Today, people around the world remember what happened in Europe in the extermination camps, in the hope that it will never happen again. Remembrance is the more powerful tool we have against anti-Semitism and against hate and mindless intolerance toward anyone. Remembering what was may help us recognise the signs before the worst repeats itself.
History is a fierce teacher. Often horrible things come from quite beautiful ones… even if – luckily – the contrary is also true. In the bustling excitement of social and technological advancement of the Weimar Republic, very few would have guessed what the future held for them, though the seeds of that future were already germinating.
Weimar and its culture
The Weimar Republic is often cited as one of the periods with the highest level of intellectual production in human history.
Especially in Berlin, all forms of arts advanced and evolved in the 1920s. Weimar cinema and architecture were at the forefront of innovation. So were theatre and novel experimentation. But Weimar was on the cutting edge of science as well. In many respects, Weimar Germany – and particularly Weimar Berlin – was the heart of post-WWI social evolution in spite of the upheaval the end of the Great War had left behind.
Without the Jews, there would have been no Weimar culture. This is quite true.
German Jews were well-represented in all Avant-Garde movements, and everywhere, innovation happened. Many were prominent among Expressionist poets and cinematographers. Many 1920s German novelists and playwrights, theatre producers, actors and directors were Jews. They dominated the light entertainment, owned the leading liberal newspapers, and many editors were Jews too, like were the owners of most liberal publishing houses.
In brief, Jews were numerous in many culture-making and –moving fields and the German population at large soon started to feel uncomfortable about it.
The uneasy stance of German Jewish culture
Intellectuals inside the Jewish community of Germany became aware of the peculiar, uneasy position of their culture in the nation they were part of even before WWI.
In March 1913, a young writer, Moritz Goldstein, published an article that stirred fierce argument inside the German Jewish community. He maintained that Jewish intellectuals and artists were effectively forming and directing German culture, but Germans at large didn’t accept them as capable, nor did they think that Jewish artists had any right to do so.
Many Jews argued that their high numbers in the artistic and intellectual fields were a mere historical accident and anyone could see that. Besides what counted wasn’t their ethnicity, but their art, which was universal and not strictly Jewish.
Although Goldstein acknowledged this, he also thought that most Germans didn’t think Jewish art was German enough. True, it was progressive and universal, and this was the very reason why it was hard to accept by the German culture at large, where adherence to a most specific German historical and cultural tradition was considered fundamental.
Goldstein acknowledged that German Jewish culture was torn between two very strong pulls since his generation felt to be both Jewish and German.
One of his strongest opponents in that debate was Ernest Lissauer, who thought that a split could be seen only because the process wasn’t complete yet. German Jews had been acculturating into German society for generations, and one day they were going to be indistinguishable from all other Germans. Pointing out a separated Jewish culture meant keeping alive a Jewish enclave that was actually a new intellectual ghetto, which was not what Jews needed.Young Jews of 1920s Germany were torn between two very strong pulls since his generation felt to be both Jewish and German #Germany #history Click To Tweet
If Lissauer might have been right in that the acculturation process had been very strong in the last few generations to the point that Jews in Germany actually considered themselves Germans, Goldstein’s position was also strong and true. On the spur of Romanticism, which had caused the revival of many national traditions in Europe, young Jews had started to rediscover their cultural roots, which their fathers and grandfathers had mostly obliterated.
Ten years after that dispute, after WWI had ended and the world had started a dramatic change, the ‘anomaly’ inside German Jewish culture still persisted. And although it was not at all peculiar to German, in Germany the war had created circumstances that were peculiar indeed.
Jews, the strangers of Europe
Jews had been discriminated in Europe for two millennia, mainly on the base of religion. But in the XVIII century, a philosophical movement emerged in France that was destined to change European’s forma mentins forever: the Enlightenment. It postulated that what made humankind all alike was the human intellect, which was the base of human rights. Where previously religion had a strong hold on the lives of people, the Enlightenment brought stronger stress on philosophy and the human mind.
Religions started to be seen as equally apt to fulfil the same human need, and the right of every person to follow their own religion opened the possibility to Jews to finally starting to integrate into the different nations they lived in.
Up to that point, Jews had always been considered aliens who didn’t belong to the nation.
In Germany, it was under Keiser Wilhelm that Jews started to have larger opportunities of social movement, although many limits were still in place.
Historically prohibited from many professional endeavours, Jews became disproportionately represented in some areas of the economy, such as medicine, law, journalism and many arts. The upbringing of their children had always emphasised education. This led to another disproportionate representation, this time among the cultured, especially in cultural urban areas, where most Jews lived.
Although they constituted a mere 1% of the German population, these concentrations among small social and cultural areas made them especially visible.
This became even truer when the Weimar Republic removed even the last barriers to Jewish full citizenship.
The emotional state of Germany after the war was particularly vulnerable. The Treaty of Versailles imposed on Germans war reparation that they would have never been able to pay, especially considering all the other limitations the Allies pressed upon Germany in terms of industrial production and exportation. Many Germans believed in the theory (which was never proved) of the ‘Stub in the back’. They thought the war was lost because the inner front had given way, and this was perceived as a kind of betrayal. Especially France insisted because the ‘Guilt Clause’ was included in the Treaty itself, which placed the guilt of such horrible war as WWI exclusively on Germany.
Germans never accepted this (and besides, the exclusive ‘guilt’ of Germany for starting the Great War is historically extremely doubtful). As they perceived the other nations to recast them into the villains and the enemies of all Europe, and as many of the Treaty clauses effectively isolated them from the world community, Germans reacted with a strong surge of nationalism. This was initially expressed in the rise of the völkisch movements, which placed great importance on the peculiarities of German historical and cultural tradition and which were particularly strong in rural areas – besides, völkisch ideas considered rural people to be the true keeper of German culture. But these ideas would soon enter the political arena.
