Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) – advocate of the dying Weimar Republic.

Kurt Tucholsky ©Gedenkstaette Kurt TucholskyLees de Nederlandse versie op de site van Jonge Historici Schrijven Geschiedenis

As promised, todays update is highly ‘Weimar’. Chosen as a topic is the person of Kurt Tucholsky – whose describtion by colleague Erich Kästner as “ein kleiner dicker Berliner wollte mit der Schreibmaschine eine Katastrophe aufhalten…” (“A little fat Berliner who wanted to prevent a catastrophy with his typewriter”) became famous. Tucholsky could be seen as a personification of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) – a democratic society which became known for political discussions, a booming cabaret culture – and for being an era in which jurisdiction was more important than ever before. That was the society where Tucholsky battled for – and his suicide in 1935 is related to the catastrophy he tried to prevent, namely the transition of the Weimar Republic into the Third Reich. The question arises: how actively is such an interesting and publicly active Berliner remembered in public?

Left: Kurt Tucholsky in 1890. No © needed. Right: Kurt Tucholsky's house of birth, Berlin-Moabit (December 2012). No © needed, photo by Joep de Visser.

Tucholsky was born in Berlin, as the oldest son of a banker. He went to the French gymnasium in Berlin. At a young age, Tucholsky was already interested in arts, literature and journalism. Tucholsky wrote in 1907 for Ulk – the satirical attachment for the left-wing liberal newspaper Berliner Tageblatt – in which he made fun of the artistic taste of Emperor Wilhelm the Second. He wrote:

Es war einmal ein Kaiser, der über ein unermeßlich großes, reiches und schönes Land herrschte. Und er besaß wie jeder andere Kaiser auch eine Schatzkammer, in der inmitten all der glänzenden und glitzernden Juwelen auch eine Flöte lag. Das war aber ein merkwürdiges Instrument. Wenn man nämlich durch eins der vier Löcher in die Flöte hineinsah – oh! was gab es da alles zu sehen! Da war eine Landschaft darin, klein, aber voll Leben: Eine Thomasche Landschaft mit Böcklinschen Wolken und Leistikowschen Seen. Rezniceksche Dämchen rümpften die Nasen über Zillesche Gestalten, und eine Bauerndirne Meuniers trug einen Arm voll Blumen Orliks – kurz, die ganze moderne Richtung war in der Flöte.
Und was machte der Kaiser damit? Er pfiff drauf.

Which could be translated by the following:

Once there was an Emperor, who ruled over an extraordinary big, rich and beautiful country. And like any other Emperor – he also possesed a treasury room. Among all the glassy and glittering juwels – lay a flute. That was though a peculiar instrument, when one looked through one of the four wholes of the flute – oh! one could see anything! There was a whole landscape, small – but full of life: a Thomas’ landscape with Böckelin’s clouds and Leistikow’s seas. A Reznicek smoke were smelled by noses over Zille’s figures, and the farmer’s woman by Meunier had an arm full of Orlik’s flowers. In short, the whole modern art was in the flute.
And what did the Emperor with this? He only whistled it.

For your understanding – Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Walter Leistikow (1865-1908), Emil von Řezníček (1860-1945), Heinrich Zille (1858-1929), Constantin Meunier (1831–1905) and Emile Orlík (1870-1932) were all modern artists.

Furthermore, Tucholsky openly supported of the SPD (social-democratic party) and contributed to the party’s daily newspaper Vorwärts (Forward). At the age of 22, he published a roman – called Rheinsberg – ein Bilderbuch für Verliebte (Rheinsberg, a illustrated book for lovers), an ironic story how young and unmarried lovers escape Berlin and go to Rheinsberg. In the meanwhile, he started his study law. Tucholsky contributed for the first time to Die Schaubühne at his 23rd birthday – and wrote this actively that he used three pseudonyms to prevent standing out for the audience. Die Schaubühne developped under Tucholsky’s influence a mixture between an artistic and a political weekly. The ambitious Tucholsky wrote his dissertation in mortgage law successfully in 1915. Shortly thereafter, Tucholsky was send as a soldier to the East front in April. He never shared the optimistic view which most writers had during the outbreak of WWI – and when the War ended, Tucholsky was a vehement pacifist and anti-militarist. Since March 1918, Tucholsky became editor-in-chief for Ulk and wrote articles for the Berliner Tageblatt.

