Twenty-Five Years (Fünfundzwanzig Jahre)


„My clotted heart’s blood“, Siegfried Jacobsohn used to say when he looked at the rows of the red bi-annual editions of the Weltbühne, which he always had in front of him. They contained his work, his love and his whole life. For twenty-one years he dedicated every waking hour to the Blatt[1], and when he wasn’t dreaming of Mozart, he surely dreamt of finding new authors for it. He gave himself little birthday presents every week. „You little packages, I’m going to put you in the next edition“, and he tasted the quality of the contributions, whose existence was nearly always due to his initiative, his energy and his gentle persuasion, enjoying them in advance. And now we have fifty volumes in front of us. One needs to take two long strides to walk past the long row. It has been twenty-five years. Time to take a little look back.

The first edition appeared on 7th September 1905, Albert Bassermann[2]’s birthday, which S. J. felt was a good omen. After the minor scandal caused by an artificially blown-up affair of alleged plagiarism by the young theatre critic of the Welt am Montag, which S.J. later cleared up in the Fall Jacobsohn, he disappeared from the scene for a while. He travelled, made a fresh start with himself, and gathered new strength abroad. With the help of friends who loved literature and the theatre as much as he did, he was able to found the new magazine. He did everything on his own. From the first edition until the last one in November 1926. No illness, no journey, no misfortune was ever enough to make him let anyone else edit it, even for one week.

1905: Siegfried Jacobsohn, the plagiarist, publishes his own magazine. Very little else ever seemed to me to be as characteristic of the man as the three words with which he began his theatre criticism in the first edition, “Medias in res”, they were; let’s get straight to the heart of the matter! He always went straight to the heart of the matter. The Schaubühne[3] appeared. In its first three or four years, S.J. was its involuntary focus. His weekly theatre critic was its spine; it was surrounded by fascinating articles about the theatre and literature, but in the beginning it didn’t have a voice of its own. The individual editions did not yet constitute a well-orchestrated entity, as they did later. The theatre critic S.J. had arrived, but the editor was still work in progress.

That changed in the years 1908 and 1909. The Blatt was redesigned by E. R. Weiß. It was more carefully printed than in the beginning, and the new title format heralded a new program. The theatre meant the world to S.J, but he understood the term so broadly that it never became a narrow specialization, neither for him nor for his like-minded collaborators. Weren’t the new forces of the new generation thrusting their way into the theatre? Was it not worth fighting for and against Reinhardt[4], for and against Brahm[5]? For truth in art? S.J. fought.

If one leafs through these old numbers, two things emerge. Firstly, what a gulf lies between us and the time before the war, although Germany is making the greatest effort to match its political depths, without matching the boldness of S.J’s literary generation, because there is no doubt that this generation, which I will summarize as ‘authors published by S. Fischer at the beginning of the century’, contained strong, idiosyncratic talents. Men of stature whom one can’t just write off with satisfaction by affirming that they are now dead. The terms survival and posterity have thir own rules. S.J. never overvalued them because he always knew that it’s already enough of a challenge to occupy one’s own time.

And the second thing that reading the old Schaubühne reveals is that the value of a magazine does not depend on whether an edition printed 1932 can still be read in 1989. The important thing is to reach, grab hold of, move, and educate its contemporaries. The Schaubühne fulfilled its task in its time, and it fulfilled it well. Dead…?

The argument about Ibsen is over. Today, older ladies in the stalls at a performance of the Ghosts rummage around in their handbags and ask their daughters, “Did you switch the lights off at home?” And they don’t realize that the great pharmacist also fought for them, to overcome a hundred prejudices, fought for a hundred things that appear self-evident to the daughter. Works of art seldom last, but their results remain. The Schaubühne championed such results, with great substance, with great knowledge and, because the Blatt was young, with a lot of noise. Magazines have their youth maturity and old age, like people, and under S.J. this was in parallel to his own development. What a row!

„You’re not a polemicist“, he often said to me, when I later remained silent in the face of malicious and fierce attacks. And I answered him, „Being fat is a philosophy of life.” He was thin. He was inclined to fight, he had a deft sword and a deadly hand. He was a chivalrous opponent, but no more grass grew in the places where he struck.

What ‘affairs’! They are now really stone dead; they can only be judged historically, and I have no intention of warming them up, even by mentioning the names of the participants. The ‚little man‘ was so willing and enthusiastic to get involved in literary fights that it sometimes seemed as though the opponent suited him just fine, as though he had just been waiting to sort him out. This very often took the form of an intellectual dual; even then he let his opponent express himself in the Blatt. He answered straight away, but one never had the impression that he ‘had the last word’, just because that was typographically the case. He struck, but he always stayed within the rules of the game.

