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Weimar Germany still fascinates us, and now this complex and remarkably creative period and place has the history it deserves. Eric Weitz's Weimar Germany reveals the Weimar era as a time of strikingly progressive achievements--and even greater promise. With a rich thematic narrative and detailed portraits of some of Weimar's greatest figures, this comprehensive history recaptures the excitement and drama as it unfolded, viewing Weimar in its own right--and not as a mere prelude to the Nazi era.
Weimar Germany tells how Germans rose from the defeat of World War I and the turbulence of revolution to forge democratic institutions and make Berlin a world capital of avant-garde art. Setting the stage for this story, Weitz takes the reader on a walking tour of Berlin to see and feel what life was like there in the 1920s, when modernity and the modern city--with its bright lights, cinemas, "new women," cabarets, and sleek department stores--were new. We learn how Germans enjoyed better working conditions and new social benefits and listened to the utopian prophets of everything from radical socialism to communal housing to nudism. Weimar Germany also explores the period's revolutionary cultural creativity, from the new architecture of Erich Mendelsohn, Bruno Taut, and Walter Gropius to Hannah Höch's photomontages and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's theater. Other chapters assess the period's turbulent politics and economy, and the recipes for fulfilling sex lives propounded by new "sexologists." Yet Weimar Germany also shows how entrenched elites continually challenged Weimar's achievements and ultimately joined with a new radical Right led by the Nazis to form a coalition that destroyed the republic.
Thoroughly up-to-date, skillfully written, and strikingly illustrated, Weimar Germany brings to life as never before an era of creativity unmatched in the twentieth century-one whose influence and inspiration we still feel today.
"An engaging representation of the cultural climate of Weimar Germany in a variety of areas."--Faith Anne Scott, eHistory
"Eric Weitz paints Weimar--actually Berlin, nothing much ever happened in Weimar--as suffering from a split personality: vibrant and creative, on the verge of modernity; and sullen, backward-looking and afraid."--Harry Eagar, Maui News
"[Weitz tells] a story that continues to attract us three-quarters of a century later as lived experience, a story that, while it ended badly, should not sit perpetually in Hitler's shadow. . . . Perhaps the best single-volume history available in English."--John Kappes, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy is an impressive work, interesting, well researched and creatively written. . . . He includes many important observations on Weimar politics and economics, but the greatest strength of the book is its treatment of Weimar culture and particularly the crucial place of Berlin in that history. . . . It is a significant addition to the literature on Weimar Germany and should be read by everyone interested in the period."--Paul Bookbinder, European History Quarterly
"Weitz is at his best when examining the vibrant cultural life of Weimar and the many individuals whose work both evoked and manifested the hope that a better society would emerge from the ruins of the old."--Irene Guenther, European Legacy
"Weitz has done a fine job of integrating much of this material (highlighted in a short bibliographic essay) into a fresh new synthesis. His particularly judicious selection of illustrations--color plates and black and white--makes the volume a well-rounded resource for students and scholars alike."--Ulf Zimmermann, H-Net Reviews
"A valuable read for those interested in what came before as well as later."--NYMAS Review
"Weitz has penned an outstanding book. He gives the message of 'Berlin is Weimar; Weimar is Berlin' its most stimulating, colorful, and elegant voicing. Weitz's Weimar is visually stunning. With inviting, even friendly, prose he guides the reader through the sights and sounds of Berlin. . . . Weitz's structure is clean yet rounded; functional yet playful; revolutionary yet organic. . . . His bibliographic essay is a model of concision."--Kevin Ostoyich, The Historian
"[A]s the discussion of right-wing discourses, parties, and movements progresses, one is struck again by the author's ability to tie specific example to general trend. Like his account of the republic's beginning, Weitz's depiction of the end is a taut, clear narrative that delivers thought-provoking analysis."--Theodore F. Rippey, Monatshefte
University of Minnesota history professor Weitz takes readers on a walk through Weimar Republic-era Berlin in the footsteps of a 1920s flâneur, an urban ambler. Wandering among cafes and department stores, Weitz notices the "New Women," the jazz bands, the prostitutes, the beggars, the war wounded. He considers how radio and motion pictures changed public gatherings, internationalizing mass entertainment. Separate chapters, with a wealth of well-chosen illustrations, explore Weimar's new theories of architecture, graphic arts, photography, theater, philosophy and sexuality. Weitz selects key exemplars of each discipline-Brecht, Weill, Mann, Bruno Taut, Erich Mendelsohn, August Sander, László Moholy-Nagy, Hannah Höch, Siegfried Kracauer, etc.-for in-depth focus before turning to the backlash that their radicalism aroused. In his closing discussion of the collapse of the republic, Weitz elaborates on the right's resistance to modernization, as well as the overall fragility of the democratic spirit. A lively style and excellent illustrations make this intellectually challenging volume accessible to both academics and armchair scholars. 8 color (not seen by PW) and 52 b&w photos. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Weitz (history, Univ. of Minnesota; Creating German Communism, 1890-1990) has produced an elegant and captivating study of Germany's Weimar years, that turbulent period from 1918 to 1933 when the old German society seemed to break apart. In this period, Germany became a constitutional democracy, the arts blossomed, modern and liberal ideas flourished, and the economic and political situation staggered from one crisis to another, ending in the Nazi ascendance to power. This period is often treated as simply the forerunner to the Nazi era, but Weitz shows that it was far more than that. Leading readers through the sights and sounds of Berlin and into the worlds of politics, economics, daily life, material culture, sexual liberation, and, finally, the revolution and counterrevolution from the Right, he concludes that the Nazi era was not inevitable. To reach this point, Weitz has synthesized in clear and engaging fashion a great deal of the huge primary and secondary literature of Weimar, taking into consideration the social and political circumstances of Western Europe between the wars. This book will undoubtedly be assigned to college students, but it will reward anyone interested in this fascinating and pivotal era. If you have only one book on the Weimar period, this should be it. For all libraries.