At the same time, the western world had started to change and was moving away from most of the cherished völkisch traditions. In the big cities – especially in Berlin, which was the heart of Germany, but also an entity of its own, a reality different from any other – social upheaval was taking place. Women were liberating themselves, ethnic minorities were gaining space, democratic ideas were becoming stronger.
This wasn’t helped by the revolutionary winds blowing in from Russia. All European nations feared a similar revolution at home and Germany was particularly vulnerable since the Keiser had been exiled and no leader had yet appeared to substitute him.
It has been said that the Weimar Republic was born accidentally. To some extent, this may even be true. In 1919, communists marched in the streets against the Empire. In the effort to prevent a Soviet-style domestic revolution, the deputy leader of the SPD – Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands – who at that moment led the government, hastily and basically single-handedly gave birth to the republic. This took the name from the place where the parliament was then assembled, the city of Weimar in Thuringia.
The German people found themselves under their very first democratic regime and they scarcely knew it.
Inside the SPD, Jews were numerous. With the Right parties focusing on völkisch ideas verging on reactionary ideologies, many Jews naturally gravitated toward the Left parties, of which the SPD was the bigger and more influential. But the SPD was mostly a working-class party, and its members were rarely highly educated. The party still needed trained journalists, propagandists and parliamentary representatives, so they were naturally found among their educated Jewish members, who filled those needs in substantial numbers.
So it was that once again, in spite of being a minority, Jews appeared to be numerous in places of influence.
The Weimar Republic was never loved by Germans, not even by those who shared its ideals, who thought the republic didn’t fight hard enough for their new vision. The right to vote for women, full citizenship rights for Jews, controversial laws such as the one about divorce (but even abortion was discussed in the republic parliament) gave to many Germans the feeling that the republic was trying to unhinge German society as it had always been. Especially in regard to the behaviour of women, the feeling was that the very German family was under attack.
The historical circumstances didn’t help either. The social change that was spreading all over the Western world was inevitable. The reparation costs imposed by the League of Nations, the ‘War Guilt Clause’, the world economic depression, precede in German by the hyperinflation, were not the republic’s fault. All of this would have happened anyway. But it happened during the short years of the Weimar Republic, and Germans started to link these two unrelated events.
Jews were numerous in the republic institutions, they who had found new visibility in a regime that had given them access to positions that were previously inaccessible to them. The Weimar Republic started to be called the Judenrepublik – the ‘Jewish Republic’ – and everything that was going wrong was blamed on it.
German Jewish Heimat
Well-represented in all areas of knowledge, well-represented in the republic places of power (Hugo Preuss, a Jew, drafted the Weimar constitution), Jews were, in the eyes of many Germans, excessively involved in the directing of German history and culture. Which wasn’t even going too well, since society and traditions seemed to be on the verge of disintegration – or at lest this was the feeling of many.
Although in the 1920s many young Jews were rediscovering their Jewishness in a way that went far beyond the definition of Judaism as a religious denomination, they nonetheless came from families who had acculturated generations before. These youths considered themselves Germans, just like any others.
Today, we think of Bertold Brecht, Albert Döblin, Stefan Sweig, Ernest Lubisch not as Jewish artists, but as German artists and this is what they considered themselves to be. In spite of their interest for a more universal vision of the human condition, they lived and breathed German culture and society. But in the tight spot where Germany stood in the 1920s, many non-Jewish Germans didn’t see it the same way.
The Weimar Republic, which gave to Germany the first-ever democratic government and the right to everyone to be who they were and speak their mind freely, ironically gave breathing space to ideologies that didn’t share any democratic ideas.
Walter Laqueur, Weimar, a cultural history 1918-1933. Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd. London 1974
Geni – German Jewry in the Weimar Republic (1918-1933)
Danile Wilson – The Jewish Question in the New Republic (1919-1924) (PDF)
Facing History and Ourselves – Weimar Society
JOHN T. SHEA
An excellent and timely article, Sarah. Thanks!
What a really interesting read! It fills a lot of gaps in my knowledge.
Well, researching Weimar Germany filled a lot of gaps in my knowledge too.
History is alwasy a lot more complex than we think.
This is fascinating! To me, it is essential that we know how the history behind the Holocaust. The more we know about our past, the more hope (I trust) that we have that it will not happen again. Ever. Remembering and understanding that past is essential for a better future.
I wholeheartedly agree, Margot.
So many things from 1920s Germany (and Europe) sounds so familiar to our present situation that sometimes it even scares me.
But in truth, we are lucky, because we don’t have to try and imagine what may happen. If we listen carefully, we can actually see what happened, and as you say, we have a strong chnace to avoid it happen again.
JOHN T. SHEA
At a time when electorates in several countries seem hell-bent on voting away their own freedoms, this reminds us of the time German people voted their first democracy out of existence.
The time after WWI was a momentous one for Europe, we often don’t realise that.
I’m researching that periode now for my new project, and seriously so many social situations resonate with what we are experiencing now in a very upsetting way.
Barbara in Caneyhead
Thank you for such a well developed piece and the light you shed on this era! Any time society, culture and government converge to seemingly force feed too much change down people’s throats at one time, there is a breeding ground for hate of one group, a feeling of urgent need to protect or save one way of life over another. This can lead to even more extremes and turmoil.
Unsettling to me how many similarities I see in the U.S.
I enjoy reading this.. thanks for sharing