Cabaret of Weimar Germany from 1920 to 1940 - Tim Cole Studio
What's New

Cabaret of Weimar Germany from 1920 to 1940

Weimar cabaret was a feature of late 1920s Germany. It is known for its high living, vibrant urban life and the popularization of new styles of music and dance. Having previously lived under authoritarian government, where entertainment and social activities were tightly regulated, many Germans thrived on the relaxed social attitudes of Weimar. The influx of American money and the economic revival of the mid to late 1920s encouraged celebration, spending and decadence. According to some historians, this extravagance may have been driven by a realization that this prosperity was both artificial and temporary. Many Germans spent big and partied hard, aware that both the economy and the government were destined to fail. The late Weimar era was one of liberal ideas, new forms of expression and pleasure-seeking. Weimar music, dance and entertainment was criticized by radicals on both sides of politics. On one side, the socialists believed it represented the wastefulness of capitalism as right-wing groups and reactionaries claimed it was evidence of weak government, resulting in moral decay and corruption.

The late Weimar era, or what is referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Weimar’, was particularly known for its cabarets. Most cabarets were restaurants or nightclubs where patrons sat at tables and were entertained by a procession of singers, dancers and comedians atop a small stage. Cabaret was, in fact, a French invention that dated 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, Kabarett, was, at first, more conservative and low-key. 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 humor, provocative dancing or political satire.

After World War I cabarets became very popular across Europe. The Weimar government’s lifting of censorship saw German cabarets transform and flourish. Entertainment in the cabaret’s of Berlin, Munich and other cities were dominated by two themes, namely: sex and politics. Stories, jokes, songs and dancing were peppered 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 patronized by gay men, lesbians and transvestites. A population once forced to conceal their sexuality, now basked in the liberal cabaret scene to openly display and discuss it their sexuality.

The cabarets also provided Germans with an outlet for political views and criticism. A good deal of the stand-up comedy on cabaret stages was done by ‘political humorists’, who ridiculed all points along the political spectrum. Their mockery, parody and satire was ‘anything goes’; no leader, party, policy or idea was spared. Cabaret songs often contained a political subtext. Mischa Spoliansky’s popular tune, “It’s All a Swindle” of 1931, was a typical 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.”

The Evolution of Cabaret
Cabaret during World War I: 1914-1919
Cabaret during the First World War in Germany did not thrive on social criticism or political commentary; instead, it was heavily regulated by Germany’s Imperial government. The head of state and government was Kaiser Wilhelm II who ran the empire until 1918 when military fighting ceased in WWI and a democratic German republic, A.K.A, the Weimar Republic, was later formed. Though cabaret first came to Germany in 1901, approximately twenty years after its inception in France, it took nearly two decades for Germany to find their own particular style. Cabaret found an outlet in pre-war Munich, a city much smaller than Berlin, filled with artists and intellectuals--one that provided an overall welcoming environment for café culture; but because of censorship in Germany at the time, Germans were unable to use their creative talents to alter the art form to appropriately reflect its new German context and the movement as a whole was not unified or exceptional in any way. The cabaret of pre 1919 was heavily influenced by the war, spouting extreme nationalism and very little else.

Controversies over entertainment’s place in wartime Germany were abundant. During the first few weeks of the war, cabarets closed all across Germany, only to reopen later when it became apparent that taking France would be more difficult than originally imagined. Two camps of thought existed: those who believed the times were too serious to warrant entertainment and venues of amusement and drink, and those who maintained that it was specifically because of the seriousness of the times that such amusements and distractions were needed. Either way, most agree that the cabarets of World War I Germany were primarily for entertainment purposes only. Lacking any practical political element, except as a podium of government encouraged, nationalist propaganda. Cabarets of this period did not provide serious outlets for political expression, despite being highly influenced by wartime politics.

The real politics of the cabarets in this time period rested in their actual existence: the fact that cabarets were localities of amusement where alcohol: a symbol of prosperity, good times and excess thrived and stood in contrast to the dismal life of most German citizens.

The existence of cabarets was politically controversial and they provided an outlet for nationalist rhetoric, Germany would have to wait until the proclamation of a Democratic Republic before cabaret truly became a venue for political commentary.

