Before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Germany experienced its ‘roaring 20s’ through a parliamentary democratic system—the Weimar Republic. Weimar Republic 101 article series aims to introduce some of the key themes and debates in the historiography of the Weimar Republic, from its inception in 1918 to its death in 1933. Chapter three discusses German culture in the 1920s, with particular emphasis on how artistic expression allowed individuals to voice their political opinions about the Republic.
Weimar Republic 101 is divided into six chapters:
Weimar Republic 101: DADA Art and Weimar Culture
Weimar Republic 101: The ‘New Woman’ in Post-War Germany
Weimar Republic 101: The Great Depression 1929-1933
Weimar Republic 101: The collapse of a democracy
In the historiography of Germany’s Weimar Republic, cultural life is often treated as a separate entity from political life. Politics are traditionally seen as ‘bad’ and problematic, whereas the culture Germany experienced in the 1920s is heralded as the ‘good’ element of the republic, being progressive and avant-garde. It is problematic to represent the history of the Weimar Republic in this way; therefore, here is introduced a different perspective on the relationship between politics and culture in Weimar Germany. DADA art is used as a case study to represent how cultural movements responded to the political milieu of Germany in the 1920s. This analysis brings a renewed perspective to the relationship between culture and politics in Weimar Germany, showing that they are interrelated rather than separated.
The dominant narrative of Weimar Germany experiences culture and politics as a dichotomy. Hung (2016, p. 442) has pointed out that this approach of looking at Weimar culture as separated from its politics is problematic, as German people were unlikely to have experienced life this way. As a result of this approach, Hung (2016, p. 442) has noted how the dominant narrative “keeps us from understanding how closely intwined” politics and culture were in Weimar Germany. To overcome the challenge of the Weimar dominant narrative, and in an attempt to better understand the relationship between Weimar culture and politics, examples of DADA art are used as a case study to show how culture and politics shared a closer relationship than previously represented. Indeed, Bell (2006, p. 511) acknowledges that DADA was a political movement as it was an art movement. DADA was a relatively short-lived art movement from 1916-1924. The Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory describes DADA as anti-art and a social movement responding to World War I (WWI) and the “imperialist bourgeois culture” that grew from the war. One of the most recognizable features of DADA is the use of montage. McBride (2016, p. 15) describes montage as “yanking elements out of their trusted environments and inserting them into new contexts.” The use of montage in DADA art reflects how Weimar politics ‘yanked’ elements of democracy into ‘new contexts’ of government in German society post-WWI. It is therefore responsible for locating DADA as a political and cultural movement. As such, DADA will show how we can overcome the challenge of the Weimar dominant narrative and begin to analyze how culture and politics were two sides of the same coin and not two irreconcilable products.
Henig (1998, p. 47) recognizes the relationship between economic recovery and culture in Weimar Germany. American financial aid in the Dawes Plan allowed Germany to revive its industrial production: in 1925, Germany was at 95% of its 1913 level, compared to Britain’s 86% (Henig 1998, p. 47). After WWI, there was a demographic trend to move into the cities, with the city becoming the “focal point” for interaction between politics and culture (Storer 2013, p. 157). Berlin became the capital of Germany, and by 1928, it was the third-largest city in the world after London and New York (Storer 2013, p. 157). Storer (2013, p. 157) notes that industrial growth, city living, and American foreign aid in the 1920s created a consumer culture in Germany. This consumer culture is reflected in DADA art. Raoul Hausmann’s photomontage A Bourgeois Precision Brain Incites a World Movement: Dada Triumphs represents a “critical view of a mechanized, commodified world,” according to Beals (2017, p. 48). Likewise, McBride (2016, pp. 14-15) interprets DADA montage as a reflection of “the world of…industrial production, and mass consumption”. DADA art is, therefore, a reaction to the new consumer culture in Germany that emerged after WWI.
The new democracy tried to improve the lives of its citizens that had been hit hard by the inflation of 1919-1923. In 1925, 57% of government spending went to welfare and social services (Henig 1998, pp. 48-49). However, some of the most disenfranchised in society remained neglected by the government’s welfare services. WWI veterans were one group who were badly impacted by the inflation and did not enjoy rising standards of living like other classes in German society. Storer (2013, p. 148) notes that the Weimar government “tended to focus…on…skilled workers, championing their rights…while to some extent ignoring…the disenfranchised”. The neglect of WWI veterans is reflected in DADA art. Otto Dix’s The Match Seller (1920) depicts a disabled war veteran on the street selling matchsticks. Waine (2019) highlights how the artwork leaves the war veteran “symbolically and literally left in the gutter.” DADA art is thus a reflection of Germany’s cultural and political milieu after WWI, highlighting how culture and politics are interrelated and not separate entities in Weimar Germany.
