The ‘Weimar Experience’ in British Interwar Writing

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The dissertation treats the texts of British writers who spent time in Germany during the Weimar Republic era, i.e. between 1919 and 1933, and who wrote about their experiences with Germany and the Germans. The study includes texts that were written during the years 1919-1933 as well as texts that deal retrospectively with experiences in the Weimar Republic and were written in the years between the end of the Weimar Republic and the outbreak of the Second World War (1933-1939). Scholarly engagement with the texts of British writers on the Weimar Republic has so far been very much limited to the texts of Christopher Isherwood and his friends W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. These three young writers lived in Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, mainly in Berlin, and their view of Germany was strongly influenced by the idea that a new, young, dynamic society had developed in Germany out of the post-war crisis – a society which rebelled against the bourgeois values of pre-war era through sexual experimentation, rejection of consumerism and a return to a more natural lifestyle. The texts by these three writers on the Weimar Republic were largely written after the National Socialists came to power and accordingly deal with the disenchantment of the British view of the supposedly progressive Germany in the face of the Third Reich.

By focusing predominantly on the experiences of Isherwood, Auden and Spender, the existing research on British writers in the Weimar Republic places a strong emphasis on the experiences of young homosexual men in Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic and neglects other aspects of these writers' experiences as well as the perspectives of the numerous other British writers who experienced the Weimar Republic and had very different experiences due to their background, age and motivations for their stay.

Moreover, existing research does not sufficiently distinguish between accounts of the Weimar Republic period and retrospective accounts, or between fictional and non-fictional texts. The development of the British image of the Weimar Republic in accordance with the political and historical context in which the experience is reported is thus not considered, nor is the way the literary imagination shaped the British image of the Weimar Republic.

For the first time, this study undertakes a wide-ranging investigation of diverse perspectives, which both analyses the biographical experiences of the writers and explains the fictionalisation process of these experiences in different phases of the interwar and post-war period. The study is divided into three chronological chapters, each dealing with a phase of the Weimar Republic. In each chapter, both fictional and non-fictional texts are
taken as examples.

Chapter I deals with the early phase of the Weimar Republic in the immediate post-war period (1919-1923), in which British visitors mainly reported on the situation in the occupied Rhineland and in the capital Berlin. Chapter II covers the politically and financially comparatively stable phase of the years 1924-1929, which is rightly considered the cultural heyday of the Weimar Republic. This chapter analyses British writers' engagement with various phenomena of Weimar modernism, including the British fascination with the German youth movement and the visitors' predominantly disparaging attitude towards Berlin's entertainment industry.

Chapter III deals with the years 1929-1933, the period of transition from parliamentary democracy to National Socialist dictatorship. It first examines how this period is portrayed in non-fictional texts by British visitors in the years 1930-1933, as well as retrospectively in the period between 1933 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and finally after the end of the war. The second part of Chapter III is devoted to the representation of the end of the Weimar Republic in novels by British writers who lived through this period and whose novels were written between 1933 and 1939. These novels were written at a time when the writers could not have been certain that the National Socialist system, which they themselves had experienced, would lead Germany into another war against Great Britain.

As shown in the study, British visitors in retrospective accounts tended to portray themselves as early, well-informed eyewitnesses to Germany's turn towards fascism. They paint a picture of a country in perpetual crisis, portraying German modernity as a deceptive glitter masking a deep-rooted 'barbarism', and creating German characters who facilitate the rise of fascism by remaining passive in the face of increasing political tensions. To today's readers, equipped with knowledge of the collapse of German democracy, this version of the Weimar Republic seems authentic because it adds to our knowledge of the historical developments that followed it. The scholarly reception of British writers' experiences of the Weimar Republic and the literary texts based on them has contributed to the plausibility of this image by focusing on the experiences of a small group of British visitors, taking fictional accounts at face value and failing to distinguish between contemporary impressions recorded by British visitors and later texts that revisit the 'Weimar experience' after the fact. This not only creates a misleading picture of how the Weimar Republic was perceived by British writers before its demise, but also gives the impression that Weimar Germany was a country observed by British literary visitors from a cautious and critical distance, even though some of them were so enthusiastic about what they perceived as the ‘new spirit’ of Germany, or so convinced of the injustice of German ‘oppression’ after the First World War, that they saw the Nazi movement before 1933, and in some cases even beyond, as merely a continuation of a laudable attempt to lead the German people out of post-war misery.

The study analyses the diverse literary versions of the ‘Weimar experience’ by British writers in order to show how this experience was transformed into fiction, how personal engagement with Germany complicates retrospective narratives, and how these complications are played out in fictional texts. The picture of the Weimar Republic that emerges from these texts is fragmentary and unstable. Despite the diversity of views represented, however, some overarching themes can be discerned: Early contemporary accounts by British writers who visited the Weimar Republic tend to focus on German victimhood and German resilience in the face of post-war injustices. The unstable political situation and the country's openness to ‘international’ influences, as well as poverty, prostitution and drug use, are seen as consequences of the defeat in the war and the ‘unjust’ Treaty of Versailles. In contemporary accounts from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, similar themes are maintained, but now the Germans are not only portrayed as victims, but increasingly as a young, modern and dynamic people. While contemporary accounts tend to ignore the cultural innovations of the Weimar period and dismiss Berlin as a city lacking the tradition and cultural weight of London or Paris, retrospective accounts reinforce the contrast between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Weimar Republic through cultural phenomena of the time. They describe the mid-to-late 1920s as an enlightened, modern, forward-looking time in Germany and contrast this period with the shock of the early 1930s, when British visitors realised that what they had thought was "the essential Germany", as writer Madeleine Kent put it, had in fact been a brief and deceptive interlude to be replaced by the return of the old enemy image.

To link the vision of the (deceptively) progressive Weimar Republic with the vision of the terrifying return of German "barbarism" in the form of the Nazis, retrospective accounts interpret phenomena of Weimar modernity as symptoms of a German "madness" lurking just below the surface of the Republic: Elements of the Lebensreform movement such as nudism become symptoms of "hysteria", German Expressionist imagery hints at dark "pagan" instincts troubling the German soul, and the wandering youth of the 1920s are seen as harbingers of Nazi rallies. At all times, therefore, these texts not only reflect British perceptions of Germany and the Germans, but also negotiate British perceptions of themselves.

Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorErica Carter (Supervisor)

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