Weimar - The left wing intellectuals
- from "Weimar – a cultural history 1918-1933" -
2 - The Left-Wing Intellectuals
The attempt to classify the intelligentsia on political lines is fraught with dangers. Cultural life is not parliamentary; most of the issues debated are not political, and votes are not usually given according to party affiliation. The cultural avant-garde, to give but one example, is by no means identical in composition with the advocates of political revolution. But given the polarization of German politics in the 1920s, it is virtually impossible to comment on the intelligentsia as such. In no other country were the internal conflicts more bitter, the distance between the various factions greater than in Germany. If from time to time the battle was suspended, it was not because all passion was spent, but because the two sides were no longer speaking the same language. A Barbusse or Romain Rolland had incomparably more in common with a Maurice Barrès than a German intellectual of the left with Carl Schmitt or Ernst Jünger. The French writers were heirs to the same cultural tradition, they had been to the same schools, read, more or less, the same books, went to see the same plays, were preoccupied with the same moral, political and social issues. They would attack each other savagely as traitors and a disgrace to mankind, but, if pressed hard, they would admit that the opponent belonged to France too (as General de Gaulle once said of Sartre). It is unlikely that a French intellectual of the right would have claimed that he and his friends had a monopoly of esprit or fine prose.
In Germany, on the other hand, the right was firmly convinced that the left was anti-patriotic and thus not part of the German people, while the left claimed that the right was stupid and barbaric. The only common ground was the indisputable fact that both were unhappy, though for different reasons, with the Republican order and the existing state of affairs in general. The right maintained that, given the Versailles Diktat, the pacifism of the left was high treason; the left claimed that the militarism of the right was bound to lead to a new world war. There was not the slightest willingness to take each other’s point of view seriously, let alone to compromise. Ernst Bloch might as well have written in Hebrew so far as the nationalists were concerned. The left, in so far as it was at all aware that there were intellectuals outside its own camp, regarded their outpourings as mere gibberish on which no sensible man would waste much time. For was it not a well known fact that an intellectual, by definition, had to be a man of the left?
The German right regarded the left-wing intelligentsia as a noxious element; the Marxist-liberal-Jewish intellectuals were more dangerous than gangsters, for ordinary criminals were merely engaged in offences against property, and occasionally violence against persons, whereas the left-wing intellectuals were helping to bring about the spiritual murder of an entire nation. There were degrees in the intensity of these sentiments; the more moderate intellectuals of the right were grudgingly willing to put up with Thomas Mann and Max Reinhardt, but certainly not with Tucholsky, Brecht or Piscator. The extreme right-wingers demanded the total eradication of all un-German, anti-patriotic influences. It bears repeating that this deep antagonism prevailed not only during the immediate post-war crisis, and again during the years of depression; an abyss divided left and right even during the years of relative calm, when political issues were not particularly prominent. The way of thinking of the two camps, their mode of expression, their whole mental make-up, were different. Just as a man of the right would not dream of attending a performance of a Krenek opera, not to mention one of the plays staged by Piscator, a left-wing intellectual would take no interest in right-wing literature about the war. Each camp had its own newspapers, literature, theatre, music, cinema; it was perfectly possible to live without ever meeting representatives of the other side. If the cartographers of ancient times had marked terra incognita with inscriptions such as Hic sunt leones, each side believed that outside its own camp there were only skunks and asses.
Having established the fact that there was not one German intelligentsia but two or more, it is only fair to add that both left and right were hopelessly split into countless factions and groups, almost constantly engaged in internecine quarrels. The phenomenon is not novel, nor specifically German. Thus, an attempt to sketch a profile of the left-wing and the right-wing intellectuals can produce, at best, only an approximation not a true likeness, an ideal type or an identikit picture which may make it easier to understand a complex and elusive phenomenon even though the outlines are inevitably blurred.
The left intelligentsia consisted of several thousand radical journalists, writers and artists, some professional men and women such as physicians and lawyers, young people of no specific profession who had studied philosophy or German literature – and later settled in Berlin, and more rarely in Munich or Frankfurt – who could not or would not enter academic life. Frequently they had no visible source of income other than some financial support from home. Sometimes they were active in politics, more often they were just fellow-travellers. They were participants in the great debates on the principles of modern art, capital punishment, trial marriage, Charlie Chaplin and other such subjects conducted in books, periodicals and above all in conversation in the avant-garde coffee houses. For the most part their background was middle-class; there was a handful of aristocrats among them and about as many men and women of working-class origin. The strong Jewish element was unmistakable, though a Zionist or a religious believer would hardly have considered them ‘good Jews’. Many artists would be found in their ranks; they assumed that the political avant-garde and the cultural avant-garde were pursuing the same general ends and were thus bound to be natural allies. However, this was mere wishful thinking; the interest of the Social Democrats in things cultural was – as we shall show – strictly limited, and the Communists switched after a few years of experimentation to a cultural policy which was anything but revolutionary in inspiration.
The left-wing intellectuals rejected the Weimar Republic above all because it was so different from their early dreams. They resented the survival of the old bureaucracy which had been taken over essentially intact, of a judiciary meting out blatantly biased political justice, a Reichswehr which, though small in number, constituted a sinister and powerful force. The fact that there were backstage dealings between the Reichswehr and the Red Army did not worry the Communists but was a matter of great concern to the independent left. The left campaigned without notable success for penal reform, for the abolition of capital punishment and greater sexual freedom (they wanted to do away with paragraphs 175 and 218 of the penal code, dealing with homosexuality and abortion respectively). In this struggle they faced not only the opposition of the right but the resistance of the influential Catholic Centre Party as well; for the Social Democrats and the Communists these were at best marginal issues and they were not willing to invest much effort in fighting for reform. The left-wing leaders assumed, probably correctly, that in so far as the working class cared about these problems it was instinctively against change.
The left intellectuals realized that the conflict between social democracy and communism was one of the main sources of weakness of the left and appealed in countless proclamations and manifestoes for left-wing unity. But the division was deep; the Social Democrats never forgave the Communists the attempt in 1919 to overthrow a government headed by socialists by means of armed rebellion. For the Communists, on the other hand, Ebert, Noske, Scheidemann and their comrades were the gravediggers of German socialism, more dangerous than the Nazis. The gulf was unbridgeable, and the left intellectuals in the end added to the fragmentation by joining various splinter-groups standing between social democracy and communism. Most of them were pacifists and this, too, increased their isolation. For since the Versailles treaty had reduced the German army to a small standing force of 100,000 men (while forbidding an air force or tanks), no political party was willing to make anti-militarism a major political issue. The right was traditionally in favour of a strong army; the Communists regarded pacifism as a petty-bourgeois aberration. The left-wing intelligentsia stood for close cooperation with Germany’s neighbours and in particular with France, historically the arch-enemy of the Reich. But this was even less popular than pacifism among the public at large, for friendship with France was possible only on the basis of the Versailles treaty, the great abomination for all German patriots. Versailles was tantamount to national oppression, to robbing Germany of part of its territory, to exploiting the German people for generations to come. It was denounced not only by the right but also by Lenin and the communists as a Diktat imposed by the imperialist robbers. To try to persuade the German people, as the left-wing intellectuals did, that it was rough justice, punishment for the aggressive war which Germany had launched in 1914, was a hopeless undertaking. The Democrats and the Social Democrats pursued the policy of ‘fulfilment’ but as a matter of Realpolitik, not because they thought Versailles was a just peace or that Germany had been solely responsible for the outbreak of war.
