Spring 2015 -- History 215 -- Professor Patch


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From Weimar to Hitler: Modernism and Anti-Modernism in German Culture after the First World War

Adolf Hitler fancied himself an artist but was rejected by the Vienna Art Academy.  He championed Wagnerian opera and classical art and denounced “cultural Bolshevism” as a Jewish plot to divide and confuse the German people.  Hitler applied that term to abstract art, expressionism, atonal music, jazz, anti-war art and literature, “obscene” art and literature, Freudian psychoanalysis, and Albert Einstein’s bizarre theory of relativity.  The Weimar Republic, founded in November 1918, had indeed become a hotbed of cultural experimentation, as avant-garde outsiders suddenly gained influential roles as teachers in art academies, museum directors, theatrical directors, film makers, architects, and successful writers.  Women had gained the vote and played a far greater role in the public sphere than they had before the Great War.  The Weimar Republic welcomed foreigners, developed a cosmopolitan culture, and exposed a mass audience to cultural experiments through the new media of film and radio.  Hitler was by no means alone when he denounced these trends.  In this class we will analyze the relationship between art and politics, to ask why Germany became such fertile ground for cultural experimentation in the 1920s, why that experimentation caused so much anxiety, and the extent to which the backlash against “cultural Bolshevism” explains the rise of the Nazis to power.  We will seek in other words to make judicious use of literary and artistic works to enhance our understanding of German social and political history in these turbulent years.     

Modern Dance routine at Herwarth Walden's art gallery, Der Sturm, Berlin, 1923, from Michael Stürmer, The German Century (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1999), p. 111.

Will Mackie Messer hang?  Climactic scene from the original Berlin production of Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera in 1928.  From Susanne Everett, Lost Berlin (New York: Gallery Books, 1979), p. 92.


Students in History 215 will be invited to update, revise, and refine the arguments in Peter Gay's classic essay on the relationship between art and politics, Weimar Culture, first published in 1968.  We will study several topics neglected by Gay, including the role of women in the Weimar Republic, debates over gender roles, the actual causes of the failure of democratic institutions, the influence of the Communist International, the relationship between high culture and popular culture, and the core ideas of the Nazi Party.  To enhance our understanding of popular culture, we will view and discuss eight of the most successful films of the 1920s and early '30s era, including Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the film version of Brecht's Threepenny Opera (which we will compare with the original play), and Westfront 1918.