Art of the Weimar Republic

Keri Wolfe

Many people are aware of the extreme terrors of the Holocaust, which lasted from 1933 until 1945 under Adolf Hitler as chancellor of Germany. But many people are unaware of the toll that the Holocaust had on the development of art in Germany during this period. Hitler referred to almost all modern art as "entartete Kunst," or "degenerate art," and claimed it to be un-German. As a result, artists were punished, fired from their jobs or banned from creating art. This was counter-productive to the Weimar culture that prevailed in Germany before the times of Hitler's rule.

During the Weimar Republic of the 1920's, art was a main focus in Germany. A spotlight was shone on the German advent of expressionism, unique from anything the world had ever seen at the time. Films such as Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, and Walter Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony einer Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) broke through artistic barriers. Fritz Lang contributed to the period with films like M and Metropolis which fall into the category of film noir. In addition, it was the time of Bertolt Brecht, playwright of Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (Mother Courage and her Children), and Der gute Mensch von Sezuan (The Good Person of Szechwan). These plays were known for their deep symbolism and Marxist undertones, but also for their creative and artistic avant-garde components.

In addition to playwrights, many writers also surfaced during this time, including Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Kurt Tucholsky. Kafka is perhaps the best known of the four, creating works like Metamorphosis, Amerika (America), Der Prozess (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle), among other short stories that deal with emotions like isolation, anxiety, and guilt.

The Weimar Republic also contributed greatly to music. Famous composers of the time include Kurt Weill, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg. Kurt Weill composed big hits like "Die Moritat von Mackie Messer" ("Mack the Knife") for Brecht's Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera). His music can be identified by its dark, avant-garde style. In contrast, Richard Strauss was a famous composer of operas like "Der Rosenkavalier" (The Knight of the Rose) and "Salome," as well as orchestral works such as "Metamorphosen" (Metamorphoses). Arnold Schoenberg was slightly different from both of these styles, as he mainly composed romantic pieces for strings.

Instead, the art of the Third Reich was mainly propaganda-based, and any self-expression was discouraged. Films by Leni Riefenstahl, like "Olympia" and "Triumph des Willens" (Triumph of the Will) became the new standard. Although Riefenstahl created timeless film effects and artistic standards in these films, her reputation was later tainted by her involvement in the Third Reich.

Visual arts were transformed by artists of the Weimar Republic including Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee. Even the German cities were touched by Weimar culture, as architects and city planners followed "Bauhaus," a style that was founded by Walter Gropius. This new school of architecture focused on simplicity and functionality. Other famous architects of the Weimar Republic who followed this movement included Peter Behrens, Ernst May, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Peter Behrens acted as a mentor to Gropius, May, and van der Rohe. Ernst May was an urban designer who held a large part in the design of Frankfurt, a major German city. He is also known for "zig-zag houses," which were a modern concept at the time as well. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is famous for expressions that people continue to use today, such as "less is more" and "God is in the details."

It is clear that the Weimar Culture touched all aspects of art: theatre, film, visual arts, music, writing, and even architecture and urban design. It was truly detrimental to the future of German artwork when Hitler enacted the ban on degenerate art. What could have been a generation of artistic progress and innovation ended up being a generation of horrors and crimes against humanity. No one will ever know the full artistic potential of this decade in Germanic Europe. Many artists mentioned above were Jewish, or of Jewish descent, and many fled, were exiled, or were killed during the war. However, the contribution of German artwork in the Weimar republic has made an impact on the evolution of culture to what it is today. From revolutions in film to music, theatre to architecture, traces of the Weimar culture can still be found in the arts today.


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