What ‘affairs’! Theater directors who, just like today, understood their profession as a mixture of tenure, sub-tenure and unworldly snobbery; the mainstream press to whom the independence of the little man was an embarrassment, and whose writers  worked off their bad consciences on a good cause; cheats of all kinds; little people shopping for art, whose wailing rose harrowingly to the sky – it was wonderful! These days, no one has the time to endure such Homeric battles of words. Times have changed, but in those days the country, which considered itself to be unusually ‘nervous’, was actually calmer, and a topic held people’s attention for longer. (Lucky revue writers of 1901!) And when S.J. had someone by the scruff of the neck, he wasn’t quick to let go. He pursued him, he hit out, he never backed down. He was a natural-born polemicist, as many learnt that to their cost.

And at this time, around 1911, the Schaubühne developed that which was later to become the spirit of the Weltbühne: spotless editorial standards; excellent selection of contributors; the invisible, but always perceptible patronage of the director, who demanded the same uncompromisingly good German style from all his staff, which none of his competitors ever achieved.

This went down to the tiniest detail. The Blatt expanded; the seriousness was joined by humour, satire, irony and deeper meaning, for which no periodical can be too serious to allow a place, in this ambiguous life. The Kasperle-Theater[6] feature was contributed for a while by Christian Morgenstern, who wrote some magical fun for us; Karl Walser let his delicately painted puppets dance, and the current affairs satire was often provided by a journalist who was killed in the war: Walter Turszinsky, who contributed jokes with a rare impact. None of it was for ever, but it was valuable in its time, and that’s not bad. We young ones devoured the Blatt, and I can remember exactly reading the essay Der Fall Lanz, which opened a window on Siegfried Jacobsohn‘s soul like no other. I wouldn’t have dared to submit a contribution then, but I already felt myself to be part of the family. This was about all of us. What grace! How light, even when delivering a hefty blow! What melody! These are all attributes which make writers most suspicious to the bad type of German, for whom the Nobel price is earned by sweat.

What appeared in the Blatt forced its way deep into society. It was no good ignoring it, it was no good shouting about it, it was no good looking for its motives, there were no others than the need, which can never be suppressed, to tell the truth. S.J. once said proudly to me, “All my life, I have done nothing else than that which brought me pleasure[7].” And his entire pleasure was to work, to encourage his writers to tell the truth, against all-comers, if necessary.

That is how I found the Blatt when I finally dared to submit a short article in January 1913. I had laughed myself sick and then well again in the then Herrnfeld theatre, and tried to write it down. I was bursting with pride. S.J. had me come to him, and he never let me go again. He encouraged me to write little poems, of which I had shown him a sample. He ‚commissioned‘ the poetry. We wrote some articles, which then appeared anonymously, together. What a teacher! He was uncompromising, he never let off, there was no cheating allowed, it was an honest contest. There are a lot of things in the old Schaubühne of which I can no longer say who wrote them: he or I or both of us. When we worked together, he opened up his soul to me. Mind you, he never let me near his filing cabinet!

I certainly don’t want to claim the credit, retrospectively, for having turned the theatre magazine Die Schaubühne into the political magazine Die Weltbühne. (The name, if I remember correctly, was suggested by a Zurich newspaper in a favourable review of the Schaubühne.) I was working on my doctorate at the time, and my tutor for commercial law, God bless it, an intelligent, thoughtful man, told me a lot about the financial markets. Witty, radical, amusing. „Why don’t you write that down?“ I asked him. „Where could I write that?“ he replied. „Do you think that anyone would print it?”

I brought it to Siegfried Jacobsohn, and on 25th September 1913 appeared a financial markets essay by Vindex and the following Answer[8], simultaneously: „K. St. in Helsingborg. Before you, the most faithful of our readers, have to ask anxiously in your next letter, why, and to what purpose Vindex writes about the tobacco cartel in the Schaubühne, and if he hasn’t perhaps come to the wrong address, let me tell you now: just because we have written about the theatre, and only the theatre, here, for the past nine years, does not mean that I have forfeited the right to write about, and have others write about, other things. To plough one furrow separately from all others has its attractions and advantages, but also its dangers. There are a hundred connections to other furrows, which one should not ignore forever. We can’t stand to one side when the Reichsbank raises the discount rate, and at the end of the day we all hang on threads which come together in the Burgstraße[9]. On fine threads which we don’t always see, but that’s exactly why we should examine them closely, and try to understand how the world works. The theatre, whose stage we have been trying to clean up for the last nine years, also contains an audience, about whom we have said too little so far. Now we intend to open the window of our study more frequently, take a look outside, and then report back to you, my favourite reader, what we find out there.” That’s how it started. S.J. always had the sense of his times.

