berlintrams
Cultures of Drink:
Song, Dance, Alcohol and Politics in 20th Century German Cabarets
berlintram
 
By: Genevieve Judson-Jourdain
 
     
Introduction
Cabaret in WWI Germany
Cabaret in Weimar Germany
Cabaret in Nazi Germany
Conclusion

 

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Introduction

            Where do we get our politics from? Newspapers? State speeches? How about a crowded nightclub with smoke filled rooms, small tables, dim lights, and the distant base-line thump of a piano with a glass of beer resting on it? Culture, politics and history have often had a complex relationship—each feeding into each other, but sometimes failing to recognize the other’s significance. In Germany, as in many other European countries, drinking establishments have often been at the forefront of contemporary culture. Perhaps the best example of the intermixing of culture, alcohol and politics is Germany’s 20th century Cabarets. Cabaret in 20th century Germany was a distinctive art form—a combination of dance, song, drama and other random skits designed to provoke thought while maintaining the audience’s amusement. Using the lethal combination of alcohol, sex and politics Germany’s cabarets of the 20th century centered around a structured environment of a series of small tables where the audience would eat, drink and watch the performances. The intermixing of food, drink and art were a unique combination that bred a level of intimacy between performers and viewers that was previously unheard of. But what exactly was the relationship between 20th century German cabarets and contemporary politics of the time?

Cabarets served a special role as an outlet for political discourse, but in the end, they catered to public tastes and had to strike an appropriate balance between mindless entertainment and engaging political commentary. Twentieth century German Cabaret was both. Through examining cabaret during Germany in World War I, the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany, it will be shown that cabaret served as a barometer of public opinion. Political commentary within cabaret flourished during times of uncertainty and mitigated peace, while in times of war, the political content and satire within cabaret was suppressed by external factors such as the state, but also by internal factors such as public taste. The level of escapism verses the amount of political content and satire within cabaret during a specific time period was the product of a delicate balance between public opinion and the political developments of the day. It is this delicate balance that makes 20th century German cabaret so fascinating to explore.

German soilders in World War I

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 (Weimar Republic) was later formed. From the turn of the century when the originally French art form of cabaret was introduced to Germany, to the founding of the the Weimar Republic in 1919, German cabaret languished providing little to no political commentary and was not even competent at providing high quality mindless entertainment to replace its lack of political zest. This was partly due to the isolation Germany felt due to the war with her European neighbors and partly because German cabaret had yet to solidify into its own distinct breed of art. 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 her own particular flavor. Cabaret found an outlet in pre-war Munich, a city much smaller than Berlin, filled with artists and intelectuals--one that provided an overall welcoming environment for café culture; but because of the rampant censorship prevelant 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. Though exceptions to this rule applied, such as the first German cabaret in Munich: “Die Elf Scharfrichter”, or “Eleven Executioners” in English, which used its status as a private club to try and avoid outside regulation—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:

  “Cut off from contact with European neighbors, German cabaret sank to the lowest
  capabilities of the genre. Incompetence justified itself by means of inflammatory orgies
  of patriotism, and the conferencier garnered cheap applause with German nationalist
  editorials[1].”

Controversies over entertainment’s place in wartime Germany were ubiquitous. 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 were needed. Either way, one thing was uncontroversial: the cabarets of World War I Germany were primarily for entertainment purposes only. Lacking any substantive 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:

  “Like musical theaters and variety shows, wartime cabarets faced major obstacles. They   
  had to struggle with tightened censorship, the limitations on hiring imposed by military
  conscription, and an audience that swindled with the mounting inflation[2].”

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

  “Our wives hardly know how to scrape by with their children, while the
  others dissipate their money with whores and champagne[3].”

Though 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.

An example of the severe unemployment rampant in Weimar Germany
Hyperinflation: essentially making Marks worthless

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:

  “The examples in Berlin and Munich were so influential that within a few years the revolutionary transformation of the mental and artistic habits of the Germans was already complete…they longed for color, disorder, and the unleashing of the arts of the theater. This thirst was slaked after the war. The overthrow of the Kaiser, the revolutionary tumult that resulted in the establishment of a Social-Democratic republic, and the hardships of the inflation period were the troubled waters in which cabaretists could fish with spectacular success. Berlin became a maelstrom, sucking in the energies and talents of the rest of Germany. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig provides a lurid 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[4].”

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. Their favorites were sex and politics. Some performances were so prurient that a second word became necessary to distinguish between performances catering to lustful interests (Cabaret), and those performances primarily centered on political discourse (Kabarett) -- though these terms did not circulate until after the downfall of the Weimar Republic, both types were prominent in interwar Germany. It should be said that 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. This rhetoric was further fueled by the commonly accepted belief of Germany being “stabbed in the back” during WWI. This “theory” was propaganda put forth by Erich Ludendorff, the famous German general stating that Germany was not actually defeated in battle, but rather sabotaged by mutinous sailors--a reference to components of the German Navy in Kiel who rebuffed attempts at forcing them to participate in a large battle towards the end of WWI as well as a reference to socialist workers on strike (towards the end of WWI it became commonplace to witness strikes). 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 polarized. Both left and right parties used the medium of cabaret to present their conflicting political views:

  “Several writers and performers from Berlin’s liberal cabarets wrote articles criticizing the ‘political humorists’ who appeared at chauvinist cabarets and variety shows. A liberal entertainer who used the moniker ‘Dr. Allos’ wrote: ‘What is important in these patriotic recitations is the fact that the word German must appear twice in every line. One also must avoid mentioning unpleasant truths: everything must be rosy, especially the past and the future, and one may end with a powerful admonition to get back to work.’ Tucholsky noted that such ‘humorists’ talked about the ‘good old days,’ when beer and breakfast rolls has been cheap, coal and ham plentiful, and taxes low or nonexistent…But who drove the country into the war, who sustained the war for two years longer, when it could have been ended, who lived in daily luxury the whole time, when women and children suffered privations at home and stood in line: the humorist with his sweaty collar sings nothing about that. The right-wing entertainers encouraged unfocused dealings of discontent that rebounded against the republican politicians in power, despite the fact that the forces of reaction ultimately had been responsible for Germany’s misery[5].”           

