In examining great social and cultural changes in the modern West, many specific events come to mind: the Renaissance and the Reformation, the “discovery” of the Americas, industrialization, and World War Two. One such event, often overlooked, is the “Great War”, 1914-1918. Like every people affected by the expanse of this war, Germans were deeply affected and forever changed. As a social, cultural, and psychological reaction to World War I, the German people created the Weimar Republic, leading to a drastic change in German society and culture. To best understand these changes, a comprehensive analysis of World War I, before, during, and after, is necessary.
What was Germany before World War I? Before World War I, Germany was a Great Power on the cusp of social revolution, like many other European nations. The relatively new empire was struggling with the new working class and the increasing movement for labor rights (Gilbert and Large, 15-19).
Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany when World War I began, was moving his empire toward expansive imperialism and militarism. The political, social, and cultural structure of Germany before World War I was relatively new, but almost instantly powerful and potent. The political structure of Germany, bred of Germany’s attempt at solid unification, was rapidly becoming outdated in the face of labor and the precarious balance of power in Europe, and would soon be put under by World War I. The Bundesrat, like the contemporary House of Lords in the British parliament, was manipulated by the landowning class.
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The Reichstag, created to balance the weight of the Bundesrat, was extremely limited: it could in no way interfere with individual states’ armies, being limited to legislation in the areas of foreign and naval affairs, as well as other relative trivialities like customs and mail (Gilbert and Large, 71).
In spite of Germany’s authoritarian governmental system, some indicators of social progressiveness were apparent. Members of the Reichstag were voted in, and eligible voters included all men over the age of 25. Germany was also ahead of her time in terms of workers’ rights (albeit no nation was timely enough to satisfy the rapidly-growing working class. ) For the most part, however, Germany was the symbol of authoritarianism. The Kaiser himself was an important symbol of this governmental style.
To best understand this politic, one must examine the conditions in which the new German Empire was created: the Germany Wilhelm II was doomed to dominate. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of a relatively new Germany and the ninth King of Prussia, was born in 1859. His education, like many European monarchs at the time, was strict, militaristic, and enforced concepts like authoritarianism and imperialism. He spent time with his grandmother, Queen Victoria of England, and grew to admire his grandmother’s dominating navy (which allowed Britain to expand her colonial interests with relative ease.
) He grew up immersed in Prussian ideas, and was espousing them freely by the time he came to the throne (Clark).
His lust for power was apparent two years after he took the throne in 1888, when he dismissed his chancellor, Otto von Bismarck-a man who, by all accounts, helped to shape the European world Wilhelm wished to dominate. Von Bismarck, after serving several years as an ambassador between 1851 and 1862, returned to Prussia as prime minister, and devoted his energies to uniting Germany. The War of 1866, during which von Bismarck successfully prevented Austria from mingling with Germany, and the Prussian success during the Franco-Prussian (1870-1871), furthered von Bismarck’s ambitions and esteem in new German Empire, the Deutsches Reich, created in 1870 (Clark, 82).
Naturally, the power Prussia exerted over Germania led to King Wilhelm I of Prussia’s title as Emperor of the Reich. This signaled great change for Germans.
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For one, Germany took on a Prussian political system, because of Prussia’s hand in creating the Reich. The positions in which Prussians were appointed were in the upper echelons of government. This was a significant change from the numerous German states which, for centuries, maintained their own autonomy. Also, the alliance of the German states led credence to the concept that Germany could become a dominating European power. Disconcerting to those Germans far removed from Prussia culturally and socially, the power of the new and potent Reich was in the hands of very few people.
Von Bismarck, who became Imperial Chancellor, was answerable to no one but the Emperor himself. Von Bismarck himself decided who stayed and who left, and who was present in the first place, among the states secretaries who administered the Reichstag. Von Bismarck controlled and accomplished much for his new Reich. “Non-binding opinions” were the greatest. The system was described at the time as a “chancellor dictatorship’. Von Bismarck decided upon policy outlines, and made the most important decisions for the Reich in conjunction with the Emperor.
Under von Bismarck, however, came positive changes such as administrative reforms, developing a common currency, a central bank, and a single code of commercial and civil law for Germany. Satisfying the working class and vying with the socialists, Germany offered workers insurance against accident, sickness and old age. It was Bismarck, too, who embraced the “game” of creating alliances with the other European powers. It was he who laid the groundwork for the Austria-Hungary Alliance of 1879 (Clark, 79.
