Sunday, April 26, 2009

women and weimar germany 1920's

Leave your troubles outside!
So- life is disappointing? Forget it!
We have no troubles here! Here life is beautiful...
The girls are beautiful...
Even the orchestra is beautiful! (1)

It is Germany, 1928. Raucous laughter from the cabaret
seeps outside as Lotte passes in the shadows of the cold Berlin night.
The streets are sexually charged,
lined with a heady concoction of prostitution,
homosexuality, transvestism and drugs.
Still spinning from the collective lust roaring unashamedly
through the theatre that evening, Lotte heads now for the café bar
at the Eden Hotel where she lives. Jostling with leggy glamour girls
as she takes her drink, Lotte pushes a straying strand
of short hair behind her ear, settles her slender trouser-suited body
into the deep folds of an armchair and smiles provocatively
as she lights a cigarette.


Mondine und Demimondaine Skizzen, von F. W. Koebner,
Grotilgo-Verlag, Berlin 1921.Magazine

Berlin's interwar reputation of hedonistic
decadence and debauchery is familiar through scenes
from Metropolis by Fritz Lang, images of Marlene Dietrich
in The Blue Angel by Josef von Sternberg and stage productions
of The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht.
A ferment of artistic and sexual experimentation,
the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) privileged an outpouring of
cultural creativity in the Bauhaus movement of modern art
and the development of the International Style in modern architecture.
Against a background of inflation and depression, Berlin
drew the talent and energies of the rest of Germany
towards its glittering cabaret performances and burgeoning
sex tourism industry. From within this hotbed of frenzied immorality,
supposedly constitutional sexual equality worked to create
the myth of the sexually liberated and financially independent
'New Woman' in Weimar German society.

Artist : Martin Lehmann-Steglitz

Born out of Germany's disastrous defeat in World War I,
the Weimar Republic exercised democracy amidst continuing chaos
and political upheaval. Economic crisis followed the devaluation
of the German Mark in wake of the undermining of payments
demanded in the Versailles reparations clause imposed on Germany
at the end of World War I. The political and economic collapse
resulted in the "destruction of the inherited framework of beliefs and
certainties which had given Germany its particular reassurance" (2).
Unable to maintain the image of a strong, victorious Reichswehr,
or Reich Defence, former Imperialistic values of hard work and
national pride were subsumed in the emergence of a new decadence
and urban proclivity.

The Cabaret

The socially correct role of women was similarly transformed
in face of the erosion of old traditions and moral principles. In the
19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II had defined women's position in 
society as centering on the 'Kirche, Kueche, Kinder', or church, 
kitchen and children.
After the adoption of the Weimar Constitution in 1919, women
were guaranteed a new status of equality with men in terms of their
enfranchisement and legal and economic standing.  However,
these advances were little more than token gestures of 
appeasement.  The 1919 Constitution was never enforced through
legislation, and the Kaiser's restrictive Civil Code of 1900
continued to control the legal and financial rights of women.
As the historian Claudia Koonz states,
"[the] Weimar leaders grafted a democratic state onto a traditionalist 
and conservative social structure and a thoroughly 
capitalist economy" (3).

the myth arose of a 'New Woman' challenging men in the realms of politics and economics.  Mass advertising in the Popular Press capitalized
on the power of this image in selling branded products and
promoting specific lifestyle choices.  A magazine article
from the period described the new generation of women, claiming
"They go to the cinema in the evenings, wear skirts that end
above the knees, buy 'Elegant World' and the film magazines" (4).
Portrayed in films, newspapers and Pulp fiction, the 'New Woman' was
typically depicted as a sexual object for the satisfaction of male desire.
Sexually predatory and educated, she achieved financial independence through employment and spent her earnings on fashion and fun.
She had short bobbed hair, wore relaxed masculine clothes,
smoked cigarettes and enjoyed the globally notorious nightlife
of Berlin's theatres, cinemas, cafes and bars.
According to the historian Ute Frevert, the Weimar women
were "children of the new age who were variously celebrated or accursed" (5).

Despite their apparent emancipation from oppressive tradition,
they were feared by the older generation for their
individualism and selfishness. Much of this fear lay in the
promulgation of a childbearing strike
by the Syndikalistische Frauenbund or 
SFB (Syndicalist Women's Union),
established in 1920. An article written in 1921 stated
that "the advancement in the intellectual development of women
[could] not be possible without the liberation
from the slavery of childbearing" (6).
Accordingly, many young women campaigned at public rallies,
calling for the criminalization of contraception
(paragraph 184.3 of the Constitution) and the
prohibition of abortion (paragraph 218) to be revoked. However, these
moves towards allowing women the possibility of legitimate
birth control were deemed inherently selfish rather than sexually
liberating in light of the falling birth rate and depleted population
at the end of World War I.

In general therefore, the 'New Woman' was represented negatively
and blamed for the degeneration of Weimar society and culture.
However, the reality of life for the majority of women
in the Weimar Republic was vastly different from that of the
'New Woman' they avidly desired to emulate. Confronted by exploitation and underpromotion in the workplace, many women continued to embrace
the 'Kinder, Kueche, Kirche' ideal of the former monarchy.
Notions of political liberation were also tenuous. Despite enfranchisement
in 1918, their representation at all levels of Weimar German political party leadership was minimal. It is therefore an inescapable conclusion
that depictions of the 'New Woman' were media-generated and
founded in male constructions of sexuality that reflected the
underlying social, economic and political insecurities and
anxieties of the era.
Indeed, the very popularity of misogynistic and distorted images
of the 'New Woman' among women themselves reveals the impossibility
of their liberation at even the level of being able to reject
their own stereotypical depiction.


(1) From Cabaret, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb. Carlin Music Corp., 1967.
(2) de Jonge, A. (1978) Weimar Chronicles, New York, Paddington Press Ltd., p. 13.
(3) Koonz, C. (1987) Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family and Nazi Politics, New York, St. Martin's Press.
(4) Wehrling, T. (1920) 'Berlin is becoming a whore' in Das Tage-Buch.
(5) Frevert, U. (1989) Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation, New York, Berg.
(6) Wittkop-Rocker, M. (1921) 'Frauenarbeit Frauenorganisationen' in Der Frauenbund, Monatsbeilage des Syndikalist , 1, October.

Taken from Fashion in Weimar Germany at Fashion Worlds