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 reign to critique and satirize with censorship restrictions removed and public opinion supporting open discussion. Common questions posed were those surrounding the concept of how socialist the Social Democrats (the ruling party during the Weimar Republic) were or whether or not Germany was really a Republic—an acknowledgment of the power and influence anti-democratic forces still had in Germany at the time. Though not all performances were deeply political, 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--a crucial concept deserving elaboration so one can properly understand how cabaret thrived in such an environment. Gone with the war were feelings that the only way to be supportive of the Fatherland 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. Thus, 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 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.  

Book burning in Nazi Germany

Joseph Goebbels: head of Nazi propaganda

Cabaret in Nazi Germany: 1933-1945

As one can imagine, 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 solely laudatory responses to Nazi exploits, while mocking the actions of their enemies. This lasted until 1937 when Joseph Goebbels outlawed all forms of political expression on the German stage. With the major removal of German men from civilian life in 1939, women dominated the few remaining specimens of what used to be cabaret until the war effectively ruined all physical cabaret venues. 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—once again seen as frivolous in comparison to events of the time, as well as lacking any substantive value (due to Nazi reforms) the color was drained from German life. Famous MCs (masters of ceremonies), choreographers, composers etc… committed suicide or died in concentration camps, making the demise of their art tangible.

The inside of the Wintergarten--the most famous of Berlin's cabarets
The outside of the Wintergarten--the most famous of Berlin's cabarets

 Conclusion

Through illustrations of German cabaret during World War I, the Weimar Republic and National Socialist Germany it becomes evident that the level of political discourse contained within cabaret was dependent on the level of state involvement and general public opinion of the time. Meaningful cabaret thrived in the interwar period when social problems were rife, but were equally matched by freedom of expression. Years after the destruction and rebirth of Germany, she is still remembered for her sometimes decadent, sometimes astute cultural movement that in its finest of hours questioned its surroundings and did it with style…

Bibliography

Appignanesi, Lisa. (2004). The Cabaret. New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.

Bond, D.G. (1993). German history and German identity : Uwe Johnson's Jahrestage.
Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Fosse, Bob [Dirrector}.  (1984). Cabaret [the film]. Farmington Hills. MI: ABC Picture
Corp.

Heath, Dwight B. (1995). International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport,
CT: Greenwood Press.

Jelavich, Peter. (1993). Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Laffan, Michael. (1988). The Burden of German history, 1919-45 : essays for the Goethe
Institute. London: Methuen.

Laqueur, Walter. (1974). Weimar, a cultural history, 1918-1933. New York: G.P.
Putnam.

Alan Lareau. (1995). The Wild Stage: Literary Cabarets of the Weimar Republic.
London: Camden House

Lemper, Ute. (1997). Berlin Cabaret Songs [compact disc]. London: The Decca Record
Company.

Scholliers, Peter. (2001). Food, drink and identity : cooking, eating and drinking in
Europe since the Middle Ages. Oxford: Berg.

Segel. Harold B. (1987). Turn-of-the-century cabaret : Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Munich,
Vienna, Cracow, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Zurich. New York: Columbia
University Press.
http://www.photosammler.de/Data/Sale/postcards01.htm
Senelick, Laurence. (1993). Cabaret Performance: Volume II: Europe 1920-1940,
Sketches, Songs, Monologues, Memoirs. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins
University Press.

Wilson, Thomas M. (2005). Drinking cultures : alcohol and identity. New York: Berg.

Footnotes

1.Max Herrmann-Neisse. “Mein Weihnachtswunsch furs Kabarett,” in Neue Schaubuhne. 3 (1921): pg 169.

2.Jelavich, Peter. Berlin Cabaret. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA 1993: pg 121-122.

3.Ibid: pg 125

4.Senelick, Laurence. Cabaret Performance: Volume II: Europe 1920-1940: Sketches, Songs, Monologues, Memoirs. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, Maryland 1993: pg 24.

5.Allos, Dr. “Gemachte Kabarette-Literatur” in Das Kabarette Jahrbuch. 1921: pg: 24 and Tucholsky, Kurt. “Vom Radauhumoristen” in Werke. 1922: vol 3: pg. 171-172.

Photo Citations:
1. http://www.carfree.com/postcard/oldest/vert/
2. http://www.uwosh.edu/faculty_staff/lareau/cablinks.htm
3. http://www.photosammler.de/Data/Sale/postcards01.htm
4. http://www.germannotes.com/hist_weimar_republic.shtml
5. http://www.jonchristianryter.com/2003/030528.html
6. http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/bookburning/20thcentury/nazigermany/nazigermany.htm
7. http://www.usefulwork.com/shark/archives/2002_11.html
8. http://www.andreas-praefcke.de/carthalia/germany/berlin_wintergarten.htm

Further information on German cabaret:
http://web.simmons.edu/~storz/berlin/musictheater.html
http://www.uwosh.edu/faculty_staff/lareau/cablinks.htm
http://www.nodanw.com/shows_c/cabaret_essay.htm

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