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“Bad” Politics and “Good” Culture: New Approaches to the History of the Weimar Republic

  • Jochen Hung (a1)

More than thirty years ago, Eberhard Kolb commented that the vast wealth of research on the history of the Weimar Republic made it “difficult even for a specialist to give a full account of the relevant literature.” Since then, the flood of studies on Weimar Germany has not waned, and by now it is hard even to keep track of all the review articles meant to cut a swath through this abundance. Yet the prevailing historical image of the era has remained surprisingly stable: most historians have accepted the master narrative of the Weimar Republic as the sharp juxtaposition of “bad” politics and “good” culture, epitomized in the often-used image of “a dance on the edge of a volcano.” Kolb, for example, described “the sharp contrast between the gloomy political and economic conditions … and the unique wealth of artistic and intellectual achievement” as “typical of the Weimar era.” Detlev Peukert, arguably the most innovative scholar of Weimar history, criticized this historical image but, at the same time, declared this dichotomy “an integral feature of the era.” The latest example can be found in the work of Eric D. Weitz, who summarizes the fate of Weimar Germany as “the striving for something new and wonderful encountering absolute evil,” juxtaposing the “sparkling brilliance” of modernist masters like Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, and Bruno Taut with “the plain hatred of democracy” of Weimar's right-wing extremists. This contrasting of politics and culture is a narrative device that only makes sense, however, from our contemporary vantage point of Western liberal democracy and from our understanding of progressive art. This retrospective interpretation is not in itself the problem—after all, historians can never really escape their own historical contexts. It becomes problematic, however, when it is treated not as an interpretation but as historical fact. Weimar Germans certainly would not have shared this narrative wholeheartedly: many would not have subscribed to the depiction of their time as a never-ending parade of political breakdowns and economic disasters. Even more would have rejected the view of the Berlin-based avant-garde as a sign of progressive achievement—if they had ever had the chance to see its representative works in the first place. The sharp distinction between “bad” Weimar politics and “good” Weimar culture not only fails to do justice to the way many of these Germans perceived their time but also keeps us from understanding how closely intertwined these two spheres were in the Weimar Republic. Thus, rather than giving an overview of the latest additions to Weimar historiography, this review essay looks at how recent publications have questioned—or conformed to—this dominant narrative.

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1 Kolb, Eberhard, preface to The Weimar Republic, trans. Falla, P. S. (London: Unwin Hyman, 1988), ix . Originally published as Die Weimarer Republik (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1984).

2 For recent overviews, see Föllmer, Moritz, “Nationalismus, Konsum und politische Kultur im Europa der Zwischenkriegszeit,Neue Politische Literatur 56, no. 3 (2011): 427–53; Rossol, Nadine, “Chancen der Weimarer Republik,Neue Politische Literatur 55, no. 3 (2010): 393419 ; Hofmeister, Björn, “Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte der Politik in der Weimarer Republik 1928 bis 1933,Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 50 (2010): 445501 . The most comprehensive and useful surveys are still Fritzsche, Peter, “Did Weimar Fail?,Journal of Modern History 68, no. 3 (Sept. 1996): 629–56; Ziemann, Benjamin, “Weimar Was Weimar: Politics, Culture, and the Emplotment of the German Republic,German History 28, no. 4 (Dec. 2010): 542–71.

3 Gay, Peter, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (London: Secker & Warburg, 1969), xiv . Two recent exhibitions illustrate the persistence of this narrative: Tanz auf dem Vulkan: Das Berlin der Zwanziger Jahre im Spiegel der Künste, Stadtmuseum Berlin, Sept. 2015–Jan. 2016; Berlin Metropolis: 1918–1933, Neue Galerie, New York, Oct. 2015–Jan. 2016.

4 Kolb, Weimar Republic, 83.

5 Peukert, Detlev, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, trans. Deveson, Richard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), xiii. Originally published as Die Weimarer Republik: Krisenjahre der klassischen Moderne (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1987).

