Fabulous, Tragic Kurt Tucholsky
By Franz BaumannAugust 19, 2017
Germany? Germany! by Kurt Tucholsky
One of the best-paid German journalists in the 1920s, Kurt Tucholsky was the canary in the coal mine of the Weimar Republic. His ire targeted the revanchist military, unreformed judiciary, cowardly government, and accommodationist politicians (namely, Social Democrats), whom he vilified as intellectually pedestrian and petty bourgeois, accusing them of turning a blind eye to the dangers of the political right.
Born in 1890 to a well-to-do secular Jewish family in Berlin, Tucholsky studied law, earning a doctorate from the University of Jena at age 25. He served in the German Army in the East, and converted to Lutheranism in 1917. From a young age he banged out short articles (journalistic and philosophical) as well as travel pieces, polemics, satires, reviews, poems, and songs. Over several weeks in the 1920s, he wrote an article per day, mainly for Die Weltbühne, a small, Berlin-centered weekly that was influential among intellectuals despite its modest circulation of 15,000. Die Weltbühne was the publishing organ of the intellectual left and was considered the conscience of the nation. His collected works span 22 volumes (in thousands of pages), and include two novels — Rheinsberg: A Storybook for Lovers (1912) and Castle Gripsholm (1931) — as well as the picture book Deutschland über alles, written with John Heartfield (1929).
Tucholsky wrote prodigiously under his own name and four pen names: Peter Panter, Theobald Tiger, Ignaz Wrobel, and Kaspar Hauser. This camouflage was deliberate,
for who in Germany believes that a political writer can be humourous, or a satirist can be serious? Who would credit a playful man with knowledge of the penal code, or who would believe that a describer of cities can write amusing verse? Humor discredits.
The author declared that he and his four literary personae were “five fingers of one hand,” fighting to destroy the old, militaristic Germany and build a new, democratic nation. This love-hate relationship with his country was his work’s leitmotif.
Most of his commentary was unabashedly political, and his cultural criticism was only slightly less so. Among his favorite targets were the bourgeois, for whom he felt a visceral disgust, as we sense in his essay about two women: the Jewish Frau Margot Rosenthal and the Gentile Frau Emmi Pagel, whose
legs are a trifle too fat; she has wide hips, a fresh complexion, is well scrubbed but not well groomed; she has fat, manicured fingers […] By no means a provincial woman, but just a woman who happens to live in a small town.” Her articles of faith [in part]:
- Under the Kaiser everything was better.
- A head bookkeeper is more than a bookkeeper.
- The Jews are to blame for all the misery. The Jews are dirty, greedy, materialistic, voluptuous, and swarthy. They all have such noses and want to become ministers, provided they aren’t already.
- Servants are a race apart from the propertied, but they don’t feel it.
- Communism means that everything is chopped to bits.
- In Russia the women are raped; they murdered a million people there.
- The Communists want to take everything away from us.
- The whole world is against Germany — out of envy.
So much for Frau Pagel. On the other hand, Frau Margot Rosenthal, a lawyer’s wife, is rather tall, a bit too skinny to be called slender, very well groomed, but doesn’t always look that way. Her articles of faith [in part]:
- Gentiles are less smart than Jews and that is why they are called “Goyim.”
- Anyone who is able to buy and collect French engravings is cultured.
- Communism means that everything is chopped to bits. The Commies want to take away everything it has taken us such trouble to buy, piece by piece.
- Of course, we’ve got to have workers and one should treat them decently; the best thing is not to pay any attention to them.
- The whole world is against the Jews — out of envy.
Cursing both houses, Tucholsky charged that the cowardly, avaricious middle class, fearing a left-wing revolution, invited the right-wing dictatorship and were happy to “bear all the burdens as long as they are allowed to make money.”
The timing of this book’s publication is fortuitous. It allows readers to reflect on disturbing parallels between Weimar Germany and the politics of 21st-century Western states, for instance: the success of populists; the unbridgeable gap between the “deplorables” and intellectuals writing in elite publications; and the failure of the political left to translate analysis into winning tactics. And that’s just the beginning. Consider the following: it seems tragically hard-wired in Western political systems that the right is instinctual, the left intellectual; the right fights for power, the left for ideas; the right is rallying, the left feuding; the right is cunning, the left politically naïve; the right looks for converts, the left for heretics; the right is pragmatic, the left idealistic. The left sabotages itself, fighting bitterly and mostly against, while the right fights cynically for the big prize: power.
The past year has followed this pattern. Last year, Theresa May campaigned for the United Kingdom to stay in Europe — until she became prime minister on the heels of the unexpected result of a referendum to leave the EU. Changing her tune, she proclaimed with the hard-line anti-Europe forces that Brexit meant Brexit. After she became prime minister, May assured the British public for months that she would not call an election, but did so when the poll numbers looked propitious. Since the Tories depend on older voters, May’s proposal in her election manifesto to have them pay more for social care was received with outrage and was dropped within days. Writing just before the election, the prime minister declared: “The cold, hard fact is that if I lose just six seats, I will lose this election.” She lost twice that number, but instead of stepping down she reached out to a Northern Irish fringe group whose 10 seats give her a razor-thin majority. The British case is extreme, almost a caricature, but such unprincipled vacillation is the right’s modus operandi.
On the other hand, the recent tribulations of the US Democratic Party exemplify ailments on the left. Bernie Sanders was the ideologically purer candidate, but the nomination went to Hillary Clinton. Her support in key states was lackluster and Democratic turn-out was low. The right (noses tightly squeezed) rallied behind a buffoon and won the electoral college. The left (masochistically quibbling over minutiae) threw the presidential election to Trump: the Supreme Court be damned; the environment imperilled; the international order endangered. Valuing doctrinal purity over political savvy and power is the left’s modus operandi.
