Why Weimar is an Imperfect MirrorRoundup
tags: fascism, Nazism, intellectual history, European history, Weimar Republic, German history
Helmut Walser Smith is a Professor of German Studies and Martha Rivers Ingram Chair of History at Vanderbilt University.
Written with lightning speed during the electrifying year of 1968, Peter Gay’s widely-read Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider burst onto the American scene in a tumultuous time. Gay wrote it first as an essay, at the behest of the American historians Donald Fleming and Bernard Bailyn, and then lengthened the initial eighty-page piece into a short work twice that long. Interleaving the book with new chapters, such as “The Revolt of the Son: The Expressionist Years,” Gay also thickened its psychoanalytic language, pointing out, for example, that “The Hunger for Wholeness” was “a great regression born of a great fear: the fear of modernity.”
When Gay composed the book, he was only four decades removed from the period. Weimar Culture, a term that if one believes Google Ngrams took off with the publication of Gay’s book, was not the history of somewhere else in another time. For Gay, it was, in part, a personal history.
Born in 1923 as Peter Fröhlich, Gay had experienced Weimar as a child and then lived through the subsequent Nazi period as a teenager—before the ravages of the Nazis forced him and his family to flee.
To many of Gay’s readers, the argument implied in the book’s subtitle—”the outsider as insider”—seemed like an allegory of the Jews in interwar Germany. But Gay left out the Jewish luminaries who figure so centrally in our understanding of Weimar today. He referenced the philosopher Theodor Adorno and the intellectual Walter Benjamin only in passing, the religious-philosophical figures of Franz Rosenzweig and Gershon Scholem not at all, and Martin Buber only when Buber commented on the symbolist poet Stefan George, whose pronounced aristocratic sympathies brought him close to conservative circles.
Instead, Gay appropriated the tools of psychoanalysis in order to study culture and politics, with the result that he rendered Weimar Culture as an Oedipal play gone awry. In this interpretation, the revolt of the sons, in the form of a highly experimental, consciously modernist culture, assumed center stage for a short time, only to be followed by an anxiety-filled “Hunger for Wholeness,” and retribution in the form of “The Revenge of the Father.”