The Man Who Tried to Whistle Against an Ocean: Kurt Tucholsky (1890–1935)

Ingar Solty on the formidable legacy of Kurt Tucholsky…

German authors, especially from the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, are usually quite well known in the Anglophone world. This is particularly the case with regard to English-speaking socialists, given that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were German and that, before German fascism came to power in 1933, the German labor movement had been the strongest worldwide.

Early 20th-century German authors like Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, and Anna Seghers therefore have a high currency and enjoy an ongoing interest in the U.S., the U.K. and beyond, especially now that the global financial crisis has led to the global rise of the far right which bears eerie similarities with the inter-war period, energizing a return to that time’s anti-fascist authors for guidance in the historic moment we are in.

In Germany itself, one of the key authors of the period was Kurt Tucholsky. The man with the unpronounceable Slavic name is surprisingly unknown and unacknowledged in the Anglophone world, even though he ranks among the most cited and best-loved German authors to this day.

And few could know who he was, because the few translated works of his that do exist, such as the bestselling novella Castle Gripsholm, 2 his magnificent Deutschland, Deutschland über alles picture book (published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1972), 3 and the selected Satirical Writings, 4 which are essentially identical with the edited volume Germany? Germany!, 5 are long out of print (helped in this, I must admit, by my buying as many copies as I could in order to distribute them among my York University comrades). This year (2020), the 130th anniversary of Tucholsky’s birth and 85th anniversary of his death, is a good time to remember him and to promote new translations of his work.

German author Kurt Tucholsky (right) with his siblings, 1904. Source Richard von Soldenhoff: “Kurt Tucholsky 1890 – 1935”. Image via Wikiemedia.

In order to introduce Kurt Tucholsky, let us begin with a few superlatives: Tucholsky ranked among the best-paid critics during Germany’s short-lived Weimar Republic (1918–33). Even now, his wit – always political, usually funny, often sarcastic, sometimes cynical, frequently melancholic, and increasingly embittered – is unmatched in German-speaking countries.

Through the decades, authors have attempted to emulate it but never succeeded. Tucholsky created thousands of bonmots. And until today, his humor – sometimes undermining the ruling class with one swipe, sometimes plain silly – creates the sentiment captured by one of his books’ titles: Learn to Laugh Without Crying (1931).

Allegedly the shortest book in the world is the Comprehensive Book of German Humor. Kurt Tucholsky was living proof that Germans can actually be amusing. Some of his texts are legendary: as evidenced by most scholarly conferences, millions of academics have undoubtedly followed his “Advice for a Bad Speaker” (GW8: 290–292 and 1967: 109–111); tens of thousands of people have followed his “Creed of the Bourgeoisie” (GW6: 251–254 and 1990: 48–50), while millions of workers and traitors to their class of origin found solace and comfort in his ceaseless mockery of it, both petit et grand. Furthermore, billions of dog-hating people have found solace and comfort in his “Treatise on the Dog, As Well as On Noise and Sound” (GW5: 324–35), while tens of thousands must have been buried while someone read Tucholsky’s poem “Last Ride” (1967: 147–151).

At the same time, Tucholsky was one of the most service-oriented writers ever to emerge from the German mother tongue, advising his readers on “How to Travel Wrong” (1967: 49–53), how to do a “Crossword Puzzle by Force” (1967: 84–88), how to master the “Four Ways of Looking at a Squirrel” (1967: 112–115), and “How to Behave Yourself If You’re a Murderer” (GW6: 68–70). And Tucholsky, the journalist, not only mustered the courage to ask the hard questions including “Do You Use a Bathing Thermometer?” (GW4: 538–540), but also provided answers to eternal questions such as “What Do Women Do Before Going Out?” (1967: 105–106), “What Do Humans Do When They Are All Alone?” (GW4: 513–515), “Where Do the Holes in the Cheese Come From?” (GW6: 210–213), and “What Does the Inventor of the Zipper Look Like?” (GW6: 265–267). And Tucholsky’s journalistic skills and networks stretched so far that he could report on those alien life forms from Mars who observed planet Earth, observed the soldiers marching in unison, and then concluded “with absolute certainty: ‘There may be life on earth. But human beings – no, there are no human beings’” (1972: 6).

In fact, Tucholsky was a formidable humanist and occasional moralist and his observations of the neuroses, follies, and weaknesses of alienated human beings and the various classes and class fractions they belonged to – for instance in his “Pictures from Business Life” (GW3: 490–495), his Herr Wendriner stories, or his poems on relationships such as “Every Night after Six o’clock” (GW6: 469–471), “After the Happy Ending” (1967: 214–215), and “Marital Quarrel” (GW6: 48–49) – rival the work of supreme sociologists, while his mastery of the German language is almost unrivaled.

In short, Tucholsky was most likely the best stylist ever to write in German. Still today, millions of German-speaking authors try and emulate Tucholsky’s style but they always fail. Even the best contemporary left-wing stylists – Hermann L. Gremliza, Georg Fülberth, Otto Köhler, Stefanie Sargnagel, etc. – never quite reach it. And therefore it is no wonder that thousands of Tucholsky revues – including tunes that Hanns Eisler and other composers wrote on the basis of his many poems – take place all over Germany every year. The semi-annual programs of the Berlin Ensemble, Brecht’s old theater in East Berlin, for instance, are never complete without sold-out Kurt Tucholsky evenings.

