The Weimar Republic lasted less than fifteen years, yet few periods in recent history have left so potent a legend. “Weimar culture” has come to symbolize a particular blend of radical art and radical politics. The ideas and tastes of an embattled minority of Weimar radicals and artists are now regarded as typical of a society which rejected their values and finally destroyed them. One recent sign of the extent to which the Weimar Republic has caught the imagination of many people fifty years later has been the remarkable publishing success in Germany of the facsimile reprint of Die Weltbühne, one of the most famous of the German reviews of the 1920s. The history of the political ideas of Die Weltbühne was well told in Istvan Deak’s excellent study Weimar Germany’s Left-Wing Intellectuals, published in 1968; and Deak’s book, with its biographical appendices and its elucidation of the pseudonyms of Weltbühne writers, is an invaluable guide to the reader of the complete series of volumes.
Die Weltbühne is more than a review of politics. It is a mirror in which we can see reflected the image of Weimar culture and of the 1920s as they looked to a group of sophisticated and critical intellectuals. In its pages we can follow their disappointment at the results of the German revolution of 1918 and their growing disbelief and then despair as the forces against which they had spoken out so courageously swept them aside. But we can also see their reactions to the activities of the Bauhaus, their comments on Ulysses or Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the early work of Bert Brecht, their assessment of the achievements of Klemperer’s reign at the Kroll opera. Few weekly periodicals can have left so vivid a picture of the society which produced them and the tastes and beliefs of those who wrote in them.
Die Weltbühne had originally been called Die Schaubühne and the change of name early in 1918 from “the stage” to “the world stage” showed a concern to keep pace with the events of the last months of the First World War. The editor and proprietor was Siegfried Jacobsohn, a man whose intelligence and integrity made an unforgettable impression on his associates and who gave it a flavor which his successors, Kurt Tucholsky and Carl von Ossietzky, preserved after Jacobsohn’s early death in 1926. It was Jacobsohn, originally a theater critic, who turned Die Weltbühne into an organ of criticism not just of literature and the theater but, with increasing vehemence, of the whole of German society. Revulsion against war and those responsible for it, and disappointment with the German revolution dominate the mood of Die Weltbühne and provide much of its contents.
“We have not had a revolution in Germany—but we have had a counter-revolution.” Tucholsky wrote as early as May 1919. The spirit of 1914 seemed to live on, and Die Weltbühne was determined to remind the public of where the responsibility lay.
The best thing that could happen for all those guilty of the murder of ten millions, this most gigantic crime in the whole history of the world, whether they be cliques or classes, would be for the coffin lid of silence to close over the mass graves. But fate will not grant them this boon.
Certainly the magazine was determined not to allow Germany’s responsibility for the war to be forgotten; and it continued to denounce the persistence in power of those who had led Germany to war and misled the German people during it. (As the German Foreign Ministry’s documents on the origins of the war began to be published in the 1920s, Die Weltbühne argued convincingly much the same case for Germany’s responsibility for the outbreak of the war as caused such an outcry in Germany when it was revived and elaborated by Professor Fritz Fischer during the 1960s.)
As it became clear how far the moral and political values of Imperial Germany had survived and how many of the officials and judges of the old regime were still in office, one of the main activities of Die Weltbühne was to expose the injustices done by the courts, the leniency shown to those who committed crimes in the name of German nationalism—the assassins of Kurt Eisner or Walther Rathenau or Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, to mention only some of the most notorious examples. From time to time the paper printed a comparative table of sentences awarded for minor offenses to show how the right consistently received lighter sentences than the left. Communists who tore down flags from houses were sentenced to between eight months and two and a half years in prison; Nazis who beat up a member of the Socialist Reichsbanner organiszation and trampled on his insignia were only fined. A paper which called Germany a republic of racketeers and Jews was fined 100 marks. A man who in a political meeting called the army leaders butchers and Hindenburg a master-butcher was sent to prison for six months.
Die Weltbühne not only accepted Germany’s responsibility for the war, it also repeatedly embarrassed successive governments by pointing out their failure to observe the disarmament clauses of the Treaty of Versailles and by reporting secret rearmament which was going on contrary to the terms of the peace settlement. To utter such criticisms or to draw attention to such matters led at once to the editors and contributors of Die Weltbühne being labeled as traitors by wide sections of the German public and by the nationalist press.
