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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 is being sown. One must learn to distinguish between those who are using their already defined views of the past to fortify themselves against an unsettling present, and those who are stimulated by present experience to a new analysis of the past. My reading, as far as it goes, suggests that there is a clear difference between the two classes of commentators. Older scholars, formed by the struggles of the liberal world against Hitler and Stalin, use a long established view of Weimar to explain a new America, while younger ones use ideas generated in a new America to find a fresh understanding of Weimar.

Of the older group, Bruno Bettelheim, in his article “The Anatomy of Academic Discontent,”1 draws the analogy most boldly. His commentary is avowedly impressionistic, revealing both the usefulness and the intellectual limitations of quasi-scientific polemic. Bettelheim’s aim is to demonstrate that Nazi and American student radicals have much in common in their political behavior and in their “determination to bring down the establishment.” He shows that both groups of academic youth sought to realize in radical action the values their fathers professed but cautiously trimmed to reality. Conservative nationalist parents sired the Nazis; idealistic liberals, the American leftist youth. Here is a freshly observed parallel, of indubitable validity. Perhaps only a man concerned with tarring American radicals with the Nazi brush could have discovered it.

In explaining it, however, Bettelheim’s antilibertarian passion serves him less well. He accounts for the American youth revolt by emphasizing the failure of present-day education “both at home and at school” to teach self-discipline and responsibility. But this explanation does not hold up for Imperial Germany, where a child-rearing strong in both authority and demonstrative love, and a schooling scarcely noted for permissiveness, spawned the neo-conservative youth of Weimar’s universities. Bettelheim also suggests that the decline of American fraternities has contributed to student rebelliousness. Yet in the universities of Weimar the strongest centers of Nazism were the fraternities. Through them the alte Herren of the older generation of reactionaries influenced the new.2

Although Bettelheim is aware that Nazis and American radicals have different ideologies and values, he cannot integrate these differences with the remainder of his analysis. His primary concern is with the negative aspect of rebellious behavior: disruption. This concern blots out the historical and political content of such behavior in two different societies. Bettelheim combines his scientific position and his political attitude in his analysis of the American case, where he sees too much freedom for youth as leading to rebellion, and advances the logical remedy: stronger discipline. Whatever the similarities in overt behavior between American activists and Nazi students (and there are severe limits here), the explanations which Bettelheim offers for its origins in America cannot be retroactively applied to Weimar. It is sadly ironical that a tested anti-Nazi such as Bettelheim should find himself repeating as an embattled liberal the angry cry of German conservatives against the Weimar Republic and its culture: too much freedom!

In “The Ghost of Social Fascism,”3 Theodore Draper has pursued a less usual course: to compare America’s new radicals to the Communists of Weimar. The theory of social fascism espoused by the Communists as the Republic neared its end held that the Social Democrats, by supporting the Republic and especially the Brüning regime (1930-1932), were responsible for introducing fascism in a masked form. The Communists thus justified their refusal to make common cause with the Social Democrats in defense of the Republic. Draper’s case against the German Communists is one often made by other liberal and social-democratic historians and, whatever the weight one gives it, it certainly stands up.

What is interesting is that Draper should revive it now. He sees the ghost of social fascism stalking America as once it haunted Weimar. His political purpose seems less to attack the Communists in the Thirties (a fringe benefit) than to warn American radicals who, in their wholesale condemnation of the American social system, and especially of the liberals who work within it, are “flirting with a new anti-liberal version of the theory of social fascism.” The American Republic, Draper implies, could be in the same danger as Weimar in 1930-32; if reaction triumphs here, the immoderate leftist opposition will have run once more the destructive and suicidal course of the German Communist Party in the early 1930s.