) In spite of (or perhaps because of) von Bismarck’s success in stabilizing and advancing Germany politically, Wilhelm II embraced the Emperor’s ability to control the Reich. He rarely listened to von Bismarck during the first two years of his rule. He luxuriated in his control over the army, and took pleasure in being strict. Because Germany was only recently accelerating as a great power, Wilhelm II felt the need to make up for lost time, and see Germany flower into modern, Prussian-es que glory.
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At the time Germany entered World War I, politics weren’t the only recent change Germans had experienced. Economically, Germany was booming. While the Kaiser was expanding her navy, her merchant marine rivaled that of Great Britain. Between 1887 and 1912, German exports were at 185% if their value pre-1887 (Gilbert and Large, 72).
Armament factories, along with coal and iron mining, were among Germany’s leading industries.
Because the recent industrial revolutions had created a place for a working class, and because Germany was relatively generous to its workers, factory work was an extremely positive influence on the German economy, as exemplified by its then-recent successes. Culturally and socially, too, Germany was on its way upward. Expressionism, a movement which strove to transcend expression through art, was principally a German one, with artists coming from Berlin, Cologne, and Munich (Gilbert and Large, 74; Gay).
Indeed, before World War I, it seemed every aspect of German life was reaching its apogee. Socially, while there was still a huge distinction between classes, the working class was gaining power and respect from the German government, and this influence would be crucial to the formation of the Weimar Republic. Then World War I happened.
This was a war unlike any war fought before, and one of the most dramatic changes in Germany was the style of warfare the people experienced. Machine guns, which debuted in the American Civil War, had now reached a frightening efficiency, with the capability of firing 600 bullets per minute. Naval war technique was more advanced than it had ever been; Germany’s navy excelled above with the use of submarines, or “U-Boats”, capable of “torpedoing” a vessel secretly from a great distance. Tanks, also a new presence in war, and by 1918 were able to fire 13, 000 bullets and over 200 shells at one time. Air warfare was new-although the technology was relatively feeble and airplanes were a small factor in the war, the destruction was not negligible. Trench warfare, the digging of deep trenches by either side and used to maintain the frontline, devastated the countryside (Duffy).
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These advances in technology had a terrifying and devastating effect on the German population. 54% of mobilized German soldiers were killed, a stark number at 1, 718, 000 reported deaths and over twice that number unknown (Marshall).
By the time the Treaty of Versailles was signed, officially ending the war, Germany was heading into a downward spiral-its culture, economy, and society irrevocably forsaken. In terms of assigning blame, enough scholars have covered who did what to whom, and which nation antagonized which. What is crucial to the comprehension of the Weimar Republic and its formation is the German perception of the causes and realities of the war.
The Kaiser was conspicuous as a cause of World War I, and for many Germans, hostility about the war could-when not placed onto the enemy-easily be shifted to him. [T]he Kaiser… was a figure. He was also a construction. And, a figure and a construction which had very different aspects and facets from wherever you look at him. It’s relatively easy to portray the Kaiser as the evil figure, the representation of the horde of the Huns trying to conquer Europe.
The Kaiser had this unfortunate tendency to use strong language. He used irresponsible sentences filled with — verbal of blood and of cruelty and of violence. And, it was very easy to ridicule him inside Germany (and he was certainly the object of a lot of satire and ridicule); … and [easy] to identify the Kaiser with everything that seemed to be not civilized, and that seemed to be militaristic, that seemed to be stiff and formal (Huppauf).
The Kaiser was scrutinized within Germany and by the rest of the world. He was considered a brutish, tactless tyrant, and a future leader in his likeness was appealing to very few. This is important to remember when examining the creation of the Weimar Republic: there was a desire among the German people to escape war, and all things associated with it. This included an authoritarian government and leader.
When the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June of 1919, German fears about the consequence of the war were brought to fruition. The conditions laid upon them by the treaty were rigid, debilitating, and borne from a desire to prevent such a war from happening again. While territories were rearranged and Germany lost 13% of its pre-war territory, and the Rhineland was converted into a demilitarized zone. Upper Silesia, a center for German coal production, was lost, and the Alsace-Lorraine returned to the French (Gilbert and Large, 167).
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In addition to these geographic changes, social and economic restrictions were enforced upon the Germans. The German army, a glamorous way of life for the social elite before World War I, was reduced to 100, 000 men (Gilbert and Large, 168).