In 1932 the then editor, Carl von Ossietzky, and a contributor, Walter Kreiser, were charged with high treason (“Landesverrat“) and espionage because they had three years earlier pointed out that some of the activities of the Lufthansa Airline were being subsidized by the War Ministry and Admiralty and were in fact of a military nature forbidden by the peace treaty. Ossietzky was sentenced to eighteen months and although he might have left the country as Kreiser had done, he courageously went to jail. Although he was released after a few months under one of the periodical general amnesties for political offenders (from which the right usually benefited more often than the left and which, it has been suggested, contributed to the disrespect in which the law was held in Weimar Germany), Ossietzky was arrested again on February 28, 1933. This was a few weeks after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor and just after the Reichstag fire provided Hitler with a convenient excuse for shutting up many of his opponents.
Ossietzky was already dying of tuberculosis when he was released from a concentration camp three years later, first to a prison hospital and then to a private clinic. In the meantime he had, in 1936, been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—an honor very much more justified than in the case of some of the subsequent recipients—at a moment when the consequences of the policies which Die Weltbühne had attacked so consistently were becoming all too apparent. The fate of Ossietzky and the repeated harassment to which the editors and contributors of Die Weltbühne and other left-wing intellectuals were subjected long before the rise of Hitler show the real courage that was required of the Weimar Republic’s critics. Many of Die Weltbühne’s authors ended tragically—Erich Mühsam and others died in prison; Toller, Tucholsky, and Stefan Zweig were among those who committed suicide.
Still the tone of the journal was usually far from somber. Until the last two years of the republic, when Ossietzky wrote, “Everything is crammed with politics and economics and what was once a place of refuge for beauty has now become a depository for all sorts of anxiety,” Die Weltbühne could still be called “a wonderfully wrought metal bowl in which the most beautiful things were assembled, so that it glittered seductively in the evening glow of the bourgeois age.” The journal remains—and this is one of several reasons why this reprint is so valuable—important because it gives a picture of so many other aspects of Weimar culture and of German society as well as of politics. Many of its preoccupations are those we could expect: reports on the progress of the Bauhaus, campaigns for the reform of the laws on abortion or homosexuality, concern about the running of state theaters and museums, the controversy over George Grosz’s trials for blasphemy after the publication of his famous illustration of Christ on the cross in a gas mask and army boots.
But there are also some surprises. Not all the contributors were uniformly in favor of advanced art. When the left-wing artists of the Novembergruppe exhibited in Berlin in 1920, Die Weltbühne published a violent attack on them in language which under the pretext of social concern foreshadowed Nazi criticism:
These producers of framed belches and farts are guests of the Ministry of Science, Art, and Education. How is such a thing possible? Given the terrible housing shortage the question is not unjustified why the Prussian government allows public rooms over which it has full control to be used not as emergency dwellings for dozens of proletarian families but rather to store manure which does not even have the advantage of being of agricultural use.
However, advanced artists came to be accepted into the establishment and by 1931 at least two of the members of the Novembergruppe, Otto Dix and the architect Erich Mendelssohn, had been elected members of the Prussian Academy of Arts. Such success was short-lived and it is ironical that this apparent victory of the avant-garde (and Mies van der Rohe, Kirchner, Schmidt-Rotluff and Bruno Taut were among the other artists elected at the same time) occurred when the reaction which was to sweep them away was already rapidly gaining ground.
The ambivalence of Die Weltbühne’s attitude to art perhaps reflects a fundamental political ambivalence. The general line of Die Weltbühne was consistently hostile to communism. Consequently it perhaps underplayed the Russian dimension to German art of the 1920s so well analyzed in John Willett’s recent book, The New Sobriety.* But the Weltbühne authors nevertheless believed at least some of the time that both art and their own critical work had broad social implications. Above all they were convinced of the impossibility of political neutrality. In 1925 a contributor was pointing out the political significance of abstract art, which
provided prototypes of a universally valid order with a definitely social character. Therefore abstract art and neo-plasticism as represented unflinchingly by Mondrian is the object of a bitter struggle with all those involved in capitalism. Therefore abstract art is faced with a common front of Fascists, Nationalists, and Democrats.
Yet not all advanced artists were politically acceptable. The confusion of values into which the left was thrown as the Nazis increased their influence in 1932 was demonstrated when one writer was very critical of the conduct of some members of the Bauhaus who were desperately trying to keep some of their activities going. Mies van der Rohe, Kandinsky, and Albers were, he wrote, “none of them open Fascists. But in so far as they weaken under fascist pressure and adapt the Bauhaus to the demands of the Third Reich, they are in reality supporting fascism.”