Weimar culture is often overshadowed by the rise of the Nazis and the democracy’s end in 1933. As a prelude to Hitler’s dictatorship, the 1920s is often analyzed as a decade of culture fuelled by nationalism and militarism. This culture of violence is reflected and protested in DADA art. Bell (2016, p. 511) locates DADA as a pacifist art movement. Rose (2011, pp. 313-317) has noted that the rise of Hitler has sidelined the importance of pacifism in Weimar culture and highlights that pacifism was a big part of German politics and culture in the 1920s, such as is evidenced by the No-More-War demonstrations in Berlin in the 1920s. These demonstrations reinforce Storer’s assessment that the cities became the focal point of interaction between culture and politics. Hage (2011, p. 64) identifies that the DADA journals circulated across national borders, from Zurich to Paris and Berlin, are evidence of how the movement “protested nationalism, which they blamed for the war.” Doherty (2010, p. 44) sees DADA as a “theory of art” that represents “a cynical and violent politics.” Hannah Höch’s photomontage, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany (1919-20), is reflective of “Weimar Germany… a world in shambles” (McBride 2016, p. 18). Likewise, McBride (2016, p. 16) sees Dix’s The Match Seller (1920) as evidence of the “brutality and ethical bankruptcy” of the democracy in the way it neglected war veterans. Hung (2016, p. 453) raises how to represent Nazi culture in relation to Weimar: is it a clean break, or are there continuities between Weimar culture and politics and the rise of the Nazis? In response, Storer (2013, p. 148) points out that the neglect of the democracy to help the disenfranchised can help to explain why unskilled workers voted Nazi and lost faith in the democracy. Assessing DADA art as a representation of Weimar politics and culture allows us to recognize that culture and politics were not separate entities in Weimar Germany but should be considered a continuous feedback loop.
DADA art has been used as a case study to show how Weimar culture and politics participated in open discourse. This analysis has revised the traditional paradigm of how culture and politics have been discussed in the historiography of the Weimar Republic, showing them to be interrelated elements rather than separate areas of discussion. DADA art directly responded to Germany’s political milieu in the 1920s: it reflected Germany’s industrialization and growing consumer culture, highlighting the chaos of the new republic. It responded to the government’s neglect of returned servicemen from WWI and rejection of the violence of movements such as nationalism and militarism. This analysis shows that it is irresponsible to represent culture and politics as a dichotomy, highlighting that further discussion on the relationship should continue to break out of this paradigm and demonstrate how they are interrelated elements of Weimar society.
Beals, K. (2017). Dada: Art and the Discourse of Advertising. New German Critique, 44(2 131), 41–73. https://doi.org/10.1215/0094033x-3860201.
Bell, F. (2006). Art Is Dead to DADA. Queen’s Quarterly, 113(4), 510–521. https://www.proquest.com/docview/233301843/784AF2D5A4BE4D43PQ/8?accountid=15112.
Buchanan, I. (2018). DADA. In Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory (second ed., p. 113). Oxford University Press.
Dix, O. (1920). Match Seller [Etching]. The New Walk Museum and Gallery, Leicester. https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/lcahm/departments/historyofart/research/projects/map/issue3/waine-match-seller.aspx.
Dix, O. (1928). Gross Stadt (Metropolis) [Tryptych painting]. https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/image/otto-dix-gross-stadt-metropolis-1928?backlink=https://www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy/primary-sources/weimar-culture.
Doherty, B. (2010). The Work of Art and the Problem of Politics in Berlin Dada. In K. Canning, K. Barndt, & K. McGuire (Eds.), Weimar Publics/Weimar Subjects: Rethinking the Political Culture of Germany in The 1920s (pp. 43–65). Berghahn Books.
Hausmann, R. (1920). A Bourgeois Precision Brain Incites a World Movement, also known as Dada siegt (Dada Triumphs) [Photomontage and collage with watercolor on paper]. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/dada-and-surrealism/dada2/a/dada-collage.
Hage, E. (2011). Transnational Exchange, Recontextualization, and Identity in Dada Art Journals. English Language Notes, 49(1), 63–76. https://doi.org/10.1215/00138282-49.1.63.
Henig, R. (1998). The Weimar Republic 1919–1933 (Lancaster Pamphlets) (1st ed.) [E-book]. Routledge.
Höch, H. (1919–1920). Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany[Photomontage and collage with watercolor]. Nationalgalerie, Berlin. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/dada-and-surrealism/dada2/a/dada-collage.
Hung, J. (2016). “Bad” Politics and “Good” Culture: New Approaches to the History of the Weimar Republic. Central European History, 49(3–4), 441–453. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0008938916000625.
McBride, P. C. (2016). The Chatter of the Visible: Montage and Narrative in Weimar Germany (Illustrated ed.). University of Michigan Press.
Rose, S. E. (2011). The Penumbra of Weimar Political Culture: Pacifism, Feminism, and Social Democracy. Peace & Change, 36(3), 313–343. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-0130.2011.00701.x.
Storer, C. (2013). A Short History of the Weimar Republic (I.B.Tauris Short Histories) [E-book]. I.B.Tauris.
Waine, A. L. (2019). Object in Focus: Otto Dix, Match Seller, 1920 and Leicester’s German Expressionist Collection.University of Birmingham. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/lcahm/departments/historyofart/research/projects/map/issue3/waine-match-seller.aspx.