The Weimar Republic was a tumultuous period in German history. It was also one of the most open and artistic periods of German history.
The First World War had ended, and although it was never fought on German soil, the country was still deeply damaged by it. Their Kaiser had abdicated his throne. The new coalition government signed a Treaty that took away from Germany some of its richest resources. The Communists workers unions were attempting their own revolution. And the conservative base was screeching in anger that their government had sold them out to France and Britain under the Treaty of Versailles. It was a time of out of control hyperinflation and a time of out of control rioting.
In the midst of all this upheaval and instability arose the culture of the Weimar. Since the world was going to hell, they thought, we might as well live it up while we can. Cabaret Theater was brought to many cities. They specialized in jazz music, scantily clad dancers, and political satire. They poked fun of all that was the Weimar in an effort to lose themselves for a moment, to forget about the trauma that lay outside the doors of the club.
Bauhaus, a new architectural design style, sought to bring together the diversity of the period…arts and crafts with fine arts, drawing on the past yet moving Germany toward the future. Gropius, Mies, and Meyer led the way in creating a new school of thought on design that’s influence is still seen in our furniture and building projects today.
The German Expressionist artists sought to take us out of this world and the Dadaists sought to protest this world. Artists like George Grosz showed the frenzy of the time period in his works, while Otto Dix’s sketches of World War I highlighted the horrors of war. And Franz Mark produced the colorful horses that would later influence Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) into becoming an artist that all of our children would later cherish.
Marlene Dietrich became a super star with her androgynous suits and her sultry singing voice. Fritz Lang created his Metropolis, the modern tragedy of a city in the future trying to connect the common man to the untouchable industrialists. F.W. Murnau introduced the world to Nosferatu (Dracula) and the story of Die Golum. And Kurt Weill composed his Three Penny Opera with its timeless ballad, Mack the Knife.
It was a brief moment in German history, a period of history that some teachers like to skim over in order to get to the good stuff…the Rise of Hitler. We know that the story of Hitler and the Nazi party are compelling for our students, but in order to understand Hitler’s take over, we must understand the instability and the awesomeness of the Weimar Republic.
The Weimar Republic was open and free. It was a democratic experience that was wrought with political failures, economic pitfalls, and social tragedies. But it was also a time of incredible artistic growth. This period of openness depended on the chaos that surrounded them. And as the Nazi party began to bring economic and domestic stability to the country, the population seemed to no longer need to escape reality or to protest the current state of affairs.
Yet as we know, the 30’s in Germany needed protest. It needed its flamboyant subculture. But sadly German culture went the opposite direction. And that is why so many of the artists, designers, composers, and filmmakers of the Weimar left Germany in the 1930’s. Deemed as “degenerates” or “communists” or “Jews”, these cultural icons had to find solace elsewhere. Those that didn’t leave were persecuted, arrested, or even imprisoned.
So the next time you are making plans to teach the causes of World War II, take a stop off in the Weimar Republic. Your students (the budding writers, singers, artists, architects, designers, and composers) will thank you for it.