Weimar America?

Pundits from Glenn Beck to Roger Cohen and Chris Hedges have one other discouraged democracy on their minds this election year.

They’re thinking of the German government that rose as a fresh democracy in 1919 but failed — amid economic frailty and an uninspiring mainstream — to resist the rise of radical new politics, and specifically of Adolf Hitler, by 1933.

So we’re spending this week on the lost world of Weimar Republic, and its lessons for today.


You learn right away that that Berlin was an incredible place: home to Albert Einstein playing violin in the synagogue, Marlene Dietrich singing in The Blue Angel, Paul Klee painting, Walter Gropius designing, George Grosz (above) painting, and Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt thinking over power, technology, and truth. 

The present-day German flag flew over all of it, and there was indeed much of 21st-century Berlin present in the Weimar ’20s: a burgeoning gay scene, emancipated women dancing in late-night clubs packed with fashionable emigrés.

But Stefan Zweig, he of neighboring Vienna, reminds us not to take the present-day comparisons too far. All the “steeds of the Apocalypse” marched through his German-speaking world in those years: hyperinflation, the Great Depression, Communists and fascists killing each other in the street, and a rising tide of ridiculous anti-Semitism and almost-nihilistic dreams of smashing it all up.

Berlin, Tanztee im "Esplanade", 1926

One lesson, for starters: a republic is a fragile thing, as Benjamin Franklin warned all those years ago. And the Weimar example lets you know, at once, the great possibilities and the terrible perils that await the republic that fails.

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  • Potter

    What a wonderful period of art history! The podcasts, particularly the BBC on Walter Benjamin, were wonderful. Benjamin was amazing; he achieved so much during this worrisome tumultuous time for Jews in Germany.
    I dusted my copy of Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” and began reading Mr. Norris. Like your old blogmeister Brendan, I never finished the Magic Mountain, but I may still. The visual arts, the music, I know well. I love the one you have up by George Grosz. This period had quite it’s own character.

    I can’t quite make the connection to the USA today though. There are similarities. There are aspects of The Donald that I am reminded of when listening, but only aspects. Sinclair Lewis “This Can’t Happen here” I am keeping in mind. But I see a lot of hope and love in “Birdie” Sanders whether he winds or loses, for the future. We should not ignore that happening as well. Trumpians are not the whole of this country and maybe we should be hay for one to be so severely divided. We’ll see.

    But thank you so much for this excursion and all the extra goodies…

    • Potter

      In the essay, Benjamin’s famed ninth thesis struggles to reconcile the Idea of Progress in the present with the apparent chaos of the past:

      A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.


      • Pete Crangle

        Well done, Potter. I love Paul Klee, and I have never seen this work. Thank you for the posting.

  • orrawan

    Thanks for the great post. The commentaries and suggestions well.Well done, Potter. I love Paul Klee, and I have never seen this work. Thank you for the posting.