What constitutes the 'essence and value' of democracy

Democracy is not a given, but it is worth fighting for. "Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy" is a Berlin exhibition focusing on the challenges the Weimar Republic faced.

"I know what it is, I know, I know!" Eagerly raising their hands, a group of grade school kids gathered around a showcase in the "Democracy Lab" at the Deutsches Historisches Museum are trying to get the tour guide's attention. They have immediately recognized the exhibit in the case, a jersey worn by the soccer star Mesut Özil.

"But I haven't even asked a question yet," curator Patrick Helber laughs. The fifth-graders go ahead and tell him what they know about Özil, including the conflict over a controversial photo the former German national player took with Turkey's president, Recep Tayip Erdogan.

Helber tells the group all about citizenship, explaining that since people from many different countries live in Germany, some people have two passports. "Pluralism is a part of democracy," the historian says. The kids have an explanation for the term pluralism, too: "It's when not everyone is the same." Time and again, Helber observes how convinced they are of democracy. "The students immediately notice and address injustices," he told DW. "They argue in a very ethical and moral fashion."

Dispute over democracy

At this point in time, this is a really important exhibition, Helber says, adding that the current political climate in Germany is tense as openly racist parties with their "authoritarian and misanthropic attitudes infiltrate society." The museum decided to change the narrative by expressly not admonishing visitors or showing up anti-democratic tendencies — thus giving them a platform — but by turning the tables and emphasizing what actually constitutes the essence of a democracy.

There's a story behind the Özil soccer jersey

Özil's jersey in the "Democracy Lab" interactive space at the "Weimar: The Essence and Value of Democracy" exhibition is one of seven objects that invite people to take a stance. Others include a bag full of deposit bottles, an East German ballot and the two ties worn by a homosexual couple for the first same-sex marriage in Germany. Videos, interactive games and newspaper clippings complement each of these exhibits, allowing visitors a playful approach to the basics of a democracy including fundamental rights, the protection of minorities, the right to participate and freedom of expression.

Rediscover the Weimar Republic

The same basic issues are addressed on the first floor of the museum, though here, they are embedded in the historical context of the Weimar Republic (1919 - 1933). Again, the focus is on controversial issues, compromise and — ultimately — what was accomplished. The show avoids the approach students usually get in history lessons at school, which highlight a fragmented, chaotic multi-party system that led to the rise of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Instead, curator Simone Erpel says, the focus is on the many progressive reforms in electoral law, in how sexuality was perceived in society and on the welfare state that largely survived National Socialism and WWII and continues to determine German society today.

The first thing visitors see is a construction site, scaffolding with 2,500 exhibits and texts that underline what this show is all about, namely that democracy is a constant struggle for compromise — forever a construction site. An end is not in sight as people will always have to renegotiate how they live together.

Related Subjects

Election campaign posters from the Weimar Republic era

Social tug of war

The era saw the introduction of unemployment insurance in 1927, a hotly contested reform project, as was the design of the national flag of Germany's first parliamentary democracy. The idea was to replace the monarchy's black, white and red with black, red and gold. The flag dispute went on for years, led to street battles and ended when the Nazis seized power. The exhibition shows a black, red and gold flag that dates back tom the Weimar Republic, a flag someone back then hid in his garden shed.

Exhibits that resonate with commonplace issues we face today focus on the freedom of the press, for instance, including excerpts from the 1930 anti-war movie film All Quiet on the Western Front as well as clips from the massive right-wing protests against the film. Posters and photographs on sexual education ("Don't stumble into marriage! Get counseling") show just how free and liberal the Weimar Republic was.

Can people learn a lesson from the Weimar era, then?

The fact that the exhibition constantly stresses the necessity of compromise shows that it always takes some back and forth. It is exhausting, sometimes even painful, but — just remember the 1919 introduction of women's right to vote — it is worthwhile.  

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Christian Schad, 'Boys in Love'

The exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt collects images from some of the most important issues of the Weimar era. Among the political debates that took place during that time was one regarding Article 175, a law dating back to 1871 which forbade homosexuality. A grassroots campaign from 1919 to 1929 sought to abolish the law and very nearly succeeded.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Otto Dix, 'Woman with Mink and Veil'

After WWI, Berlin grew to be the world’s third largest city and quickly gained a reputation for nightlife and hedonism that attracted people from around the globe — including prostitutes, injured war veterans and those looking to make an easy buck. The contrast of Ku'damm's fur-clad matrons with the poverty of the tenement houses of the eastern districts was a common theme in the art of the time.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

The expressionism of Otto Dix

Otto Dix used simple materials to capture Weimar Berlin’s depravity. The World War I veteran vacillated between sketches like that shown above, "Pimp and Girl," and disturbing recollections of wartime frontlines. The contrast served as criticism of the country’s inability to adequately grapple with its war past.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

The extravagance of the Ku'damm

Comprising 190 works of art by 62 different artists, the exhibition showcases the contrasts of the Weimar Era in its selection. This sketch by Dodo (born Dörte Clara Wolff), "Box Logic," was created for the satire magazine "Ulk" in 1929 to highlight the lives of the wealthy who continued their extravagant lifestyles as anti-Semitism and economic depression severely shifted the mood in Berlin.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

'Margot' by Rudolf Schlichter

Irmgard Keun's novel, "The Artificial Silk Girl," brought Weimar Berlin to life from the female perspective. Struggling to make ends meet while hopping between parties and prostituting herself while wrapped in a stolen fur, the narrator comments on her fellow women, noting: "There are clubs where women sit wearing stiff collars and ties, who are frightfully proud of being perverse."

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

'Self-Portrait with Son,' 1933

Granted suffrage in Germany on November 12, 1918, women were emancipated as never before. That liberality was felt in many aspects of society, as women took on professional jobs and political debates on contraception, marital rights and prostitution. Artists like Kate Diehn-Bitt captured the New Woman in their works of social realism: urban, independent, self-confident, androgynous in appearance.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Jeanne Mammen captured Berlin in transition

A central fixture in Berlin's art scene was artist Jeanne Mammen, Berlin-born but raised in France before she returned to the German capital during World War I. Her sharp eye captured the city and its citizens in a time of great transition. In paintings like the 1926 watercolor "Ash Wednesday," Mammen captured the era's hedonism and bore witness to the liberality and excesses of the period.

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Political tension: 'Weimar Carnival'

In "Berlin Alexan­der­platz," Alfred Döblin wrote of a vibrant capital city in upheaval as he documents the life of Franz Biberkopf. In it, and in paintings like that by Horst Naumann above, the rise of anti-Semitism, militarism and National Socialism came into full view. As Döblin wrote: "He has seen the para­mil­i­tary troopers, the young men, and their leader, too, that is some­thing."

Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

Georg Scholz, 'Café (Swastika Knight)'

"Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic" seeks to make clear just how the foundation for societal and economic advancements that we might take for granted today were laid during what many recall fondly, though not altogether accurately, as a decade of decadence. The exhibition runs through February 25, 2018 at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.