Britain and the Weimar Republic
The History of a Cultural Relationship
Hardcover. xii, 246 p. London: I.B. Tauris, 2010. ISBN 9781848851405. £56.00
Reviewed by Stefan Berger
Anyone studying British-German relations will be well aware of the long-standing intellectual fascination of the English with things German. With regard to the Weimar Republic, much ink has been spilt on Christopher Isherwood’s, W.H. Auden’s and Stephen Spender’s portraits of the wild 1920s in Berlin. Colin Storer has cast the net wider in an attempt to explore the many facets of British intellectuals’ love for Weimar culture.
He starts off by looking at travel literature, which displayed a huge interest in the German revolution and the political left more generally. The Weimar Republic was widely associated with rebellion and modernity as well as decadence and sexual liberation, although Storer argues that the latter aspect, in particular, has been overstated in the literature. Widespread Germanophilia among British intellectuals before 1914 gave way to disillusionment and rejection in the context of the First World War. Nevertheless, Storer can show how, after 1919, there also was a growing obsession with the wrongs of the Versailles peace settlement, and, in the works of writers as diverse as Wyndham Lewis, W.H. Dawson and Harold Nicolson, pro-German sentiments, which, in the context of the 1930s were sometimes rather indistinguishable from pro-National Socialist sentiments.
The British reception of Germany during the 1920s was at times dominated by the suffering of the civilian population at the hands of the post-war settlement and the deep economic crises visiting Germany. British observers appealed to the humanitarian concerns of their countrymen and were, on balance, proud of the relatively harmonious relationship between the British occupants and the occupied Germans (in the Rhineland), which they contrasted with the harsh occupation regime by their erstwhile ally, France. Edmund Morel raged against the stationing of black French troops in the Rhineland, and fictional accounts produced by Geoffrey Moss and Graham Greene emphasised the prevalence of poverty, starvation and disease in Germany, all casting the country as victim.
Given the Berlin-centric reception of Weimar Germany in Britain, Storer pays due attention to what many regarded as the ultimate city of pleasure in the 1920s. Widespread prostitution and its famed homosexual sub-culture produced a range of voyeuristic gazes. Berlin also was often seen as living proof of the assumption that modernity was dancing on a volcano in the interwar period. However, at the same time, much attention was focused on the city’s progressive social policies and its town planning, based on the best of what Bauhaus architecture had to offer. And in film Alfred Hitchcock was one of many who developed a life-long fascination with German Expressionist cinema.
Storer also investigates the attitudes of female intellectuals towards the Weimar Republic. More than their male counterparts, British women were intensely interested in domestic conditions and the lives of German women and children. They were intrigued by the images of the ‘new woman’, by women’s sports and physical activities, and they highlighted the strong representation of women in the Reichstag as sign how much progress the liberation of women had made in Weimar Germany. By contrast, it is noticeable that women showed comparatively little interest in the metropolitan nightlife and sex industry.
Many of the fictional representations of Germany and the German, e.g. some of the novels by John Buchan, played on the theme of the good and the bad German, a trope established around the turn of the century. Geoffrey Moss, on the other hand, wrote both about German victimhood and the Germans’ alleged lack of morality reflected in Berlin’s seedy nightlife. It is not quite clear why Storer decided to include the American writer Robert McAlmon, especially as he, more than others, focused on the expat community in a Berlin depicted as youthful and brimming with vitality. It is, of course, impossible for Storer to avoid completely the long shadow of Christopher Isherwood, whose pervading images of a crisis-stricken, tumultuous and fascinating Germany have come to dominate so much of our perception of the British imagination of Weimar.
In the final substantive chapter of the book, Storer explores reactions to National Socialism. He argues that references to National Socialism were few and far between before the mid-1920s. Morgan Philips Price, as the proud exception to the rule, did provide an early Marxist class interpretation of National Socialism depicting it almost entirely as a counter-revolutionary and reactionary movement. Further to the right, the former diplomat Harold Nicolson and the social reformer and historian W.H. Dawson as well as the Welsh nationalist Wyndham Lewis are presented as examples of British intellectuals who were attracted by the dynamism of the National Socialist movement and saw in it Germany’s chance for moral and political renewal. Most, however, like the Manchester Guardian correspondent Frederick Voigt, found the Nazis morally repugnant and denounced the movement. Yet many still underestimated the threat emanating from the Nazis.
Overall, the volume undoubtedly succeeds in showing that interest in Weimar Germany was widespread among British intellectuals and went well beyond the circles of Isherwood, Auden and Spender. Storer is convincing in his argument that the widespread Berlin-centric reception of Germany failed to appreciate the regional distinctiveness of Germany, as British visitors routinely underestimated the importance of German federalism. What they saw in Germany was, above all, a much freer and more dynamic society that could be chaotic and was crisis-ridden but appeared far more modern than their own native Britain. Although the criteria for the selection of British intellectuals is unclear and although many of the images presented here will be familiar to specialists in British-German relations during the Weimar period, the book still adds many important and valuable facets to the intriguing subject of the transnational reception of cultural and societal trends. It also includes a useful appendix with biographical notes on the intellectuals that figure prominently in the book.
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