Germany at the Time of Cabaret
Cabaret is set in 1930s Berlin, just around the time the Nazi Party began rising to power in Germany. The Emcee, Sally Bowles and a raucous ensemble take the stage at the Kit Kat Klub nightly to tantalize the crowd, and to leave their troubles outside. But as life in pre-WWII Germany grows more and more uncertain, the club, a metaphor for the threatening state of the late Weimar Germany begins to fall apart.
THE TRIALS OF THE GERMAN ECONOMY
At the start of World War I, Germany was a rising power. Bolstered by a strong economy, a widening system of international trade, and a growing military, the country had ambitions of European expansion and control. But four years of battle took a huge toll on the cultural, political, and economic future of the nation. Germany suffered a greater loss of life than any other Allied or Central power, with over 1.7 million men killed among the war's 8.5 million death total. Including soldiers wounded, missing, or imprisoned, the German casualty count rose to 7,142,558, just under 65% of the 11 million soldiers deployed in battle.
Such a shattering loss of life had a major economic impact on the nation. In the post-war years, the government faced an overwhelming demand for pensions (from surviving soldiers) and compensation (for war widows). These needs, combined with the material costs of war, paved a daunting road to recovery for every European nation. But Germany also faced a different set of challenges: the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles. The document, which laid out the terms of peace, placed the responsibility for War squarely on Germany's shoulders and ensured that the price of the nation's recovery would not be confined to its own borders.
German delegates in Versailles
The treaty dictated that Germany would be tasked with paying heavy reparations (in money and resources) to the victorious Allied powers. Essentially, the document laid out a prolonged punishment for Germany and established a narrative that held Germany accountable for all of the damages of war. The Treaty was both economically and psychologically devastating for the nation, combining insurmountable costs with a humiliating public defeat.
Prior to the War, Germany had a gold-backed currency, but they lost the gold standard in the four years of combat. Now indebted to other nations (to the final tune of $31.5 billion), the government simply did not have enough money, neither to pay its debts nor to pay its workers. So the Central Bank printed more money, leading to a period of inflation in which German currency completely lost its value. By 1923, the peak of German hyperinflation, money was essentially meaningless.
A long line of people waiting outside a pawnshop to trade in their belongings for cash
In the years after the war, the international community realized that Germany simply would not be able to pay the reparation costs they demanded. The United States, in particular, was frustrated by the fact that countries waiting for reparation payments from Germany couldn't reimburse the U.S. for war loans. So the U.S. Reparations Committee offered a potential solution: the Dawes Plan. Adopted in 1924, the Plan laid out a course of action to help Germany reestablish economic stability. By 1928, aided by the institution of the plan and by U.S. loans, the German economy was booming.
But after the stock market crash of 1929, the U.S. could no longer loan money to Germany, and the entire international community suffered from decreased monetary resources (and, thus, decreased trade). Once again, German savings lost their value, and unemployment skyrocketed (from 3 million in 1929 to 6 million, or 1 in 3 Germans, in 1932). After a dramatic rise to prosperity in the mid-to-late 1920s, Germany was now firmly back on the bottom, and the national unrest from the post-war years was poised to make a violent recurrence.
THE RISE OF THE NAZI PARTY
Economically strapped and left in the diplomatic cold, German citizens were looking for someone to blame. Many of them turned to the Social Democratic Party, the majority party of the Reichstag, or German parliament. The Reichstag and the entire government, the Weimar Republic, were obvious scapegoats for the poor quality of German life. The parliament democracy had been established in the wake of war, and its leaders had been instrumental in peace talks that led to the hated Treaty of Versailles. And the legend of their perceived betrayal became known as the "stab-in-the-back myth," or Dolchstosslegende, a narrative that sparked a polarization of German politics and spawned a number of radical right-wing parties.
Nazi members of the Reichstag in uniform, 1932
As the authority of the Weimar Republic flailed and the power of right-wing parties grew, a radical right-wing activist by the name of Adolf Hitler began to attract attention. He was an inspiring speaker, vocal in his hatred of the Weimar government and firm in his belief that Germany could return to its prestigious past. In 1919, he joined the newly-formed German Workers' Party, a group united by a deep nationalistic pride and a pronounced anti-Semitism. In 1920, the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi, for short. In 1921, Hitler became their leader and began to spread his notion of "pure" German-blooded dominance.
The party was divisive but a relatively small player in German politics until after the Crash of 1929. Hitler, however, attracted national attention in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, an attempted overthrow of local authorities in Munich. The armed rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, and Hitler was tried and jailed for high treason (he served one year of his five year sentence). But his 24-day trial promoted his cause, giving him a public stage on which to proclaim his anti-Weimar and anti-Semitic beliefs. By the end of his testimony, he had become a national figure and, in some quarters, had gained support for his political cause. Though the Nazis were not yet a government majority (they received only 3% of the 1924 Reichstag vote), the German people were eager for a savior-and Hitler was primed for the role. When he was released from prison in 1925, Hitler began rebuilding the Nazi party. The party's ranks swelled quickly, from 27,000 members in 1925 to 108,000 members in 1929, the year of the Wall Street Crash.
A large crowd waiting to hear Hitler speak
With the parliament system so weakened, the struggling Weimar Republic reached the brink of collapse just as the Nazi party was rising to power. In 1930, the party received 18.3% of the vote, making it the second-largest party in the Reichstag. In 1932, though Hitler lost the presidential election to the incumbent von Hindenburg, the Nazi party garnered an impressive percentage of the July parliament elections (37%), which made them the largest party in the Reichstag. In the November elections of the same year, the party faltered slightly, attaining only 33% of the votes. Hitler, in a series of backroom negotiations, sought to attain greater personal power in the government through an appointment to the position of Chancellor. At first, President von Hindenburg, annoyed by Hitler's power plays, refused to consider the appointment. But continual pressure and instability in the government forced his hand, and he finally appointed Hitler as Chancellor in January of 1933, hoping that the position might check his quest for dominance.
But Hitler's rise to power was only beginning. Because of various political pressures in March of 1933, the Reichstag transferred its legislative power to Hitler's cabinet, thus finalizing the demise of the Weimar government's parliamentary democracy. In April of 1933, the cabinet passed the Law for the Restoration of Professional Civil Service, which abolished trade unions and removed Jews (and other non-Aryan citizens) from government and state positions. The Law was one of the first anti-Semitic legislative acts of the newly unchecked government. Over the following six years, Reich legislation would boom to include some 400 decrees, laws, and regulations inhibiting the rights of non-Aryan Germans. By mid-July of 1933, the Nazi party was the only political party remaining in Germany; all others had been outlawed or had dissolved under police pressure.
When the elderly President von Hindenburg died in August of 1934, Hitler assumed the powers of Presidency, in addition to those of the Chancellorship. He granted himself the title Führer und Reichskanzler (Leader and Imperial Chancellor) and established the Führerprinzip, or Leader Principle, which equated his will with the future of the German people. With no figure above Hitler's jurisdiction and no government process to check his power, the course was set for the genocide and war to come.
This article features in our Upstage playgoer guide for Cabaret.
Cabaret plays at Studio 54 through January 4, 2015. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
Click here to visit the Roundabout blog.