After the First World War, Germany enjoyed just over 20 years of peace before the Second World War erupted. Writer Kurt Tucholsky was one of the first to predict the impending disaster.
Germany, November 1918. The First World War had been lost and German Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate, leaving the nation rudderless and in chaos.
Even before the war ended, Germany's radical Socialists and moderate Social Democrats had fought over the country's political future. On November 9, the same day the Kaiser abdicated, both Karl Liebknecht, co-founder of the Spartacist League, and SPD deputy chairman Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed a republic.
Under Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert's leadership, a provisional government took power. On November 10, Wilhelm Groener, second-in-command of the German Army, spoke by telephone to the newly-named Chancellor. The two men agreed what would go down in history as the Ebert-Groener pact. For his part of the pact, Ebert agreed to suppress the Spartacist uprising and to maintain the defeated army′s role as one of the pillars of the German state; Groener in turn agreed to throw the weight of the army behind the new government.
By January 1919, the Spartacist uprising had been bloodily suppressed with the help of the army, leaving the way clear for the adoption of the SPD's Weimar Constitution. The Weimar Republic was born the same year.
No to nationalism and militarism
One young man was not at all happy about this SPD-military alliance: 27-year-old writer and journalist Kurt Tucholsky. Having served as a soldier in the First World War, his experiences on the eastern front had made him a fervent pacifist who believed that the army had no place in Germany's fledgling democracy. “For Tucholsky and many others of his generation, the First World War marked a clear break,” says Rolf Hosfeld, author of a biography of Tucholsky published in Germany in 2012. “He hoped that the disaster (of the war) would have been a lesson and was disappointed that this was not the case to any significant degree.”
Tucholsky saw himself as a leftist but was not keen to join forces with the Communist Party (KPD), which was committed to Leninism and later Stalinism. Instead he did what many left-leaning writers in Germany did, who were unwilling to toe Moscow's line – he channelled it into his work. He served as a co-editor of the weekly magazine Die Weltbühne, railing against the growing influence of the army in the Weimar Republic and its development into a state within the state, operating largely outside of the control of the politicians. He was equally critical of nationalist fervor, which to him was a relic from Germany's imperialist past and a danger to the nascent republic.
“Germany is an anatomical oddity,” he wrote in the 1920s. “It writes with its left-hand and acts with its right.” His point was that while intellectual life in the Weimar Republic was steered by its many leftists, the general mood was characterized by nationalism and militarism.
Tucholsky was one of the first to predict the republic's demise and to see the rise of the Nazis as a danger. “The precision with which he predicted certain developments which then came to pass is astonishing,” says Hosfeld. “Including Paul von Hindenburg's collusion with Hitler's Nazis.”
Curbing press freedom
The Weimar Republic did not have a spotless record when it came to freedom of the press. In 1929, Tucholsky's co-workers at Die Weltbühne appeared in court after publishing an article stating that the Reichswehr – as the army was renamed in 1921 – was secretly building up an airforce. According to the terms of the Versailles Treaty, German armed forces were not allowed to exceed 100,000 troops, nor could they operate armed aircraft.
“Attempts were made to silence all voices critical of the army's autonomy,” explains Hosfeld. The Weltbühne journalists, including Carl von Ossietzky, who later won a Nobel Prize, were charged with betrayal of secrets and sentenced to 18 months behind bars. Tucholsky himself was spending most of his time abroad when the trial took place. But the case made it abundantly clear that leftist journalists were playing in fire.
As Germany reeled from the effects of financial crisis, the rise of the Nazis that Tucholsky had predicted and feared began to gather momentum, with the party securing 18 percent of the vote in the 1930 elections.
Bitter political disappointment and restrictions on press freedoms combined with a number of personal problems prompted Tucholsky to go into self-imposed exile in Sweden, a country he loved.
He was already in Sweden when Hitler seized power on January 30, 1933. His publishing career in Germany was effectively over. "One does not whistle against an ocean," he wrote despondently in a letter in April, 1933. Two years later, on December 21, 1935, Tucholsky died in Gothenburg of an overdose of sleeping tablets. To this day, it remains unclear whether it was an accident or suicide.
Writing in the weekly magazine Die Weltbühne, which was once co-edited by Tucholsky, German novelist Erich Kästner described him as "that little fat Berliner who wanted to prevent a catastrophe with his typewriter." Tucholsky despaired of the fact that the lessons of the First World War appeared not to have been learnt. As it turned out, they would only be learnt after the country experienced another terrible war. What would Tucholsky think of today's Germany?
"Tucholsky would probably like Germany very much, but that doesn't necessarily mean he would have refrained from criticizing it," says Hosfeld. He believes that the Bundeswehr's overseas missions and the government's handling of the banking crisis "would probably have incensed him because it's the general public that pays." He would have lost none of his left-wing idealism, that's for sure.