Modern history



The conflicts that rent Weimar were more than merely political or economic. Their visceral quality derived much from the fact that they were not just fought out in parliaments and elections, but permeated every aspect of life. Indifference to politics was hardly a characteristic of the German the years leading up to the Third Reich. People arguably suffered from an excess of political engagement and political commitment. One indication of this could be found in the extremely high turnout rates at elections - no less than 80 per cent of the electorate in most contests.108 Elections met with none of the indifference that is allegedly the sign of a mature democracy. On the contrary, during election campaigns in many parts of Germany every spare inch of outside walls and advertising columns seemed to be covered with posters, every window hung with banners, every building festooned with the colours of one political party or another. This went far beyond the sense of duty that was said by some to have driven voters to the polls in prewar years. There seemed to be no area of society or politics that was immune from politicization.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the press. No fewer than 4,700 newspapers appeared in Germany in the year 1932, 70 per cent of them on a daily basis. Many of them were local, with a small circulation, but some of them, like the liberal Frankfurt Newspaper (Frankfurter Zeitung), were major broadsheets with an international reputation. Such organs formed only a small part of the politically oriented press, which together made up about a quarter of all newspapers. Nearly three-quarters of the politically oriented papers owed their allegiance to the Centre Party or its equivalent in the south, the Bavarian People’s Party, or to the Social Democrats.109 The political parties set great store by their daily papers. Forwards (Vorwärts) for the Social Democrats, and the Red Flag (Rote Fahne) for the Communists were key parts of their respective parties’ propaganda apparatus, and headed up an elaborate structure of weekly magazines, local newspapers, glossy illustrated periodicals and specialist publications. A newspaper propaganda organizer like the Communist press chief Willi Münzenberg could win an almost mythical reputation as a creator and manipulator of the media.110 At the opposite end of the political spectrum, an equally legendary status was occupied by Alfred Hugenberg, who as chairman of the board of the arms manufacturer Krupps had purchased the Scherl newspaper firm in 1916. Two years later, he also acquired a major news agency through which he supplied large sections of the press with stories and leading articles during the Weimar years. By the late 1920s Hugenberg had in addition become owner of the mammoth film production company, the UFA. Hugenberg used his media empire to propagate his own, virulently German nationalist ideas across the land, and to spread the message that it was time for a restoration of the monarchy. Such was his reputation that by the end of the 1920s he was being referred to as the ‘uncrowned king’ of Germany and ‘one of the most powerful men’ in the land.111

Yet, whatever people thought, media power of this kind did not translate directly into political power. Hugenberg’s domination of the media had absolutely no effect in stopping the relentless decline of the Nationalists after 1914. Political papers in general had small circulations: in 1929, for instance, the Red Flag sold 28,000 copies a day, Forwards 74,000 a day, and Hugenberg’s The Day (Der Tag) just over 70,000. These were not impressive figures by any stretch of the imagination. Moreover, sales of the Red Flagdropped to 15,000 just as the Communist vote was beginning to increase in the early 1930s. Overall, the circulation of the overtly political press fell by nearly a third between 1925 and 1932. The up-market liberal quality dailies also lost circulation.112TheFrankfurt Newspaper, probably the most prestigious of the liberal quality dailies, slipped from 100,000 in 1915 to 71,000 in 1928. As newspaper editors realized only too well, many readers of the pro-Weimar liberal press voted for parties that were opposed to Weimar. The political power of editors and proprietors seemed limited here, too.113

What was undermining the political press in the 1920s was, above all, the rise of the so-called ‘boulevard papers’, cheap, sensational tabloids that were sold on the streets, particularly in the afternoons and evenings, rather than depending on regular subscribers. Heavily illustrated, with massive coverage of sport, cinema, local news, crime, scandal and sensation, these papers placed the emphasis on entertainment rather than information. Yet they, too, could have a political orientation, like Hugenberg’s Night Edition (Nachtausgabe), whose circulation grew from 38,000 in 1925 to 202,000 in 1930, or Münzenberg’s World in the Evening (Welt am Abend), which boosted its sales from 12,000 in 1925 to 220,000 in 1930. By and large, the pro-Weimar press found it hard to keep up with such competition, though the liberal-oriented Ullstein press empire did produce the successful Tempo (145,000 in 1930) and BZ at Midday (BZ am Mittag, 175,000 in the same year). The Social Democrats were unable to compete in this market.114 It was at this level that the politics of the press had a real impact. Scandal-sheets undermined the Republic with their sensational exposure of real or imagined financial wrongdoings on the part of pro-Republic politicians; illustrations could convey the contrast with Imperial days. The massive publicity the popular press gave to murder trials and police investigations created the impression of a society drowning in a wave of violent crime. Out in the provinces, ostensibly unpolitical local papers, often fed by right-wing press agencies, had a similar, if more muted effect. Hugenberg’s press empire might not have saved the Nationalists from decline; but its constant harping on the iniquities of the Republic was another factor in weakening Weimar’s legitimacy and convincing people that something else was needed in its stead. In the end, therefore, the press did have some effect in swaying the minds of voters, above all in influencing them in a general way against Weimar democracy.115