 

Tucholsky in Paris, 1928. Photo by Sonja Thomassen

So who was Kurt Tucholsky? In 1926 he wrote: “As far as I can remember, on 9 January 1890 I was born in Berlin as an employee of [the weekly magazine] Weltbühne. According to [the daily newspaper] ‘Miesbacher Anzeiger,’ my ancestors still sat on trees and picked their noses. I myself am living quietly and peacefully in Paris, play ‘Schafkopf’ with Doumergue and Briand for half an hour every day after lunch, which I find not hard to do, and in this life I only have one small wish: to one day see the roles of German political prisoners and their judges inverted” (GW4: 304–305).

The brilliant stylist Alex Cockburn once recalled that during job interviews he would ask all his prospective interns the question: “Is your hate pure?” Allegedly, former Labour party leader Ed Miliband’s answer to that question was a stutter followed by the words “I don’t hate anyone!” Which was, according to Cockburn, all you needed to know about the son of the famous Marxist scholar. In contrast to Ed Miliband, Tucholsky’s love for the popular masses was so strong that his hatred for the ruling classes was infinite. Born into an upwardly mobile, bourgeois Jewish family, Tucholsky despised his class and its petty lifestyle and reactionary politics, and persecuted it ceaselessly with passionate mockery.

And yes, Tucholsky loved and hated the country into which he was born – the country whose left cherished his articles with overwhelming devotion and whose right hated them so much that he had to fear for his life; the country that he eventually had to flee; the country which publicly burned his books on 10 May 1933 alongside those of Marx, Brecht, and others and then blacklisted him and his works; the country which took away his citizenship; the country which would have industrially exterminated him, if he had not already died in Swedish exile long before the creation of the Nazis’ extermination camps.

Tucholsky wrote that he and his four pseudonyms “hated that particular Germany which has the audacity to present itself as the real Original Germany but which is merely a bad caricature of an outdated Prussianism,” i.e. an authoritarian militarist state of capitalist class domination full of servile people.

Tucholsky wrote what George Grosz painted and what John Heartfield photographed. The three artists were united in their uncompromising hatred of class exploitation, authoritarianism, militarism, chauvinism, and anti-Semitic racism. And what they condemned the most was the overpowering opportunism of the upwardly mobile petty bourgeoisie – “Some men’s career,” he rhymed, “goes strictly through the rear” (1967: 199) – which turned towards the far Right when its hardships during the hyperinflation of 1923 and the Great Depression of 1929 led to its downward mobility and to social de-classing.

In Tucholsky’s view, there was no such thing as a German nation, but there were “Two Nations,” two Germanies, like in Benjamin Disraeli or John Dos Passos. On the one hand, there was the progressive working-class Germany and on the other hand there existed the bourgeoisie leading the forces of counterrevolution with the reactionary petty bourgeoisie trailing behind (GW3: 253–255). And Tucholsky therefore claimed Germany for the left. In his mesmerizing annotated picture book Deutschland, Deutschland über alles – published with John Heartfield montages – Tucholsky had scandalized the militarism, chauvinism, racism, social injustices, and inequalities on hundreds of pages of newspaper clippings with his poignant commentary, but then came to the following conclusion:

We called this book “Deutschland über alles” as a joke – such a foolish line from a big-mouthed poem. No, Germany doesn’t count above all and isn’t over all – never. But let our land be inclusive of all. And let the book’s closing confession stand here: Yes, we love this land. And now I want to tell you something: Those who call themselves nationalists and are really only bourgeois militarists don’t have an exclusive lease on this land and its language. That’s not true. Neither the member of the government in his morning coat, nor the professor, nor the ladies and gentlemen of the Stahlhelm make up Germany by themselves. We’re here too. – They open their mouths wide and yell, “In Germany’s name … ” They yell, “We love our country and we’re the only ones who love it.” It isn’t true. We’ll let anyone who wants to, outdo us in patriotism. Our feelings are international. But no one can outdo us in our love of home – not even those who have registered the country in their name. It’s ours. …  The flags are nothing to us – but we love the land. And we, who were born here, who write and speak better German than most of the nationalist asses, have the same right to our country as the nationalist organizations that drum up marchers along the roads. With the very same right, we take possession of stream and forests, beach and house, clearing and meadow: it is our land. Because we love Germany, we have the right to hate it. When others speak of Germany, they must take us into account: the communists, the young socialists, the pacifists, and the lovers of freedom of all degrees; they have to think of us, when they think, Germany … ” (1972: 225)

Ingar Solty is a political writer focusing on issues in international political economy, sociology and political aesthetics. You can read the full article online at Socialism and Democracy, or order the print version (cheaper) from the same website.

Notes

2 Tucholsky, Kurt. 1985. Castle Gripsholm. Trans. Michael Hofmann (New York: The Overlook Press).

3 Tucholsky, Kurt. 1972. Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. Trans. Anne Halley (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press).

4 Tucholsky, Kurt. 1967. What if – ? Satirical Writings of Kurt Tucholsky. Trans. Harry Zohn and Karl F. Ross (New York: Funk & Wagnalls).

5 Tucholsky, Kurt. 1990. Germany? Germany! The Kurt Tucholsky Reader. Ed. Harry Zohn (Manchester: Carcanet).