The navy was reduced to 12 ships, and the “U-Boat” was forbidden. Even more damning, Germany was forced to pay reparations, which was a literally unaffordable option to Germans after its own war expense. How damaging were the stipulations of the treaty, and what was their effect on the German people? Basically, I think one can say the Treaty was harsh, but understandable. It created in Germany a political climate in which it was exceedingly difficult for a democratic system to develop… Versailles created a political climate in Germany in which the right put all the blame on everything that went sour, onto the Treaty and the lost war. (Mommsen; italics mine) After the devastation of the war, and the crippling effect of the treaty, Germans were ready for change.
In fact, since they had incurred so much change, and a return to pre-World War I Germany seemed impossible, it was natural to create a new world. A world that spurned authoritarianism, imperialism, death, and outdated social standards was the natural antecedent to an empire which embraced such ideals and, in the eyes of the Germans, went head-first into destruction. The Weimar Republic was borne out of this new German psyche. The Kaiser, who abdicated in 1918, seemingly abandoned a Germany in ruin-despite the fact many wanted to see him go. In response to the war, and the politics which Germans perceived brought them to it, the Weimar Republic was created.
However, this government did not appear suddenly on Armistice Day. It was already in the making during the latter years of the war. The greatest wartime change to political Germany came in October of 1918. Prince Max of Baden, hoping to implement a constitutional monarchy, was named chancellor of the Reich when German pressure on the western front was increasing.
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Prince Max was a man in many ways opposite of Wilhelm II: he worked primary on the welfare of prisoners-of-war, and by all accounts detested violence. It was he who realized Germany needed dramatic social and political change to survive the war. However, the liberal views of the new chancellor were not enough to quell unrest in the Reich. Before the war ended, there were German revolts against the government of Wilhelm II.
One such incident was the revolt of the Kiel Mutiny of October 1918. The German navy, commanded to go out in a blaze of glory, was ordered to launch a suicide attack on the British Royal Navy. When the majority of the sailors in Kiel disappeared on October 30 th, the suicide attack was abandoned-a striking example of German disillusionment dur ing the war. The socialists, an expanding party in the first World War, focused their energies on removing the monarchy. By the time peace was declared, Germany was in relative upheaval. After the signing of the treaty, the socialists in Germany, who had led many revolts against the monarchy and had been instrumental in the instigation of a new German government, sought to control the reborn nation.
For the next four months following the November 9, 1918 declaration of the new German republic and the abdication of every German prince, several German states experienced violent socialist revolts. However, by the month of the armistice, military high command-including General Wilhelm Gr ” one, who was instrumental in navigating the Germany army through obvious defeat-were cooperating with the socialists, in the hopes of creating a stable government. Prince Max, a peaceable man who knew when to step down, handed over the government to Friedrich Ebert, devastated by the Kiel mutiny (Prince Max had not authorized any suicide attack, and the wool was effectively pulled over his eyes until the mutiny took place. ) (Gilbert and Large, 186-190; Paulsen, 66-67).
Finally, in February 1919, when radical socialist uprisings had been quelled and German politics were reaching a stasis, an assembly was called at Weimar to elect a constituent assembly, through which the official new German government would be decided. Over three-fourths of the constituent assembly were in favor of democratization.
As it follows, the constitution formed by this assembly was democratic. All of the power was concentrated in the Reichstag, to which members were elected by a secret ballot vote allowed all citizens over 21 years of age. The chancellor of the Reich was also elected. This government was to last fourteen years, until Hitler’s coup and the creation of the Third Reich.
The Weimar Republic was created, as a social and cultural means of escaping the futility of an already lost war, and was furthered by harshness of the Treaty of Versailles. While how the Weimar Republic was created may be clear, much confusion exists over what the Weimar Republic was. Many scholars have called it a genuine, idealistic social and cultural movement. Others have called it phony and shallow.
While this question may never be agreed upon, its cause can be made clear. In simplest terms, it was a democracy. In the most complex, one could name it a reaction to the trauma of the war. Although seemingly every aspect of Weimar reflects a dramatic shift in German attitudes and thinking, nowhere is this more apparent than in the culture of the Weimar Republic. The Bauhaus movement and the “roaring” culture of Berlin best exemplify this radically cultural shift. The political climate gives good context for these changes.
