The Weimar Republic came into being in confusion and fear. It was born of a war that had killed and maimed millions and wrought destruction across a large part of Germany and the rest of Europe and elsewhere. The Republic brought with it the remnants of the Wilhelmian era, the shame and anger of the dictated peace and the shattered hopes and dreams of the German people on the right and left of the political spectrum. The trauma of the war and its abrupt and unexpected end threw all of Germany into confusion. The German people had to contend with an unexpected military defeat and the abdication of the Kaiser which raised questions over the reason for the war.
Although fighting had stopped on the Western Front on the 11th November it continued and indeed intensified on the streets of many German cities most notably Berlin. In October 1918 the sailors at the Kiel Naval base mutinied. Homecoming soldiers returned to a confused public led by brawling politicians. On November 8th Kurt Eisner, an independent socialist, proclaimed a republic in Bavaria. On November 9th Philipp Scheidemann of the Social Democrats proclaimed a republic in Weimar. The Weimar Republic survived; the Bavarian did not. But within days of the proclamation of the new Republic left and right wing factions were on the streets fighting. On the 26th November Eisner called on the workers’ and soldiers’ council of Berlin to overthrow the interim government. It was not an auspicious start.
The interim government had to run a country that was recovering from war and negotiate peace terms with the Allies, while faced with attacks from left and right. The government was viewed with wary suspicion by the Allies and with angry resentment by the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It received no international help in rebuilding the shattered country. The government was thought to be too revolutionary for the conservatives; it was also viewed as not radical enough for the communists. Attempting to deal with practical issues such as that of returning soldiers and the economy the government was constantly undermined by both left and right seeking their own interests over other considerations. By December 1918 parades for returning soldiers were interspersed with demonstrations by Spartacists. Government troops fought the communists using heavy machine guns.
This difficult birth presaged the subsequent development of the Republic. There was never any time, to resolve any of the underlying issues in the country before another crisis hit. The reparations demanded by the Allies put an immense strain on the country’s economy as did the French occupation of the Ruhr and the blockade of German ports. Returning soldiers faced unemployment and financial hardship. Right and left argued over blame and disagreed about solutions and many gave way to extremes on both sides. Successive governments attempted to steer a middle course but with a definite and growing rightwing bias. By the early twenties things had somewhat settled. The government was led by the conservatives but with a greater level of control. Political violence lessened although it did not disappear. The French evacuated from the Ruhr allowing German industry to get moving and the economy strengthened. The Treaty of Locarno was signed with Great Britain, France, Italy and Belgium and Germany was no longer a pariah state. However, these economic and social improvements, although very welcome, did not mean prosperity for all. Germany had, after all, to recover from extreme conditions. More importantly, nothing had been done to deal with the underlying problems in Germany which, when the world economy crashed in 1929, caused the extreme political elements to come to the fore.
These underlying problems had been developing since the beginning of the century. While the 20th century heralded the modern era of the machine most of German society still hankered after the time of heroes. Romanticism and the love of Germanic legend still held true. Germans felt themselves to be under threat from the machine that separated them from the land and from their inner soul. And this was underpinned by the German obsession with death. The fixation on mortality was understandable given the losses in the Great War; Germany had lost around 2 million soldiers with a further ¾ million civilians dying from disease and malnutrition. But the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche and his assertion that modern man had killed God also contributed and created an ethos where death, its meaning and its purpose became all pervasive. Discussions were held in cafes and bars as the population watched injured soldiers return to a heroes’ welcome. Life was becoming unreal. Parades in Berlin treated the returning soldiers as if they had won the war. The Dolchstoβlegende (stab-in-the-back) legend was born blaming Jews, communists and women for the disgraceful end to the war. The politicians argued over how to organise the economy while war wounded were on the streets begging for food. The German had lost his way; the machine had fragmented his life and left him with a shattered soul and the only reality that was true was death.
This ethos did not exist in a vacuum and built on the cultural changes that had been happening in Germany since the turn of the century. Feelings of restlessness had led many to welcome Germany’s military build-up and the start of the war when it came. The world was changing and new ideas in science, philosophy and the arts flourished. Germany embraced and was the instigator of many of these new ideas but was still ruled by an elite that saw no need for societal change. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the universities, the military were held in high esteem and German Kultur was praised for its purity and lack of contamination by western values. This tension between the values of the conservative bourgeoisie and the rest of society could not last forever and it was the Weimar Republic that inherited the cultural riches that resulted from the release of that pressure.
Artists watched the political machinations of left and right and treated much of it as irrelevant to what was really happening to the German soul. The longing for unity and desire for an understanding of death in its most primitive form moved artists and political activists alike but moved them differently and ultimately antagonistically to each other. The politicians squabbled over how to make Germany whole again but did so using the nineteenth century model of the political form. Even the Spartacists, who thought of themselves as the new revolutionaries of the age, based their ideology firmly in the class divisions determined by Marx in 1848. As a result there was a deep and almost instinctive distrust of the politics of the Republic from many artists. For the artistic community wholeness could only come about through modernity. Expressionism was the first major artistic movement after the war which gave artists the means by which to explore and interpret that modernity. Expressionism, by its very nature, did not create or follow a single message other than a desire to seek the wholeness of the German soul. Expressionism explored the emotional experience of life and death; politics merely attempted to control them without caring to understand them. It was this world that saw the flourishing of the cabarets of Berlin.