The circle of his collaborators expanded. He had his favourites. Alfred Polgar was teacher’s pet, an issue in the theatre season without him was unthinkable, and the miracle occurred: his fundamental observations about the theatre, from Vienna, interested the Berliners, because they were not just about Fräulein Pospischill, they were about the theatre, about art. S.J. probably loved Polgar more than any of us, and he was quite right to do so. Then there was Harry Kahn, who has been here longer than anyone else. S.J. called him the Samumisten[10], or was that what he called himself? His temperament blew a desert wind through the Blättchen; there were heart-warming polemics, like the one against the late Kasimir Edschmid, a magnificent performance. Herbert Ihering presented his first theatre reviews here. Ferdinand Hardekopf contributed drawings made with powder. Peter Altenberg was in nearly every issue.

The theatre business, the economic basis of this unique enterprise, was illuminated. The gentlemen would have preferred to continue to work in the dark, so this public criticism was not very welcome to them. The financial markets, speculation in real estate, fashion, and ever more politics. That’s how it was until 1st August 1914.

S. J. was in his beloved Kampen[11], where he nearly had to stay. He wrote a little war diary, The First Days there, that is very instructive about the mood of that disastrous month. Then he returned to Berlin. His first action concerned the theatre: he found the vulgar war burlesques with which the Berlin theatres tried to satisfy their cashiers and the times, which S.J. overestimated from a feeling of inner cleanliness, culturally disgraceful. The burlesques were actually just right for this war. And it is completely consistent that the High Command found the cultural warners uncomfortable, and the patriotic songs, “The Home Guard is armed, with guns and with monkeys[12]”, appropriate.

The Blatt manoeuvred its way through the war, avoiding being banned, through paper rationing, and, with one exception, held its tongue when it could not speak. Not a single issue would have appeared if it had said what was to be said. As for me, I didn’t say anything for nearly three years. In Summer 1918, the aesthetic silence which had reigned until than was briskly interrupted. As I sent my first articles from Rumania, I wouldn’t have believed that they could be published, but some instinct told me, „It’s time. It’s time. It’s time.“ There was nothing of a knife in the back[13] about it. If only we had! But some things seemed to have relaxed at home, the authorities had become unsure, and we took advantage. I began to strike, gently at first, then more firmly, ever more firmly. Others followed. S.J. risked that. Then November washed over us.

The role of the Blat after the war is well-known. After 1st April 1918 we were called the Weltbühne instead of the Schaubühne, and I believe that we have justified the new name. Our first task was to make good the four years of enforced silence. I began with a series of articles, Officers and Other Ranks[14], and that really kicked things off. The impact was unprecedented. Pamphlets and books were written against us; the Blatt was hated and loved in equal parts, and that was an awful lot. S.J. seemed reborn. In these years he proved himself to be an outstanding editor, if proof were needed. Material and people flowed towards him from all sides. He sifted, rejected, accepted, and brought ever new people into his circle. Officers who never had a page published gave him information and access to their memoirs. Felix Pinner, our Morus, reported from the world of business. Current affairs were on fire.

S.J. was very secretive about Morus at first. “You’ll see”, he said. „Who is it, then?“ Deep secret. A doctor? A journalist? I realized that someone was presenting the business section, which was otherwise so dry and only legible to insiders in the Burgstraße, so amusingly, so lively and so mercilessly funny, that his articles, with Jacobsohn’s own, were, and still are, the most widely read.

Jacobsohn never neglected the theatre, not now, not now. „You may as well forbid the silkworm from spinning,“ he said, when I expressed my doubts. He only let off in the very last years. „Why should I look upon something with love which is made without love?” he used to say. The Weltbühne did some really good cleaning up in Germany in these post-war years.

A few times, after the Kapp Putsch and after the murder of Rathenau, we allowed ourselves the macabre joke of comparing our predictions, and it was shocking. What the professional politicians, these occupationally blind, had thought they could just look down their noses at, almost always became bloody reality. We were tragically right. They knew lots more details than we did, but they didn’t feel it. The history of the period after the war can be read from the clock-face of the Weltbühne.

