Welcome to Weimar

by Lisa Lieberman

Hadn't there been something youthfully heartless in my enjoyment of the spectacle of Berlin in the early thirties, with its poverty, its political hatred and its despair?

Christopher Isherwood

The Weimar Republic is everybody's favorite example Max_beckmann_cafe_music_d5348970h of liberalism gone wrong. Just a few days ago, The New Republic posted a reprint of Louis Mumford's essay, “The Corruption of Liberalism,” a call to arms first published in April 1940. “The isolationism that is preached by our liberals today means fascism tomorrow,” he warned.

Today liberals, by their unwillingness to admit the consequences of a victory by Hitler and Stalin, are emotionally on the side of “peace” — when peace, so-called, at this moment means capitulation to the forces that will not merely wipe out liberalism but will overthrow certain precious principles with which one element of liberalism has been indelibly associated: freedom of thought, belief in an objective reason, belief in human dignity.

Mumford attacked the complacency of American intellectuals who were blind to the “destruction, malice, violence” of the Nazi regime. He himself had been slow to recognize Hitler's barbarism, and chose to suspend judgement regarding the Soviet experiment for twenty years, but he now condemned liberal habits of mind for degrading America, sapping it of energy and the moral courage required to combat political extremism. By the end of the New Republic essay, he was advocating action, passion, and force as an alternative to the cold rationalism, tolerance, and open mindedness he blamed for “liberalism's deep-seated impotence.” In fact, this same accusation had already been leveled at the Weimar Republic by the Nazis, and in remarkably similar terms.

Exhibit A

Christopher Isherwood came to Germany in 1929 for one thing only: “Berlin meant Boys,” he confessed in his memoir. His friend Wystan (the poet W. H. Auden) had promised him that he would Essential-performances-grey find the city liberating and so he did. Before the month was out, he'd gotten involved with a blond German boy, the very type he'd fantasized about meeting. In the stories he published in the mid to late 1930s, which would become the basis for the musical and film Cabaret, Isherwood was circumspect about his motivations, narrating events passively, as an outsider who observes but does not participate in the promiscuity he describes. Mind you, he did not judge his characters, at least, not for their sexual behavior. Some he found wanting for other reasons, for callousness or a lack of generosity toward others, for bad taste in clothes or furnishings.

By way of contrast, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig was horrified by Weimar Germany.

“Berlin transformed itself into the Babel of the world,” he wrote in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday (1942). “The Germans brought to perversion all their vehemence and love of system. . . Even the Rome of Suetonius had not known orgies like the Berlin transvestite balls, where hundreds of men in women's clothes and women in men's clothes danced under the benevolent eyes of the police.” Films from the era capture the polysexuality of Berlin's night clubs. Pandora's Box (1928) by G. W. Pabst give us Louise Brooks as Lulu, a captivating and utterly amoral young woman who swings both ways, driving her lovers mad with frustrated desire. Pandora's BoxMarlene Dietrich's Lola does the same in Josef von Sternberg's Blue Angel (1930), although she's good enough to warn her prospective lovers in advance. “Be careful when you meet a sweet blonde stranger. You may not know it, but you are greeting danger.” Alas, forewarned is not forearmed in this case.

Toward the end of The Berlin Stories, Isherwood brought in troubling acts of violence he witnessed against Jews, homosexuals, Social Democrats and Communists. Here he stepped briefly out of his passive role, his narration taking on a more sardonic tone.

This morning, as I was walking down the Bülowstrasse, the Nazis were raiding the house of a small liberal pacifist publisher. They had brought a lorry and were piling it with the publisher's books. The driver of the lorry mockingly read out the titles of the books to the crowd:

“Nie Wieder Krieg!” he shouted, holding up one of them by the corner of the cover, disgustedly, as though it were a nasty kind of reptile. Everybody roared with laughter.

“'No More War!'” echoed a fat, well-dressed woman, with a scornful, savage laugh. “What an idea!”

Distorting Mirrors

Cabaret made more of this unpleasantness, intercutting the outré musical numbers at the Kit Kat Klub with occasional flashes of violence, easy to ignore at first, but by the end the darkness is inescapable. Roger Ebert noted how the film's final image, a distorted mirror reflecting the nightclub's dissolute patrons,”makes the entire musical into an unforgettable cry of despair.” The camera pans the house, showing well dressed men and women interspersed with Nazis in uniform, a sea of evening gowns and dinner jackets disrupted by red armbands bearing swastikas. The foreshadowing is much less oblique in the current revival at Studio 54 in New York, which “lets us know that we're in hell almost as soon as we arrive in a theater,” critic Ben Brantley complained in his New York Times review of the production. For what it's worth, Isherwood didn't think much of the stage or film version of Cabaret, but then, he was hard on his younger self for having created “a sanitized picture” of the Weimar era. At the end of his life, he was brave enough to look back and see what he'd missed as a young man in Berlin, and honest enough to acknowledge his blindness and self-absorption. “Berlin was a place of great hardship and suffering but you don't see much of that [in The Berlin Stories],” he said in Christopher and His Kind.

The prostitutes who walked the streets, the blond working-class boys who were the objects of Wystan's and Christopher's lust, were driven less by pleasure than poverty, I suspect. Focusing on the decadence of Berlin's café culture, whether to celebrate or condemn the sexual hedonism that drew foreigners to the city, obscures the harsh reality of the time, the extreme deprivation felt by millions of Germany's citizens. Kathe Kollwitz's stark woodcuts of war widows and orphans, Brot (1924)

Max Beckmann's Expressionist paintings of the poor did not judge their subjects, but they did judge the society that allowed such suffering to exist. Traumatized by what he encountered as a medic in World War I, Beckmann pledged “to be part of all the misery that is coming.” Kollwitz, who lost a son in the war, lived with her physician husband in the slums of Berlin and wanted her art to “have purposes outside itself. I would like to exert influence in these times,” she said, “when human beings are so perplexed and in need of help.”

Weimar itself has become a distorted mirror of our anxieties regarding the ability of democracy to resist violent extremism, but jeremiads like Mumford's miss the point. Complacency is not exclusively a liberal failing. While Mumford had a good deal to say about suffering humanity, he ignored the suffering of actual human beings. Hitler seemed to have emerged out of nowhere in his scheme, coming into focus only when he posed a threat to America. But what allowed Hitler to take control in Germany was his ability to capitalize on the fear of disorder — the threat of revolution — that unemployment and starvation produced. Fear is democracy's undoing, and the unraveling begins at home.