The Zeitgeist of German Modernism

"Berlin 1914" (Ekstein 55-94)

Ver Sacrum (55-64)

August 2, 1914: The declaration of war against Russia caused a huge outburst of enthusiasm and nationalist fervor on the streets throughout Germany. In Berlin, ecstatic crowds believed that the moment of Germany’s national destiny had arrived. Life had achieved transcendence. The spiritual life force of the Volk had been made manifest! The German quest for ideological unification had finally been achieved forty years after political unification! 

"Hitler at the Feldherrnhalle, August 1, 1914." Photograph. 1914.

Overture (64-70)

Bismarck, the Chancellor who united Germany in the 1860’s and 70’s,  had relied on force and a ‘divide and rule’ political strategy which alienated first liberals, next Catholics, and finally socialists. In its early years, the country had only been held together by force. German ideologues after Bismarck sought to promote unity by appealing to the idealistic and spiritual tendencies in German philosophy which had set it apart from the cosmopolitan and enlightened liberalism of the French and British. They taught German school children that inner freedom was more important than social or political freedom and that this spiritual freedom could only be achieved collectively through a great act of German Kultur.

Chancellor Otto von Bismarck

The Unification of Germany

During the second half of the 19th century Germany underwent rapid and massive social change. Germany led the world into a 2nd Industrial Revolution that produced steel, chemicals and electricity. Germany’s population boomed, and millions migrated to the cities. A new management class came to dominate society, and Berlin grew into a major urban center nearly overnight. (compare to Chicago) Berlin was the most modern city in Europe. 

Fagus Shoe Factory (1914) Walter Gropius

AHG Turbine Factory (exterior) Peter Behrens (1908)

Technique (70-76)
Capital (73-76)
Kultur (76-80)

German Kultur regarded science as an expression of the ancient Volk spirit. The German emphasis on science, efficiency and management was linked to an idealized reaction against Enlightenment principles. Industrial accomplishment required hard work, education, bold leadership, and highly skilled technicians and managers. Educational reform had mandated 100% compulsory education with a new emphasis on technical education and research. German leaders believed in modernization along scientific lines, but they did not believe in ‘liberal progress’. Instead, Germans believed their skills as scientists, businessmen, and workers reflected a Volk destiny: the creation of the most powerful military and economic engine on Earth. It was a triumph of imagination over determinism.

Bildung (spiritual cultivation) + Macht (vital strength) = der Staat

German Kultur was very different from Western liberalism. Germans rejected French rationalism and empiricism. They rejected the idea of the human as machine. Instead, they regarded the machine as an organic expression of the spirit. German moralists rejected utilitarianism or any other moral system which sought to calculate good and evil using rational methods. Instead, they connected the good to inner freedom.

The composer Richard Wagner promoted the concept of gesamkuntswerk or total theatre. Art combines music, acting, visual arts, and dance into one expression of the Volk spirit which transcends and transforms life. Wagner believed that by freeing the life spirit of the Volk, Germans could overcome the mechanical determinism of historical cause and effect. Wagner’s operas like Parsifal and The Rings of the Nibelung reached back deep into Norse mythology for characters and stories which expressed the German Volk destiny. However, Wagner's ideas were on the modern cutting edge.


Schinkel, Karl Friedrich. "Medieval City on a River." Oil on canvas. 1815.  Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Wagner’s ideas were very influential! Houston Stewart Chamberlain was a follower who rejected his respectable bourgeois British upbringing and its dry rationality to embrace Wagner’s conception of history as spirit. Chamberlain propounded a German ideology based on racist propaganda and a mystical belief in German’s national destiny. His ideas can be described as Social Darwinist, but it is more accurate to regard his flight from reason as a reaction to the social dislocation and alienation caused by the rapid transformation of German society into an industrial economy. 

Culture and Revolt (80-89)

German artists regarded themselves as at war with bourgeois, liberal (French and British) culture. They conceived of this war as a spiritual search for new forms of identity. Berlin became the center of the revolt against bourgeois liberalism. Germany had the largest socialist party in the world (far larger than the Russian socialists). Germany was the home of the sexual liberation movement (which would not arrive in America until the 1960’s.) The women’s rights and gay rights movements were both born in pre WWI Germany. The back to nature movement, the nudist movement, the boy scouts all have their origins in the German reaction against liberalism. Frank Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening is a graphic avant-garde theatre piece about teen sexuality. Strauss’ Salome is an opera about the beheading of John the Baptist at the behest of a sexual temptress. Thomas Mann wrote stories are about a gay man coming out.

German modernism is also tinged by a fascination with violence and the idea that destruction can be essential to creativity. We have encountered this idea before in Nietzsche’s celebration of Greek tragedy. German expressionist artists like Emil Nolde and Ernst Kirchner expressed this taste in themes colors and forms more radical than cubism or futurism. The expressionists were also fascinated with primitivism and studied the violent rituals of their Teutonic tribal ancestors. The reaction of German artists against bourgeois norms, conventions and rationalism was elemental.  They conceived of liberty in absolute terms, as primitive desire.

Candle Dancers
1912 Emil Nolde

Street, Berlin
1913 Ernst Kirchner


War as Culture (90-94)

For the German Volk war became a national obsession. Germans believed that the country must expand its borders to find breathing room (lebensraum) for its booming population or it would die. They regarded British rhetoric about free trade, open markets, and liberal morality as self-serving hypocrisy. They knew that the British were seeking to take over the world and had to be stopped. Germans regarded with pride their honest willingness to look the truth square between the eyes and do what was necessary. Kaiser Wilhelm, who assumed the throne in 1888, directed his generals to conceive a plan for winning a two-front war (against the Russians in the East and the British and French in the West.) When the Schlieffen Plan was presented to him, Kaiser Wilhelm believed that the Faustian moment of German destiny had arrived. Conquer Paris, and then turn East against Russia. It was like a script for a Wagnerian opera.

When August 1914 arrived, Germans believed their time had come. Their generals sought quick victory in battle plans full of movement, heroism and quick decisions. Success depended on the use of high tech weapons: railroads, artillery and mighty artillery. War would provide the supreme test of the German spirit and vitality. War would provide a stepping stone to a higher plateau of national creativity. War would prove German moral superiority and unite the country nationally. War would provide the Volk with a noble quest for authenticity, truth and self-fulfillment in opposition to British materialism, banality and hypocrisy. War would be a Youth Movement for liberation and freedom from bourgeois narrowness. War would be pleasure!

German Propaganda Poster 1914

Kaiser Wilhelm in a heroic pose.