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Weimar Culture

The Weimar Republic, despite economic and political problems, was one of the most fertile grounds for the modern arts and sciences. Berlin, in particular, became a thriving centre of many new art movements. The Bauhaus school near Weimar, moreover, revolutionized architecture, and the theatres in Berlin and Frankfurt led to a revolution on stage. Great film companies made German cinema one of the most notable in the world (a position it never again achieved). Leading composers of atonal music taught and heard their works first performed in Weimar Germany. George Grosz painted satire in its most bitter ways.

The Frankfurt Institute for Social Research developed theories inspired by a synthesis of Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis that have proven highly influential in twentieth-century thought. In addition to that, the Weimar Republic “inherited” excellent universities and science centres from the Wilhelmine period. Gottingen was the world’s most famous centre for physics, and German was the international language in physics and chemistry. Albert Einstein lived and taught in Berlin. Much of Weimar culture showed great interest in the United States, and historians have spoken of an “Americanization” of German culture during the Weimar years.

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But it was much less an influence through American artists as through a perceived “American” way of life that seemed exceedingly modern to Weimar’s artists and thinkers. The assembly line technique (developed in the American auto industry), the skyscraper, and styles of American mass consumption and advertisement seemed the epitome of modernity to Weimar artists. They adapted some American forms but often used them critically and creatively. In addition to the importance of American patterns, one can discern a strong influence of Russian modernism on Weimar culture.

The posters, graphics, and architecture of the young Soviet Union to many Weimar artists seemed to represent the manifestations of a new and more humane world. Many of the rich developments in the arts and sciences also had their origins in prewar Germany, but the Weimar Republic let them rise to centre stage and became identified with them. This was a mixed blessing, however, since a broad segment of the public in Germany (as elsewhere) saw the new trends in culture and saw them as a threat to civilization and an offence to good taste.

Anti-republicanism and anti-modernism often joined in the minds of conservative university faculty, church representatives, and conservative journalists. To the right, Weimar Culture confirmed the image of a hedonistic, amoral, and degenerate society. That many leading artists associated with the Communist Party (which was fashionable in intellectual circles all over Europe) or with other forms of socialism branded the new trends as doubly dangerous. (In fact, the German Communist Party welcomed much of this artist help and featured avant-garde theatre and film in its propaganda. The strong representation of Jews in the new artistic currents underscored rightist critique of a “Jew Republic. ” When the Nazis came to power most of the exponents of Weimar culture had to emigrate. Hitler declared many of its currents as “degenerate” art. The public book burning organized by Goebbels in 1933 condemned modernist thought and writing by Jews and non-Jews. The unique activity of German Jews, on which much of the advanced art and science had thrived, came to an end. Many physicists, social scientists, film directors, and writers emigrated to the United States, which thus inherited Weimar culture.


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