The emergence of the sensationalist popular press was only one among many new and, for some people, disquieting developments on the media and cultural scene in the 1920s and early 1930s. Experimental literature, the ‘concrete poetry’ of the Dadaists, the modernist novels of Alfred Döblin, the social-critical plays of Bertolt Brecht, the biting polemical journalism of Kurt Tucholsky and Carl von Ossietzky, all divided readers between a minority who rose to the challenge of the new, and the majority who regarded such work as ‘cultural Bolshevism’. Alongside the vibrant radical literary culture of Berlin there was another literary world, appealing to the conservative nationalist part of the middle classes, rooted in nostalgia for the lost Bismarckian past and prophesying its return with the longed-for collapse of the Weimar Republic. Particularly popular was Oswald Spengler’s The Fall of the West, which divided human history into natural cycles of spring, summer, autumn and winter, and located early twentieth-century Germany in the winter phase, characterized by ‘tendencies of an irreligious and unmetaphysical urban cosmopolitanism‘, in which art had suffered a ‘preponderance of foreign art-forms’.

In politics, according to Spengler, winter was recognizable by the rule of the inorganic, cosmopolitan masses and the collapse of established state forms. Spengler won many adherents with his claim that this heralded the beginning of an imminent transition to a new spring, that would be ‘agricultural-intuitive’ and ruled by an ‘organic structure of political existence‘, leading to the ’mighty creations of an awakening, dream-laden soul’.116 Other writers gave the coming period of revival a new name that was soon to be taken up with enthusiasm by the radical right: the Third Reich. This concept was popularized by the neo-conservative writer Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, whose book of this title was published in 1923. The ideal of the Reich had arisen, he proclaimed, with Charlemagne and been resurrected under Bismarck: it was the opposite of the government by party that characterized the Weimar Republic. At present, he wrote, the Third Reich was a dream: it would require a nationalist revolution to make it reality. The political parties that divided Germany would then be swept away. When the Third Reich finally came, it would encompass all political and social groupings in a national revival. It would restore the continuity of German history, recreating its medieval glory; it would be the ‘final Reich’ of all.117 Other writers, such as the jurist Edgar Jung, took up this concept and advocated a ‘conservative revolution’ that would bring about ‘the Third Reich’ in the near future.118

Below this level of somewhat rarified abstraction were many other writers who in one way or another glorified the alleged virtues that, in their view, the Weimar Republic negated. The ex-army officer Ernst Jünger propagated the myth of 1914, and in his popular book Storm of Steel exalted the image of the front-line troops who had found their true being only in the exercise of violence and the suffering, and inflicting, of pain.119 The Free Corps spawned a whole canon of novels celebrating the veterans’ hatred of revolutionaries, often expressed in blood-curdling terms, portraying murder and mayhem as the ultimate expression of a resentful masculinity in search of revenge for the collapse of 1918 and the coming of revolution and democracy.120 In place of the feeble compromises of parliamentary democracy, authors such as these, and many others, proclaimed the need for strong leadership, ruthless, uncompromising, hard, willing to strike down the enemies of the nation without compunction.121 Others looked back to an idyllic rural world in which the complexities and ‘decadence’ of modern urban life were wholly absent, as in Adolf Bartels’s novel The Dithmarshers, which had sold over 200,000 copies by 1928.122

All of this expressed a widespread sense of cultural crisis, and not just among conservative elites. Of course, many aspects of modernist culture and the media had already been in evidence before the war. Avant-garde art had impinged on the public consciousness with the work of Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, August Macke or Emil Nolde, and abstract painters such as the Russian-born but Munich-based Wassily Kandinsky. Atonal and expressionist music was emanating from the Second Viennese school of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Zemlinsky, while sexually explicit drama in the form of plays such as Spring’s Awakening by Frank Wedekind had already caused a major furore. There had been constant disputes under the Wilhelmine Reich about the limits of propriety in literature and the threat posed by allegedly unpatriotic and subversive, or pornographic and immoral books, many of which were subject to bans imposed by the police.123

The sense of cultural crisis which the emergence of modernist art and culture generated amongst the middle classes after the turn of the century was held in check under the Wilhelmine regime, and in its more extreme forms remained confined to a small minority. After 1918, however, it became far more widespread. The ending, or at least the scaling-down, of the censorship that had been so harsh during the war and always active during the Wilhelmine period, encouraged the media to venture into areas that had previously been taboo. The theatre became the vehicle for radical experimentation and left-wing agitprop.124 Cheaper reproduction and printing techniques made it easier to publish inexpensive illustrated papers and magazines for the mass market. Controversy swirled in particular around Weimar’s Bauhaus, created by the architect Walter Gropius in a merger of the Weimar Art Academy and the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts. An educational centre that sought to join high art with practical design, its staff included Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Schlemmer, Paul Klee, Theo van Doesberg, and László Moholy-Nagy. Its bohemian students, both male and female, were unpopular with the townspeople, and its radically simple, clean and ultra-modern designs were condemned by local politicians as owing more to the art-forms of primitive races than to anything German. State funding was withdrawn in 1924 and the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, but it continued to be dogged by controversy, especially under its new director, Hannes Meyer, whose Communist sympathies led in 1930 to his replacement by the architect Mies van der Rohe. Mies expelled the Communist students and replaced the Bauhaus’s earlier communitarian ethos with a more structured, even authoritarian regime. But the Nazi majority elected to the town council in November 1931 closed it down following an official inspection by Paul Schulze-Naumburg, the ultra-conservative author of a book on Art and Race. It then moved to a factory site in Berlin, but from this time on was no more than a shadow of its former self. The fate of the Bauhaus illustrated how difficult it was for avant-garde culture to receive official acceptance even in the culturally relaxed atmosphere of the Weimar Republic.125

