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Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany

Author(s):Widdig, Bernd
Reviewer(s):Voth, Hans-Joachim

Published by EH.NET (December 2002)

Bernd Widdig, Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany. Berkeley:

University of California Press, 2001. xvi + 277 pp. $45 (hardback), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by Hans-Joachim Voth, Department of Economics, Universitat

Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona.

Is there anything new left to say about Germany’s great inflation between 1919

and 1923? After Gerald D. Feldman’s opus magnum and Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich’s

masterly study, economic historians can be forgiven for being skeptical. We

have learned much about the political factors that drove the process and its

economic consequences, the role of expectations, of foreign policy and of

domestic turmoil. This book will be a challenging read for economic and social

historians — cultural history, as this reviewer quickly realized, is a rather

foreign territory. Yet the almost habitual disconnect between economic and

cultural history is not beneficial to either discipline, as Peter Temin

reminded us in his presidential address at the 1996 EHA, entitled “Is It Kosher

to Talk about Culture?” He underlined the paramount importance of how the

various categories with which we analyze economic phenomena first come into

existence — in the parlance of cultural analysis, how they are ‘framed.’

Widdig uses Weimar Germany’s inflationary years as a starting point to reflect

about the way in which money’s role shifted, and the extent to which these

changes were reflected in cartoons, images, novels and films. To read a book

from a different and — in some ways — alien field such as this one requires

patience and a certain degree of tolerance towards the idiosyncrasies that most

scholarly disciplines have. For economic historians, it can be valuable because

it highlights a whole range of economically relevant phenomena that are often

neglected; whether one agrees with the individual readings of images, films and

novels is a different matter.

Weimar was Germany’s belated and ultimately ill-fated attempt at becoming a

democracy — fourteen brief years between the Empire’s ignominious end and

Hitler’s rise to power. Of these, nine were dominated by major economic

upheavals. Germany engineered one of the most breathtaking inflations in

recorded history between 1919 and 1923. After 1929, the dramatic collapse of

the economy, leading to six million unemployed at the trough of the Depression,

probably undermined the Republic fatally. On the other hand, Weimar is widely

remembered as a hotbed of cultural modernity — the films of Fritz Lang, Oscar

Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, Bauhaus architecture, Max Reinhardt’s and Bert

Brecht’s theatre and the breakthrough of expressionism as an art form, to name

but a few examples, all flourished amidst the putsches and revolts, at a time

of foreign invasion, currency depreciation and spiraling prices when

governments changed with Italian frequency.

Bernd Widdig’s study focuses on the period when extreme chaos and creativity

existed side-by-side — the years of the Great Inflation between 1919 and 1923.

This is not an economic history of culture during the hyperinflation. Rather,

it is a balancing act between two central themes: What can we learn about the

inflation’s impact on everyday lives by analyzing the writings, cartoons, and

films? And how did the inflation shape and change cultural production during

the period? This reader is not a cultural historian, and has to confess that he

harbored substantial skepticism about the exercise. Traditional historians will

worry about a volume that does not contain the fruits of many archival visits,

and is instead based on published cartoons, pictures and widely available

films. The first section, entitled “History and Experience,” sets the stage for

the more detailed analysis in the second part. Somewhat unusually for a

cultural historian, Widdig takes the economic history of the period seriously,

and is clear on the most important debates about the inflation’s causes. He

emphasizes three aspects of the inflation — the changing perceptions of money,

paradigmatic characters of the inflationary period, and a third section

entitled “accounts” (which analyzes the plight of intellectuals and the role of


This reader found the author’s reading of key figures, such as Dr. Mabuse in

Fritz Lang’s classic film, valuable. For Widdig, people partly reacted to the

inflation’s trauma by looking for emblematic characters that could help them

with making sense of the increasingly destructive maelstrom. Gerald D. Feldman,

in his definitive history of the German inflation, called 1922 the ‘Year of Dr.

