Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, May 16, 2015

5/16 Conclusion

After the war, Germany was divided up between the allied powers before being finally separated into East and West Germany in 1949. The period between 1945 and 1949 is a strange period of time because it is a lull in between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union which continued on and off until the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. During these four years the U.S. and Soviets were unlikely allies who slowly became bitter enemies. The Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, also ending a brief four year dominance of when the U.S. was the sole nuclear power in the world. 

Germany became one of the front lines of the Cold War. The critical difference is that in Germany the war was symbolic and best symbolized by the Berlin Wall built in 1961.
 The graffiti reads: "Unity and Freedom for Berlin," circa 1972

 West German politics in the 50s and early 60s is usually referred to as the "Amnesia Era," under the first post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Many former officials of the Nazi regime (like in Japan) were restored to their positions by the Allied powers occupying the country due to a shortage of manpower of capable officials to administer the country–despite the official policy of "denazification." Both Germany and Japan have had also mostly conservative governments since the post-war era. In Germany the leading conservative party is the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) a union of Protestant and Catholic voters. The SPD is still active as well and is the largest opposition party. Since reunification in 1990, a major issue dividing German politics is how much the state should spend on the more underdeveloped areas of Eastern Germany. Many conservatives, particularly those in the West are strongly opposed to this. To this day there are also controversies regarding how the Nazi period should be taught in German schools (this is a similar issue in Japan). There are also much higher levels of drug addiction and suicide among German youth than among other European countries, even though obviously none of the young people could have been responsible for what happened in the 1930s and 1940s they apparently lack the skill for denial like their parents and grandparents.

As mentioned in Night and Fog the Nuremberg war crimes trials were held (the first of many) in 1945-46, where many former Nazis claimed they were not responsible for their crimes. The phrase "I was only following orders," has become an infamous appeal by those seeking to absolve themselves of responsibility for their crimes, or Arendt's comment on the "banality of evil." Although in the end, most people do not accept this as a legitimate defense it does raise certain ethical questions to what extent is a person required to follow orders?

Many of the scientists who had helped in the "Manhattan Project", the top-secret government project to create the atomic bomb, had come to the U.S. from Europe, fleeing Nazi persecution, as did many of the artists, writers, and other intellectuals we have already discussed. The U.S. and the Soviet Union also competed in bringing back the best Nazi scientists to their own countries, like Wernher von Braun, who developed rockets for the United States after creating them for the Germans. The U.S. also became the worldwide leader in education since it took in so many of the world's intellectuals, and although its primary school system is compromised, at the university level the U.S. is still considered the best in the world overall (granted this link is from a U.S. news site): http://www.usnews.com/education/worlds-best-universities-rankings/top-400-universities-in-the-world

Culture in effect became a weapon in the Cold War. In 1959, Vice-President Nixon engaged in Soviet Premier Khruschev in what became known as the "kitchen" debate, basically they argued who can better supply the consumer needs of their people, who can deliver the better "lifestyle." In 1950 the Congress for Cultural Freedom was founded by artists and intellectuals who advocated the superiority of the West for promoting culture and openness (later on it was revealed this organization was secretly funded by the CIA) and published journals throughout the world advocating these views. Abstract artists like Jackson Pollack were promoted heavily to show the cultural superiority of capitalism over communism.

In the 1960s what became known as the "counter-culture" in the U.S. was heavily influenced by the nihilist tinged German expressionism and Dadaism. Jim Morrison, the poet and the lead singer of 60s rock group the Doors claimed inspiration from Nietzsche and with other members studies with Josef von Sternberg, director of The Blue Angel, at UCLA in the early 1960s.  One of their early songs was a cover by the playwright Bertolt Brecht who was also a major influence on Benjamin. The name of Jimi Hendrix's band was "The Jimi Hendrix Experience," and as we know, experience is one of the major concerns of the people we have read in this class. The whole concept of "psychedelics" and the "drug culture" comes out of the idea of altered experiences theorized by people like Benjamin (who also wrote an essay about his experience on hashish in Marseilles). The guitarist Eric Clapton claims to have been influenced by Dadaism as well. The fascination with Indian philosophy and meditation was also shared by the Beatles in the 1960s, and arguably this spiritual impulse is still strong today with things like the Kabbala practiced by Madonna (Jewish mysticism which also had an influence on Benjamin).

