German Intellectuals and the Crisis of Culture (1918-1940)

By Boterman, Frits | European Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

German Intellectuals and the Crisis of Culture (1918-1940)


Boterman, Frits, European Studies


Introduction

After the First World War Europe was tangled up in a deep political, cultural and moral crisis. Because of the catastrophic war and the heated tensions in Europe as a result of the Treaty of Versailles the position of European intellectuals changed dramatically. The intellectual scene now received a different, more political character and became directly involved in the conflicts and discord that arose during the interwar years. As representatives of a nation that seemed to bear the burden of the First World War most visibly, German intellectuals were at the heart of the attempts at rethinking both the role of the intellectual and the idea of Europe. In this chapter I will examine the historical background of the position of German intellectuals, the consequences of the war for their viewpoints and their transnational encounters. A dominant tradition in historiography of the interwar years analyses the period in the context of the tripartite competitive relations of communism, fascism and parliamentary democracy and speaks of the ideological temptation of power by fascism and communism. What positions did intellectuals in Germany and in Europe at large take with respect to these systems? And finally: how did this translate into new ideas of Europe?

Intellectuals and the war

The first cause of the altered intellectual environment is of course the First World War itself, which dramatically changed the face of Europe and the world. The war drastically altered Europe's political condition. Mighty empires crumbled and new states were emerging. The endless mass killings in the trenches and the senseless suffering ultimately resulted in deep disillusionment. Two million Germans died and 60% of the soldiers were injured. Across the globe, more than 10 million soldiers perished (Bessel 1993, 5ff). The dramatic and agonizing course of the war, the supremacy of technology over human will, leaving no place for heroic individualism, led to opposition to the war (in the form of strikes) and to a major societal dichotomy. War front and home front, soldiers and officers grew apart, and material conditions worsened dramatically. Neither the hoped-for national unity, the 'spirit of 1914' or the 'union sacrée', nor the coveted cultural synthesis between art and life, between 'Geist und Macht' would survive the four years of bitter conflict. Instead, it brought a complete absence of national consensus, deep divisions, economic malaise, and utter cultural fragmentation, the impact of which would continue to be felt throughout the Weimar period.

However, against the background of the destructive and devastating material, physical and psychological effects of the war and the decline of Europe, two new world powers emerged: the United States and the Soviet Union. The American troops helped the Allies to victory and with his Fourteen Points (1917), the American president Woodrow Wilson laid the foundations for a future world order, with the League of Nations as its cornerstone. In the same year, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, were successful in overthrowing the autocracy of the Tsar and estab- lishing a dictatorship founded on Marxist-Leninist doctrine in Russia, followed by more than a decade of extremely violent and bloody civil war.

A second cause that contributed to the changed intellectual climate was that the war resulted in a virtually irreconcilable disparity between the Germans as the defeated party, and the French, capitalising on their victory. The French prime minister, Raymond Poincaré, expressed the general sentiment by saying that the 'Huns' should be forced to pay retribution as well as urging that their influence in Europe should be restricted. The Treaty of Versailles caused a rupture in European relations, putting further pressure on already strained alliances. The imposed nature of the treaty and its restrictive provisions (most importantly, the occupation of the Rhineland, reparations and accepting sole responsibility for the war) embittered the majority of the German population and incited retaliation, hate and resentment within right-wing circles among the so-called National Opponents. …

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