New means of communication added to the sense of old cultural values under threat. Radio first began to make a real mark as a popular cultural institution during this period: a million listeners had registered by 1926, and another 3 million by 1932, and the airwaves were open to a wide variety of opinion, including the left. Cinemas had already opened in the larger towns before 1914, and by the late 1920s films were attracting mass audiences which increased still further with the coming of the talkies at the end of the decade. A sense of aesthetic disorientation was prompted amongst many cultural conservatives by Expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with its famously odd-angled sets, and by erotically charged movies like Pandora’s Box, starring the American actress Louise Brooks. A sharp satire on bourgeois convention such as The Blue Angel, based on a book by Heinrich Mann and starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, ran into trouble with its production company, Hugenberg’s UFA, not least for its portrayal of the cynical and manipulative eroticism of its central female character.126 The film of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front aroused a furious campaign on the part of ultra-nationalists who thought its pacifist message unpatriotic.127

Bourgeois culture had held up bland ideals of beauty, spiritual elevation and artistic purity that seemed mocked by the manifestations of Dada, while the ‘New Objectivity’ (Neue Sachlichkeit, literally ‘new matter-offactness’) placed everyday events and objects at the centre in an attempt to aestheticize modern urban life. This was not to everyone’s taste. Instead of losing themselves in portentous thoughts inspired by the mythical world of Wagner’s Ring cycle or the ritual religious music-drama of Parsifal, dress-suited bourgeois opera-goers were now confronted with the Kroll Opera’s production of Paul Hindemith’s News of the Day, in which a naked diva sang an aria sitting in a bathtub. Alongside the mellifluous Late Romanticism of Germany’s leading establishment composer, Richard Strauss, formerly an enfant terrible but now the composer of slight and emotionally undemanding operas such as Intermezzo and The Egyptian Helena, audiences were now treated to Alban Berg’s Expressionist masterpiece Wozzeck, set among the poor and downtrodden of the early nineteenth century and incorporating atonal music and everyday speech patterns. The conservative composer Hans Pfitzner struck a chord when he denounced such tendencies as symptoms of national degeneracy, and ascribed them to Jewish influences and cultural Bolshevism. The German musical tradition, he thundered, had to be protected from such threats, which were made more acute by the Prussian government’s appointment in 1925 of the Austrian-Jewish atonalist Arnold Schoenberg to teach composition at the state music academy in Berlin. Musical life was central to bourgeois identity in Germany, more, probably, than in any other European country: such developments struck at its very core.128

An even greater threat, in this view, was posed by the American influence of jazz, which found its way into works such as The Threepenny Opera, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht. A caustic denunciation of exploitation set in a world of thieves and criminals, it sent shock waves through the cultural world on its first performance in 1928; a similar effect was produced by Ernst Krenek’s Jonny Strikes Up, which was premiered in February 1927 and featured a black musician as its protagonist. Many modernist composers found jazz a stimulus to renewing their art. It was, of course, principally a popular art form, played in various styles at myriad night-clubs and bars, above all in Berlin, shading off into dance-halls, revue theatres and hotels. Visiting big bands and chorus lines such as the Tiller Girls enlivened the Berlin scene, while the more daring could spend an evening at a club such as the Eldorado, ‘a supermarket of eroticism’, as the popular composer Friedrich Hollaender called it, and watch Anita Berber perform pornographic dances with names such as ‘Cocaine’ and ‘Morphium’ to an audience liberally sprinkled with transvestites and homosexuals, until her early death in 1928 from drug abuse. Cabaret shows added to all this an element of biting, anti-authoritarian political satire and aroused pompous conservatives to anger with their jokes about the ‘nationalist and religious sentiments and practices of Christians and Germans’, as one of them angrily complained. The wrath of conventional moralists was aroused by dances such as the tango, the foxtrot and the charleston, while racist rhetoric was directed against black musicians (though there were very few of them and most were employed mainly as drummers or dancers, to lend a flavour of the exotic to the performance).

