Building a Better German
On August 21, 1919, Friedrich Ebert took the oath of office as president of the newly constituted Weimar Republic, Germany’s first elected head of state and the leader of that country’s postwar venture in democracy. To mark that auspicious day, the weekly Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung published a front-page photograph of Ebert and Defense Minister Gustav Noske in bathing trunks during a trip to the beach, their sagging bodies displayed matter-of-factly to a national audience. The photograph created a sensation. Harry Kessler reflected in his diary entry for that day that Ebert—pale, hairless, and insulated by a layer of fat—conjured a mental picture of the fictional, walruslike creature from Gerhart Hauptmann’s 1896 play The Sunken Bell. That unfortunate cover image, Kessler added, had cast a pall over the day’s inauguration ceremony.1
Few Germans had seen their leaders so physically exposed, and even fewer seemed to relish the sight. Within weeks, artists and political wags from across the spectrum began to repackage this image in satirical compositions, which they circulated as postcards, editorial cartoons, and photomontages.2 The mere fact of physical exposure alone did not entirely account for the mixture of shock and derision. Instead, it was the condition of those exposed physiques. The magazine cover invited viewers to judge the bodies of Ebert and Noske, and those like Kessler did not particularly like what they saw. The droopy, frail appearance of these two men conjured visions of decline rather than prosperity. The Berliner Illustrirte thus confronted its readers with a vivid corporeal metaphor for the state of the postwar republic at its very inception. It was “soft,” just like the men who governed it.
Across Germany, people of all political stripes, women as well as men, reacted to the nation’s perceived softness by calling for a new physical body. Germany was by no means alone at this time in its concern for the fitness of its citizens. Dozens of countries across Europe, North America, and Asia focused attention on the physical body after 1918, seeking to