Magazine article Tate Etc.

In the Eye of the Storm

Magazine article Tate Etc.

In the Eye of the Storm

Article excerpt

Taken together, these arresting images by the artist Otto Dix (1891-1969) and the photographer August Sander (1876-1964) powerfully convey the changing nature of German society and politics from the First World War through to the Nazi era, one of the most dramatic periods of modern history.

The violence and brutality of the war was represented by Dix from personal experience without illusion or glorification, conveying the suffering of the front-line troops with enormous power and pathos. The bitterness of Germany's defeat in 1918 was compounded by economic collapse, as hyperinflation destroyed jobs and savings, driving some to suicide (2,000 Marks in 1923 would have been worth almost nothing).

From 1919 to 1923 the new Weimar Republic, brought to power by the revolution and the enforced abdication of the Kaiser, was racked by political violence, as street fighters on the right and the left erected barricades and attempted to take control by force.

The insecurity of Weimar culture and the sense that old taboos had broken down prompted artists to turn their attention to the outcasts of society, to murderers and their victims, to prostitutes and the brothels where they worked. The urban milieu that Dix portrayed was only part of Weimar society, however, even if it was the part best remembered nowadays.

August Sander's photographs of scenes and people in the rural world are a reminder that huge swathes of Germany had hardly anything to do with the hustle and bustle of Berlin or the grimy, smoke-polluted valleys of the industrial Ruhr. Living in a largely traditional social environment, partaking in simple pleasures such as travelling circuses, peasants and farm workers understood little of the raucous cultural life of the city, and what they did understand, they treated with resentment and disapproval.

Farmers suffered badly from an agricultural depression that continued throughout the 1920s and became markedly worse with the world economic crisis that began with the Wall Street crash in 1929. By 1932, more than a third of the German workforce, above all in industry and banking, was unemployed.

While the rural communities in Protestant areas at least turned to the rising force of the Nazis, it was mainly the middle classes who deserted their previously liberal and conservative politics to vote for Hitler in the early 1930s. The calm and seemingly untroubled bourgeois characters photographed by Sander became deeply anxious in the face of the seemingly inexorable rise of the Communist Party, which gathered the support of millions of unemployed workers and gained 100 seats in the Reichstag, the national legislature, in November 1932. …

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