Weimar and the Intellectuals I

Weimar Germany’s Left-Wing Intellectuals: A Political History of the Weltbühne and Its Circle

by Istvan Deak
California, 346 pp., $9.75

Kurt Tucholsky and the Ordeal of Germany, 1914-1935

by Harold L. Poor
Scribner’s, 285 pp., $7.95

Social Conservatism and the Middle Classes in Germany, 1914-1933

by Herman Lebovics
Princeton, 248 pp., $8.50

Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider

by Peter Gay
Harper & Row, 205 pp., $5.95

Over fifty years have passed since the founding of the Weimar Republic; thirty-five since the Reichstag voted Hitler dictatorial powers and ended the liberal state. Although the German problem itself has receded from the center of the world stage, American interest in Weimar and its fate continues to grow. The nature of that interest has changed over the years. During the Thirties Germany was to Americans the scene of a hideous historical aberration. Having established at last a democratic state after the war, the Germans rejected it in favor of a monstrous dictatorship. Aside from a few Marxists, American political analysts during the Thirties approached the problem of Nazism as surprised and disappointed democrats. Confident of the universal workability of democracy, they asked, “In what way was Germany so different from the United States that this should have been possible?” Confronting Germany as an alien entity and as an external threat, the American intellectual’s task was to explain why Germany was different.

Today American interest in Weimar has an opposite premise: a sense of kinship. Caught in a crisis ourselves, we turn to Weimar because its tragic experience of dissolution—political, social, and cultural—seems to promise understanding of our own situation. It is not the abhorrent strangeness of Weimar society that strikes us now, but our affinity with it. Postwar America’s newly acquired taste for Weimar art, ranging from the mordant moralism of The Three-Penny Opera to the psycho-metaphysics of Siddhartha, is the cultural counterpart of apparent social and political affinity.

Inevitably, one troubled society will disagree over what it finds of significance in another. Thus the differing interpretations of Weimar society reflect America’s internal conflict over its own purposes and directions. Yet all interpretations agree that Weimar is somehow important for America’s understanding of itself.

The loosest use of the analogy is perhaps the surest index of its political importance. When liberal university administrators and radical student activists at Harvard charge each other with behaving like Nazis, do they not express across the campus barricades a common fear of fascism in America? Of course each stresses a different aspect of the German parallel. The administrators draw analogies from American student behavior to the subversive aspect of the Nazi movement, to the rowdyism of Nazi students undermining the Republic through the university. The activists, on the other hand, point to the repression of radical opponents of the military-industrial complex in the name of law and order. As the gulf widens between liberals and radicals in American politics, each charges the other with preparing the way for some sort of fascism which, whatever may be their heaven, is still their common hell. Weimar’s history, from which Nazism emerged triumphant out of the long war between moderates and radicals, offers a natural source of parallels.

That scholars should join in the battle of analogies is inevitable; indeed the battle may in the end be more useful for clarifying history than for conducting politics. Meanwhile much confusion …

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