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Weimar and the Intellectuals: II

Was the Third Reich what the neoconservative intelligentsia wanted? No. Almost all of them rejected the Nazis, and those who, like Sombart, welcomed them soon found themselves rejected. The right-wing intelligentsia provided the ideological ingredients for the Nazi movement, but in politics they proved to be the prisoners of their own dreams. Hitler shared their middle-class sentimentalism about a world of peasants and artisans, but only to fire his will to power. Hitler was nothing if not modern, and modernity meant to accept technological rationality and big business. He did not love modern corporate capital, but without it Hitler could not succeed in making his military welfare state. Almost instinctively, he distinguished between the ideological ingredients needed to make a mass movement, and the concrete policies that would win over the social groups necessary to grasp and maintain power. If the intellectuals who provided him the greatest service in the first task would allow their communitarian idealism to interfere in the second, so much the worse for them.


The recent studies of the political intelligentsia of left and right illuminate the Weimar political tragedy most clearly when taken together. For Weimar’s intellectuals distilled and magnified the ironies of the German situation. Comparison reveals that the independent intelligentsia of left and right had more in common than they cared to admit. Both groups came to socialism malgré eux, not because of clearly formulated class interest but because of their strong humanistic convictions. The ethical impossibility of capitalism motivated both. Both espoused revolution out of frustration—frustration not with class rule but with liberal democratic institutions that did not work. The left encouraged social revolution to realize the traditional bourgeois aims of political democracy, the right urged a political revolution to realize the traditional bourgeois aims of social community.

But if the left and right loosely shared certain intellectual concerns, each side was blind to the values of the other. The Weltbühne had no sympathy for the yearning for community; Die Tat attached no value to individual liberty. Thus two elements of the middle-class tradition, the medieval-social and the modern-libertarian, were arrayed against each other. This confrontation of values reminds us, however, that the same components of bourgeois tradition which were successfully integrated in Sweden or Switzerland to make bourgeois society weather its crisis of capitalism were present in Germany too. The German crisis was played out within the middle class, with the communitarians, ironically, espousing the authoritarian state while the libertarian rationalists ignored the desperate need of the Mittelstand for social integration and personal dignity.

The popular novels of the period reveal the same polarization of the bourgeois class as that expressed by the political intellectuals. On the one side, the so-called Blubo literature (from Blut und Boden, blood and soil) glorified provincial life; on the other, “asphalt literature” chronicled the pleasures and pains of life in the cities. The urbane leftist intellectual poured his contempt on Blubo kitsch, but would not miss the latest Vicki Baum. The moralizers of the right condemned urban kitsch as “degenerate,” but devoured the imperialist bucolics of Hans Grimm’s Volk ohne Raum. Both groups, however, read the best seller of the Republic’s twilight years: Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? Its helpless antihero of the new Mittelstand incarnated the negations of both bourgeois traditions: in him community appeared as social victimization, liberty as anomie. All seemed to recognize in this novel the ultimate middle-class product of the Republic that failed.

How strikingly different is the ideological alignment in America! Here republican individualism, which the Weltbühne radicals had promoted against the military-industrial complex, serves as the ideology of the nationalistic right. Again in contrast to Germany, communitarianism in America has been assimilated by the left, which is enriching the democratic heritage with participatory forms drawn from the utopian collectivist tradition. The communitarian impulse that under Weimar was most fully identified with nationalism, militarism, and political authoritarianism has in America become a part of the radical opposition to all three. Yet with respect to the great middle class, the American left intellectuals seem to be prisoners of the same urban snobbishness as that of their earlier German counterparts. They too allow their contempt for traditional middle-class values to stifle their sympathies and blind them to the real psychological needs of that important stratum which in the end will probably determine the fate of all of us.


How much do we know about the Thirteenth Century,” Johan Huizinga once asked, “when we have read through all the papal calendars of state papers but do not know the dies irae?” Much the same might be said about the attempt to understand the Weimar Republic from political sources alone. Indeed, the most glaring weakness of the works of Deak, Poor, and Lebovics is their lack of sensitivity for the aesthetic culture to which the Weimar intellectuals belonged. Yet if one wants to understand that intense, divided culture, which had lost its binding ethos and its shared images, where shall one seek the “dies irae“? That is the problem which Peter Gay boldly tackles in Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider.

