Felix Gilbert on Weimar culture in Berlin (1988)

Felix Gilbert was a young university student in Berlin during the 1920s. In this account, written in 1988, he recalls the Weimar culture in the capital:

“Berlin was an intellectually exciting city. Its isolation from the outside world, first during the war and then during the years that followed, created a restless eagerness to catch up with what had been going on elsewhere and to make Berlin a centre of new movements in art, music, and literature.

Berlin in the twenties was emphatically ‘international’; foreign visitors of distinction were eagerly welcomed. I heard Arnold Toynbee, Johan Huizinga, and Rabindranath Tagore speak at the university, and I remember seeing André Gide sitting in the centre box at a commemorative celebration for Rilke. From the first half of the 19th century, Berlin had always been a capital of musical life; I doubt, however, that its musical offerings had ever been as brilliant as they were in the twenties. Berlin had three large opera houses, all for the staging of serious operas, and one placed special emphasis on modern operas and experimental productions…

Yet Berlin’s best offerings during these years were the theatre performances; and they were the chief topic of many conversations. During the winters no week passed without my going at least once to the theatre. When at the end of the month my budget was exhausted and I could not afford a seat, it was “standing room.” I doubt that any city has ever had as many theatres playing simultaneously as Berlin did in the 1920s. There were three state theatres, four theatres under the direction of Max Reinhardt, a similar number under Victor Barnowsky, and many other theatres for serious plays and social comedies…

The theatre in Berlin was profoundly exciting not only because it was frequently great art, but also because it was intensely political. It was no longer an expressionist outcry against all social conventions, which it had been immediately after the revolution of 1917, but it was still a manifestation against old traditions, a place for social criticism and for denouncing restrictions of freedom. Not only did modern plays—those by Ernst Toller, Georg Kaiser, and Carl Zuckmayer, the most admired of the young poets—serve these purposes, but so did older plays like Schiller’s Don Carlos and Hauptmann’s Weber. Brilliantly produced and acted, these suddenly seemed to be written for our time and for us. The greatest and most unforgettable production, however, in which art and politics was beautifully combined, was Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, which played before full houses for years and which I must have seen three or four times. It gave a grim, hopeless picture of a world in which corruption controlled human life and society. Yet it had a fairy-tale ending: the mounted messenger of the king arrives at the last moment, saving the hero from execution.

In my description of Berlin in the twenties, I have given a picture of the life, or at least of the thinking, of people who felt more and more the approach of an evil power, and the unavoidability of the collapse of the world in which they had set their hopes. What is misleading is this, and what I have been unable to depict, is that whatever we rationally thought about the future, we never gave up hope that the mounted messenger of the king would arrive.”