Modernity in Berlin, especially during the Weimar years, is a vast topic; to better understand the concept of modernity, it may be useful to compare Pamela Swett’s Neighbors and Enemies: The Culture of Radicalism in Berlin, 1929-1933 and Janet Ward’s, Weimer Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany. While Ward’s Berlin is conceived as a fantasia of visuality and consumerism, her modernity is that which was enjoyed almost exclusively by the middle and upper classes, as flâneur and flâneuse. Swett, on the other hand, relies on the political radicalization of working class residents in the kiez—neighborhood enclaves defined by locality, occupation, economic status and political affiliation—as a statement about the impact of local urban politics in the waning years of the Weimar Republic. Modernity as experienced by the working class denizens of Berlin, according to Swett, contributed to a loss of traditional communities. In contrast, modernity in Ward’s book is one where consumption and spectacle create cultural adhesion.
Swett posits that the strong and localized political engagement was part of a concerted effort to strengthen communities in response to the economic, political, and social instability that marked the Weimar Republic. While such instability was found throughout Germany and Berlin, it was the distrust of both national politicians and increased state surveillance by welfare officials within these neighborhoods, which eroded the sense of local autonomy within the kiez. Intrusions from outside authorities, coupled with the rise of the new woman and the economic woes due to the depression, led many within these tight knit communities to rely on local political activism as a way to maintain order and local authority. The strident political activism within the neighborhoods was meant to increase unity and act as an antidote to the changes associated with modernity. In reality, this political polarization led to the fracturing of local communities, making it difficult to form the coalitions necessary to enact important social changes needed to alleviate the poverty and crime found within the kiez. Moreover, street brawls between local activists legitimized violence as a political tool.
While Swett argues that Berlin’s working class responded to social and economic changes with an intensified political activism, Ward’s book paints Berliners as eager consumers so distracted by the ocular delights of the city, that they eschewed meaningful political engagement. Ward notes that a style known as New Objectivism, defined by the use of clean lines with little ornamentation, came to be associated with modernity during the Weimar era. This style could be found in architecture, fashion, advertising (in neon signs and large display windows), and film. New Objectivism, according to Ward, exemplified all that was modern about Berlin not only because it was a rejection of the ornateness that exemplified the previous era, but because it also promoted the primacy of ‘surface’ or exteriority in both the cultural and industrial domains. Much like Marshall Berman’s work, All That is Solid, Melts into Air, Ward presents Weimar modernity as an abstraction which was a wonder to behold and shies away from presenting the other side of urban modernity, including the poverty and violence endured by residents of working class neighborhoods.
Ward and Swett engage some of the same cultural forces, the urban entertainment and the New Woman, but they do so in radically different ways. Ward’s Berlin residents seek out urban entertainment, such as cinema newsreels and the pleasure parks, as part of a communal ritual of consumption. Swett, on the other hand, notes that such activities were especially popular with working class youth not only because they were relatively inexpensive (or free), but more importantly because they acted as diversions from the realities of small tenement buildings and crime and served as a way for young people to fill days that were free due to high unemployment. Another difference between the works of Swett and Ward is how they conceptualize the impact of the New Woman, as an icon of modernity, upon Weimar era urban residents. Ward presents this cultural concept as, much like the architecture of the era, a force that created and reflected the urban individual and collective identity as much as it did urban and clothing design. This conception of modern femininity, according to Ward, was viewed as one of many proofs that Berlin had become a thriving metropolis and helped erase the memory of Germany’s defeat in WWI. Swett, on the other hand, notes that the arrival of the New Woman within the kiez further increased gender tensions. The economic depression and the unavailability of skilled jobs led to the increase of women in unskilled positions as sole bread winners for families. This new employment status of women made “unemployed husbands feel inadequate.” The New Woman contributed to rising economic independence of women, which further increased the insecurity felt by the young, unemployed men within the kiez. Swett argues that the increased economic and sexual autonomy of women created an atmosphere where working class men who sought to “halt the dissolution of male authority in the home and neighborhood” looked to radical politics to assuage their masculinity. Leaders within the radical political parties, aware of such gender tensions, promoted party activism as a masculine venture. They employed the use of gendered insults as a common strategy to discredit political opponents and also relied heavily upon street violence to demonstrate the physical strength and the masculinity of members.
How then, can we reconcile the representations of Weimar modernity experienced by those of the kiez with the modernity experienced by Berliners in Ward’s Weimar Surfaces? The answer is that there are similarities between how Ward and Swett view modernity; however, each author chooses to highlight different aspects of it. For example, they both argue that the necessary loss of tradition which follows modernity can carry a particular valence and this is often articulated within national politics. This insight is demonstrated by how the kiez residents and the New Objectivists viewed modernity as both a social and national matter. Working class residents mourned the break with tradition and community ties and associated this loss with Weimar government policies. Residents of the kiez viewed the participation in local communist and Nazi groups as a way to restore the sense of social and political stability characterized by the previous Wilhelmine era. The New Objectivists, on the other hand, celebrated the end of Wilhelmine traditions and sought to distance themselves from the old-style aesthetics and gender roles, which were associated with the kaiser and Germany’s defeat in World War I. For the New Objectivists, the aesthetic sensibility of sleek lines and sparse ornamentation within architecture, fashion, and manufacturing became a political statement about Germany as a democratic republic. This politically charged vision of design identified a new Germany which would eschew the vulgar decorations associated with the Wilhelmine era, erase the shame of military losses sustained under the kaiser, and become a leader of modernity and style within Europe. Thus, Ward and Swett demonstrate the manichaean quality of Weimar-era Berlin politics and society. To many, the Weimar Republic government represented either the return of Germany’s glory, through social progress and modernity, or the country’s downward spiral into a dystopia of social anarchy.
According to both authors, this dualistic view of social modernity in Germany explains the rise of Hitler. According to Ward, the Weimar Republic ended because the New Objectivist movement of modern “surface” aesthetics was stripped of its political message. Once denuded of its political values, the movement revolved exclusively around the exterior. Furthermore, the exaltation of exteriority and the bloat of consumerism created a bleak sense of collective political apathy, paving the way for Hitler. Swett on the other hand, argues that Hitler’s political ascendance can be traced back to the kiez and the residents need for a strong social order after the chaos of modern cultural forces, such as the New Woman, and the increased street violence from local competing political movements. The Weimar era is usually studied as only a brief period between the German defeat of WWI and the rise of the Nazis in 1933; it is hardly studied for its own sake. While neither Ward nor Swett transcend the temporal bookends of WWI and the Nazi government—because both of their arguments rest on those demarcations—they each depict the the 1920s and early 1930s as a period where myriad political and cultural possibilities hinged on both the positive and negative valances of modernity.
PhD Student in History
Posted November 2014