6 Weitz, Eric D., Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 361–64.

7 For positive views by Weimar contemporaries of their own time, see Graf, Rüdiger, Die Zukunft der Weimarer Republik: Krisen und Zukunftsaneignungen in Deutschland 1918–1933 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2008).

8 Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar, “On Alternative Modernities,” in Alternative Modernities, ed. Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 118 .

9 Ullrich, Sebastian, Der Weimar-Komplex: Das Scheitern der ersten deutschen Demokratie und die politische Kultur der frühen Bundesrepublik 1945–1959 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2009); Gusy, Christoph, ed., Weimars lange Schatten: “Weimar” als Argument nach 1945 (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2003); Moses, A. Dirk, “The ‘Weimar Syndrome’ in the Federal Republic of Germany: The Carl Schmitt Reception by the Forty-Fiver Generation of Intellectuals,” in Leben, Tod und Entscheidung: Studen zur Geistesgeschichte der Weimarer Republik, ed. Loos, Stephan and Zaborowski, Holger (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2003), 187207 ; Vogt, Jochen, “The Weimar Republic as the ‘Heritage of our Time,’” in Dancing on the Volcano: Essays on the Culture of the Weimar Republic, ed. Kniesche, Thomas W. and Brockmann, Stephen (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994), 2128 .

10 Gangl, Manfred, foreword to Intellektuellendiskurse in der Weimarer Republik: Zur politischen Kultur einer Gemengelage, ed. Gangl, Manfred and Raulet, Gérard (Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 1994), 10 ; Hermand, Jost and Trommler, Frank, Die Kultur der Weimarer Republik (Munich: Nymphenberger, 1978), 8 .

11 Plessner, Helmuth, “Die Legende von den zwanziger Jahren,Merkur 16, no. 1 (Jan. 1962): 3346 .

12 McElligott, Anthony, introduction to Weimar Germany, ed. McElligott, Anthony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 125 .

13 For an overview of this new strand of scholarship, see Hung, Jochen, “Beyond Glitter and Doom: The New Paradigm of Contingency in Weimar Research,” in Beyond Glitter and Doom: The Contingency of the Weimar Republic, ed. Hung, Jochen, Weiss-Sussex, Godela, and Wilkes, Geoff (Munich: Iudicium, 2012), 915 .

14 One of the keenest proponents of Weimar's symbolism is Paul Krugman. See, e.g., Paul Krugman, “Weimar on the Aegean,” New York Times, Feb. 16, 2015; Krugman, “Partying like it's 1923; or, The Weimar Temptation,” New York Times, Dec. 27, 2010. See also the essays by Geppert, Dominik, Kundnani, Hans, Wirsching, Andreas, Tanner, Jakob, James, Harold, and Peer Vries in the special forum “The European Debt Crisis in Historical Perspectives,Journal of Modern European History 11, no. 3 (2013): 272328 .

15 Feldman, Gerald D., “Weimar from Inflation to Depression: Experiment or Gamble?,” in Die Nachwirkungen der Inflation auf die deutsche Geschichte, 1924–1933, ed. Feldman, Gerald D. (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1985), 385 .

16 For a historiographical overview and a new interpretation of voter support for the Nazi Party, see King, Gary et al. ., “Ordinary Economic Voting Behavior in the Extraordinary Election of Adolf Hitler,Journal of Economic History 68, no. 4 (Dec. 2008): 951–96.

17 This argument has been used in many recent comments on German policy during the euro crisis. For a general discussion, see Jochen Hung, “German Aversion to the ECB Printing Money Isn't about the ‘National Psyche,’” Guardian, Dec. 22, 2011.

