Art And Culture In 1920'S Berlin

Beauty and decadence made for an intriguing combination in pre-fascist Berlin.

In order to understand the cultural climate in Berlin in the 1920's, one must understand the general atmosphere in Germany. After suffering a humiliating defeat in World War I, the German government was ordered to pay war reparations. Knowing that these reparations would be hanging over their heads for years, perhaps decades, many Germans felt a sense of hopelessness, which was reinforced by an economy in ruins. In 1923, inflation wiped out the savings of most middle class Germans. These events led to the odd mixture of despair and manic festivity that would fuel Berlin's artistic, musical, and literary renaissance.

Das Proletarische Theater (The Proletarian Theater) was founded by Erwin Piscator in 1920. Piscator was a member of the growing Communist movement in Germany, and saw theater as a way to rouse the working class from its slumber and prepare the masses for the coming socialist revolution. His theater produced such plays as "Die Wandlung" (Change) by Ernst Toler. In a less political vein, Kurt Weill pioneered the "Singspiel" (song play) and introduced German audiences to the musical as we know it today. Although Weill's work was wildly popular in the 1920's, it was later denounced as "degenerate" by the Nazis, and Weill, a Jew, fled to America where he had continued success.

Jazz was all the rage in Berlin in the "˜20's, just as it was in America. Many African-American entertainers, such as the singer Josephine Baker, felt more comfortable in Europe, where the racial climate for blacks was more relaxed. Baker toured the whole of Europe and caused a sensation in Berlin with her overtly sexual "banana dance." Cabarets were where most Germans went to hear music. In addition to singers, a cabaret would usually have comedians and dancers, and the acts were considered extremely risque for their time. Classical music also flourished at this time. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra was under the leadership of conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, a man of intense passion and creativity. In addition to the classics, Furtwangler presented works by new composers such as Stravinsky.

In Art, DaDaism was a controversial and exciting movement. DaDaism grew out of the earlier Cubism movement and it used collage and photomontage techniques. Many DaDa works were overtly political. The majority of DaDaists denounced the Prussian government and were anti-capitalistic and anti-bourgois. Needless to say, the average German was puzzled by DaDaism if not infuriated by it. Prominent DaDaists included artists Hans Richter, George Grosz, and Raoul Hausmann.

Writers also flocked to Berlin in this time cultural experimentation. Vladimir Nabokov lived in Berlin at this time, and began writing his first novels in Russian. There is no doubt, however, that the most influential book in Germany in the 1920's was "All Quiet on the Western Front." Written by a young veteran of the German Army in World War I, Erich Maria Remarque, it chronicled the horror of the war and the sense of utter defeat felt by many Germans. It has become one of the most read novels of all time, required in secondary schools around the world.

Out of the ashes of World War I had come a cultural movement the effects of which would be felt for the rest of the century.

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