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.

One thing that was horribly revealed by the war was the total helplessness of the human individual. In a clash of vast armies the individual was reduced to nothing more than a tiny cog in a huge war machine. Ernst Jünger, who volunteered as a young officer on the Western Front, wrote how this affected the way people looked. He described the faces of soldiers, peering from their steel helmets, faces that had lost much of their individual distinction but were nonetheless sharply defined, as though molded from steel. This, he continued, “is the face of a race that is beginning to develop under the peculiar demands of a new landscape, a race that no longer represents the lone figure as a person or individual, but as a type.”3

This notion of a new machine age was celebrated by some, and deeply feared, and resisted, by others. The metropolis, as a giant machine, with its own mechanical rhythms, reducing humans to helpless ant-like creatures, became a popular subject of filmmakers, as in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Mechanical movement was also the inspiration for chorus lines in nude revues, pioneered by Florenz Ziegfeld in New York, but perfected in Berlin. Fernand Léger, a French Communist, created a painterly vision of machine-like people in a mechanized world. Like the Italian Futurists and the Soviet Constructivists, he saw beauty in this. There was still an almost fetishistic hope in the benign qualities of speed, efficiency, and mass movement, a hope that was shared by many Communists and fascists alike.

This rationalist idealism was particularly strong among the architects and designers. Walter Gropius declared that spending two days of World War I under the rubble of a house destroyed by an artillery shell had given him the ambition to build—not just beautiful new buildings, but a new and better society, based on reason, efficient function, and collective well-being. Backed by the socialist government of Thuringia, Gropius became the first chairman of the Bauhaus. “The arts must be brought together under the wing of a great architecture,” he said, and architects, sculptors, and painters “must all go back to the crafts.”

If the angst and rage of the individual artist was one aspect of Weimar Republic culture, the image of the artist as craftsman working toward a better, socialist society was another. Although we now appreciate the expressionist visions of such painters as Kirchner or Beckmann, their influence at the time was marginal compared to the clean, rational lines of architects and designers, such as Marcel Breuer, Josef Albers, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Gropius himself. The main idea was to invest as much artistic effort in humble chairs or kitchen utensils as in great urban buildings. Stephen Spender suggested in these pages that the Weimar Republic’s motto might have been “Sermons in saucepans,” communicating an “atmosphere of individual freedom for those who could be satisfied by useful objects in a setting of democratized humanism.”4 Spender pointed as well to the public housing projects designed during Weimar by well-known modern architects, including Le Corbusier, in Frankfurt and Stuttgart as well as Berlin. Generations of art school students all over the world were taught to copy the formal models of Bauhaus design, and many eventually felt the urge to rebel against them. But there is still something moving about the hope for a better future based on science, technology, and human reason.

Most artists of the time were not utopian Futurists, however, or Bauhaus-style idealists, but felt more ambivalent, if not hostile, toward the machine age. Grosz, for one, accepted that “line has become a photographic and not a personal fact.”5 In some pictures by George Grosz, people are literally faceless, blank figures identified simply as the Boxer, or the Gymnast, or in one famous painting, entitled Republican Automatons (1920), machine-men, clanking and whirring and mechanically waving the national flag. Grosz didn’t celebrate anonymity. If anything, it was another facet of his disgust. Even when they have faces, the subjects of many Weimar period portraits are types, not as described by Ernst Jünger, but stereotypes in exaggerated, typical settings, as though people were all actors in a great stage play. Perhaps this is where the Weimar fascination for cabaret and circus meets the cool, quasi-objective response to an age dominated by mechanical reproduction.

Fear of a mechanized world gone mad was not the only reason for the loss of faith in humanity. Men who have seen the worst brutality that man is capable of inflicting on man are used to observing life reduced to the basest human instincts. The sentimental romanticism that sweetened (or poisoned) so much German culture of the nineteenth century could hardly survive the carnage of a modern war. Fine patriotic sentiments of soldiers marching off to die for Kaiser and country had become obscene slogans of senseless murder and death. If anything defines the art of Weimar Germany it is an attitude of deliberate anti-romanticism, shared of course by the Bauhaus School; a hatred of sentimentality and pretense. Morality, patriotism, authority, all had been debased by the catastrophic war, and were thus to be despised. And yet this attitude could be as overblown as the highest German Romanticism.

