For those of us born after World War II there is one face that conjures up the spirit of Berlin around 1930 best, and that belongs to a man who was only born in 1932, in Cleveland of all places: Joel Grey, master of ceremonies in Cabaret, the androgynous host of the Kit Kat Club. Grey managed to personify everything we now associate with the end of that giddy, sinister, brilliant decade between the two world wars, when Berlin was the capital of sex, art, and violence. The sunken cheeks, the curled blood-red lips, the rouge and death-white powder, the lacquered black hair, the little dark eyes darting about like malevolent black insects, and all this combined with that unforgettable voice—whining, lisping, sneering. It is the sum of everything we find repellent yet deeply intriguing about Berlin at the dawn of the Third Reich.
What is so brilliant and disturbing about Joel Grey’s act is its air of boundless cynicism. Nothing is real about his character. He is utterly without feeling. Or rather all his sentiment is false. He trades in sexual innuendo but is sexless himself. He is a hollow man who knows that survival rests on people’s worst instincts, and this he conveys with a sense of deep loathing under his leering smile.
Cabaret was of course a favorite subject of European artists in the Roaring Twenties. The pumped-up naughtiness of “erotic reviews,” the lines of naked women kicking their legs in a frenzy to syncopated music, were typical of a decade when everything appeared to have become unhinged after a monstrous war that mutilated a generation. This was especially true of Berlin, the capital of a country that was reeling from the shock of mass slaughter, wartime defeat, failed revolution, and hyperinflation. With the brutal destruction of the old order—the rigid class system, the authority of monarchy and church, the discipline of the parade ground—anything seemed possible. This was fertile ground for sexual adventure and artistic experimentation, but also the source of social panic, from which the hedonism of the brothel and the dance hall—and, a few years later, massive rallies to worship the Führer—offered a temporary escape.
It might seem ironic that this era of urban sophistication and political violence should bear the name of a provincial town in Thuringia, whose main distinction, apart from some fine eighteenth-century architecture, is that Goethe and Schiller once ran a theater there for the Duke of Weimar. The German republic, lasting from 1919 to 1933, was named after Weimar because that is where the government was formed and the constitution written. The Weimar National Theater, where these matters were concluded, was thought to be a safer place to found a democracy than the center of unruly Berlin, to which the government was soon transferred. The setting was anything but grand. Theodor Wolff, a politician and editor of a liberal paper, recalled that the main hall was “decorated with flowers as if for a modest middle-class wedding reception.”1
It was not an auspicious time for liberal politics. The humiliating wartime defeat had caused great bitterness, not only among the poor workingmen who had to survive in a ruined nation, but also among the many soldiers (including one Corporal Hitler) who felt tricked out of their promised victory. Communist revolution appealed to the former and right-wing revolution, led by disaffected military men, to the latter. The democratic founders of the republic were caught in between. When a left-wing revolt threatened to turn Munich and Berlin into bastions of the proletarian dictatorship in 1919, even such staunch Social Democrats as Friedrich Ebert, the Reich chancellor, were prepared to use a right-wing militia, the Freikorps, to crush it. The Communist defeat came at a high price, for it gave the right-wing enemies of parliamentary democracy their first taste of blood. And the Communists would never trust the Social Democrats again.
When, little more than a decade later, the Social Democrats could barely hold the tottering republic together, the left, and especially the powerful Communist Party, did nothing to help them shore it up. The Nazis may have been a serious threat, but word came from Moscow not to support “the lesser evil.” From the beginning of his career in national politics, Hitler had cleverly exploited the rifts that fatally weakened his most dangerous opponents.
In the early 1920s, however, things did not yet look so grim. Despite accusations from revanchist army officers, Freikorps thugs, reactionary Junkers, and proto-Nazis of various kinds that they had “stabbed Germany in the back,” brave and able democrats, like Ebert, Gustav Stresemann, and Walther Rathenau, tried their best to keep the republic afloat. These men of the world knew the weakness of Germany’s position, and realized that only a very deft foreign policy, involving many compromises, would have any chance of lessening the burdens put on Germany by the victors of the Great War. To be able to renegotiate war reparations and other punishments, Germany needed much good will. It might have been outrageous of the French to occupy the industrial Ruhr area in 1923, but shutting the factories and mines down in a gesture of “passive resistance” almost brought the entire German state down too. Alas, however, every necessary compromise was portrayed by the enemies of the republic as another stab in the back.
In the event it was the Weimar Republic itself that got stabbed, from the left and the right. When Walther Rathenau was murdered in 1922 by right-wing assassins, some already saw the writing on the wall. When Friedrich Ebert died only three years later, he was replaced as Reich president by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, an old warhorse with no democratic credentials. Stresemann, the last Weimar politician of any stature, died in 1929, by which time the crash on Wall Street had wrecked the long-awaited beginning of an economic recovery. But instead of supporting democracy despite economic hardships, as happened in Britain and the United States, Germans tended to blame the republic for all their misfortunes.