The leading music critic Alfred Einstein called jazz ‘the most disgusting treason against all occidental civilized music’, while Hans Pfitzner, in a vitriolic attack on the Frankfurt Conservatory for including jazz on its curriculum, railed against its supposed primitivism as a product of what he called ‘nigger blood’, the ‘musical expression of Americanism’.129 Jazz and swing seemed to be the crest of a wave of cultural Americanization, in which such widely differing phenomena as Charlie Chaplin films and the modern industrial methods of ‘Fordism’ and ’Taylorism’ were viewed by some as a threat to Germany’s supposedly historic identity. Mass production held out the prospect of mass consumption, with the great department stores offering an astonishing variety of international goods, while foreign-owned chain-stores such as Woolworth’s put at least some of them within the grasp of the ordinary working-class family. Mass housing schemes and designs for modern living challenged the conservative ideal of folk-based style and aroused fierce debate. For cultural critics on the right, the influence of America, symbol par excellence of modernity, signified a pressing need to resurrect the German way of living, German traditions, German ties to blood and soil.130

Older Germans in particular felt alienated, not least by the new atmosphere of cultural and sexual freedom that followed the end of official censorship and police controls in 1918 and was epitomized for many by the nightclubs of Berlin. One army officer, born in 1878, later recalled:

Returning home, we no longer found an honest German people, but a mob stirred up by its lowest instincts. Whatever virtues were once found among the Germans seemed to have sunk once and for all into the muddy flood ... Promiscuity, shamelessness and corruption ruled supreme. German women seemed to have forgotten their German ways. German men seemed to have forgotten their sense of honour and honesty. Jewish writers and the Jewish press could ‘go to town’ with impunity, dragging everything into the dirt.131

The feeling that order and discipline had been swept away by the Revolution, and that moral and sexual degeneracy were taking over society, was to be found on the left as well as on the right. Social Democrats and Communists often took a rather puritanical view of personal relationships, putting political commitment and self-sacrifice above personal fulfilment, and many were shocked by the openly hedonistic culture of many young people in Berlin and elsewhere during the ‘Roaring Twenties’. The commercialization of leisure, in the cinema, the tabloid press, the dance-hall and the radio, was alienating many young people from the sterner, more traditional values of labour movement culture.132

The sexual freedom evidently enjoyed by the young in the big cities was a particular source of disapproval in the older generation. Here, too, there had been harbingers before the war. The rise of a large and vociferous feminist movement had accustomed the public and the press to women speaking out on all kinds of issues, occupying at least some positions of responsibility, and making their own way in the world. On ‘International Proletarian Women’s Day’, 8 March, the bigger cities saw annual demonstrations in the streets for women’s suffrage from 1910 onwards, with even middle-class feminists staging a procession, albeit in carriages, in 19 I 2. Alongside the eventually successful campaign for female suffrage came, if only from a minority of feminists, demands for sexual fulfilment, equal rights for unmarried mothers and the provision of free contraceptive advice. The ideas of Freud, with their tendency to ascribe sexual motives to human actions and desires, were already being discussed before the war.133 Berlin in particular, as it grew rapidly to the size and status of a cosmopolitan metropolis, had already become the centre for a variety of social and sexual subcultures, including a thriving gay and lesbian scene.134

Critics linked these trends to what they saw as the looming decline of the family, caused principally by the growing economic independence of women. The rapid emergence of a service sector in the economy, with its new employment possibilities for women, from sales positions in the great department stores to secretarial work in the booming office world (driven by the powerful feminizing influence of the typewriter), created new forms of exploitation but also gave increasing numbers of young, unmarried women a financial and social independence they had not enjoyed before. This became even more marked after 1918, when there were 11.5 million women at work, making up 36 per cent of the working population. Although this was by no means a dramatic change from the situation before the war, many of them were now in publicly conspicuous jobs such as tram-conducting, serving in department stores, or, even if it was only a handful, in the legal, university and medical professions. 135 Increased female competition for male jobs, and a more general fear among nationalists that Germany’s strength was being sapped by the birth rate decline that set in around the turn of the century, merged with wider cultural anxieties to produce a backlash that was already becoming evident before 1914.136There was a discernible crisis of masculinity in Germany before the war, as nationalists and Pan-Germans began to clamour for women’s return to home and family in order to fulfil their destiny of producing and educating more children for the nation. The sharpness of the reaction to the feminist challenge meant that the feminists were forced onto the defensive, began to marginalize their more radical supporters and increasingly stressed their impeccably nationalist credentials and their desire not to go too far with their demands for change.137