Whichever way one looked at it, the left found itself in complete isolation, sponsoring worthy, humane and progressive causes which unfortunately no one else was willing to back. This feeling of isolation bred extremism and irresponsibility among the unaligned left; their attacks on the prevailing order became progressively shriller, their criticism more and more destructive. Tucholsky, the most brilliant and most fertile German satirist since Heine, wrote that since 1913 he had become one of those ‘who think that the German spirit was poisoned almost beyond recovery, who did not believe in an improvement, who regarded German democracy as a facade and a lie’. In 1931 he published a copiously illustrated volume of short notes and essays: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, a broadside against the Reichswehr, the Church, the judiciary (formerly the people of Dichter und Denker – poets and thinkers, the Germans had become a nation of Richter und Henker – judges and executioners), the beer-drinking students, Hindenburg, the Social Democratic commanders of the Prussian police, Stresemann, trade union secretaries and almost everyone else in a position of authority. It was an all-out attack, not just on the German philistine, his customs, the way he arranged his home and educated his children, but on the German way of life in general, a denunciation not merely of militarism but of national defence as such (’There is no secret of the German army I would not hand over readily to a foreign power’, Tucholsky wrote). He ridiculed not just the veterans’ associations with their chauvinistic slogans and parades, but derided systematically and with mordant wit each and every manifestation of patriotism. All this, needless to say, was grist to the mill of the extreme right. It did not make a single militarist repent but it strengthened a great many people in their belief that left-wing intellectuals were traitors, or at best totally irresponsible people who should not be taken seriously. The impression that emerged from Tucholsky’s book was that everything German was a priori bad and stupid (Deutsch is doof as he once said) and had to be eradicated. In an article on ‘The Face of a German’ Tucholsky depicted the average German more or less as George Grosz had done in his cartoons; a rather thick-set head, a none-too-high forehead, cold, small eyes, a nose ever ready to lower itself into a mug of beer, a disagreeable toothbrush moustache. It was a caricature of Weimar Germany, part of it true, much of it distorted, all in questionable taste and serving no useful purpose. For what could the poor Germans do about their looks, their small eyes and low foreheads? The picture in Tucholsky’s book which scandalized people most at the time was a photomontage, ’Animals look at you’, showing eight somewhat sheepish and rather ugly gentlemen, aged sixty-five or over, most of them in military uniform. It was a pathetic sight, but there was nothing particularly animal or evil about them, given the unfortunate fact that men usually look more handsome and virile at thirty than at seventy and that babies are more likely to smile than retired generals. If Tucholsky wanted to imply that the German army and police needed better-looking officers, the Nazis a few years later provided them in the figure of Heydrich and other young men of striking appearance.
Tucholsky’s book was a caricature but it deserves to be taken seriously because it reflects so well some of the basic weaknesses of the writers of the left who were doubly homeless. Strangers in their native country, they were unable to identify themselves with either of the two big socialist parties. Whether the target was Adolf Hitler or some unfortunate Social Democratic minister, it was all the same to them. Tucholsky and his friends thought that the German judge of the day was the most evil of characters and German prisons the most inhumane; it took Freisler and Auschwitz to modify their views. They imagined that Stresemann and the Social Democrats were the most reactionary politicians in the world; only a few years later they had to face Hitler, Goebbels and Göring. When Brüning was chancellor they sincerely believed that fascism was already ruling Germany or at any rate that the situation was so bad it could not possibly deteriorate any further – until the horrors of the Third Reich overtook them. The crowning irony was that the period was in fact one of unprecedented political and cultural freedom in Germany. Not, to be sure, in absolute terms; from time to time a writer, artist or journalist would be sued for blasphemy or treason; neither the German judge nor the commanders of the Reichswehr believed in democracy, and there were many cases of gross disloyalty vis-à-vis the Republic. But by depicting them as the ultimate in barbarism and depravity the intellectuals of the left overshot the target and defeated their own purpose; for who would believe that German judges were more reactionary than British judges in the 1920s, or that the French generals were greater admirers of social democracy than their German counterparts?
The despair of the German left-wing intellectuals dated back to 1919. They had persuaded themselves at the end of the war that the new state would be ruled by them (die Geistigen) and administered according to their ideals. But the intellectuals had neither divisions nor weapons; they even lacked a trade union able to defend their own material interests with the necessary vigour. They had never been among the privileged, and no one thought of asking them to join the new establishment. They might not have joined anyway for they intensely disliked the leading Social Democrats’ whole life-style and culture, their dullness and their jokes (if any). The majority of the leading figures of the SPD were of working-class origin. Ebert had been a saddler, Severing a locksmith, Scheidemann a printer, Noske a basket maker, Wels an upholsterer. Intellectually they were self-made men; they had been to party schools, had read Marx and Engels and Kautsky; some of them had been active in workers’ cultural associations, reading-circles and peoples’ theatre groups (Volksbühnen). They had not always been conservative. When, back in the 1890s, their party had discussed modern art, Ebert had taken issue with old Wilhelm Liebknecht who, like all men of his generation (including the Russian revolutionaries), had been reared in the idealistic tradition of Schiller, whom they quoted on every occasion. Ebert had defended Gerhart Hauptmann against Liebknecht, in whose eyes the new Naturalist plays with their anti-heroes were both ugly and anti-revolutionary. Liebknecht certainly underrated the impact of a play like Die Weber even though his instinct so far as the politics of the Naturalist authors were concerned was not far wrong; few of them remained socialist sympathizers. But if the iconoclasts of the 1890s found their defenders in the socialist movement, there was no sympathy for the Expressionist revolution of 1910, for abstract painting and atonal music; on this issue there was full agreement between revisionists and revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin. The new art, as they saw it, had no message for the working class; it was of no help and comfort in its struggle.
German social democracy traditionally had not much respect for intellectuals; they were useful as editors of party newspapers, and occasionally as speakers, even though they usually had difficulty in finding the right approach for a proletarian audience. It ought to be remembered that the SPD was at the time a working-class party lacking any real desire to broaden its class basis. In any other capacity the intellectuals were found wanting: they were unwilling to do the Kleinarbeit, the essential daily chores of party life on which the movement depended. Such routine work was of no interest to them; instead (as the party leaders saw it) they were forever pressing utopian demands divorced from reality or pursuing campaigns which were of no obvious concern to the working class. The socialist party worker was almost exclusively concerned with the current tasks facing him; the intellectual was obsessed with the future, as often as not the distant future. For this and other deficiencies – such as lack of political judgment and tactical ability – intellectuals were not made to feel at home in the party.
The intellectuals on their part, while eager to serve the cause of socialism, were antagonized by what they regarded as the ‘petty-bourgeois aspirations’ of the working-class militants. One of them (Henrik de Man) has described the process of gradual disillusionment: like other intellectuals who had joined the socialist movement, he felt inferior to the masses because of his non-proletarian origins. For years he tried to obliterate all those features which had made him different from the masses, but eventually he came to realize that most of his proletarian comrades, including those in leading positions, were deep down far more bourgeois in outlook than he himself: ‘I would have been able to put up with barbarian, but not with semi-educated petty-bourgeois elements’. De Man ended his chequered career as a renegade, but this does not necessarily invalidate his testimony. Gustav Landauer, a revolutionary (albeit of the non-Marxist persuasion) second to none, who died a martyr to the cause, reached with much regret and sadness the same conclusion: the proletarian had a deep and powerful inclination towards philistinism, Spiessertum. Whatever the Marxists contemptuously said about the character, life-style and cultural tastes of the petty-bourgeois, Landauer maintained, applied equally to the worker. Many left-wing intellectuals shared this opinion, though they preferred to keep it to themselves.
As the Social Democratic leaders saw it, the intellectuals were essentially bohemians preoccupied with problems which were of little interest for the working class. Such people were best held at arm’s length; they would be more use to the party as fellow-travellers than as members. The fact that quite a few intellectuals were lax in their sexual mores and attached great importance to sexual reform did not endear them to the average party leader or militant whose standards were essentially old-fashioned. The anti-intellectual prejudice was more pronounced in German social democracy than among the French, the Italian or the Austrian socialists, among whom intellectuals were frequently found in leading positions, perhaps because, as was said, German social democracy was more truly working-class. It is difficult to think of a Jaurès, a Léon Blum or an Otto Bauer as a leader of the German Social Democrats. True, some SPD leaders were not of proletarian background, Hilferding for instance, or Breitscheid – but neither belonged to the inner circle at the top. It is also true that the part played by intellectuals in the leadership slowly grew; by 1930 one in five among the party leaders had had higher education. But a university degree did not necessarily imply sympathy with the aspirations of the literary intelligentsia, nor did the cultural avant-garde look on Hilferding or on Breitscheid as one of themselves.
If the left-wing intellectuals felt inferior vis-à-vis the leaders of the pre-1914 working-class party, they had only contempt for the men who stood at the helm of the SPD after the war. These were, in their view, petty bureaucrats who cared neither about socialism nor about cultural values. They had no greatness, no revolutionary fervour; above all they had no style. As the intellectuals saw it, the party functionaries felt at ease only with kindred spirits: in shirtsleeves, drinking beer, at the card table or playing nine-pins – a typical German Vereinsmeier and philistine, not a Robespierre or a Garibaldi to whom they could look up. For them the Eberts, Scheidemanns and Wels were not just unrevolutionary types, they utterly lacked any trace of charisma. As Gustav Mayer, the historian of German socialism, wrote in his autobiography, these were little people, petty-bourgeois pedants of limited intellectual scope: ‘I admit that there was scarcely a single figure in the entire leadership of the SPD who, measured by strict standards, aroused within me any profound ethical respect and admiration.’
