In something of a break from my usual reviews, have one about a history of Weimar Germany.
This is not the book I thought it was going to be. I bought it in the expectation that it would be an in-depth look at the history of Weimar Germany as a political and economic institution, because that’s what I’m particularly interested in. Instead, this takes a much broader look at Weimar Germany as a particular period in a nation’s history, and consequently looks at politics, economics, architecture, sound and vision, philosophy and sexuality across 1918-1933: how these things developed, changed, challenged and were challenged, and what it all meant to at least some of the people living there at the time.
A couple of things to note first of all: one, I am horrified and deeply ashamed that some members of the Lutheran and Catholic Churches espoused the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the age. Yes, church leaders have never been exempt from secular pressures and concerns, and there have been instances of the Church being subsumed into nationalistic/ worldly concerns across its entire history. Nonetheless, the attitudes of some high-profile members (and it was only some) was horrifying to read. And two, if a nation needed an incredibly selfish reason to be inclined towards accepting refugees these days, the list of people who fled from Germany after 1933 should stand as a reminder that people who are forced to leave their country often have exceptional skills to offer the place that will accept them. Perhaps if PNG plays its cards right, it will experience quite the efflorescence in the coming decade?
What did I learn? Well, the politics and development of events across the Weimar period was set out fairly clearly, and added some depth. The economics section proved that I am really not an economic historian, and the imperative towards growth that allowed hyperinflation to get a hold (because <i>some</i> inflation is a good thing) just doesn’t actually work in my brain. The exploration of the Weimar milieu, though, was the bit that I was both not expecting and got the most out of. The impact of architecture – the development of radio (microphones!) and cinema – the sexual reform movement: I understand a little better why the conservative and radical Right were so incensed by what they saw changing, and how they reacted. Weitz makes the Weimar period sound quite captivating if you happened to be in the right place at the right time: Berlin, basically, in the mid-late twenties; and if you had money to burn. If you were planning a time-travel visit, you would arrive in 1925 and leave before 1930; you’d make sure you had a good middle-class office job, too – Weitz is careful to mention that life for the majority was not the glitzy, cabaret-soaked free-loving experience that is sometimes upheld as “Weimar’s golden period.” In fact, the insight into working-class lives is also remarkable – and horrendous.
One of the foci for Weitz, because it apparently was for many of the commentators of the time, was the ‘mass’ aspect of Weimar society: an era of mass communication, mass society… more people moving to the cities, the blurring of art as being for mass consumption or not… it seemed at a few points that Weitz was using Weimar as a case-study in what mass society can be, when it has such poor pre-conditions as Germany in 1918.
I did not love the penultimate chapter. He spends a long time going over what a couple of philosophers and architects do after they flee Germany in 1933. And that was interesting, but it did not need to take forty pages. Forty pages would have been better spent doing more of a survey of the variety of intellectual and art-types that he had covered over the book, not obsessing Herbert Marcuse and Hans Morgenthau – whose work as transmitted by Weitz, I freely admit, I do not understand and care little for.
Overall, this does work as a good introduction to the issues, history, and implications of the Weimar period for Germany, and less completely, Europe and America. If you are interested in history beyond the political and economic, this is the sort of coverage that will work.
You can buy it at Fishpond.