Skip to main content

The Politics of Symbols, Semantics, and Sentiments in the Weimar Republic

  • Kathleen Canning (a1)

Contests over the term politics, over the boundaries that distinguished politics from non-politics, were one of the distinguishing features of the Weimar Republic. Not only did the disciplines of history, philosophy, law, sociology, and pedagogy each define this boundary in different terms, but participants in the debate also distinguished between ideal and real politics, politics at the level of state, and the dissemination of politics through society and citizenry. The fact that Weimar began with a revolution, the abdication of the Kaiser, and military defeat meant an eruption of politicization in 1918–19, whereby political organs of state and civil society sought in unprecedented fashion to draw Germans into parties and parliaments, associations, and activist societies. “The German people would still consist of ninety percent unpolitical people, if Social Democracy had not become a political school for the people,” Otto Braun claimed in Vorwärts in 1925. Politics and politicization generated not only political acts—votes, strikes, and vocal demonstrations—but also cultural milieus of Socialists and Communists, Catholics and liberal Democrats, nationalists, and eventually Nazis. In Weimar Germany there was little room for the “unpolitical” citizen of the prewar era, held up as a model in a famous tract of 1918 by Thomas Mann.

Hide All

1 See the interesting study by Marquardt Sabine, Polis contra Polemis. Politik als Kampfbegriff der Weimarer Republik (Cologne, Weimar, and Vienna: Böhlau, 1997).

2 As cited in ibid., 187–88.

3 Mann Thomas, Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Berlin: S. Fischer, 1918).

4 “Political Culture,” in Dictionary of the Social Sciences, ed. Craig Calhoun (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) ( See also Somers Margaret R., “What's Political or Cultural about Political Culture and the Public Sphere?,” in Somers, Genealogies of Citizenship: Markets, Statelessness, and the Right to Have Rights (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 171209; and Rohe Karl, “Politische Kultur und ihre Analyse. Probleme und Perspektiven der politischen Kulturforschung,” Historische Zeitschrift 250 (1990): 321–46.

5 Gay Peter, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: Harper and Row, 1968). Eric Weitz's widely lauded history of Weimar Germany has the subtitle “promise and tragedy.” See Weitz Eric, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). While Weitz's book has been praised for its imaginative attention to Weimar culture, critics have pointed to a certain disjuncture between culture and politics in his analysis.

6 Eckel Jan, “Narrativizations of the Past: The Theoretical Debate and the Example of the Weimar Republic,” in Historians as Nation Builders in Europe: Comparative Case Studies, ed. Berger Stefan and Lorenz Chris (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2010), 2648, here 45. The German version is “Der Sinn der Erzählung. Die narratologische Diskussion in der Geschichtswissenschaft und das Beispiel der Weimargeschichtsschreibung,” in Neue Zugänge zur Geschichte der Geschichtswissenschaft, ed. Jan Eckel and Thomas Etzemüller (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2007), 201–230. See also Ullrich Sebastian, Der Weimar-Komplex, Das Scheitern der ersten deutschen Demokratie und die politische Kultur der frühen Bundesrepublik 1945–1959 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2009).

7 Fritzsche Peter, “Did Weimar Fail?,” Journal of Modern History 68, no. 3 (September 1996): 629–56, 630–31.

8 Fritzsche Peter, “Landscape of Danger, Landscape of Design: Crisis and Modernism in Weimar Germany,” in Danger on the Volcano: Essays on the Culture of the Weimar Republic, ed. Kniesche Thomas W. and Brockemann Stephen (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1994), 37, 40–41, 44.

9 See, for example, the special issue of Central European History, vol. 22, nos. 3–4 (1989) on “the linguistic turn” in German history and the articles by Eley Geoff, “What is Cultural History?,” and Michael Geyer, “Why Cultural History?,” in New German Critique 65 (Spring/Summer 1995). See also Burke Peter, What is Cultural History? (Cambridge: Polity, 2004, 1st ed.; 2nd ed., 2008). The influence of Alltagsgeschichte on the cultural turn in German history in North America was substantial. See Lüdtke Alf, ed., Alltagsgeschichte. Zur Rekonstruktion historischer Erfahrungen und Lebensweisen (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1989).