Nazi brownshirts and Communists murdered each other in the streets of Berlin, as unemployment soared and the political center lost its grip. A sorry bunch of autocratic media moguls, disaffected generals, dim-witted aristocrats, Catholic reactionaries, and ultranationalist schemers took over the government of the dying republic, while Hitler bided his time. Finally, the most dim-witted aristocrat, Franz von Papen, made one shabby deal too many: Hitler was made Reich chancellor. The right-wing schemers who served in his cabinet thought they would soon knock the rough edges off the ex-corporal and make him do what they wanted. Little did they know.
But this was in 1933. Until then, while the Weimar Republic lasted, Berlin had seen a cultural renaissance whose echoes still resonate to this day, in music, science, art, literature, film, architecture, design, and entertainment. For about ten years, Berlin was the epitome of daring, dangerous glamour and worldliness.
Berlin always was a cynical town. Berliners are proud of their Berliner Schnauze, the quick, sardonic wit which can strike outsiders as impertinent. If so, it is a bracing kind of impertinence that I much prefer to the ingratiating manners of, say, the Viennese. Joel Grey’s MC was not a total invention. People flocked to certain cabarets because of their outrageous MCs. The most cynical one was named Erwin Lowinsky (“Elow”), host of the Weisse Maus. His shtick was to encourage the most hopelessly untalented amateur performers—dreamy housewives, deluded bank clerks, and the like—to make fools of themselves on stage, like specimens in a freak show.
Some cabarets were venues for literary acts and clever satirical sketches. Others offered more erotic entertainments. One notorious production, later banned, took place at an establishment named the Black Cat Cabaret, run by Celly de Reidt and her husband, Seweloh, a former army lieutenant. It featured nude girls in sacrificial Mayan ceremonies, or mock bullfights, or scenes of naked novices being humiliated by lesbian nuns in strange rituals involving silver crucifixes.2
Sex was the reason why so many foreigners came to Berlin. Christopher Isherwood, on whose Berlin Stories the musical Cabaret was based, moved there in 1929. Berlin, as he saw it, “meant boys.” He was actually following his friend W.H. Auden, who had already discovered the delights of such establishments as the Cozy Corner, where working-class boys in tight leather shorts could be had for a warm meal and a glass of beer. Sex with proletarian foreigners was a great attraction for inhibited Englishmen from the upper middle class.
Berlin, capital of the former enemy, had the pull of the illicit and the banned. Homosexuality was actually proscribed by Prussian law, but like pornography, it was in the culture, so to speak. The German fashion for nude bathing, for young men trekking through the hills, celebrating male camaraderie, the almost pagan worship of nature, and the sun—these were not necessarily homosexual, but they contained a homoerotic element that Isherwood and his friends certainly took to. Berlin allowed them to live out fantasies that were harder to fulfill at home. This could involve real love. More often, it was love for sale.
The prostitute, like the cabaret, is an essential fixture of the period, the living symbol of desire and corruption, of a world where feelings are faked for the right price, where every pleasure is available, where everything and everyone is for sale. In the art of George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and others, the prostitute and all that she represents is the source both of erotic fascination and disgust. This is one of the distinctions of Weimar period art, what makes it different from Parisian depictions of sex: the underlying seam of loathing.
There is an element of this in German art of earlier periods too, a taste for the morbid and the grotesque—as in parts of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. But for a generation that left millions of dead in the mud of France and Belgium, only to live on in a society corrupted by power-hunger and greed, disgust is a logical emotion. One would have had to be inhuman not to feel it. The disgust in the works of Dix and Grosz, those monstrous women and their porcine, lecherous patrons, are signs of the artists’ humanity. Injecting their bile into their paintings was a way of coming back from the dead.
German artists of the Weimar period were past masters at depicting Hell. Otto Dix’s drawings, some of them on postcards sent from the battlefront, his woodcuts, and his oil paintings, of bomb explosions, bodies mutilated by bayonets or machine-gun fire, and rotting corpses in rat-infested trenches, are visions of horror that are as powerful as Goya’s Disasters of War. Dix and many of his colleagues actually witnessed these scenes, were indeed part of them. Some, like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who was in the infantry, never recovered from the experience. He had a nervous breakdown in 1915, and committed suicide in 1938, when the Nazi regime had destroyed what residual hope he might still have had.
Torsten Palmér and Hendrik Neubauer, The Weimar Republic: Through the Lens of the Press (Cologne: Könemann, 2000), p. 66.↩
See Alexandra Richie, Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin (Carroll and Graf, 1999), p. 355.↩