07. November 2017

You have to make hay while the sun shines: Bohemianism enjoyed a brief heyday in the Weimar Republic, before Nazism destroyed it forever.

By Julia Schmitz

“Bohemianism is a characteristic that is deeply rooted in a person’s character, which can neither be acquired nor drummed into someone, nor can it be lost through changes in someone’s circumstances,” claims Erich Mühsam. The author and political activist was himself part of the Bohemian movement at the turn of the century, practiced an alternative lifestyle during the Lebensreform movement on Monte Veritá, and debated till the early hours with artists and writers in their preferred cafés in Munich’s Schwabing district and in Berlin. Yet this form of Bohemianism came to a temporary end with World War I, which wore on for four years.

Bohemianism strove for self-realization and liberty. But its members were often one thing above all: on the brink of poverty.

After 1918 the carefree attitude was gone with which previously aspiring artists, or those who saw themselves as such, had passed their time thinking about a new, better form of society or devoted themselves completely to their art. The disillusionment about losing the War and the other deprivations this involved also affected the Bohemian movement, whose members devoted themselves (in an incredibly productive manner) much more strongly than their predecessors to networking and selling their products – “technophile, obsessed with speed, unembellished, plain.”

The biscuits are precisely counted

After the Café des Westens, jokingly called “Café Größenwahn” (Café Megalomania), barred penniless artists from entering in order to attract a wealthier clientele, the artists were obliged to migrate to the Romanisches Café in Tauentzienstrasse. But not without a sense of nostalgia: “The Bohemians now frequent Romanisches Café, in whose dome-shaped hall they exist, tolerated, on the fringes amongst black marketeers from the racetrack and stock market speculators. They have to pay for their coffee immediately, and their biscuits are precisely counted, and they think back with nostalgia to the beautiful old Café des Westens...,” wrote a sharp-tongued Egon Erwin Kisch in his Berliner Reportagen.

Inflation: 1 egg 120 Mark, 1922/23, photograph, Exhibition catalog "Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republik", Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017

This change was not to everyone’s taste: “[...] nobody will seriously consider that the opinions aired in Romanisches Café represent the melting pot of independent spirits, persons uprooted out of protest and those who are voluntarily on the fringes... The Bohemian world I recall no longer exists, and it will not be resuscitated by those who consider themselves Bohemians today, and copy their gestures,” wrote a visibly disappointed Erich Mühsam.

The art of stylish begging

The new café was – naturally only unofficially – divided into two sections. The “swimmers’ pool” was frequented by illustrious figures such as Bertolt Brecht, Carl Zuckmayer, Alfred Döblin or the dancer Anita Berber, widely known for her excesses; they celebrated their success here. The “non-swimmers’ pool”, in contrast, was overflowing with young, as yet unknown artists. They went to the café, because they were constantly short of money to buy briquettes to heat their cramped, damp rooms, and sometimes could not even find a few pfennigs for a cup of coffee and had to resort to the art of scrounging. A prime example of the art of stylish begging is John Höxter, the “Supreme Bohemian”, who scrounged his way through the cafés from the turn of the century onwards. Friedrich Hollaender dedicated an apt poem to the morphine-addicted bon vivant:

Rudolf Schlichter, Bildnis Bert Brecht, 1926, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, München

I move slowly amongst all the tables.

From 8 PM I am in control.

My aim: to catch a noble patron.

Race and party play no role.

Psychiatrists, comedians,

Young boxers, old aunts,

Everyone gets a turn

And hears the same refrain:

Can you lend me fifty pfennigs?

Just till tomorrow?

You have my word!

Blandine Ebinger and Friedrich Hollaender, Image via [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Bohemianism, which during the Weimar Republic was seen almost exclusively in Berlin, saw itself as committed to the rejection of and contempt for everything middle-class and bourgeois and in favor of everything artistic and individualist. It had an ambivalent relationship to the city and felt drawn to movements ranging from revolutionary to anarchist. It strove for self-realization and liberty. And its members were often one thing above all: on the brink of poverty.

Lavish behavior

Going about a bourgeois profession to secure one’s living was seen as restricting one’s creativity and was therefore rejected. But this did not mean thrift: “In an emergency they are able with the complete virtue of an anchorite to practice moderation; but should they get their hands on a little money, they soon indulge in highly extravagant actions: They love the most beautiful and the youngest, drink the best and oldest wines and never find enough windows to throw their money out of,” noted Henri Murger, who wrote “Scènes de la vie de bohème” in the mid-19th century in Paris.

Karl Völker, Kaffeehaus, 1928-30, Exhibition catalog "Splendor and Misery in the Weimar Republik", Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017

When a commission filled a Bohemian’s pockets with money, it was usually instantly spent on alcohol or glittering studio parties – in times of inflation, when money lost value in no time at all, a very understandable attitude. Others relied on regular payments from a patron. For example, singer Claire Waldoff, who also lived as a Bohemian but later gained reasonable fame in Berlin’s cabaret scene, financed the rents and living costs of her friends for a lengthy period of time.

The seizure of power

Else Lasker-Schüler, an eccentric poet from Wuppertal who with her piercing gaze and lavish costumes repeatedly beguiled men in Berlin, also repeatedly had to rely on the support of friends. In desperate situations she petitioned various foundations, asking if it were not long overdue that she be awarded a well-endowed prize for her works.

Else Laser-Schüler, Image by עברית: לא ידוע English: Unknown [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1920s the horizon of the Berlin Bohemian scene gradually darkened over. The Nazis began increasingly wreaking havoc, largely targeting artists and writers. When Hitler seized power the majority of the – often Jewish – Bohemians felt obliged to emigrate, though they were loath to do so. The coffeehouse tables on Kurfürstendamm were left abandoned and bloodless.