As Germany bounced back from World War I, a divinely decadent period of liberal expression and creative freedom blossomed in the struggling Weimar Republic.
But its progressive glamor coupled with a divided government and concerning economics became fertile ground for a cultural backlash and power grab by the Nazi Party.
Art Imitates Lifepizzasplashtumblr/Giphy
It's funny and awesome how often pop culture manages to slip in some history lessons for us.
You might not have realized it: but the classic movie musical "Cabaret" does a remarkably good job slight-of-hand teaching us about tolerance and the Weimar Republic while telling the story of a failed manic pixie cabaret singer and her romantic capers.
Welcome To The Cabaret
Full of catchy, kitschy and seeming camp, "Cabaret" is based off of Christopher Isherwood's "I Am A Camera," written from the jazz clubs and drag queen parties of Wiemar period Germany. "Cabaret" details the saga of effervescent and damaged floozy Sally Bowles, her bi-sexual lover, and their group of German and Jewish friends in Berlin's decadent interwar club-scene.
Originally a play, it was a smash film in 1972 starring Liza Minnelli as Sally, with the choreography of the grandmaster of dance Bob Fosse behind her. It has since had numerous revivals, including an on-going variant with Michelle Williams as Sally and the amazing Alan Cumming in the shoes of the Emcee, played by the fabulous Joel Grey in the clip above.
Pessimistic Care-Free LivingBildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
The 1920s were an odd and exciting time for Germany.
The liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic meant an unprecedented amount of power was in public hands. Cultural expression was at its Bohemian peak as post-World War I Berlin began competing with Paris as the go-to spot for penniless artists, playwrights, and dancers. It was easy to ignore the challenges the new government faced when the glitz and glamor of Germany's art studios and cabarets beckoned...
Bring On The BauhausOtto Umbehr/Albers Foundation/Art Resource, NY
Foremost among the liberal art movements was the Bauhaus school.
With the censorship laws of the old imperial regime removed under the Weimar Republic, the radical artists who traipsed through the Bauhaus were able to experiment wildly, building off of the previously repressed Modernist tendencies that had been lurking down artsy back alleys. They gradually transitioned the new art into the limelight through grand public displays of artistic endeavor, including grand architectural projects and extravagant theater performances.
Freedom DancingBildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Bauhaus was an epicenter of versatile artists whose skills were often multifaceted. Architects became choreographers, dancers became photographers, factory workers became painters. Anything was possible in this new artistic temperament fostered by the period.
The creator of the most popular avante garde performace of the time, the Triadic Ballet--Oksar Schlemmer (1888-1943) was a quintessential Bauhaus artist. He did everything and pitched in wherever he could at the school--training wood craftsmen and sculptors with as much ease as he designed public murals and ballet costumes. His work, like many of his colleagues, focused on the interplay of space between humanity, objects, and architecture.
Art Without JudgementAugust Sander/Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - Archiv
Reveling in the freedom to pursue any project imaginable meant the chance to deconstruct cultural norms and start building an open society. It was a chance for all people to be included and to break down barriers between humanity.
Photographer August Sander (1876-1964) took up the self-imposed challenge of photographing a series entitled "People of the Twentieth Century." Where earlier photographic foci were on the wealthy and accepted social topics, Sander used his freedom during the Weimar period to engage with gypsies, circus folk (like those above), dance hall girls, factory workers, and everyone in-between. He, like many of the denizens of Berlin during the Weimar period didn't see class distinction, religious creed, sexual preference, or any of the other societal categories that had previously marginalized these awesome people.
The Jazz AgeOtto Umbehr/Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Though American in origin, jazz prospered in 1920s Berlin like no other music had before. It was representative of the free-form artistic chaos and energetic freedom of the new Republic and its decadent night-life.
American and French performers like Josephine Baker regularly made appearances in the clubs of Berlin. Frenzied, socially respectable, and a hell of a lot of fun--the night clubs provided the newly democratized Germans with a classless activity that brought everyone together to have a bit of fun.
Sexual LiberationsBildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
And by everyone, they literally meant everyone. In a time period where much of the Western world was struggling with racism and gay rights, Weimar Germany was openly celebrating tolerance and sexual freedom.
Gay night clubs and drag shows were popular playhouses for the gay, straight, and bi alike and for all classes and colors. And it was nightclubs like these and the Eldorado cross-dressing club pictured here that inspired the art movements, gave us the resulting pop culture history in "Cabaret," and started to cause a lot of problems among the close-minded of the German population.
Stirrings Of ConcernBildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Art and expression were flourishing under the new regime, but the regime itself was not faring particularly well. Though a new transportation system had been successfully installed and the emerging art forms were pulling people and money into Germany--often these were only temporary fixes for the crushing post-war debt and hyperinflation the government was struggling to manage.
What's worse, is that once something artistic took off, often it wandered away from Deutschland. The early German film industry produced a bevy of marvelous pieces like Joseph von Sternberg's "The Blue Angel," but they and their emerging stars like the young Marlene Dietrich were immediately snatched away to Hollywood.
A Wake Up CallGiphy/UnknownTumblr/
And when the American stock market crashed in 1929, setting off the Great Depression overseas, Germany was seriously out of luck financially.
Much of its money had been borrowed from the United States, and with them in need of it back, the stability of the Weimar Republic was threatened by other, conservative parties who claimed that they could be handling the government policies on financial matters and freedoms better.
