It would be misleading to think that Germany was the only nation where authoritarian ideologies became popular after World War I. In fact, all European nations let themselves be fascinated with this kind of ideologies, spurred by the difficulties of emerging from the destruction of the war and by the necessity to deal with profound and unexpected social changes.
After the war, many old regimes had fallen and nations were experimenting with new forms of government. Germany, with her experiment of democracy, was far from being an isolated case.
But in a continent where monarchy had been the norm for centuries, learning to manage a republic was hard for the politicians as well as for the population, and after five years of struggles across lands and social strata, people’s patience was very short. They wanted to see results. They wanted to go back to prosperity as fast as possible, and they also didn’t want to deal with all the changes that were happening and destabilizing the community no less than the war had already done. Whoever could promise them that was welcome.
It is often argued that it’s easier to say what Expressionism was not, rather than to say what it was. Diverse and eclectic, this movement stressed deconstruction rather than building, individuality rather than the communion of feelings and experiences, making it inherently difficult to define.
Some say that rather than being a way to create art, a distinguished style or method of creations, Expressionism was more of a state of mind. The way artists felt about themselves, their society and the future of that society was more important than the way they expressed that feeling.
Germany had been a Kaiserreich — an Empire — for over fifty years. In this time, many rights had been extended to a larger population. It could be said that democracy had advanced, although the government responded to the Kaiser rather than the Reichstag, the parliament.
In the dramatic times at the end of World War I, in the hope to create a change that would please the Allies, Kaiser Wilhelm gave the chancellorship to Crown Prince Maximilian von Baden, who had always been of liberal feelings. After trying unsuccessfully to turn the Empire into a parliamentary monarchy, Von Baden opened the Reichstag to the Social Democratic Party (SPD). He immediately started to negotiate with the United States a possible peace, but didn’t find the favor he was hoping for.
The sense that the war was ending, and not favorably, arose in the country. The rebellion spread all over Germany, picked up by the bigger personalities of the Communist Party.
Hoping this would calm things down, removing the main connection between Germany and the war, Max von Baden resigned his chancellorship in the hands of the SPD leader, Friedrich Ebert, and urged Wilhelm II to abdicate.
This happened on November 9, 1918. Trying to prevent the Communists from proclaiming a socialist republic which would end up under the influence of Russia, one of Ebert’s fellow partymen, Philipp Scheidemann, proclaimed the Republic of Germany without any consultation. Only afterwards, in the town of Weimar in Thuringia, away from the mess in Berlin, the democratic Reichstag wrote its own constitution.
European countries generally welcomed American involvement after the Second World War. From the Marshall Plan to NATO, the United States was seen as a benevolent influence.
But American help came with a price. European governments were expected to keep the far left out of power, accept the rehabilitation of West Germany and curtail trade and other relations with the Soviet Union.
France took exception to being treated as an instrument of American foreign policy. Charles de Gaulle famously blocked Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, believing it would be a Trojan horse for America. He refused to give up France’s independent nuclear deterrent and even pulled out of NATO’s integrated military structure in 1966.
Weimar culture is often identified with its cabaret experience, and rightly so. In the cabarets springing up in every big city (in Berlin more numerous than anywhere else), the extreme, modern, free postwar lifestyle found its fuller form of expression.
Cabarets were born in France in the late 1880s and from the beginning were associated with sexual innuendo and lewd shows. This form of entertainment arrived in Germany at the very beginning of the 1900s, but at the beginning, they were very different from their French counterparts, since the authoritarian imperial society didn’t allow the freedom of the French shows. German cabarets were restaurants or nightclubs where a show of singers, dancers or comedians were offered from a small stage. Nothing too risqué. Nothing too extravagant.
But as the empire died out and the republic surged, the cabarets changed the same way German urban society changed. As the republic lifted the old form of censorship, shows became bolder and more salacious. Dancers became more and more scantily dressed and their dances and songs ever more suggestive. Crossdress wasn’t uncommon. Harsh political satire was so popular that some cabarets specialized in it. A very characteristic form of German cabaret that would become knows as Kabarett.
The Weimar Republic was born from revolution in 1919 and died in totalitarianism in 1933. But in this short period (Die Goldene Zwanziger, or Golden Twenties) it really shone, and today Weimar culture is considered one of the most influential periods for creativity — not just for Germany, but for all of humanity.
In all different aspects of life, Weimar culture was contradictory. Everything about it was extreme.
At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ends. Germany signs an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside Compiégne, France. It should have been the end of the Great War. It was in fact the beginning of more troubled times.
Fear of communist infiltration in the United States preceded the Cold War. So-called “popular fronts” — anti-fascist and anti-imperialist — were active in the 1930s and attracted various well-meaning progressives. As Hugh Wilford puts it in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008), everyone from the “Jewish fur-worker dismayed by the rise of anti-Semitism in Hitler’s Germany” to the “student inspired by the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War” to the “African American protesting Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.” Support for the Soviet Union was usually far down their list of priorities, but Soviet influence, and Soviet money, nevertheless played a role.
After the Second World War, Moscow played up its efforts to spread communism abroad. It focused primarily on Europe (France and Italy had large Communist parties) and the Third World.
In the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency was created amid the Red Scare and tasked with countering Soviet subversion.
The Humboldt Forum, Germany’s answer to the British Museum and the Louvre of Paris, reopened this month in the rebuilt Berlin Palace after almost two years of controversy and debate.
The Forum combines the collections of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art, with many pieces acquired (or stolen) during the colonial era.
The building is a reconstruction of the Hohenzollern residence that was torn down by East German authorities in 1950 to make way for the Palast der Republik, which was itself torn down post-reunification. Both demolitions were controversial — and both, I think, were a mistake. (Although renovating the asbestos-filled Palast might have been more expensive than knocking it down and building something new.)
The Palast was designed by architect Heinz Graffunder and the Building Academy of the German Democratic Republic in the modernist style and opened in 1976. In addition to the unicameral, and toothless, parliament of communist East Germany, it contained two large auditoria, art galleries, a bowling alley, restaurants and a theater.
In 1521, Vasco Núñez de Balboa made the first Spanish sighting from the east of what would come to be known as the Pacific Ocean. The journey had been arduous through jungles and across mountains, and interrupted by attacks on locals to gather gold and pearls, but it came to an end with a celebrated connecting point to fill in another empty space on their globes.
Twenty years before, on Columbus’ third voyage, it had first become clear that there was a good deal of land unknown to Europeans still separating them from the coveted trade of the “South Sea” near India and China. Ferdinand Magellan would show that there was a long way around it by sailing south and that the world could be circumnavigated (at least, the few survivors of his crew would be able to do so). The Northwest Passage, the dream of many explorers, would prove out of the question due to the Arctic ice.
It would be an infuriating problem that would remain for the next 400 years: how to get quickly across the thin strip of land connecting North and South America while dividing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans?