Dancing On The Volcano

Alexander Wells profiles some of the best history books about Weimar Berlin…

The contemporary mythos of Berlin is deeply infused with the more glamorous aspects of the Weimar era—its sexual and cultural efflorescence, its innovative commercial spirit, the rollercoaster thrills associated with rapid urbanisation. But the era is also, of course, darkly inscribed with the gradual rise to power of the Nazis.

Hence the aptness of the “dancing on the volcano” metaphor, which was first used as a film title in 1938, and has been churned out ever since to describe this unique period of dynamism, disappointment and, ultimately, disaster.

From sexual liberation to cultural avant-gardism, from the emergence of “the new woman” to the rise of radio and television, from the idealistic yet fragile origins of Weimar democracy to the establishment of fascist rule, interwar Berlin is generally seen as a time and place with something relevant to say about the pressures and contradictions of our own time, and about modernity in general.

The period has long been a source of fascination for artists, tourists and Wahlberliner*innen alike; historians, too, have eagerly set about excavating Weimar Berlin to understand its various contradictions, aiming to connect seemingly disparate spheres of politics and culture while adding nuance and drama to some of the most popular local myths and legends.

The list below contains a small selection of history books intended for the general reader: some include material beyond Berlin or outside of the the interwar period, but the fascinating, short-lived puzzle that was Weimar Berlin stands at the centre of each.

Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: Outsider as Insider

“What [Bauhaus founder Walter] Gropius taught, and what most Germans did not want to learn, was the lesson of Bacon and Descartes and the Enlightenment: that one must confront the world and dominate it, that the cure for the ills of modernity is more, and the right kind of modernity.”

Perhaps the most famous account of Weimar Germany, Peter Gay’s landmark book is less a cultural history and more a personal effort to capture the essence of the “Weimar culture” that flourished in a few major cities of interwar Germany—chiefly Berlin—before being crushed by the Nazis or forced into exile. Gay, himself born in Germany in 1923, made a stellar career as an historian after fleeing to the USA; his loyalty to Weimar’s intellectual exiles is clear, and the book is informed by conversations he had with Hannah Arendt and Walter Gropius among others.

The culture he describes is deeply creative, gleefully avant-garde, typically leftwing and often Jewish—and, he argues, either naive or misguided in matters of politics. Historians have drifted away from Gay’s account for a number of reasons, including his psychoanalytical approach and narrow focus on high culture; one might also hesitate over his determination to blame a diverse group of public intellectuals (Rilke, Thomas Mann, Heidegger among them) for preparing the path to fascism through their “anti-rational tendencies”. Nonetheless, Weimar Culture is a memorable and thought-provoking account of Weimar Berlin’s intellectual life, written with great style and vim.

Eric Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise as Tragedy

Weimars glow has lasted these many decades since its demise. We are drawn to the Greek tragedy of its history—the star-crossed birth, the conflicted life, the utter disaster as the curtain falls. And like a Greek tragedy, Weimar causes us to ponder the meaning of human action—the striving for something new and wonderful encountering absolute evil, well-meaning ineptitude alongside the recklessness of those who should have known to be more careful.”

“Weimar was Berlin, Berlin Weimar,” writes the American historian Eric Weitz in his historical survey of interwar Germany. That equation doesn’t make for the most representative portrait of the Weimar Republic in general, but it is very much to the benefit of local readers. Indeed, Weitz’s book goes into great detail while conjuring Weimar Berlin as a “cacophony of sounds, a dazzle of images”; he also insightfully connects artistic and intellectual developments with the city’s various social environments, particularly the experience of mass urban life.

Weimar’s intellectuals, as Weitz makes clear, were not just geniuses in vacuo but were responding to a fragile, tense and complicated society, not to mention the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation that so shaped Berlin life. From theatre, film and photography to the science and politics of sexual liberation, Weitz captures the “striving for something new and wonderful” that was defeated by the “absolute evil” of antidemocratic, rightwing extremists. For all the title’s talk of tragedy, Weitz’s emphasis here is squarely on the promise: he succeeds in producing an inspiring portrait of Weimar Berlin’s leading intellectuals and their achievements.

Rainer Metzger, Berlin: The Twenties (2007/2017)

“The experience of the metropolis is a key influence. The form of expression becomes urbane, jargon retreats, the attitude is ironic and the corresponding mentality is cosmopolitan. Getting hot under the collar is out, coolness is in. The term for all this is supplied by an exhibition staged in 1925 at the Mannheim Kunsthalle, in the heart of the provinces that were now at last taking the capital as their model: Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)…”

This photo-and-text book by German art historian Rainer Metzger is a treat for the eyes, and a welcome counterpart to more formal scholarly treatments of Weimar Berlin culture. In lively prose, Metzger provides a brisk museum-guide tour of the main artists and movements—from Max Reinhardt to Bertolt Brecht, Expressionism and Dada to New Objectivity—that coalesced and flourished in interwar Berlin; he also includes some interesting lesser-known characters like Jeanne Mammen, whose paintings were a regular fixture in the city’s liberal magazines.

