Context

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History

In the middle of the 19th century, the European Great Powers Austria and Prussia were vying for dominance in the German Federation. The conflict was resolved in favour of Prussia during the 1860s. Bismarck became Chancellor of Prussia in 1862, and created the German Empire, under Prussian domination, by means of 3 successful wars: against Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein in 1864, against Austria in 1866, and against France in 1870.

The historic Prussian victories of Königgratz and Sedan became part of the German national myth.

Defeat by Prussia was instrumental in the Austrian Habsburg Empire adopting a new constitutional settlement, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

At the end of the 1880s, several things happened which ushered in a new epoch, the Fin-de-Siècle, Belle Epoque, or Edwardian Age.

Kaiser Wilhelm I died in 1888. His son only survived him by three months, and Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended to the throne. Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck as Chancellor.

Crown Prince Rudolf, the heir to the Habsburg throne, committed suicide at Meyerling in 1889.

This epoch was characterised by a broadening and radicalization of economic, political and cultural activity, the beginnings of mass society. The first modern art movements, the Succession, Naturalism, Impressionism were founded. A non-decorational architectural style developed in opposition to the also innovative Art Nouveau.

Cafe society began to support a cultural class who had a commercial, not patronage, relationship to their customers and readers. Die Weltbühne grew directly out of this non-aristocratic, secular, commercial cultural scene, particularly commercial theatre.

There were new movements in the social sciences and philosophy, psychoanalysis and logical positivism. Nietzsche’s work became influential, after his descent into madness in 1888.

One of the most influential periodicals was Maximilian Harden’s Zukunft (future), which, among other things, conducted a long crusade against an allegedly homosexual circle of courtiers around Kaiser William II.

Karl Kraus founded his periodical Die Fackel (the torch) in Vienna, in 1899.

The European Great Powers created two opposed alliance systems: The Central Powers of German, Austria-Hungary and Italy, against the peripheral powers Britain, France and Russia.

After a series of diplomatic crises, particularly in the Balkans, and an arms race, particularly between the British and German navies, the First World War broke out in August 1914.

After four years of unprecedented slaughter, the First World War ended in November 1918 with the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman (Turkish) empires. The Czarist Russian Empire had collapsed in the Russian Revolution the previous year.

The peace settlement created at Versailles, and in various other treaties, saw the birth of new countries, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia out of the remnants of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. Borders shifted dramatically.

In 1918, the theatre review journal Die Schaubühne, published by Siegfried Jacobsohn, changed its name to the Weltbühne, and with its main contributors, Kurt Tucholsky and Carl von Ossietzky, became the main voice of left-liberal support for the new Weimar Republic, and against the continuity of militarism, and a reactionary spirit in the judicial system and the state bureaucracy.

The Weimar Republic experienced turbulent times, political violence and economic chaos, and collapsed in 1933, when the Nazis came to power.

Kurt Tucholsky left Germany in 1932, and died, probably by suicide, in Swedish exile, in 1935. Karl Kraus died of natural causes in 1936. Ossietzky was imprisoned after conviction in the Weltbühne case, and died after his health had been broken by mistreatment in captivity. He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.

The Nazis took terrorist measures against their opponents, but they also struggled for cultural hegemony by means of a policy of  ‘coordination’. They stripped prominent intellectuals of German citizenship and drove them into exile. They tried to impose their definition of what was normal and what was decadent or perverse. They burned the books of authors of whom they disapproved, held an exhibition of ‘degenerate’ art, and only allowed publication by authors who were members of the official writers’ association, and Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.

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