This negative image of the socialist was certainly exaggerated, but what matters in this context is not so much historical truth, which was a little more complicated, but how the intellectuals perceived it. It is certainly true that after Bebel German social democracy did not produce any figure of more than average calibre, and this at a time when the magnitude of the challenges facing the party demanded superior leadership. In 1910 Kautsky was just an aged theoretician, Bernstein a marginal figure isolated from the mainstream, Rosa Luxemburg an outsider. The SPD leaders during the Weimar era were men of loyalty and integrity, staunchly democratic in orientation. But there is no denying that they were uninspiring, incapable of generating enthusiasm. The intellectuals might have accepted a strong authoritarian figure riding roughshod over inner-party democracy. They had no respect for the weak, irresolute men who stood at the head of the party once inspired by Marx and Lassalle and led by Liebknecht and Bebel. Thus intellectuals were inclined to join the Social Democrats, if at all, only with great reservations. More frequently than not they found their way to various uninfluential left-wing splinter-groups, or to factions to the right of the official party line, such as the circle of the Sozialistische Monatshefte.
The difficulties the intellectuals experienced within the Communist Party were of a different character. In its early years the KPD leadership consisted predominantly of intellectuals. Paul Levi, a Jewish lawyer who drove a Studebaker, liked modern literature and went to Switzerland for skiing holidays, was the most influential figure during the early years; with all his gifts he was an unlikely leader of a proletarian party. Among the charges brought against him after he had been expelled, the claim that he had been ‘distant from the masses’ figured prominently. Gradually, the key positions in the party passed from Levi, Reuter, Scholem, Katz and Ruth Fischer to men of impeccable proletarian origin such as Thälmann. This had the double advantage of making the party more attractive to the masses and its leaders easier for the Comintern to manipulate. The cultural activities of the Communist Party were dominated (with one notable exception) by intellectuals of bourgeois background. These left-wing Maria Magdalenas, the bohemians of 1910, had chosen the path of virtue: Johannes R. Becher, perhaps the most prominent among them, presents the case of an eccentric poet becoming an exemplary propagandist for the party line. The Malik publishing house had been set up to promote the Dada movement, but within a few years it became the most influential distribution centre of left-wing and Soviet literature in Germany. Its directors were the brothers Wieland Herzfelde and John Heartfield. The list of Expressionists, Wandervögel and young aesthetes who joined the KPD at one time or another is a long one; the one who became most widely known in later years was Georg Lukàcs, the Hungarian exile who had however been very much at home in the German cultural milieu even before 1918. He remained an unconventional figure even after his conversion, and thus came under fire early on for insufficiently mastering the thought of Marx and Lenin, for belittling the élan of the working class and attributing exaggerated revolutionary potential to the intelligentsia. The real trouble with Lukács, needless to say, was not that he had failed to understand Lenin; he understood him only too well and expressed disagreement at a time when it was still possible to do so without fatal consequences. The one truly proletarian figure in these circles was Willi Münzenberg, not an intellectual himself but a cultural impresario of genius, instrumental in establishing countless newspapers, magazines, film companies, cultural associations. An erstwhile associate of Lenin in Switzerland, Münzenberg was the first to grasp the importance of the popular-front technique in the cultural field, of establishing a periphery of fellow-travellers around the party. Like so many others he was eventually expelled as a dangerous deviationist; the circumstances of his death in France in 1940 have not been cleared up to this day.
During the years of ‘relative stabilization’ the attitude of the left-wing intelligentsia towards the Communist Party was one of friendly but somewhat distant support, limited in the main to signing manifestoes on behalf of Communist militants facing bourgeois justice, in defence of the Soviet Union (which was, for no good reason, thought to be in danger of’ military attack from France of all countries), petitions on behalf of Tom Mooney, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Communists persecuted in the Balkans, in China and Japan. The Communists on their part were disinclined to draw bourgeois elements any closer into the party since this would have been in contradiction to their policy of ‘proletarianization of the leading cadres’. The situation changed somewhat after 1929 in the wake of the economic crisis and the rise of Nazism. Some intellectuals now wanted to identify themselves more closely with the KPD; unfortunately, it was precisely during this period that the Comintern was in a strongly sectarian mood and did its utmost to antagonize the would-be supporters. This was the time when Linkskurve, the leading Communist literary journal, was founded. The man behind it was Andor Gabor, a Hungarian émigré who in contrast to Lukács tried to carry out party instructions to the letter – to encourage and promote a truly proletarian literature which had to be politically relevant, a weapon in the class struggle. But such a literature, as Gabor saw it, could be created only by writers of proletarian origin; bourgeois intellectuals would only contaminate it. From the iron rule of proletarian origin Gabor excepted only himself and, probably with some reluctance, Becher, his co-editor. He pursued his assignment with such enthusiasm that even latter-day Communist historians have found fault with his excess of zeal. To appreciate the higher lunacy of those days Linkskurve has to be read. It is difficult to convey in measured language the full flavour of its style and its cultural level. Suffice it to say that it devoted most of its pages not to the struggle against Nazism, nor even to combating ‘social fascism’ (social democracy), but to attacks on writers and artists who were only too eager to collaborate with the Communists: Henri Barbusse, Upton Sinclair, Romain Rolland. In Germany Piscator and Ossietzky were attacked, as were Döblin, Toller, Remarque and Kästner. From Heinrich Mann, Linkskurve wrote, ‘the world of progress can no longer expect anything’; Tucholsky was derided as a fashionable snob, the Bauhaus denounced as a group of formerly radical petty-bourgeois elements seeking an escape from reality – this at the very time when the Bauhaus was headed by a Communist, Hannes Meyer. But then Meyer, horribile dictu, had accepted a commission for a building for the German trade unions ... Ehrenburg was dismissed as a nihilist, Klee and Kandinsky were described as ‘darlings of the bourgeoisie’. Alfred Rosenberg, the chief Nazi cultural propagandist, would not have found much to quarrel with in the black-list of Linkskurve.
As the Weimar period neared its end the Communists made some half-hearted attempts to be less sectarian in their approach to the left-wing intellectuals. But there could be no basic change in Communist tactics, since the leitmotif of the overall Comintern ‘third period strategy’ was that the masses were growing more radical and the struggle against the traitorous ‘social fascists’ had to be intensified. Given the fact that the Communists made themselves as uncooperative as possible, that these years witnessed the emergence of Stalinism in Russia (and the total subordination of the KPD to Moscow), given also the appearance of a new, and not very attractive, set of apparatchiki who took over the party leadership, it is surprising that Communists found any support at all among the intelligentsia. But such was the fascination of a militant party for the intellectuals that despite all the handicaps it attracted far more of them, especially among the younger generation, than did the Social Democrats.
The intellectual sympathizers of 1930, to be sure, were acting without the benefit of hindsight: Stalin was not yet the Stalin of the purges, few German intellectuals knew what was really happening inside Russia. Developments in Soviet cultural policy were largely unknown in these circles, still fascinated by that earlier period which had produced Battleship Potemkin, the militant poetry of Majakovsky, Constructivist art and the revolutionary theatre. They saw a new society in the making, without exploitation and the indignities of capitalist civilization, in which a new and higher type of human being was being born. History itself seemed to be a fellow-traveller, Arthur Koestler wrote, and communism appeared as a logical extension of the progressive-humanist trend in Western history, the fulfilment of the Judeo-Christian tradition, of liberalism and the ideals of the French Revolution. Hedda Massing, not an intellectual herself but a member of a Berlin Communist circle in the 1920s, later wrote about her friends:
We were all very poor during these years. And we were very happy. We had little to eat and very few clothes, we did not go to the movies or theatre for lack of money, and our apartments were bare and miserable. But we were elated and gay, young idealists, part of a growing movement. We belonged to a party which had gained recognition, we edged our way into public life in Germany. We were joined by many gifted people from all walks of life.
Above all the Communist Party was a dynamic movement, its members had a sense of mission, of riding the crest of the wave of the future, very much in contrast to the Social Democrats who were in a kind of permanent stupor, a decline from which there could be no recovery. The left-intellectuals were sometimes acutely unhappy about the follies of Communist policies, but since the party was in a state of siege with Hitler as the only apparent alternative in the struggle for power in Germany, they would usually find extenuating circumstances to defend the ‘party line’ against its critics.
