The era of wild experiments

Historian Dr. Georg Eckert and his book "The Twenties" in the Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview

Mr. Eckert, you recently published the book "The Twenties:The Decade of Modernity". In the chapter "The New Man: The Essence of Modernity" you write that the twenties were a new world. What do you mean by that?

Eckert: Contemporaries experienced a rapid upheaval, also and especially in everyday life: concrete buildings, neon signs, radio, automobiles and many other things changed their life. New standards emerged that have endured to this day: for example, the DIN A4 format, the Rolex, the "little black dress". It seemed to almost everyone that a new era had begun at least since the end of the First World War. The "world of yesterday", as Stefan Zweig later dubbed it in his memoirs, had obviously perished, to the horror of those who had felt comfortable in the old order, and to the enthusiasm of those who had long been pushing for a fundamental renewal of politics, society, economy and culture. Zweig called the twenties "an epoch of the wildest experimentation", which had man himself as its object. It was a widespread conviction that only a new, physically and mentally transformed human being would fit into this new world. Quite a few even believed that they should strive to improve the genetic make-up of humanity, sometimes with fatal consequences.

It is interesting to quote a statement of Rainer Maria Rilke on the uncertainty of a new age when he wrote: "War has always had a brand, but the present is faceless, is anonymous, is an event without a surface, a bubbling, boiling and pushing, which at most has a limit and a border through general fatigue". Are we not standing in the same place again today, 100 years later and one year after a devastating pandemic?

Eckert: No one gets into the same river twice, that also applies to the stream of world history. Incidentally, you can also see it in the way we deal with pandemics: Most contemporaries perceived the Spanish flu, which cost far more lives than the First World War, as less drastic than we perceived the Corona pandemic. The reason why the 1920s seem so familiar to us today is that the problems that have been so characteristic of (Western) modernity since then become so visible in them: in particular, the feeling of being helplessly at the mercy of ever faster change in an anonymous society, which the individual can hardly escape, let alone determine. The signs of fatigue that Rilke thematised here accompany us to this day, just as, conversely, is the fascination for all the new possibilities.

You also speak of people's contemporary longing for redemption towards something new in this chapter . But towards what?

Eckert: The hopes of contemporaries pointed in partly opposite directions. The only thing they agreed on was that things could not go on as before. The obviously unsolved problems of the old world were too great. Even those who resented the new world knew that there would be no return to the old. Some placed their bets on a high-tech, international future that took concrete shape in concrete skyscrapers, for example, while others sought salvation in the familiar and preferred to build in the "Heimatschutzstil". "Bauhaus" artists such as Johannes Itten saw no contradiction in combining new design ideals and production methods with ancient Far Eastern wisdom teachings - for others irreconcilable alternatives, but there were many "crossovers". Or, to give another example: Reform food shops boomed just as much as experience department stores, some enjoyed unbridled consumption, others consumed the renunciation of consumption. The first Waldorf school was opened in 1919, the same year that the US Congress decided to introduce prohibition.

As early as the First World War, people had to face the advancing technology. You write that the first fighter pilots called themselves "knights of the air". Today, digitalisation once again demands modern adaptation from people. How difficult was it for contemporaries to discard the old?

Eckert: The end of traditions can have both liberating and constricting effects, today as then. Among the many factors on which the acceptance of the new depends are beliefs and interests: A carpenter naturally found little to like about a flat concrete roof. For a manufacturer of coachman's whips, the assembly line production of automobiles was inevitably a threat, even if he was somehow fascinated by it. And in the hectic big-city culture of the "Roaring Twenties" and its rejection was also a generation conflict, just as today in some digital worlds of experience. After all, not everyone likes disruption.

The danger of abandoning old traditions in favour of new values was also evident in the flourishing of National Socialism. Even 100 years later, we increasingly have to deal with right-wing extremism in crisis situations, although we should learn from history. What happened then in the phases of social renewal?

Eckert: The rise of National Socialism, which in many cases was able to exploit old resentments with new means of propaganda, was by no means the only possible consequence of the 1920s. Also in politics, they were in a phase of experimentation in politics. The Weimar Republic initially proved remarkably stable. Hitler's putsch in November 1923 failed in a downright disgraceful manner. In Czechoslovakia, for example, a consolidated democracy emerged (which existed in the USA, Great Britain, France and other countries anyway). But contemporaries also placed their hopes in other political systems. These ranged from council systems, which in the Soviet Union quickly turned into Stalin's dictatorship, to authoritarian regimes, such as those found in Poland, Hungary or Italy at the time. In the midst of the enormous upheavals, many people were attracted by those movements that offered very concrete certainties and simple certainties. In Germany, during the world economic crisis, the NSDAP particularly succeeded in doing this, as it blamed all evils on the "system". Ideals such as the "Volksgemeinschaft" gave many the feeling of finally finding a firm foothold in the midst of what was seen as threatening change. In this respect, we are experiencing a similar constellation today, but in many other respects the differences are great.

However, you write, there was agreement across political boundaries that the new man should be a man of action. What is a man of action?

