CREATING MYTHS about the Weimar Republic and debunking them has become a distinct enterprise on both sides of the Atlantic. Peter Gay, in his Weimar Culture and Walter Laqueur, in Weimar: A Cultural History, sustain their historical research with bittersweet childhood memories of Jewish-German life in Berlin and Breslau. But they have to compete nowadays with a new wave of political nostalgia, surging from the New Left eager to discover its roots in the achievements of Marxist philosophers and artists, inside and outside the old Communist Party of Germany. What, to contemporaries, must have been a difficult and perhaps exhilarating time, has long changed into a gritty Belle Epoque of sorts in which everybody was busy composing clever jazz symphonies or building barricades rather than going for simple Sunday walks.
John Willett's Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety 1917 -1933 is a one-sided and rich book, of the Old rather than the New Left, and the myth which it unfolds is both limited in range and immensely productive. In his personal quest to discover what made these years so attractive and seminal, Willett restricts himself to discussing events and developments in radical politics and in the experimental arts. His "Cultural Map of the '20s in Mid-Europe" -superimposing centers of music, architecture, Communist risings, film making, and Nazi activity upon the geography of Germany-clearly indicates what is of essential interest to him. He prefers political melodrama and public art to the day-by-day discussions in parliament and private art, the latter triumphant in the verse of Stefan George and Rainer Marie Rilke.
The real strength of this book is in looking at the political and artistic developments of the Soviet Union and the German Left in intimate conjunction. Willett's precise chronicle of the constant and friendly interaction between the Soviet and German avantgarde will change many of our traditional ideas. When Moscow was hungry in 1922, Soviet intellectuals and artists gathered in Berlin. Vladimir Nabokov, the emigre, was dreaming about lost loves in a Berlin rooming house. Mayakovsky, Ehrenburg, Yesenin, Prokofieff, and Lissitsky floccked to Germany to publish, together with their German colleagues, a new periodical demanding an impersonal and rational art of striking technological commitments. I think that Willett is absolutely right in believing that the ravages of the war and the uncertainties of the revolutions made Germany and the Soviet Union, in the '20s, more susceptible to new and ruthless ideas in the arts than England and France. I also have little trouble agreeing with him that, at least in the public and performing arts, Berlin, and not Paris, was the real metropolis of febrile and creative discontent.
The trouble is that Willett singles out one strain from many. He insists that it was the "new sobriety" alone which was most memorable because it combined a cool and rational realism in dealing with social problems with a successful effort, especially in architecture and the new media, in influence the underpriviledged masses rather than small groups of introvert aesthetes. Willett uses many wideangle shots in which entire constellations of famous names appear and disappear, but his heroes are obviously those who combine socially purposeful experiment with a high degree of combative intelligence, preferably left of center-Erwin Piscator, who used the new technoligies in the service of the political theater; the playwright Bertolt Brecht (about whom Willett has written an earlier book); the successive directors of the Bauhaus devoted to building modern homes for workers; Willi Muenzenberg who established a German-Soviet film and publishing organization; and people like John Heartfield or Hannah Hoech who were developing the aggressive art of photomontage.
Willett is particularly good in showing how the new experiments effected typography, advertising, and the angular styles of steel furniture. Moreover he does not hide from us that many of the new explorations in interior design were actually financed by the Junkers Corporation (which later produced airplanes for the Nazis) or enlightened capitalist firms like Bahlsen Biscuits for whom Kurt Schwitters, the master of Dada collage, and Lissitsky, on furlough from the Soviet Union, loyally worked.
Writing in praise of the communal aims of the "new sobriety," Willett is rather suspicious of the spontaneous imagination, free of all social function, and when he discusses novels or poems he is helpless or censorious, or both. He has, of course, a political case against the Italian Futurists because they collaborated intermittently with the Fascists, but I have misgivings about how easily he disposes of the French Surrealists because they were, according to him, not really linked to modern society. Willett's is a tactile rather than a verbal sensibility, and his literary ideal is the narrative report or the social document; he largely ignores even Thomas Mann's brother Heinrich (whom the German Popular Front wanted to install as the first president of a liberated Germany) and tries to tell us that everybody in Germany imitated the French naturalist Zola, of all people.
Perhaps I am even more bothered by Willett's belief that the Marxist avant-garde of the '20s really affected the life and ideas of the underpriviledged. I wonder what we are to think of the many members of the German working classes who, whether dwelling in progressive Bauhaus developments or in municipal housing projects built by Nazi architecs, all too readily put on Wehrmacht uniforms. It is a saddening question which we cannot avoid. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Georg Grosz from the book