The text is paired with myriad photographs of local street life, of artists and artworks, and of prominent Weimar personalities. Altogether, Berlin: The Twenties offers an enjoyable immersion into the visual landmarks of a highly visual society. You can even choose between the 400-page long version published by Thames & Hudson, or a smaller 86-page primer from Taschen.

Robert Beachy, Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (2014)

“[T]he homosexual species’ took root in Germany after the mid-nineteenth century through the collaboration of Berlins medical scientists and sexual minorities. This confluence of biological determinism and subjective expressions of sexual personhood was a uniquely German phenomenon, moreover, and it clearly underpins modern conceptions of sexual orientation.”

Weimar Berlin is closely associated with sexual liberation, particularly for gay men, thanks in part to prominent visitors like Christopher Isherwood and to the well-cultivated LGBTQ+ heritage of areas like Nollendorfplatz. This thoughtful account of Berlin’s gay (mostly male) history, by American historian Robert Beachy, provides a deeper historical context to the mythology and folklore. Beachy begins his account in the late 19th century, arguing that the efflorescence of the Weimar years finds its deeper roots in the earlier Imperial period.

To this end, he analyses early gay activists like Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) and the relationship between homosexual subcultures and the Imperial police, as well as the steps leading to the founding of Magnus Hirschfeld’s highly influential Institute of Sexual Science in 1919, before finally taking on the complexities of the Weimar period. With his focus closely on Berlin itself—in particular its geographies and social networks—Beachy describes the various worlds of local politics, science, publishing, and subculture, ultimately making the case for the city’s central role in the development of homosexual identity worldwide.

Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947)

“What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psycho­logical dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness.”

Siegfried Kracauer may be best known as a towering intellectual figure of the postwar period (a friend and colleague of Adorno et al), but during the Weimar years he had already proven himself to be a talented feuilletonist and a significant film critic. Kracauer, who was Jewish, fled the Nazis to Paris (then later New York) in 1933.

In 1947, he wrote his own history of film during the period 1922-1931. There he analysed classics like Metropolis and The Blue Angel alongside original research into production and reception histories to probe at the unconscious desires, motivations and fantasies that characterised Germans between the wars. Readers will decide to what extent they like this highly psychoanalytical approach, but From Caligari to Hitler is certainly a classic of film history. Much more than a book about movies, it’s a critical portrait of the age those movies sprung from, and of the city where a great majority of them were made.

Jonathan Wipplinger, The Jazz Republic: Music, Race and American Culture in Weimar (2017)

“The construction of Weimar Germany as jazz republic did not proceed smoothly, let alone uniformly. Between jazzs entrance after the war, Alfred Lions seemingly chance encounter with Sam Wooding, and Theodor Adornos unfinished opera much changed. Yet one thing held fast throughout the period: jazzs association with the modernism and political travails of the new German democracy born in 1919 out of military defeat and revolution following World War I.”

Music—particularly jazz music—has long been an icon of the taboo-breaking, progressive cultural life of Weimar Berlin. In this very readable scholarly work, U.S. Germanist Jonathan Wipplinger narrates the history of jazz throughout interwar Germany, paying particularly attention to the multifaceted role of race and (Black) American culture in the major cities.

Expanding beyond the jazz genre itself, Wipplinger also uses the literary and musical translations of work by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes to explore the “fertile exchange” that took place between Jewish German, non-Jewish Germans and Black Americans. Debates about the U.S. influence on Germany tend to generate more heat than light, even in today’s discourse; a truly positive take can be found in Wipplinger’s considered, insightful, intersectional book.

Peter Jelavich, Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film, and the Death of Weimar Culture (2006)

“This is, in short, a cautionary tale about how fear of outspoken right-wing politicians can cause cultural production to be curbed and eventually eliminated as a critical counterforce to politics – all in the name of ‘entertainment’.”

If accounts of Weimar Berlin often favour a dichotomy between “good culture” and “bad politics”, they also tend to treat those things separately: here, the avant-garde spirit of the ’20s; there, the rightwing antidemocratic takeover. Princeton historian Peter Jelavich sets out in this book to show the points of conflict and collision between the two, and ultimately the latter’s outright repression of the former. Through his multipronged case study of three different versions of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz – 1929 novel, 1930 radio play, 1931 sound film – Jelavich conjures a dispiriting image of how Weimar culture “died” from a combination of economic problems, rightwing political pressure (including censorship), and Nazi intimidation, all of which was aimed at making artists depoliticise their work.

His underlying argument is that the leftwing experimental culture of Weimar Berlin was “largely defunct” by 1931, two years before Hitler’s accession to power. That might seem like quibbling, but Jelavich argues well that it is important to understand how it was not in a fascist state that “visions were effaced and voices were silenced”, but in an apparently functioning democracy.

Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (2003)

Understanding how and why the Nazis came to power is as important today as it ever was, perhaps, as memory fades, even more so. We need to get into the minds of the Nazis themselves. We need to discover why their opponents failed to stop them. We need to grasp the nature and operation of the Nazi dictatorship once it was established.”

