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A Tale of Two Cities

Photo of the El Dorado Cabaret club (1932).

World War I brought the cities of Europe to their knees. Vienna and Berlin, captains of the losing team, were stripped of both power and identity. Vienna, a capital city without an empire, was a ghost of its fin-de-siècle splendor. Berlin, destitute and disillusioned, found solace in cynicism and flesh. From 1919 to 1938, both cities bred experimentation and obsession, fighting to regain their footing amidst a remade Europe. In this world of extremes, moderation equaled death.

World War I was a death knell for Vienna. The Habsburg dynasty, six centuries old, had collapsed; the lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been carved into smaller nations by the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Vienna had been the cultural center of the Germanspeaking world: music lovers came from all over the globe to hear the latest compositions of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler; intellectuals in the city’s coffeehouses argued over the art of Klimt, the theatre of Schnitzler and the theories of Freud—but no longer. After the war, the new ruling party, the Social Democrats, attempted to transform decadent Vienna into a model Marxist society. “Red Vienna,” however, was losing ground as artists and intellectuals fled to the new idol of Europe: Berlin.

If Vienna’s Belle Époque was ending, Berlin’s heyday was dawning. Few moments in world history rival the frantic hedonism of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first-ever constitutional democracy. With the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Second Reich, Berlin found itself free of censorship. An unprecedented explosion of erotic culture enveloped the city: casinos and cabarets, seedy hotels and pornographic cinemas, naked boxing, private torture dungeons and sex clubs for all tastes. Conservative Germans were aghast. One army officer reflected, “Returning home, we no longer found an honest German people, but a mob stirred up by its lowest instincts. Whatever virtues were once found among the Germans seemed to have sunk once and for all into the muddy flood…” Berlin reveled in its reputation; police commissioners often bragged that vice and debauchery were the city’s primary industries.

Painting of Street Scene at Night by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1913).

Weimar Berlin’s erotic mecca was also fantastically tolerant. Every proclivity was incorporated into the constellation of Berlin nightlife. Homosexuality, fetishes, even pedophilia were as standard as bourgeois marriage. Even the burgeoning Nazi movement had to swallow the diversity of Weimar at first. Ernst Roehm, a trusted friend and follower of Hitler since 1919, was openly gay. A fierce and talented military leader, Roehm headed the Nazi paramilitary group the Sturmabteilung, which by 1934 comprised three million men. Roehm’s sexuality—and that of his inner circle of comrades—was an open secret, yet Hitler continued to defend his second in-command.

Back in Austria, the 1930s brought the failure of banks and riots against the leaders of Red Vienna. With the endorsement of Mussolini and the Vatican, conservative Engelbert Dollfuss was elected chancellor in 1932. Once he took office, however, Dollfuss found himself fighting a war on two fronts: against the socialists, outraged at losing power, and against the rise of Nazism at home and across the German border. Searching for any way to unite Austria, Dollfuss suspended the national assembly and embraced fascism. Incredibly, among the bedlam that seized Europe in 1933, Dollfuss was a moderate, promoting tenets of Christian social justice and striving to establish peace amidst ferocious class warfare.

Meanwhile, in Berlin, Adolf Hitler was appointed Reichschancellor in a misguided attempt to quell the rising Nazi fever. Germany’s leaders presumed Hitler could do little without the approval of Parliament—until the Parliament building was set ablaze, and Hitler seized dictatorial power. Almost immediately, Hitler’s private militias set out to “cleanse” Berlin of its Jewish, homosexual and other “deviant” elements. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS guard, rival to Roehm’s Sturmabteilung, waged a personal war against homosexuals. Himmler finally convinced Hitler that he must assert authority over the Sturmabteilung and eliminate its unruly leader. During the “Night of the Long Knives”, Roehm, his followers, and hundreds of others were slaughtered. The erotic world of Weimar collapsed while Berlin’s inhabitants were engulfed in the horror of Nazi violence.

Already, Hitler had his eyes on Austria. Just a few months after Roehm’s murder, Austrian Nazis assassinated Dollfuss, and the divided Viennese government proved too weak to resist Hitler’s schemes. In March of 1938, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. Twenty years after the Great War, Berlin and Vienna finally shared a new identity: the Third Reich.

Laura Henry Buda is STC’s Education Coordinator and served as Artistic Fellow in the 2011-2012 Season. She holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from the A.R.T./M.X.A.T. Institute at Harvard University.

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