Weimar Germany’s Left-Wing Intellectuals: A Political History of the Weltbühne and Its Circle
Kurt Tucholsky and the Ordeal of Germany, 1914-1935
Social Conservatism and the Middle Classes in Germany, 1914-1933
Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider
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.
World War I changed all that, and the cultural Schaubühne was transformed into the political Weltbühne. But this step was taken very late—in the spring of 1918—and only after the most painful social experiences. In 1914, the Schaubühne shared the enthusiasm for war that gripped most Europeans. Like many other intellectuals, its contributors hailed the war as the great regenerator of a sick society, the creator of a new community. But disillusionment came early, as soon as the prewar social antagonisms reemerged. The change of the Weltbühne group from cultural to political criticism was completed in a second euphoric experience—that of revolution in November, 1918.
Revolution promised the new humane institutions and the spiritual and social regeneration that war had failed to bring. The war had revealed to the Weltbühne group the fatal power of the military-industrial complex—here the term applies precisely—of Imperial Germany. To espouse the Republic meant to break the grip of the old ruling groups, in order that Germany be transformed into a peaceful and democratic society.
The ambiguous origins of the Republic made the task difficult. The November Revolution was set in motion by revolutionary working-class groups—loosely organized in Spartacist and other radical Marxist formations—whose aim was not the establishment of a democratic republic, but the overthrow of the capitalist order. The Weimar Republic, on the other hand, was established largely by groups interested in preventing social revolution. Thus the Republic was as much a reaction to the Revolution as a product of it. If the traditional monarchy had to be sacrificed to save its social system, so be it. Many of the framers of the Weimar constitution belonged to the camp of the “Vernunftrepublikaner,” men who accepted democracy not because they believed it to be a just form of government but because it was instrumentally useful. The army, the bureaucracy, the church, the landowners, and big industrialists emerged from the ordeal of defeat and revolution with their social power unbroken.
Though deprived of their symbolic ascendancy, the forces of the old order quickly reestablished their grip on the major institutions controlling the German nation. Even the political party most committed to the Republic in principle—the Social Democratic party—accepted and defended with more or less enthusiasm the persistence in office of the administrative, judicial, and military bureaucracy of the Empire. The Weimar Republic was, in short, the Imperial social order in republican dress. Among all the interest groups and parties who adapted democracy to their social aims, the Weltbühne stood virtually alone in representing democratic values in principle. From this ideological purity derived both its clarity of insight and its political impotence.
Die Weltbühne devoted its critical energies to exposing the dire consequences for a democratic polity of the discrepancy between legal form and social power. One of its editors, Carl von Ossietzky, called Weimar “a republic without republicans.” He called for “a militant republic, a daughter of freedom wearing a Phrygian cap—not that bonnet crocheted by the old maids of the Weimar assembly.” The Weltbühne group tried to create in Germany what they so admired in French republicanism from the Revolution to the Dreyfus affair: a radical tradition with a will to fight for the universal, humane values of bourgeois democracy against a bourgeois society corrupted by feudal inheritance and capitalist interest.
The Weltbühne intellectuals tended toward socialism; from time to time some avowed themselves to be Communists. But socialism as a socioeconomic system had no deep attraction for them. They supported social revolution only because the bourgeois parties and the Social Democrats would not and could not break the reactionary grip of the army officers, bureaucrats, landowners, and capitalists on the Republic. Yet the left intellectuals could not identify with the Communist Party. The Party’s increasing anti-intellectualism raised some natural obstacles. More fundamental was the association of the German Communists with the Soviet Union’s policy of abetting Germany’s military revival. On this issue turned Germany’s future as a democracy; on this issue the Weltbühne writers would not compromise.
The Weltbühne contributors included some of Germany’s most vigorous pacifists: the historian Veit Valentin, the novelist Heinrich Mann, the revolutionary poet Erich Mühsam, the aristocratic Democrat Hellmut von Gerlach, the expressionist playwrights Ernst Töller and Walter Hasenclever, the philosopher-statistician Emil Gumbel. But the man who best represented their collective ethos was their versatile editor, Kurt Tucholsky, the subject of Poor’s book. Like George Grosz, his counter-part in the visual arts, Tucholsky was a master of caricature. With his sharp pen, he created mordant prototypes of still-surviving Imperial society into which he pressed his social and political enemies. Through satiric vignettes, political essays, muckraking editorials, and cabaret chansons (they are still sung), Tucholsky hunted down the “patriotic Germans” and exposed the consequences of their archaistic attitudes. “A little fat Berliner,” Erich Kästner called him, “who tried to stop a catastrophe with his typewriter.”
