Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dreaming of great tomorrows

At a time when the real historical relationship between liberalism and fascism has become more than somewhat muddled (h/t), Eric Hobsbawm, at the LRB, remembers Weimar, that short-lived republic that has been far more loved in retrospect than during its own time. (Well, you know, some relationships are just like that.)

What, looking back, was so characteristic about the culture of a shortlived German republic that nobody had really wanted and most Germans accepted as faute de mieux at best? Every German had lived through three cataclysmic experiences: the Great War; the genuine, if abortive German revolution which overthrew the defeated Kaiser’s regime; and the Great Inflation of 1923, a brief manmade catastrophe that suddenly made money valueless. The political right, traditionalist, anti-semitic, authoritarian and deeply entrenched in the institutions carried over from the Kaiser’s Reich (I still remember the title of Theodor Plivier’s 1932 book, The Kaiser Went, the Generals Remained), refused the republic totally. It regarded Weimar as illegitimate, the Versailles Treaty as an undeserved national shame, and aimed at getting rid of both of them as soon as possible.

But almost all Germans, including the Communists, were passionately against Versailles and the foreign occupiers. I can still recall as a child seeing from the train the French flag flying on Rhineland fortresses, with a curious sense that this was somehow unnatural. Being both English and Jewish (I was ‘der Engländer’ at school) I was not tempted into the German nationalism of my schoolfriends, let alone into Nazism, but I could well understand the appeal of both to German boys. As Weitz shows, the authoritarian right was always the main danger both politically and, through their persistent and popular hostility to ‘Kulturbolschewismus’, culturally.

Among other things, he reminds us of what was lost.

This was the last time Germany was at the centre of modernity and Western thought. It might have held out better if the Weimar Republic had been followed not by Hitler’s wrecking crew but by a more traditional reactionary government. Yet in retrospect this option was as unreal as was the prospect of stopping Hitler’s rise by a comprehensive anti-Fascist union. The fact is that no one, right, left or centre, got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism, a movement of a kind that had not been seen before and whose aims were rationally unimaginable. Not even his intended victims fully recognised the danger. After the summer election of 1932 which left the Nazis as much the largest party, but short of a majority, the (Jewish) editor of the Tagebuch, a left-liberal weekly we took at home, published an article whose headline struck me even then as suicidal. I still see it before me: ‘Lasst ihn heran!’ (‘Why not let him in!’) A few months later, with very different intentions, the reactionaries around the aged President Hindenburg manoeuvred Hitler into office thinking that he could be controlled.

All attempts to make the Weimar Republic look more firmly established and stable, even before the world economic cataclysm broke its back, are historical whistling in the dark. It moved briefly through the debris of a dead but unburied past towards a sudden but expected end and an unknown future. For our parents it promised only an unrecoverable past, while we dreamed of great tomorrows; my ‘Aryan’ schoolmates in the form of a national rebirth, Communists like myself, as the universal revolution initiated in October 1917.

Among other things, a reminder to be careful about the dreams we dream.

(Recently, I pointed to the German interview that Hobsbawm mentions and translated a few passages.)


Ario said...

Great conclusion.

I can well imagine it was a very strange time to be alive in. Thanks for pointing this ignoramus into Hobsbawm's direction - I had only briefly glanced his name in bookshops before.

Some of the greatest German literature originates in this period (Zauberberg, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Brecht, and a whole bunch of other poets, writers and playwrights). As hinted at above, this literature was - in line with the society that brought it forth - decidedly modern and innovative. Perhaps with Germany constantly tottering on the precipe that is no surprise and a devil may care attitude may have prevailed.

Still, what I also find interesting about that period is how Thomas Mann changed his attitude to Weimar from being staunchly opposed to becoming a fervent (and solitary and doomed) supporter of it. It may have been a quirk of history, but Weimar still managed to inspire some of the good and great at the time.

Daniel Owen said...

Good stuff. Fuck liberals. ;)

J. Carter Wood said...

Ario: To be honest, I wish I knew that German literature much better than I do.

However, your views on it make sense to me.

In some ways, I think it's odd how 'Weimar' has come to be associated almost exclusively with the (very interesting and often inspiring) intellectual elite it created to the exclusion of the majority of Germans who, it seems, were not all that enthused about it. Out in the provinces, all that Cabaret-style Modernism didn't seem to go over all that well...

Daniel: short but pithy.

Phil Ochs once said: "In every political community there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects. Ten degrees to the left of centre in good times. Ten degrees to the right of centre if it effects them personally.'

Thanks for stopping by.

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Will said...

This bit is untrue:

"The fact is that no one, right, left or centre, got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism, a movement of a kind that had not been seen before and whose aims were rationally unimaginable."

See "Economy and class structure of German fascism" by Alfred Sohn-Rethel:

First published in the very early days of Nazi power. He got it long before the Stalinist scumbags did -- whether or not the Stalinist filth were bothered either way is another question...

Of course -- there is also the seminal work by Franz Neuman -- one of the oldest books on National Socialism and someone else who 'got it'-- "Behemoth -- the Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944."

Another one who "got it" -- long before any other bugger was Harold Laski -- see his "Where Do We Go From Here", Penguin special Essay.

Then of course, in Italy we have Gramsci -- he fucking well 'got it' alright -- in the fucking neck.

All of those authors and thinkers 'got it' long before, and prior to, liberals and other reformist idiots and filth of any stripe. Stalinist pricks didn't care to take note of course. Hobsy being one of them.

History repeats itself and all that...

Will (

Will said...

hr Kommentar wurde gespeichert und wird nach der Bestätigung durch Blog-Eigentümer sichtbar.

fucking hell -- come here Rommel! You bounder! I want to smack you in the chops.

I am sorry but your manoeuvre has been placed in moderation and we may get back to you later!

J. Carter Wood said...

Good points all, though one could argue, I suppose, that these exceptions prove the rule of Hobsbawm's point.

And I suppose that there were more than a few KPD members who fought the Nazis and were 'Stalinists' themselves, though perhaps I'm a bit more willing to give them a break than you are.

Hobsbawm included, even if I don't agree with all of what he says.

You might also have noticed, Englander, that the war is over. Rommel hasn't worked here for years.


The Plump said...

that these exceptions prove the rule of Hobsbawm's point

Can I just point out that exceptions don't prove a rule, they disprove it.

J. Carter Wood said...

Of course you may.

I had, however, used the expression not as a logical proof but as a common colloquialism of some antiquity which means something like the following: 'the examples you have provided may be true, but they are exceptional instances, and as a result of their very exceptionality do not harm -- and may even be seen to bolster -- the rule-likeness of the generalisation being made'.

But the version I used is a bit more efficient, word-wise.

At least that's the way I learned the mother tongue.

Anonymous said...

It's 'prove' as in 'test'. Like 100% proof.

Elias cottoned on to it in 1933 as well: according to Mennell (ISTR), when the Nazis were on the brink of power, he turned up at his local SPD branch and advised them to arm themselves. Then he left the country.

But had EH written 'Nearly everyone', I'd agree entirely. Pretty much everyone, from commie to Junker, eventually got the Hitler they'd dreaded, not the Hitler they hoped for.

Anonymous said...

oops - that last anonym was Chris Williams

J. Carter Wood said...


That's excellent: and good advice it was. Who says sociology is useless.

What's the cite?