Cabaret in the Weimar Republic: 1919-1933
The Weimar Republic is perhaps, the most interesting time period for cabaret in 20th century history. The fact that cabaret thrived in Weimar Germany is well documented. In Laurence Senelick’s book, “Cabaret Performance: Volume II: Europe 1920-1940: Sketches, Songs, Monologues, Memoirs.”, we find Austrian writer Stefan Zweig providing a description of the cultural capital of the Weimar Republic:
“Berlin transformed itself into the Babel of the world. Bars, amusement parks, pubs shot up like mushrooms. It was a veritable witches’ Sabbath, for the Germans brought to perversion all their vehemence and love of system…Amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which has hitherto been unwavering in their orderliness.’ Amid this breakdown, the cabaret, once regarded as the haunt of a certain type of liberated individual, now lured a bourgeois as well as a bohemian audience.”
 Due to the newly formed, far more liberal government, censorship became relaxed and cabaretists found themselves with a great deal more freedom to discuss any topic relevant to life in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. As before, their favorites were sex and politics. Some performances were so unwholesome that a second word became necessary to distinguish between performances catering to lustful interests (Cabaret), and those performances primarily centered on political discourse (Kabarett) and both types were prominent in interwar Germany.
The extreme nationalism left over from imperial times did not immediately disappear. Many cabarets spent the first half of the 1920s attempting to throw off the nationalist rhetoric encouraged by the previous war. The severe nationalist rhetoric was heightened by a fear that something similar to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia might occur in Germany. As the economy spun out of control and hyperinflation took effect, German politics became increasingly more divided. Both left and right parties used the medium of cabaret to present their conflicting political views.
The result of such ideological conflicts was the production of an extremely rich pool of material that cabarets drew from. Dialogue became increasingly more politicized and performers were given free rein to critique and satirize with censorship restrictions being removed and public opinion supporting open discussion. Common questions posed were those surrounding the concept of just how socialist were the Social Democrats or whether or not Germany was really a Republic.

Not all performances were deeply political as most reflected on current events and satirized public figures while the audience maintained an active role in the performance. Closely tied with audience participation is the issue of public opinion. Gone with the war were feelings that the only way to be politically supportive was by biting one’s tongue instead, the interwar chaos helped encourage German citizens to examine, criticize and attempt to find a better way of life.
The popularity of cabaret was twofold: A) citizens viewed it as a medium for examining the state and B) depressed from the instability of the interwar years, people were in desperate need of distraction, amusement and all the other benefits that the cabaret provided. The key as to why German cabaret thrived during the Weimar Republic is the above two factors combined with a guilt-free and allowing environment. People could go to a cabaret, have a beer, some laughs and critique the state without the feeling that they were undermining Germany. It was this transformation in public opinion that allowed cabaret to go from existing only in a technical sense in World War I to the powerful cultural, intellectual and political force it became in the Weimar Republic.

Cabaret in Nazi Germany: 1933-1945
As expected, Nazi Germany was not the most supportive environment for cabaret. German Cabaret suffered on many different levels. Firstly, most cabaret performers as well as those responsible for running the day-to-day operations of cabarets were either Jewish or liberal and as such, were Nazi targets. The majority fled the country in the first couple weeks after the National Socialist takeover. Those who chose to stay were forced into agreeing to produce apolitical pieces and were later forced into performing “positive cabaret”. Positive cabaret was a term coined by the Nazis, and it was intended to provide only positive responses to Nazi activities, while mocking the actions of their enemies.

This lasted until 1937 when Joseph Goebbels outlawed all forms of political expression on the German stage. Long before the ultimate demise of cabaret in the German state, (as versions of cabaret were still being performed in concentration camps) Nazi dominance had destroyed an art form that required freedom of expression to survive. Public opinion no longer backed cabaret as, once again, was seen as frivolous in comparison to events of the time, as well as lacking any substantive value due to Nazi reforms. Many famous performers, choreographers and composers committed suicide and died in concentration camps.

