At the beginning of the XX century and particularly in the 1920s, Berlin was the epitome of the lively city, the place where everything might happen and where anything should happen. Life was fast, exciting, and desperate.
The critic Karl Scheffler famously defined Berlin as the city “damned to perpetual becoming, never being”.
In a short span of time, Berlin had become a city where industry dictated the rhythms of life. Where consumerism dictated what people should want. And where people wanted it all. Berliners became anxious of seeing, tasting, trying. Anxious of living.
Then the Great War made clear to all Europeans, but particularly to Germans, that life was ephemeral. That the end was always close at end. So many young men had died in the war, and so many other had become permanently, gravely invalidated. So many young women had lost their loved one, or had ended up nursing who could no longer have a normal independent life. It was shocking. It was scaring, and the reaction of many was to seek pleasure and gratification wherever it could be found in a desperate race against death.
But it was in the 1920, during the Weimar republic that this anxiety for life became energy. The republic, with its aspiration to democracy and a constitution which effectively abolished any form of censorship, gave Germans an unprecedented freedom. The strict rules, the authoritarianism, the restriction of the Wilhelmine Era in terms of sexuality and relationships were shed to embrace a life that was the exact opposite.
Germans wanted to live the moment. They wanted to live fast and furious, to the extreme, before the end came.
It has been often speculated that German society might have sensed that the end would come, sooner rather than later. It was ingrained in the that same society. The strong reaction to the shock of the Great War was so extreme that it could not last long – as history proved it true – and so they ‘danced on the edge of the vulcano’ with a sense of liberation and desperation.
This anxiety was captured and transformed by arts as well and all forms of entertainment and once again cabaret probably expressed it better than anything. It intercepted that anxiety and turned it into words that were familiar and understandable by the public. It dissected it and infused it with creativity, which maybe wasn’t able to give any solution, but presented the possibility to make sense of it.
Cabaret too danced on the edge of the volcano, finding energy in the anxiety and trying to turn it into hope for the future.
Peter Jelavich, Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press, Harvard, 1993
Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany. Promise and Tragedy. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 2007
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Too much free ranging energy. The speed of the movie adds to it.
I’m not sure it was ‘too much’, but it certainly was ‘a lot’!
Turning anxiety into energy, that’s a good philosophy to live by 🙂
Or isn’t it? 😉
Carpe diem put into practice! Isn’t it fascinating how those horrors at war brought so many good things into our society? Freedom of speech, art, voting rights, empowerment.
That’s why I hate it when people say WWI was us useless carnage and millions of people died for nothing.
It was a carnage, but I don’t think it was for nothing. So much of what we are today as a sociaty comes from WWI, as well as a lot of advancement we now take for granted. We often don’t realise it.
Just think of ourselves…when we have been through the ringer and now the sadness and stress is behind, we have let off steam by going out and enjoying life again. When taken on a mass scale after the First World War, I can easily see anxiety being replaced by fun. In fact, I wish I could go into that video and join them..maybe not on the beach as that looked way too crowded.
They say ‘they danced on the edge of the volcano’ because we know what happened next. What is isnteresting is that ‘they’ also seemed to know that bad things were going to come back, but they had no power to stop them.
I think this kind of insight is the more valuable of all gifts history gives us.
Melanie Atherton Allen
Wow! What an interesting post–and the video is hypnotic. Though I couldn’t help but feel the future hanging like a dark cloud over all of it. Still, I think that does add to the fascination of the Weimar period, knowing what comes directly afterwards. Great post, as always, Sarah!
I totally agree. Knowing what was happening, what might happen and what actually came next gives a lot of perspective. On their past, but also on our future, I believe.