There are 15 crucial years in between the first and second world war during which time Germany evolved from an economically depressed and socially discouraged society into a national socialist regime. This 15 year period, known as the Weimar Republic, gets little attention in history books. Christopher Isherwood paints an important and vivid picture of Weimar Berlin in his novel “Goodbye to Berlin.”
The interwar period brewed the country’s post-WWI bitterness; war-weariness, general populous unrest, the resentment of Germany’s embarrassing forced cessions in the Treaty of Versailles ending the First World War, the mourning of the war’s dead, the intense focus on rationalization, mechanization, and industrialization–all these factors which festered in the Weimar period culminated in a horrifying surge in nationalism and antisemitism that ultimately led to the Second World War and the Holocaust. Isherwood successfully captures the complicated nature of the time through the novel’s relationships.
Weimar bore witness to one of the country’s greatest and most devastating economic depressions, and Isherwood’s readers can immediately pick up on the high economic tensions. Isherwood writes the novel’s first mention of money as “Money” (16), capital M. Already, he suggests its power and dominance with the use of the word as a proper noun. Few people in Weimar Berlin, Isherwood included, had Money. Nevertheless, he finds himself in close contact with affluent families. Isherwood deduces that “most rich people, once they have decided to trust you, can be imposed upon to almost any extent” (21). He feels a sense of entitlement in regards to his relationships with wealthy people, as though his association alone earns him a cut of his friends’ riches. As readers, we can only assume that this attitude stems from the nearly universal economic hardship experienced by Germany during the Weimar period. To a suffering population, economic depression has no rhyme or reason; struggling to make ends meet, he and his friend Sally constantly try to snakily–though understandably–advantage themselves as close to sources of financial security as possible. Still, however, Isherwood’s theory connotes an intrinsic disingenuity; he does not pose the situation as a theoretical, as though rich people may actively choose whom they trust, but rather as a matter of time, a matter of Isherwood’s ability to finesse or manipulate his contacts. The Jewish Landauers, however, challenge and disrupt Isherwood’s preconceptions of Berlin’s upper class.
As members of an oppressed group, the Landauers understand that their Jewish identity carries more weight in Weimar Berlin than their wealth. Natalia, Isherwood’s primary connection in the family, makes this sentiment clear: “I do not need to think for money…but I am different than this. I await always that the worst will come. I know how things are in Germany today, and suddenly it can be that my father lose all” (177). Of course, wealth provides the Landauers with a comfortable life, but it does not shelter them from the discriminatory ideology consuming their nation. Unlike Frl. Hippi, a wealthy person who speaks of Weimar Germany’s political situation “briefly, with a conventional melancholy” (21), Natalia Landauer has an identity which forces her to live politics every day. She understands that her wealth has little meaning in a larger historical context. This reasoning also explains Natalia’s fascination and fixation with the truth. In their very first rendez-vous, Natalia warns Christopher that he must tell her only his “truthful opinions” (171). Deeper into their friendship, after the two watch a movie together and Natalia asks for Isherwood’s honest opinion, she still says that she is “afraid” he is “insincere” (180). Despite the progression of their friendship, Natalia maintains her reservations. Rightfully so, since Isherwood’s reserved nature often leads to his complacency in the face of anti-semitism. The tensions between Natalia’s focus on truth and Isherwood’s casual treatment of discrimination come to a head at lunch with Sally, when Sally mentions her love making to “a dirty old Jew” (196). Although Isherwood kicks her under the table as a signal to stop, he neither apologizes to Natalia on Sally’s behalf nor attempts to right the situation with Natalia on his own. Instead, he later exploits his relationship with Sally in front of Natalia. Isherwood writes, “Natalia was convinced, I suppose, that Sally had become my mistress, and I didn’t see why I should correct her” (199). The active choice to align himself with Sally in her demonstrated bigotry represents a purposeful betrayal of Natalia. Weimar Berlin had few wealthy citizens, but even fewer who maintained solidarity with Jews.
Life in the Weimar Republic presented myriad dichotomies and difficulties, many of which Isherwood finds himself lucky enough to merely observe but not personally experience. Instead, he bears witness to the lives of those people, such as the Landauers and Nowaks, whose economic status or identities hold them captive in Weimar, and at the mercy of history.