1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A tour of cabaret-era Berlin as populism rises

Enrique Anarte
December 28, 2018

The rising interest in the Weimar Republic's hedonist lifestyle and sexual freedom that inspired authors like Christopher Isherwood comes at a time when many see worrying parallelisms in the surge of the far right.

USA Film Geschichte Liza Minelli im Musical Cabaret 1972
Image: picture-alliance/kpa

It's a cold morning in Berlin. A small group of international students from Humboldt University have gathered a few steps away from the Nollendorfplatz underground station. They all listen carefully to a man quoting a book by heart. His words talk about this same city, but they depict a very different version of it — much poorer, probably wilder, the capital of a country that still had not embraced fascism.

Yet some parts of the story sound uncomfortably familiar.

First English voice of Berlin's underworld 

Brendan Nash, 54, a London-born Irish citizen, is reading an extract from one of the books Christopher Isherwood wrote about Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Buchcover Goodbye to Berlin von Christopher Isherwood
Isherwood's 1939 novel was described by George Orwell as 'brilliant sketches of a society in decay'Image: Random House

Isherwood moved to Berlin in 1929, at the age of 25. What he saw here, together with the people he met, inspired some of his best-known fiction works, as well as an important part of his autobiographical writing. His literary approach was that of an observer, a foreign witness of the time. "I am a camera," he wrote in Goodbye to Berlin.

In 1966, Broadway also gave birth to a musical adaption of Isherwhood's novel: Cabaret. The hit production depicting nightlife at the seedy Kit Kat Klub went on to inspire the 1972 Oscar-winning film starring Liza Minnelli (top picture). 

But the influence of Isherwood's Berlin writing goes far beyond Cabaret. "He was not the only person writing about Berlin in that period, but he was the only one in English. His work reached a much wider audience," Nash tells DW.

An era of experimentation

That audience was fascinated by the spirit of the German capital back then, or better said, by Isherwood's accounts of it. Berlin was not just another city in Europe. According to Joseph Pearson, a Canadian cultural historian living in Berlin, the Weimar Republic "was a time of anxiety, but also a time for hedonism, sexual liberties and artistic experimentation."

Weimar Berlin was indeed known to be a place that broke the social conventions of its epoch. Many women questioned gender roles and some of them defied patriarchal traditions by becoming economically independent from men. The cabaret environment also created room for sexual minorities to express themselves in a relatively freer way. Many gay and lesbian-targeted establishments opened and survived during those years, even though sexual intercourse between males was criminalized under Paragraph 175.

Before Nazism put an end to this oasis of modernity, Isherwood was seduced by this city and its creatures, which he immortalized in his books.

Brendan Nash showing a photo to a group of student in front of the Eldorado
The Eldorado, now an organic supermarket, was one of the best-known queer establishments in Weimar BerlinImage: DW/E. Anarte

Golden Twenties re-enter pop culture

And now Nash is trying to keep that spirit alive with his tour around the Schöneberg neighborhood, which later became the LGBTI quarter of the city. One can say, however, that Weimar zeitgeist has never been so present.

In fact, public interest in Weimar Berlin is growing thanks to different cultural works set in the city during that politically turbulent and socially transgressive period.

Volker Kutscher's historical crime novels dealing with the Golden Twenties have become a literary success in Germany and have been translated into many foreign languages, including English and Spanish.

A popular TV series, Babylon Berlin, was later produced based on these works. Its two first seasons were picked up by Netflix, bringing Weimar into living rooms all over the world.

Bundeskunsthalle | Ausstellung "Kino der Moderne - Film in der Weimarer Republik"
The Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn is also revisiting Weimar Republic cinema. Shown here: a still from Fritz Lang's MetropolisImage: Deutsche Kinemathek/Horst von Harbou

Hedonism's dark side

Nevertheless, there was also a less glamorous, more dramatic side to Berlin in the 1920s. The fragility of the German democracy after World War I resulted in a political context where instability and violence became a new normality, leading to the well-known eventual rise of the Nazis.

Moreover, the economic conditions were terrible. Even Isherwood was aware of this: "He also writes about how the sexual liberation of the time was much more about people being unemployed and having nothing else to sell but their bodies," Pearson underlines. Prostitution, both homosexual and heterosexual, and often practiced by minors, is indeed another feature of the period.

What the Weimar Republic reveals about our era

But why is the Weimar Republic era so fascinating to contemporary eyes? Pearson, who's also an essayist on the past and present of the German capital, firmly believes "the story we tell about the past is more about who we are today." Anxiety, lack of expectations, fear about the future: "We share a lot of those feelings today. We wanna have fun, laugh all the time."

The idea of parallelisms between that stormy period and our days is gaining ground in public discussion. "Many things that are happening right now really remind us of the Weimar Republic," Pearson says. This historian mentions the question of far-right parties monopolizing the conversation through the media, as well as the division among left-wing forces. "Those who look different" are targeted while inequalities are growing. "But we cannot compare the situation to the kind of misery and desperation that we saw back then," he warns.

Martin Sabrow, a professor who heads the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, agrees. "The Weimar Republic had to deal with a lot of problems that we do not have today," he says, explaining that both the good economic situation and the robustness of the democratic institutions today prevents a comparison of both situations.

Pearson maintains, however, that cultural productions set in that period could help inform the public about what really happened during those years that preceded Nazism. For that, however, one must avoid "repackaging it as sexy." 

If Nash's tour about Isherwood's Berlin does depict it as a time of wild parties and cabaret shows, he also highlights how it was a constant struggle for survival. "Maybe the more people read Isherwood, the more they will become interested in what happened during the Weimar Republic and look for enlightening historical information," Pearson says. In his view, history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.