Gay’s subtitle announces the thesis by which he tries to organize the chaos. Weimar culture was created by the “outsiders” of the prewar Empire—Jews, democrats, socialists—who were “propelled by history into the inside for a short, dizzying, fragile moment.” Although clearly formulated at the outset, this thesis is allowed to die away in the analysis which follows. Gay does not show us how and why cultural production originated in the outsider groups. Countless important figures—Mann, Rilke, Meinecke, for example—were neither Jews nor prewar democrats nor socialists, yet were central to Weimar’s cultural life. And did the old outsiders—those who helped to form the “counter-culture” of Empire—really become insiders? It was not easy under Weimar for radicals of any kind to become “insiders.” What Weimar gave was freedom—but only the freedom of the market. In those remarkably large sectors of intellectual life where state patronage was involved, such as classical theater, opera, and the universities, persistent bureaucratic conservatism generally sustained tradition against those who tried to blaze new paths.

Despite its weaknesses, Gay’s “outsider” thesis serves to remind us that most of what we think of as Weimar culture—the international style in architecture, expressionist art and poetry, symbolic and iconographic analysis in the arts, depth psychology, existentialist philosophy, and atonal music—was largely conceived as the counter-culture of Empire (much of it in Austria), and was well on the way to maturity before the Republic was born. In the culture as in the politics of the Republic the persistence of the social conditions of the Empire gave prewar ideas and emotional responses continuing vitality.

In culture as in politics—and here Gay produces evidence that contradicts his thesis—the essence of Weimar, of its suspension between the once-was and the not-yet, was that no one could be clearly identified as an “outsider.” Everyone, including even the presidents of the Republic, the socialist Ebert no less than his monarchist successor, General Hindenburg, felt themselves to be “outside.” Precisely the difficulty of identifying the establishment makes Weimar society so very different from our own.

The great merit of Gay’s book lies not in its rather dubious thesis, but in the comprehensive inventory of cultural currents it provides. There is an engaging empirical freshness about the work. An urbane explorer of the consummately urban part of Weimar culture, Gay conveys the excitement of his own first encounters with the atmosphere of Weimar—or more accurately, of Berlin. As he ranges from expressionist theater to historical theory, his prose often glitters with the promise of pleasure like a sequinned dress of Marlene Dietrich. Gay knows how to recapture from the reminiscences of Stefan Zweig, Bruno Walter, Max Beckmann, and others the dynamism of raw, sophisticated Berlin.

Gay does not confine his study to the racy world of cabaret and art, that part of Weimar culture which most non-German intellectuals at one time took to be the whole, but deals with aspects of intellectual life which have never been explored. He traces the rise of the semiprivate institute as a device for developing new kinds of knowledge not congenial to the academic mandarins of the old regime who continued to dominate the universities. Thus the Hochschule für Politik, supported by a progressive industrialist, was designed to liberate German political and social studies from the legalistic formalism of academia. The Hochschule‘s original name of 1918, “School of Citizenship,” well conveys the intention of its liberal founders to provide the republic with republicans, and with a social science relevant to their needs.

The more radical Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, established by independent Marxists, provided a center for original talents in humanistic and social studies which no so-called “socialist country” has yet matched: Herbert Marcuse in philosophy, Walter Benjamin in literature, Erich Fromm in psychology, Leo Lowenthal in sociology, Theodor Adorno in musicology. If they were held at arm’s length by the academic establishment, these intellectual mavericks were, on their part, not uniformly eager to penetrate it. Unlike the men of the Hochschule, they knew themselves to profit intellectually from their insecurity of status, on the border between the orthodox world of learning and the freer realm of the unattached intelligentsia. They deepened political criticism with their sensitive explorations of culture, both elite and popular, and sharpened cultural analysis with the critical spirit of Marxist politics.

The scholars gathered in the Warburg Institute at Hamburg were more erudite and less political. Here the traditional German preoccupation with the classical heritage was updated by symbolic analysis and attentiveness to the chthonic and irrational aspects of culture. This refined scholarly intelligentsia explored the role of myth in the culture of the past, even as myth began to appear in Weimar political culture to provide new political groups with their integrating creeds. Peter Gay makes clear that when Dionysus returned to Germany, he appeared in many diverse camps.

Gay also includes many other revealing sides of Weimar culture: “the cartelization of culture” by the communications empires of Hugenburg and Ullstein, who adapted both media and message to many different publics; the complex fashions in poetic taste which enabled men of the most diverse political persuasions to celebrate the romantics Hölderlin and Kleist as culture-heroes; the significance of Rilke and Hofmannsthal.

The introduction of so many topics in rapid succession makes Gay’s book richly suggestive, but sometimes tantalizingly superficial. Too seldom does Gay have a firm enough grasp of the works of the thinkers or artists whom he uses in his cultural collage. In the disconcerting manner of a textbook writer, he reduces to shallow formulas even such complex figures as Hölderlin or Rilke. Both poets as young men were searching for the right relationship of politics and art for their societies. From memoirs or interviews Gay can show us well enough what Weimar intellectuals thought about the ideas of Hölderlin or Rilke, but only a knowledge of their lives and works can lay bare what historical significance those perceptions had as attempts to define and meet the Weimar situation.

Gay shows his capacity for more probing analysis in his treatment of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, in which he finds a clinical parable of late Imperial Germany’s deceptive health. He captures the lightly fevered atmosphere of high bourgeois society, the persistent low throbbing of the experience of war, the sense of living in the provisional. But this treatment is an exception. For the most part, Gay flattens out the ideas of intellectuals—even those of such major significance for European culture as Heidegger or Hofmannsthal—into brightly colored pieces for use in his historical mosaic.

The function of the mosaic is in part to tell a moral tale. Gay’s values are firmly those of America’s older generation liberals, appreciative of aesthetic culture but suspicious of the world of instinct with which it is connected. Not for nothing has Peter Gay been the historian of the Enlightenment. Having chronicled its rise in the eighteenth century in his major works, he turns to Weimar now to sketch its destruction.

Weimar Culture begins with a description of the “community of reason,” a community composed largely of bien pensant academic men who supported the Republic out of good sense, when not out of conviction. It ends in the destruction of “objectivity” by youth revolting on behalf of the Nazis. Between beginning and end, “poetry” and a “hunger for wholeness,” which Gay regards as incompatible with the acceptance of the modern world, do their corrosive work. His chapters succeed each other along a sequence of three polarities: reason versus poetry; democracy versus community; father versus son. Gay is an avowed partisan of reason, democracy, and fatherhood over poetry, communitarianism; and sons. Tragedy lies in the defeat of what he loves by that which he distrusts.

The “secret Germany” which hollows out the community of reason is the realm of poetry. Gay sees poetry’s role in Germany as “one of the historical instruments of perdition.” Goethe and Schiller become sources of bad, politics: “Goethe’s politics was apathy, Schiller’s tyrannicide; neither was a mode calculated to prepare men for parliamentary compromises; both, in calling for something higher than politics, helped to call in something lower—barbarism.” This astonishing statement reveals quite clearly the particular form of political orthodoxy to which Gay would confine what Shelley once called the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” the poets. The victory of National Socialism, which a young generation would see as the subjection of life to rational organization, Gay sees as the outcome of a process in which “song was substituted for thought.”

At his best, Gay uses a more nuanced approach to explain the fate of the Enlightenment under Weimar. He brings out the fascination of his rationalists with the poetic (or even the mythic and mystical). He shows that some good democrats like Gropius shared with more conservative social organicists the “hunger for wholeness.” Yet Gay is so wedded to the spirit of John Locke that he treats affirmation of the poetic, let alone the mystical, as a suspicious flirtation with unsavory instinct.