In later years many of them were to leave the party or cease to be fellow-travellers; even a Piscator or a George Grosz, whose savage cartoons had been one of the most effective weapons in the political struggle during the early 1920s, would find refuge from Nazism in America rather than Russia. There they would meet Brecht, Feuchtwanger and other apologists for Stalinism who, as the moment of truth came, sensibly enough preferred Roosevelt to Stalin, and California to Siberia. A few would remain faithful to the party and they would be suitably rewarded by becoming ministers, deputy ministers or at least heads of academies. But this looks ahead to a later period; during the 1920s the Communist Party in Germany still seemed a revolutionary movement, a progressive force. For this reason it had considerable attraction for part of the intelligentsia.
In absolute terms the number of people involved was small, even if we add to the known Communists those who joined the party but were advised to keep the fact secret. The KPD wanted to be known as a working-class party; moreover its leaders felt that the intellectuals could be of more help to the cause from outside. Fellow-travellers had greater freedom of action, which also suited the intellectuals because they were not subject to strict party discipline. For in the final analysis there were too many bones of contention which made close cooperation with the Communists very difficult for most intellectuals, however sympathetic to the cause. Mention has been made of their instinctive pacifism, which was unacceptable to the KPD. They gravitated towards Paris, whereas the Communist Mecca was in the east. The Communist leaders whom the left-intellectuals came to know struck them either as honest but stupid (such as Pieck and Thälmann), or as devious and too clever by half (such as Heinz Neumann or Ulbricht). There was certainly no Lenin or Trotsky among them, not even a Bukharin or a Radek. Nor did the intrigues and frequent changes at the top inspire confidence. True, the Communists talked about working-class unity but they did nothing to make it possible; towards the very end of the Weimar Republic they stressed the need for an antifascist front but in fact continued to attack social democracy with undiminished vigour. All this was bound to create misgivings among the left-intellectuals who, with all their eagerness to find a political home, could not in most cases embrace communism with the necessary unquestioning, uncritical enthusiasm of the true believer.
Reluctantly, they accepted the fact that they were bound to remain homeless, politically ineffective. Some devoted their efforts to pacifist activities, others to sexual and penal reform. Yet others, seeing no scope for political activity, turned to theoretical studies, to philosophical or sociological research. In some ways they were well equipped for this task, for many of them had had the benefit of a good philosophical training. But this also meant that they could not take Lenin’s philosophical writings quite seriously, let alone those of his epigones. They were not really political philosophers, although their dialogues proceeded on a high level of abstraction in the tradition of classic German philosophy; they were far more interested in cultural problems in the widest sense. Lenin’s strength had been the conviction that theory and practice were (or, at any rate, should be) one and indivisible. There was no obvious connexion between political practice and the new German ideology developed in Berlin and Frankfurt in the 1920s.
The German left-wing philosophers realized, quite correctly, that Marxism had to be brought up to date and made applicable to Western Europe. They thought, to put it bluntly, that Leninist ideology was partly irrelevant, partly too primitive for Central and Western Europe. This much was common to Lukács and Korsch, to Bloch and the Frankfurt School, even though they differed in many other respects. They were not Leninists and subscribed without hesitation to what Lukács had written in 1918: ‘Politics is simply the means; the end is culture.’
Georg Lukács, a Hungarian with a special interest in aesthetics and Hegelian philosophy who had studied in Heidelberg before 1914, was the most influential thinker of this group of Western Marxists. Towards the end of the First World War he became a Communist, acting as commissar for education and culture in the Belà Kun government of 1919. After its downfall he emigrated first to Vienna and later to Germany, where he remained until 1933. Lukács’s fame as a political thinker rests on his History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923. Soon after its appearance he dissociated himself, partly under duress, from the views expressed in the book, but this does not diminish the significance of a work which was to become one of the modern classics of heretical Marxist literature. Lukács’s basic idea was simple: he rejected what he regarded as the vulgar and primitive philosophical views of Engels (Dialectics of Nature) and Lenin (the representationist theory of knowledge). These he saw as relics of nineteenth-century positivism and scientism, of the ideology of Kautsky and the Second International. Communist philosophy had to be purged of these un-Marxist (and certainly un-Hegelian) influences.
Lukács had turned to communism in the last resort not because the laws of natural science were pointing in that direction, nor because it was the most rational mode of production, but because it seemed the only road to a new, higher stage of civilization. In this stage, man’s alienation would be overcome, the laws of historical materialism would no longer apply, Engels’s famous ‘leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom’ would become reality. Ten years later Marx’s early philosophical fragments, with their heavy emphasis on alienation, were rediscovered and published; Lukács could have drawn a great deal of comfort from their publication had he persevered in his youthful indiscretion. But in the meantime he had retreated, having been severely condemned by Lenin, and after even more bitter attacks by lesser Russian interpreters of Marxism. It was quite intolerable that a Western Marxist should dismiss Soviet philosophy in such a high-handed way; the Russian party had triumphed in the struggle for power, and for that reason if for no other it was entitled to respect in the theoretical field as well. Clearly it would not have been able to seize power on the basis of a deficient theory.
The core of Lukács’s argument was even more embarrassing. He claimed that the working class by itself was incapable of developing a consistent revolutionary theory, that it was not really aware of its class interests and therefore needed to be led by a small, elitist, strictly disciplined vanguard party, composed largely of intellectuals. This party would not emerge from the working class but would come into existence, and remain, as an autonomous body. If necessary it would even have to oppose the working class, since it had the deeper understanding of the course of history which the proletariat lacked. This small, fanatically devoted group of people would have to renounce their individual liberty, they would have to engage in any tactics, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, likely to promote the cause of communism. They would be ready, if necessary, to enter into alliances (albeit of a temporary character) with any party or group, however remote from Marxism, if this would promote the cause.
Lukács’s work was denounced by the Communist leadership despite the fact that he had only taken further certain of Lenin’s ideas about the inability of the masses to move beyond a trade union mentality without the help of a party of professional revolutionaries. If Lukács had erred in overshooting the mark in his exegesis of Leninist theory, his book was certainly no overstatement as a comment on Bolshevik practice under Lenin and, a fortiori, after his death. Basically the leading Bolsheviks had to agree with him, but their attitude to power politics resembled their approach to sex: one could do certain things but it was tactless and politically unwise to write about them openly. A mass movement could not admit that there were several levels of truth, one for the initiated, another for the rank-and-file, and a third for the masses. Since Lukács was a prominent party member and not an uncommitted intellectual, he had to choose between recantation and expulsion. He chose to stay in the party and for three decades refrained from commenting on politics. Instead he published essays on literature in which he praised the classics and damned the moderns, unlike the Western Marxists who took a more favourable view of the latest cultural trends. Admittedly he was not greatly impressed by Soviet literature either. In his later writings he showed himself somewhat less dogmatic than the official party line but never again strayed very far from the established canons of Marxism-Leninism. He retained a certain following in the West because, unlike the Russians, he could express himself in Western philosophical terms. But the original, independent approach which had distinguished his early works had vanished – or could no longer be expressed. After many ups and downs in his personal fortunes he died in Budapest in 1971, more widely admired and read in the West than in the East. A few years before, History and Class Consciousness had been reprinted in the West with a new preface by Lukács putting the book that had made him famous into ‘proper political perspective’.
The year History and Class Consciousness appeared also saw the publication of Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy, another milestone in the history of Western Marxism. Korsch was one of the leaders of the KPD at the time but he resisted the general trend of mechanically copying the Soviet experience both on theoretical and practical grounds. Like Lukács, he had a sound philosophical training; he claimed that it had been a mistake to transform Marx’s theory of social revolution into a social philosophy. Marxism was not a philosophy, its task was not to explain all the riddles of the universe. Philosophy was not dead, as the Vulgärmarxisten were asserting, law and morality were not outdated metaphysics. Marxism was the heir of philosophy, not a, new, all-embracing Weltanschauung. Abstract as these arguments sounded, the dispute concerned politics as well as doctrine. The philosophical discussion of 1923 was, as Korsch wrote several years later, only a weak echo of the political and tactical disputes inside the world Communist movement; it took the form of a dispute about the Leninist interpretation of Marx and Engels ‘which had already been formally canonized in Russia, and, on the other hand, what were alleged to be views that deviated from the canon in the direction of idealism; of Kant’s critical epistemology and Hegel’s idealist dialectic’.
Korsch and other Western Marxists, most of them German, were unwilling to accept Lenin’s approach to philosophy, which struck them as crude if not altogether unphilosophical. Lenin, as they saw it, had always approached philosophy with one overriding concern – its practical use for the revolutionary struggle. In other words he was concerned primarily with the question whether materialism was useful, not whether it was true. Thus Lenin’s materialist philosophy
becomes a kind of supreme judicial authority for evaluating the findings of individual sciences past, present and future. This materialist ‘political domination’ covers all the sciences, whether of nature or society, as well as all other cultural developments in literature, drama, the plastic arts and so on; and Lenin’s epigones have taken it to the most absurd lengths. This has resulted in a specific kind of ideological dictatorship which oscillates between revolutionary progress and the blackest reaction. (The Problem of Marxism and Philosophy.)