After 1918, women were enfranchised and able to vote and stand for election at every level from local councils up to the Reichstag. They were formally given the right to enter the major professions, and the part they played in public life was far more prominent than it had been before the war. Correspondingly, the hostility of those male supremacists who believed that women’s place was in the home now won a much wider hearing. Their disapproval was reinforced by the far more open display of sexuality than before the war in the liberated atmosphere of the big cities. Even more shocking to conservatives was the public campaigning for gay rights by individuals such as Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the harmless-sounding Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, in 1897. In fact, Hirschfeld was openly homosexual, and in numerous publications propagated the controversial idea that homosexuals were a ‘third sex’ whose orientation was the product of congenital rather than environmental factors. His Committee was dedicated to the abolition of Paragraph 175 of the Reich Criminal Code, which outlawed ’indecent activity’ between adult males. What aroused the wrath of conservatives was the fact that in 1919 the Social Democratic state government of Prussia gave Hirschfeld a large grant to convert his informal Committee into a state-funded Institute for Sexual Science, with its premises in the grand Tiergarten district in the centre of the capital city. The Institute offered sex counselling, held popular question-and-answer sessions on topics like ‘what is the best way to have sex without making a baby?’ and campaigned for the reform of all the laws regulating sexual behaviour. Hirschfeld quickly built up a wide range of international contacts, organized in the World League for Sexual Reform, of which his Institute was the effective headquarters in the 1920s. He was the. driving force behind the spread of public and private birth control and sex counselling clinics in the Weimar Republic. Not surprisingly, he was repeatedly vilified by the Nationalists and the Nazis, whose attempt to tighten up the law still further, with the support of the Centre Party, was narrowly defeated by the votes of the Communists, Social Democrats and Democrats on the Criminal Law Reform Committee of the Reichstag in 1929.138

Nationalist hostility was driven by more than crude moral conservatism. Germany had lost 2 million men in the war, and yet the birth rate was still in rapid decline. Between 1900 and 1925, live births per thousand married women under the age of 45 fell very sharply indeed, from 280 to 146. Laws restricting the sale of condoms were eased in 1927, and by the early 1930s there were more than 1,600 vending machines in public places, with one Berlin firm alone producing 25 million condoms a year. Sex counselling centres were opened, offering contraceptive advice, and many of these, like Hirschfeld’s Institute, were funded or in some cases actually operated by the Prussian and other regional governments, to the outrage of moral conservatives. Abortion was far more controversial, not least because of the serious medical risks it entailed, but here, too, the law was relaxed, and the offence reduced in 1927 from a felony to a misdemeanour. The thundering denunciation of birth control by the Papal Encyclical Casti Connubii in December 1930 added fuel to the flames of debate, and in 1931 some 1,500 rallies and demonstrations were held in a massive Communist campaign against the evils of backstreet abortions.139

To many people, such campaigns seemed part of a deliberate plot to destroy the fertility and fecundity of the German race. Was it not, conservatives and radical nationalists asked, all the consequence of female emancipation and the morally subversive advocacy of sexuality untrammelled by any desire to procreate? To nationalists, the feminists seemed to be little better than national traitors for encouraging women to work outside the home. Yet the feminists themselves were scarcely less alarmed by the new atmosphere of sexual liberation. Most of them had castigated the double standard of sexual morality - freedom for men, purity for women - before the war, and advocated instead a single standard of sexual restraint for both sexes. Their puritanism, expressed in campaigns against pornographic books and sexually explicit films and paintings, and in denunciations of young women who preferred dance-halls to reading-groups, seemed ridiculous to many women amongst the younger generation, and by the late 1920s the traditional feminist organizations, already deprived of their principal cause by the achievement of female suffrage, were complaining of an ageing membership and a failing appeal to the young.140 Feminism was on the defensive, and the middle-class women who were the mainstay of its support were deserting their traditional liberal milieu for parties of the right. The feminist movement felt the need to defend itself against charges of undermining the German race by insisting on its support for nationalist revision of the Treaty of Versailles, for rearmament, for family values and for sexual self-restraint. As time was to show, the appeal of right-wing extremism to women proved no less potent than it was to men.141


Young people, and especially adolescent boys, were already developing a distinctive cultural style of their own before the First World War. A key role in this was played by the ‘youth movement’, a disparate but rapidly growing collection of informal clubs and societies that focused on activities such as hiking, communing with nature and singing folk songs and patriotic verses while sitting around camp fires. Of course, all the political parties attempted to recruit young people, particularly after 1918, by providing them with their own organizations - the Bismarck Youth for the Nationalists, for example - or the Windthorst League for the Centre Party - but what was striking about the youth movement in general was its independence from formal political institutions, often combined with a contempt for what its leading figures saw as the moral compromises and dishonesties of adult political life. The movement fostered a distrust of modern culture, city life and formal political institutions. Many if not most youth groups wore paramilitary uniforms along the lines of the Boy Scouts, and were more than tinged with antisemitism, often refusing to admit Jews to their ranks. Some underlined the need for moral purity, and rejected smoking, drinking or liaisons with girls. Others, as we have seen, were male supremacist. Even if the responsibility of the youth movement for paving the way for Nazism has been exaggerated by historians, the overwhelming majority of the independent youth organizations were still hostile to the Republic and its politicians, nationalist in outlook and militaristic in character and aspirations.142

