Eric Hobsbawm: Remembers life under Weimar

Historians in the News

I spent the most formative time of my life, the years 1931-33, as a Gymnasiast and would-be Communist militant, in the dying Weimar Republic. Last autumn I was asked to recall that time in an online German interview under the title ‘Ich bin ein Reiseführer in die Geschichte’ (‘I am a travel guide to history’). Some weeks later, at the annual dinner of the survivors of the school I went to when I came to Britain, the no longer extant St Marylebone Grammar School, I tried to explain the reactions of a 15-year-old suddenly translated to this country in 1933. ‘Imagine yourselves,’ I told my fellow Old Philologians, ‘as a newspaper correspondent based in Manhattan and transferred by your editor to Omaha, Nebraska. That’s how I felt when I came to England after almost two years in the unbelievably exciting, sophisticated, intellectually and politically explosive Berlin of the Weimar Republic. The place was a terrible letdown.’

The cover of Eric Weitz’s excellent and splendidly illustrated Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy brings back memories.[*] It shows the old Potsdamer Platz long before its transformation into a ruin at the hands of Hitler and into Disneyland architecture in the reunified Germany. Not that daytime cafés full of men in trilbys like my uncle were the habitat of Berlin teenagers. We were more likely to think of boats on the Wannsee, a place not yet associated with planned genocide.

It is hard to remember, though Hitler made it the staple of his rhetoric in the ironic plethora of voting that took place in its last year, that the republic lasted only 14 years, and of these just six, sandwiched between a murderous birth-period and the terminal catastrophe of the Great Slump, had a semblance of normality. The massive international interest in it is largely posthumous, the consequence of its overthrow by Hitler. It was primarily this that raised the question of Hitler’s rise to power and whether it could have been avoided, questions that are still debated among historians. Weitz concludes, with many others, that ‘there was nothing inevitable about this development. The Third Reich did not have to come into existence,’ but his own argument drains most of the meaning out of this proposition. In any case, it was clear to those of us who lived through 1932 that the Weimar Republic was on its deathbed. The only political party specifically committed to it was reduced to 1.2 per cent of the vote and the papers we read at home debated what room there was in politics for its supporters.

It was also Hitler who produced the community of refugees who came to play a disproportionately prominent part in their countries of refuge and to whom Weimar’s memory owes so much. Certainly they were far more prominent, except in the world of ballet, than the much larger post-1917 Russian emigration. They may have made little impact on the old entrenched professions – medicine, law – but their impact on more open fields, and eventually on science and public life, was quite remarkable. In Britain émigrés transformed art history and visual culture, as well as the media through the innovations of Continental publishers, journalists, photographers and designers....

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