Life Is a Cabaret

Cabaret existed in Germany long before World War I, and even in its early days it strained against the boundaries of censorship and the prevailing moral climate. But the form really came into its own during the years that followed defeat in the war. During the 1920s and 30s, the chaos of the Weimar Republic, hyperinflation and economic meltdown, street battles between militias of right and left, and the steady rise of the anti-Semitic Nazi Party formed the backdrop to a collapse of traditional values. Live it up while you can and spend money while you have it was the new morality. Cabaret provided entertainment with a satirical and political bent that suited the mood and circumstances of the times, influenced by cutting-edge artistic and social movements such as Dadaism, social expressionism, and Neue Sachlichkeit (new objectivity).

Berlin between the wars generally gets the historical kudos when it comes to cabaret, but in fact the capital was a long way behind pre-war Munich in taking to the genre. German Kabarett emerged as different from original French form in that it was nearly always a vehicle for political satire. In clubs like Die Elf Scharfrichter (The Eleven Executioners), founded in 1901 in the Schwabing district, Munich's bohemians, socialists, progressives, and avant-gardistes of all stripes got together to gripe and poke fun at the smug, stultifyingly bourgeois society in which they lived.

Life in between-the-wars Berlin inspired writers like, among others, Christopher Isherwood, who lived in the city from 1929 to 1933. He wrote The Berlin Stories (1946), comprising two novellas—Good-Bye to Berlin and Mr. Norris Changes Trains—based in part on his experiences. The first of the two stories became the source of the stage and film versions of Cabaret.

Famous Period Cabarets

Die Katakombe
: Comedian Werner Finck (1902-78) found "The Catacombs" on Bellevuestrasse, just off Potsdamer Platz, in Berlin in 1929. His subtle jibes at Brownshirts, the Gestapo, and other "pillars" of the Nazi establishment made him popular -- and brought secret policemen into the audience to "take notes." Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the cabaret closed in 1935, and Finck spent 6 weeks in a concentration camp before enlisting in the German army.

Kabarett der Komiker: Better known as Kadeko, the Cabaret of Comics took a less risky approach than Die Katakombe in its choice of material. A well-known Kadeko Conferencier (Master of Ceremonies), Fritz Grunbaum, frequently employed his acid wit on his own audiences, ribbing them for, among other things, their disgusting eating habits.

Wien-München: From 1915 to 1916, the "Vienna-Munich" cabaret in Munich had as its director the comic actor Karl Valentin, who has been dubbed "the German Chaplin." In the 1930s, Valentin made two failed attempts to get his Panoptikum für Gruseliges und Nonsens (Panopticon for Horror and Nonsense) exhibit in Munich off the ground.

Living the Revival: Popular among visitors to Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Dresden, and other German towns is the kind of nightspot depicted in the musical Cabaret, with floor-show patter and acts that satirize the political and social scene, though the satire is less biting than it was during the time of the Weimar Republic. Some of today's cabaret shows may remind you of Broadway blockbusters, without much of the intimacy of the smoky, trenchant cellar revues of the 1920s and early 1930s.

German Literature: From Gutenberg to Grass

Even before Gutenberg invented the first printing press in the Western world in the 15th century, German literature—both oral and written—was being produced. The first written literary work known is The Lay of Hildebrand, a narrative poem handed down by ancient storytellers and copied by monks at the Benedictine Abbey at Fulda. Such tales of valor, love, sorrow, and death were strong in oral tradition, with the Rhine valley giving rise to many legends and songs through the centuries, Lohengrin, Roland, the Lorelei, and the Nibelungen being among the subjects.

The age of chivalry gave birth to lyric poetry in Germany. Like the troubadours in France, Minnesingers of the Holy Roman Empire roamed the land singing songs of love and derring-do inspired by the Crusades. One of these, Walter von der Vogelweide, a knight of the late 12th and early 13th centuries, is seen as the father of lyric poetry in Germany. Another early-13th-century poet of note was Wolfram von Eschenbach, whose epic, Parsifal, glorifies chivalry and religious devotion. By the 16th century, another "hero" had joined German folklore and literature -- Til Eulenspiegel, a clownish fellow whose life around 1300 became the subject of story and song.

From the time of the Reformation (16th c.), Martin Luther's influence can be traced in many fields of the German life of the mind and spirit. His translation of the Bible into modern German was hailed as the first great literary work in the language. A Luther contemporary, Hans Sachs, a Meistersinger (a "master singer" who carried on the traditions of the earlier Minnesingers), was a prolific author of stories, poems, plays, and songs.

Publications of a picaresque novel, Simplicissimus, by Grimmelshausen (17th c.), marked the start of production of long prose narratives in the country. The Age of Enlightenment in German literature dawned in the late 17th century, inaugurated by Klopstock in his epic, Der Messias, and his Odes, and it continued into the 18th century. Rationalization was the watchword in this Enlightenment period, or Aufklärung. Much writing was in the form of philosophical treatises (for example, the works of Leibniz and Kant). Also in this era, the principles of German drama were laid out by Lessing.

As a reaction to rationalization, a literary movement known as Sturm und Drang was born in the 18th century, marked especially by poetry and drama extolling both sentiment and grand passions and rejecting previous social, political, moral, and literary authority.

