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The Weimar Republic: Germany 1919-1933

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

The Weimar Republic was the interwar government of Germany. It was named thus because the constitution was formed in the city of Weimar, Germany. The Weimar Republic era spanned from 1919-1933, from the end of the German imperial government to the rise of Hitler. It was marked by certain problems, namely in regard to the domestically political arena, the economic field, and in reference to foreign affairs. Yet it also produced many interesting socio-cultural products, unique because of the high level of freedom and expressiveness allowed in the newly uncensored nation in a time of great political change and social unrest caused by the first World War.        

Turning first to the economic problems of the Weimar Republic, one must discuss hyperinflation, Germany's growing dependence on foreign powers, and the problems experienced in the German attempt to reset the monetary system following the crash of the American stock market. Following the Treaty of Versailles's ratification, Germany faced punitive fines and pressure from France and other nations. The extreme poverty of many Germans led to an atmosphere of desperation as the German mark became less and less valuable. Germany became increasingly dependent on American loans. At one point, the American dollar was equal to trillions of German marks. For a time, however, in the late 1920s the economy became somewhat more stable. Unfortunately, with the American stock market crash’s devastating effects, Germany was once more plunged into financial chaos. This was an extremely problematic circumstance that indirectly gave rise to heightened nationalism: since Germans became so dependent on other nations financially, they became extremely resentful of exterior forces. The Weimar Republic may be described as self-defeating in this regard.

Along with this problem, one may look to the domestic arena. As has been asserted, during this time, nationalism divided the country, as many Germans felt that they had been betrayed by some interior force to lose the war. Here, people who resented the way the war had ended promoted the view that certain members of society had deliberately betrayed the common people. The Weimar Republic was established by the Social Democrats but became increasingly dependent on its conservative members, as Germans began to increasingly resent being dependent on foreign powers. Also, the competing values of different Germans made it difficult for the administrators of the Republic to make decisions everyone would be happy with. The system was meant to be a parliamentary republic with proportional representation. Yet royalists seeking the restoration of the monarchy; radical rightists and extreme leftists; and cultural minorities seeking rights and independences vied for control. The result was extreme instability.

The new Republic was marked by violence between extreme leftists and rightists, street rioting, extremely black humored-entertainment, rumblings of anti-Semitism and nationalism as the "stab-in-the-back" legend became proliferated, and a developing resentment towards other nations, the latter of which was exacerbated by French and Belgian occupation and aggression and the necessity of borrowing money from America. Lingering embargoes on trade residually in place from the war coupled with the devaluing of German money caused starvation. People left their homes in the country en masse and came to Berlin, the urban metropolis, to pursue money by any means necessary.

Foreign tourists flocked to Berlin in the pursuit of cheap sexual gratification. Since Weimar-era Berlin was completely uncensored, alongside new artistic forms came new explorations and exploitations of sexuality. In a negative light, sex shops replaced middle class family homes, and family members prostituted themselves alongside one another. Yet sexual research also flourished, as under Dr. Magnus Hirschfield the first institute of sexology was formed. Hirschfield pioneered a new field which explored human interactions on both physical and emotional levels.

An extremist approach to both art and life became the new norm within Berlin. Thus, songs composed by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill during this period, such as "Pirate Jenny" and "Mack the Knife" from the Threepenny Opera, explicitly contain lyrics that deal with fetishized and violent sexual expressions; submit unfavorable comparisons of the wealthy with criminals; and make discussions of modern society in terms of corruption and moral ambiguity. These songs are interestingly symbolic of the time. One may further discuss Anita Berber and George Grosz as two artistic representatives of this period in Berlin. 

Anita Berber was a dancer whose performances extended into her real life. She paraded around hotels nude, wearing only a locket filled with drugs and a fur coat, with a monkey perched on her shoulder. With set-pieces titled “Cocaine” and “Suicide”, she shocked traditional moralists in daring to express unique and bleak experiences. She was a nude dancer and an early precursor to modern performance artists. Though her lifestyle of drug use and promiscuity seems purely excessive, one may assert that her art was largely fueled by her way of life. She, like other artists of the period, was driven to create not in spite of her excessive lifestyle, but because of it. Berber’s pursuit of the extreme, as a manifestation of her disillusionment with traditional morality, was essential to her unique artistic expressions.

George Grosz was a Dadaist artist who depicted the extremes of life which inequal wealth distribution had driven people to. In his highly caricatured depictions of starving prostitutes draped around grossly fat men, he underscored the inequality of modern life and the problematic aspects of viewing other humans as disposable methods of convenience. The outrageous art of George Grosz reflected his disenchantment with the modern world's capitalist transactions and the war’s cheapening effect on regard for human lives. One may assert that Grosz's art may appear to be disproportionate to how real life actually was, and even ludicrous, but in truth, it also critiques a problem which still exists today: the extremely unequal distribution of wealth which causes humans to view one another as commodities. Grosz's caricatures, thus, are not excessive, but instead are dependent on their artistic stylizations to depict both the literal and psychological traumas which can and did occur in the modern era.

While Berber and Grosz did live in atypical ways, it is unfair to characterize them purely as depraved and decadent “bad eggs” with perverse imaginations that rejected convention for shock value’s sake. The interwar period was a unique one, marked by a new sense of permissiveness granted by the war’s extremes, a rising sense of globalization, and an acknowledgement that traditional values were perhaps not the best ones for people in the modern day and age. Under the heavy burden of the lingeringly traumatic effects of the most devastating war in history up until that point, the “Lost Generation” struggled to pick up the pieces and resume life as best they could.

The Weimar artists uniquely questioned the world, and made critiques that are still relevant to the present day regarding subjects such as the role of art as a social agent for change; the shifting roles of women and domestic relationships in the present day; the rise of multicultural relations; and the problematic aspects of viewing humans as commodities. The unique freedoms and excesses of “The Crazy Years” are part of what made these criticisms possible and lingeringly significant into the present day, and as such, must not be disregarded as mere footnotes or frivolous flourishes of the period.

Despite the problems of the Weimar Republic, it cannot be denied that this period of time featured creative and social flourishing. As seen through Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute for studying human sexuality, Anita Berber's rise to stardom amid the cabaret culture of Germany (which also produced Marlene Dietrich, a more well-known German star of this era), and the plays of Brecht and Weil, great creative and intellectual accomplishments were attained. These achievements would later be suppressed by the Nazis and condemned as supposed manifestations of how Germany had become soft, decadent, and perverse. Yet the Weimar Republic’s social and artistic achievements continue to have pronounced relevance into the modern day.



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