Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin


In 1914, a period of inflation began in the Weimar Republic which would not reach its apex until 1924. People in cities, such as Berlin, suffered from continuous food shortages at the height of the inflation, when many families spent over 90 percent of their incomes on food expenditure while still experiencing declined daily dietary intake (Widdig 2001, 46). Women were often seen lining up along the streets to wait for rationed portions of food. Some middle-class families would trade their possessions for rationed meat. The shortage of food led to a series of mutinies in Berlin and widespread social and political desperation. On the other side of the crisis, a group of people who profiteered from smuggling food in the black markets would celebrate their economic success with feasts. This sharp contrast between craving for food and indulgence in feast became a defining fixture for years in the psyche and day-to-day function of Weimar Republic.

Among the seven deadly sins, gluttony involves a self-indulgence that stems originally from a human’s humble need for food. The inflation years in Berlin give us first-hand accounts of this basic survival instinct’s apparent transformation into gluttony as people’s needs went unsatisfied over extended intervals in an anxious and tumultuous climate. One contemporary observer reflected on the time after the fact with a portrait of disproportionate extremes and wrote “Looking back at the years of inflation the crazy image of a hellish carnival comes to mind: Plunderings and riots, . . . painful hunger and wild gluttony, rapid pauperization and sudden enrichment, excessive dancing and horrible misery of children, . . . hoarding of material assets, . . . occultism and psychics” (Widdig 2001, 7). Accounts such as this one give a sense  that the essence of the inflation years was in this contrast of miserable children and raucous night life, science and mysticism, “painful hunger and wild gluttony.” These pairs of striking opposites made gluttony notable during this period. On the one hand, some noted lavish feasts of the better-off that occurred while families who could hardly sustain a basic standard of living swallowed whatever was in front of them, their minds distracted by the uncertainty and difficulty of acquiring more food. Meanwhile, others saw gluttony less as an opposite to want, but as the symptom of the transfiguration that need created in those who suffered from it.

The complex relationship between gluttony and need became a substantial source of stress both for laypeople and lawmakers. Evidence of the lengths to which this stress drove lawmakers appears in the consideration of a bill proposed by the Prime Minister of Bavaria to criminalize gluttony, with a glutton “defined as ‘one who habitually devotes himself to the pleasures of the table to such a degree that he might arouse discontent in view of the distressful condition of the population.’ It was proposed that such a one ‘may be arrested on suspicion, and punished by imprisonment and/or a fine of up to 100,000 marks (about £75) for a first offence’ [and, for a second, by] penal servitude of up to five years, fines of up to 200,000 marks, and the deprivation of civil rights” (Fergusson 2010, 61).

While ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of working- and middle-class citizens, and likely concerned with social unrest in the face of economic instability, it is possible to catch in this strict governmental impulse a glimpse of a harmful moral absolutism regarding the enjoyment of food.

In The Seven Deadly Sins, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill satirize a family who enthusiastically chastise imagined gluttony while themselves drooling over culinary delicacies. This quasi-absurd idea that the simple necessity of food could be demonized, that because food is at the same time a fundamental need and a recreational pleasure , became facet of the Weimar-era sensitivity to gluttony. Especially in artistic and literary depictions of gluttony, mundanity, necessity, and celebratory fastidiousness begin to live side by side, as strange but insistent and almost sacred bedfellows. As if to say, Never forget that food is all these things, and certainly it is a measure of the times.

--Rania Adamczyk, Mo Chen, and Jeni Schapire


Fergusson, Adam, When Money Dies : The Nightmare of Deficit Spending, Devaluation, and Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany. PublicAffairs, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/oberlin/detail.action?docID=589689.  

Widdig, Bernd, Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany. University of California Press, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/oberlin/detail.action?docID=223736.

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