Commentary Magazine

The Bitter Bard of Weimar

Why is the greatest comic author of the Weimar Republic unknown to the English-speaking world? Weimar Germany is part and parcel of any highbrow’s cultural literacy—consider the Expressionist cinema of Fritz Lang, the Bauhaus architecture of Walter Gropius, the self-conscious theater of Bertolt Brecht. Indeed, the world of pre-Nazi Germany still haunts and enthralls, to judge by the success of the current revival of Cabaret on Broadway and the popularity of Alan Furst’s historical spy novels. But the intellectual who personally embodies Cabaret remains obscure. He was Kurt Tucholsky, a brilliant Jewish satirist who wrote songs for Berlin revues, ridiculed the Nazis by name, and found refuge in Sweden only to take his own life in 1935.

The easy answer is that Tucholsky was never translated, and for understandable reasons. Hundreds of Weimar refugees fled Hitler to come to America—Lang, Gropius, and Brecht among them—adapting its progressive culture to the tastes of New York and Hollywood. But Tucholsky never came east, and the niche he occupied did not even exist in America: the feuilleton, that section of European newspapers reserved for cultural criticism, social observation, opinion pieces, book and theater reviews, and personal reflections. Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig wrote well-crafted novels that are extraordinarily readable in translation. But Tucholsky was a writer of cynical ephemera, often in untranslatable Berlin dialect. He proved to be a local wine that did not travel.

This has now changed. Berlinica, a small publishing house in Berlin and New York, has belatedly brought out the first translations of Tucholsky into English: Rheinsberg: A Storybook for Lovers,1  a romantic novella published when he was 21, and Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic, an anthology of some 50 essays and poems.2  Together they give American readers an opportunity to see why Tucholsky is better known today in Germany than Gropius and Lang—so well-known, in fact, that Germany’s Supreme Court was forced to rule on the legal propriety of his writing six decades after his death.

Tucholsky was a born feuilletonist—by definition, a writer who is not a specialist but has knowledge and sympathy for the full range of human activities. He had intimate personal knowledge of four distinct worlds—law, banking, theater, and war—knew from the inside the argot and code of conduct of each. Born in 1890 to a family of Jewish bankers, he was groomed for the law. But writing was in his blood. He published his first satirical piece, a lampoon of the Kaiser, at the age of 17. As a law student, he frequented Berlin cabarets, at first as a customer and then as a seller of satirical songs. He made a pilgrimage to Prague in 1911, seeking out Franz Kafka, on whom he made a lively impression. Kafka described Tucholsky in his notebook as “an individual of 21 and all of a piece—from the strong and measured swing of his walking stick, which gives a youthful lift to his shoulders, to his studied delight in and disregard for his own writing efforts. Wants to be a defense lawyer.”

He was at work then on Rheinsberg, which describes the romantic weekend outing of a pair of young lovers (racy at the time because they are unmarried). Their repartee shows the distinctive brusque wheedling humor of the Berlin dialect, which Tucholsky used to comic effect throughout his life. He continued to dabble in both law and literature right up to the start of World War I, by which time he had the strange distinction of having published both romantic fiction and a dissertation on mortgages.

Tucholsky saw action across the whole breadth of the Eastern front, from Latvia to Romania. He had already expressed anti-militarist views in his writing and put them into practice. Given a gun, he promptly leaned it against a hut and abandoned it; he was never given another. The war confirmed him in his pacifism, his lifelong cause. Afterward, he turned to writing full time, working to advance the pacifist cause by means of satire rather than political action.

He found his literary home in the Weltbühne (“World Stage”), a theatrical weekly that had become an influential voice of political and cultural criticism. Tucholsky was a furiously prolific contributor, so much so that he gave himself four pseudonyms so he would not seem to dominate its pages. As Peter Panter, he wrote literary criticism; as Theobald Tiger, humorous verse; as Ignaz Wrobel, political and social commentary. His freest persona was Kaspar Hauser, who wrote fiction, including the monologues of a certain Mr. Wendriner, a vulgar and foolish Jewish businessman who forlornly tries to accommodate himself to a changing Germany.

Each of these alter egos is represented in Berlin! Berlin!, whose translator does a commendable job of finding an English voice for each. Tucholsky had an exceptionally lively ear, and malapropisms, fashionable slang, and catchphrases all affected him deeply, at an almost visceral level. A single neologism, such as the use of “one hundred percent” as an adjective (an American import), might cause acute distress and provoke an indignant essay. All in all, he brought to the spoken language of Berlin the bemused and appreciative detachment that one normally finds in an outsider.

Tucholsky liked to express himself through aphorisms, a habit he shared with G.K. Chesterton, a writer he deeply admired. Whenever possible he gave the last word of a phrase an unexpected twist, something for which the German language, which is much freer with word order than English, is peculiarly suited. At times his essays are little more than a long run of aphorisms strung together, as in his oft-quoted “Der Mensch,” his deadpan definition of mankind:

Man has two legs and two convictions, one when things are going well and one when they are going badly. The latter is called religion.

