Few nations throughout history have gone through as many extreme and rapid changes as Germany in the early 20th century. From the powerful monarchy that reigned from Germany's inception to the end of WWI, to the brutal revolution that overthrew it, to the runaway inflation and food shortages that prompted the rise of the Third Reich, Germany manifested several distinct cultures in a shockingly short period.
Of these, perhaps the most interesting was the Weimar Republic. This period, which ran from 1918 to Hitler's rise in 1933, has become known as one of the most culturally permissive periods in history. As memorialized in the Broadway musical and Oscar-winning film Cabaret, it was a time of copious substance use, BDSM fashion and practices, and a libertine attitude that would make the final days of the Roman Empire look prudish. But is this picture of the Weimar Republic accurate?
As with most historical questions, the answer is complicated. While it does seem that wild indulgence and substance use became more commonplace, there are several mitigating factors. New social attitudes meant that citizens were talking and writing more openly about things that may have been going on beforehand. In addition, the Weimar Republic was far more than a shallow, wasteful, nonstop party. It was also a flowering of culture that brought us such artists as Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht.
A persistent myth of this era is that the rise of authoritarianism in Germany was a response to the debaucheries of the Weimar Republic. This is largely groundless, as food shortages and inflation played a much larger role. The truth of the Weimar Republic is stranger, subtler, and much more interesting.
That the Weimar Republic was more permissive than the previous imperial government goes without saying. Yet, for Germans used to the authoritarianism of the Kaiser, even the acknowledgment of the existence of escorts, controlled substances, and premarital intimacy was unwelcome.
Many journalists eager to play upon the more conservative elements of society found themselves temporarily out of power. These included the journalist Leo Heller, who worked with police commissar Ernst Engelbrecht on a book that purported to show the real Berlin nightlife. However, both men seemed more interested in using scare tactics to sell copies than in reporting the truth:
The sausage seller sells not only his sausage treats but offers his customers the chance for other, forbidden pleasures as well. For on the side he also does a booming retail trade in cocaine, the poisonous white powder... One can estimate that thirty percent of all prostitutes, gamblers, and pederasts are cocaine users, and in other callings as well, in particular among artists, cocaine has found its loyal slaves.
The rise of industrialization created a demand for cheap labor all across the world. In many European and American cities, some of that labor was supplied by women. Young, poor women would come to the cities and take menial jobs in factories or textile mills, often working for far less than their male colleagues. However, this underclass was often ignored.
Not so in Weimar Germany, where the phenomenon was given the name the "New Woman." This referred not simply to young, working women, but also to a specific type "who was young, unmarried and childless, earned her own income, and wore her hair cropped short," according to Julia Roos, author of Weimar Through the Lens of Gender. The New Woman was seen as emblematic of the social changes developing in Germany, and is seen as a watershed moment of gender equality.
As with everything in this era, there are mixed views. Some modern feminist historians claim the emancipation of this period has been overblown, and that women were simply used as cheap labor. Others point to advances in abortion and contraceptive rights as key forerunners to modern fights for equality.
The Berlin of the '20s is rightly associated with an explosion of gay rights and gay culture. In fact, some have argued that Weimar-era Berlin was the birthplace of the modern struggle for gay rights. Of course, there had been gay activists and pockets of tolerance before, notably in France during the Romantic era.
However, these had always been tolerated, unspoken movements, in which gay enclaves were allowed to exist, but homosexuality at large was fiercely condemned. Berlin during the Weimar era was different. Gay magazines were openly circulated, the police backed off, and openly gay artists like Claire Waldoff created hit music that was played in clubs across the nation. Gay and lesbian couples could be together openly, and there were a number of transvestite balls across the city.
The change was so dramatic, in fact, that elements in the government began moving toward legislation that would decriminalize homosexuality entirely. The collapse of the stock market in 1929, followed by rising authoritarianism, scuttled plans for any such liberation. For a brief moment, though, Berlin was the center of gay culture in the world, and laid the seeds for the long fight for gay acceptance that is still being fought today.
It is a great historical irony that part of Hitler's platform was a promise to clean up the decadence of the Weimar Republic. Germany under Hitler's rule was, itself, among the most substance-dependent nations in human history. Hitler's own preferred diet, a mix of amphetamines and barbiturates, is well documented, but there is ample evidence that many of his troops were fed a form of crystal meth to keep them going during long marches.
Of course, the Weimar Republic was far from squeaky clean. The use of controlled substances certainly accelerated somewhat in the major cities, but was likely blown out of proportion by cinema and the arts. This was also complicated by journalists who wrote alarmist exaggerations of the nightlife in Berlin to sell their shocking papers throughout the country.
Eventually, German party leadership was able to cast this so-called decadence as "Jewish" - first subtly, then openly. Once the decadence myth became part of the Third Reich's overall anti-Semitism, they attacked relentlessly and it helped fuel their rise.