In mid-1919, when the new constitution was ratified, creating the Weimar Republic, established a federal republic consisting of nineteen states. While the government created a strong parliamentary system, the president, elected by popular ballot, was in many ways a substitute Kaiser. This president of the Republic, who served for seven years before reelection, was in charge of appointing a chancellor and a cabinet, both answerable to the Reichstag. Election to the Reichstag was by secret ballot and popular vote. Suffrage was universal. In spite of this more balanced power, the president still possessed the power to dissolve the Reichstag and veto legislation.
Article 48, the so-called emergency clause, accorded the president the right to allow the cabinet to govern without the consent of parliament whenever it was deemed essential to maintaining public order (Lee, 224, 228-231).
Many scholars’ arguments that Weimar was fabricated and artificial have their basis in this reality. While Germans pushed for a radical change in government, many core ideas-like the power in the hands of one individual-were not easily erased. In many ways, the cultural and social revolutions which took place in Germany were as forced and seemingly artificial as the new body politic. The Bauhaus movement, had its origins in pre-World War I Germany. The Belgian artist Henry van de Welde founded the Bauhaus school of arts in 1902, which was converted to the Staat liches Bauhaus, by combining van de Welde’s Kunstgewerberschule with the Grand Ducal School of the Plastic Arts.
The school, which was created in 1919, existed within the confines of Weimar, and lasted until 1933. Bauhaus focused on functionality. Walter Gropius, a well-known Berlin architect, was instrumental in uniting the two schools into the Bauhaus. It was he who headed the school until 1928, and his philosophy directed the school’s artistic intentions. Gropius believed German architecture should reflect the new German democratic era.
As opposed to the Gothic style of German architecture, overly ornate, dark, and complex, Bauhaus architecture often appeared simplistic, but the creation of art, according the its philosophy, was not so. It was the objective of the Bauhaus to create art which combined purpose and technology. History was disregarded during the creation processes: inspiration and originality, rather than imitation and re-creation, was a staunch Bauhaus principal. Here, in an aspect of culture as far removed from politics as architecture, the new German mindset is flaring.
The disregard for history, the focus on the new, and the removal of burdensome. Like the Kaiser, who wore elaborate military costumes but was a buffoon when it came to war, false and purposeless ornament was scorned and ultimately rejected. Modernity also came into play. Machines were highly respected during the Bauhaus, as technology was integrated into art as much as possible. Technology was a symbol of process and generation. Indeed, the importance of technology could hardly be ignored by Weimarian, who had seen a nation ripped apart by the first “technological” war.
Perhaps the most potent symbol of Weimar culture is Berlin, which during the 1920 s became a “roaring” rendezvous of new ideas and new lifestyles. For many it symbolized the modernity of Weimar life. It was a symbol that affected every German, Peter Gay explains it: “Berlin, it is obvious, aroused powerful emotions in everyone. It delighted most terrified some, but left no one indifferent.” (Gay, vi. ) Cabaret, easily associated with the “roaring 20 s”, boomed during this time. According to Gay, the roots of cabaret “lay not in…
Berlin, but pre-war Munich.” It was in Munich that the modernists, as those who practiced avant-garde theatre and art were known, first began to blossom. However, these movements were extremely suppressed under the censorship of “Wilhelmian” government, and during the war these movements fizzled out. Anita Berber, a contemporary actress and celebrity, was one symbol of the carefree and reveling Weimar culture: [Anita Berber] could be seen virtually every night, in every hot-spot in town. A boxing match, a bicycle race, a party…
she danced on the tables, was married and divorced, tried lesbian love (along with cocaine and morphine), and danced naked on the stage. In many ways she symbolized the cabaret lifestyle… She was… the freedom of the [Weimar Republic] personified. (Gay, 83) If indeed she was a woman of the cabaret theater scene, which permeated Berlin, she was not the only one to embrace new Weimarian permissiveness.
The popularity of cabaret and its associated lifestyle increased dramatically in the 1920 s, when the number of theaters featuring cabaret increased from two to over twenty in Berlin alone. These theaters would feature everything, from exotic dance to crude displays of performing art. Die Elf Scharf richter, or The Eleven Executioners, was Munich’s first cabaret. It was founded before World War I, and to avoid censorship was highly privatized, but served as an inspiration to the flourishing art scene in the permissive new Republic.
(Gordon, 193; Gay, 45).