Man is a vertebrate and has an immortal soul. He also has a Fatherland so that he doesn’t get too cocky…

Man is a useful biological being, because his death on the battlefield can serve to drive the value of petroleum stocks through the roof, because his death underground can serve to increase the profits of the mine bosses; there is also culture, art, and science.

The irony is characteristic but even more so the bitterness, which is the first memorable quality his work possesses. There is scarcely any other figure in English literature with quite the same degree of acid corrosiveness. One has the sense that all our little disappointments—in love, in business, in politics—are but manifestations of the collective disappointment that is life itself. One of his most haunting poems, “Ideal and Reality,” presents a mounting cascade of dreams—for a desirable lover, for an ideal tobacco pipe, for a democratic German republic—each verse ending with a letdown and the same mordant refrain: “One always wants a tall thin one/ and then gets a short fat one/ C’est la vie!”

As with many quotable aphorists, Tucholsky’s lines are sometimes put in the mouths of more famous people. In a 1925 review of a collection of contemporary French humor, he told a joke about a diplomat from the Quai d’Orsay speaking about the horrors of war: “War? I cannot find that so terrible. The death of a man: That is a catastrophe. One hundred thousand dead: That is a statistic.” Today the line is invariably attributed to Stalin, which would surely have appealed to Tucholsky’s cynicism.

His most notorious aphorism is so volatile that for decades it was a crime to utter it in public. In 1931, Tucholsky wrote about the paradox of the rear line in warfare, something he observed while serving as a military policeman. He noted that the line was guarded just as fiercely as the front line: While civilians could not cross to approach the scene of combat, soldiers could not cross to leave the scene of combat. In typical fashion, he rendered this aphoristically:

For four years there were whole square miles of countryside where murder was compulsory, while half an hour away, it was just as strictly forbidden. Did I say murder? Naturally murder. Soldiers are murderers.

Tucholsky had expressed variants of this thought throughout his life, but never in such lapidary fashion. The phrase Soldaten sind Mörder became the rallying cry for German pacifists—who would regularly repeat it, and just as regularly be arrested and prosecuted. Not until 1995 did the German Supreme Court allow that the term could be used as a platitude. Germans still refer to it in shorthand fashion as “the Tucholsky sentence.” (Regrettably, for reasons that will become clear, this most famous of his essays is not included in Berlin! Berlin!)

Given his background, social and cultural, one would expect Tucholsky to have become a Communist and remained a Jew. He did neither. He left the Jewish community as soon as he turned 21, and shortly after World War I he was baptized a Lutheran. He seems to have done so without any religious conviction whatsoever. In his hundreds of thousands of words of journalism, there does not seem to be a single positive comment about religion. Nor does it appear that he did it for reasons of preferment or marriage; in the same year, he married the Jewish doctor Else Weil. (In this respect he resembles the poet Heinrich Heine, another freethinker who insisted he was merely baptized, not converted.)

It was not Tucholsky’s baptism that has led some to charge him with Jew-hatred—Gershom Scholem, the great historian, pronounced him “the most talented and most repellent of Jewish anti-Semites”—but rather his acerbic criticism of bourgeois Jewish society. Most notorious is his Mr. Wendriner character, whose clumsy attempts to avoid offending Nazi storm troopers at a theater come across today as desperately unfunny: “Oh, wait, there’s the [Horst] Wessel song. Stand up. What else are ya gonna do—go along with it…the English sing their national anthem after the theater, too.”

Tucholsky’s craving for intellectual autonomy also seems to have kept him aloof from any formal affiliation with Communism. He liked to compare it to Catholicism as another theology that “raised the consciousness of its followers only in order to restrict it.” It was not Communist oppression that troubled him so much as its intellectual dishonesty, and the requirement that writers subordinate themselves to party discipline. It is characteristic that he expressed extreme indignation when he found a history of the Red Army that did not mention Leon Trotsky, who created that army. His remarkably prescient essay on the subject appeared in May 1928—the first, I believe, to call attention to Stalin’s habit of airbrushing history at will.

Tucholsky’s feisty and impulsive personal style made him a poor team player. When the founder of the Weltbühne died in late 1926, Tucholsky became editor in chief for four unhappy months. With relief he resigned in favor of the fearless Karl von Ossietzky, who would pay dearly for the position. It was Ossietzky who published Tucholsky’s “soldiers are murderers” line, which was taken to be criminal slander. As it happened, Tucholsky was by then living in Sweden and was out of reach of the German criminal system. Instead, charges were brought against Ossietzky. To the end of his life, Tucholsky regarded his failure to return to Germany in solidarity with Ossietzky as an act of cowardice.

