Many cultures have made
monumental contributions to the development of our great
Western Judeo-Christian civilisation, not least that of
Germany, one of the most purely artistic, poetic, musical and
spiritual nations in modern history. Yet it could be said that
the greatest and most blessed nations are those most liable to
decadence, a word which seems to seems to suggest both moral
decline and a dark, sinister glamour; and few societies have
been more associated with this latter quality than that of
Germany between the wars, and that's especially true of its
then capital city of Berlin.
The Weimar era, which came into being in 1919 and lasted until Hitler's ascent to the Chancellorship in 1933, has been likened by some cultural critics to the contemporary West.
Indeed, it could be said that much of what's happened to the West since the end of the second world war was to some degree presaged by the Berlin of the 1920s, familiar to millions through Bob Fosse's movie version of the Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, itself a descendant of one of Christopher Isherwood's two Berlin stories, Goodbye to Berlin, penned in 1933, but referring to incidents that took place between six to eight years earlier.
Needless to say, the Weimar era was no isolated historical instance of a society in decline, having been significantly shaped by the culture which birthed it.
Germany was of course the birthplace of Luther and the Great Protestant Reformation that has exerted such a monumental influence on the evolution of Biblical Christianity. At the same time, by the dawn of the Weimar Republic in 1919, it had long been associated with myriad revolutionary and esoteric ideas.
For example, more than any other nation in the late 18th and early 19th Century, Germany had played host to Higher Criticism, a school of Biblical criticism which flagrantly attacked the authenticity of the Scriptures. Moreover, late 19th century Europe had witnessed a significant occult revival and of all its great nations, it was arguably Germany that had been most affected by this, even more so perhaps than France and Britain, and to the obvious detriment of Biblical Christianity, even while modernity thrived.
Thence, the legendary hedonism of the so-called Golden Twenties could be said to have arisen as much - if not more - from her spiritual legacy as the more immediate source of a long and terrible war and its aftermath, but it's this latter that we turn to now.
Weimar Shadow of Future Things
Despite the fact that the bona fide Weimar era was set to dawn in all its gaudy decadent glory in early 1923, Germany was yet a terribly ravaged and traumatised land as a result of a long series of crises leading back to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm III and military defeat in the First World War.
Following on from the armistice, she was subject to still more bloody conflict in the shape of the German Revolution, which culminated in the Spartacist Uprising of January 1919, during which the Spartacist League and other leftist factions rose up in revolt in Berlin, only to be put down by paramilitary Freikorps consisting of volunteer soldiers, many of them on the extreme right.
The liberal democratic Weimar Republic was established soon afterwards, but Germany's post-war miseries had only just begun. During the debates in Weimar, a Soviet Republic was declared in Munich which was crushed by the Freikorps, resulting in the proliferation of far right movements throughout Bavaria. One of these was the German Worker's Party, and several of its key founding members went on to exert a powerful influence on a young war hero by the name of Corporal Adolf Hitler with their shadowy brand of nationalism.
To further compound the nation's woes, The Treaty of Versailles was signed on the 28th of June 1919. Of its many provisions, one of the most vital required her to accept sole responsibility for causing the war and so to agree to drastic military restrictions, as well as a good many territorial concessions including the surrendering of all her overseas colonies. She also had to pay heavy war reparations, the total cost of which came to 132 billion marks, or 6.6 billion pounds sterling.
The following month, while still in the army, Hitler was sent as a police spy by German Army Intelligence to infiltrate the ranks of the previously mentioned German Worker's party in the mistaken belief that it was Socialist in ideology.
The German currency was relatively stable during the first half of this year, but May brought the harsh London Ultimatum, which demanded reparations paid in gold or foreign currency, as well as 26% of the value of Germany's foreign exports. Hyper-inflation followed soon afterwards, which resulted in the Mark becoming all but worthless. By January 1923, defaults on payments had grown so serious that French and Belgian forces felt compelled to invade the heavily industrialised Ruhr Valley close to the Franco-German border, where they set about securing reparations in the shape of coal and other commodities.
Many Germans, including skilled workers, started working for the bare minimum necessary for the sustenance of life, as the nation started to become increasingly afflicted by unemployment, poverty, hunger, and even malnutrition, leading to widespread bitter unrest and resentment, one of whose expressions was the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 8-9 November 1923. This was an attempt by Hitler's National German Workers Party, including paramilitary storm troopers under the leadership of Ernst Roehm, as well as future leading Nazis, Hess, Goering and Rosenberg, at a revolution modelled on the Fascist March on Rome of the previous October. Of all the putschists, it was World War I hero General Ludendorff who demonstrated the greatest courage under fire, but he was to subsequently disown Hitler. As to the latter, he spent just a little over a month in Landsberg Prison after the putsch was decisively put down by the Army, where he dictated his memoirs, Mein Kampf, to his friend and fellow inmate, Rudolf Hess.
Somehow, however, total economic collapse was halted under the chancellorship of Gustav Streseman - who was both charismatic and democratic, at a time when such politicians were in desperate need in Germany - by the replacement of the worthless Papiermark with the new Rentenmark, which was introduced on the 19th of November 1923. Streseman had earlier sought peace with Germany's enemies by calling off all passive resistance of striking German workers in the Ruhr Valley, an act which while having a beneficial effect on the economy, served also to fan the flames of nationalist rage. Millions of middle class Germans had been left ruined and embittered by the period of hyperinflation, with the result that they became susceptible to extreme right wing propaganda, while many workers turned to Communism.
For the time being, though, Germany, and specifically Berlin, feasibly became the supreme world epicentre of Modernism, of creative and intellectual foment not just in the fields of literature, architecture, music, dance, drama, cinema, and the visual arts, but of science as well. While she'd been a cradle of the Modern Impulse for centuries - a distinction she shared with several other Western nations including her closest European intimates, France and Britain - it could be asserted that never before had she been quite so fiercely inclined in a cultural sense towards the radical and left-leaning, the experimental, the iconoclastic, the frankly scandalous, nor on so large a scale, as in the Weimar era.
Artistic innovation wildly thrived in Berlin in the years 1924-'29 in the shape of, among other phenomena, the artists of the New Objectivity, such as Beckmann, Dix and Grosz, Berg's ground-breaking opera, Wozzek (1925), as well as the staccato cabaret-style music of Kurt Weill, Fritz Lang's dystopian Metropolis (1927), the spectacles of cabaret queen Anita Berber, and so on. The same applies to that lost city's notorious sexual liberalism, which still has the power to shock as seen in pictorial and photographic depictions of her cabarets and night clubs in which license and intoxication flourished unabated.
So much of what has become familiar to the West and beyond in the last half-century, from the philosophies that have dominated our academia for decades, such as Critical Theory and Deconstruction, all the way to the theatre of outrage that is the essence of Rock music pre-existed in some form in the Golden Twenties. But beneath the glittering carapace she carried within her the seeds of her own ruin, for despite the genius that flourished alongside the licentiousness, she was operating largely in defiance of the Judeo-Christian moral values that have long formed the basis of Western society.
Given that several other European and American cities were hardly less hysterically dissolute than Berlin, it's little wonder that this key Modernist decade has been described by some critics as the beginning of the end of Western civilisation. In its wake came the Great Depression, the ineffable horrors of the Second World War, and the collapse of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, all of which were succeeded in turn by the Sixties social revolution.
Since the inception of the latter, many of its core values have progressively infiltrated the Western cultural mainstream at the expense of the previously mentioned traditional Judeo-Christian ones; and for some this might raise the question: Could a time be coming when the disasters that befell the once glorious Weimar Republic will appear to those of us still alive in the contemporary West to be little more than a dress rehearsal in comparison? For my part, I hope this will not be the case, but needless to say the future's not in my hands.