The Point
Last updated: 01 May 2017.

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Anita Berber - Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano

Weimar Berlin, 1919 until 1933, was an extraordinary era; a time when sexual, political and artistic freedom came together like never before or, arguably, since. Art forms that had been growing and developing in Germany, and Europe, from the end of the 19th century exploded as revolutionary ideas from Russia and 'Americanism' from the United States penetrated German culture. Dancers, artists, playwrights and poets struggled to understand and express through their art the horrors of the Great War and the chaos of the Weimar Republic. The Wilhelmian morality of the day, instituted by the kaiser, came up against the modern world and a Verwilderung der Sitten (degeneration of morals) swept across Weimar Germany, most notably in Berlin.

Anita Berber, who died on the 10th November 1928 aged only twenty nine, was the epitome of Weimar Berlin. Painted by Charlotte Berend and Otto Dix, she was an actress, a dancer and a poet who ended her life in a pauper's grave in Berlin. She scandalised and challenged middle class German morality in equal measure. An Expressionist artist who frequently danced naked Anita interpreted music with every atom of her being. She inhabited her body in a way that was sensual and erotic. She moved in a way that disturbed the audience. Even those who flocked to see her and who spoke approvingly of her dancing still found themselves somewhat disconcerted by the emotions and sensations she awoke in them. This was the effect that Anita intended but that intention was completely natural and without artifice. However much Anita used her body as a work of art and carefully cultivated her image it was completely truthful. This was not an artist who put away the costume at the end of the performance; Anita's whole life was a performance.

This was a woman who seduced married women away from their husbands; punched a German boxing champion in the face and almost got punched back; insulted the king of Yugoslavia and got called a 'Serbian Pompadour' and got banned by the International Artists Union but kept on dancing anyway. She was the great Berlin wild child who was called 'totally perverted' and who managed to be arrested or deported from practically every country in central Europe. Anita danced naked, gambled wildly and partied like no-one before, or arguably, since with a concoction of drugs that defies belief.

But Anita was also a vulnerable woman. She personified the German obsession with death. Abandoned by first her father and then, temporarily, by her mother in early childhood Anita grew up psychologically damaged. She searched all her life for her father's approval and never received it. Like a child desperate for attention she threw tantrums and made bad choices. She was a flawed genius with a self-destructive nature who expressed that vulnerability and pain publicly. Her vulnerability and pain was there for all to see in her slim waif-like naked body. This was a woman who was unafraid to express her sexuality, unafraid to say she took drugs, unafraid to say she drank to excess. But this open expression of her life was a mask that hid the deep wounds. She lived life to excess as many did in Weimar Berlin. But with Anita it was more than that, it was always more. Her sexuality was frequently of a masochistic nature; her drug taking was equally to escape reality as to enjoy life. Her behaviour was destructive and nihilistic. But underneath that there was a vulnerability that touched the audiences – even if they were unable to say so consciously unable to consciously articulate why she had that vulnerability. And that gave her that spark of sympathy that gave even her wildest behaviour and performances the mark of human tragedy that followed her all her life as it spiralled into chaos mirrored by the society in which she lived.

The Weimar Republic came into being in confusion and fear. It was born of a war that had killed and maimed millions and wrought destruction across a large part of Germany and the rest of Europe and elsewhere. The Republic brought with it the remnants of the Wilhelmian era, the shame and anger of the dictated peace and the shattered hopes and dreams of the German people on the right and left of the political spectrum. The trauma of the war and its abrupt and unexpected end threw all of Germany into confusion. The German people had to contend with an unexpected military defeat and the abdication of the Kaiser which raised questions over the reason for the war. Although fighting had stopped on the Western Front on the 11th November it continued and indeed intensified on the streets of many German cities most notably Berlin. In October 1918 the sailors at the Kiel Naval base mutinied and anger and frustration gathered like storm clouds across the country. Homecoming soldiers returned to a confused public led by brawling politicians. On November 8th Kurt Eisner, an independent socialist, proclaimed a republic in Bavaria. On November 9th Philipp Scheidemann of the Social Democrats proclaimed a republic in Weimar. The Weimar Republic survived; the Bavarian did not. Within days of the proclamation of the new Republic left and right wing factions were on the streets fighting. On the 26th November Eisner called on the workers' and soldiers' council of Berlin to overthrow the interim government. It was not an auspicious start.

The interim government had to run a country that was recovering from war, both psychologically and economically, negotiate peace terms with the Allies, while faced with attacks from left and right. The government was viewed with wary suspicion by the Allies and with angry resentment by the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It would receive no international help in rebuilding the shattered country. Too revolutionary for the conservatives and not radical enough for the communists the government was under immense pressure. Dealing with practical issues such as that of returning soldiers and the economy were hampered by both left and right seeking their own interests over other considerations. By December 1918 parades for returning soldiers were interspersed with demonstrations by Spartacists. Government troops fought the communists using heavy machine guns.