Mass Production of ProblemsBildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
For while the avante garde had bloomed and the urban centers gleamed with the bright lights of night clubs, the rest of the German population was struggling with an identity crisis.
Not only had they just embarrassingly lost the biggest war in history thus far, but their long-lived monarchy had been eradicated and replaced with a new experimental form of government. Increasing industrialization and urbanization meant many were moving away from their rural homes and into the cities and new jobs as cogs in factory machines. It was increasingly difficult to establish what being German meant in Germany.
Doomed InspirationsJörg P. Anders/Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany/Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
And while this sense deprivation fueled the Dada art movement and initiated the new art of the photomontage, it left many seriously pissed off and psychologically primed to jump at whatever national identity was offered them to fill the perceived gap in their souls.
Hannah Höch's (1889-1978) haunting montage of gears, cogs, and people adrift in an industrial nightmare is lengthily entitled "Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany." And is considered the epitome of this lost sense of self endemic in the German people of the interwar period.
A Continual Downpourildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz/ Friedrich Seidenstücker
For all of the Weimar's progressivism, it was ultimately entirely screwed by circumstances.
Every time the unfortunate members of the new government managed to make some headway in dealing with the crushing post war unemployment problems, searing debt, or drop in the standard of livings that accompanied the nation's economic strife, something horrible like the Great Depression would strike. It was a never ending rainstorm that gradually eroded a drowning well-meaning government.
Bursting BanksBildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Two years into the Depression, and the Weimar Republic was seriously unpopular with the increasingly distrustful German population.
And when government policy in July of 1931 closed down the banks in an effort to deal with overseas reparations, people went mental. They stormed the national and private banks en masse and withdrew all of their money. It's estimated almost a fifth of German currency disappeared into mattresses and garden holes over the course of a single week that summer.
The Money Song
The Weimar Republic was already in a bit of trouble over its existing cashflow.
In a misbegotten effort to handle the financial crisis earlier in the 1920s, the new government had started printing money that they couldn't back up with anything. And when economic crisis after economic crisis kept happening, the government could do little to help matters but print more pretend-money. Money makes the world go round, but you won't get very far on Monopoly cash.
Increasing UnemploymentBildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
By 1932, over 6 million people were unemployed--seemingly small change by modern standards, but remember at this point in time there were only about two billion people in the whole world as opposed to today's seven billion.
The majority of the unemployed were factory workers, skilled craftsmen, and a new class of female semi-skilled white collar office workers who were turned away from their jobs as secretaries and typists. And while everyone suffered, these females had the fuzziest end of the unemployment lollipop.
The New Avenging Angel (of Terror)Dr. Robert D. Brooks./Calvin College German Propaganda Archive
With so many problems, the Wiemar Republic was dwindling. And only extremist solutions arose to take its place.
One of those options, the National Socialist Party, emphasized a German national identity and promoted ideas that the economic suffering of the German people had much to do with its acceptance of other non-German groups like immigrants and the long-term Jewish population of Germany. In other words--they went with the horrible policy that if there's problems, one can blame it on migrants to solidify power that has no actual solutions behind it.
The Nazis Were No Laughing MatterHeinrich Hoffmann/Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
The Nationalist Social Party, or the Nazis as they came to be called, were a bit of a joke at first. They initially bankrupted themselves by throwing too many parades. Yes, you read that right: too many parades. They just couldn't help themselves.
And for much of the 1920s, they lurked on the edges of the bright lights of the Weimar Golden Age--casting aspersions from the shadows and convincing the discontent that they should all work together to blame their problems on the capitalist liberals of the Weimar Republic, its decadent cultural scene, and their open-minded acceptance of all people.
The Rise of HitlerBildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Between their family-oriented conservative agenda and the increasing discontent with the Weimar Republic's failure to fix things, eventually the National Socialist Party seemed like the lesser of the two evils.
And as a temporary stop-gap, the Nazis were given official power when Adolf Hitler was offered the role of chancellor in the government at the start of 1933. Many of those who put him in power did so not because they believed in his extremist agenda, but because they needed to do something to jump start a movement towards government stability. And they needed to do something fast, before the entire country fell apart.
Tomorrow Belongs to Me
But by the time the Weimar opposition realized the true extent of Hitler's message and how far he was willing to go---it was too late for anyone in the German government to stop him.
By the end of 1933, Hitler had already managed to shut down the Bauhaus School and his censorship and racial discrimination had started a steady stream of artistic and Jewish immigrants out of the Rhineland. By 1934, the Weimar Republic was already a golden memory, and Hitler and his Nazis reigned over the new dictatorship of Germany. A dictatorship which promised the German people the family values they craved, the national identity they sought, and supreme status in a world which had treated them poorly after the first world war. And when someone promises a mob exactly what they wanted, its hard for the moral individuals within to get the mob to stop and question whether they are following the rule of a madman and his conservative minions.
Repeating the Past?Giphy/Jezebel
Great tolerance and social progress usually comes with a terrifying backlash from forces resistant to change. Even positive change freaks people out. But extremism of any kind is never the answer and only leads to horrifying dystopian possibilities. Be wary of any group who blames others and claims they can do better if only they had power. No good will come of it. Especially if you want your life to be a Cabaret.