When these lines were written in 1929-30 Korsch was no longer a member of the KPD, but the full consequences of the canonization of Leninism as a philosophy were only beginning to emerge.
Lukács and Korsch were the most Marxist of the protagonists of a Western Marxism; others, less orthodox in approach or less interested in theory, took their ideological misgivings less seriously. For Brecht, who had been taught the essentials of Marxism by Korsch, this was an exciting experience in his development as a playwright, and since he was always more interested in the theatre than in theory it was much easier for him to continue working with the party. Even more remote from politics was another unexpected convert to Marxism, the essayist Walter Benjamin. A man of encyclopaedic knowledge and original ideas, perhaps the greatest literary critic of his age, he did not find a place in the academic hierarchy because his studies were too unconventional and daring. A man of cosmopolitan intellect, Benjamin was equally at home in French literature, and his studies of the Baroque age, of Goethe and of the ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, were works of great profundity and excellence. In the words of Hannah Arendt, Benjamin was the most peculiar Marxist ever produced by a movement which had more than its share of oddities. His literary idols were Goethe, Proust, Péguy, Kafka and ... Brecht, who, he thought, was a poet of rare intellectual power. He was ‘essentially a metaphysician, pure and simple, attracted by subjects which had little or no bearing on metaphysics’ (Gershom Scholem).
Having discovered Marxism Benjamin set about the practice of ‘reductionism’ (i.e. explaining the cultural superstructure by direct reference to the economic basis) in a way which would have made a Vulgärmarxist blush. He struggled all his life with the Jewish question on a metaphysical level and then from one day to the next was bowled over by the book of a primitive Communist hack precisely because he was impressed by its reductionism, its explanation of Judaism and Jewish history exclusively by reference to economic motives and trends. The works of the great metaphysician Benjamin were, for obvious reasons, never published in the Soviet Union; during his lifetime (he committed suicide in Vichy France in 1940) interest in them was limited to a small circle of admirers. But his writings were rediscovered in the 1960s and his place in the Parnassus of Western Marxism is now assured.
Ernst Bloch, a friend of Benjamin – the two had met in Switzerland during the First World War – was yet another independent radical thinker who became one of the patron saints of Western Marxism. Difficult to classify – part writer, part philosopher, part prophet – his fame, unlike that of some of his colleagues, has not spread outside Germany because he is virtually untranslatable. The style of his books, beginning with Geist der Utopie up to the three-volume Das Prinzip Hoffnung, is a curious mixture of expressionist style and Old Testament pathos interspersed with Marxist terminology. They reveal the author as a man of formidable erudition but not of equal clarity of thought, a moralist engaging from time to time in abject genuflections before Soviet society and Stalin, the great leader and thinker. He was under no compulsion to do so; unlike Lukács he never lived in the Soviet Union. Like Benjamin he was a genuinely naive man, never exposed to political realities, a political philosopher devoid of political instinct. Whereas Korsch the Marxist had to leave the party in the relatively liberal 1920s, Bloch could teach philosophy in East Germany throughout the Stalin era and up to the late 1950s, despite the fact that his philosophy, but for the use of some jargon, was basically un-Marxist. While paying lip-service to historical materialism, Bloch is the most faithful heir of German idealist philosophy among Western Marxists. At the centre of his philosophy figures man, his hopes, dreams and aspirations which alone give meaning and content to the world. The future of man and of mankind is by no means predestined. He can choose. The decision has not yet been made, there is no certainty, only hope. Thus the Promethean, Faustian element of die Tat, the act, is reintroduced into Marxism; little remains of the forces of production and next to nothing of dialectical materialism à la Engels and Lenin.
Why did the Communists tolerate for so long a philosophy quite alien to their own, whereas in other cases offenders were expelled for the slightest deviation? Part of the answer has already been given: Bloch’s metaphysics is difficult to understand whereas the thrust of his comments on current affairs is quite clear: praise of the Soviet Union; attacks on American imperialism. Furthermore, Bloch’s philosophy is basically optimistic; in contrast to other contemporary ‘bourgeois’ philosophers he believed in progress; if his work was not Marxist it was at least ‘bourgeois-progressive’. And lastly, in contrast to what some of Bloch’s disciples thought of his philosophy, it was not really a ‘major revolutionary force’; its appeal was strictly limited by the abstruse language, the lack of systematic thought and the many internal inconsistencies. It was often invoked with awe, but seldom studied and even less frequently adopted.
The main centre of unorthodox Marxism in the later years of the Weimar Republic was the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung). Founded in 1923 with a donation from a local millionaire with left-wing sympathies, it was headed first by Carl Grünberg and later by Max Horkheimer. Some of its leading members were (not without reservations) members of the Communist Party, but for tactical reasons did not advertise the fact. Others belonged to smaller left-wing factions or were radical Social Democrats, or simply unattached left-wingers. The publications of the Institute in Frankfurt, and a fortiori later on in Paris and New York, eschewed obvious propaganda and Marxist-Leninist terminology; even the word Marxism was only rarely used. The Frankfurt School (the name under which it has entered history) was mainly interested in theory, not in the practice of the class struggle. A discussion of the ‘critical theory’ for which it became famous is beyond the compass of this study, if only because before 1933 this theory existed only in rudimentary form; it was fully developed and formulated only in the years of emigration. Furthermore the ‘critical theory’ was basically the work of two men, Horkheimer and Adorno, whereas the other members of this circle either developed theories of their own (such as Marcuse and Fromm, who in some essential points differed from Horkheimer and Adorno) or had interests in fields other than philosophy: Grossmann was a fairly orthodox Marxist economist, Walter Benjamin and Leo Löwenthal wrote on literature, Siegfried Kracauer on sociology and on the cinema, Otto Kirchheimer on law, Franz Neumann on political science. Most of them remained Marxists of sorts, but their subsequent intellectual development usually carried them far beyond their original point of departure.
In so far as the Frankfurt School had a common denominator it was some kind of Marxist humanism based on the Enlightenment and the left-Hegelian tradition; Marx’s Paris Manuscripts, discovered in the early 1930s, strongly reinforced the preoccupation with the problem of alienation. This common approach included a belief in reason and freedom, a rejection of positivism, as well as the uncritical faith in progress and the naive materialism which were typical features of ‘scientific socialism’. Lastly, psychoanalysis had a lasting impact on most members of the school, and this too brought them into conflict with the official Marxist theory of the day, both Kautskyan and Leninist. The concern of the Frankfurt School was with ‘man as the sole creator-subject of the social world’; it was not limited to the Marxist socio-economic infrastructure. For Marx labour had been the central factor in his theory, man’s means of self-realization; science and technology were the tools for rational self-expression in work. For the Frankfurt School, with the exception of some orthodox Marxists, science was ‘reification’ and thus alienation, i.e. an oppressive factor. In their view culture was more than a mere function of labour, subordinate to it. They maintained that the victory of socialism would not necessarily bring about the de-alienation of man, it would not free man from the tyranny of economic forces, it would not inevitably make him ‘entirely human’. This explains the growing interest of the Frankfurt School in anthropology, the study of man, rather than of economic forces. As they realized that their quest for a totally free society, free of constraints, was unlikely ever to be realized, their erstwhile confidence was gradually tempered by scepticism; in theory man could be free, but it was doubtful whether this was a practical possibility. But these doubts, too, belong to a later period.
During the Weimar era the members of the Frankfurt School were mainly preoccupied with the critique of contemporary culture from a left-wing position. While they differed in essential respects from the right-wing Kulturkritiker (the stress on reason), their starting-point was not wholly dissimilar. The esoteric language they 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. When Walter Benjamin submitted one of his main works to a university to obtain the venia legendi, the professors returned it to him because they literally did not understand a single word. But in comparison to Adorno, Benjamin’s writings were almost a model of clarity. The use of a private language limited the influence of the Frankfurt circle, but it was also a safeguard in turbulent times. None of the members of the circle was arrested when the Nazis came to power. The non-political Bauhaus or the non-Marxist Weltbühne attracted their ire, but no one bothered about reification and its opponents.