Civilized life cannot be sustained without hypocrisy. A certain moral code, a degree of courtesy and decorum, are necessary to keep our instincts under a modicum of control. The unforgettable downfall of Professor Dr. Immanuel Rath, played by Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel, is a warning of what happens when all social niceties are stripped away, when a man loses all self-respect. When men and women are reduced to nothing but their lowest appetites, we live in a state of barbarism. This is what Weimar period artists painted, for this, in their view, was what society had become. Their honesty would be costly to them. When the Nazis made barbarism official, these artists were among the first ones to go—into exile, concentration camps, or “inner emigration.”

The war had destroyed the old order. But the tragedy of the Weimar period was that too few people were prepared to defend the new one. The new order was, in any event, too fragile to protect against its brutal enemies. It has been argued that artists, writers, and journalists of the left did much to undermine the vulnerable republic themselves. The relentless criticism and ridicule by such brilliant commentators as Kurt Tucholsky did nothing to bolster confidence. The Comintern, taking its instructions from Moscow, encouraged the idea that the Social Democrats were at least as dangerous as the fascists, and should be crushed.

Even a staunch liberal like Count Harry Kessler, diplomat, aesthete, and chronicler of his times, who supported the republic, could not hide his feline disdain for “the little men” who ran it. “They all look alike,” he wrote. “In Germany only taproom politicians make their way.” Many were incompetent, or worse. There were a few exceptions; but after the assassination of Rathenau and the sudden death of Gustav Stresemann, the brilliant foreign minister, seven years later, Kessler prophesied the inevitable doom. And yet, Berlin of the 1920s evokes a peculiar nostalgia, even, or perhaps especially, in those who didn’t experience it, perhaps because its glory was so short-lived, like that of a poète maudit who died too young.

Hans Sahl, a marvelous Weimar period journalist who was forced to flee to New York when the Nazis came, wrote in retrospect:

Many people now think that living in Berlin in the 1920s must have been an enviable slice of luck. But we must not forget that in Weimar Germany, with Berlin as its artistic capital, it was not just the spirit of the century that took shape, but also its downfall…. I experienced that time as provisional, as something unreal. Germany had lost a war and almost sleepwalked into a republic for which it wasn’t prepared…. It was a time of great misery, with legless war veterans riding the sidewalks on rolling planks, in a nation that seemed to consist of nothing but beggars, whores, invalids, and fat-necked speculators.6

It is these people, as types, that populate the pictures of Grosz, Dix, and the others. They look grotesque, unreal, like nightmarish cartoons, or actors in a Grand Guignol. In a world without pretense or sentiment women are all whores, and men are all pimps and lechers. Even clothes cannot disguise our animal instincts. Respectable women in the streets are undressed by male eyes, and so through their dresses, as though by X-ray, we can see their chubby thighs and fleshy buttocks. Men’s faces, distorted by lust, are like those of pigs, rooting in the dirt. If not distorted by sexual desire, faces are flushed with greed for money or power: necks bulging, eyes narrowing, mouths puckering around stumpy cigars.

There, in Grosz’s Ecce Homo, is the Man of Honor, bursting out of his collar, wearing a frown that is both stupid and malignant. And there the Marital Scene, of two hideous people trying to batter each other to death. And the Cock of the Walk, fondling two drunken whores over a bottle of Sekt. And the Younger Generation of inbred aristocrats, staring vacantly over their cocktails, like a bunch of disfigured pedigree dogs. The Monarchist, filled with murderous rage, and the client undressing his whore to the music played by a blind war invalid.

They look, as I said, like caricatures, as stylized as Joel Grey presiding over the stage of the Kit Kat Club. Yet Hannah Arendt recalled viewing Grosz’s drawings “not as satire, but as realistic reportage; we knew these types; they were all around us.”7 The poet, Max Herrman-Neisse, himself the subject of several extraordinary portraits, remarked that Grosz “contrives to express the essence of today’s average German type, the incarnation of the German character, the bourgeois German Everyman.”8

The obsession with types could take many different forms, some more benign than others. The photographs taken by August Sander between the world wars were part of a project to record the Man of the Twentieth Century. For this, he concentrated on the people of his region around Cologne: the High School Graduate, the Police Sergeant, the Bohemian, the Farm Girls, the Railway Officer, the Cleaning Woman, and so on.

In fact, few of the earnest provincials in Sander’s photographs look much like the grotesques in pictures by Dix or Grosz. The man who comes closest to a Grosz cartoon is a plump, rather earnest-looking pastry chef. The interesting thing about much Weimar period portraiture, though, is the tension between typecasting and individual eccentricity. One of the most famous portraits, an icon of the age, used several times as a backdrop in Cabaret, is Otto Dix’s portrait of Sylvia von Harden. She was a typical denizen of the Berlin demimonde, a late-night habitué of the Romanische Café, who sported a bobbed haircut and a monocle. Dix placed her in her exact milieu, at a marble-topped table, a cocktail and a box of Turkish cigarettes at hand. She is certainly a type: the literary bohemian of the Ku’damm. But she is also entirely distinctive, with her tobacco-stained bucked teeth, her absurdly large hands, her sleep-deprived eyes.

The same thing can be said about other portraits, by Dix and others. Like Sander, they liked to depict different types: the poet in his garret, the dealer with his objects, the actor in costume, the boxer in his shorts, fists clenched for the killer punch. But all these types have exaggerated personal physical characteristics. Alfred Flechtheim, the art dealer, is portrayed by Dix as a kind of clever ape, with his low brow, thick lips, and hooded simian eyes. In different hands—the artists for the Nazi journal Der Stürmer, for example—it could easily have become an anti-Semitic caricature. Dix’s picture is actually not without affection, but it is also ruthlessly unsentimental.

Weimar period artists, then, tried to do two things at once. They wished to reclaim the individual from the impersonal brutality of the machine age, while at the same time playing with roles and stereotypes. Masquerades, of one kind or another, were a feature of cultural life in the 1920s. The trick was to show the face behind the mask, to rediscover a new equilibrium between character, self-representation, and social roles in an age when everything seemed out of wack.

You see this in the portraits of others, but also in the many self-portraits made at the time. Max Beckmann, for one, was forever posing in different costumes: the lounge lizard in a dinner jacket, sipping champagne at some grand hotel bar; the Pierrot at the circus; the tormented artist. Dix portrayed himself as a sinister guest at a wild jazz dance, as a wounded prisoner of war, as a painter with his whorish, big-breasted muse, as a family man. Then there was Grosz, play-acting with his wife, Eva, the nude victim of his Jack the Ripper. Or Grosz in boxing gloves, Grosz the voyeur, or Grosz the pornographer, his monumental erection pointing straight at a naked model, offering up her fleshy bottom to his painterly gaze.

There was something else about Berlin, unrelated to the war or economics, that encouraged the art of make-believe, of role-playing in public life. Like Shanghai or Los Angeles, Berlin was a latecomer among the great cities, lacking the ancient pedigree of London, Paris, or Beijing. Much of the dynamism of Berlin was an effort to catch up, by mimicking, or exaggerating, or trying to surpass the styles and manners of others. If Vienna was grand, Berlin would be grander; if New York was jazzy, Berlin would be jazzier; if Paris was sexy, Berlin would be sexier. Brecht’s Mahagonny was a dystopian fantasy of Chicago or New York, but it could as easily have been Weimar Berlin.

And then, in 1933, the party was over. Not immediately, of course. Many of the cabarets went on doing business for a while, often still featuring Jewish artists. But George Grosz left on January 12, bound for New York. Two months later, as soon as Hitler grabbed total power, storm troopers raided his studio. The gay bars patronized by Auden and Isherwood were closed one after the other, and homosexuals arrested as degenerates. Jews were pushed slowly to the margins, from which there would ultimately be no escape. Mental patients were rounded up and murdered. For the Nazis, too, were obsessed with types and typologies. Not only Grosz’s caricatures, but even August Sander’s photographs were banned for showing what Germans really looked like, and not what they should have looked like, in some absurdly purist fantasy: blond, heroic, unblemished.

At last, Ernst Jünger’s new race had found an official expression. The ideal Nazi types were either as Jünger described them: steely, machinelike, without individual distinction. Or they were a throwback to idealized nineteenth-century tableaux, sentimental and inhuman: heroic farmers, digging the native soil, fertile mothers with big “child-bearing” hips, perfectly blond children singing around the family table. Some of this imagery—Adolf Ziegler’s paintings of icy female nudes, Arno Breker’s sculptures of nude male warriors—looks pornographic, even though it was not meant to be. This officially sanctioned art celebrated a type that did not exist. The best art of the 1920s, so full of rage and passion, was denounced as “degenerate” because it showed the dark side of human life, its impurities, its ugliness. The Nazis unleashed the darkest impulses and institutionalized murder, but did so under a façade of false sentiment and morbid physical perfection.

So let us celebrate, once more, the artistic visions of a dangerous decade, the works of artists who had the courage to tear off the veil of respectability and reveal what lurks in the hearts of all women and men. The mirror they held up to their fellow men did not reflect a pretty picture. It was harsh, and often even brutal, but never less than human.

This Issue

November 2, 2006