The influence of the youth movement, which was at its strongest in the Protestant middle class, was scarcely countered by the impact of the educational system on young Germans. ‘The whole lot of high school pupils are nationalistic,’ reported Victor Klemperer in 1925. ‘They learn it thus from the teachers.’143 But the situation was perhaps a little more complicated than he imagined. Under the Wilhelmine Reich, the Kaiser’s personal influence was exercised in favour of displacing liberal traditions of German education, based on classical models, with patriotic lessons focusing on German history and the German language. By 1914 many teachers were nationalist, conservative and monarchist in outlook, while textbooks and lessons pursued very much the same kind of political line. But a sizeable minority also held to a variety of opinions on the liberal centre and left. In the 1920s, moreover, states dominated by the Social Democrats, notably Prussia, made strenuous efforts to persuade the schools to educate their pupils as model citizens loyal to the new Republic’s democratic institutions, and the atmosphere in the school system changed accordingly. Millions of young people emerged from their schooling as convinced Communists or Social Democrats, or gave their allegiance to the Centre Party, besides the other millions who adhered to conservative views or the politics of the radical right. In the end, neither those teachers who were liberal or Social Democratic nor those who were conservative and monarchist seem to have exercised much influence on the political views of their pupils, and many of their political ideas were dismissed by their charges as lacking in any relevance to what they perceived as the daily realities of life under the Weimar Republic. For young men who subsequently became Nazis, the beginnings of political commitment often lay more in political rebellion against the rigidities of the school system than in the inspiration of Nazi or proto-Nazi teachers. One nationalist school student, born in 1908, remembered that he was always clashing with his teachers ‘because from childhood I have hated slavish submissiveness’; he admitted being politicized by a nationalist teacher, but commented at the same time that his idol’s teaching ‘formed a strong contrast to everything else that was taught in school’; another nursed a long-term grudge against his former school, which had repeatedly punished him for insulting Jewish fellow-students.144

Where the political allegiance of the young to the far right was at its most obvious was in Germany’s universities, many of them famous centres of learning with traditions going back to the Middle Ages. Some leftish professors did manage to secure appointments under the Weimar Republic, but they were few in number. Universities were still elite institutions after the war, and drew almost all their students from the middle classes. Particularly powerful were the student duelling corps, conservative, monarchist and nationalist to a man. Some of them played an active role in the violence that attended the suppression of the revolutionary outbreaks that took place in 1919-21. To neutralize their influence, students in all universities established democratic representative institutions of a sort appropriate to the new Republic early in 1919, the General Student Unions. All students had to belong to these, and were entitled to vote for representatives on their governing bodies.145

The Student Unions formed a national association and began to have some influence in areas such as student welfare and university reform. But they too fell under the influence of the far right. Under the impact of political events, from the final acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the French invasion of the Ruhr in 1923, fresh generations of students streamed into nationalist associations, and flocked to the colours of the traditional student corps. Soon, right-wing slates of candidates were being elected to all the Student Unions, while students’ disillusion with Germany’s new democracy grew as inflation rendered their incomes worthless and overcrowding made conditions in the universities ever more unbearable. Student numbers grew rapidly, from 60,000 in 1914 to 104,000 in 1931, not least under the impact of demographic change. Governments poured money into widening access, and universities became a significant route to upward social mobility for the sons of lower civil servants, small businessmen and even to some extent manual labourers. The financial problems of the Republic forced many students to work their way through university, creating further resentment. Already in 1924, however, the chances of the swelling numbers of graduates finding a place in the job market began to decline; from 1930 they were almost non-existent.146

The vast majority of professors, as their collective public declarations of support for German war aims in 1914-18 had shown, were also strongly nationalist. Many contributed to the right-wing intellectual atmosphere with their lectures denouncing the Peace Settlement of 1919. They added to this with administrative resolutions and decisions attacking what they saw as the threat of ‘racially alien’ Jewish students coming to the university from the east. Many wrote in alarmist terms about the looming prospect (which existed largely in their own imaginations) of whole subject areas in the universities being dominated by Jewish professors, and framed their hiring policy accordingly. In 1923 a massive wave of nationalist outrage swept through German universities when the French occupied the Ruhr, and student groups took an active part in stirring up resistance. Well before the end of the 1920s, the universities had become political hotbeds of the extreme right. A generation of graduates was being created that thought of itself as an elite, as graduates still did in a society where only a very small proportion of the population ever managed to get into university; but an elite that in the wake of the First World War put action above thought, and national pride above abstract learning; an elite to which racism, antisemitism and ideas of German superiority were almost second nature; an elite that was determined to combat the feeble compromises of an over-tolerant liberal democracy with the same toughness that their elders had shown in the First World War.147For such young men, violence seemed a rational response to the disasters that had overtaken Germany. To the most intelligent and highly educated, the older generation of ex-soldiers seemed too emotionally scarred, too disorderly: what was needed was sobriety, planning and utter ruthlessness in the cause of national regeneration.148

All these influences were in the end secondary as far as the majority of these students’ contemporaries were concerned. Far more important to them was the overriding experience of political dislocation, economic privation, war, destruction, civil strife, inflation, national defeat and partial occupation by foreign powers, an experience shared by young people born in the decade or so leading up to the First World War. A young clerk, born in 1911, later wrote:

We were not spared anything. We knew and felt the worries in the house. The shadow of necessity never left our table and made us silent. We were rudely pushed out of our childhood and not shown the right path. The struggle for life got to us early. Misery, shame, hatred, lies, and civil war imprinted themselves on our souls and made us mature early.149

The generation born between the turn of the century and the outbreak of the First World War was indeed a generation of the unconditional, ready for anything; in more than one respect, it was to play a fateful role in the Third Reich.


