Can Weimar Germany Help Us Now?
Evan Kuehn on Humberto Beck
If you want to draw a simplistic historical analogy that emphasizes the sheer evil of a person, there is one obvious choice: an appeal to Hitler. In recent years, at least in the United States, another twentieth century German analogy has also become popular when diagnosing societal problems: the Weimar Republic. Weimar doesn’t represent evil so much as a tipping point. In the years before World War II, constitutional, economic, and societal breakdown in the newly created Weimar Republic cascaded into the better-known and more often invoked evils of the Nazi regime.
We appeal to Weimar for a lot of reasons. It is often a sophomoric appeal: just middlebrow enough to not be a reductio ad Hitlerum. It is also conveniently ambiguous. Everyone, from the right wing to the left, can find confirmed in Weimar their own theories of what is wrong with the world today. Some appeal to Weimar in order to criticize our society’s perceived moral decadence, usually of a sexual nature. Some are sounding the alarm about our crumbling democratic institutions, or weakness of will among liberal politicians. Everyone is observing the same everyday world when they draw analogies to Weimar, but they are interpreting it as a crystallization of something important.
Humberto Beck’s The Moment of Rupture: Historical Consciousness in Interwar German Thought examines this interplay between “normal” life and those moments of impending crisis that set everything in question. Whether or not our present day appeals to Weimar Germany are always appropriate, there is a reason why this short but consequential period of European history has captured the imaginations of many. Weimar writers and thinkers were wrestling with many of the same anxieties about present and future dangers that we are. Beck calls the new time-consciousness that grips the modern imagination between the first and second World Wars Instantaneism. Throughout the book, temporalities of the moment are constantly contrasted with historicism, a term that has been used in various ways and itself requires some unpacking. For Beck, historicism means a commitment to continuity and progress. Historicist approaches to temporality are oriented to the future as a telos that brings to light the ultimate meaningfulness of present and past. Instantaneism on the other hand, finds a similar sort of meaning in history’s ruptures, which fragment experience and, in this way, reveal the deeper source of human and historical vitality.
The first two chapters of the book discuss the prehistory of Weimar instantaneity – demonstrating that moments of rupture are perhaps not entirely a lightning bolt out of the blue but have their own histories, and even exhibit progress. Beck identifies two main waves in how we began to think about history in terms of the instant: the first a more philosophical story from the French Revolution to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and the second a more aesthetic story from Charles Baudelaire’s vision of modernity in his essays and poetry to the 20th century Avant Garde. These and many other coalescing threads began to solidify a modern sensibility of living in the moment – sometimes in a truly vivifying way that foregrounds the agency of one who would will to live the eternal recurrence of the moment, and sometimes in the sense of being trapped by the terror of new circumstances: the crowd, the trenches, or industrial society. Often these two poles of emancipation and entrapment were not mutually exclusive. Beck helpfully describes these earlier steps toward the interwar period as “splinters of ahistoricity within a larger historicist era.”
This rupture of the temporal against the brick wall of the instant, over a century in coming, finally culminated in the Great War and the revolutionary fervor that followed it during the ill-fated Weimar Republic. This is a relatively uncontroversial claim to make. The “Weimar Moment” is not just a figment of the imagination of Trump era pundits; it has been identified by historians in the mid-twentieth century backlash against historicism and liberalism, a rise of interest in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as well as an embrace of technocracy and fascism. In retrospect it is easy for us to call this period an interregnum, but between 1914 and 1940 many of the brilliant writers of Europe were simply grasping for a coherent account of their situation. Or, perhaps truer to their own self-understanding, we could say that new metaphors had taken hold of them. Interwar Germany offered a new Weltbild, or world-picture. It was timed to the rise of photography in art, an instantaneous form of image capture and representation. At the same time, war memoirs and critiques of cultural heritage marked a time that was interested in sharp breaks with the past, and new definitions of the present.
Beck considers three German writers active during the years of the Weimar Republic: Ernst Jünger, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin, each of whom transform the idea of the instant as “a new standard of perception,” and even a new “regime of history,” or borrowing from the lexicon of literary criticism, a “chronotope” presenting new ways of representing temporality.