10 Hunt Lynn, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989); Veeser H. Aram, The New Historicism Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 1994); Dirks Nicholas, Eley Geoff, and Ortner Sherry, eds., Culture. Power. History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995); During Simon, ed., The Cultural Studies Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 1993); Mirzoeff Nicholas, ed., The Visual Culture Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 1998); Evans Jessica and Hall Stuart, eds., Visual Culture: The Reader (London: Sage Publications, 1999); Bonnell Victoria and Hunt Lynn, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999); Weeks Jeffrey, “Foucault for Historians,History Workshop Journal 14, no. 1 (1982): 106119. See Eley's Geoff masterful overview of the cultural turn in his The Crooked Line: From Cultural History to a History of Society (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005).

11 Wehler Hans-Ulrich, “Was ist Gesellschaftsgeschichte?,” in Wehler, Aus der Geschichte lernen? Essays (Munich: Beck, 1988), 115129, and his five volumes of Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, 5 vols. (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1987–2008). On the turn toward cultural history and the debates during the same time period in Germany, see among others Gunilla-Friederike Budde, Mergel Thomas, and Welskopp Thomas, eds., Geschichte zwischen Kultur und Gesellschaft. Beiträge zur Theoriedebatte (Munich: Beck, 1997); and Mergel Thomas, “Kulturgeschichte—Die neue ‘große Erzählung?’ Wissenssoziologische Bemerkungen zur Konzeptualisierung sozialer Wirklichkeit in der Geschichtswissenschaft,” in Kulturgeschichte heute, ed. Hardtwig Wolfgang (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996); Geschichte und Gesellschaft Sonderheft nr. 16, 41–77; Schöttler Peter, “Wer hat Angst vor dem ‘linguistic turn’?,Geschichte und Gesellschaft 23, no. 1 (1997): 134–51; Daniel Ute, Kompendium Kulturgeschichte. Theorien, Praxis, Schlüsselwörter (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001); and Steinmetz Willibald, “Von der Geschichte der Gesellschaft zur ‘Neuen Kulturgeschichte,’” in Neueste Zeit. Oldenbourg Geschichte Lehrbuch, ed. Wirsching Andreas (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2006), 233252.

12 Frevert Ute and Haupt Heinz-Gerhard, eds., Neue Politikgeschichte. Perspektiven einer historischen Politikforschung (Frankfurt and New York: Campus, 2005); and Steinmetz Willibald, “Neue Wege einer historischen Semantik des Politischen,” in Steinmetz , ed., “Politik.” Situationen eines Wortgebrauchs im Europa der Neuzeit (Frankfurt and New York: Campus, 2007).

13 One interesting starting point is Childers Thomas, “The Social Language of Politics in Germany: The Sociology of Political Discourse in the Weimar Republic,American Historical Review 95, no. 2 (April 1990): 331–58, and the dissertation and later book by his Ph.D. student, Sneeringer Julia, Winning Women's Votes: Propaganda and Politics in Weimar Germany (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002). Also definitive in this regard was Thomas Mergel's study of parliamentary culture: Mergel Thomas, Parlamentarische Kultur in der Weimarer Republik. Politische Kommunikation, symbolische Politik und Öffentlichkeit im Reichstag (Düsseldorf: Droste, 2002).

14 Hardtwig Wolfgang, ed., Politische Kulturgeschichte der Zwischenkriegszeit 1918–1939 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2005); Geschichte und Gesellschaft Sonderheft 21. See also Hardtwig Wolfgang, ed., Ordnungen in der Krise. Zur politischen Kulturgeschichte Deutschlands (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2007).

15 Fölllmer Moritz and Graf Rüdiger, eds., Die Krise der Weimarer Republik. Zur Kritik eines Deutungsmusters (Frankfurt and New York: Campus, 2005); Peukert Detlev J. K., The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, trans. Deveson Richard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989). Peukert's study was published in German in 1987.

