Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

GEIST STORIES

Two books examine Weimar and its afterlife

Noah Isenberg


An eye-catching photograph graces the dust jacket of Ehrhard Bahr’s Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. Taken in 1941, the shot— more posed than candid—captures Thomas Mann standing on the bluffs of Pacific Palisades, where he lived for most of the war years and into the early 1950s, dressed in a dark suit with an elegantly folded pocket kerchief, a starched white shirt, and an understated necktie; he is clasping a thin cigar in his left hand. Staring straight into the camera, he has the confident look of someone who made good use of the sharpened pencils on his writing desk earlier that day, perhaps sketching a section of one of his celebrated exile novels or working on a public address. We see the Pacific Ocean in the background, and his figure is framed by swaths of lush vegetation—a frequent topic of conversation among Mann’s set of European émigrés in Southern California— including a few palm fronds dangling just overhead.

As a native Angelino, whose childhood home was just a few blocks from where Mann’s fellow German exile Bertolt Brecht resided in the early 1940s (a decidedly unproletarian dwelling on Twenty-sixth Street in Santa Monica), I’ve often found myself imagining the world of my youth as inhabited by Hitler’s refugees: Brecht in Dogtown, Frederick Kohner at Malibu Point, and, as Janet Flanner’s 1941 New Yorker profile of Mann was called, “Goethe in Holly wood.” Nor is it hard for me to picture Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, both residents of Los Angeles’s Westside throughout the ’40s, strolling by the curio shops and amusement parlors set up along the Santa Monica Pier, pondering the harm inflicted by the ruthless machinery of the American “culture industry,” or the “damaged life” that their Southern Californian existence sometimes felt like to them.

Weimar on the Pacific seeks to chronicle this world. It presents a series of thoroughly researched, largely engaging chapters on Mann, Brecht, and Adorno, as well as on exiles whose names may no longer hold the cachet they once did on these shores—names like Alfred Döblin and Franz Werfel, a onetime Book of the Month Club author, among others. Most of the chapters originated as articles, some published in German, others in English, over the past thirty years. While parts of the book are dry, reading more like a Forschungsbericht (research report) than a forceful narrative, there are many colorful moments interspersed: Adorno’s unusually enthusiastic letter to his parents from November 1941 (“The beauty of the landscape is without comparison, so that even a hard-boiled European like me is overwhelmed”), Susan Sontag’s account of her visit with Mann as a Californian teenager, and Mann’s terrifically banal diary entry “Nach Westwood zum Haarschneiden” (“Gone to Westwood for a haircut”).

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Walter Benjamin’s datebook, reproduced in The Archive (Verso, 2007), a selection of the critic’s personal documents. “The ‘struggle against dispersion,’ which is the ‘most deeply hidden motive of the person who collec

Needless to say, life in Los Angeles wasn’t for everyone. Brecht spilled much ink over his intense distaste for the city (for him, as he wrote in 1942, Hollywood was the “center of global drug-trafficking”), while New York transplant Hannah Arendt once remarked, following a brief visit to the West Coast, “The climate alone is enough to turn people meshuge.” Bahr’s survey of the exiles in Southern California includes an impressive range of responses from the Germanspeaking refugees. Yet in order to gain a more complex understanding of the exile experience beyond California, Weimar on the Pacific ought to be read in tandem with other studies, such as Anthony Heilbut’s magisterial Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the Present (first published in 1983 and regrettably no longer in print) and the 2006 translation of Jean-Michel Palmier’s sprawling, panoramic work of 1988, Weimar in Exile: Exile in Europe, Exile in America, which examines, in addition to the more renowned exile communities in Los Angeles, New York, and Paris, such peripheral enclaves as those in Shanghai, Moscow, and Mexico City.

