Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity

Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity

Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity

Weimar Intellectuals and the Threat of Modernity


"... the range, power, and archival resourcefulness of Barnouw's book will make it impossible for anyone working in the field to ignore this powerful and disturbing historical meditation on the societal function and responsibility of the intellecutual." --The German Quarterly

"... a work of real value for patient readers." --American Journal of Sociology

"... a forceful and compelling thesis that challenges our understanding of several seminal figures writing during the first half of the century." --Monatshefte

In this challenging study of a complex period, Barnouw investigates the works of seven representative figures of the Weimar republic: Walter Rahtenau, Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Jünger, Hermann Broch, and Alfred Döblin.


The experience of modernity between the two great European world wars was interpreted by German intellectuals as a cultural crisis. The first part of this study, a case history of intellectual positions during the Weimar period, attempts to trace the development of such interpretation. It gives a tentative general account of how certain ideas or idea clusters emerged, how they fueled important intellectual strategies and affiliations, how they fit or clashed with the different intellectual temperaments and interests which had developed in specific socio-psychological contexts, and how the (often unreflected) processes of modification connected with the little understood dynamics of the life-world were responsible both for the simultaneous existence, that is, conflict, of many distinct ideologies and the sense of a distinct Weimar Zeitgeist.

This first part is meant to establish a context for the discussion in parts two and three of selected texts by seven authors who have articulated their cultural criticism in the medium of the novel or the essay. I will analyze in these texts the mutual dependency of a perceived crisis of culture and the experienced anxiety of cultural meaning as it was translated into narrative and conceptual strategies. My decision to discuss the question of Weimar intellectuals and Weimar culture in close readings of literary texts, including the essay, has been motivated by several related considerations. As a literary historian interested in the cultural transmission of ideas, I have not been entirely happy with the ways in which historians writing about intellectual and cultural phenomena have drawn on literary texts without risking extensive critical involvement with them. It is not so much a problem of neglecting questions of textual complexity or of fictionality but rather of how such questions are conceived and posed. The substantial literary texts of the period tend to be very much aware of the confusing wealth of contemporary intellectual issues provoked by rapid social and cultural change and of the challenges, inherent in this situation, to develop adequate narrative and conceptual strategies. The proliferation and polarization of ideas as ideologies between the two wars stimulated a new interest in the essayistic novel as “novel of ideas” or “philosophical novel.” This is a European phenomenon, but it is particularly striking in Germany. There was a feeling not only that the intellectual excitement and perplexity of the time could and should not be neglected by High Literature, but that the essayistic novel and the . . .

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