16 Canning Kathleen, Barndt Kerstin, and McGuire Kristin, eds., Weimar Publics/Weimar Subjects: Rethinking the Political Culture of Germany in the 1920s (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010).

17 Eckel, “Narrativizations of the Past,” 39.

18 Ibid., 44.

19 See, for example, Peter Fritzsche, “Historical Time and Future Experience in Postwar Germany,” and Martin Geyer, “‘Die Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen.’ Zeitsemantik und die Suche nach Gegenwart in der Weimarer Republik,” in Ordnungen in der Krise, ed. Hardtwig, 141–64, 165–87.

20 Graf Rüdiger, “Either-Or: The Narrative of ‘Crisis’ in Weimar Germany and Historiography,” Central European History 43, no. 4 (2010): 600, 604.

21 Ibid., 604.

22 Graf Rüdiger, Die Zukunft der Weimarer Republik. Krisen und Zukunftsaneignungen in Deutschland 1918–1933 (Munich: Oldenbourg), 2008. See also Peter Caldwell's review of this book on H-German, Book Review, November 2008.

23 Graf, “Either-Or,” 611.

24 Ibid., 596. Graf cites Hans-Ulrich Wehler's fourth volume of Gesellschaftsgeschichte here.

25 Thomas Mergel, “Propaganda in der Kultur des Schauens. Visuelle Politik in der Weimarer Republik,” in Ordnungen in der Krise, ed. Hardtwig, 533–34.

26 Achilles Manuela, “With a Passion for Reason: Celebrating the Constitution in Weimar Germany,” Central European History 43, no. 4 (2010): 666, 668.

27 Ibid., 678, 689.

28 Ibid., 668, 689.

29 Ibid., 667, 672, 673.

30 Ibid., 667, 678.

31 Rossol Nadine, “Performing the Nation: Sports, Spectacles, and Aesthetics in Germany, 1926–1936,” Central European History 43, no. 4 (2010): 628; and Rossol Nadine, “Weltkrieg und Verfassung als Gründungserzählungen der Republik,Politik und Zeitgeschichte 50 (December 8, 2008), 628–629.

32 Rossol, “Performing the Nation,” 628–629.

33 Bryden Eric, “Heroes and Martyrs of the Republic: Reichsbanner Geschichtspolitik in Weimar Germany,” Central European History 43, no. 4 (2010): 642.

34 On the Reichsbanner's interpretation of the war, see also Rossol, “Weltkrieg und Verfassung.”

35 Bryden, “Heroes and Martyrs,” 640.

36 Rossol, “Performing the Nation,” 621.

37 Ibid., 620.

38 Ibid., 618.

39 Ibid., 625, 626.

40 See Rossol Nadine, Performing the Nation in Interwar Germany: Sport, Spectacle, and Political Symbolism 1926–36 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

41 Achilles, “With a Passion for Reason,” 669–671, 678, 689.

42 See, for example, the forum on “History of Emotions,” in German History 28, no. 1 (2010): 67–80 (with Alon Confino, Ute Frevert, Uffa Jensen, Lyndal Roper, and Daniela Saxer), here 75. See also “The History of Emotions: An Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns,” History and Theory 49 (May 2010): 237–65. See also the description of the research cluster on “History of Emotions,” directed by Ute Frevert at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin:

43 Achilles, “With a Passion for Reason,” 668.

44 See Manuela Achilles, “Reforming the Reich: Democratic Symbols and Rituals in the Weimar Republic,” in Weimar Publics/Weimar Subjects, ed. Canning et al., 177. For specific discussion of Rathenau's murder, see Achilles Manuela, “Nationalist Violence and Republican Identity in Weimar Germany,” in German Literature, History, and the Nation, ed. Midgley David and Emden Christian (Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2004).

45 Achilles, “With a Passion for Reason,” 670; Rossol, “Weltkrieg und Verfassung.”

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Central European History
  • ISSN: 0008-9389
  • EISSN: 1569-1616
  • URL: /core/journals/central-european-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 16
Total number of PDF views: 95 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 217 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 25th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.