Cabaret was a form of live entertainment, popular in German society in the 1920s. Often depicted in art and film, Weimar cabaret became known for its colour, freedom and decadence. Cabaret performances often contained political ideas or undertones.
The Golden Age
Cabaret probably reached its zenith during the so-called ‘Golden Age of Weimar‘. This period between 1925 and 1929 has become known for its high living, vibrant urban life and the popularisation of new styles of music and dance.
Having previously lived under an authoritarian monarchy, where entertainment and social activities were tightly regulated, many Germans thrived on the relaxed social attitudes of the late Weimar period. The influx of foreign money and the economic revival of the later 1920s also encouraged celebration, spending and decadence.
According to some historians, this extravagance may have been driven by a realisation that this ‘Golden Age’ was both artificial and temporary. Many Germans spent big and partied hard, they argue, as they were aware this prosperity would not last.
Liberalism and hedonism
The late Weimar era was marked by liberal ideas as well as new forms of cultural expression, entertainment and hedonism (pleasure-seeking).
Weimar music, dance and entertainment were criticised by radicals on both sides of politics. Socialists believed it represented the wastefulness of capitalism; right-wing groups and reactionaries claimed it was evidence of weak government, moral decay and corruption.
The late Weimar era was particularly known for its cabarets. Most cabarets were restaurants or nightclubs where patrons sat, drank and ate at tables. While doing so, they were entertained by a procession of singers, dancers and comedians, often on a small stage.
The origins of Kabarett
Cabaret was, in fact, a French invention dating back to the 1880s. Perhaps the most famous of all French cabarets, the Moulin Rouge, was notorious for allowing lewd dancing and employing prostitutes as dancers and waitresses.
The German form was known as Kabarett. It was more conservative and low-key, at least initially, but began to transform during and after World War I.
Berlin’s first cabaret nightclub dated back to 1901, however during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, German cabarets were not permitted to perform or promote bawdy humour, provocative dancing or political satire.
The cabaret boom
After World War I, cabarets became enormously popular across Europe. Nowhere were they more popular than Germany. The Weimar government’s lifting of censorship saw German cabarets transform and flourish.
Entertainment in the cabaret of Berlin, Munich and other cities often revolved around two themes: sex and politics. Stories, jokes, songs and dancing were laced with sexual innuendo. As the 1920s progressed, this gave way to open displays of nudity, to the point where most German cabarets had at least some topless dancers.
Some cabarets were also patronised by homosexual men, lesbians and transvestites. Previously forced to conceal their sexuality, these individuals seized upon the relaxed liberalism of the cabaret scene to openly display and discuss it.
As might be expected, German conservatives, reactionaries and wowsers loathed the cabarets. They were regularly criticised in the press and from the pulpits of Germany’s Catholic and Lutheran churches, though this did little to diminish their popularity.
Right-wing political groups like the National Socialists (NSDAP) routinely attacked the cabarets, even though many of their members and some of their leaders were seen there. They painted the cabarets as corrupt melting pots, filled with racial and ethnic groups as well as dangerous political and social ideas.
The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig condemned Berlin’s cabaret scene, and the effect it was having on the nation’s social fabric:
“Berlin transformed itself into the Babel of the world. Germans brought to perversion all their vehemence and love of system. Made-up boys with artificial waistlines promenaded along the Kurfiirstendamm … Even [ancient] Rome had not known orgies like the Berlin transvestite balls, where hundreds of men in women’s clothes and women in men’s clothes danced under the benevolent eyes of the police. Amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which had hitherto been unshakeable in their order. Young ladies proudly boasted that they were perverted; to be suspected of virginity at sixteen would have been considered a disgrace in every school in Berlin.”
The cabarets also provided Germans with an outlet for political views and criticism, married with humour, satire and lampoonery.
A good deal of the stand-up comedy on cabaret stages was done by ‘political humorists’ who ridiculed all points of the political spectrum. Their mockery, parody and satire were ‘anything goes’; no leader, party, policy or idea was spared.
Some of this comedy was personal rather than political. Friedrich Ebert was routinely mocked for his weight, for example. The Chaplinesque appearance and mannerisms of NSDAP leader Adolf Hitler were ridiculed during the late 1920s.
Some cabaret performers posed more substantial political questions. One asked: “how socialist is the Social Democratic Party?” while another queried whether Germany was really a republic or was still being run by aristocrats and industrialists. Many comperes and comedians harked back to the glory days of imperial Germany, when taxes were low, bread was cheap and meat was plentiful.
Cabaret songs tended to be lightweight and whimsical but some contained a political subtext. Mischa Spoliansky’s popular tune, It’s All A Swindle (1931), is one example:
Politicians are magicians
Who make swindles disappear
The bribes they are taking
The deals they are making
Never reach the public’s ear
The left betrays, the right dismays
The country’s broke – and guess who pays?
But tax each swindle in the making
Profits will be record-breaking
Everyone swindles some
So vote for who will steal for you.
1. After decades of restrictive, authoritarian government, Weimar was a period of social liberalisation.
2. In post-1924 economic revival saw many seek new forms of leisure and entertainment, like Kabarett.
3. German cabaret entertainment revolved around themes of sexual liberation and political criticism.
4. The cabarets followed no political line: any party or leader was subject to criticism or mockery.
5. Many feared the impact the ‘cabaret culture’ was having on German society and public morality.