Die Weltbühne never lost its original interest in the theater and the performing arts. The Viennese critic Alfred Polgar wrote about the classical German theater or on the shifting reputation of the expressionist playwright Georg Kaiser as well as on Ibsen, Pirandello, and Shaw. The experiments of Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, the films of Lubitsch and Fritz Lang—all came in for scrutiny in Die Weltbühne. One is struck by the popularity in Germany of English plays that were less well regarded in England or America—by how frequently, for example, Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance was performed, and how seriously it was taken. Some reputations stood higher then than now: Busoni seemed the most significant composer of the early 1920s; the compositions of Artur Schnabel were taken as seriously as his piano playing; the accounts of performances of operas by Schreker make one hope that other opera houses may follow the example of Frankfurt and revive Die Gezeichneten or Der ferne Klang.
The editors of Die Weltbühne were successful in imposing a particular tone on most of their contributors so that the style of the paper was remarkably consistent. Indeed the same writers often contributed several pieces to a single issue under different pseudonyms: Kurt Tucholsky used four names (including “Peter Panther” and “Theobald Tiger”) in addition to his own. He not only wrote tough political analysis but also satirical verses and songs in Berlin dialect, parodies and aphorisms which are scattered through the pages of successive issues alongside serious poems by, for example, Erich Kästner, and the cabaret songs of Walter Mehring. The magazine encouraged short contributions from its readers—anecdotes (one in 1929 submitted by a precocious S. Spender), ludicrous excerpts from the press including examples of Heiratsanzeigen which would not be out of place in the personal columns of The New York Review.
That Die Weltbühne was run by a small tightly knit group of people probably helped it to survive so long and, although in its last weeks Ossietzky had been persuaded to exclude the more polemical political articles, it continued publication up to the moment of his arrest in February 1933. The paper did not depend financially on advertisements, which were few and sometimes surprising, such as those for diet pills published in several issues at the height of the inflation of 1923. By contrast the liberal daily newspapers were increasingly paralyzed. As Modris Eksteins has shown in his interesting study of the democratic press and the collapse of the Weimar Republic, The Limits of Reason (Oxford, 1975), many of their staff became Nazis.
The editors and contributors of Die Weltbühne, severe critics of Weimar society as they were, seemed helpless when it became clear by 1930 that the alternative to that society was likely to be worse. They had not been slow to recognize the threat posed by Hitler and the growing danger of the Nazis when Hitler succeeded by 1929 in making his party broadly respectable. “They are not to be got rid of by a shrug of the shoulders and a little joke,” Die Weltbühne commented. But by this time, parliamentary government was already virtually at an end. “The system of stabilization which had been growing increasingly stronger since 1924,” Ossietzky wrote in a review of the year 1929, “has now been shattered by its own beneficiaries.” The parliamentary system, for all its deficiencies, and a foreign policy of rapprochement with France and Britain, unsatisfactory as the governments of those countries seemed to Die Weltbühne to be, were being abandoned. “Barely a quarter of a year after Gustav Stresemann’s death a substantial part of his legacy has been squandered.”
From then on the haunting anxiety and pessimism with which the editors and contributors viewed the society in which they lived deprived them of the will to save it. Sometimes, even at a desperate time such as 1932, they could still laugh at their plight: “Das für heute früh 8.30 Uhr angesetzte Chaos ist durch die Notverordnung der Regierung auf morgen verschoben worden.” (The chaos arranged for 8:30 this morning has been postponed until tomorrow by emergency decree of the government.)
Was this sense of helplessness unavoidable? Did the constant criticism of the governments of the republic contribute—as Gordon Craig and others have suggested—to the lack of positive support which led to its downfall? At the very beginning of the Weimar Republic, Tucholsky had written, “We are not living in a republic. We are living in a would-be empire whose sovereign has simply left. All the sympathy of the so-called educated classes is on the side of the expelled and fugitive monarch.” When the first president of the Republic, Friedrich Ebert, died in 1925, his successor was Field-Marshal Hindenburg, the aged hero from the First World War whose defeats had been forgotten and whose victory over the Russians at Tannenberg in 1914 alone remembered. His election, Die Weltbühne wrote, “drew a line through the years since 1914, made pointless ten million dead and vain seven years of bitter struggle for Justice, Reason and Progress.”
