Weimar culture and the reputation for decadence

Despite the trauma of its early years, during its so-called 'Golden Age' Weimar experienced a flourishing culture, in Berlin especially, that saw developments in architecture, art and the cinema. This expression of culture was greatly helped by the ending of censorship in the new republic.

The importance of Berlin

The Greater Berlin Act of 1920 made Berlin the third largest city in the world and established it as the centre of German cultural and intellectual life. Many of Germany’s most prominent artists, writers, academics and performers were based in the city.

Education and intellectual life

Berlin was a melting pot of intellectual development. Weimar Germany became associated with two areas in particular:

  • Science. Towering figures like Max Plank and Albert Einstein worked in Germany in the 1920s, and Einstein received his Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921.
  • Philosophy. One of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, published his major work Being and Time in 1927. The political philosophers Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss received their university education in Germany during the Weimar period.

Visual arts

The most influential visual arts movement in Weimar was the Bauhaus School, founded by Walter Gropius in the town of Weimar in 1919.

Bauhaus’ impact on German architecture was limited because the movement only focused on architecture after 1927 and it was then suppressed by the Nazis in 1933. After this most of its followers fled abroad, where they developed their work further. However, Gropius did design several apartment blocks that are still in use today.

In fine art, there were two main movements that influenced German art:

  • Dada. The Dada movement started in Zurich during World War One. It was a protest against the traditional conventions of art and western culture, in which the war had begun. Its output included photography, sculpture, poetry, painting and collage. Artists included Marcel Duchamp and Hans Arp.
  • New Objectivity. The New Objectivity movement started in Germany in the aftermath of World War One. It challenged its predecessor, Expressionism, which was a more idealistic and romantic movement. Artists returned to a more realistic way of painting, reflecting the harsh reality of war. Artists included Otto Dix and George Grosz.

Experimentation in German art came to an end when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Hitler rejected modern art as morally corrupt and many of the best German artists – some of whom were Jewish – fled abroad.


Music in Weimar was dominated by three themes:

  • Modern classical. Composers like Arnold Schoenberg, Kurt Weill and Alan Berg composed classical pieces and operas.
  • Jazz. The increasing influence of American culture brought jazz music to Berlin and Munich, with classical composers often crossing over into what was known as ‘atonal’ music, or jazz.
  • Cabaret. This became popular in Berlin, where young people could sit around in clubs, drinking and watching musical performances.


The German film and cinema industry boomed during the 1920s. The main features of the industry were as follows:

  • The economic disruption of the Weimar period produced an expressionist style in German film-making, with films often having unrealistic sets and featuring exaggerated acting techniques.
  • The shortage of funding gave rise to the Kammerspielfilm movement, with atmospheric films made on small sets with low budgets.
  • Expressionist film-makers favoured darker storylines and themes, including horror and crime.
  • The most prominent film directors of the time were Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau.
  • The most famous films of the period were The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922 – based on the Dracula story), Phantom (1922), The Last Laugh (1924) and Metropolis (1927).

Reputation for decadence

After World War One, Berlin became a place where behaviour previously thought of as immoral flourished:

  • cabarets became known as places where transvestites and openly gay men and women could visit, despite homosexuality being illegal at the time
  • prostitution, which had grown during World War One, flourished
  • the city acquired a reputation for drug dealing
  • organised crime, and gangs called Ringvereine, grew

Weimar’s reputation for decadence and excess did not continue into the Nazi period. The Nazis disapproved of what they viewed as the immoral behaviour flourishing in Germany’s cities. The totalitarian nature of the regime meant that cultural life, such as the theatre, music and film, came under the control of Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda. In addition, many of the leading lights of German cultural and academic life were Jewish, and thus left Germany as the Nazis began to restrict Jews’ rights.

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