“Nie wieder Krieg!” No maxim was more central to the Weltbühne radicals. War was their decisive historical experience. It had made plain to them the total bankruptcy of the old regime as a political and social system. It had forced the cultural critics of the Schaubühne to become the political tragedians of the Weltbühne. Thereafter, throughout the Weimar period, war remained the touchstone of their politics, the source of their understanding of society, and the issue to which they related all others. “This,” Tucholsky wrote, “is the heart of the matter: militarism stands there; we stand here…. And our hearts cry out with the dead, ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!” After two false dawns—1914 and 1918—Tucholsky’s eyes became accustomed to the dark:
Scratch a republican and you find a subject of William. The question is no longer republic or monarchy—that is a concern of yesterday. The question is imperialism or no. Germany answers imperialism.
Imperialism in Weimar Germany was not a novelty as it largely seems in America today, but a legacy. The left-wing intellectuals were prescient about the future because they knew so well and feared so much the power of the German past. They may not have foreseen Hitler and Nazism any more clearly than Germans of other political persuasions. But they saw more clearly than most the consequences of the Republic’s sheltering the forces of conservative reaction. What form those forces would ultimately take was of less concern to the Weltbühne group than that they had survived the death of Empire to poison the life of the Republic. What the Revolution had failed to accomplish with deeds the Weltbühne sought to accomplish with words: the purge of the Republic and its centers of power of those who could not accept its principles: that is, the liquidation of the past.
Journalists are not theorists. The consistency of the Weltbühne crusade to make the Weimar Republic safe for democracy was grounded not in an intellectual system, but in a running critique of public life. The Weltbühne supported the Versailles treaty, despite its injustices, because that settlement, especially with French power behind it, offered better guarantees against German nationalism and militarism than any political constellation within Germany. Under Ossietzky’s editorship, the Weltbühne tried to stake out each week the battle-lines between progress and reaction. (Often in the last dreadful years of the Republic the column under the heading “Progress” was left blank.)
Deak places all the little skirmishes systematically within their broader campaigns: for socialism, judicial reform, friendship with France, friendship with Poland, opposition to German-Soviet collaboration, struggle against the Reichswehr and its secret auxiliaries; and, finally, the long hopeless effort to bring Social Democrats and Communists together against the old and new forces of reaction. “There is somewhere a round table,” Ossietzky wrote plaintively in 1932, “—waiting.” None of these campaigns produced a victory, and the great ralliement de gauche which alone could have averted disaster was never achieved. In the crepuscular years, 1930-1932, the left intellectuals knew all too well where Germany was going, but in the Republic without republicans they could reach no political party, strike no sparks in any social stratum.
The end of Ossietzky’s political career seemed to prove his early prophecy that the Republic would be hollowed out by the old-regime conservatives and “moderates” whom the Majority Socialists and Liberals had failed to remove from its key institutions. For “betrayal of military secrets,” Ossietzky was sent to prison—not by Hitler, but by the Supreme Court of the Republic. His crime? In 1929 he had exposed the existence of civilian plants used as cover for the military aviation development forbidden by Versailles. Old-regime judges and militarists were in accord: for Ossietzky to have exposed the Republic’s violation of its international obligations was treason to the Republic, under what the judges called “an imperious necessity above the laws…the interest of national defense.” On May 10, 1932, Ossietzky was escorted to prison by several hundred sympathizers. The black-red-gold colors of the German Republic fluttered from their cars. It was a last gesture of ironic defiance—the only kind the radical intelligentsia could any longer offer.
What the moralistic critics of the Weltbühne show us about the Weimar Republic is the pernicious influence of the past on its history. Perhaps the radical intellectuals were so sensitive to the persistence of that past because they came of age as critics of the Empire’s culture, and thus themselves belonged to that past. Their unshakable moral commitment to the Republic gave them the courage of loyal losers. It also caused them to suffer the fate of their own purist doctrine, which could not be evenly sustained in a Republic malgré soi, where social revolution was indispensable to secure democracy, but where democracy would not tolerate whatever smacked of revolution. Because the German democratic revolution was as incomplete and paralyzed internally as they knew it to be, the Weltbühne democrats were increasingly unable to do more than exhort the deaf from the sidelines.
Between 1918 and 1921, they had a political base. With a revolutionary movement in being, and a strong Independent Social Democratic party pressing for a synthesis of socialism and democracy, the Weltbühne radicals could properly be called realists. But by 1931, with their political base destroyed, they were reduced to the position of impotent utopians. “Moraliste et politique“: that proud dual character of the Enlightenment intellectual broke apart. When success in one spelled failure in the other, morality and politics were forced to go their separate ways. Ossietzky in jail, Tucholsky a silent exile until his suicide, the Weltbühne itself in Communist hands abroad: such was the tragic end of the seers who had understood much but had power over nothing.