The basic weakness of the Frankfurt School was not, however, linguistic; it was the lack of connexion between its philosophy and its politics. They were, as we said, more interested in socialist theory than in practice, but they could not ignore politics altogether. They had to take cognisance of Stalinism and of fascism. Stalinism could be explained, up to a point, as a regrettable aberration, the attempt to build socialism in a backward country with unsuitable and insufficient means, the result also of the failure of the European proletariat to come to the help of the Russian Revolution. But unless one believed that future developments would somehow act as a corrective, the Soviet experience opened the door to serious doubts: what if the Russian Communists imposed their rule (and incidentally also their philosophy) on the left-wing movement in the West? What if the Communist revolution was to be successful only in backward countries in conditions similar to, or worse, than those in the Russia of 1917? What if it should appear that the historical destiny of Marxism, far from being one of universal liberation, was simply that of an ersatz capitalism, modernizing society in underdeveloped countries? Of these questions the Frankfurt Schoolmen could be only dimly aware in the 1930s. But there was another far more burning issue, that of fascism, and in this respect, too, the standard Marxist explanation could not satisfy them. They regarded fascism as the political manifestation of the same metaphysical, relativist, irrational forces they encountered as their main enemy on the philosophical level. They accepted the fact that economic factors and class interests were involved, but they also detected other factors such as the authoritarian personality, which played a central role in the victory of fascist movements. These studies were to be the main preoccupation of some members of the School during the years of exile. With the return of Horkheimer and Adorno to Germany after the Second World War, the Frankfurt School experienced a striking but short-lived revival; and in the United States, too, it found new disciples. These more recent developments belong, however, to the legacy of Weimar; in 1932 the prediction that Herbert Marcuse would one day provide ideological inspiration to a generation of American students would have appeared about as likely as the forecast that Willy Brandt would one day be Chancellor of West Germany.
The left-wing thinkers mentioned so far are those whose fame has outlasted the Weimar period. But fame is frequently a matter of accident; there would have been no Marcuse revival had he emigrated to Moscow or Istanbul. There were other interpreters of socialist thought who are now forgotten but who were at the time more prominent than those mentioned hitherto. Some of them were revisionists, such as Henrik de Man, whose diagnosis of fascism was in some respects far more astute than that of the radical left; he emphasized for instance the importance of the nationalist element in fascism and the significance of symbols which Marxism had usually underrated – always to its detriment. Neo-Kantians, like Leonard Nelson and Siegfried Marck, tried to provide a new theoretical basis for the socialist movement; Arthur Rosenberg, a former Communist Reichstag deputy, reconsidered recent German history from an unorthodox Marxist point of view. Economists such as Fritz Sternberg and Henryk Grossmann undertook research into the character of contemporary capitalist economy, Sternberg following a lead given by Rosa Luxemburg, according to which capitalism had to expand in what would now be defined as the Third World if it was to accumulate surplus value. The era of imperialism and of capitalist expansion had provided a ‘close season’ for the proletariat in the developed capitalist world, thus promoting the growth of a labour aristocracy and reformism. But as imperialism had expanded virtually all over the world, the close season was coming to an end, and a new revolutionary wave was rising. This interpretation differed somewhat from the one provided by Hilferding, Kautsky and Lenin in as much as it postulated a catastrophe but not necessarily the victory of socialism. For capitalism in decline could as well lead to the ruin of civilization, to barbarism – a possibility which had already occurred to Marx sixty years earlier.
With all their ideological sophistication and their general readiness to expect the worst, most left-intellectuals were baffled by the rise of Nazism and were at a loss to provide a satisfactory explanation. During the early years it was their conviction that Nazism, being so unintellectual a phenomenon, was hardly worthy of serious study. But by 1930 at the latest it should have been clear that the study of a movement which threatened their country, their very existence, was an assignment of great urgency and importance. Nevertheless one looks in vain for any serious attempt in the writings of the intellectuals of the older generation, or of the young men and women (as, for instance, Erich Fromm and Hannah Arendt) who in later years were to devote so much time and energy to the interpretation of this very topic. Admittedly, it would not have made the slightest difference if they had done so; even the most realistic analysis would not have slowed down the momentum of the mass movement which was about to conquer Germany – and then, as one of its songs said, ‘the whole world’. But the helplessness of the intellectuals vis-à-vis Nazism on the level of theoretical interpretation was a striking manifestation of an innate weakness which demands further investigation. It was closely connected with the attitude of left-intellectuals to politics in general and the question of commitment, and this takes us back to some of the issues already discussed in passing.
The problem of commitment existed from the first to the last day of the Republic, though it was most acutely felt in the early and the late years of Weimar. The editor of the Tagebuch wrote in 1927 that ‘for us collaboration with a political party is foreign and unthinkable’, but that was a particularly calm year; in 1919 or 1932 he would probably have reacted differently. In the early Weimar days there was a marked willingness to collaborate with the new order on the part of the intellectuals, based no doubt largely on their belief in the leading role of the man of letters. Together with ‘the people’ they would carry out the revolution which would bring the ‘wave of love’ that would ‘open the hearts of men’. They really did expect the transfer of power to the intellectuals. In Munich in 1918 one of them, Kurt Eisner, proclaimed the Bavarian Soviet Republic; he was a Social Democrat newspaper editor who opposed the war and had joined the Independent Socialists (USPD). Other leading figures of the revolutionary movement in Bavaria were the writers Ernst Toller and Erich Mühsam and the essayist and translator of Shakespeare, Gustav Landauer, half anarchist, half Proudhonist. The sad fate of the Bavarian Soviet Republic is well known; its intellectual leaders fared no better. Eisner and Landauer were assassinated, Toller and Mühsam imprisoned. This to all intents and purposes was the end of the intervention of intellectuals in South German politics. In Berlin the political activists among the intelligentsia were spared Eisner’s and Landauer’s fate, but only because they were totally ineffective and thus attracted hardly any attention. The attempts to ‘organize the intelligentsia’, the declared programme of Die Aktion and of Kurt Hiller’s Council of Intellectual Workers, aimed at the impossible, for who had ever been able to organize intellectuals for effective concerted action? The historian Lujo Brentano, who for a short while headed one of the branches of the council, later wrote that presiding over its meetings was like chairing a gathering of anarchists: an apt remark because instinctively they were, of course, all anarchists. The then editor of the Weltbühne withdrew after a short while from the Council of Intellectual Workers because he thought the group was childish and confused; it rejected democracy, advocating a dual dictatorship – the economic dictatorship of the workers and the dictatorship of the intellectuals against ‘the tyranny of the ungeistige majority’. Kurt Hiller was the moving spirit behind this and similar groups; he believed in logocracy, the power of the word. According to this doctrine not all intellectuals were among the chosen, but only the men of the word among them, the literati. Toller objected that intellectuals were not endowed with some higher faculty of judgment, but his arguments failed to impress Hiller who continued to extol the mission of an intellectual aristocracy summoned to spread Geist among the masses.