His conviction of the incompatibility between feeling and reason misleads him into defining expressionism and the new objectivism (Neue Sachlichkeit) as opposites, the first aligned with the sons and the second with the fathers. The Bauhaus he places squarely in the second camp. Yet even before World War I the expressionist artists and rationalistic architects who made the Bauhaus had found each other, and embraced each other’s work as complementary. In the cool geometricity of a building by Breuer or Gropius, one could sustain the febrility of an expressionist painting. In an expressionist play, the stripping down of human characters to anonymous archetypes—“Man” and “Woman” rather than named characters—directly parallels the abstraction, the simple volumes and clear lines, in Bauhaus architecture. The Bauhaus not only had ties with Herwarth Walden’s expressionist literary journal, Der Sturm, but itself published the graphic works of expressionist artists.*

Gay’s identification of expressionism with the sons and Neue Sachlichkeit with the fathers produces the ultimate in confusion when he reaches his final chapter, “The Revenge of the Father.” The revenge takes the form of a victory of Sachlichkeit over emotional revolt, with Mann’s Magic Mountain and the Bauhaus oddly classed with President Hindenburg as exemplars of the constructive responsibility of the middle years of Weimar. Yet Gay closes his chapter with a discussion of the desertion of the Republic by youth. Is this part of the father’s revenge? Gay tells us that in Weimar’s father-and-son literature there was “confusion over who was who” from the start. But he falls into the confusion himself. For the youth that revolted were not followers of the expressionists (whose books they freely burned), but young men of the upper and middle class completing in more radical forms the work of their nationalistic fathers.

Gay’s oedipal model here, especially after he has linked it to the cultural manifestations of expressionists (sons) and objectivists (fathers), creates a hopeless conceptual tangle. Which fathers are avenging? And whose work are the sons doing? The university rowdies, after all, were linked with the conservative Alte Herren, “the old boys,” whose social power had been left unbroken by the Republicans. Generational categories only obscure the social dynamics of counterrevolution, which transcended any generational lines.

Although he has denied any intention to draw parallels between Weimar and America, Gay’s placement of the student revolt so prominently at the end of his work suggests at least the inspiration of the present. In diction hardly unfamiliar to the current scene, Gay cites Thomas Mann as among the many “responsible republicans…urging the students toward patience, and toward an appreciation of the true freedom that comes with rationality and discipline.” But the students to whom Mann’s words were spoken, if they understood that “true freedom” any better than their parents, were no longer within earshot of “responsible republicans” who had earlier failed to address their problems. Those were the problems of the archaistically oriented middle class, caught once more in economic crisis. Only Lebovics’s ideologists and the Nazis could any longer reach them.

Weimar Culture is a book written to open up its subject, not to close it. Among the important questions Gay’s work raises is the relationship between culture and politics. Gay rarely tackles the question directly. Yet he is a man of such pronounced conviction that he judges virtually every cultural tendency by the standards of liberal political rationalism.

In his analysis of The Magic Mountain, Gay describes the character of Settembrini: “The unrepentant child of the Enlightenment, well-meaning, rationalist, predictable in his anticlericalism, his opposition to censorship, his optimism….” To Mann, this character, however lovable, was as anachronistic in 1924 as Settembrini’s antagonist, the Catholic fanatic Naphta. Not so to Gay, who states, however wistfully, “What Weimar needed was precisely more Settembrinis—perhaps a little less naïve and a little more laconic—liberals wholly disenchanted with political myths and metaphysical Schwärmerei.”

Thomas Mann and many other humanists who feared for the Republic knew that the Settembrinis too lived by political myth and by Schwärmerei, however antimetaphysical. Only the Settembrinis did not realize it, and that increased the vulnerability of the world they wished to save. In this respect, Weimar’s left-wing intellectuals, with their acerbic criticism of the Republic’s failures, were more realistic than the orthodox liberals and Vernunftsrepublikaner.

Yet who would assert that the radicals had the key to the unborn kingdom? They too were prisoners of their pre-1914 counter-culture which, for all its brilliance, could not develop a politics capable of dealing with the return of the repressed in the German middle class. Whether American intellectuals, with their different assets and liabilities, will address our similar problem more effectively surely cannot be prophesied by analogy to the Weimar experience.

(This is the second part of a two-part review.)

  1. *

    Recently reissued by Lund Humphries, Hans M. Wingler, ed.: Graphic Work from the Bauhaus; translated by Gerald Onn.

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