Weimar’s radically modernist culture was obsessed, to what many middle-class people must have felt was an unhealthy degree, by deviance, murder, atrocity and crime. The graphic drawings of an artist like George Grosz were full of violent scenes of rape and serial sex killers, a theme found in the work of other artists of the day as well. Murderers were central figures in films such as Fritz Lang’s M, plays like Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and novels such as Alfred Döblin’s modernist masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz. The trials of real serial killers like Fritz Haarmann or Peter Kurten, ‘the Düsseldorf vampire’, were nationwide media sensations, with graphic reporting in the press catering to a mass readership that followed every twist and turn of events. Corruption became a central theme even of novels about Berlin written by foreign visitors, as in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains. The criminal became an object of fascination as well as fear, fuelling respectable anxieties about social order and adding to middle-class distaste at the inversion of values that seemed to be at the centre of modernist culture. The huge publicity given to serial killers convinced many, not only that the death penalty had to be rigorously enforced against such ‘bestial’ individuals, but also that censorship needed to be reintroduced to stop their celebration in popular culture and the daily boulevard press.150 Meanwhile the inflation and disorder of the postwar years had seen the emergence of organized crime on a scale almost rivalling that of contemporary Chicago, particularly in Berlin, where the ’ring associations’ of the burgeoning criminal underworld were celebrated in films like M.151

The feeling that crime was out of control was widely shared among those whose job it was to maintain the law and order that so many people thought was now under threat. The entire judicial system of the Wilhelmine period was transported unchanged to the Weimar era; the Civil and Criminal Law Codes were almost entirely unamended, and attempts to liberalize them, for example by abolishing the death penalty, ran into the sands.152 As before, the judiciary was a body of men trained for the judge’s role from the beginning, not (as in England for example) appointed to the judiciary after a relatively long career at the bar. Many judges in office during the 1920s had thus been members of the judiciary for decades, and had imbibed their fundamental values and attitudes in the age of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Their position was strengthened under the Republic, since it was a basic political principle of the new democracy, like others, that the judiciary should be independent of political control, a principle quickly and uncontroversially anchored in Articles 102 and 104 of the constitution. Rather like the army, therefore, the judiciary was able to operate for long stretches of time without any real political interference.153

The judges were all the more independent because the vast majority of them regarded laws promulgated by legislative assemblies rather than by a divinely ordained monarch as no longer neutral but, as the chairman of the German Judges’ Confederation (which represented eight out of the roughly ten thousand German judges) put it, ‘party, class and bastard law... a law of lies’. ‘Where several parties exercise rule,’ he complained, ‘the result is compromise laws. These constitute mishmash laws, they express the cross-purposes of the ruling parties, they make bastard law. All majesty is fallen. The majesty of the law, too.’154 There was some justification, perhaps, in the complaint that the political parties were exploiting the judicial system for their own purposes and creating new laws with a specific political bias. The extreme right- and left-wing parties maintained specific departments devoted to the cynical business of making political capital out of trials, and kept a staff of political lawyers who developed a battery of highly sophisticated and utterly unscrupulous techniques for turning court proceedings into political sensations.155 No doubt this further contributed to discrediting Weimar justice in the eyes of many. Yet the judges themselves, in the altered context of the advent of a parliamentary democracy, could be regarded as exploiting trials for their own political purposes, too. After years, indeed decades, of treating Social Democratic and left-liberal critics of the Kaiser’s government as criminals, judges were unwilling to readjust their attitudes when the political situation changed. Their loyalty was given, not to the new Republic, but to the same abstract ideal of the Reich which their counterparts in the officer corps continued to serve; an ideal built largely on memories of the authoritarian system of the Bismarckian Reich.156 Inevitably, perhaps, in the numerous political trials which arose from the deep political conflicts of the Weimar years, they sided overwhelmingly with those right-wing offenders who claimed also to be acting in the name of this ideal, and cheered on the prosecution of those on the left who did not.

In the mid-1920s the left-wing statistician Emil Julius Gumbel published figures showing that the 22 political murders committed by left-wing offenders from late 1919 to mid-1922 led to 38 convictions, including 10 executions and prison sentences averaging 15 years apiece. By contrast, the 354 political murders which Gumbel reckoned to have been committed by right-wing offenders in the same period led to 24 convictions, no executions at all, and prison sentences averaging a mere 4 months apiece; 23 right-wing murderers who confessed to their crimes were actually acquitted by the courts.157 Of course, these statistics may not have been entirely accurate. And there were frequent amnesties of ‘political prisoners’ agreed on by the extreme parties in the Reichstag with enough support from other political groupings to get them through, so that many political offenders were released only after serving a relatively short time in gaol. But what mattered about the behaviour of the judges was the message it sent to the public, a message bolstered by numerous prosecutions of pacifists, Communists and other people on the left for treason throughout the Weimar years. According to Gumbel, while only 3 2 people had been condemned for treason in the last three peacetime decades of the Bismarckian Reich, over 10,000 warrants were issued for treason in the four - also relatively peaceful - years from the beginning of 1924 to the end of 1927, resulting in 1,071 convictions.158

