides had been ready for it, which they were not, it may be doubted whether in 1930-32 a common front of Communists and Social Democrats could actually have mobilised sufficient support, let alone force, to stop Hitler coming to power.

Vol. 30 No. 5 · 6 March 2008

Chris Sinha notes incorrectly that Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno found refuge at the New School for Social Research in New York during the 1930s (Letters, 21 February). In fact, Horkheimer, as the director of the Institute of Social Research, had arranged to lease a building from Columbia University and the Frankfurt Institute relocated to Morningside Heights for approximately ten years. Ideologically, the Institute diverged significantly from the New School – and it was better financed, which, as Martin Jay has written, ‘exacerbated’ the differences between the two institutions.

Joshua Rahtz
New York

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