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Weimar Germany, Part 1: Intoxicating Metropolis

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Today, as in all revolutionary times, when the existence of the individual trembles to the roots, when life and death are separated by a hair, the ecstasy of delirium and dance sprouts up as if in search of mass narcosis. – Carl Ludwig Schleich, Cocaineism, 1921

The Weimar Period has captured the popular imagination through musicals like Cabaret and films like Marlene Dietrich’s The Blue Angel. Often portrayed as a society dancing on a volcano, both the political right and left have used Weimar Germany’s permissive urban nightlife and debauchery as examples of either societal degeneration or as an open, “anything-goes” paradise. Jazz, cocaine, prostitution, and other forms of vice form one half of the Weimar stereotype: the other of course being runaway inflation, civil unrest, and the rise of Hitler.

Poster for the silent film "Laster der Menschheit" (Vice of Humanity), 1927.

Poster for the silent film “Laster der Menschheit” (Vice of Humanity), 1927.

However, taking either of these judgments at face value is too simplistic. Although cities like Berlin were notorious for their nightlife and its associated drug culture, this image is in part due to the influence of mass media during this period. Newspaper stories, novels, and films like Laster der Menschheit portrayed the “new Sodom” of Berlin and other cities as dangerous for the average German. While drugs like cocaine continued to enjoy a following among artistic and intellectual circles (especially surrounding German Expressionism), our current view of Weimar as a free-for-all zone of liberation is in part due to the skewed image offered by these urban figures. The historian Benjamin Ziemann offers a corrective to this urban-centric view of Weimar culture: “Weimar was Weimar: it is best represented by the small town in Thuringia.” This entry provides a sketch of how the city in Weimar Germany was portrayed as a den of sin and how this portrayal continues to influence popular perceptions of Weimar Culture today.

Films like Marlene Dietrich’s The Blue Angel and Fritz Lang’s M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse contribute to our stereotypical image of Berlin as a permissive incubator of crime, song, and dance in this era. Film was intimately connected with the popular perception of the modern metropolis as a locus of crime and vice. Ernst Engelbrecht and Leo Heller are prime examples of this connection. Leo Heller was a journalist who collaborated with Engelbrecht, a Kriminalkommisar (police superintendent) in the Berlin police. The two men wrote books about the Berlin underworld and Engelbrecht wrote scripts for crime films.

The section “Night Figures of the City” (Nachtgestalten der Großstadt) from Engelbrecht and Heller’s 1926 book Kinder der Nacht. Bilder aus dem Verbrecherleben (“Children of the Night. Images from the Thug Life”) describes a street scene in lurid detail, warning average Germans of the dangers involved in exploring Berlin’s nightlife:

The sausage seller sells not only his sausage treats but offers his customers the chance for other, forbidden pleasures as well. For on the side he also does a booming retail trade in cocaine, the poisonous white powder, and in this connection his clientele might well be much more extensive and loyal. One has no idea how quickly the vice of cocaine has made its home in Germany; broad groups of the population have fallen hopelessly into its clutches. One can estimate that thirty percent of all prostitutes, gamblers, and pederasts are cocaine users, and in other callings as well, in particular among artists, cocaine has found its loyal slaves.
Prostitutes purchase cocaine from "Emil." May 1929. Bundesarchiv Bild, Creative Commons License.

Prostitutes purchase cocaine from “Emil.” May 1929. Bundesarchiv Bild, Creative Commons License.

What we have here is more Reefer Madness than journalism. The authors also warn of cocaine dealing among cigarette sellers and call for harsher penalties against dealers due to the “scourge” of cocaine among the German populace. It is also important to keep in mind that cocaine was legally available in pharmacies as late as 1924, something that the authors neglect to mention here. Cocaine is listed among prostitution, strip clubs, “wild” gambling clubs, pornography, and other lures of Berlin’s nightlife that will result in pickpocketing or worse for the hapless citizen who decides to take part in them.

