Central European History

Culture of Politics—Politics of Culture: New Perspectives on the Weimar Republic


The Politics of Symbols, Semantics, and Sentiments in the Weimar Republic

Kathleen Canninga1

a1 University of Michigan

Contests over the term politics, over the boundaries that distinguished politics from non-politics, were one of the distinguishing features of the Weimar Republic. Not only did the disciplines of history, philosophy, law, sociology, and pedagogy each define this boundary in different terms, but participants in the debate also distinguished between ideal and real politics, politics at the level of state, and the dissemination of politics through society and citizenry. The fact that Weimar began with a revolution, the abdication of the Kaiser, and military defeat meant an eruption of politicization in 1918–19, whereby political organs of state and civil society sought in unprecedented fashion to draw Germans into parties and parliaments, associations, and activist societies. “The German people would still consist of ninety percent unpolitical people, if Social Democracy had not become a political school for the people,” Otto Braun claimed in Vorwärts in 1925. Politics and politicization generated not only political acts—votes, strikes, and vocal demonstrations—but also cultural milieus of Socialists and Communists, Catholics and liberal Democrats, nationalists, and eventually Nazis. In Weimar Germany there was little room for the “unpolitical” citizen of the prewar era, held up as a model in a famous tract of 1918 by Thomas Mann.

Kathleen Canning is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History, Women's Studies, and German at the University of Michigan (1029 Tisch Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003; e-mail: kcanning@umich.edu). Her most recent publication is the edited collection (with Kerstin Barndt and Kristin McGuire), Weimar Publics/Weimar Subjects: Rethinking Political Culture in Germany in the 1920s (Berghahn, 2010). She is the author of Languages of Labor and Gender: Female Factory Work in Germany, 1850–1914 (Cornell, 1996; 2nd edition: University of Michigan, 2002), and Gender History in Practice: Historical Perspectives on Bodies, Class, and Citizenship (Cornell, 2006); and the coeditor with Sonya Rose of Gender, Citizenships, and Subjectivities (2002). She was formerly coeditor of Gender & History and currently serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Modern History and Central European History. She is currently writing a book on citizenship and sexual crisis in the aftermath of war and revolution in Germany, 1916–1930.