Hiller was admittedly an extreme case, but the assumption that the intellectuals should play a leading part in the politics of the Republic was by no means confined to him. If the Tagebuch in 1919 suggested Gerhart Hauptmann as president of the Republic, the Weltbühne in 1932 advocated the candidacy of Heinrich Mann; when this did not materialize they settled for Thälmann, the Communist leader. So far as the intellectuals were concerned it was either all or nothing. Coalition politics, the sharing of power, would only mean compromise and thus corruption. They had no real concept of the realities of political life; reality, as Gottfried Benn once wrote, was a capitalist concept – the spirit recognized no reality. 1848 had been the revolution of the intellectuals, of professors, students and workers; it had been prepared by lawyers, carried out by artists and led by novelists and poets, as Proudhon wrote at the time. Why, they asked, should 1918 be different? Perhaps they were not wanted, and in that case they might as well opt out of politics altogether. A minority joined the extreme left, a very few later moved to fascism, but the great majority retreated into an unpolitical, essentially negative neutrality towards the Republic. With this Republic they had nothing in common. The negative attitude of vocal sections of the intelligentsia was reflected in the line taken by the Weltbühne, the most influential journal of the non-partisan left intelligentsia. Founded before the First World War as a journal devoted mainly to the theatre and related arts (Die Schaubühne), it became in the 1920s under Hellmuth von Gerlach and Carl von Ossietzky largely political in character. Its star writer was Kurt Tucholsky; using several pseudonyms, he provided every week biting little sketches to the delight of his left-wing admirers and the fury of the reactionaries. Every good cause was espoused by the Weltbühne – pacifism, sexual reform, penal reform, working-class unity. It attacked chauvinism, militarism, the old bureaucracy; it published startling revelations about the Free Corps, the Black Reichswehr and the attempts to rearm Germany in contravention of the Versailles treaty. Tucholsky in his brilliant essays tried to ‘sweep away with an iron broom all that is rotten in Germany. We will get nowhere if we wrap our heads in a black-white-red rag and whisper anxiously “later my good fellow, later”... No, we want it now!’ These attacks were supremely well written and delivered with great passion. They were also directed indiscriminately against left and right, against friend and foe alike. A few examples should suffice: Die Weltbühne was second to none in its desire for reconciliation and friendship with France, and it published countless appeals to this end over the years. Yet at the same time it made vitriolic attacks on Stresemann and the German Foreign Ministry, which was pursuing this policy though it was extremely unpopular at the time. According to the Weltbühne the ‘Stresemann type’ was more dangerous than the Stahlhelm, the revanchist military organization of the extreme right. To provide another illustration: the Weltbühne attacked the Social Democratic leaders not just for their political mistakes, which were many, but for their personal shortcomings, their lack of savoir-vivre, their gaffes, the fact that they did not have the benefit of a university education. ‘There was an element of nasty snobbery in all this and a rather cheap delight’, Gordon Craig writes, in exposing the personal and intellectual inadequacies of people like the Reichstag President Paul Löbe, who was in his own way doing rather more than Tucholsky to fight the rising tide of National Socialism. Even on the issue of fascism the attitude of some Weltbühne writers was not entirely above suspicion. In 1926 Mussolini was no longer a newcomer on the political scene; two years after the murder of Matteotti there should have been no illusions about the character of fascism. But the attitude of quite a few left intellectuals was by no means one of outright opposition. Kurt Hiller wrote an admiring essay in Die Weltbühne about the Kraftkerl Mussolini. Tucholsky commented in the same journal: ‘There are two powers in Europe which have achieved what they wanted: Fascism and the Russians. The decisive factor in their victories was their courageous intransigence.’ On another occasion he wrote about fascism in France: ‘this is above all an intellectual [geistig] affair, which has nothing whatever in common with the German rowdies.’ He was impressed by their quest for new values and approved of their rejection of parliamentary democracy. The same year Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin wrote essays in the same journal about ‘Italy and Porosity’ which managed to survey the Italian scene without once mentioning the fact that fascism was in power in Italy. The Weltbühne attitude to Nazism was of course totally negative, but in trying to explain the roots of the phenomenon the journal was wrong much of the time. There was an unfortunate tendency (writes Istvan Deak) to present the Nazis as a bunch of psychopaths who could not win lasting popular support and would soon be repudiated by the masses. The Nazis were mere puppets of the conservatives and, of course, of heavy industry. Hitler, the Weltbühne editor wrote, was Hugenberg’s Golem, who would never be permitted to pursue an independent policy. If Hitler’s policies were no longer to suit the interests of those who had provided the money, the Nazi movement would disappear as suddenly and mysteriously as it had mushroomed and would be replaced by a more reliable party.
The 1930 elections, in which the Nazis emerged as the second largest party, induced the Weltbühne to blame the Social Democrats for having concentrated their attacks on Hitler and Co. instead of launching their main assault against Brüning and the Catholic Centre Party. In 1932 it accepted the Communist thesis that fascism (personified by Brüning) was already in power; hence it seemed only logical to suggest that it would not be a bad thing if the Nazis were given power. Unable to cope with the many problems facing them, they would soon lose their popularity and destroy themselves by mismanagement. The idea that there was perhaps after all a certain qualitative difference between Nazism and bourgeois democracy even in its existing, severely curtailed, form was not accepted by Ossietzky. In his own case and in that of some of his friends, it happened to be the difference between life and death.
It is, of course, not quite fair to concentrate on mistakes committed by left-intellectuals as if these had been leaders of political parties. It was a time in which few political observers were consistently right; and it is easy to think of even more outrageous examples of misjudgement outside Germany – of Shaw’s and Wells’s attitude to Mussolini in the 1920s, and of the admiration of Stalin by so many Western intellectuals in the 1930s. It may well be true that (in the words of his biographer Harold Poor) Tucholsky’s negativism and despair were partly at least a pose, that in the early years at any rate he predicted disaster while hoping for and half-believing in salvation. The motives of the Weltbühne writers were generous, their hearts were in the right place; they were, as we said, in the forefront of the battle for every good cause; their great weakness was that they were ‘indiscriminate in their selection of targets and immoderate in their expenditure of ammunition’ (Gordon Craig) . The negative attitude and the withdrawal into sectarianism was in all probability only a reaction to their sense of impotence. Tucholsky was quite aware that even the most biting satire could not change political realities. In 1931 he wrote that his work apparently had made no impact: ‘I write and write – and what effect does it have on the conduct of the country?’ The answer was all too obvious. His dilemma was that of all leftwing intellectuals: whatever they did or refrained from doing was of no public interest except to provide grist to the mills of Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg. The struggle proceeded in the streets, the political assemblies, the beer-halls, the party headquarters – anywhere but the places frequented by the intellectuals.
They were not the conscience of the nation, and no one looked to them for moral or political guidance. When Chernyshevsky wrote that novels, essays and poetry ‘have a far greater significance for us Russians than they have in any other country’, he was only stating a well-known fact. In France, too, as the Dreyfus Affair had shown, intellectuals played an important part in public life and on occasion decisively influenced the course of events. Heinrich Mann, writing before the First World War, looked with admiration and envy to Paris: ‘They had it easy, the litterateurs of France, who resisted established power, from Rousseau to Zola – they had the people on their side, they had soldiers.’ In Germany, Macht and Geist were poles apart, and this was never more glaringly obvious than at a time of crisis. True, even Heinrich Mann had not given up hope: ‘The use of power which is not filled with goodness and kindness will not last’, he wrote in Der Untertan. Twenty years later Alfred Döblin, at the depths of the economic depression, expressed similar hopes in his Wissen und Verändern. But the intellectuals remained outsiders, facing overwhelming odds with the tide running against them. Thus the whole issue of their responsibility must be seen in true perspective. It was after all Hitler, not Tucholsky, who buried the Weimar Republic. Even if the left intellectuals had been less embittered about the fact that their noble dream had not been realized in Weimar, even if their perspective had not been dictated by utopian visions and moral absolutes, even if they had all rallied to the defence of the Republic, the outcome would most probably have been the same. The political parties through which they should have worked would still have rejected them. A hundred years of German history could not be undone in so short a time; it would have taken a major miracle to propel them into a position of real influence. Powerless as they were, they had to watch the unfolding tragedy from the sidelines, commentators, not actors in the events which were to shape their fate and that of the nation for many years.
It was not at the time considered good form in their milieu to discuss the fact that a great many among them were Jews, or at any rate of Jewish origin. So far as the public at large was concerned this was not exactly a secret, and the antisemitic critics made the most of it. They referred to Jewish Marxism, Jewish degenerate art, the Jewish Weltbühne. Most German Jews were neither intellectuals nor radicals; indeed there were far more Jewish tailors than writers and journalists; politically, German Jewry was left-of-centre but did not gravitate to the extreme left. There was a handful of Jews among the leaders of the Social Democrats and up to 10 per cent of the SPD deputies were of Jewish extraction, but it is difficult to think of any prominent figure among them after 1920. There were many Jews among the leading Communists during the early years of the Republic, but their numbers too dwindled rapidly as the party underwent proletarianization and Stalinization; among the one hundred KPD deputies elected to the Reichstag in November 1932 there was not a single Jew. What is perhaps even more significant, among the five hundred Communist candidates who contested those elections there was not a single Jew either. The small left-sectarian groups such as the SAP (which split away from the SPD in the early 1930s), the various factions which seceded (or were expelled) from the Communist Party for left or right-wing deviations, such as the KPO or the Nelson Bund (ISK), were heavily Jewish, but they were insignificant politically and did not attract the limelight.
Antisemitic propaganda claimed that Weimar was a Judenrepublik; this was true to the extent that Jews did indeed play a bigger role than in Wilhelmian Germany, when they had been kept out of public office. The 1919 revolution opened to them political careers which had not existed before. For a few months the activities of Eisner and Rosa Luxemburg (who regarded her Jewishness as a mere accident of birth) were given wide publicity, but after 1920 only one Jew, Walther Rathenau attained a position of prominence, and he too did not exactly make frequent use of his Jewishness. Rathenau was anything but a man of the extreme left, but this hardly mattered to the right-wing terrorists who killed him in 1922. There were many Jews in publishing and in the theatre; most of the contributors to the Weltbühne and the Tagebuch were of Jewish origin. They were well represented in most fields of learning, literature and the arts; almost all of them were highly assimilated and thought of themselves as Germans. This was even more characteristic of those on the extreme left, of whom many had formally disavowed any connexion with the Jewish community. They maintained that Jewish problems were of no particular interest to them, but what mattered in the last resort was, of course, not how they saw themselves but what others thought of them. In a letter written after 1933 Tucholsky bitterly noted that officially he had renounced Judaism many years before but that he had come to realize that this had been an impossible endeavour.
