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Written with lightning speed during the electrifying year of 1968, Peter Gay’s widely-read Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider burst onto the American scene in a tumultuous time. Gay wrote it first as an essay, at the behest of the American historians Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn, and then lengthened the initial eighty-page piece into a short work twice that long. Interleaving the book with new chapters, such as “The Revolt of the Son: The Expressionist Years,” Gay also thickened its psychoanalytic language, pointing out, for example, that “The Hunger for Wholeness” was “a great regression born of a great fear: the fear of modernity.”
When Gay composed the book, he was only four decades removed from the period. Weimar Culture, a term that if one believes Google Ngrams took off with the publication of Gay’s book, was not the history of somewhere else in another time. For Gay, it was, in part, a personal history.
Born in 1923 as Peter Fröhlich, Gay had experienced Weimar as a child and then lived through the subsequent Nazi period as a teenager—before the ravages of the Nazis forced him and his family to flee.
To many of Gay’s readers, the argument implied in the book’s subtitle—”the outsider as insider”—seemed like an allegory of the Jews in interwar Germany. But Gay left out the Jewish luminaries who figure so centrally in our understanding of Weimar today. He referenced the philosopher Theodor Adorno and the intellectual Walter Benjamin only in passing, the religious-philosophical figures of Franz Rosenzweig and Gershon Scholem not at all, and Martin Buber only when Buber commented on the symbolist poet Stefan George, whose pronounced aristocratic sympathies brought him close to conservative circles.
Instead, Gay appropriated the tools of psychoanalysis in order to study culture and politics, with the result that he rendered Weimar Culture as an Oedipal play gone awry. In this interpretation, the revolt of the sons, in the form of a highly experimental, consciously modernist culture, assumed center stage for a short time, only to be followed by an anxiety-filled “Hunger for Wholeness,” and retribution in the form of “The Revenge of the Father.”
When the book appeared in the tumultuous year of 1968, critics disagreed if Gay’s warning was about its rebellious left-wing youth or the illiberal reaction to them. In a highly-charged exchange in the New York Times with the sociologist Nathan Glazer, the first husband of Peter Gay’s wife Ruth, Gay insisted on the latter over the former interpretation.
Gay’s sympathies were clearly with the experimenters, especially those in the center and on the left. Perhaps as a result, his brief sketch of Weimar culture also obscured something that is of crucial importance to more recent interpretations. And this is that when we take in the broad arc of literary and artistic work of the Weimar Republic, the output of the nationalist right was nearly as significant, at least in numerical terms, as the output of the more cosmopolitan left.
Weimar culture was not a long “Left March,” to borrow the title of Mayakovsky’s famous poem of 1917, which was then rejected by the right. Rather, it consistently exhibited a great deal of energy on both sides, left and right. As a phrase evoking a polarized moment in time, “Weimar Culture,” thanks to Peter Gay, became shorthand for other eras of extreme political conflict.
At first glance, it may still seem as if Weimar can serve as a distant mirror for our own bifurcated times. And not a few pundits and scholars have drawn the direct comparison.
Yet a deeper look shows the mirror to be distorted. For in the view of many recent historians, it was Weimar’s polarized culture—of novels, plays, films, historical works, philosophical meditations—that sharply divided Germany’s radicals from its conservatives.
No such division between left and right disturbs the staid halls of academia today. Nor does this division disrupt the social scene of edgy intellectual gatherings or spoil the atmosphere of outré art galleries. Even in the conservative world of think tanks, one finds caustic critics of the far right, such as Richard Kagan, but few commentators willing to publicly support a nativist or ultra-conservative agenda.
Unlike in Weimar, the extreme right in the U.S. has ceded the intellectual high ground, and has retreated to the well-trodden, low-lying terrain of mass-media manipulation, widespread voter repression, and headless adoration of a man whose only promise, even now, is to keep them in power. The abortive, last-ditch “1776 Commission” is a case in point. No serious historians—après-la-lettre Wilhelm Abels, Otto Brunners, or Theodor Schieders—lined up to give cover to that hollow display of faux patriotism. Likewise, no latter-day Carl Schmitts, Ernst Jüngers, or Martin Heideggers will be coming to the philosophical rescue of Trumpism (even if Steve Bannon wishes it were so).
The new understanding of Weimar, in which both left-wing and right-wing intellectuals play major roles, has unfolded over the last four decades. Among historians, the main issue has been whether Weimar Culture should be explained with a view towards 1933, and the Nazi seizure of power, or appreciated on its own merits, or understood in terms of the Great War, and seen as a society working out a collective trauma.
Gay saw Weimar as a play in three acts (outsider-insider-outsider again) with a clear terminus. Regardless of the many times, Weimar Chancellors ran the government with emergence decrees, the drama of the Weimar Republic clearly ended on January 30, 1933. For Gay, that was a hard line, and its importance was not up for discussion—not for the 45-year-old author of Weimar Culture, and not for the older scholar less agitated by the tumultuous events of 1968.