Modern day forms of "street art" also borrows heavily from the Dadaists, especially the ironic, subversive nature of the art, combined with the need to be publicly displayed instead of in a traditional setting, thus changing the experience of the object. That is precisely what distinguishes street art from traditional art.
John Heartfield, The Hand Has Five Fingers, 1928

Shepard Fairey, OBEY, circa 1990

Banksy, RPG Mona Lisa, 2001

The United States became the dominant economic power in the world after World War II.  The material basis of the so-called "Baby Boom" generation in the United States, which reaped the full benefits of the U.S. post-war prosperity in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.  Often unacknowledged is that the super prosperity of the U.S. during this time was primarily because the other major industrial powers of the world were rebuilding from World War II. Not surprisingly the two most dominant industrial powers after the U.S. were Germany and Japan. By the late 1960s and especially in the 1970s, exports from these countries was seriously eroding U.S. economic power. Arguably the U.S. has never recovered from this.

Although conservative, the governments in Germany and Japan both pursued policies that would be considered "socialist" in the context of U.S. politics. In Germany this is called the "Social Market Economy" (Soziale Marktwirtschaft) and is categorized by a "cooperative" approach between business, labor, and the state. Germans have an extensive system of unemployment insurance and health insurance that are envied for their efficiency and lack of corruption; the state regulates business to ensure quality and competition between industries; Germans also maintain an extensive job training and vocational training program financed by taxes which has been helpful for re-training German workers to meet the needs of a changing economy; union representatives are also legally required to serve on the board of directors of corporations. 

No parallels such as these exists in the U.S. but this is not to argue necessarily that the U.S. should adopt them. The German system works because they are culturally homogeneous to an extent more than the U.S. which is far more diverse, and also much larger. Germany at around 80 million has a larger population than France or Great Britain but is dwarfed by the U.S. population at almost 320 million. It does perhaps suggest that sacrifices made by people like Luxemburg almost 100 years ago does have some impact on the present, and have maintained a strong social democratic impulse in German politics, to such an extent that even conservatives agree on social welfare policy for the state. Obviously the culture of the U.S. has been heavily infused by many of these ideas, but always filtered through a unique American perspective which also draws on many other cultures as well. 

As we deal with all of the same issues today that people were dealing with then it may be possible to predict the future by looking at the past. But, it takes time, dedication, understanding, and skill to pick out the fragments of the past and choose correctly the fragments that reveal the longing for freedom that motivates all of humanity. In the end, it seems the only way to overcome nihilism and all of its destructive consequences, many of which we have seen in this class, is to somehow grab hold of the stored meaning of history while at the same time breaking free of the constraints of obsolete institutions and the identities and values that develop to support these institutions; any theory or movement which is incapable of doing both, or only capable of doing one or the other, is doomed to repeat the failures of past generations.

Hope you all enjoyed the class. It was very nice meeting all of you! Thank you for your participation and your blog posts which are very interesting to read. The papers should be done by next Saturday 5/23 and e-mailed to me.


  1. The video posted definitely reminds me of the quote you mentioned. Photography is used to capture a picture, and mostly it has been negative pictures from history to show the hardships people had to endure in the past. Now it only shows the cruelty in our world and media, instead of focusing on the positive things that may be harder to find but are happening in our world as well. very sad.

  2. It is a privilege to be in your class this fall, and to be exposed to world affairs, different philosophies, new words as well as various ways our history has come along. This class is a strong instrument for us (students) to build on in life as the next generation to take the mantle of affairs in the world.
    wow! I have expanded my repertory of knowledge and way of life from this class. My experienced has heightened with Dadaism, New objectivity, Expressionism, Nihilism, Socialism, Communism and personalities like Luxemburg not forgetting Hitler. There is never a boring moment in this class.

  3. thanks is being i pleasured to take class with you… if i have to opportunity to have you in another class, i definitely will. thanks for you dedication take cars God bless you