In spite of all the political and economic turbulence between 1918 and 1933, Weimar Germany experienced a cultural efflorescence that still resonates to this day. The legacy is profound and extensive – the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and Ernst Bloch, the novels of Thomas Mann and Alfred Döblin, the theater of Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, photography and film, radio and phonograph recordings, the music of Kurt Weill, the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, the architecture of Erich Mendelsohn, Bruno Taut, and Walter Gropius, the photomontages of Hannah Höch, the essays of Siegfried Kracauer. The list goes on and on. Weimar was a culture of restless questioning – particularly of what it meant to live in modern times. At their best, Weimar’s artists searched for new forms of expression suitable to the cacophony and pace of modern life and a belief in the possibilities of the future. But despair and cynicism were rampant, too. One sees it in the paintings and drawings of Georg Grosz, Otto Dix, and many others. But there was also idealism and joy – in Bruno Taut’s cityscapes, Walther Ruttmann’s films, and in the lively eroticism that permeated Weimar culture.
Sex and sexuality became topics of broad public interest in the Weimar period. Sex was talked about more freely and openly than ever before. Sex reformers spoke in crowded lecture halls and published books and manuals that sold in the hundreds of thousands. Public health clinics dispensed advice about sex and counseled men and women on birth control. For the reformers, most of them liberals, Social Democrats, or Communists, many of them Jewish, most Germans lived in “sexual misery.” Democracy, the reformers believed, should emancipate men and women sexually; and fulfilled sexual lives (for some that meant homosexuality as well) were an important component of a well-functioning democratic society. Sexuality – and the “new woman,” who symbolized female independence and sexual emancipation – became a focal point of deep political conflict. For many thousands of Germans, Weimar’s emancipatory promise played out in the bedroom as well as the halls of governance. But more conservative Germans, the advocates of the sober, restrained sexuality of Christian family life, were appalled by all the sex talk. For them, the Republic fostered immorality and sinfulness.
The cultural and sexual awakening of the Weimar period was not just the result of the war, as is so often asserted. Certainly, the war destroyed the old order, and not just its politics, but also its very legitimacy in the eyes of so many Germans. The Imperial system brought the country untold misery, the hundreds of thousands of deaths on the battlefield, and overwork, malnutrition, and illness at home. Even substantial segments of the Right demanded not the restoration of Imperial Germany and the Hollenzollerns, but fascism, a new, highly dynamic, far more dangerous right wing. On the Left, Socialists and Communists argued that the scourge of total war could only be prevented in the future through the establishment of democracy or Socialism or Communism, or some combination thereof.
Not just an aftereffect of the war, the Revolution also inspired and impelled many of the progressive cultural and social achievements of the Weimar period. Germans rebelled; they chased out the Kaiser and established a democratic political order. In so doing, they unleashed their political, social, and cultural imagination. The destructiveness of total war and the creativity of revolution animated the work and thinking of Germany’s artists and intellectuals and of those who sought a freer, more tolerant existence – politically, socially, sexually. Sadly, Weimar’s potential was not to be fulfilled on a permanent basis. Ultimately, the forces of reaction destroyed its promise. We still look back on those turbulent times with wonder and admiration – but also with dread of the violent, hostile reaction that Weimar democracy also spawned.