The attraction of the left for the Jews is an interesting and complex phenomenon, but it is not specifically German. Briefly, they gravitated towards the left because it was the party of reason, progress and freedom which had helped them to attain equal rights. The right, on the other hand, was to varying degrees antisemitic because it regarded the Jew as an alien element in the body politic. This attitude had been a basic fact of political life throughout the nineteenth century and it did not change during the first third of the twentieth.
Without the Jews there would have been no ‘Weimar culture’ – to this extent the claims of the antisemites, who detested that culture, were justified. They were in the forefront of every new, daring, revolutionary movement. They were prominent among Expressionist poets, among the novelists of 1920s, among the theatrical producers and, for a while, among the leading figures in the cinema. They owned the leading liberal newspapers such as the Berliner Tageblatt, the Vossische Zeitung and the Frankfurter Zeitung, and many editors were Jews too. Many leading liberal and avant-garde publishing houses were in Jewish hands (S. Fischer, Kurt Wolff, the Cassirers, Georg Bondi, Erich Reiss, the Malik Verlag). Many leading theatre critics were Jews, and they dominated light entertainment.
This German-Jewish cultural symbiosis had few if any enthusiastic supporters among the Germans and a great many enemies who would have gladly done without Marx, Freud and Einstein, let alone Tucholsky, the Jewish film-makers and theatre critics. Many had been aware of the problem well before the First World War. In March 1913 a young Jewish writer named Moritz Goldstein had published an article entitled ‘German-Jewish Parnassus’ in the fortnightly Kunstwart which created something of a minor scandal, provoked many letters to the editor and was discussed for a long time in the German press. Briefly, Goldstein argued that the Jews were directing the culture of a people which denied them both the right and the capacity to do so. The newspapers in the capital were about to become a Jewish monopoly; almost all directors of the Berlin theatres were Jews; so were many actors. Musical life without the Jews was almost unthinkable, and the study of German literature was also to a large extent in Jewish hands. Everyone knew it, only the Jews pretended it was not worthy of notice; for what mattered, they claimed, were their achievements, their cultural and humanistic activities. This, said Goldstein, was a dangerous fallacy, for ‘the others do not feel that we are Germans’. They could show the others that they were not inferior but was it not naive to assume that this would in any way diminish their dislike and hostility? There was a basic anomaly in the Jewish situation. The liberal Jewish intellectuals were good Europeans, but they were also split personalities, divorced from the people among whom they were living. They could make a great contribution to science, for science knew no national frontiers, but in literature and the arts (and, he should have added, in the political sphere) any major initiative had to have popular and national roots. From Homer to Tolstoy all the really great works had their origin in the native soil, the homeland, the people. And this ‘rootedness’ the Jews lacked, despite all their intellectual and emotional efforts.
Among those who answered Goldstein was the poet Ernst Lissauer, who during the First World War won notoriety in connexion with his ‘Hate England’ hymn. He bitterly opposed any attempt to restore a ghetto on German soil or a ‘Palestinian enclave’; on the contrary, the process of assimilation was to be carried to its successful conclusion. If so many Jewish intellectuals were radicals and had no feeling for the German national spirit, this was no doubt because they were still discriminated against in so many ways. But once those barriers fell, they too would be fully integrated into the mainstream of German life.
Ten years later a republic had been installed, and Jewish intellectuals were no longer hampered in their professional careers; they became professors, government officials, even cabinet ministers. But this did not bring about a diminution of antisemitism. Jakob Wassermann was one of the most ‘German’ writers of that age, yet even he, writing shortly after the war, reached deeply pessimistic conclusions about the cultural symbiosis:
Vain to seek obscurity. They say: the coward – he is creeping into hiding, driven by his evil conscience. Vain to go among them and offer them one’s hand. They say: Why does he take such liberties with his Jewish obtrusiveness? Vain to keep faith with them as a comrade in arms or a fellow-citizen. They say: he is Proteus, he can assume any shape or form. Vain to help them strip off the chains of slavery. They say: no doubt he found it profitable. Vain to counteract the poison.
Arnold Schoenberg, who had been converted, found, as he wrote to Kandinsky in 1923, that ‘I am neither a German, nor a European, not even perhaps a human being, but a Jew’. Schoenberg continued to compose, Wassermann to publish his best selling novels, and even Moritz Goldstein did not emigrate to Palestine but became literary editor of a leading Berlin newspaper. But it is also true that these three and many others eventually had to leave Germany and that the symbiosis came to an end in an even more gruesome way than anyone had expected. It is easy to show that Goldstein’s thesis was exaggerated: the number of Jews teaching German literature, for instance, was not large, and it is also true that Jewish writers had more German than Jewish readers. Jewish writers were hypersensitive, as Thomas Mann once observed to Wassermann Kafka in a letter to his friend Max Brod commented on the impossibility of writing in German the use of the German language being the ‘overt or covert... usurpation of an alien property, which had not been acquired but stolen, (relatively) quickly picked up, and which remains someone else’s property even if not a single linguistic mistake can be pointed out’. Franz Werfel shared these misgivings, at least in regard to Kafka; no one beyond Teschen-Bodenbach would ever understand him, he once said. He could hardly have been more mistaken, as the spread of Kafka’s posthumous fame has shown.
There existed, in short, a very real Jewish problem. A majority of educated Germans believed that Jews had acquired too much influence in the cultural life of their country. Some would have preferred to eliminate them altogether. The situation in Germany (and Austria) differed from that in Britain and France; there were very few Jewish intellectuals at the time in Britain; and while their number was more substantial in France, the French intelligentsia was far more sure of itself than the German – the slogan of ‘Jewish domination’ of French cultural life was never taken quite seriously.
According to the German antisemites the Jewish intellectual was cosmopolitan, rootless, destructive in his criticism, lacking creativity, forever denigrating the supreme values of the German spirit, which he was unable to understand. This was of course a caricature, based on a kernel of truth which was distorted out of all proportion. True enough, Jewish writers (with some exceptions) tended more than their non-Jewish colleagues to emphasize in their works the universal human element, to play down the specific, the national. Beyond this general observation it would be difficult to find a common denominator. But antisemitism was an instinctive attitude; the Jew was considered an alien even if it was difficult to define the specific character of his alienness; no amount of reasoning would eradicate this feeling. Goldstein realized that it was futile to
show the absurdity of our adversaries’ arguments and prove that their enmity is unfounded. What would be gained? That their hatred is genuine. When all calumnies have been refuted, all distortions rectified, all false notions about us rejected, antipathy will remain as something irrefutable. Anyone who does not realize this is beyond help.
It hardly mattered that Jews were not equally strongly represented in all branches of Weimar culture; the flowering of the visual arts proceeded largely without Jewish participation, and there were not many Jewish philosophers and sociologists. For in the last resort it is quite true that what made Weimar culture sui generis is unthinkable without the Jews. Given the strength of antisemitic feeling at the time, the isolation of the left intelligentsia was a foregone conclusion. The Jews gave greatness to this culture and at the same time helped to limit its appeal and make it politically impotent.
If the German-Jewish cultural symbiosis was highly problematical, a catastrophe was not a foregone conclusion. There could have been gradual change; Weimar culture had anyway reached an impasse well before Hitler came to power. But for the economic crisis and its political repercussions the liberal- left-Jewish public would have continued reading the Tagebuch, the Weltbühne and the Literarische Welt, whereas the others would have stuck to the Deutsche Rundschau, Deutsches Volkstum, Die Tat and the Kunstwart. The groups would have coexisted, not necessarily peacefully, just as coteries of different political and cultural orientation coexisted in other countries. It could have happened, but it was not to be.
Stefan George told one of his disciples in 1933 that since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, there had been no disaster comparable to what was about to happen in Germany: ‘That was the end of Spain. This will be the end of Germany.’ Strictly speaking it was not the end of Germany, not even of German culture; writers continued to publish their novels, composers had their symphonies performed, Otto Hahn split the atom, Domagk and Spemann received Nobel Prizes for medicine, Butenandt for chemistry. But the most interesting period in German cultural history did indeed come to an end. Germany was not to recover from the loss and the world has not witnessed an era of similar creativity.
See what the right wing intellectuals are up to: Walter Laqueur - Weimar - Thunder from the right