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I realise that this will put me at odds with other reviewers and the quoted press reviews but I frankly found this rather dense book disappointing. Perhaps the 1960s presentation style is now dated. Before considering the text let me say that the design of the book is misleading. A nude lady appears on the cover so you may think the subject of Weimar cabaret will appear in the book, not so. I can see no justification for this cover design. The printed illustrations are of low quality and not very relevant to the text.
Turning to the content the author, Peter Gay, has chosen to adopt a psychological context for the different chapters. He is trying to demonstrate his thesis of deep underlying psychological fault lines in the German psyche following the defeat of the First World War and the founding of the Weimar Republic on 9th November 1918. In so doing the author attempts to describe the different aspects of Weimar culture in support of his hypothesis. I would have much preferred a straightforward exposition of German cultural trends in the 1920s and 30s free of this overlay of Freudian ideas.
After an introduction to the history of the Weimar Republic there follows five chapters, each deals with a different aspect of the culture. Thus, ‘Community of Reason’ describes the founding of important institutes outside the established universities, including the esteemed Warburg Library and Institute. The key cultural change here being that the institutes admitted students without the need for the ‘Abitur’ which was previously a necessity for entry to higher education. The chapter ‘Secret Germany – Poetry as Power’ deals with the unprecedented influence of poets such as Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke and the 18th century Holderlin. The playwright Buchner who wrote ‘Danton’s Death’ and ‘Woyzek’, later to become Alban Berg’s opera ‘Wozzeck’ in 1925 using Schonberg’s 12-tone system and ‘Sprechgesang’, is discussed at length. ‘The Hunger for Wholeness – Trials of Modernity’ is a somewhat difficult chapter on the philosopher Heidegger and the supposed superiority of German culture. This feeling, it is suggested, resulted in the formation of ‘Wandervogel’, community groups for the promotion of outdoor activities and folk culture. Oddly the architects Erich Mendelsohn and Walter Gropius are also mentioned in this chapter but knowledge of their work by the reader is assumed, not described. Expressionist film, in particular Robert Wiene’s 1920, ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ and the revolutionary Expressionist artists such as Grosz, Dix and Beckmann are mentioned in ‘The Revolt of the Son – The Expressionist Years’ (1918 – 1924). However, again the author assumes knowledge by the reader of the work of these artists and their output is not described or illustrated. Finally ‘The Revenge of the Father’ charts the return to artistic objectivity and sobriety during the years 1924 to 1929, the rise of ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’. Thomas Mann’s 1924 book, ‘Der Zauberburg’ (The Magic Mountain) is discussed at length. The main publishing houses operating in Germany at this time are also referred to with Ullstein Verlag coming in for much criticism. I think you have to be a little wary of an author who describes ‘Grand Hotel’ and other books by Vicki Baum as “facile mediocraties” and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ as a “tasteless extravaganza”.
As will be evident from the comments above that the author does not discuss the most obvious subjects such as architecture, art, theatre, cabaret or the most popular writers of the day in any useful detail, for this you will need to turn elsewhere. Gay’s writing is about feelings and psychology and I doubt many citizens of the Republic would have recognised his exposition of their culture.
A useful short synopsis of the political history of the Weimar Republic appears as an appendix.
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on 23 December 2011
This book is very readable and well researched. Itis also as objective as a history book can reasonably be and has a short chapter on the historical background as well.
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on 11 August 2015
excellent ;)
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on 21 April 2016
Fully satisfied.
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on 27 August 2014
Peter Gay's book is essential reading if you are interested in the period between wars in Germany. Well written and researched.
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