Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin


From the decadent cabaret clubs to political corruption, Weimar’s critics believed that German society was defined by greed. Politically, greed often served at the core of criticism of the republic, such as when the Communists blamed greedy politicians or businessmen for proletarian oppression. But, the political Right also tapped into popular conceptions of greed, most notably when the National Socialists helped portray the Weimar government as an apparatus of greedy Jews. To be sure, there were those who revered greed, especially the “Americanists” of Weimar, who viewed greed as a producer of great inventions and efficient business. In Weimar Berlin, greed was an abstract and malleable concept, simultaneously representing both the cause of one’s grief, particularly for members of the poor and working class, or the motivation of one’s success, in the form of efficient business, depending on one’s political proclivities.  

The German Left was particularly fond of using conceptions of greed to articulate criticism of Weimar society. Famously, George Grosz’s paintings depicted greedy capitalists and a suffering working class. Grosz’s work often reflected themes of collective strife, hunger, starvation, and death, all caused by the greed of wealthy individuals unwilling to share their wealth. Indeed, this aligns itself particularly with the ideas of Communists writing at the time; leftists would often portray individual economic strife as a direct cause of bourgeois greed. In one appeal by the German Communist Party (KPD) to right-wing workers, the KPD claims that German workers are “suffering dire need” due to the “capitalist plunderers of the people and their state” who are “sucking the people dry” (Kaes et al. 1994, 167). Significantly, the KPD directly tied working class liberation, and economic alleviation, with the class war against the wealthy, stating “You call for a people’s war against poverty. A people’s war against poverty can only be a people’s war against the rich and powerful who cut your wages, reduce your salaries… and repress the freedom of speech, press and assembly” (Kaes et al. 1994, 167). True or not, to the KPD nearly all of the problems facing the young Weimar Republic could be traced back to the greedy bourgeoisie.  If one wished to eliminate repressive government policies, poverty, or low wages, then one must eliminate the greedy bourgeoisie, or at least the greed of the bourgeoisie.

Notably, the German Right would also often use greed as a concept to gather political support, with unfortunate success. Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propagandist, wrote a an appeal to German Communists. In strikingly similar terms to the KPD’s own language, Goebbels writes, “No honest-thinking person today would want to deny the justification of the workers’ movements” arguing that such movements are “grown out of need and misery.” He then goes on to say, however dubiously, that “we no longer need to discuss whether the demand of the German employee for social compensation is justified” (Kaes et al. 1994, 127). Goebbels thus acknowledges the suffering of the working class, and even pits himself and the working class against the “talkative gentleman with the belly and the golden watch chain stretched across it…” which quite clearly serves as a representative for greedy and powerful men (Kaes et al. 1994, 127). Moreover, Goebbels critiques the German burgher, who “for him the only thing that is political right and true… is the guarantee of his possessions…” (Kaes et al. 1994, 127). For Goebbels, as for the KPD, wealthy individual’s own greed are the cause of the current political and economic strife of the current Republic, and those who are suffering under it.

Yet, Goebbels’ critique of greed is in many ways far more broad than that of the KPD, which centers its own on argument in particularly Marxist terms, pitting the bourgeoisie and the proletariat against each other. Goebbels acknowledges this class struggle, but expands the enemy of the proletariat to include political leaders, rank-and-file government officials, and Jews. He refers to the policies of republican leaders such as Gustav Stresemann and Wilhelm Marx as “pacifistic mush”  and indicates that they only serve the desires of the bourgeouisie (Kaes et al. 1994, 127). Jews, for their part, serve a twofold, though ultimately greedy purpose. On the one hand, Goebbels argues that Western capitalist Jews are perfectly content with any politics that preserves the stock exchange, and therefore their own greedy motives (Kaes et al. 1994, 128). On the other, however, Goebbels positions Jews as ultimately greedy Communists, whose “ideological” and “theoretical” brand of Communism, which is “without regard for the possibility of its practical completion” serves the same ends as the capitalist Jew (Kaes et al. 1994, 128). Blatant anti-semitism aside, Goebbels understands that for one to see another as their enemy during this time, using the concept of greed is especially effective.

Lastly, greed manifested in the German discourse on the “Americanization” of Germany. It is clear through various readings that Germans as a whole were rather ambivalent toward America and Americanism. Some revered it, while others feared and abhorred it. However, both sides often used greed to articulate their position, and associated the concept of America with modernity, or as one German writer put it, “trusts, highrises, traffic officers, film, technical wonders, jazz bands, boxing, magazines, and management.” From the positive take on these American element, Friedrich Sieburg writes, in an essay called “Worshipping Elevators” that many have romanticized America and what it stands for, particularly the “cold, hard, and unbending” interpretation Germans have of American businessman, whom they view as economical. Yet, Sieburg demonstrates a weariness of this romanticization, asking what causes Germans “...to worship elevators, to prattle on about steel rhythms, to kneel before the General Motors Company?” (Kaes et al. 1994, 404). For Sieburg, the ridiculousness of this reverence for American business culture is not due to a hatred of technology, for he says, “the machine need not be an enemy” but rather simply the admiration of the pursuit of profit above all else.

It seems difficult to have an honest discussion about Weimar culture, politics, society, or its economy, without talking about greed. In some ways, one’s political affiliation could be determined by their own stance on greed’s manifestation within German society. Yet, greed also found itself in larger questions on new cultural and social phenomena, the democratization of Germany, its modernization, and its political future.

--Carolyn Anderson, Chloe Falkenheim, and Cole Mantell


Communist Party of Germany, “Open letter of the KPD to the Working Voters of the NSDAP and the Members of the SA.” In The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, 167-169. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Goebbels, Joseph, “National Socialism or Bolshevism?” In The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, 127-129. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Sieburg, Friedrich, “Worshipping Elevators.” In The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, 402-404. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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