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Contesting the myths of Weimar Germany's avant-garde society

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Peter Gay’s 1962 seminal book “Weimar Culture” defined the spirit of Weimar-era Germany as avant-garde modernism and progressivism. A recent revival of interest in Weimar-era culture in both print, exhibitions and through the hit television series Babylon Berlin has characterised the period accordingly: an era of liberalisation, cultural prosperity, promiscuity and debauchery.

Photo: Babylon Berlin via Facebook

Yet this Gabtsy-esque image was hardly the reality for many Germans in the 1920s. Indeed, at the time, the new urban modernist culture was neither universal nor universally loved.

The cultural rising star of the 1920s was almost certainly cinema, a new medium with rapidly growing popularity thanks to the technological and artistic innovations of the time. There were enough cinemas in Berlin to provide one seat to approximately every thirty inhabitants and attendance had exceeded 250 million by the mid-1920s. By way of comparison, in 2018, the year the record-breaking Avengers: Infinity War was released, cinema attendance in the UK only reached 170 million.

The expansion of the cinema industry broadcast iconic films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to a wider audience, yet Expressionist films didn’t dominate the Weimar cinema scene. Different social classes had their own preferred tastes in film. Alongside Westerns and mysteries, Hollywood blockbusters such as Ben-Hur (1925) enjoyed remarkable popularity in workers’ cinemas, whilst middle-class cinemagoers preferred nationalistic, military films such as Fridericus-Rex (1923).

Contemporary fascination with Weimar-era classic Metropolis (1927) often ignores the fact that the film was a financial (and unpopular) failure on initial release. Access to and the consumption of film was also hindered by financial constraints: following hyperinflation in 1923, the average ticket price was 0.80 Reichsmarks; the average monthly entertainment budget of an entire working-class family was just one Reichsmark.

A film poster for Metropolis (1927). Photo: Boris Konstantinowitsch Bilinski via Wikimedia Commons

The consumption of the decade’s other mass media phenomenon, radio, was characterised by similar trends. Though around one in four German households owned a radio set by 1933, there were considerable discrepancies in the quality and the price of radios. Valve sets cost around 300 Reichsmarks in the mid-1920s with an extra monthly 2 Reichsmark license fee, meaning radio ownership remained financially out of reach for many working-class families. Almost half the households of civil servants and employees owned radios in the late 1920s, while the same was true of only one in seven working-class families.

Historian Corey Ross observes, ‘Weimar-era radio was hardly a widely accessible, socially inclusive “mass” medium’. Radio programmes and preferences remained sharply divided along class lines. Workers preferred dance music, with only 10 per cent listening to classical concerts compared to 80 percent of professionals and civil servants. Uniform radio schedules deliberately catered to middle-class tastes, with emphasis given to education over entertainment programmes, echoing middle-class concerns over a perceived decline in society’s intellectual and cultural education.

Conservative-minded radio stations such as Funkstunde AG Berlin sought to counter the perceived negative effects of internationalism and modernisation by broadcasting lectures on the fiercely patriotic themes of Volk (the nation), Deutschtum (Germanness) and Heimat (homeland).

For many cultural conservatives, cabaret clubs with their risqué sexualised dances were the ultimate symbol of Germany’s moral and cultural decay, itself the result of traditional societal structures and loosening sexual morals. The right-wing press attacked prominent figures such as dancer Josephine Baker and dismissed jazz as ‘rotten negro music’, mainly due to its associations with American and black culture.

Artists such as Otto Dix and Max Beckmann were accused of producing ‘degenerate art’, with George Grosz even facing prosecution in 1920, 1923 and 1928 ‘for defaming the military, corrupting public morals, and committing blasphemy’ in his work.

Otto Dix's Altes Liebespaar (1923). Photo: Rino Porrovecchio via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

“It was a period of great experimentation and vitality and also of diversity and multiplicity of voices.” This is according to Margaret Deriaz, who curated the BFI’s ‘Beyond Your Wildest Dreams: Weimar Cinema 1919-1933’ programme in 2019.

Yet Modernist culture reinforced existing divides within Weimar urban society. Although modern mass media improved access and exposure to modernist culture, persistent socio-economic barriers limited its potential to become a “mass culture”. And for many, audio-visual media was too avant-garde.

Though celebrated in print, film and theatre today, when the Nazi government eradicated the nascent modernist culture, few in Germany came to its defence.

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