Mabuse.’ The film depicts the evil machinations of a criminal with superhuman

powers of psychological manipulation, who engineers wild gyrations on the stock

market, forges bank notes, cheats at cards, and ruins the lives of various

attractive German Fr?uleins. The main newspaper of the social democratic

party — the non-revolutionary wing of Germany’s labor movement — immediately

recognized the film’s value as capturing the spirit of the times, the

racketeering and prostitution, the lawlessness and profiteering. The film

itself opens with scenes from the inflationary period, of revolutionary unrest

and black-market dealings, only to ask, literally on one of the text screens

that silent movies used so effectively — who is behind all this? The answer,

Widdig argues, is implicitly that only a superhuman manipulator can have been

responsible. At the same time, Dr. Mabuse pulls off most of his stunning crimes

by a combination of wit and will. In a close reading of the film’s multiple

layers of meaning, Widdig argues that some of the film’s appeal — which

screened to large audiences when it opened — may have come from the innovative

use of the “subjective camera,” with the viewer seeing the world through

Mabuse’s eyes. Thus, the film’s villain-hero helped contemporaries reduce their

sense of helplessness in a world that was increasingly falling apart. This is

in line with the analysis of Sigfried Kracauer, who, in his classic book

From Caligari to Hitler, argued that Dr. Mabuse reflected a

growing inclination towards authoritarian solutions.

Widdig approaches his subject armed with the theoretical tools of his trade.

The changing value of different forms of artistic production, and the way in

which culture legitimized or undermined social differences is, for example,

analyzed through the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Simmel’s essay on money, Freud’s

writings on the uncanny and the subconscious, and of course McLuhan are all

employed to examine the impact of the inflation. This mostly works, though the

guiding lights don’t always shed light in the direction that Widdig needs for

his narrative. The way in which endless reproduction — as a possibility or in

actual fact — undermines the true ‘value’ of art is interpreted using a famous

essay by Walter Benjamin to frame the issue. He argued that mechanical

reproduction robbed art of its aura — yet for Benjamin, this was an entirely

wholesome process, a change for the better, which ultimately combines with

socialist visions of social progress. It is odd to illustrate the devaluation

of art through the same kind of reproduction that kept the printing presses

running through the reading of a text that mainly celebrates the positive

effects of this ‘inflationary’ process.

The somewhat awkward use of Benjamin’s text highlights a more substantial

issue. Widdig argues that inflation condensed and heightened the experience of

modernity itself. Yet much of the narrative focuses on its destructive aspects,

undermining social relationships and trust in institutions, wreaking havoc on

universities and writers, driving women into prostitution. The analysis then

emphasizes how all these negative aspects are mirrored in the various forms of

cultural production, from autobiographies to cartoons, films and novels. Yet

the very wealth and originality of this production, at a time of substantial

turmoil, is never directly confronted. In The Third Man, the black

marketeer Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, contrasts the cultural creativity

of Renaissance Italy amidst chaos with the unimaginative tranquility of


“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and

bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the

Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of

democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Instead of Renaissance Italy, he might just as well have mentioned the Weimar

Republic. Despite all the trauma and disorientation that characterized 1919-23

and the lamentable plight of ‘intellectual workers,’ this reader wondered if

there isn’t some reason to think that the inflation served as a catalyst for

cultural creativity — an interpretation that could be called the Third Man’s

theory of artistic inspiration? Especially when it comes to the discussion of

high versus low culture, of Goethe reading groups and piano lessons versus the

mass-culture of magazines, movies and jazz music, Widdig’s analysis is almost

exclusively in terms of decline and fall. To be fair, he finds an impressive

array of literary and other sources that attest to the fact that this is

exactly the way in which many contemporary members of Germany’s

Bildungsb?rgertum (that part of the bourgeoisie that defined itself by

its level of education and cultural sophistication) experienced it.

Nonetheless, the explosion of artistic creativity and many of the despised and

derided forms of ‘low’ culture — Brecht’s theatre productions, many films of

the period, the early Bauhaus designs for pre-fabricated production — are the

most enduring achievements of the period. Tearing down the boundaries between

established art forms was just beginning to be good for artists’ business —

Braque and Picasso had incorporated bits of newsprint into paintings a mere ten

years before. Shocking the audience with the unexpected, unaesthetic or

revolting had not yet acquired any of the superficiality that nowadays

irritates many about, say, the work Damien Herst. It took economic historians a

long time to fully acknowledge the beneficial effects of the inflation,

especially during the years 1919-22. In the end, most agree that it facilitated

rebuilding of the infrastructure, low unemployment and the integration of

returning soldiers. Rapid growth and full employment were also in evidence in

the cultural sphere, while Widdig almost appears to take the vibrancy of Weimar

culture during the years 1919-23 for granted.