In this time, when ideas of storm and stress dominated the literati, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe arrived on the scene, a giant of letters. Dramatist, novelist, philosopher, and Germany's greatest poet, Goethe followed the pattern of the times in youth and early manhood (the Urfaust or Early Faust, Egmont, and The Sorrows of Young Werther). However, he soon became disenchanted with Sturm und Drang, turning in midlife after a stay in Italy to a classical mode (Nausikaa). During this period, he reworked Faust so that the final product begins with storm and stress and then levels off into tranquil classicism. It was after his sojourn in Italy that he also produced Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, a novel that served for decades as the prototype of the best German fiction.

Another literary immortal, Johann Friedrich Schiller, playwright and poet, a contemporary and friend of Goethe, also turned away from Sturm und Drang after presentation of Don Carlos, a powerful historical drama honoring liberty. Similar dramas were Wallenstein and Wilhelm Tell. Schiller's outlook placed his interests in the fields of history and philosophy.

Besides these two masters of the literary world, which soon moved on from classicism to romanticism to historical romanticism, such names of world note as the brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, famous for their collection of fairy tales, folk tales, and myths, and Heinrich Heine appeared. Many of the works of Heine, second only to Goethe as Germany's greatest poet, have become folk songs.

A poet who became known for his work in the first quarter of the 20th century was Rainer Maria Rilke. Another German, the novelist Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), moved to the United States to escape the political conditions of his homeland. Franz Kafka became known for his novels of the absurd. Bertolt Brecht (The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage) chose to live in East Germany after World War II.

In 1959 Gunter Grass burst onto the scene with his extraordinary first novel, Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum). He became a spokesman for the German generation that grew up in the Nazi era and received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1999 as a poet, novelist, and playwright.

Other Germans who won the Nobel Prize for literature:

  • Theodor Mommsen, 1902, philosopher
  • Paul J. L. Heyse, 1910, novelist, dramatist, and poet
  • Gerhart J. R. Hauptmann, 1912, dramatist
  • Thomas Mann, 1929, novelist
  • Hermann Hesse, 1946, novelist
  • Heinrich Böll, 1972, novelist
  • Herta Müller, 2009, novelist, poet, and essayist

The influence of German thought on the Western mind has been powerful, from as far back as the 13th century when Albertus Magnus became known as a scholastic philosopher, naturalist, and theologian. Through the centuries, other notable philosophers have been Kant, Moses Mendelssohn, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx, Engels, and Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra).

Germany's Rich Musical History

Some of the greatest works of Western music have been written by German composers. The roster includes Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Wagner, as well as 20th-century greats Alban Berg and Kurt Weill. The country's rich musical history dates back to 12th-century Minnesängers (troubadours) and religious chants. Over the centuries, Germany's musical traditions were fostered in convents, monasteries, and churches where composers were hired to write sacred songs, cantatas, and oratorios. Eventually, as opera houses and concert halls became a fixture in German cities, a wider public clamored for musical performances. Classical music remains an important part of German culture today and can be enjoyed in concert halls and opera houses throughout the country.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179): Known as Saint Hildegard, this Benedictine abbess was revered in her day as an author, visionary, herbalist, poet, and composer. Over 70 of her compositions have survived, one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers. Hildegard's music is monophonic, consisting of only one melodic line, but her soaring melodies go well beyond the range of medieval chant.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): After stints as a violinist, an organist, and Kapellmeister, Bach arrived in Leipzig in 1723 and stayed for the rest of his life, writing more than 200 cantatas, the Passion According to St. Matthew, and the Mass in B Minor. He was prolific in other ways as well, fathering 17 children. Every June, Leipzig celebrates Bach's musical legacy with the famous Bachfest, during which Bach's works are performed in the Thomaskirche, where he is buried.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Beethoven brought emotional depth and new tone colors to music in the transitional period between the Classical (Bach) and Romantic (Brahms) eras. He began his career by composing and performing piano concertos, and he continued to compose (9 symphonies, the opera Fidelio) even when his hearing began to deteriorate in the late 1790s. By the time his monumental Ninth Symphony was premiered in 1824, Beethoven was so deaf that he had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience. Music lovers can visit his birthplace, the Beethoven House Museum, in Bonn.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Like Beethoven, Brahms was a composer and virtuoso pianist who performed many of his own works. He composed for piano, chamber ensembles, symphony orchestra, and for voice and chorus. The structure of Brahms's music is rooted in the traditions of Baroque and Classical composition, but he developed musical themes in a way pioneered by Beethoven, creating bold new harmonies and melodies. Brahms's glory years as a composer were between 1868, when he premiered A German Requiem, his largest choral work, and 1885, by which time he had composed his four symphonies and the Piano Concerto No. 2. In 1889, Brahms made an experimental recording of his first Hungarian dance on the piano, the earliest recording made by a major composer.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Known primarily for his operas, Wagner pioneered advances in musical language that greatly influenced the development of European classical music. His life was tumultuous, requiring periodic flights to escape creditors. It was while in exile from Germany that Wagner completed his four-act Ring cyle, the opera Tristan and Isolde, and developed his revolutionary vision of operas as Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork", a fusion of music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, and stagecraft. His fortunes brightened when Ludwig II, king of Bavaria, became Wagner's patron., Wagner built the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, a theater where his operas -- and only his -- would be performed. He is buried in the garden at Villa Wahnfriend in Bayreuth.

Kurt Weill (1900-1950): Although he was classically trained and had some success with his works for the concert hall, it was Weill's musical-theatre songs that became popular in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s. His best-known work, The Threepenny Opera, was written in 1928 in collaboration with the German playwright Bertolt Brecht contained his most famous song, "Mack the Knife." As a prominent Jewish composer, Weill became a target of the Nazis and was forced to flee Germany in 1933.

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