Ulk 1919 ©Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

“Dad and Son.
Industrialism: “Son, you’re behaving rude!”
Radicalism: “Dad, that’s what you’ve taught me!”

In the meanwhile, Tucholsky also contributed for Die Schaubühne, which was forbidden by 1916 for being too pacifistic and re-erected in April 1918 as Die Weltbühne. During the Weimar Republic, Die Weltbühne became an influential left-wing weekly which supported democracy and was not commited to any political party. Tucholsky himself became member of the USPD (left-wing split off from the SPD) in 1920 – but the party dissolved in 1924.

One could say that Tucholsky used his study law after all, to be the Weimar Republic’s advocate. As a defender of the democracy, Tucholsky’s three main themes were the Wilhelminian agressive military mental tendency, in which he wrote a serie of articles in Die Weltbühne since January 1919. Besides, he criticised the violence against left-wing politicians and the sympathy which judges seemed to have for right-wing violators, especially in April 1927. Moreover, Tucholsky discussed the insolvency of democratic politicians – among them from the SPD – to defend their democracy. Before we overly mythologise Tucholsky a defender of democracy and peace, he also wrote from July 1920 till April 1921 for a nationalistic and populistic paper – named Pieron. Among his contributions were smear campaign against Poland and Polish people. Tucholsky wrote:

Wir polnischen Hexen,                     We polish whitches
wir speien auf Frieden                       we puke on peace
wir säen die Hetze,                            we sow the hate 
wir sind nie zufrieden                         we’re not satisfied 
wir haben das Land                            we’ve had brought
in Aufruhr gebracht                            the country to turnover
wir Hexen,                                          we whitches 
wann sinken wir einmal                       than we go
zurück in die Nacht                             back in the night.
wir polnischen, polnischen Hexen.     We polish, polish whitches

For writing these rhymes, Tucholsky was forbidden to write for some left-wing papers – until 1922. Later, in 1929, Tucholsky regretted that he had contributed for Pieron and clarified that he was in need of money – in stead of truely supporting nationalistic and racist ideas. With exception of his contributions in Pieron, Tucholsky seemed to have a succesful sense of humour and made – during the whole decade – important contributions to Berlin’s arising song and caberet culture. Tucholsky co-operated with Berlin’s top cabaret performers – such as Walter Mehring, Friedrich Hollaender, Max Reinhardt and Claire Waldoff. With the start of the Weimar Republic – an important era for Berlin’s caberet took off in which political and social critisism was allowed, in great contrast to the restrained cabaret under the reign of Wilhelm II. The Emperor wanted to restrict entertainment during World War I – for the reason that Germans should pray more.

House of Kurt Tucholsky from 1920-1924, Berlin-Friedenau. December 2012. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

Nevertheless, Tucholsky felt depressed in the autumn of 1922 – strongly doubting if writing makes any difference. From March 1923 onwards, during the inflation crisis, Tucholsky even worked for a bank. He picked up writing for Die Weltbühne again in 1924, when Tucholsky started living in Paris in 1924 as a correspondent for Die Weltbühne and the Vossische Zeitung – Berlin’s oldest newspaper with a liberal background. With living in Paris, Tucholsky followed Heinrich Heine’s idea to conciliate Germany with France by living there. In Paris, Tucholsky continued his work as a poet and author as he was before his personal crisis. In December 1926 – when founder of the magazine Siegfried Jacobsohn (1881-1926) passed away – Tucholsky became the editor-in-chief of Die Weltbühne, for half a year – and moved back to Berlin.

Offices of Die Weltbühne 1921-1927 (Wundtstrasse 65) and 1927-1933 (Kantstrasse 152). Berlin Charlottenburg, December 2012. No © needed. Photos by Joep de Visser.

In 1930, Tucholsky left Germany for Sweden. This time not for reasons of conciliating – but because of NSDAP’s uprise – and himself being from full jewish descent. With this in his mind, Tucholsky wrote Deutschland erwache! (Germany awake!). In this, Tucholsky proposes to the labour class that the nazi’s will start a bloody war and choose aside for the capitalists. They will be in power, unless the labour class awakes.

Tucholsky’s “Deutschland erwache!” at YouTube.com

Tucholsky wrote in August 1931:

„Da gab es vier Jahre lang ganze Quadratmeilen Landes, auf denen war der Mord obligatorisch, während er eine halbe Stunde davon entfernt ebenso streng verboten war. Sagte ich: Mord? Natürlich Mord. Soldaten sind Mörder.”

