Kurt Weill and Bertholt Brecht's Berlin

Weimar Berlin

Weimar Germany began with the ratification of a new, democratic constitution in 1919 and ended with Adolf Hitler taking office as chancellor in 1933. Although the entire German nation faced both hardships and prosperity during these years, the city of Berlin in particular represents the essence of the Weimar period. Berliners experienced political turmoil, violence, economic crisis, and social upheaval as Germany responded to international and domestic events. Following World War I and the establishment of the new republican constitution in Weimar, Germany was once again thrown into political disarray with the arrival of the Treaty of Versailles, leading to increased public feelings of uncertainty caused by war reparations and defeat, and an impending economic crisis (Large 2000, 169-172). Against the backdrop of political fracturing and rapid modernization, Berlin’s nightlife, intellectual community, and culture thrived (Storer 2013, 157).

Even before the Weimar era, Berlin had become a powerhouse of culture and intellectual pursuits. However, in the years between 1919-1933, Berlin became in many ways the most modern city in the world. The city’s new emphasis on architecture showcased Berlin’s modernization and finally demonstrated its standing as one of the three largest cities in the world (Large 2000, 206-207; Storer 2013, 157-159). Music, opera, and theater flourished, much of which reflected both Berlin’s cosmopolitanism and the city’s spirit of social critique. The city’s nightlife gained a reputation as the most daring in Europe. At the same time, scientists, authors, and artists from Germany and around the world flocked to Berlin to join German intellectuals and experience its modernity for themselves, forming new intellectual groups and creating fantastic pieces of art and literature that reflect the dizzying innovation of Weimar Berlin (Storer 2013, 163-168).

While foreigners usually admired Berlin’s progressiveness and adventurous social scene, many Germans – living in or out of the city – held more negative views about Berlin’s modernity. These Germans feared that as Berlin became more liberal and modern it would leave behind its traditional German values, replacing them with foreign ones.  Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher, argues in “Berlin and the Countryside” that “The world of the city runs the risk of falling into a destructive error” because city-dwellers saw themselves as superior to people living in the country (Kaes et al. 1994, 206-207). Even Berliners themselves had concerns regarding the influx of technology and people. Germans who opposed Berlin’s new development labeled American influence as the problem and overall contended that Berlin was becoming too internationally conformist (Large 2000, 204). They often felt that Germany, in its attempt to modernize at such a fast pace, was becoming too American to be German anymore. Stefan Zweig, an Austrian author and intellectual, for example, portrays America in his piece “The Monotonization of the World” as the greatest threat to German and European culture, critiquing the “mechanization of existence and the dominance of technology” that lead to the boredom and uniformity he believes come from America (Kaes 1994, 397-400). Berlin, as a large industrial city, was critiqued intensely in much the same manner. Furthermore, some Germans felt a constant Communist threat from the Soviet Union, and worried that the Communist party in Germany would gain enough political sway to win major offices in upcoming elections. In general, Germany struggled with defining itself as a nation, working to mix its past and tradition with the modernity so usual in other industrial nations (Storer 2013, 167-168).    
Weimar Germany lasted about a decade before the start of the period of the political turmoil that determined its decline. In 1929, the American stock market crashed, impacting the German economy and causing Germans’ uncertainty to grow once again. The popularity of the politically extreme parties of the Nazis and the Communists rose, and they began to win seats in the government (Large 1994, 234-235 and 241). In her book Neighbors and Enemies, Pamela E. Swett asserts that violence rose beginning in 1930 and took place both on the streets of Berlin and organized settings such as political rallies (Swett 2004, 233-235). The previous years of relative calm in Berlin had ended, as the Nazi and Communist parties incited violence in the streets through demonstrations, intent on gaining political support and their dislike of the previous decade’s social freedom (Large 2000., 234-235 and 241). Eventually winning enough votes in a time of increased economic doubt and political disorder, the Nazi party effectively ended the Weimar Republic in 1933 with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as the German Chancellor. 

Despite its short-lived nature, the Weimar period was by no means transitory. The unique mix of the modern and the traditional, foreigners and Berliners, and excitement, boredom, and anxiety makes Berlin a more than worthy example of Weimar sentiment and culture.

--Daphne Schigiel

Heidegger, Martin. “Berlin and the Countryside.” In The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, 206-207. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Large, David Clay. Berlin. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Storer, Colin. The Weimar Republic. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2013.
Swett, Pamela E.  Neighbors and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin, 1929-1933. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 
Zweig, Stephan. “The Monotonization of the World.” In The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, 397-400. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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