A defeated army on its return home is never a pretty sight. The bandaged wounds, the missing limbs, the hobbled walk on crutches seem even more ghastly shadowed by the sullen mood of the bedraggled soldiers (fig. 1.1). But on 10 December 1918, the chairman of the Council of People's Representatives, Friedrich Ebert, in office for just a month, sought to put a brave face on his greetings to the returning soldiers who had been defeated in battle.
Comrades, welcome in the German Republic, welcome in the homeland, which has yearned for you.... Joyfully we welcome you back in the homeland.... No enemy has prevailed over you. Only when the opponent's superiority of men and matériel became ever more oppressive did we give up the struggle.... You have protected the homeland from the enemy's invasion. You have saved your women and children, your parents, from the murder and fire of war. You have saved Germany's fields and workshops from devastation and destruction. For that we at home thank you from the very depths of our being.
Ebert, who had supported the war and had lost two sons to it, could not venture to critique the war as a tragic waste of human lives and material resources. He still sought meaning in the venture.
But he also sought to prepare the soldiers for the vast changes at home. The old rulers, who had weighed like a curse on Germany, have been shunted aside by the German people. We are now the masters of our own destiny, he claimed, and the future of German freedom rests on you, the returning soldiers. "Nobody has suffered more than you from the injustice of the old regime. We were thinking of you when we cleared out that doomed system. For you we fought for freedom, for you we've established the rights of labor." We cannot greet you with rich offerings and comforts. Our "unhappy country has become poor," and the victors burden us with harsh demands. "But out of the destruction we want to shape a new Germany."
More than thirteen million men, 19.7 percent of Germany's 1914 population, served in the army during World War I. Nearly eight million of them were still in arms on 11 November 1918, when the armistice was signed. They had gone to war, so they had been told, to defend the Fatherland against the barbaric Russians, who threatened to wreak chaos and destruction on German soil; against the Belgians and French, who had designs on German land and German women; against the British and Americans, who coveted German goods and feared German economic competition. Not all Germans had gone to war willingly; in the summer of 1914, stirring calls for peace and negotiations had also resounded in towns and cities. There were pacifists like the young architect Bruno Taut and radical socialists like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who opposed the conflict as the ultimate manifestation of capitalism's inhumanity. But those voices were ultimately drowned out by the headlong rush to war spearheaded by Kaiser Wilhelm II, his generals, and his civilian government. However much democracy had progressed in Germany in the decades before World War I, the army and the government still served at the behest of the kaiser, not of the Reichstag and certainly not of the electorate.
No soldier drafted into the German army in World War I began his march home on 11 November 1918 as the same man he had been in 1914 or 1916 or even in September and October 1918, when draftees were still being sent to the front. No returning soldier found his family and his village, town, or city in the same condition as he had left it. The sheer number of casualties had been too great. In Elkenroth, a tiny village of about 700 people in Rheinland-Pfalz, 91 men served in the army during the war, 21 percent of whom died and another 23 percent of whom came back wounded. Every inhabitant of the village was directly affected by the loss of life or the physical and psychic damage of the war. All told, roughly 2 million German men were killed and 4.2 million wounded in World War I. Around 19 percent of the entire male population were direct casualties of the violence of the war. Many of the survivors lived the rest of their lives with appalling physical and psychological wounds. Some were spirited away by their families or attempted of their own volition to endure life in bitter isolation from society. Yet the war-wounded, masks covering faces that had been blown away, dark glasses covering blinded eyes, wheelchairs replacing the gait of the walker, were everywhere visible on the streets of Germany's cities and towns in the postwar decade. Physicians had to deal also with a new "disease," shell shock, the autism and tremors that soldiers developed in reaction to ceaseless bombardments in damp and dirty trenches.