The studies of Deak and Poor destroy the substance of the charge that the radical intelligentsia weakened the Republic with their remorseless criticism. The charge rests, as Deak observes, on a false premise: “that the Right, acting alone, could not have engineered the Republic’s destruction.” Poor, who shares Deak’s view, characterizes the current accusations of Craig, Golo Mann, and others against the Weltbühne as “essentially a conservative argument against all opposition to the status quo.” One can only agree with Poor’s conclusion:
All criticism of things as they are runs the risk of making way for conditions which are even worse. But the chance for improvement makes the risk worth taking. Tucholsky did not destroy the Republic; he did make a desperate and ultimately futile bid to transform it into a humane and democratic society.
Not only the spectacle of embattled moralists makes the Weimar intellectuals appealing to the post-Nazi world (the forgotten Tucholsky has earned the singular distinction of being a best seller in both East and West Germany). What attracts more strongly still is the overwhelming importance of war in the political consciousness of the Weltbühne. A humanism in which war and murder are perceived as one, in which all burning social issues are referred back to war: that kind of humanism can well speak to young American intellectuals politicized for the first time by the bomb and Vietnam.
But the relation of the American opposition to historical development is different from the German. The American radical is trying to prevent the consolidation here of a militarized polity; his German predecessor had the harder task of trying to liquidate one. Different traditions and social circumstances both limit the instructiveness of the parallel.
The Weltbühne intellectuals had to deal with a society that was militarist by tradition. The rhetoric of democracy—let alone of internationalism—evoked few sympathetic vibrations in the German establishment. Surely in this respect, the American radical has it easier; he fights within his national tradition as democrat if not indeed as cosmopolitan. American conservatives and national liberals (to borrow a German phrase) do not embrace a feudal-military code wholly independent of democracy to justify themselves politically to a wide public. The American radical intellectual may be embattled, but he is the spokesman of traditional ideals which have a renewed radical content in the face of conservative forces that are subverting or deserting them.
The democratic past of America is on the side of the radical against the neo-conservative present; the reactionary past of Germany was against the Weimar democrat. The difference emerges in the attitudes of the traditional guardians of moral values, the clergy and the academic intelligentsia. In America, they are divided by war and social crisis; in Germany they were almost by definition on the side of advancing reaction.
On the other hand, the “military-industrial complex” in the Weimar Republic was in many respects both less formidable and less united than that confronting the American radical today. Far from being a super-power, the Weimar Republic was hemmed in for most of its life by a watchful France and a suspicious if sometimes supportive Soviet Union. The German industrial leaders were more deeply split over imperial expansion than America’s appear to be. The simpler nature of the armament economy of that day divided the German economy into heavy industries that supported remilitarization, and lighter ones—including the powerful chemical and electrical groups—which for a long time favored international peace as a basis for a secure world market. In modern America, by contrast, the technological revolution in weaponry and the scale of military and space development have drawn virtually the whole economy in their wake. That organized labor gives unswerving social support to the American military polity leaves the intellectual oppositionist without any organized mass base.
Under these circumstances, the unresponsiveness of American institutions to the issues of arms build-up and expanding military power is quite as complete as Weimar’s. That unresponsiveness in turn may suggest why the younger American students of Weimar have grown less concerned with the villains who made fascism and more concerned with the failures of Weimar liberal political practice to answer the social and psychological needs of the population in such a way as to prevent the transformation of German society once more into a military machine. That is perhaps why young scholars such as Herman Lebovics are looking into conservative social thought for ideas expressive of the problems of the middle classes—problems which the left intellectuals dismissed as cavalierly in their rhetoric as the republican governments did in their policies.
In a society as riven as Weimar’s, it was given to none to comprehend the whole. Even today, more perspectives are needed than the brilliant ones opened by the left intelligentsia if we are to understand the tragedy of the Republic. Deak and Poor, with their sympathetic presentations of the Weltbühne group, sharpen our insight, but they leave our vision still lacking in breadth. Lebovics’s analysis of the conservative intellectuals provides a critical complement to the diagnosis of the left radicals, while Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture offers a wider context in which to assess the place of the intellectuals in the life and death of the Republic. I will discuss these books in the following issue.
Change, May-June, 1969, pp. 18-26.↩
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.↩
Commentary, February 1969, pp. 29-42.↩
Gordon Craig, "Engagement and Neutrality in Weimar Germany," Journal of Contemporary History, vol. II, no. 2, April 1967, pp. 49-64.↩
Change, May-June, 1969, pp. 18-26.↩
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.↩
Commentary, February 1969, pp. 29-42.↩
Gordon Craig, “Engagement and Neutrality in Weimar Germany,” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. II, no. 2, April 1967, pp. 49-64.↩