Basic Dynamics of Cabaret
According to Peter Jelavich, in his book Berlin Cabaret, the “ideal type” of cabaret consists of a small stage in a relatively small hall, where the audience sat around tables. The intimacy of the setting allowed direct, Eye to eye contact between performers and spectators. The show consists of short, five or 10 minute numbers from several different genres, usually songs, and comic monologues, dialogues and skits, less frequently dances, pantomimes, puppet shows, or even short films. They dealt in a satirical manner with topical issues such as, sex (being the most popular), commercial fashions, cultural fads and least of all, politics. These numbers were usually presented by professional singers and actors, but often writers, composers, or dancers would perform their own works. The presentations were linked together by a conferencier, a type of MC who interacted with the audience, made witty remarks about the events of the day, and introduced the performances.
Pure type of cabaret was rare, and when it appeared, it was short lived. All aspects of cabaret were subject to change. With increasing popularity, a troupe might move to larger quarters: the stage would expand and, more important, the auditorium would be enlarged to be filled no longer with tables, but with rows of chairs facing the performance. The intimacy of the ideal type cabaret, and intimacy between actors and audience (and among the spectators themselves), would be lost. The content of performances likewise might be changed. It could become more literary and dramatic.

When mainly professional actors were involved or there was an influx of good cabaret material, or when the audience preferred more conventional dramatic forms, one-act skits would come to dominate the program This would lead to a total conversion to drama. In effect, the cabaret would become a regular theater. In contrast, a cabaret might become less literary, or decidedly nonliterary. If censorship hindered parody or satire, or if an audience wanted more show and less tell, then the stage would be left with variety acts, and the cabaret would end up as just another vaudeville show. If the truth felt commercially compelled to appeal to the absolutely lowest common denominator of public taste, it would mutate into a purveyor of what Germans in the 20s called “nude dancing.” That is precisely what most stages calling themselves “cabarets” are today.

By tracking the development of German cabaret during World War I, the Weimar Republic and National Socialist Germany it is evident that the level of political discourse contained within cabaret depended on the level of state involvement and general public opinion of the time. Meaningful cabaret thrived in the interwar period when social problems were widespread, but were equally matched by freedom of expression.

In conclusion, there are five major points in regards to cabaret
1. After decades of restrictive, authoritarian government, Weimar was a period of social liberalization.
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.

All forms of public criticism were banned by a censor on theatres in the German Empire, however. This was lifted at the end of the First World War, allowing the kabarett artists to deal with social themes and political developments of the time. This meant that German kabarett really began to blossom in the 1920s and 1930s, bringing forth all kinds of new cabaret artists, such as Werner Finck at the Katakombe, Karl Valentin (died 1948) at the Wien-München, Fritz Grünbaum and Karl Farkas at the Kabarett Simpl in Vienna, and Claire Waldoff. Some of their texts were written by great literary figures such as Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Kästner, and Klaus Mann.
When the Nazi party came to power in 1933, they started to repress this intellectual criticism of the times. Kabarett in Germany was hit badly. (Kander and Ebb's Broadway musical, Cabaret, based on the Christopher Isherwood novel, Goodbye to Berlin, deals with this period.) In 1935 Werner Finck was briefly imprisoned and sent to a concentration camp; at the end of that year Kurt Tucholsky committed suicide; and nearly all German-speaking kabarett artists fled into exile in Switzerland, France, Scandinavia, or the USA.

Agitprop (/ˈædʒᵻtprɒp/; from Russian: агитпроп [ɐɡʲɪtˈprop], derived from agitation and propaganda)[1] is stage plays, pamphlets, motion pictures and other art forms with an explicitly political message.
The term agitprop originated in the Russian SFSR (which later joined the Soviet Union), as a shortened form of отдел агитации и пропаганды (otdel agitatsii i propagandy), i.e., Department for Agitation and Propaganda, which was part of the central and regional committees of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The department was later renamed Ideological Department.

In the case of agitprop, the ideas to be disseminated were those of communism, including explanations of the policy of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. In other contexts, propaganda could mean dissemination of any kind of beneficial knowledge, e.g., of new methods in agriculture.

The term agitprop gave rise to agitprop theatre, a highly politicized left-wing theatre originated in 1920s Europe and spread to America; the plays of Bertolt Brecht are a notable example.[2] Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule.[3] Gradually the term agitprop came to describe any kind of highly politicized art. After the October Revolution of 1917, an agitprop train toured the country, with artists and actors performing simple plays and broadcasting propaganda.[4] It had a printing press on board the train to allow posters to be reproduced and thrown out of the windows if it passed through villages.[5]


No comments