When things fragment, we look for something solid to hold onto. The ticker-tape of daily disasters – a fire here, a shooting there, a pointless military adventure somewhere else – makes us fearful and afraid of the future. And so we look to the past for warnings missed, as well as wisdom hidden. If we are really anxious we may even start to read poetry.
Kurt Tucholsky, the Weimar-era poet and satirist born on January 9 in 1890, is the man to turn to in such times. Serving as a soldier in the First World War, he left his gun leaning against a hut and walked away a pacifist. In 1919 he announced his life’s work: “I want finally to pull out all the drawers of our German dresser to see what is to be found in them,” exactly the darker sides of Weimar captured in the series Babylon Berlin that returns in 2020 for a new season of flashing sequins, cabaret and murder.
Described by writer Erich Kästner as “a short fat Berliner who tried to stop a catastrophe with a typewriter”, Tucholsky also predicted the ominous rise of the Nazis and another war in Europe, writing that “New cannons will come.”
There are echoes of the Weimar Republic in our societies today. Rapid technological change was thought to corrupt the masses in the form of radio, mass media and talking films that came of age in the 1920s, just as social media is thought to corrode our democracies now. Siegfried Kracauer, an influential critic back then, was caustic about the spread of entertainment to workers gifted with leisure for the first time, writing that: “No one could honestly say that a musical makes sense.”
But Tucholsky’s common-talk critique and cabaret songs suited the era. His work was read out at political meetings, with one of his lyrics comparing the German Social Democrats (SPD) to “radishes, red on the outside and white on the inside”; it was also decidedly modern. The 1929 picture book he created with artist John Heartfield, Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, was a trailblazing attack on capitalism that prefigured pop art, and later punk.
Yet Tucholsky felt impotent. The “Homeless Left” was the name given to him and others who were critical of both the SPD - for their collaboration with the military - and the German Communist Party (KPD) for their Bolshevik tendencies. Tucholsky felt that his fiery critiques, however they struck his opponents, always landed flat. Growing street violence and political and economic instability all contributed to the darkening mood.
In 1924 he moved to France, satirising xenophobia in a piece called “The Foreigner:” “Everybody still behaves as if a powerful constituent of a completely unified tribe were coming to us,” he wrote, “and not a miserable component of an anachronistic form of society. And the more powerless the natives are, the greater the powers they believe the foreigner to possess.”
It's no surprise then that Tucholsky was annoyed by national maps. In “The Border,” from 1920, he rails against the arbitrary lines that divide people, writing that “neither borders or soldiers can separate men in the long run if they do not want to be kept apart.” His poem “The Trench” simply urges people to “Dump those flags!”
Just as in our time, people living through the chaos of a failing economic system in Weimar Germany bathed in a dark nostalgia fuelled by dreams of a stable past. In “The Creed of the Bourgeoisie” (1928) Tucholsky turns his fire on such dreams, like the view that “Under the Kaiser everything was better” and “The whole world is against Germany - out of envy.” Sound familiar?
“What can satire do? Anything!” he once wrote, but what would Tucholsky satirise today? His short piece “In One Sentence” from 1925 gives us a clue. In it he writes that if “you see a man who, with his chest thrown out, trumpets forth each word”; if you see “a man who is determined to bring the full force of his personality to bear on the most idiotic cause”; if you see “a man who feels good only when he can be impressive” he writes, then “you can bet your life that this man is a nationalist.”
Therefore, in another time of rising nationalism, a time of fragments very much like his own, Kurt Tucholsky’s writings hold for us the following political lesson: that things fall apart quickly when you’re not looking; that “a country is not only what it does - it is also what it puts up with, what it tolerates.”
He has a life lesson for us too that applies whether you’re strolling through Berlin or Baghdad, New York or Tehran; whether it’s sunny or cloudy; whether you’re holding an umbrella or a warm hand - “Expect nothing. Today: that is your life.”
Because for Tucholsky, politics will always disappoint. Yet his satires also point to the possibility of a revolution-in-the-moment; a few of his sentences can spin you out of your thoughts and days: “Relax. Let go of the steering wheel. Amble through the world. It is so beautiful. Surrender to it, and it will surrender to you.”