When the soldiers disembarked from the trains that eventually carried them home, they found that the women left behind had endured their own ordeal. Everywhere food rationing had been instituted by the spring of 1915, but food shortages nonetheless became the daily reality. In the winter of 1916-17, children five to seven years old in Essen were allotted only one-quarter liter of milk three times per week. The city authorities noted that the bread was almost unpalatable because of all sorts of additives-bean flour and sometimes even sawdust-used to compensate for the shortages of wheat and rye. The infamous "turnip winter" of 1916-17 was indeed reality for many Germans. Many years later, one man, a schoolboy during the war, remembered eating turnips for breakfast, unpacking the school lunch his mother had sent him to find turnips, and going home to a dinner of still more turnips.
Women had also gone to work in the munitions factories. The extent of the transformation has often been exaggerated, since before 1914 large numbers of women already labored in Germany's industrial plants. But the demands of total war, of an economy and society that were completely mobilized to support Germany's army in the field, meant that many women moved into metalworking and munitions factories. Where once they had been few in number and hired only as helpers, now they became numerous and skilled machine operatives. At Krupp in Essen, Germany's major munitions factory, the company in August 1914 employed only 963 women out of a total workforce of 41,764. By mid-1917, the workforce had tripled in size, and one-quarter, 28,664 in total, were women. Before the war most of the women had worked as cleaners and kitchen staff. By 1917, they were filling casings with gunpowder, polishing metal, and working the lathes and drill presses that kept production moving.
The work was hard, the conditions deplorable. Alfred Döblin, one of Weimar Germany's master novelists, in A People Betrayed, had one of his characters, Minna Imker, describe to her brother, newly returned from the front, the conditions she endured in a Berlin munitions plant. She worked long hours for minimal pay. Her hair had turned green from the gunpowder in the factory. But it was not only bosses and foremen and the extreme conditions of war that created such misery for her.
We were doing piece work. The men were in charge of regulating the machines. Sometimes there would be six lathes to one man. In the meantime you just stand around and time passes and you know you'll get fired. He's happily working away at his girlfriend's lathe. The rest can wait. Ed, I've stood there sometimes so wild with anger. And when they're eating and drinking, what do they talk about if not the horses? Women. They passed the word to each other who was good in bed. They exploited our misery just like the owners. Or Wilhelm and his generals.
Women also spent countless hours searching for food and fuel. Grandmothers and aunts took to the queues, waiting for meager rations of bread, while younger women worked their shifts in the factories. Hordes of women and youth spread out over railroad yards to pick up chunks of coal that had fallen from trains, or rummaged through fields like gleaners depicted in the Bible. As women engaged in more active protests, sometimes invading and looting stores or markets, the police reacted with a mix of exasperation, outrage, and empathy. The Berlin police reported as early as 1915 that "there are innumerable families who are going day after day without butter or other fats, and who are forced to eat their bread dry and to prepare their food without cooking fat.... Even good, faithful patriots have begun to turn into pessimists." The police admitted that they "hated [taking] drastic measures toward women." The "hours-long, often fruitless wait of housewives" made them easily susceptible to political agitation, in the view of the police.
The burdens of industrial labor and food hunts were great, but far worse was the loss of loved ones, the husbands, brothers, and lovers who never returned from France, Belgium, or Russia. Those who did come home were often physically and psychically wounded. The pain of the loss would always remain, and was captured best, perhaps, by the artist and pacifist Kathe Kollwitz. She lost her only son in the first months of the war and spent years trying to exorcise her loss through her art. The sculpture Mother and Son (fig. 1.2), commonly known as The Pieta which she finally completed in 1937-38, is a searingly sad commentary on the waste of war. The artistic creation did little to assuage her own pain, which mirrored the ache felt by so many German mothers.
Yet the experience of the war years, for all of the horrors at the front and difficulties at home, was also liberating for many women and men. The fury of war destroyed numerous social and artistic conventions. The Weimar era, with its heady enthusiasms, its artistic experimentation, its flaunting of sexuality and unconventional relations, its vibrant, kinetic energy, was a direct result of the vast disruptions of World War I, the distorted reverberations of its crashing destructiveness. An intense desire to grasp life in all its manifold dimensions, to experience love, sex, beauty, and power, fast cars and airborne flight, theater and dance crazes, arose out of the strong sense of the ephemeral character of life, of lives so quickly snuffed out or forever ruined by bullet wounds and gas attacks.
