Episode #1 - Why Give A Damn About The Weimar Republic? 

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Welcome to The Weimar Spectacle, where I explore the brief and extraordinary life of the Weimar Republic. I’m Bremner Fletcher, singer, actor and theatre maker. I’ve spent years performing songs from the Weimar period and I’m inspired and slightly obsessed by that moment in time.

So, my big, big idea for this show, is that the Weimar Republic invented the modern world, and we are all still dealing with the possibilities and problems. To prove that, I’ll be exploring the arts, politics, science, architecture, social innovations and the irresistible rise of the Nazi Party. So, if you’re a politics junkie with a need to know about the failure of proportional representation in the Reichstag, or a gender fluid performance artist with a need to know  sexuality in 1920’s Berlin, this is the show for you. 

Weimar Reichstag

So, today, it’s the big question: why care about a failed European republic that only lasted about 14 years, and was a mess from the start: a hot mess of factionalism, assassination, and mob violence, and results in Hitler, the worst, most brutal punchline in history.

So, why care about a broken, failing state? Well, because something special happened in that 14 years. An upswelling of creativity and new freedoms never seen before or since.  And, though it’s dangerous to take history as a blueprint for the present, there is a lesson about the fragility of Democracy and how it can be destroyed not by a coup, or invasion, but by relentless attacks in the context of a polarized political system. The Weimar Republic’s founding mythology were the idea of liberal social reforms, worker’s rights, openness to a many  sexualities, and cultural creativity. These were used against it in a culture war that was brilliantly managed and ultimately led to the rise of the Nazi Party.  

Let’s look at it’s strange birth. The Weimar Republic emerges from the complete devastation of Germany after WW1.  Before the war, Germany is the top-down authority of the Prussian Court,  where rules are clear, and by pledging allegiance to the Kaiser, the Army and the Civil Service, life would continue in an clear line. But the war breaks Germany. Or better to say that the military elite broke their own country. What starts as a brief military campaign turns into the destruction of an entire generation and the end of a way of life. 7 million casualties with 2 million killed in action. Those who get through in one piece are torn apart mentally and sent home to try and pick up life where they left it.  And the wounded are simply abandoned to display their wounds on the streets and beg for bread. There are calls for revolution and the Kaiser, an Emperor, the absolute symbol of authority, abdicates, and the Weimar Republic is invented as desperate invention, a fix to provide some stability, channel the radical desire for new ideas, and to stave off the most extreme of the revolutionary demands.

 And because of that total breakdown, in a way, Germans have an opportunity to start anew. Everything you might have believed in 1914 is gone by 1918 and no one, and no political system, no social structure has moral authority. Everything is open for re-invention. Musicians and writers and politicians and scientists and painters are free to go their own way. They’ve all witnessed the closeness of death, which encourages them to move quickly and break things, as we say today. 

So, why care about the Weimar Republic: well, let’s take a look at what we inherited from it.  

Start with social innovations.  It is one of the first liberal democracies. Yes, it’s broken from the start.  But, I’m saying this in the USA in 2023, so looking at a broken Democracy actually makes the Weimar Republic feel very familiar.  Also, it made huge social changes we take for granted:  generous social programs, including cutting the work day to 8 hours, unemployment insurance, public housing with indoor plumbing and electricity, collective bargaining for unions, freedom of speech and of the press, equality of women and men, a declaration of responsibility for the unemployed and for Women and Children. And women were given the vote.

Women lining up during the German national election in January 1919, the first election held under the Weimar Republic, and the first in which women could vote. Women's suffrage was declared on November 12, 1918.

Just for that it would be worth examining. However, they didn’t stop there. 

The Weimar Republic saw a host of social innovations: sexuality was openly discussed for the first time and alternate sexualities were tolerated and encouraged. Sure, that happened mostly in Berlin, but still, the idea that humans exist in spectrum of sexualities outside of Christian Marriage became one of the defining ideas passed down to us by the Republic. 

Also, entrepreneurs created a new consumer economy that we all now live in, shopping malls, organized leisure time, conspicuous consumption, movies, newspapers and modern advertising techniques, all saw innovations in the Weimar Republic.

One of Erich Mendelsohn's new Department Stores 


And perhaps most importantly, and ominously, those 14 years saw the birth of the idea of a Mass movement and concepts every political party and social movement uses today; protest marches, get out the vote drives, relentless branding, carefully crafted slogans and politicians crossing the country by airplane to attend mass rallies. All that was first seen in Germany in the years between 1920 and 1933. 

Image from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph Of The Will

And, my own particular passion, artistic innovations. Painting, Cinema, Music, Theatre and Architecture made mad, wild leaps forward with new forms and styles that today we take for granted. The list of names might not be immediately familiar, but you’ve all seen their work, or derivations of that it: Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang created a new language for this cinema.  Otto Dix and George Grosz and Hannah Hoch created new painting styles, collage and protest art. Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator changed the way the theatre works, and Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler wrote new music for those performances. Writers and poets like Joseph Roth and Hermann Hess, Sylvia von Harden and Thomas Mann reached for new forms of realism and mysticism.  Think of Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’,. And Alfred Doblin’s epic ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ was the first big book of modern urban realism .


Hannah Hoch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through The Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany


And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the sciences, which is a ‘who’s who’ of the giants of the 20th Century. Albert Einstein, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921, Werner Heisenberg, who formulated his Uncertainty principle, and, along with Max Born and Pascual Jordan, created quantum mechanics.  And of course, Werner Von Braun, the brilliant rocket engineer, who worked for the Nazis but was also the force behind the US space program.  

Finally, there’s the terrible rise of the Nazis, who, evil as they were, it cannot be denied were  brilliant innovators in the manipulation of public opinion. They created seductive false narratives and ‘alternative facts’ and their political machine is probably the envy of many modern political movements.  And, paradoxically, we can thanks the Nazis for some of the worldwide impact of the Weimar innovations. When Hitler came to power in 1933, legally elected in a democratic election, before he had the power to attack the Jewish Population he attacked the artists and creators and scientists who were making works he deemed ‘un-german’.  He set up ‘re-education’ camps that became the model for the Concentration Camps. So, anyone who could, got the hell out of Germany.  And as it became clear nowhere in Europe was safe, everyone who could, came to the USA, or the UK or, surprisingly, Turkey.  And in all those countries became innovators in music and theatre and architecture and the sciences. From Albert Einstein to Bertolt Brecht to Walter Gropius to Billy Wilder to Kurt Weill.  Weimar refugees brought their talents to the world. 

President Paul von Hindenburg with new Chancellor Adolf Hitler in May 1933.

So, that’s why I think you should want to know more about the Weimar Republic, but like a bad reality TV show, you can also be interested for the scandal, the gossip and all the amazing crazy of it all. 

During the Weimar Republic, Berlin was the strangest and most exciting city in the world and perhaps the strangest and most exciting city in the history of cities. Prostitution, alternate lifestyles, Nudism/Sexuality, Café culture, Movies, Cabaret and experimental theatre. You want sex, well there are over the top drag shows, beautiful women in a perfect kick-lines, lesbian bars with a special entry price for eager tourists. You want crazy spectacle, well just go for a walk, since the streets are a spectacle: wild traffic, movie theatres flashing, immense bright department store windows, newspapers sold on street corners for the first time, cafes filled with argument and scandal. 

Weimar Berlin Prostitutes

And for the first time in history, independent women walking the streets alone.  Walking to and from their jobs, to and from the movies, to and from the bars and cafes, and the gleaming department stores which created to be safe places for women to socialize and shop. 

And in the middle of Berlin, the Jewish community, with its vast New Synagogue, is flourishing, despite taxes and restrictions. Joseph Roth, the journalist and essayist writes, “The men with their ancient beards and sidelocks, walk slowly in groups: the black-haired butchers daughters move along briskly, up and down their street speaking Yiddish. Hebrew inscriptions are written on stores and beer halls. These streets remain a world unto themselves and a kind of home for the eternal outsider.  Until, that is, a new wave of people comes from the east and pushes out the old timers, who, before not too long a time, are already so well adapted to Berlin that it is enticing for them to move to the western districts. There they stive to give up the very obvious signs of their particularities.” 

For gossip and scandal, stop for a coffee on the terrace of the Romanische Café, the most famous café in Europe.  In 1926, Matheo Quinz writes “Wealthy producers sit at tables while struggling actors and artists look for work and for loans. Communists debate at their tables, right wing journalists are arguing at their tables, artists are drawing cartoons of each other, conversations about Picasso, chocolate and fascism run over each other.  Doctors and psychiatrists gather at their tables and then later, gamblers and lovers and prostitutes come in after their clubs have closed. A British diplomat writes “for in the night air, which makes even the spires flicker with excitement, there is a throbbing sense of expectancy.  Everybody knows that every night Berlin wakes to a new adventure”

And watching it all are the Nazis, as Goebbel says: “another Berlin is lurking, ready to pounce. A few thousand are working days and nights on end so that sometime the day will arrive.  And this day will demolish the abodes of corruption…. It will transform them and give them over to a risen people.  The day of judgement!  It will be the day of freedom!”

Joseph Goebbels

Do some of those concerns and desires and frustrations seem familiar.  They should, because I believe the Weimar Republic helped give birth to the modern world. Join me in the coming months as I explore the strange birth, life and death of an experiment in creating a new society. 

And who am I to discuss Weimar?  Well, I’m not a sociologist or political scientist or historian.  I’m an obsessive artist.  A singer, play-write and cabaret performer who has been obsessed with the arts and music of the Weimar republic all my life.  I’ve recorded three albums dedicated to the music of this era and particularly the music of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.  If you want to listen to them, just search for Bremner Fletcher Duthie in any music streaming site, and you’ll find all my albums. 

Join me next time for a walk through the amazing creative madness of 1920’s Berlin, and a deeper dive into the events at the end of WW1 that led to the creation of the Weimar Republic

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