Living in Weimar 2: Creative Ferment

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Laurie and Debbie say:

blm

We’re not the only people thinking about the Weimar Republic while reading the news. Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker just before the Republican National Convention, turned an art review into an analysis of both historical Weimar and contemporary U.S. politics.

Two thoughts, not strictly political but social, come to mind …: First, that the Weimar Republic gets a very bad rap for how it ended and insufficient credit for how much creative ferment and intelligent thought it contained. The notion that it was above all, or unusually, decadent was a creation of its enemies, who defined the creative energies of cosmopolitanism in that way. All republics are fragile; the German one, like the Third French Republic it paralleled, did not commit suicide—it was killed, by many murderers, not least by those who thought they could contain an authoritarian thirsting for power. And, second, that the United States has been the ultimate home of so many cosmopolitan citizens rejected by Europe. People expelled by hate from Europe wanted desperately to get to the American Midwest, to cities like Chicago…. Cosmopolitanism is not a tribal trait; it is a virtue, as much as courage or honesty or compassion. Almost without exception, the periods of human civilization that we admire as we look back have been cosmopolitan in practice; even those, like the Bronze Age, that we imagine as monolithic and traditional turn out to be shaped by trade and exchange and multiple identity.

It is always easy to fall into despair about the world, and ever easier as the news becomes more global, more instantaneous, and more omnipresent.  That’s why it’s so deeply important to take a wider view.

Our times also get insufficient credit for how much creative ferment and intelligent thought we contain. We live in a time that is

  • bringing indigenous movements to protect and sustain the earth (Idle No More is just one example) into prominence and some power
  • going completely over-the-moon about a radical hip-hop musical about the role of brown people in the time of the U.S. founding fathers
  • seeing the principles of the Occupy movement of a few years ago resurface as a powerful and perhaps lasting wing of a major American party
  • moving Black Lives Matter into the forefront of the national conversation
  • creating grassroots movements which force more and more municipalities, counties, and perhaps soon states to ban coal terminals, prohibit fracking, protect and restore clean water

The list is much longer, but you get the idea. All of these victories have costs; all are balanced by defeats, obstacles, and naysayers, but they are happening. And they only happen to the extent that people — here as in Weimar — are engaged, passionate, committed, and thoughtful.

As Gopnik says later in his article, “While the habits of hatred get the better of the right, the habits of self-approval through the fiction of being above it all contaminate the center.”

In our first post of this series, we quoted from Harold Meyerson’s article in The American Prospect. Here’s another piece of his analysis:

… the Nazi regime, [Ernest] Thälmann, [leader of the German Communist Party from the late 1920s until the Nazis arrested him a few months after they took power in 1933] argued, should not vex leftists, as the Communists would quickly overthrow it. “After Hitler, Us!” was the Communists’ slogan throughout 1932 and early 1933…

In a sense, Thälmann, was right. After Hitler’s death in 1945 and the Nazi surrender, the Communists, through the strength of the Soviet army, did come to power in East Germany. By then, of course, close to 60 million people had died in World War II and the Holocaust, and Thälmann himself, at Hitler’s command, was killed in Buchenwald in 1944.

Thälmannism, then, is the inability (be it duplicitous, willful, fanatical, or just plain stupid) to distinguish between, on the one hand, a rival political tendency that has made the compromises inherent to governance and, on the other hand, fascism.

If the habits of hatred get the better of the right, and the habits of self-approval contaminate the center, the habits of thinking in purist terms were a major piece of the downfall of the effervescent progress in Weimar.

That mistake was disastrous then, and must not be made now.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the pointer to the Gopnik article.