For many women, the factory and the city got them away from the strict gaze of parents, pastors or priests, and village gossips. As hard as the labor was, money in their own hands gave them a sense of emancipation that would carry over into the Weimar years. The forces of order-state officials, police, foremen and managers, even their own fathers, husbands, and brothers-watched all this with great trepidation. Together, they would try to ensure that the postwar factory would remain a man's world, but their success would be limited. Women would be removed from some sectors, like metalworking. But overall, the economy needed their labor-paid so much more cheaply than men's-and women needed jobs to support themselves and their families, so never was the entire female population consigned to the household.
The war also destroyed conventional notions of respectability and faith in authority. This was, after all, a war instigated by the elites of Germany and Europe. This was total war, the first of its kind, and the state assumed great responsibilities, managing everything in sight, including labor, raw materials, and the food supply. It also attempted to manage sexuality, threatening women who took lovers with the loss of their soldiers' wives' allowances. The state also promised great things, a prosperous, powerful Germany after the victory, a Germany that stood astride the continent. From that position Of dominance, the benefits would flow to every member of the national community. But when, by the third year of war, the promises seemed increasingly hollow, many Germans began to attack the symbols and institutions that they had followed into war. Officials noted nervously the murmurings of discontent, the snide references to the once-sacred symbols of Germany, the imperial family and the officer corps, the disrespect shown to foremen and managers. The artist George Grosz captured these sentiments perfectly in many of his drawings and paintings, like The Faith Healers (fig. 1.3), which shows army officers and physicians declaring even a skeleton fit for military service. Grosz's distorted depictions of aristocratic army officers and self-impressed bureaucrats reflected the loathing that so many Germans felt for their elites. Never an easygoing character, Grosz had become utterly enraged at the uselessness of the war. For Grosz as for many Germans, the savagery of total war undermined deference toward authority, and obedience and respect would never be wholly restored in the fourteen years of the republic.
* * *
On 21 March 1918, the German army had launched its last great offensive on the western front. It threw everything possible into the battle: soldiers, reserves, munitions. The campaign lasted two weeks, and the army accomplished some advances but could never achieve a clear breakthrough of the Allied defenses. The malnourished German troops fell upon the provisions they found when they took the Allies' first lines, and all the threats of their officers could not get them to move on until they were satiated. That was only one of the reasons that the German advance failed. Germany no longer had the human and material resources to do anything more than try to hold the existing positions. The military command ordered smaller offensives in the subsequent months, the last around Reims in July, and these were even less successful. In late July and August, the Allies regained the initiative and even sent German troops fleeing in panic with a tank attack near Cambrai on 8 August 1918.
Still, it took weeks for the authorities to come to grips with the reality of Germany's desperate situation. At the very end of September, in a fit of panic-which they would later try to cover up-the two leaders of the Supreme Military Command, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, approached Kaiser Wilhelm II and told him that Germany had to request an armistice. Ludendorff had been aware for months of Germany's severe military and economic deficiencies, yet had hidden the truth from the kaiser and the civilian government. The German population, still promised great things, knew even less. But Ludendorff especially was already looking to the future, and wanted to foist the responsibility for the disaster onto a civilian government based on the parliamentary parties (and not just the kaiser's wishes), and thereby preserve the pristine stature of the officer corps and the German army. The kaiser, reportedly, was taken aback, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff insisted that he initiate contacts with the American government to bring the war to an end.
America had entered the war only in April 1917. In his famous "Fourteen Points" address to Congress on 8 January 1918 and in subsequent statements and speeches, President Woodrow Wilson had promised a just and lasting peace, one that ensured every nation the possibility of free development.
There shall be no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages.... National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. "Self-determination" is ... an imperative principle of action, which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril.
After Germany's blatant disregard of Belgian neutrality, and the ravages of French, Belgian, and Russian territory and populations, Ludendorff and Hindenburg knew that the only hope for a reasonable peace offer for Germany lay with the Americans. They understood that the Americans would need some sign of domestic reform before they would negotiate seriously with Germany. They also wanted to shift the blame for the impending defeat from the kaiser and army onto the parliament. In their hour of desperation, the two archauthoritarians, the generals who had spent two years directing a military dictatorship over Germany, initiated a process of democratization.
Excerpted from Weimar Germany by Eric D. Weitz Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 13, 2010
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