With his elegant prose and strong sense for narrative, the British historian Richard J. Evans has become a near-household name for his general-interest books about the Nazis (the taste among British readers for such work is seemingly limitless). This, the first in his “Third Reich” trilogy, investigates whether Nazi ideology—and eventual rule—can be traced back to the 19th century, through the First World War, and to the “bitter postwar years” of the Weimar Republic.

Berlin is, naturally, a prominent setting for the story, and the Nazis’ rise to power is narrated with nuance and insight. Throughout, Evans is at pains to avoid the kind of teleological thinking that gave rise to the ‘Sonderweg theory’—that Germans’ particular history, or their ‘special character’, made the Nazi triumph “merely the realization of the inevitable”.

Jason Lutes, Berlin (2018)

Communists, socialists, nationalists, democrats, republicans, criminals, beggars, thieves, and everything in between. All mixed up together.”

Jason Lutes’s epic graphic novel—gradually released in three separate books, but recently collected into one (and now available on paperback from Drawn & Quarterly)—is one of the most unconventional portraits of Weimar Berlin available to modern readers: it may also be one of the most powerful. While the story is fictional, the characters and setting are closely based on real historical research; the aesthetics, too, were constructed using contemporary photographs and journalistic accounts.

Curiously, U.S.-born Lutes had never been to Germany when he began this 20-year magnum opus, which was inspired by a coincidental encounter with a book on Bertolt Brecht. Thanks to his voluminous research, however, he has successfully integrated a broad panorama of politics, class and gender identity into his visual portrait of interwar Berlin.

Wildcard: Weimar Berlin through the eyes of feuilletonists and flâneurs

And so the Kurfürstendamm stretches out endlessly day and night. Also, its being renovated. These two facts need to be emphasised, because of the way its continually ceding particles of its true self to its designated cultural-historical role. Even though it never stops being a major traffic artery”, it still feels as though it werent a means to an end but, in all its length, an end in itself.” – Joseph Roth

If newspapers can be said to be the “first draft of history”, then an early glimpse into Weimar Berlin can be gleaned from that era’s feuilletons—short-form literary sketches of city life that were commonly published in local papers at the time. Some of Weimar Berlin’s most compelling primary texts come from its celebrated flâneurs and feuilletonists. The philosopher Walter Benjamin has long been associated with this kind of walking-around-literature, and his reflections on the topic have proven highly influential in the context of understanding urban experience.

“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much,” he wrote in his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900. “But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.” Benjamin was inspired by his contemporary Franz Hessel, whose memorable city snapshots were recently collected in English as A Flâneur in Berlin. Another fine practitioner of the form – one whose writing tended to be grittier, more often drawn to Berlin’s undersides and margins – was Joseph Roth, author of the novel Radetzky March, whose remarkable collection What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933 was released in English translation in 2004.

A Note On Weimar Fiction

“The street steamed with excitement. Large election posters hung everywhere. Young people in uniforms with sticks on their shoulders marched by. Big words boomed: Down with Capitalism!”—“For German Freedom!” But behind this big brouhaha was everyones gnawing worry: whether they could keep their place—big or small— and hold on to their station in life.“ – Gabriele Tergit, Käsebier Takes Berlin

The Weimar years were a golden age for fiction writing in Berlin. Hans Fallada, Alfred Döblin and Erich Kästner are already well known to international readers; so too is Vicky Baum, author of Menschen im Hotel (Grand Hotel, 1929) and later a Hollywood screenwriter. But ever more gems are being unearthed from the period – particularly works by female authors. Irmgard Keun’s Das kunstseidene Mädchen (The Artificial Silk Girl, 1932) has won countless admirers in the decade since its English-language re-release.

Another rediscovered treasure is Käsebier erobert den Kurfürstendamm (Käsebier Takes Berlin, 1932), a tragicomic novel by court reporter-turned-novelist Gabriele Tergit, which was published in Sophie Duvernoy’s superb English translation last year. Here Tergit weaves a multicoloured portrait of Weimar Berlin—its melancholy intellectuals, its crassly commercialised culture industry, its fever-pitch passion for real estate and money—all through the rise and fall of a much-hyped folksy songwriter named Käsebier (“Cheese-Beer”).

And A Note On Notable Others…

Naturally, there are many other fine works on Weimar Berlin. Another fine historical survey is The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity by the radical German historian Detlev Peukert, which locates the fall of Weimar democracy amid the conflicts and contradictions of urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation; Peukert also draws interesting lines of continuity between the Nazis and the Weimar society they ostensibly abhorred.

Robert Gerwath’s November 1918 explores the consequences of Germany’s failed socialist revolution. Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the Twenties offers a vivid, gossip-rich account of the period also covered by Metzger. Meanwhile, Norman Page’s Isherwood and Auden: The Berlin Years uses the life and work of those two authors to illuminate the life of the city that inspired them both.

A different biographical approach, one that hews closer to the protagonist in question, is employed by Thomas Levenson’s Einstein in Berlin, which explores Berlin’s postwar cultural and scientific renaissance through the eyes of one of its most reluctant poster boys (Einstein lived in Berlin from 1914 to 1932). Finally, Mel Gordon’s entertaining Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin, is slightly too lurid and sensational for this particular round-up; a vast number of high-quality academic titles miss out for more or less the opposite reason.