  Which could be translated by the following:

“During four years there were many kilometers of land on which murder was obliged – while only half an hour away from there it was highly forbidden. I said: murder? Of course. Soldiers are murderers.”

These sentences became highly important – for becoming part of the most important press trial in the history of the Weimar Republic. Since Carl von Ossietzky was the new editor in chief, he was persecuted for being responsible for Die Weltbühne‘s content. Die Weltbühne was charged for offending the Reichswehr (Germany’s army). Von Ossietzky was by then already being prosecuted, being responsible for an article in 1929 which revealed secretive military failures and was critical towards Germany’s army and air force. Von Ossietzky and the journalist – Walter Kreiser – were sentenced for eighteen months prison in November 1931. Being afraid that he would fall in nazi’s hands, Tucholsky avoided Germany and did not attend the trial for his sentence “Soldaten sind Mörder” in July 1932. After all, the court decided that his quote was not an insult for the Reichswehr. From then onwards, Tucholsky wrote less – having a difficult time with health issues, a close friend who passed away and breaking up a relation. His last main article for Die Weltbühne was in November 1932 – though he still contributed with a small note in January 1933.

The 30th of January 1933 – the Weimar Republic died and the Third Reich was a fact. In no time, Tucholsky lost all his influence as a writer. Die Weltbühne was forbidden after the Reichstag fire – its last edition was published at 7 March 1933. By the end of it, Tucholsky was the second most active writer for Die Schaubühne and Die Weltbühne with 1631 contributions – leaving the honour to the magazin’s founder Siegfried Jacobsohn. Moreover – Tucholsky’s books were burned by the nazi’s and his German nationality was withdrawed. In Sweden, Tucholsky didn’t share the widespread view that Hitler’s Germany would collapse soon. Tucholsky commited suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Only a few days before his suicide in 1935, he wrote his deep regretting that he didn’t support Von Ossietzky with attending the trial three years before. Tucholsky’s grave is around the Gripsholm Castle in Sweden – about which he wrote a novel in 1931, with a similar story-line as in the novel about Rheinsberg.

Kurt-Tucholsky-Oberschule, Berlin-Pankow, December 2012. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

Though Tucholsky is not a forgotten name in Berlin’s public history – not many public sites remember him. To be honest – the memorial stones which we’ve seen above are slightly dull – and the only bust of the man there was (in front of the Kurt-Tucholsky-Oberschule – a high school) stolen last February – because the bronze head was worth around the €2400. Within Berlin – Tucholsky is only remembered at the memorial stones at his house of birth in Berlin-Moabit, his apartment from 1920 till 1924 in Berlin-Friedenau and at one memorial stone at one of the locations where the offices from Die Weltbühne‘s are remembered. Also, East Berlin changed the name of the Artilleriestraße to the Tucholskystraße in 1951 – on which a Tucholsky bookshop is located at number 47. At the Torstraße’s corner with the Tucholskystraße – a restaurant is dedicated to the man. Both in the GDR as the FRG, squares or streets named after him in many towns and cities and stamps were develloped. The official memorial site – the Gedenkstätte Kurt Tucholsky was not erected before 1991. The memorial site is mostly a literature museum about Tucholsky’s work – situated in Rheinsberg, after Tucholsky’s novel which is by now published an age ago.

Tucholskystraße/Auguststraße, Berlin-Mitte. December 2012. No © needed. Photo by Joep de Visser

So to speak, the young and ambitious Tucholsky didn’t use his skills in law in court – but behaved as the democracy’s advocate in the newspapers. The Weimar Republic and its official jurisdiction were too conservative already – seen the prosecution and convictment of Die Weltbühne. When judgement day came, the Third Reich unfortunately gained the day in despite of the Weimar Republic. Tucholsky, who had his doubts about the sense of writing already before, saw the catastrophe becoming reality and his books being burned. Kurt Tucholsky commited suicide at the age of 45. Seen the lack of any statue in Berlin and the locations of his memorial site and his grave – Tucholsky is remembered the best in his novels and at places which appeared in them.

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3 thoughts on “Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) – advocate of the dying Weimar Republic.

  1. Thanks for these translations of Tucholsky. One linguistic quibble: where you have ‘virulent pacifist’, your phrasing may sound better if changed to ‘vehement pacifist’. This might not strictly be part of its meaning, but ‘virulent’ to my ears suggests a negative evaluation.

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