Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin


Envy is an inherently social sin; it resembles the virtues of ambition and perseverance until the object of one’s striving happens to belong to someone else. One has to ask: is envy really about the object or quality desired, or does it speak more to an aspiration to improve oneself? In other words, is envy about rejection or is it about emulation. The second kind of jealousy was never far from view in Weimar Berlin, with relation to the United States. America’s economic power, apparent freedoms and modern technology gave its cultural exports an exotic and escapist appeal.

And yet this envy could also inspire anger and critique: dissatisfaction with the rabid consumption of trappings of American culture by German youth. While some critics rejected America in seemingly apolitical terms, for many, rejecting America was a political act. The nationalist right eschewed American modernity with horror and sought to purge the country of the outside temptations that seemed to tempt so many Germans. Those who overindulged were met with scathing criticism from the other side of the political spectrum as well: the Dada movement made it their business to vocally reject the upper class—the so-called petit-bourgeois—for attempting to satisfy their jealousy of American wealth and modernity  by pretending to be better off than they were. In hopes of examining the forces of emulation and rejection of jealousy in Weimar Berlin, we will analyze cultural influences driving Neues Frauen to adopt the bubiköpf and the petit bourgeois to adore jazz; and ideologies driving conservatives to cling to nationalist traditions, Dadaists to mock the bourgeois, and Communists to seek to destroy them for their opulence.
After Germany’s loss in World War I , it is unsurprising that the culture from America spread to German soil. In light of the economic, political and cultural turmoil going on in Germany, the enticing escapism mass-produced by the former was understandably an enviable commodity. German mimicry of American hairstyles, clothes, and music was the emulative response to this sense of envy.  From the short haircut, the bubikopf, and androgynous attire to cabarets and jazz music, many elements of American culture became synonymous with “deviant youth” and were embraced as a symbol of independence from traditional German customs. Berlin’s famous nightlife scene often aped American fashions and music; even less advertisable facets of nightlife such as drug use, prostitution, and homosexuality—while still technically illegal—became tolerable within Berlin’s boundaries.

This creeping in of sinful influences from America to mainstream German culture did not go unnoticed. Outside of Berlin, many Germans came to see their capital city as too big and foreign. Internal dissonance grew as “industrial concentration, economic rationalization, cultural cosmopolitanism, and pro-Republican politics” shaped the capital. (Large 2002, 204). Ilya Ehrenburg named Berlin “an apostle of Americanism” reflecting the view that the city as a pool of iniquity in the eyes of disapproving Germans. (Large 2002, 204).

 If American culture as a whole inspired envy, jazz was a particular focus for both emulators and critics.One observer described black dancing as the “victory of negroid culture over the Viennese waltz,” as he watched specific local styles of dance, from the Viennese waltz to the Spanish bolero, be replaced with uniform practice of the Charleston to the tune of the “same short-winded, impersonal melodies.” (Large 2002, 397). One of the most famous conquerors of this sort was Josephine Baker, a black American dancer, whose performances oozed sexuality and flew defiantly in the face of rigid, conservative norms—some had her wearing no more than a banana skirt, but Berlin’s open-minded embrace encouraged the dancer and the eleven piece jazz band with which she performed. Part of her appeal to Berliners was her quintessentially American spontaneity and wild, unsupervised freedom; she was lauded as “preserved most authentically: she breathes life, the power of nature, a wantonness that can hardly be contained,” (Large 2002, 211). She appealed to the petit bourgeois seeking new levels of titillation, unemployed veterans searching for a night’s distraction from their woes, and modern women, just coming into their own, looking for an example. To the many characters of Berlin nightlife, Josephine Baker and jazz dancers like her provided an opportunity to live, vicariously through them, lives which they could only envy during the day.

In view of this widespread consumption of foreign culture and the resulting homogenization of huge swaths of youth, jealousy emulating the culture, thinkers from all over the political spectrum expressed concerns: that mass culture was discouraging free thinking as a whole, and that envy for America was erasing German identity.

America’s cultural influence was not merely through jazz but through the very phenomenon of mass culture itself. As Germany increasingly adopted mechanization on the shop floor, many philosophers and social critics noticed similar trends in popular culture. For enough media and culture to be produced for consumption by a larger and larger audience like this, it must become mechanized, sacrificing individuality in favor of quickness and widely replicable qualities: this trend is referred to as mass culture. Discussing large-scale synchronized dance numbers known as mass ornaments (the extreme but most logical conclusion of this trend toward uniformity) ,Siegfried Kracauer declaims that “Community and personality perish when what is demanded is calculability; it is only as a tiny piece of the mass that the individual can clamber up the charts,” (Kracauer 1927, 406).
The fact that mass culture increasingly resembled mass production came as a particular concern to liberal philosopher Theodor Adorno. In the field of music in specifically, he saw slavish emulation of a uniform style as tending toward the engulfing and soporific; knowing exactly how a song is going to go precludes any critical thinking about it. In fact, he describes the enchantment of a listener by a song in a way that suggests a loss of any free thought at all:

...light music attempts to master the fact of its alienation by absorbing the reporting, observing, and detached individual, as soon as he begins the refrain, into a fictive collective. This individual, in turn, finds his significance enforced through his participation in the objectivity of the refrain; … every listener identifies with the original vehicles of the melodyk with leading personalities or with a collective of warriors which intones the song. He thus forgets his own isolation and accepts the illusion either that he is embraced by the collective or that he himself is a leading personality.

(Adorno 2002, 431)

In short, Adorno was concerned widespread and blind adoption of American culture as an indication of abandonment of individuality and victory of jealous emulation over consumption with a critical eye. Ideally, Germans would be able to reject America’s cultural prescriptions, or at the very least be critical enough to see that they were following them to make themselves more similar to a people they envied.

While Adorno was on the left, concerned about the phenomenon of mass culture due to its impact on personal identity, further on the political right thinkers were unconcerned about individuality, but rather about the identity of the nation as a whole. Not only was mainstream culture becoming uniform, but it was becoming uniformly American, and this terrified those who feared German traditions and values were falling victim to the sense of inadequacy that drives envy. Insufficient pride in self and nation was something they blamed for their loss in the war, so it became their goal to rebuild a strong German national identity. Their fervor to vilify American influence as a culprit destroying German individualism speaks to a violent rejection of their compatriots’ jealousy for glamorous American lifestyles; in the face of the younger generation increasingly choosing this modernity over tradition, conservatives felt themselves becoming obsolete, much like the church Joseph Goebbels writes about in “Around the Gedächtniskirche.” Goebbels describes of the juxtaposition of booming modernity with forgotten tradition as “the eternal repetition of corruption and decay, of failing ingenuity and genuine creative power,” (Goebbels 1928, 561). His mention of the contrast of failing ingenuity and genuine creative power adds another dimension to the plight of the right: the increasing preference for new trends over age-old traditions stemmed from not only the former’s novelty but the latter’s lack of innovation; their vehement rejection is not without envy of the success of modernism too. This is a classic example of envy manifesting in rejection; something desired appears unattainable for practical or moral reasons (for having come from an object of disgust), and the desire transforms into hatred.

The solution to this dwindling national identity, especially as enacted in propaganda by Goebbels (who would eventually become Hitler’s Chief Propaganda Officer) came in a twofold approach: a straightforward exercise in pride, evoking strong patriotic imagery to glorify German culture; and then in contrast, a smear campaign to demonize any other cultural influences. Goebbels saw the influence of foreign culture, be it Russian or American, as signs of Jewish influence and predation in particular.  Goebbels writes in 1930: “We are Nationalists because we, as Germans, love Germany. And because we love Germany, we demand the protection of its national spirit and we battle against its destroyers,” (Goebbels 1930, 137). The destroyers in this case were Jews, who stood as perfect scapegoats by to seeming to have the things of which working class Berliners were jealous. The economic hardships characteristic of especially late Weimar drew attention to Jewish bankers or merchants; Goebbels incites the German people against these unworthy outsiders, writing “The Jew is uncreative. He produces nothing, he only handles products. As long as he struggles against the state, he is a revolutionary; as soon as he has power, he preaches quiet and order so that he can consume his plunder at his convenience,” (Goebbels 1930, 138). Goebbels also here taps into widespread frustration with the government’s inability to provide for its citizens, making Jewish governmental figures targets: some jealousy wished they had that power, while others simply hated them for having it at all. Either way, Goebbels, like many other anti-Semites of the time, saw Jewish people in the government as perfect scapegoats.

The rejection of foreign, and especially American, influence was not limited to intellectuals like Adorno or right-wing nationalists like Goebbels. Even many absurdist Dada and New Objectivity artists, who expressed a horror of nationalism, still framed many of their critiques of capitalism as critiques of America.  They did not fail to notice and mercilessly send up conservative nationalists’ rejection of young Germans for envying and emulating American culture while all the while themselves envying—and aspiring to emulate—the moral authority and social capital of the bourgeois they sought to depose.
This exhibit includes a prime example of this in Otto Dix’s critical portrait, Erinnerungen an die Spiegelsäle von Brüssel (Memories of a Glass House in Brussels). The painting is set in an opulent cabaret; Dix lays bare the ridiculousness of this cheap elegance. By choosing a military officer for the main subject, he levels criticism at hypocrisy and pretentiousness not only at society as a whole, but especially on the military.

This rejection of pretension and mocking of hierarchy also plays a role in “The Solidarity Song,” a Communist song by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler. Here, the possibilities of tones are not limited by the roles that conventional harmony assigns them, rather speaking for themselves in almost egalitarian self-determination. Nonetheless, Eisler’s dissonant music not only successfully conveys the Communist sentiment of Brecht’s text, but adds legitimacy to workers’ suffering through its classical form and fosters (through driving, chromatic bass lines) an optimism for the inevitability of the Revolution.
In the chaos of the Weimar Republic following the First World War, society struggled to recover from the slaughter of a generation and the destruction of the country. The social crisis engendered by the aftermath of war and the arrival of a new more Democratic politics and culture found a particular flashpoint in the appeal of American culture. While some Germans were inspired by American freedom and novelty, others rejected it either in he mocking terms of Dada, the disapproving tones of Adorno, or the manufactured horror of Goebbels.

--Magdalena Kuzma and Anthony Zicari

Adorno, Theodor, “On the Social Situation of Music”, in Essays on Music. Edited by Richard Leppert. Berkley: University of California Press, 2002.
Goebbels, Joseph, “Around the Gedächtniskirche” in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (Berkley: University of California Press, 1995), 560–562.
Goebbels, Joseph, “Why Are We Enemies of the Jews?” in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (Berkley: University of California Press, 1995), 137–138.
Kracauer, Siegfried, “The Mass Ornament” in in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (Berkley: University of California Press, 1995), 404–407.Large, David Clay. Berlin. London: Penguin, 2002.

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