Weimar Culture: Outsider as Insider, Peter Gay | Notes I

Peter Gay’s comprehensive account on the culture of the Weimar era (1918-1933), first published in 1968. I’ll try to take notes, chapter by chapter. For general histories of the era, check out the liberal Erich Eyck and the radical Arthur Rosenberg. For political history, see Heinrich August Winkler and Hans Mommsen. Or you can check out the authors, artists, directors, diaries, films for sure. It’s a pretty saturated cultural milieu as I understand.

Gay’s general thesis: “Weimar Culture was not encapsulated, not simply a product of a lost war. In short, the talents and the energies that were to make the republic virtually unique in history—certainly in German history—did not emerge from nowhere, virginal and unknown. But not until the disastrous end of empire could they really rise to their full potentialities.”

Gay aims to avoid the sentimentalist account of the era. Mannheim sees it as a new Periclean age, but for Gay, “it was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano”.

I. The Trauma of Birth: From Weimar to Weimar

Weimar Republic: “an idea seeking to become reality.”

“The Weimar ideal was both old and new. The striking mixture of cynicism and confidence, the search for novelty and for roots—the solemn irreverence—of the twenties, were a child of war, revolution, and democracy, but the elements that made it up came from both the distant and the recent past, recalled and revived by a new generation.”

The popular movements of Wiemar era had their roots in the pre-Weimar era, Gay takes expressionism first. Next to the several examples, “Kandinsky wrote his revolutionary manifesto, Über das geistige in der Kunst, in 1910 and published it in 1912”. The focus on outsiders: “The Expressionists were a band of outsiders. But they were determined and active. The Republic would add to their lives nothing but success”. Painting, poetry, and experimental short prose also had their roots, see Thomas Mann’s early works, “Buddenbrooks, Tonio Kröger, and Tod in Venedig, all published by 1911”.

The roots of the currents in pyschoanalysis, history and music: “Psychoanalysis was introduced into Germany in 1910, with the founding of the Berlin branch of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Friedrich Meinecke and Otto Hintze, who drew the attention of the historical profession in other countries to Berlin in the 1920s, had done significant work before the war: Meinecke’s Weltbürgertum und Nationalstaat, which some of his pupils would later fondly remember as his best book, was published in 1907. Max Reinhardt, the magician of the Weimar theatre, had practically filled his bag of tricks by 1914. Arnold Schönberg, who completed the twelve-tone system in 1924, had broken through to atonality before 1912”.

Burning questions of the era: “For the outsiders of the Empire as, later, for the insiders of the Republic, the most insistent questions revolved around the need for man’s renewal, questions made most urgent and practically insoluble by the disappearance of God, the threat of the machine, the incurable stupidity of the upper classes, and the helpless philistinism of the bourgeoisie.”

Gay interprets the Weimar era in a twofold way, successful but kind of destined to death: “the trauma of its birth was so severe that it could never enlist the wholehearted loyalty of all, or even many, of its beneficiaries.”

Cynicism and detachment: “Beyond all this there was another, subtler inducement to cynicism and detachment. In August 1914 the Western world had experienced a war psychosis: the war seemed a release from boredom, an invitation to heroism, a remedy for decadence. But it was in Germany that this psychosis reached heights of absurdity.”

The war in left: “the greatest, most effective enemy of the Weimar Republic was the civil war fought within the republican left, the struggle, as Eduard Bernstein said, of “Socialists against Socialists,” which broke out as soon as the Republic was proclaimed; its very proclamation, after all, was an act directed not merely against the monarchy but against the Spartacists.”

Rosa, the regime, socialists and Spartacists: “He did, in fact, do more than wait: he killed, with abandon and with impunity. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the Spartacist movement, were murdered on January 15, 1919; Kurt Eisner, Prime Minister of Bavaria, was murdered by an aristocratic student on February 21, and the Bavarian Soviet Republic which came out of the assassination was brutally put down by regular and Freikorps troops toward the end of April and the beginning of May. And these events could only exacerbate fratricidal hostilities: the Spartacists denounced the governing Socialists as pliant, socially ambitious butchers; the government Socialists accused the Spartacists of being Russian agents. It all seemed like a sarcastic commentary on Marx’s call to the workers of the world to unite.”

The Peace of Versailles, “the shameful, humiliating peace”. The old order: “These were fateful strategic mistakes, but the men of Weimar made an even more fateful mistake when they failed to tame, or transform, the machinery of the old order—the military, the civil service, and the courts.”

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