Naturally, the moniker “Weimar on the Pacific” stemmed from Germany’s failed experiment with democracy, those fourteen years after the Great War that were marked both by defeat (the imposed humiliations of the Versailles Treaty, runaway inflation, unremitting political volatility) and by extraordinary triumph (unprecedented new freedoms; major advances in art, architecture, science, literature, cinema, etc.). Anglo- American students of Weimar have long relied, for their introduction to the period, on a handful of standard texts: Peter Gay’s classic Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (1968), the late German historian Detlev Peukert’s The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity (1991), and the indispensable compilation of original documents in English translation The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (1994), edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg. Now, however, comes Eric D. Weitz’s long-awaited Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy, a work that builds on the extant literature and gives things a refreshing new spin. A seasoned scholar of German history, Weitz offers an altogether original approach, a potent mix of cuttingedge historical analysis, rich visual and literary illustration, and imaginative excursions through the physical spaces and places of the era, bringing to bear his uncommon erudition and a prose style that is at once rigorous, wonderfully animated, and distinguished by breathtaking clarity.

Rather than give a strict chronological account, Weitz structures his chapters around discursive rubrics (“Political Worlds,” “Sound and Image,” “Revolution and Counterrevolution from the Right”); in addition, he allows historical figures to function as the dramatis personae. For instance, in “Walking the City,” Weitz has famed flaneur Franz Hessel, whose Spazieren in Berlin (Strolling in Berlin, 1929) encapsulated the sensibility of Berliners of the late 1920s, lead the reader—augmented somewhat by input from Joseph Roth and a few other Weimar-era writers—on a vivid tour of the city. In “Building a New Germany,” he employs as his exemplary models the architectural innovations of Erich Mendelsohn and Walter Gropius; in “Culture and Mass Society,” he examines the cultural criticism of Siegfried Kracauer, the photomontages of Hannah Höch, and the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Each chapter is sumptuously illustrated with period photographs (fashionable “new women” strolling the avenues, President Paul von Hindenburg in full military regalia, satchels full of worthless reichsmarks at the height of inflation, boxer Max Schmeling pounding the bag), artwork (by George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, László Moholy-Nagy, et al.), political posters, newspaper clippings, and other cultural artifacts.

Over the course of nine chapters, Weitz leaves no stone unturned. He covers all the standard topics while plunging into areas that are often merely glossed. His discussion of sexuality, for example, gives a full explication of the burgeoning sexological literature, the lively debate over reproductive rights, and the so-called Körperkultur, or body culture, which found passionate expression among people of various political persuasions during the ’20s and ’30s. (The erotic life of Weimar has served as the subject of several recent books, notably, Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic [2000], now available in an expanded edition, and Barbara Ulrich’s unrestrained The Hot Girls of Weimar Berlin [2002].) Similarly, Weitz’s treatments of August Sander’s photographs, of popular and political cinema of the era, and of the rise of radio during the 1920s all add much to our understanding of Weimar. Although the book limits itself to the years of the republic, 1918–33, toward the end of “Culture and Mass Society” Weitz gives his thoughts on Weimar’s afterlife in exile, putting Bahr’s chronicle in a slightly different perspective: “The great figures of Weimar culture produced their best work in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. . . . That milieu could not be reproduced on the Pacific Palisades, as beautiful a setting as it was, nor on Manhattan’s West Side, nor at any other place of exile where Mann, Brecht, Weill, Kracauer and so many others landed.”

No matter how you look at it, this is an auspicious moment for Weimar. As the closing words of Weitz’s study suggest, this fascinating and enigmatic chapter of history “still speaks to us.” Not only is there a surge of interest within the American academy, but there’s also a bit of a Weimar revival in the mass-cultural arena. The current downtown- Manhattan cabaret production Weimar New York has made a bold effort to translate the Berlin of the 1920s to the America of today, while the indie-rock band the Dresden Dolls (whose front woman—full disclosure—was once a student in my class on Weimar cinema) have channeled the spirits of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya and brought them back to life via Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux. With the publication of these two studies, new generations of Weimarians, professors and performers alike, are no doubt in the offing.

Noah Isenberg teaches literature, film, and intellectual history at the New School. He is the editor of A Companion to Weimar Cinema, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

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