The harmless citizen who must pass on the streets at night notices little of the dangers lurking around him. The nightlife and its activities often seem harmless to him. And nonetheless does the night in the metropolis continually demand its sacrificial victims. Thus is many an existence morally and physically destroyed.
Alexanderplatz in 1908. Alexanderplatz was the site of Berlin's police headquarters and the location of Albert Döblin's novel of the Berlin Underworld: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz in 1908. Alexanderplatz was the site of Berlin’s police headquarters and the central location of Albert Döblin’s novel of the Berlin Underworld: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Engelbrecht and Heller also described Hamburg’s notorious St. Pauli district as rife with opium dens. In the section “Opium Dens,” they explain illicit drugs as a problem with foreign origin. Although heroin was initially produced by Bayer, the authors blame South America for its presence in Germany and also cast opium as “the most widespread of the Chinese vices.” Although German-manufactured morphine and cocaine were the most widely-used illicit drugs during the Weimar era, Engelbrecht and Heller focus on what they see as a foreign threat. Curiously, this passage describes the effects of opium in an almost pornographic manner; one is not sure whether the authors seek to warn or excite the reader:

Soon enough the guest is immersed in wonderful dreams; he feels himself released fr0m all earthly matters and lets himself be washed over with erotic pleasure. One, two, three hours he lies there in sleep, then suddenly starts. First he has to concentrate and consider where he is and how he got there. Only with difficulty does he regain the memory. His watch says 5:00 AM.

The popular press and law enforcement were not the only rungs of German society that warned the population about the dangers lurking in their rapidly-growing urban centers. The medical establishment also got in on the act. The anesthesiologist Carl Ludwig Schleich’s “Kokainismus (Cocaineism),” a 1921 article, focuses on what Schleich saw as a growing danger. For Schleich, the increased use of cocaine and other illicit drugs were a symptom of modernity. He argued that the greater speed of transport and modern life in general had made people seek stronger and faster “rushes.” He described the effects of cocaine in Berlin (or as he calls it, “our Sodom”) in language that would not be out of place in an Expressionist horror film:

A greenish-brown shadow surrounds hollow eyes, now bereft of shine and with the haze of death wandering fleetingly over their surface. The enormous unrest, trembling limbs, quivering, drooling lips, twitching chin, fits of yawning, the head sunk helplessly on the chest, complete rhythmic and motivational enervation–that all comes with such horrifying rapidity, such gripping certainty, that an observer is inevitably seized by a profound shudder on viewing the unfortunate victim who has drunk for the first time of this poisonous cup. But it is the enourmous danger of all demons that their secret priests are always searching for comreades in their hellish cult, that every vice seeks cohorts at the devil’s altar….the present hullabaloo caused a cocaine fellowship, a cult of the poisonous drug to float to the surface, which is quite likely unprecedented in the cultural history of humanity.

Although the press and others spilled a lot of ink warning society about the dangers of drugs such as opiates and cocaine, the actual amount of addicts remained low after a short peak in the early 1920s. Jonathan Lewy shows that for all the fascination with cocaine and other drugs during the Weimar era, overall consumption among the population remained low. Was this portrayal of the city and drug use part of an anti-modern, anti-democratic backlash from the right? Partially. Although the German right often extolled the virtues of the countryside over what they saw as the corrupt modern metropolis, views on drugs themselves were not inherently political. Lewy shows that Nazi drug policy was not substantially different than government policy during the Weimar period. Many prominent members of the German right ranging from Hermann Goering to Ernst Jünger were either addicted to or prominently experimented with illicit drugs. This is an angle that Lewy touches on but deserves more investigation: war veterans as a group were among the most susceptible to drug addiction, especially morphine. This also may explain why popular literature and journalism of the period focuses more on cocaine: it was the drug of the street, the prostitute, the outcasts of society. Morphine addiction was the most common during the Weimar era, especially among war veterans. The overwhelming focus on nightlife, scandal, and glamour associated with cocaine during this period diverted public attention from the very real problem of morphine addiction among Germany’s World War I veterans.

Otto Dix, "Großstadt (Metropolis)," 1927.

Otto Dix, “Großstadt (Metropolis),” 1927.

In popular culture, Weimar Germany, particularly Weimar Berlin, continues to fascinate. Whether the debauchery of Sally Bowles in Cabaret, sensationalized documentaries about sex, or songs named after figures like Anita Berber, the popular image of Weimar Berlin as alternately a cesspool of vice and incubator of liberation are here to stay.

Note: All block quotes can be found in the excellent Weimar Republic Sourcebook.



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