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‘Babylon Berlin’ and the myth of the Weimar Republic

Flapper girls and Nazi stormtroopers, prostitutes and proletarians, jazz troupes and jackboots — when the German hit series “Babylon Berlin” arrived on U.S. Netflix in January, so did all these Weimar-era stereotypes. The producers celebrate the show’s educational values, characterizing 1920s Berlin as a “metropolis in turmoil” and as a place in which “growing poverty and unemployment stand in stark contrast to the excesses and indulgence of the city’s night life and its overflowing creative energy.”

This image of a cutting-edge culture clashing with political and social crises has long dominated public memory of the Weimar Republic. But it is not just ahistoric, it is dangerous — because it keeps us from learning the right lessons from Weimar’s history: Anti-democratic forces do not always come in reactionary guise.

Uprooting this image of Weimar Germany will take some work, because it has been with us far longer than “Babylon Berlin.” It was Cold War politics that cemented this two-dimensional memory of the era. After 1945, the leaders of the two new German states used the history of Weimar’s failed democratic experiment to strengthen the legitimacy of the postwar order, particularly in West Germany. Weimar democracy, emerging in the aftermath of one world war and crushed by the start of another, had to appear as a catastrophic failure, one that had brought on the darkest chapter of the country’s history and that was thus never to be repeated. The new Germany would be different, an outcome the new political order, installed by the United States and its allies, would ensure.

“Weimar politics” thus became a byword for extremism and democratic weakness. By contrast, the wide-ranging culture of the Weimar era was remembered mainly for its modernist avant garde and Berlin’s liberal nightlife. Reformers held up this thriving culture as an aspect of German society that could be salvaged after the horrors of the Third Reich.

These narratives obscured the more complicated truth about Weimar culture and politics. Some of the most modernist aspects of the culture of the Weimar era were far from friendly toward parliamentary democracy: The Expressionist writer Hanns Johst was an early supporter of National Socialism, while the influential Communist stage director Erwin Piscator openly disparaged the democratic system.

The Weimar Republic, on the other hand, was not as weak as it was often portrayed. While it would eventually give way to the Nazi dictatorship, it survived Communist and reactionary counter-revolutions and coup attempts, while absorbing a lost war, economic breakdown and disastrous hyperinflation.

This tendency to romanticize Weimar culture had its critics. Theodor W. Adorno, who had witnessed the eventual collapse of Weimar democracy first-hand and had emigrated to the United States in 1938, argued that the myth of the Nazis destroying German culture was nothing but an “advertising stunt” of West German elites, who only a few years before had fallen all over themselves to align with the Nazi regime. According to Adorno, the popular culture of the Weimar era, even in its liberal guise, did not differ much from the “jaunty exhibition-hall Classicism” of the Nazis and, with its mind-numbing, depoliticized entertainment of films like “Bombs Over Monte Carlo” or the popular novels of Emil Ludwig, had readied the way for them.

Other German emigres disagreed. As representatives of Weimar culture, German artists such as Ludwig and Thomas Mann shared a personal and professional interest with West Germans to salvage and insulate a part of their culture from Germany’s recent history.

For Americans themselves, the narrative of Weimar’s cultural bloom was very attractive, as the success of Peter Gay’s 1962 seminal book “Weimar Culture” showed. Gay, who had grown up in interwar Berlin and emigrated to the United States in 1941, defined the “spirit of Weimar” as avant-garde modernism and progressivism.

But if Americans had learned to celebrate the cultural side of Weimar Germany, American political strife — notably the protests around the Vietnam War — made the dark side of Weimar politics resonate as well. Observers drew comparisons between the collapse of the Weimar Republic and a perceived crisis of American democracy. In 1971, the historian Theodore Draper warned that after a lost war and with a looming economic depression, the democratic institutions and the dominant culture in the United States seemed to show signs of oppressive, even fascist, tendencies.

West Germans and American immigrants both created the binary image of the Weimar Republic to validate their political and cultural authority. But while it has captured the popular imagination of political commentators and filmmakers, it presents an incomplete history of the period.

First, Weimar was not only Berlin: German interwar society was characterized by the country’s long federal tradition, with a highly diverse range of social environments, religions and strong regional identities. Second, the notion of Weimar culture only works in conjunction with the image of Weimar politics as a weak and fundamentally flawed political system, whose failings ultimately led to the destruction of this cultural bloom, rather than seeing both as part of a bigger whole.

Finally, Weimar culture defines modernist cultural production as culture itself, omitting all other aspects that belonged to the cultural sphere of Weimar Germany, including National Socialism. It is a mistake akin to equating the jazzy speakeasies of Harlem with all of American culture in the 1920s.

It also overstates the contemporary popularity of that culture. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis,” produced in the Babelsberg studios on the outskirts of Berlin, now counts as a modernist masterpiece. In its time, however, the film was an unmitigated flop, while opulent costume dramas such as “Madame Du Barry,” “Lucrezia Borgia” and the “Fridericus Rex” films were exceedingly popular — which raises the question of whether it is really representative for the culture of the Weimar era.

The producers of “Babylon Berlin” have emphasized the educational value of the series, supposedly showing the historical context in which the Nazis could rise to power. But its reductive image of Weimar as a “dance on the volcano” is not only bad history. It also keeps us from learning its real lessons for today. Like Adorno, rather than looking for signs of a struggle between modernist and reactionary forces, between “good” and “bad,” we should be aware of the potential of modern culture to create both.