Among the letters Gay fired off in the last years before his death in 2015 was one excoriating the editor of a volume on German history that included a chapter on politics in the twenties and thirties that blurred the line between the two political forms in its title, “Dictatorship and Democracy, 1918-1939.” Yet Gay’s sense of the absolute divide between Weimar and the Nazi era also harbored a methodological difficulty of its own. For only the historian, not the actors in time, knew that the curtain would unequivocally fall in 1933. Some had premonitions, but most did not, and certainly no one thought, wrote or created with that endpoint in mind.
A second interpretation, prominently advanced by Detlev Peukert in The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, first published in German in 1987, saw Weimar Culture as an expression of the contradictions of the age of modernity, which the author dated in its concentrated form to the period between 1900 and 1930.
A brilliant young German scholar who died of AIDS in 1990, the year that Germany was reunified, Peukert summoned the spirit of critical historicism (the idea, as Leopold von Ranke formulated it, that every epoch has its relation to God), and interpreted the period in terms of its tensions, and not with an eye on the clock. After all, the actors of the time do not know when their time will be up.
Yet Peukert was no simple historicist either. Peukert’s concept of “classical modernity” led him to see Weimar as an experimental field. During the Weimar period, various breakthroughs of modern scholarship, science, art, music, and literature, as well as social politics and technical innovation, played themselves out—before falling into extreme contradiction and crisis, not in 1933 but already in 1930. As the Great Depression shut down possibilities, Weimar Germany cut back on social experimentation, dismantling its welfare state, and drifted into authoritarianism.
If Gay tended to write from Weimar’s future, and Peukert focused on how contemporaries understood it, more recent interpretations emphasize the weight of Weimar’s past. Some see in “the Great War” the momentous, structuring event of the Weimar Republic. If Hegel had once said that the abiding philosophical question was how to justify the slaughter bench of history, then the great question of Weimar was, how to explain and give meaning to what was then the single most destructive war Germany had ever fought.
In works ranging from Anton Kaes’s Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War to Helmuth Kiesel’s 2017 Geschichte der deutschsprachigen Literatur von 1918 bis 1933—this current of interpretation sees Weimar not as a dance on the edge of a volcano, nor as a promising if contradictory experiment, but rather as a postwar society working through the immense destruction of World War I. And in that working out, the serious figures on the right, like the novelists Ernst Jünger and Ernst von Salomon (whose Die Geächtete, “The Outlawed,” glorified the youthful rebellious life of thugs in Germany’s Free Corps units), or the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, were every bit as crucial as exuberant figures on the left, like the painters Otto Dix and George Grosz, or the writers Heinrich Mann and Erich Maria Remarque.
The new view is also different in that it approaches Weimar culture from a more modest vantage. Gay had wandered among the peaks, trekking, as it were, from one great work, like Thomas Mann’s novel, The Magic Mountain, to the next. In contrast, the purveyors of the new interpretation more willingly trudge through the plateaus of less-read works of first-rate authors, like Joseph Roth’s Spinnennetz (“Spider Web”), which chronicles the career of Theodore Lohse, a lower-middle-class social climber who embraces radical nationalism and political anti-Semitism to ensure his acceptance in middle-class circles; or Lionel Feuchtwanger’s Erfolg (“Success”), which offers a prescient if a coded description of Hitler and the NSDAP before the Beer Hall Putsch.
The scholars behind the new way of looking at Weimar even hiked around in the vast, uneven landscape of the nearly 5,000 professional writers (some 800 of them women), who made up the totality of Weimar’s authors in 1925. We are thus led to works unfairly overlooked, such as Vicky Baum’s novel Feme, which delves into the underworld of right-wing murder (Baum is best known in America, where she emigrated, for writing the novel that became the basis of the film Grand Hotel).
This is not the Weimar Peter Gay depicted, or is it Weimar culture as essentially an inner-Jewish dialogue, as the historian George Mosse once put it, “leaning over his lectern,” as if to impart a secret. It is also not the Weimar of the cultural left—of Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, and the satirist Kurt Tucholsky. It is, instead, a Weimar that takes cognizance of the less-star-studded players and the less success-crowned works. It is also a Weimar that has taken in the right as an integral strand of Weimar’s wider modernist spirit, including controversial novelists like Arnolt Bronnen and Hanns Heinz Ewers, poets like Stefan George (who had always belonged to the canon of early Weimar), and intellectuals like Gottfried Benn (whose right drift would come later). In many ways, this new Weimar is both fuller and truer to Weimar’s wide arc of thinking, political and non-political, left and right.
The vanishing point of the tableau, to borrow a term from painting, has also changed—less fixed by its traumatic end, which the actors could not know, and less governed by an overarching interpretation of modernity. Rather, the altered vanishing point recognizes the shaping force of the traumatic war that preceded Weimar. It grants that the literature of both the left and the right offered plausible answers to the main problem of the era: how to understand, justify, and narrate the tremendously destructive maw of modern, mechanized warfare. And it reveals that even in cultural terms, National Socialism was not a bolt from the blue.
It would be too much to say that the Weimar Republic fell to Nazism because of its bifurcated culture. But the high culture of Weimar was not a supporting pillar of democracy either. Instead, Weimar’s polarized culture reinforced the destructive energy of its increasingly polarized politics.
Helmut Walser Smith is a historian of modern Germany, Professor of German Studies and Martha Rivers Ingram Chair of History at Vanderbilt University.