Months into a disastrous presidency, the GOP is still solidly behind the president on a listing ship, while the Democrats (at odds with themselves) present a split-screen counternarrative of militant activism and pragmatic conservatism. The commentariat offer a tsunami of advice (much of it contradictory) that makes little difference on the ground. In Weimar as today, political outcomes are not decided by the quality of the intellectual elite’s analysis, but by the skill with which the population is engaged and persuaded to move in a particular direction.
While Tucholsky’s explicit political commentary has not aged well in this reviewer’s opinion, many of his aphorisms, observations, and formulations are timeless. More than a few are thankfully included in Germany? Germany! For instance, in “How to Travel Wrong,” Peter Panter asks and answers pithily:
Don’t have a consideration for your fellow travelers; they would interpret it as weakness. Be unfriendly in general; this is the hallmark of a man […] When you are amused, laugh — and so loud as to annoy those stupid other people who don’t know what you are laughing about. If you don’t speak foreign languages very well, then shout: this will make them understand you better.
In “National Notes,” he observes that a Jew “once said: ‘I am proud to be a Jew. If I’m not proud, I’m still a Jew — so I might as well be proud.’”
As for stereotypes, here goes:
The German thinks it up; the Italian invents it; the Englishman puts it into practice; the American buys the rights to it; the Japanese imitates it; […] and the Frenchman appoints all concerned to the Académie Réaumur. Whereupon the astonished German compiles a bibliography of the whole thing.
Finally, Peter Panter’s advice on speech-making:
Never begin at the beginning, but always three miles before it. Something like this: “Ladies and gentlemen! Before I come to my subject for tonight, let me briefly …” Always make things as complicated as you can. Don’t speak without notes — that disturbs people. The best thing is to read off your speech. That is safe and reliable; then, too, everybody is happy if the reading speaker looks up suspiciously after every half sentence to make sure everyone is still there. […] Announce the conclusion, then start all over again and speak for another half hour.
While political commentary was at the core of his work, judging from his personal letters, the lighter pieces sustained him both financially and mentally throughout the 1920s, until the state of affairs became unbearable.
Tucholsky’s tragedy was both political and personal. Having hoped, as his friend Erich Kästner put it, “to stop a catastrophe with a typewriter,” he gave up his quixotic quest in the late 1920s, exhausted. Conceding that the battle was lost and that Germany was a hopeless cause, he counted himself among
those who believe the German spirit to be almost unalterably poisoned, who have no faith in improvement and who consider this constitutional democracy to be a facade and a lie.
In hindsight, Tucholsky’s negativism was an agonizing blunder. Rather than defending or constructively engaging in Germany’s beleaguered first republic — fiercely attacked from the right, tormented by mountainous reparations claims, and a destroyed economy — the left unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, in the case of the communists) prepared the ground for Nazism. And that was Weimar’s tragedy.
Tucholsky, who was neither a politician nor a psychiatrist, was neither practical nor helpful — just brilliant and right. He realized that “[a] travelogue says more about the writer than about the journey.” Even calling him a satirist — Germany’s greatest since Heinrich Heine — does not fully capture this brilliant man. Tucholsky, in the guise of a caricaturist, expected his sharp pen to bring people to their senses. Not for him Immanuel Kant’s counsel: “Out of timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built.” In 1932, Tucholsky abruptly stopped writing for publication. From his precarious Swedish exile, he anxiously observed Germany’s downward spiral. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor. No time was lost in entrenching the new order: the last issue of Die Weltbühne appeared on March 7. The establishment of concentration camps was announced on March 8. The Enabling Act of March 24 (“Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the State”) gave the Führer dictatorial powers. The boycott of Jewish businesses was declared on April 1. On April 7, the “Civil Service Restoration Act,” which removed “non-Aryans,” communists, and other political opponents of the regime from schools, universities, courts, and ministries, entered into force. On April 25, the number of Jewish students at high schools and universities was limited to 1.5 percent. On May 9, “Fire Slogans” were sent to student bodies to be read the next day at book burnings at all German universities. One of them raged: “against impudence and arrogance, for respect and reverence for the immortal German national spirit! Devour, flame, also the writings of Tucholsky…!”
On August 23, the first Ausbürgerungsliste (of 359) was published — an edict in the Reich’s official gazette annulling the citizenship of 33 Germans, including Kurt Tucholsky, as well as six other Weltbühne authors, and confiscating their assets. Tucholsky’s last years were harrowing. Having left Germany in 1924, he lived in Paris and Sweden, where he was allowed to remain on monthly visas. “For three years,” wrote biographer Harold Poor, “Tucholsky lived under the constant threat of deportation.” After this period of public silence, just before Christmas 1935, he killed himself.
Yet, while he had little influence in his time, Tucholsky’s legacy endures in Germany. His books are still in print, his vibrant articles and humorous aphorisms are frequently cited, and many schools and streets are named for him. For today’s Anglophone readers, this new book reveals the brilliance and desperation of a quicksilver writer in dark times nearly a century ago and an ocean away. Bringing this complex genius to the attention of Americans in this era of alternative facts and “America First” sloganeering corroborates Karl Marx’s observation that history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Franz Baumann is a German, former United Nations official, who served as assistant secretary-general and United Nations special adviser on Environment and Peace Operations at the United Nations Secretariat in New York until the end of 2015. He will be a visiting professor at NYU beginning in the fall of 2017.
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