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