Eckert: The ideal of the man of action sometimes bundled very contradictory concerns that were, however, committed to a similar principle: namely, that it was important to courageously implement what was perceived to be right, even in the face of enormous opposition. Enough was said, now action had to be taken. To exercise ruthless brutality against oneself and against others was seen as a praiseworthy proof of unconditional male determination by many. The spectrum of glorified "men of action" ranged from a cult of political violence expressed in assassinations and street battles to enthusiasm for pioneering deeds such as Charles Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic by plane. Of course, other contemporaries caricatured such hero worship by making little people the protagonists instead of great heroes: for example, James Joyce with his "Ulysses" or Hans Fallada and his "Little Man".

Emancipation was written large in the Weimar Republic. Women gained the right to vote and were allowed to study on an equal footing with their fellow male students. Where did this new self-confidence come from and how did women present it in public?

Eckert: "The" women in the Weimar Republic did not exist any more than "the" men. Equal admission to university did not mean that women no longer suffered any disadvantages at the universities. Today, when we think of self-confident women of those years, we see slim, athletic, often androgynous figures in rather austere, "masculine"-looking dresses (emblematic is the slim-cut trouser suit, even worn with a tie), usually with short hairstyles that were once perceived as masculine, such as the epoch-making bob, with a cigarette holder in a sometimes garishly made-up mouth. Marlene Dietrich was such a style icon of the twenties, and a film like "The Three from the Petrol Station" (1930) made the provocation complete when a rich young woman in an elegant, fast sports car is served by three penniless bachelors. In fact, this new self-confidence also had an economic dimension. Especially saleswomen in department stores or office workers showed themselves in a new role image: that of the single, and thus not incomplete, employee who treated herself to her own pleasures with her own, self-earned money. But this was by no means the reality of all women, but first of all a (metropolitan) way of life.

When you read about the Roaring Twenties, you often get the impression that everything happened only in the big cities. How was the new man displayed in the provinces?

Eckert: The extent to which metropolises were seen as places of the future is shown by the attention they received from their greatest admirers as well as their harshest critics. The extent to which modernity grew beyond the metropolis depended on the respective circumstances and protagonists. In the Soviet Union, one could say, the provinces actually became the preferred place of the new man: at least to the extent that huge tractor factories were built in the middle of the Urals as part of the massively advanced industrialisation, along with ultra-modern housing estates built according to ambitious general plans: for the communist version of the new man. Architecture is a good indicator of the extent to which the new man arrived elsewhere: even in rural East Prussia, which had been severely destroyed in the First World War, the "New Building" of the 1920s has left visible traces to this day. The famous "Bauhaus" was first located in Weimar, then in Dessau: both important cities, but certainly no metropolises.

For the new people, leisure activities took on ever more extravagant features. What could be done back then?

Eckert: You almost have to ask what could not be done: Fritzi Massary's chanson "Warum sollt' eine Frau kein Verhältnis haben" ("Why should a woman not have an affair") was still a huge hit in 1932 in the public. In general, the gesture of debauchery, Francis Scott Fitzgerald's books like "The Great Gatsby" and his life bear witness to this, was sometimes more important than the debauchery itself. In any case, we should by no means think of the twenties as non-stop ecstasy. From the point of view of some critics, it was already debauchery when large department stores offered many goods to a mass audience at increasingly affordable prices that had previously only been luxury goods. Above all, the cultural revolution took place in everyday life. It opened up new possibilities. Cinemas became important places of modern experience, now also thanks to colour and sound films. Ensembles such as the Comedian Harmonists performed in large concert halls, the new musicals (in this country they were called "musical revues") transferred from the USA, as did new jazz sounds. Amusement parks were created, for example, a Lilliput train was opened in the Prater in Vienna, and in the "Haus Vaterland" at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin one could visit a variety of themed restaurants (for example, against the scenery of the Rhine, including thunder, lightning and downpours). But in addition to big spectacles like car races, there were also spectacular innovations on a smaller scale: for example, a building boom for indoor and outdoor swimming pools, which were open to poorer sections of the population as well. For some it served to promote "public health", as it was called at the time, and for others it meant completely new leisure opportunities. Among other things, the introduction of the eight-hour day in 1918 ensured that workers had any leisure time at all.

Even then, America was influencing the old Europe of the twenties with its attitude to life and consumerism. But not everyone agreed with this. When did the mood change and how did the new man change?

Eckert: The United States was both a praised and feared country. American industry set an example of efficiency worldwide, as did the film industry with the new "dream factory" Hollywood, and with the emergence of a middle class eager to consume, the promises of modernity seemed to be fulfilled. The USA was no longer oriented towards Europe, but rather many Europeans were now oriented towards the USA. There were many critical voices, but it is hard to identify a single turning point: The interests were too complex. The most likely turning point was the world economic crisis, which brought the 1920s to a gloomy end: It confirmed many reservations, also against the American economic and social order. And the new protectionism of the 1930s was often staged as a salutary isolation: here, the new man no longer consumed, but proved his strength in renunciation.

Eckert, Georg: Die Zwanziger Jahre. Das Jahrzehnt der Moderne, Münster 2020, 340 pages, 24.80 euros.

Uwe Blass (Interview on February 25, 2021)

Dr. Georg Eckert studied history and philosophy in Tübingen, where he received his doctorate with a study on the early Enlightenment around 1700 with a British focus, and habilitated in Wuppertal. In 2009, he started as a research assistant in History and now teaches as a private lecturer in Modern History.

More information about #UniWuppertal: