Interwar Years

In the first half of the twentieth century, two world wars ravaged Europe. The fact that two horrible conflicts on a world scale were crammed into such a short time has always blown my mind. One would think that humans should be smarter than that. I mean, didn’t anyone learn anything from World War I? Why did World War II break out so shortly after that?

Well, what if the interwar years were not a time of peace between two wars at all, but were themselves a time of war?

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Hyperinflation

When we hear about the Weimar Republic, most of us think to wheelbarrows of banknotes used to buy one loaf of bread or stakes of notes used to fuel stoves. In short, we think to the hyperinflation of the middle 1920s.

We might think hyperinflation was a specific German situation since we seldom heard of any other such. It wasn’t. In fact, most countries after World War I knew a period of hyperinflation, an occurrence that had never been uncommon after a war. But the German case was peculiar, researched and dissected in detail ever since because a lot of data were available in a time when data and charts were becoming more common. And anyway Germany was from the beginning a different case from all the others.

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Führerprinzip

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.

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Expressionism

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.

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Democracy

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.

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De Gaulle’s Cold War

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.

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Cabaret

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.

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Berlin

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.

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