What’s Past is Pure, What’s New is Better

NOV 17, 2010

Weimar Culture and the Historical Context of The Blue Flower

by Jim Bauer

Weimar, the fragile German experiment in democracy after World War I, became a classic and singularly tragic confrontation between traditionalists and modernists, conservatives and liberals; between those who believe that what is past is pure and those who believe that what is new is better.

By and large, events from the early part of the twentieth century lie hidden in the long, deep shadows cast by Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. Like a three-legged colossus, they stand so large in the middle of the century that it is difficult to see past them. But it is only by peering into those shadows that one can see how the twentieth century took shape and how the twenty-first may yet be sculpted.

We have always lived and, it seems, will always continue to live in or between two wars: whichever the last one was and whatever the next one will be. The years of the Weimar Republic in Germany, from the end of World War I in 1918 to the Nazi takeover in 1933, constituted another of our worlds between two wars. But the wars were not just any two, and the second followed the first with barely a breath between.

Almost immediately after concluding what was at the time the most destructive war in history—nearly ten million dead and the trenches never moved more than ten miles in either direction—the wheels began turning for a new war that would break yet again all records for atrocity.

The poisoned gases of the First World War never really cleared before the Second World War began. By some reckoning, World War I was not finally concluded until 1994, when the last Russian soldiers left German soil. By another calculation, The Great War was not the “war to end all wars” as Woodrow Wilson had hoped, but the “war that never ended.”

At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are still rearranging the debris and alternately dressing and salting the wounds created by the war and the Versailles Treaty that concluded it. It’s this treaty Islamic extremists allude to when saying that after eighty years, the axe will finally come down on the west.

The fact that it was so recent is all that keeps the Weimar period from seeming mythological. In the short-lived world between the last century’s two giant wars, the most highly charged aspects of human experience were tightly compressed into a dense and haunting emotional package. Stunned by the sudden growth in destructive capabilities made possible by new technology, and reflecting grimly on what they had done, people—particularly those on the losing side of a particularly pointless war—were justified in feeling confused about most anything.

Through valid institutions and legitimate societies we had behaved in the most indecent ways imaginable. How were we to judge and who was to say now what was decent and what was not? The Great War had mugged the world and disfigured the planet, leaving empty trenches like jagged scars across its face. Every rule had been broken, and the slate wiped brutally, if unintentionally, clean. There was no choice left but to begin again, and, in the minds of many, to begin by inventing a whole new set of rules.

In the beginning of the Weimar period, ballast for heavy grief and suffocating remorse was provided by a weightless sense of relief, a buoyant feeling of optimism. There was a burst of creativity, a sense of freedom, adventure and open horizons, a feeling that the world could be made anew. The Weimar spirit was driven in part by the possibility and thrill of creating things instead of destroying them, building them up instead of tearing them down.

Geographical borders and sexual boundaries were redrawn, social roles redefined, and little remained constant from one day to the next. In Germany, Jews could hold public office for the first time, and people were allowed to vote, even women. Art, architecture, literature, music, dance, theater and film exploded with new theories and excitement. Everything was in question, everything fair game, and at every turn lay opportunities for reinventing the world, from Russian-style communism to Gropius’ Bauhaus to Schoenberg’s tone rows.

But Weimar was also a world fractured into many pieces and deeply divided: outwardly blooming with hope but inwardly trembling with fear of and gnawing doubts about the horrors of the past and the shadows those horrors cast on an un- certain future.

With a demagnetized compass and a broken rudder, society swirled freely about in a political, economic and cultural maelstrom until Hitler, wasting little time and with a keen eye for opportunity, found a way to make things appear simple.

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