The epilogue traces the inflation’s impact on Germans’ collective psyche. Most

of this is balanced and interesting. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that Widdig

trusts popular interpretations too readily when it comes to hyperinflation’s

long-run impact on economic behavior. The German love affair with the saving

account, and their (until recently) disinterest in shares are interpreted as

the direct outcome of the traumatic years of million-mark eggs and wheelbarrows

full of cash. Every reading of the economic literature implies that the exact

opposite would have been the only economically sensible response — those who

saved in assets guaranteed in nominal terms lost almost everything, while those

who purchased productive assets (Sachwerte) did relatively well.

Germany’s distaste for equity is a paradox, given the experience of two great

inflations in the last century, and not its logical result.

The book is not entirely free from the jargon of cultural history and some of

the oddities that make so many of the writings in a similar vein hard to read.

Learning that “the grand narratives of modernity employ the dichotomy of gender

as a powerful rhetorical strategy to mark basic structures of difference such

as … authenticity and alienation, … desire and rationality” made this

reviewer feel like the hero in Musil’s Young T?rless, who, when reading

Immanuel Kant, has the sensation of his head being slowly squeezed in a

gigantic mechanical apparatus. Luckily, Widdig largely avoids traps like this,

which render many an interesting text in cultural history unreadable in no

time. Also, for those who think that all cultural history has to have political

correctness written all over it, there are some nuggets — but again, they are

relatively minor. Some readers might be amused by the author’s tale about how

he, as a young boy, found some pictures of young naked African women in his

grandparents’ attic — only to note that this “initiated an early sense of

wonder about the relationship of race, gender, and national identity.” This

reviewer must confess that, in similar circumstances, the “relationship between

race, gender, and national identity” would not necessarily have been the first

thing on his mind.

Economic and cultural history often don’t make the easiest of bedfellows, and

this book has attracted some severe criticism by Harold James (Journal of

Economic History, March 2002). Indeed, there is cultural-history jargon, as

well as some problems in interpreting the details of economic history. Yet it

would be a shame if this obscured the book’s good sides. First of all, it

emphasizes important interactions between culture and economic behavior. In the

eyes of economic historians, it may not rise to the challenge formulated in

Peter Temin’s presidential address, but it makes some valuable points. Widdig’s

analysis of how the different functions of money changed and were undermined to

a varying extent is useful in this regard, even if the conclusions are not made

explicit in the language of economic history. The inflation did much to destroy

what Robert Putnam calls social capital — the extent to which people

implicitly trust each other, and are able to rely on a stable set of economic

parameters in their everyday decisions and planning. Money is crucial for this,

Widdig argues, as it connects past and present economic activity with the

future. Pensioners impoverished by the inflation, war invalids subsisting on

meager pensions, and real estate owners suffering from the freeze on rents

experienced the state’s interventions (such as the principle of “Mark=Mark,”

which allowed debtors to repay creditors with worthless paper money) as random

acts of economic destruction. Second, the book contains interesting

interpretations of well-known films and books from the period, which have not

been analyzed jointly from this perspective. Finally, it reminds us of one of

the great similarities between economic and cultural history — the explicit

use of theory. While theory is often anathema to traditional political and

diplomatic historians, both economic historians and cultural historians often

search for an explicit theoretical framework with which to analyze historical

evidence. The theorizing may not be to our taste, but it takes a similar

dislike of pure empiricism as a starting point.


Gerald D. Feldman, The Great Disorder: Politics, Economics, and Society in

the German Inflation, 1914-1924 (New York, 1993).

Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich, The German Inflation, 1914-1923: Causes and Effects

in International Perspective (translated by Theo Balderston), Berlin, 1986.

Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the

German Film, Princeton, 1947.

Peter Temin, “Is It Kosher to Talk about Culture?” Journal of Economic

History, Vol. 57, no. 2, June 1997, pp. 267-87.

Hans-Joachim Voth is Associate Professor of Economics at Universitat Pompeu

Fabra, Barcelona, and a Research Fellow at the Centre for History and

Economics, King’s College, Cambridge. His latest publications include “The

Longest Years: New Estimates of Labor Input in Britain, 1760-1830″ (Journal

of Economic History, 2001); “Destined for Deprivation: Human Capital

Formation and Intergenerational Poverty in Nineteenth-Century England” (joint

with Sara Horrell and Jane Humphries, Explorations in Economic History,

2001); and “With a Bang, not a Whimper: Pricking Germany’s Stockmarket Bubble

in 1927 and the Slide into Depression” (Journal of Economic History,

2003, forthcoming).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII