The Age of Excess: Berlin in the Golden Twenties 

By Mathias Schreiber

After the devastation of World War I, cultural life blossomed and reached its heyday in Berlin. The 1920s were a time in which all the arts, both old and new, were cold, raw, shocking and sharp-edged.  But the "live fast, die young" ethos would be cut short by the rise of the Nazis.

Photo Gallery: Berlin in the 1920s Photos
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Editor's Note: Berlin is currently celebrating its 775th anniversary. In the coming days, SPIEGEL ONLINE International will be publishing a series of stories on the history of Germany's capital. This is the third part of the series. The firstand secondparts can be read here.


It was almost a miracle. The roar of battle in World War I, a death sentence for at least 15 million people, had hardly faded away before Berlin's art scene was suddenly teeming with life once again. And that was considerably before the 1920s had turned into the legendary "Golden Twenties" that followed the hyperinflation of 1923.

In 1920, the Otto Burchard Gallery held an exhibition of photomontages, collages and drawings called the "First International Dada Fair." It was the time of the cult of nonsense, when Wieland Herzfelde published a magazine with the provocative title Jedermann sein eigner Fußball (Everyman His Own Football).

The most important success of the Dada Fair was a trial in which the charges included "insulting the Reichswehr" or the German military in the Weimar Republic, and "incitement to class hatred." In a city that would have 147 political daily newspapers by 1928, only a short time later, the trial brought welcome publicity to artists, but it also brought them fines. The artist and caricaturist George Grosz, for example, was fined 300 Reichsmarks.

In a review of the Berlin exhibition, writer Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) was especially enthusiastic about Grosz (1893-1959), a Berlin native whose real name was Georg Ehrenfried Gross.

"It's very quiet in the small exhibition, and no one is really outraged anymore," Tucholsky wrote. "Dada -- well, okay. But there is one artist who shakes up the whole place. That one artist is… George Grosz … If drawings could kill, the Prussian military would certainly be dead … His portfolio 'Gott mit uns' (God With Us) deserves a place on the table of every good middle-class family. His grimacing faces of majors and sergeants are infernally haunting reality. He alone is Sturm und Drang, riot, ridicule and -- as is rarely the case -- revolution."

'Infernally Haunting Reality'

The expression "infernally haunting reality" neatly sums up the cultural environment in the German capital in the 1920s. One of Grosz's drawings depicts a disillusioned soldier in a steel helmet who wants to relax by the riverside in a large city, only to find a bloated corpse there, apparently a former comrade who had lost his desire to live.

The sarcastic title "Feierabend" or, quitting time, is a reference to both the death of the drowned suicide victim and the end-of-day feeling of the man looking at the corpse. The title -- perverted into a negative take on the original meaning of the expression, which actually refers to the pleasant feeling of reaching the end of the workday -- is sharp-edged, shocking and direct, exhibiting a keen view of real contradictions.

From this time on, this cold view of what writer Bertolt Brecht called the "asphalt city," and its sinister agents, became established in the most important branches of art and hastened by the new mediums of photography, radio, poster advertising, records, the daily press, cabaret and film. Raw truth replaced expressively blissful beauty. "Art is boring; one wants facts," author Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) wrote in defining this wave of reality-based art.

This art broke ranks with the Expressionists' subjective, emotional perspective. Indeed, by this point, Expressionism, a product of the first years of the century, was already passé, even though works by Expressionist painters from Germany were still being exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1922 and 1928.

New Objectivity with a Dash of Conviviality

The present consisted of grinning, cigar-smoking, salacious fat men who seemed preoccupied with eyeing the derrieres and breasts of whores. They wandered like ghosts through the pictorial worlds of painters like Grosz and Otto Dix. In the 1925 painting "Ungleiches Liebespaar" ("Uneven Couple"), Dix brings together a whore's body with a man's lust in an especially grotesque way.

In their almost caricature-like impression of the demimonde, the artists portrayed the social injustices of the day, such as the juxtaposition of the starving unemployed (133,000 in Berlin in 1928 alone) and nouveau riche businesspeople driving around in large convertibles with elegant women on their arms.

Early on, these painters also shaped the style that would come to dominate the second half of the 1920s, characterized by political provocation, cool meticulousness and a burning realism that hurts the eyes, a style summed up as "New Objectivity" -- the title of a 1925 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mannheim that made cultural history.

In the restless, everyday life of Berlin's cultural scene, the sharp social criticism of this art movement came dusted with a swirling conviviality and a turbulent world of entertainment that offered up everything from variety to cabaret, chansons to popular songs ("Who on earth rolled the cheese to the station? / How impertinent! And how can they do such a thing? / The cheese tax hadn't even been paid yet!"), revues to operettas and six-day races to fashion shows. All of this was seasoned with the intelligent, quick and derisive sense of humor typical of Berliners.

This humor flared up in the socially critical chansons and street ballads of Claire Waldoff (1884-1957). "There is only one Berlin," "Oh God, how stupid men can be," "He who slings mud should be ashamed of himself, and he ought to throw something other than mud," she warbled, sometimes in cabarets and sometimes in pubs.

The "Comedian Harmonists," a Berlin-founded quintet of singers with a pianist that lyrically parodied the human comedy with its everyday erotic desires ("Veronica, the asparagus is growing!", "My little green cactus"), was not as drastic as Waldoff. One of their acts, "Tempo Variety," was especially typical of Berlin. These men who were cheerful in their melancholy recorded their first record in 1928, the first of more than 80 recordings made in the course of their international career.

Heyday of Credit

From 1924 to 1929, between the end of hyperinflation and the stock market crash in New York that led to the Great Depression, there was a short period of economic recovery in Germany that justified the economic connotation of the "Golden Twenties." Industrial production in Berlin, involving such international companies as Siemens, AEG and Borsig, grew by about 50 percent between 1924 and 1929.

Nevertheless, owing to the high cost of war reparations, Germany remained dependent on massive loans from American banks. As soon as the flow of money from the United States ran dry, as it did in 1929, "the building" of the Weimar Republic had to "collapse," as the historian Werner Conze wrote.

The cultural heyday of the years in which Berlin was lauded as the "city of 30 stages" (in fact, it had many more than that), was a heyday paid for on credit. Looking back on the period, playwright Carl Zuckmayer ("The Captain of Köpenick"), who lived in Berlin from 1924 to 1933, wrote: "The arts blossomed like a meadow just before being mowed. This explains the tragic yet brilliant charm that is associated with this era, often seen in the images of poets and artists who died prematurely."

The realization that this euphoria could not last undercoats the best works of art of these years with the metallic tone that soon became the trademark of artistic modernity. This applied, quite literally, to the refined simplicity of the anti-plush, steel-tube furniture of Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer and the architecture of the same movement, fashioned from strictly functional steel skeletons. The Dessau school complex (1925-1926) of Berlin Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (1883-1969) is exemplary of its typically angular contours and cubical, flat-roofed structures.

'Less Is More'

After the decorative excesses of the aging plaster facades from the turn of the century, these succinct forms seemed provocatively mute and naked -- and it isn't surprising that they were controversial. The Weissenhofsiedlung (Weissenhof development) in Stuttgart, built in 1927 under the direction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was soon derided as an "Arab village."

The spatial geometry of the Bauhaus movement, which relied on generous expanses of glass and seemed intent on achieving an airy transparency, was reflected in the style of important villas that were being built in Berlin, as well as in that of unusual, publicly subsidized residential developments.

The designs were by Gropius, such as that of the Siemensstadt housing development, and by architects such as Bruno Taut (the Onkel Toms Hütte and Hufeisensiedlung developments in Berlin's Zehlendorf district), Hans Scharoun and Mies van der Rohe. The latter, whose "less is more" maxim became the most famous Bauhaus motto, was the director of the school when it was moved from Dessau to Berlin in 1932 and was forced to close under pressure from the Nazis just a year later.

Metaphorically speaking, the tendency toward metallic, unadorned expression also applied to the literature of the period, and certainly to the objectivist collage technique employed by Alfred Döblin in his novel "Berlin Alexanderplatz" (1929). Döblin blends together the sound of wind, the rhythmic thud of the steam pile-driver, quotations from newspaper advertisements, stock market reports, soldiers' songs, nursery rhymes and prostitutes' patois with expressive, poetic flights of fancy, and injects all of these noises and fragments of language into the protagonist's stream of consciousness.

The colossal book describes in meticulous detail the ultimately vain struggle of Franz Biberkopf, a furniture mover who has been released from prison, to build a new life. This first important big-city novel in the German language was also the first great 20th-century novel about the working classes. It was made into a film in 1931, starring Heinrich George as a good-natured and childlike Franz Biberkopf.

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