18 See also Müller, Tim B., “Demokratie, Kultur und Wirtschaft in der deutschen Republik,” in Normalität und Fragilität: Demokratie nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg, ed. Müller, Tim B. and Tooze, Adam (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2015), 259–93; Müller, Die Geburt des Sozial-Liberalismus aus dem Geist der Verwaltung: Zur Erfindung der modernen Wirtschaftspolitik in der Weimarer Republik,” in Liberalismus im 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Doering-Manteuffel, Anselm and Leonhard, Jörn (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2015), 127–55; Müller, Demokratie und Wirtschaftspolitik in der Weimarer Republik,Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 62, no. 4 (2014): 569601 ; Müller, Der Erste Weltkrieg und die Geburt der sozialen Demokratie,Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 59, no. 10 (2014): 95108 .

19 On the idea of a “vanishing point,” see Smith, Helmut Walser, The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1338 .

20 In this context, see also Democracy between the World Wars—from Triumph to Crisis,” special issue, Totalitarismus und Demokratie 12, no. 1 (2015).

21 Borchardt, Knut, “Zwangslagen und Handlungsspielräume in der großen Wirtschaftskrise der frühen dreissiger Jahre,” in Wachstum, Krisen, Handlungsspielräume  der Wirtschaftspolitik: Studien zur Wirtschaftsgeschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1982), 165–82. For an overview of the debate, see Ritschl, Albrecht, “Knut Borchardts Interpretationen der Weimarer Wirtschaft: Zur Geschichte und Wirkung einer wirtschaftsgeschichtlichen Kontroverse,” in Historische Debatten und Kontroversen im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Elvert, Jürgen and Krauss, Susanne (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2003), 234–44.

22 For a more comprehensive outline of Borchardt's approach, see also Müller, Tim B., “Die Ordnung der Krise: Zur Revision der deutschen Geschichte im 20.  Jahrhundert,Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte 8, no. 4 (2014): 119–26.

23 See the debate on Müller, “Demokratie und Wirtschaftspolitik,” in the online forum of  Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte: Claus-Dieter Krohn, “Neue Geschichtsmetaphysik: Tim B. Müllers Blick auf die Weimarer Republik,” Dec. 1, 2014,üller.pdf; Paul Köppen, “Neue Perspektiven zur Zwischenkriegszeit—eine Antwort auf Claus-Dieter Krohn,” Jan. 26, 2016,öppen_Müller.pdf.

24 Köster, Roman, “Keine Zwangslagen? Anmerkungen zu einer neuen Debatte über die deutsche Wirtschaftspolitik in der großen Depression,Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 63, no. 2 (2015): 241–57.

25 See Eitz, Thorsten and Stötzel, Georg, eds., Wörterbuch der “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”: Die NS-Vergangenheit im öffentlichen Sprachgebrauch, 2 vols. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2007–9); Stötzel, Georg, Kontroverse Begriffe: Geschichte des öffentlichen Sprachgebrauchs in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1995).

26 Achim Landwehr, “Diskurs und Diskursgeschichte,” Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, Feb. 11, 2010,

27 Indeed, contemporaries could not even agree on a name for their own state. See Ulrich, Sebastian, “Mehr als Schall und Rauch: Der Streit um den Namen der ersten deutschen Demokratie 1918–1949,” in Die “Krise” der Weimarer Republik: Zur Kritik eines Deutungsmusters, ed. Föllmer, Moritz and Graf, Rüdiger (Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 2005), 187207 .

28 Ziemann, “Weimar Was Weimar,” 543.

29 See also Konrad H. Jarausch, review of Geschichte Deutschlands im 20. Jahrhundert, by Herbert, Ulrich, Central European History 48, no. 2 (2015): 249–51.

30 Führer, Karl-Christian, “High Brow and Low Brow Culture,” in Weimar Germany, ed. McElligott, Anthony (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 260–81; Corey Ross, Media and the Making of Modern Germany: Mass Communications, Society, and Politics from the Empire to the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 163–90.

31 Gay, Weimar Culture.

32 Peukert, Weimar Republic, 282.

33 For a new study that represents an important step in this direction, see Föllmer, Moritz, “Ein Leben wie im Traum”: Kultur im Dritten Reich (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2016).

34 Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (New York: Prism Key Press, 2010), 47 .

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