Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.

Geography

I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.


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