Jünger stands out among the three. His conservative nationalism and uncomfortable proximity to the rise of Nazism in Germany means that he is not often paired with Marxist voices like Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin. Beyond this ideological distance from the other two case studies, though, Jünger’s own biography stands in contrast to the intellectual regime of instantaneity to which he contributes. Living until 1998 to the age of 102, Jünger is the quintessential witness to a German century, a fixture upon which to chart continuities of human experience if there ever was one. And yet, Beck shows convincingly that Jünger belongs among the more obvious harbingers of historical rupture. He exhibits jarring modernist realities, mostly of war, as terrible and invigorating drives. His interwar writings attempted to employ the mode of experience natural to the technological developments of the Great War through what Beck calls a “phenomenology of suddenness.” Jünger develops an understanding of human experience through his early reflections on wartime service in Storm of Steel (1920) and Battle as Inner Experience (1922). This Fronterlebnis, or “front experience,” was a spiritualized and aestheticized embrace of the terror brought on by the encounter with technologized conflict. In his own way, Jünger was making sense of the rupture posed by the modern battlefield, drawing continuities to the general human experience.
Ernst Bloch’s writings before leaving Germany in 1938 were also shaped by the Great War and its aftermath, though in a quite different direction and with more lasting significance. He is one of the great 20th century theorists of utopia because of his articulation of the Not-Yet as the determining force of historical life. In The Spirit of Utopia Bloch began to sketch out the relationship between the darkness of our present time and the brightness of that for which we hope. With the revolutions of 1918 his understanding of the utopian moment would become more explicitly Marxist, and in his work of the 1930s Bloch would continue to develop these ideas. Particularly important is the concept of noncontemporaneity, which describes how people can live in synchronous temporal moments and yet be worlds apart, fragmented in their respective relation to the Not-Yet. More than any other thinker discussed in the book, Bloch offers a sense of history as holding together based on a decidedly non-historical focal point. This utopia is neither a teleological end of history, nor against history. It is not here, and at the moment we can only hope for it.
Walter Benjamin, discussed in the final chapter, bears some resemblance to Bloch in his pursuit of a messianic or revolutionary sense of historical consciousness against historicism (for more on how their writings are related, see Ivan Boldyrev’s recent book Ernst Bloch and His Contemporaries). Like Bloch, Benjamin often writes in a style of fragmentary montage that evokes both the German romantic tradition and modernist aesthetics. Benjamin’s contribution to an instantaneist historical consciousness, though, focuses on the fragmentation of the Now more than an elusive Not-Yet. The messianic interruption of history does more than give meaning to the Now from the vantage of the Not-Yet, it exists in the moment of actualization. Benjamin most completely represents the idea of a “moment of rupture” among the three authors, and while he is not a household name, his work is still the best known among them, and most discussed by scholars. While the new regime of temporality emerging from the Great War is merely a chapter in the career of Jünger and Bloch, Benjamin’s tragic death in 1940 uniquely ties his historical legacy to this anti-historical moment. He is wholly a Weimar writer.
The lasting significance of interwar Germany is currently in question, which means that while many people continue to draw analogies to the Weimar Republic, we still have a lot of work to do in sorting out what Weimar means for us today. Beck notes in his conclusion that major German postwar thinkers “developed intellectual discourses on contemporary society that left out or explicitly rejected the consideration of instantaneist forms of political consciousness or action.” It could also be added that many new historical studies of the period have attempted to highlight the importance of liberal democratic and universalist forms of social thought, or to rehabilitate 19th century philosophies against these three and other radical critics. Historical continuity and progress cannot be a bugbear, then, but rather should be a dialogue partner for those who talk about history in terms of tipping points and crisis.
The Moment of Rupture is a helpful contribution to such a dialogue because of how Beck compellingly presents the Instant as producing a genuine category of historical consciousness, and not just an innocence or rejection of history. He explains his subjects’ alternative representations of temporality in a way that their detractors can appreciate as genuinely historical, and in a way that provides tools to anti-historicist thought for constructively engaging with other approaches to historical thinking. It is a compact, lucid, and enjoyably biographical study of an intellectual and world-historical interregnum that has only become more significant for how we understand our histories a century later.
Evan Kuehn researches modern religious thought and theories of knowledge and information related to librarianship. His writing includes Troeltsch’s Eschatological Absolute (Oxford University Press, 2020), and Theology Compromised: Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, and the Possibility of a Sociological Theology, co-authored with Matthew Ryan Robinson (Lexington/Fortress Press, 2019).