S.J. didn’t let up. On 18th August 1925 he published the first article about the Feme murders[15], an action which is not yet quite over. Carl Mertens did something very brave, for which we are all grateful to him, but he was only able to do it because S.J. stuck his neck out for him, which he always did for his people, for them and for the cause which was his life. S.J. died on 3rd December 1926. Carl von Ossietzky, who joined the Blatt on 20th April 1926, and I, have his legacy in our hands. This is only possible because the Weltbühne publisher set an example which seems to me to be uncommon. The publisher is our S.J’s wife, and she has remained true to the tradition of the Blatt: it has remained free. We know why it needs to be free, but free of what?

The Weltbühne has always had two significant opponents: the parties and the mainstream press. As far as the parties are concerned, the German likes to be individualistic where it is not worth it, and collectivist where others have their private heart. He likes to demand from ‚his‘ Blatt that it ‚shows its colours’. But the Weltbühne is is not a periodical which is edited by its readers. „You only have one right: to refrain from reading my Blatt“, said S.J, and once wrote to a worthy man who cancelled the Weltbühne in a fit of emotion, “You are losing more than I.“ As much as we are in touch with the readership, we have never allowed it to influence our position, by pressure or threat, by recommendation, influence or ‘connections’. For my part, I could stop writing, but I could not, as long as I continue to write, do it according to the orders of a publisher. „This“, said the publisher who wanted to sell his newspaper, „is the machine room, here are the publishers offices, over there is the mailing, here is the advertizing, and over there, oh, God, that’s just the editorial office.”

The Blatt has remained uncompromising, and when we make mistakes, at least they’re our own mistakes. So, not to be free of the parties. To show its colours? How washed out these colours are, how mixed up, and even smeared! And it is strange that nearly all the demands of the party big-wigs, had we acceded to them, were negative. They know exactly what we are not to say, but what the do want us to say is not at all clear, if you don’t count that someone wanted to engage us to recite worn-out party programs of which we could no more make head nor tail than our readers could. It is presumptuous to dictate intellectual  categories to intellectuals, and one possible answer to the question, „Are you for or against Calvinists?” is to not answer it at all.

This is not just the usual accusation of toeing the party line. How else can a party participate in the struggle between different realities than with a fixed, necessarily somewhat inflexible, programme? The regrettable thing in the German parties is rather that the programmes, with few exceptions, are so ambiguous and unclear that they don’t actually say much. And it can only narrow the intellectual horizon if parties measure achievements which are originally intellectual, by the standards of their dogmas. No party teaching, not even the catholic one, is so rich that one does not soon detect a narrowness and stubbornness in its sheltered, pious lambs. So we don’t publish electoral slogans here: we are not the praeceptores Germaniae[16], and freedom is also worth something.

To ‚tell it like it is‘ is a question of temperament as well as a moral imperative. The times need a valve through which the steam of the general filth, in the incredible noiseless corruption of German life that bribes individual journalists, not with large sums, but with a slap on the shoulder and a cigar, a dinner invitation and flattering recognition by a power which rarely needs to be exercised. A few times, S.J. achieved the best case of producing an issue of the Blatt containing contributions which could only have been published here. “One must protest.”

The objection of the party dogmatists, „What’s the point of that? What good does it do?“is not entirely unjustified. There is a double danger of free-wheeling, by the author who is pleased by his own good style as an end in itself, and by the reader, who reads the article with a smile: that’s really told him! And that may be all. In this worst case, the Weltbühne is no more than a moral after-dinner digestive brandy for good citizens who read the Blatt in the evening after work, to have a good conscience. That would be sentimental, not effective. How can we be effective? A small magazine, by it’s very nature, does not have the obligations which the mainstream press, much to its disadvantage, has.

Only someone who has experienced an upheaval in a provincial German newspaper, which are the majority, knows what is produced, and above all, what is suppressed there. The editor is completely powerless if he doesn’t crawl into the soul of the publisher or the representative of the company which controls it. Then he can do what he likes, because what he likes is what the director would do. The chain of obligations never ends. To the advertisers, which is understandable from the point of view of the periodical. To the sensibilities of the citizens, which is not understandable, because if you go about it the right way, courage impresses people. To innumerable interest groups… The number of things which cannot be published! Their life is not easy, although that is also partly due to the fact that they overestimate their own influence so boundlessly.

What kind of influence does the Weltbühne have? As far as I have been able to judge during the last seventeen years, an indirect one. Proposals, formulations, world views, tendencies and intentions flow out into society through a thousand network channels, from this source. We strictly follow S.J, who was quite happy to have people use, reprint, or even steal his material, “as long as the right things reach the people.” And there are quite a few intelligent and courageous provincial editors, among whom I would like to mention Walther Victor in Zwickau above all, who, not without risk to themselves, catch the balls which we serve, and pass them on. This is where our way and that of the mainstream press divide. What influence does the mainstream press have? I believe that it is culturally enormous, but politically much less than it thinks, which is demonstrated by the ignored electoral recommendations they make. Power? Do the publishers even want it? They like it when one assumes that they have power, and respects them for it, but they hardly ever use it. They demand a price for it, but that’s it.