This difficult birth presaged the subsequent development of the Republic. The politicians on both sides and the centre rarely had time, or indeed gave themselves or their opponents time, to resolve any of the underlying issues in the country before another crisis hit. The reparations demanded by the Allies put an immense strain on the country's economy as did the French occupation of the Ruhr and the blockade of German ports. Returning soldiers faced unemployment and financial hardship. Right and left argued over blame and disagreed about solutions while ordinary Germans starved. This level of extraordinary pressure led to extremes on both sides as successive governments attempted to steer a middle course but with a definite and growing rightwing bias. By the early twenties things had somewhat settled. The government was led by the conservatives but with a greater level of control. Political violence lessened although it did not disappear. The French evacuated from the Ruhr allowing German industry to get moving and the economy strengthened. The Treaty of Locarno was signed with Great Britain, France, Italy and Belgium and Germany was no longer a pariah state. However, these economic and social improvements, although very welcome, did not mean prosperity for all. Germany had, after all, to recover from extreme conditions. More importantly, nothing had been down to deal with the underlying problems in Germany which, when the world economy crashed in 1929, caused the extreme political elements to come to the fore.

These underlying problems had been developing since the beginning of the century. The 20th century heralded the modern era of the machine. But German society still hankered after the time of heroes. Romanticism and the love of Germanic legend still held true. Germans felt themselves to be under threat from the machine that separated them from the land and from their inner soul. And this was underpinned by the German obsession with death. The fixation on mortality was understandable given the losses in the Great War; Germany had lost around 2 million soldiers with a further ¾ million civilians dying from disease and malnutrition. But the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche and his assertion that modern man had killed God also contributed and created an ethos where death, its meaning and its purpose became all pervasive. Discussions were held in cafes and bars as the population watched injured soldiers return to a heroes' welcome. Life was becoming unreal. Parades in Berlin treated the returning soldiers as if they had won the war. The Dolchstoβlegende (stab-in-the-back) legend was born blaming Jews, communists and women for the disgraceful end to the war. The politicians argued over how to organise the economy while war wounded were on the streets begging for food. The German had lost his way; the machine had fragmented his life and left him with a shattered soul and the only reality that was true was death.

This ethos did not exist in a vacuum and built on the cultural changes that had been happening in Germany since the turn of the century. Feelings of restlessness had led many to welcome Germany's military build-up and the start of the war when it came. The world was changing and new ideas in science, philosophy and the arts flourished. Germany embraced and was the instigator of many of these new ideas but was still ruled by an elite that saw no need for societal change. Anti-Semitism was rampant in the universities, the military were held in high esteem and German Kultur was praised for its purity and lack of contamination by western values. This tension between the values of the conservative bourgeoisie and the rest of society could not last forever and it was the Weimar Republic that inherited the cultural riches that resulted from the release of that pressure.

Artists, such as Anita, watched the political machinations of left and right and treated much of it as irrelevant to what was really happening to the German soul. The longing for unity and desire for an understanding of death in its most primitive form moved artists and political activists alike but moved them differently and ultimately antagonistically to each other. The politicians squabbled over how to make Germany whole again but did so using the nineteenth century model of the political form. Even the Spartacists, who thought of themselves as the new revolutionaries of the age, based their ideology firmly in the class divisions determined by Marx in 1848. As a result there was a deep and almost instinctive distrust of the politics of the Republic from many artists. For the artistic community wholeness could only come about through modernity. Expressionism was the first major artistic movement after the war which gave artists the means by which to explore and interpret that modernity. Expressionism, by its very nature, did not create or follow a single message other than a desire to seek the wholeness of the German soul. Expressionism explored the emotional experience of life and death; politics merely attempted to control them without caring to understand them. It was this world that Anita inhabited.

 

In many ways Anita Berber and Weimar Berlin mirrored one another. Both had traumatic childhoods which included rejection and abandonment. The young woman and her adopted city were full of contradictions and frequently stumbled from one mistake to another without ever getting a chance to stop and think before the next crisis hit. They both had an exciting, glorious, flowering of possibility which was all too brief. And both were cut short; dying from poor choices, outside pressure and lack of support. But for all the faults and mistakes, Anita Berber and Weimar Berlin left a legacy that has never been rivalled.

Anita Berber: dancing on the edge of a volcano (Edinburgh: Pecco Ltd, 2015)

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About the author: Mary W Craig is a Scottish historian and writer. She is a former Carnegie scholar and a graduate of the University of Glasgow. She is known for her work on community access to history and research and writing on central European history. Mary is passionate about local communities being able to access their own history outwith academia but with an equal observance of intellectual rigour. She currently works as a community archivist. Mary's other area of interest is central Europe from the middle ages to the modern era. She has written extensively about various aspects of the history of central Europe; most notably how political changes affects people lives and how individuals and communities react to those changes.

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