Tucholsky had himself already seen clearly early in 1919 the kind of criticism which would be made of him and his friends: “We collaborators on Die Weltbühne are being reproached that we say ‘no’ to everything and are not positive enough.” His answer was pessimistic but not hopeless. It was no use, he argued, making positive suggestions until a new spirit of sincerity and integrity prevailed throughout the country. This is what Die Weltbühne was setting out to achieve, and although it often made practical political suggestions and participated in specific political campaigns, its purpose remained primarily a moral one. The people whom it admired were those people on the left who had lost their lives because of their devotion to consistent moral values and who had tried to avoid becoming involved in the compromises and half-truths of day-to-day politics. Their heroes were Kurt Eisner, the first Republican premier of Bavaria, and the anarchist philosopher Gustav Landauer, about whom they felt more warmly than about other victims of the counter-revolution like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Their values remained curiously innocent. It is perhaps characteristic that the moral message of Hugh Lofting’s books for children recounting the achievements of Dr. Dolittle, with his simple good will and tolerance toward all animals, which he preferred to human beings, was repeatedly singled out for praise in Die Weltbühne’s review columns.
One sometimes has the feeling that the intensity of Die Weltbühne’s criticism increased with its lack of results. As the sense of helplessness grew, so the editors and contributors could find in the political scene less and less of which they could approve. Not only were their enemies stronger than ever: their potential friends—left liberals and socialists—were in their view already selling out while the communists were prevented by their sectarian attitudes from taking effective action.
The dilemma of a critical review unable to change society or at least find promising political allies within it was not a new one in Germany. In the prewar years Maximilian Harden’s Die Zukunft had found itself in a comparable position. The tone was however very different, since Harden was moved by a bitterness and sensationalism which the editors of Die Weltbühne did not share. Their anger was tempered by compassion and a certain trust in human nature.
When Harden died in 1927, Tucholsky published an extremely ambiguous obituary. “It is fitting to lay a wreath on the grave of this great writer. But of what flowers?” And while praising Harden’s courage—he had served a prison sentence for his criticism of the Kaiser and after the war had been the victim of an unsuccessful assassination attempt by the nationalist right—and being impressed by his influence, he nevertheless wrote, “If writers had analogies in the animal kingdom, Harden was a snake. Beautiful, dangerous, poisonous, evil, splendid to look at in the ardours of the chase, insatiable.”
Yet for all the efforts of Die Weltbühne to present itself as totally different from Die Zukunft and in spite of the real differences of attitude between them, each raises the question of the function of a critical review in a society which obstinately remains unchanged by its criticism. Each had a certain practical success: Harden’s ruthless campaign led to the disgrace of the Kaiser’s friend Philipp von Eulenburg and his removal from a position of influence at court; Die Weltbühne exposed the secret rearmament carried out by the Weimar Republic and many examples of the miscarriage of justice. Yet in the long run these exposures had little effect; and German politics and society went on much as before.
As one reads reviews such as Die Zukunft and Die Weltbühne one sometimes feels that the intensity of their criticism increases in proportion to their impotence. One of the paradoxes of Germany, both under the Wilhelmine empire and the Weimar Republic, is that critical reviews of this kind were tolerated even if their editors and authors were liable to harassment and occasionally imprisonment. Was this a sign of confidence or weakness on the part of the government? Did it indicate that such criticism only commanded the support of an unimportant minority who could be allowed some freedom of expression because its influence would be small? Whatever one’s judgment of the societies in which critical or satirical reviews flourish, history still has its revenges. Die Weltbühne has come to seem a more representative symbol of “Weimar culture” in all its complexity and variety than the products of the Philistine majority and the radical nationalist right.
It may well be that the Weimar Republic was doomed from the start because of the structure of German society and because the divisions in it went too deep to provide solid common ground for the construction of a liberal democracy or an effective basis for revolutionary change. “Who is to make up the Left?” a writer in Die Weltbühne asked in 1928. “Socialists, Paneuropeans, Communists, Democrats, Liberals, Pacifists, Republicans? Are these nuances within a common entity? And indeed we are not dealing with nuances but with encampments which are separated by abysses.” Tucholsky made the same point in a more general way: the Germans are isolated from one another in their own separate islands without, as he called it, a Diskussionskultur. This was one of the things Die Weltbühne set out to provide. In 1930, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of Jacobsohn’s original Schaubühne, Tucholsky wrote that the review’s task had been “to show that besides Hitler, Hugenberg and the coldfish university types of the year 1930, there are still other Germans.” It is as a demonstration of the existence of another Germany at the blackest moment of German history that Die Weltbühne deserves to be remembered.
November 6, 1980