The great ideological differences between America’s new radicals and Germany’s Nazis and Communists have led some investigators to seek out more convincing equivalents. Now that the United States has itself bred a large radical intelligentsia, historians are examining Weimar’s non-party intellectuals, both liberal and radical. Significantly, the scholar who opened this inquest was Gordon A. Craig, a historian whose earlier work has been largely concerned with the baleful role of the allegedly neutral Prussian army in shaping Germany’s political destiny. Having chronicled the damage done the Republic by the generals, Craig in a recent essay turns to the “free intelligentsia”—writers and artists—and to their political role under Weimar.4

Craig divides the intellectuals into two categories, both damaging to the Republic. The first consists of those who, out of intellectual purity and disgust with a politics of competing interest groups, withdrew into political neutrality. The second group was politically engaged but, Craig believes, in the wrong way. Its members, who included many of the expressionists, tended to extend their spirit of indignant negation to the whole social order. Immoderate in their criticisms of the Republic and its political parties, impatient, unreasonable, and politically lazy, the expressionists and their free-swinging journalistic allies had no comprehension of the “multitude of complicated administrative, financial and economic problems” facing the leaders of the troubled young Republic. By their constant carping, Craig’s charge runs, the radical intellectuals weakened public confidence in the Republic. Thus Craig reads the same lesson concerning the left intelligentsia as Draper does from “social fascism.” When the Republic is in danger from totalitarians, radical critics must mute their voices.


The left-wing intellectuals are the subject of detailed studies by two younger historians, Istvan Deak and Richard Poor. Neither is primarily concerned with drawing explicit analogies between Weimar’s radical intellectuals and America’s. Like Craig, they are affected in their very choice of subject by the current problem of the responsibility of the intellectuals in a riven political democracy. Their findings, however, are different from Craig’s: they show why it was impossible and even undesirable for the non-party radical democrats to suspend their criticism of the Republic. In so doing they have provided a new focus for the interpretation of the Weimar Republic and its fate. Reading these works, one sees that the question, “Who killed Weimar?” is shallow, even misleading. Whatever its moral and political force, it is only part of a larger question, a question of social pathology: “Why did Weimar die?”

Both Deak and Poor deal with the same group of intellectuals, the men who wrote for the small but influential periodical Die Weltbühne. Through the prism of this journal, the problems of Weimar’s pathology were refracted.

What sort of prism was Die Weltbühne? Its most important characteristic was its uncompromising commitment to democratic ideals, the ideals of the French Revolution. To hold these Western bourgeois ideals in Germany meant that the Weltbühne ideologists had to be anti-bourgeois. They measured the performance of the Republic by the Republic’s own table of values: social justice, freedom of speech, equality before the law, internationalism in foreign policy, and, above all, antimilitarism and world peace. The irony of the Weltbühne‘s position was that almost from the start it could fight for the principles of the Republic only by attacking those who held power in its institutions.

The Weltbühne had not always been primarily political. Before 1914, its writers, like many other German intellectuals of that time, sublimated their social discontents into cultural criticism. The original title of the journal was Die Schaubühne, “the stage,” in the literal sense of the word. In the literary tradition of Lessing and Heine it aimed to make free men out of German philistines. Its means, however, were not directly political. The theater alone, as Siegfried Jacobsohn, the Schaubühne‘s first editor, insisted, was capable of liberating the German spirit. The contributors’ stress on cultural and intellectual independence for the individual was a logical outgrowth of the oppressive stability of the Empire’s social order. The stalemate of political forces and a stifling social conformism combined to produce a culture of protest that was personal rather than communitarian.

  1. 1

    Change, May-June, 1969, pp. 18-26.

  2. 2

    For a well-documented analysis of the activities of German students under the Republic, see Hans Peter Bleuel and Ernst Klinnert, Deutsche Studenten auf dem Weg ins Dritte Reich, Gütersloh, 1968.

  3. 3

    Commentary, February 1969, pp. 29-42.

  4. 4

    Gordon Craig, “Engagement and Neutrality in Weimar Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. II, no. 2, April 1967, pp. 49-64.

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