A substantial number of court cases dealt with people brave enough to expose the secret armaments and manoeuvres of the army in the press. Perhaps the most famous instance was that of the pacifist and left-wing editor Carl von Ossietzky, who was condemned in 1931 to eighteen months’ imprisonment for publishing in his magazine The World Stage (Die Weltbuhne) an article revealing that the German army was training with combat aircraft in Soviet Russia, an act that was illegal according to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.159 Another, equally celebrated case involved the left-wing journalist Felix Fechenbach. His offence, committed in 1919, was to have published Bavarian files from 1914 relating to the outbreak of the First World War, because this had - in the opinion of the court - damaged the interests of Germany in the peace negotiations by suggesting an element of German responsibility. Fechenbach was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment in Munich by a so-called People’s Court, an emergency body set up to dispense summary justice on looters and murderers during the Bavarian Revolution of 1918.160 These had been adapted to deal with ‘treason’ cases during the counter-revolution of the following year. They were not wound up until 1924 despite their outlawing by the Weimar constitution five years previously. The creation of these courts, with their bypassing of the normal legal system, including the absence of any right of appeal against their verdicts, and their implicit ascription of justice to ‘the people’ rather than to the law, set an ominous precedent for the future, and was to be taken up again by the Nazis in 1933.161

In order to try and counter these influences, the Social Democrats managed to push through a Law for the Protection of the Republic in 1922; the resulting State Court was intended to remove the trial of right-wing political offenders from an all-too-sympathetic judiciary and place it in the hands of appointees of the Reich President. The judiciary soon managed to neutralize it, and it had little effect on the overall pattern of verdicts.162 Friedrich Ebert and the Social Democrats, although supposedly committed to opposing the death penalty as a matter of political principle, inserted it into the Law for the Protection of the Republic and gave retrospective approval to summary executions carried out in the civil disorders of the immediate postwar period. In doing so, they made it easier for a future government to introduce similarly draconian laws for the protection of the state, and to confound a central principle of justice - that no punishments should be applied retrospectively to offences which did not carry them at the time they were committed.163 This, too, was a dangerous precedent for the future.

The regular courts had little time for the principles enunciated in the Law for the Protection of the Republic. Judges almost invariably showed leniency towards an accused man if he claimed to have been acting out of patriotic motives, whatever his crime.164 The Kapp putsch of 1920, for instance, led to the condemnation of only one of the participants in this armed attempt to overthrow the legitimately elected government, and even he was sentenced to no more than a brief period of confinement in a fortress because the judges counted his ‘selfless patriotism’ as a mitigating factor.165 In 1923 four men won their appeal to the Reich Court, the old-established supreme judicial authority in the land, against a sentence of three months’ imprisonment each for shouting at a meeting of the Young German Order, a right-wing youth group, in Gotha, the words: ‘We don’t need a Jew-republic, boo to the Jew-republic!’ In its judgment the Reich Court declared somewhat unconvincingly that the meaning of these words was unclear:

They could mean the new legal and social order in Germany, in whose establishment the participation of German and foreign Jews was outstanding. They could also mean the excessive power and the excessive influence that a number of Jews that is small in relation to the total population exercises in reality in the view of large sections of the people ... It has not even been explicitly established that the accused shouted abuse at the constitutionally anchored form of state of the Reich, only that they shouted abuse at the present form of state of the Reich. The possibility of a legal error is thereby not excluded.166

The distinction the Reich Court made between the two kinds of state, and the hint that the Weimar Republic was merely some kind of temporary aberration which was not ‘constitutionally anchored’, demonstrated only too clearly where the judges’ real allegiance lay. Such verdicts could not fail to have an effect. Political and indeed other trials were major events in the Weimar Republic, attended by large numbers of people in the public galleries, reported at length and in parts verbatim in the press, and debated passionately in legislative assemblies, clubs and societies. Verdicts such as these could only give comfort to the far-right opponents of the Republic and help to undermine its legitimacy.

The right-wing and anti-Republican bias of the judiciary was shared by state prosecutors as well. In considering what charges to bring against right-wing offenders, in dealing with pleas, in examining witnesses, even in framing their opening and closing speeches, prosecutors routinely treated nationalist beliefs and intentions as mitigating factors. In these various ways, judges and prosecutors, police, prison governors and warders, legal administrators and law enforcement agents of all kinds undermined the legitimacy of the Republic through their bias in favour of its enemies. Even if they did not deliberately set out to sabotage the new democracy, even if they accepted it for the time being as an unavoidable necessity, the effect of their conduct was to spread the assumption that in some way it did not represent the true essence of the German Reich. Few of them seem to have been convinced democrats or committed to trying to make the Republic work. Where the law and its administrators were against it, what chance did it have?

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