Tucholsky had legitimate reason to fear Nazi violence. He had just published a poem about Goebbels, whom he ridiculed for his physical deformity and short stature, a poem scurrilous even by Tucholsky’s standard: “With your clubfoot…/Josef, you’re a tiny man/Somehow you’ve come up short.”

Once the Nazis came to power, Goebbels had Tucholsky stripped of his citizenship, a purely symbolic gesture at that point since Tucholsky had effectively done so by going into self-imposed exile. He told his friends that he had given up on Germany, had stopped reading German newspapers, and was working to master Swedish so that he no longer even needed to speak German. But this linguistic isolation proved fatal to a humorist who depended on wordplay. Over the course of 1932, the well began to run dry and his stream of witty feuilletons trickled to nothing. He continued to write trenchant political commentary in letters to his friends, but his formal writing stopped. Germany’s great ironist would not publish a single word after Hitler achieved power, a historical calamity too big for irony.

His last act was to lobby behind the scenes to see that Ossietzky won the Nobel Peace Prize—successfully, as it happened, although he would not live to see it. Tucholsky succumbed to an overdose of barbiturates in December 1935. In the following years, many of his friends and family would perish at the hands of the Nazis, including Ossietzky, Tucholsky’s mother, and his first wife. He had divorced his second, who was not Jewish, in order that the Nazis would spare her. By this point, the Nazis were the only ones who seemed to remember him, finding him a useful symbol. They burned his books publicly and featured him in the propaganda film The Wandering Jew (1940). As the camera pans over his photograph, the narrator identifies him as “the Jew Tucholsky, one of the most wicked of literary pornographers.”

With thousands of writings to choose from, the editors of Berlin! Berlin! chose to limit themselves to pieces explicitly relating to the city. Doing so lends the anthology nominal unity, but it also removes much of what is most interesting and distinctive about Tucholsky. His incendiary political commentary is scanted. Much of the finest poetry—perhaps his most enduring legacy—also goes missing. But the worst omission is the criticism.

As a critic, Tucholsky was insatiable, compulsively reviewing anything that even flickered in his peripheral vision—John Dos Passos, Sigmund Freud, the songs of Sophie Tucker, the photographs of August Sander, even The Kid, the first feature-length film by Charlie Chaplin, whom he called “the finest mind among living directors.” Like the essays, his reviews bristle with aphorisms. After reading James Joyce’s Ulysses in German, he is not sure whether to blame the author or the German translator: “Either a murder has been committed or a corpse has been photographed.” In trying to capture the sensational nature of modern celebrity, he makes a subtle distinction: “Douglas Fairbanks is not more famous than Homer, just more familiar.” He wondered why the German cabaret could produce male singers who were endlessly unctuous and schmaltzy but not that staple of American cabaret, the “man who was simply nice.”

Tucholsky’s literary taste tended toward naturalism, and he keenly followed its English and American practitioners. But naturalism by itself was not enough; he scorned writers who used language inelegantly, such as Theodore Dreiser in An American Tragedy. He also thought Lady Chatterley’s Lover overrated, since its reputation depended largely on the violation of taboos that had long since been toppled in Germany and France. But where an unaffected naturalism combined with graceful intelligent prose, he was uninhibited in his praise. Such was the case with Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, which he called “the most contemporary of contemporary novels.”

Babbitt brought out Tucholsky’s most interesting critical trait: His endless fascination with business. He recognized that the modern world was more than anything else the creation of the businessman. Across the world, he noted, the towers of office buildings were higher than the churches. The rise of capitalism was the central event of the age, yet literature and drama had little to say about it. They showed how businessmen spent their money but not how they earned it. Tucholsky, by contrast, knew a great deal about that. For him, the stratagems and gambits of the businessman were the stuff of high drama, and no less creative or heroic than that of an artist. But of this there is little hint in Berlin! Berlin!

When it comes to the seamy side of 1920s Berlin, there is no better guide than Tucholsky, who wrote knowingly about its cabarets and cinemas, gambling dens, and prostitutes, as only a habitué can. But this is to make of him a mere Ashcan School journalist—and he was much more. Tucholsky’s intense curiosity about Berlin is so rewarding because of his curiosity about the world entire. He saw how the curiously expectant and anxious culture of Weimar Germany, at once cosmopolitan and insular, was keenly attuned to the modernizing forces of the contemporary world—how mass communication brought about a certain standardization of life, how new technologies can revise codes of conduct and morality, how language itself is unconsciously transformed by advertising. These forces are still with us, in one form or another, which is why this strange, difficult, bitter, self-destructive, and often deeply questionable writer nonetheless remains an essential one.


1 Rheinsberg: A Storybook for Lovers, translated by Cindy Opitz, Berlinica, 96 pp.

2 Berlin! Berlin! Dispatches from the Weimar Republic, translated by Cindy Opitz, Berlinica, 198 pp.

About the Author

Michael J. Lewis , professor of art at Williams College, has written for Commentary for two decades.

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