Berlin cabaret flourished in the first decades of the 1900s, which in Germany saw three very different regime that handled cabaret, its performances and its audience in very different ways.
The Wilhelmine Era
Up to the fall of the monarchy in 1918, all theatres were subject to preliminary censorship. Before a performance, the script of every play – be it for theatre, variety show or cabaret – had to be submitted to the police, who would judge the suitability for public presentation. An observer was then sent to the performance to see whether direction had been followed and if any other aspects of the performance (such as gestures or intonation) might carry subversive overtones. Infraction resulted in fines and if repeated, the licence to perform could be revoked permanently.
Cabaret, as a form of entertainment that especially touched upon everyday aspects of life – both the more mundane, such as fashion and consumerism, and the more personal such as religion, sex and politic – was particularly in the eyes of the police.
In spite of this close attention, shows were very rarely closed down, not only because the police understood that this form of entertainment could be a social safety valve for discontent, but also because their actions could result in inadvertent advertisement for subversive troupes. The action of the censor was reported and debated in the press, the more controversial the event, the more coverage it produced. There is some evidence that cabaretists sometimes resorted to intentionally looking for the police’s sanction so to take advantage of the free exposure (and so free advertisement) it caused in the press.
Furthermore, the city government actively invited the police to give some leeway. Berlin was striving to become a city of international allure, and one could hardy attract tourist or impress foreigners with a repressive cultural regime.
The Weimar Republic abolished any form of censorship, since the very constitution stated that everyone had the right to express themselves in whatever way they chose.
This didn’t mean that everything was permissible. The public prosecutor could still bring producers and performers to trial for obscenity and blasphemy, but in the first years of the republic the police force was so thin that it was impossible to act in an effective way. Nudity in particular often went unchallenged in those years.
Then in 1923, when France and Belgium invaded the Ruhr, Germany declared a state of emergency. This gave the police the opportunity to relegate what aspect of nighttime entertainment had gotten out of control by imposing a tighter vigilance on performances. After the state of emergency was revoked, ‘doubts of appropriateness’ were no longer enough to cause a locale to be shut down, but by then different guidelines had been developed. A stronger form of censorship had also emerged in the public. Prevailing norms had been internalised to the point that the audience would react negatively when cabaretists passed the line, so to say. That restricted the range and level of dare on performances more than the police ever could.
The Third Reich
After they came to power in 1933, the Nazi abolished any form of free expression, which included theatre performances and especially cabarets, these were only allowed when opportunity of Nazi propaganda were detected.
The Third Reich effectively destroyed especially cabaret, which was in itself a subversive means of expression. Only after the WWII, cabaret appeared on German stages again.
British Library – Culture in Weimar Germany: on the edge of the volcano
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993