Their shows consisted of dancing and singing obnoxiously, and throwing around their robes, which were covered in blood. The theater (which was the back room of an inn), was decorated with Jug end and Simplicissmus, politically-charged artwork and comic drawings, created by artists who frequented The Eleven Executioners. While at the time, it was outlandish and, to some, morally reprehensible, this sort of performance would become standard fare in 1920 s Berlin, the cosmopolitan capital of Germany. Homosexuality, disdained in the Wilhelmian era of government, became trendy, and many Germans to the liberty to experiment. The Eldorado, a well-known transvestite bar, flourished in Berlin in the 1920 s.
It was frequented not only by transvestites and homosexuals but by artists, writers and the beau monde of the day. As Peter Sachse wrote in the Berliner Journal in 1927. ‘The latest rage of Berlin ‘Society’ is to spend an evening in the Eldorado. Over there sits a well-known director of a major bank, just there is a gentleman from the Reichstag and a lot of theatre and film people…
Those who are here for the first time and are curious play a game, trying to guess who out of the ‘special’ clientele is really a lady and who is really a man.” As Peter Gay states in his book, the outsider during the Weimar Republic became the insider. What was once abhorred or rejected could now be enjoyed and appreciated. This was the freedom Weimar allowed its people. This Weimarian ” youth” was the inspiration of several important European writers. Walther Meh ring, a Berlin-born German, created brilliant cabaret songs incorporating jazz, the brutal wit of street talk and the earthy Berlin dialect. Erich Kastner coined the term Gebrauchslyrik for his own brand of cabaret verse: satirical, witty and compassionate.
Bert olt Brecht, a playwright and poet who was a young man in roaring Berlin, was drawn to cabaret, which he had experienced during its early days in Munich. He found cabaret an exciting means of expression which was dynamic and popular and had none of the elitism which marked the established theatre, popular in earlier times. Indeed, ‘Brechtian Theatre’ derives itself from the cabaret format (Gay, vii; 48-52).
What a change from the rigidity of the Wilhelmian Reich.
An entire nation, disillusioned under the too-soon antiquated German empire, and devastated by total war, now found its wings in a democracy which might have prevented the first World War altogether. Many who know the Germany story realize what was ahead for this brazen new culture: fascism, fear, repression, censorship, and war under the Nazi regime. But most Germans of Weimar, wallowing in new permissiveness, barely saw it coming. That fall is another story.
What should be made of Weimar? Was it shallow repression of the trauma of World War I, as many scholars have claimed, or was it a backlash against the government that led the Germans to such destruction? Was it both? Most of the German population trusted the Kaiser-to an extent. Germany, before the war, was reaching an apogee of political and economic success. It was becoming a chief power in Europe, and had built a competitive navy. Its working class was, when compared to working classes in other European nations, relatively satisfied with its government, and the economic productivity was steadily escalating.
As Huppauf points out, a German people unified under the blooming success of the nation, felt that a war was an attack on that success and the people themselves. While this may have initially inspired the Germans to go to war, they were quickly disillusioned. The Germans were spiraling into defeat with little warning. The loss, and the apparent masking of it by the German government, coupled with the harsh stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles, broke the unity of the Germans under the Kaiser. It was the reaction to this deceit that formed the Weimar Republic. The old Reich was a nation in which many war survivors could no longer live.
Germany was physically destroyed, economically broken, and culturally devastated. Huppauf echoes the German desire to rid itself of any reminder of war. “There were soldiers who returned who had suffered psychological shock. Some had been buried for hours in their dugouts and had no longer control over their extremities. These were the soldiers who had suffered and who showed, and continued to show, what suffering in the trenches had meant.
They had not turned themselves into heroes. They were not even capable of functioning in the society at the end of the war… many of the population did not like to have to face these war cripples. They did not wish to be reminded continuously of what war was really like.” (Gay, 90; italics mine) From such devastation came Weimar. The Germans embraced their new freedom as a republic, feeling freed from those old constraints which, they felt, driven their country to ruin. The culture or Weimar symbolized the German disdain for the “old ways” of authoritarianism and monarchy.
Weimar was modern, new, and as far as the Germans knew, not doomed to fall victim in another total war. Weimar was the hope of the people. The Germans, who felt their whole way of live had been made evil by the world, and had been annihilated in the war, reinvented themselves-and like the Germans they are, did the job all the way. World War I bred this new republic.
It was, if nothing else, a cultural and psychological reaction, leading to a drastic change that would shape the German future, and forever color its gaze upon the past.