With the centennial anniversaries of the First World War’s events now themselves in the past, a good deal of historical attention has shifted to developments in the aftermath of the conflict, and their legacies for the world of today. Tellingly, in a time beset by economic instability and populist politics, the centenary of the establishment of the Weimar Republic in 1919 provides a subject for commemorative attention, both in Germany and beyond.
Hamstrung as it was by the post-War order in which it came into being, the ruinous reparations imposed at Versailles, the ‘war guilt’ that Germany had to officially own, and the failure of the League of Nations to fully secure the peaceful order that its idealistic establishment had tried to promise, German government in the 1920s is too easily seen as a series of failures finding its historically inevitable denouement in the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933. ‘Weimar’ becomes a by-word for democratic inadequacy, cultural decadence, and the fragility of institutions that could not resist the rising voice of a demagogue who promised simplistic answers to the problems that it had failed to solve. A study of political posters from the period reveals a worrying similarity of visual language, whether promoting the ‘strength’ of right or left-wing parties as solutions to a worsening situation. When the only question facing a society is the direction from whence the remedy for its perceived problems will arrive its politics will inevitably become a battle of wills: in this case one that the Nazis were best able to plot their progress and take out their opponents until there were none left to oppose.
Hindsight makes this view inevitable, perhaps. But was that how it seemed at the time? As Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum’s current exhibition Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy explores, the Republic achieved a great deal in social, educational, and material terms and managed against the odds to oversee Germany’s transition from Prussian-led militarism to fragile but functioning democracy. Repeated elections, hung parliaments, and changes of government certainly made the task of German reconstruction harder, but even if the system eventually fell victim to the sheer volume of political parties within it it did provide a model of a parliamentary system. If it was a victim of events, those external forces were often of such a nature that its relatively shallow roots made German democracy particularly susceptible to them, but that does not necessarily mean that its failure was inherently its own fault.
Celebrations of the culture of the period also capture this tension. Tate Modern’s current display of Weimar-period art, under the title Magic Realism, often unsettles us with its subject matter and style, but also attests to the creative forces unleashed in post-War Germany and the sense of artistic liberation of the time. The BFI’s current season of Weimar-era film, whilst offering plenty of examples of the landmark horror and romantic (and daringly sexual) works associated with the time – from Nosferatu to The Blue Angel – also features a wealth of social commentary and reportage: films later banned because their ‘shocking’ nature lay in their unflinching view of the country around them. Such developments, like the establishment of the Bauhaus – the hugely influential art and technical school initially based in Weimar itself and celebrating its centenary this year as well – became possible within a state that was prepared to create room for them or, at the least, to permit them to continue even as it disapproved. This is arguably not a sign of ‘decadence’ or decline so much as an affirmation of possibility and licence. The ‘excesses’ of Weimar ceased in 1933, but so did a great many other things, and none of these cessations was to Germany’s, or the wider world’s advantage.
Ultimately, perhaps, Weimar’s lasting legacy is the fact that the Nazis felt obliged to denigrate and then dismantle it. Its ‘failure’ and its fate are, as the Deutsches Historisches Museum reminds its visitors, of immense importance in 2019, but so are its successes: not products of an age that saw itself as ‘doomed’ but rather expressions of one that believed in possibility, even against the odds. We should celebrate what was produced in and by it, and not allow its collapse to read as its unavoidable result. At the same time, though, Weimar’s collapse should be a salutary lesson to us in case we find our own societies turning towards the simplistic ‘alternatives’ to democracy that did not work then and will not work now.
For information on the Deutsches Historisches Museum Exhibition, visit https://www.dhm.de/en/ausstellungen/democracy-2019/weimar.html
For information on the BFI Weimar Film Season, visit: https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/default.asp?BOparam%3A%3AWScontent%3A%3AloadArticle%3A%3Apermalink=weimarcinema&BOparam%3A%3AWScontent%3A%3AloadArticle%3A%3Acontext_id