So who does have the power? In America it is the large and small associations, whose weight in Washington weighs on the promptly reacting politicians. In France it is the club atmosphere of the ministries and both chambers who determine the fate of the country. It is a mixture of economic interests, an exquisitely refined personnel policy, gossip and intrigue. The soup is cooked in the provinces and served in Paris. The situation is different in decentralized Germany, where the accompanying music of the press sings third harmony. On Sundays, I would love to be he who the foreign policy correspondent of a mainstream newspaper thinks he is during the week. One reads his columns, but takes no notice of them.

The four great powers of the country: agriculture, industry, army and church, share out the power among themselves. The press has no influence on that at the moment. And it it very significant that the newspapers of these groups, such as the Germania, are mainly read by professional politicians, and only, as one can tell from their deliberately pale and colourless articles, to find out what the party committee thinks about this or that, and what its leading members actually want. This existing decision by the powerful is confirmed by the vote of Joe Public, produced artificially by a hundred correspondences, mailings, and, above all, by the news agencies, which can derive the apotheosis of fascism from an eruption of Vesuvius. The journalist then has to put in the line breaks and add a headline. We don’t want to compete with this.

Some of our friends are also involved in the mainstream press, which is unavoidable among writers. In most cases this is not a problem. In the largest democratic and centrist newspapers, the intellectual level is so high that fights are conducted with intellectual weapons, and only the smaller ones prefer the most stupid strategy, to ignore us. They all read us, they just don’t admit it. The Weltbühne certainly has no exclusive claim on decency and independence. We have never had the childish newspaper habit of behaving as though we and our Blatt were the only ones in the world, and for God’s sake not let the readers know that there are other reasonable and stout people. We can argue among ourselves often, whenever the issue demands it, but the days of old-fashioned literature polemics are long gone. We still have one advantage over the mainstream press: freedom.

A weekly magazine also has its traditions and its moral obligations, its friends and enemies, but they are absolutely and relatively fewer and less than elsewhere, and I can’t remember a single case in which we remained silent because of a queasy feeling of, “We really can’t…“ If S.J. bequeathed us nothing else, we have inherited his civil courage. And it makes a difference.

It would have been possible to achieve the circulation of Westermanns Monatsheften[17] only by converting the Blatt into a  wholesome Viennese periodical. Our moral scope is pleasingly large, and the commercial reach is steadily growing. It is far greater than it ever was under S.J. The times need such periodicals. I don’t like to play the game of declaring one’s own readership to be the intellectual aristocracy, which is just a cheap way of touting for subscriptions, but there are good people among those who read the Weltbühne in every small and medium-sized town. They luckily don’t wear a badge, but they can recognize each other in any discussion by their independence of judgement, sense of humour and desire to keep things clean. And by their belief in a cause, which we share unswervingly.

Every periodical has its gaps, its failures, its weak and strong periods, but one thing is sure: as long as the Weltbühne is the Weltbühne, we will give our all. And what we give is for the good of the cause: the desire, which cannot be influenced by any power, to turn Teutschland[18] into Germany, and to show that there are other Germans than Hitler, Hugenberg[19] and the cold fish university sort of 1930. Every reader can make a contribution. If he does so in his own environment, that is our best reward. In this Blatt we are free and have integrity. For us, too, as Siegfried Jacobsohn said, is the Weltbühne ‘our clotted heart’s blood’.

[1] Leaf, page or sheet of paper. The Weltbühne people used this term, or its diminutive, Blättchen, as a nickname for it

[2] The most highly regarded German actor of his day

[3] The predecessor of the Weltbühne

[4] The most well-known German-language theatre director

[5] Theatre director

[6] Something like a Punch and Judy show

[7] ‘fun’ may be a better translation these days, but it is anachronistic

[8] Answer, a regular column, containing, often faked, replies to readers’ letters

[9] The location of the Berlin Stock Exchange

[10] Probably a reference to the cigarette brand he smoked

[11] Holiday resort on the island of Sylt

[12] It rhymes in German. Bad music hall doggerel

[13] The postwar legend that the German defeat was caused by defeatists and traitors at home

[14] Also known as Militaria

[16] Germany’s teachers

[17] A historical cultural magazine

[18] An old-fashioned name for Germany, used here to mean anachronistic, mythical nationalism, as preached by the Nazis

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