Totalitarian Individualism? Berliners Under the Microscope from Weimar to the Wall

Review of Moritz Föllmer's Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society from Weimar to the Wall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), published in the Book Reviews section of the Wiener Library Blog.

All too often, it is glibly assumed that the rise of individuality, the spirit of modernity, and the triumph of democracy must necessarily go hand in hand. Moritz Föllmer’s new monograph provides an important corrective to this frequently uninterrogated set of assumptions.

Convincingly and cogently, Föllmer’s arguments suggest both that totalitarian regimes (whether of the left or right) are rarely as deeply entrenched in collectivism as their respective ideologies and rhetorics might profess – and that the broader range of social opportunities and individualist ambitions to which modernity gives rise can also lead to increased expectations, and hence to heightened dissatisfactions among the populace, which may ultimately prove disruptive to the principles of democratic government. For scholars of the Third Reich, such insights can also provide a fresh and valuable perspective on National Socialism, revealing it to be less fundamentally anti-individualistic than has often been assumed, or than has sometimes been claimed by adherents of the ‘small group of madmen’ theory of German post-war guilt.[1] Rather, Föllmer suggests that the Nazi regime was ultimately quite broadminded in its acceptance of citizens’ pursuit of personal selfhood and fulfilment as individuals – so long as they were considered to be acceptable members of the new racially-defined Volksgemeinschaft. Such an approach can also render the general complicity with and acceptance of the regime by the majority of the population more readily explicable.

Drawing on an extensive selection of published and archival sources, ranging from newspapers, novels and suicide notes to the files of companies and welfare offices (p. 18), Föllmer seeks to explore the importance and multi-faceted nature of conceptions of individuality in defining Berliners’ lives and expectations throughout the most turbulent decades of the twentieth century (p. 1). In so doing, he acknowledges both a need to bring the history of individuality more firmly to the fore in modern historical enquiry (as has already transpired in medieval, early modern or nineteenth-century historiography), and a desire to overturn what he designates as the two competing 'classical narratives' of ‘the individual’s tragic decline through rationalisation and mass culture or of its dangerous rise at the expense of traditional social cohesion’ (p. 3). In particular, he criticises the prevailing orthodoxy which casts pre-1945 social and political life as fundamentally ‘collectivist’ and the post-1945 experience as ‘individualist’, arguing instead for subtler analyses and continuities (p. 2). From this perspective, Berlin provides the perfect petri-dish for this type of sociological analysis, given its varied social landscape, its plethora of Jewish and non-Jewish voices, and its status as a divided city, as well as the diversity and intensity of political intervention which has characterised its twentieth-century history (pp. 11-13). Having set out the main parameters of the enquiry in the introduction, the main body of the work is then divided into three more-or-less equal sections, dealing respectively with Weimar Berlin, Nazi Berlin, and Post-War and Cold-War Berlin, each containing three chapters.

The first section, dealing with the Weimar Republic, concentrates upon the ambivalent attitudes with which many Berliners faced the ‘risky liberties’ of metropolitan life from the late 1920s onwards. The middle classes, having been hit particularly hard by the economic crisis which had so radically reduced their circumstances, were now pitted against their fellows in a desperate search for a job which could at least enable them to pay their way. A quotation from Joseph Roth’s observations upon the atmosphere amongst commuters nicely captures the tension between pre-war civilities and capitalist competitiveness which was often seen as epitomising this new metropolitan existence (p. 34):

‘Everybody is offended. No one makes space for women who are standing. Everybody sees an enemy in the other person… This one is believed to be a Jew, that one a “Bolshevik”… Political views are preferably voiced loudly because they could be provocative… Catastrophe is always in the air. People look over their neighbour’s shoulder into his newspaper. They press him into the corner or to the side. They are the other man’s policeman. If he stumbles, they yell that he should hold on to the rail. Everyone is a conductor and gives the order: “Move up!”. But because the recipient is himself a conductor he refuses to move. What is primarily lacking is the discipline of the individual: good manners; a sense of etiquette, natural tact.’

Exacerbated by deficiencies in public welfare institutions, Föllmer argues that there often came into being an ingrained sense of ‘vulnerable individuality’ and all-pervasive distrust among Berliners, fuelled by the belief that fakes and conmen were everywhere, if not psychopaths and serial killers (pp. 28-33). Even strangers who were not actively dangerous could be drastically exasperating (as revealed above), and matters were not improved by the clash of gender expectations between prospective marital or sexual partners, since more complex and enlightened attitudes towards female individuality had not yet influenced the worldview of many male Berliners. Through a fascinating analysis of an agony-aunt column in the tabloid Tempo, entitled Fragen Sie Frau Christine, Föllmer reveals the uneasy friction between the old orthodoxies (that women should be virgins upon marriage, or that men should unquestionably be the financial providers), and new assumptions of sexual freedom and female emancipation (p. 35ff). At its most extreme, unstable individuality might be expressed in that most final of acts, suicide, which was seen as the ‘[culmination] of the problems of the individual in a crisis-ridden modernity’, especially by novelists and journalists (pp. 41-2). Whether precipitated by an internalisation of Social Darwinist ideas, in which failure to measure up to a perceived ideal could be interpreted as existential failure, or by disappointed expectations in social welfare and state support (particularly in the case of pensioners and war veterans), Föllmer’s deployment of suicide notes as evidence tellingly illuminates the bleaker consequences of risk and isolation for the individual in Weimar Berlin.[2]

However, whereas previous scholarship on this period has tended to typecast Weimar culture as being in a constant state of ‘crisis’, ultimately leading to the total destruction of individuality by fascist collectivism, Föllmer also deliberately explores other, more positive perceptions of modernity and individualism in Berlin, arguing that the aforementioned obsession with existential uncertainty, though not without contemporary resonance among the general public, was largely a construction of the media (pp. 45-7).  While an earlier, turn-of-the-century fascination with technology and progress had undoubtedly darkened to a more disenchanted, menacing picture of the metropolis, ‘crowded with potential criminals, mutually hostile commuters and failed businessmen’ (p. 45), the rise of modern apartments for singletons (male or female), cheap suburban living, and a fully personalised consumer landscape which could potentially provide plentiful commercial opportunities even in a time of economic decline (pp. 68-70), also encouraged Berliners to ‘adjust to changing circumstances and understand gender roles flexibly’ whilst retaining an all-important sense of personal authenticity (pp. 51-4).

Finally, Föllmer explores the idea that democratic reformism (as embodied by the discredited Mayor Böß) was constantly being ‘undermined by financial limitations, the scandal of alleged corruption, and the frustrated individualist expectations of commuters and welfare petitioners’ (p. 76). Civic officials whose rhetoric claimed Berlin to be a haven of ‘mass individuality’ which dissolved the masses into citizens and provided welfare for every individual on a personal level, assessing their needs individually rather than ‘bureaucratically’, would often be found wanting by Berliners who now expected immediate and absolute perfection in a system that had only just been radically expanded at ruinous cost to the city’s purse. In similar vein, downwardly-mobile middle-class Berliners would even threaten public suicide at the welfare office, rather than be content to accept life in a more frugal manner than that to which they had previously been accustomed (p. 83). Thus, individualist demands for recognition and support could arguably be seen as undermining the legitimacy of that progressive – but necessarily incremental – reformism for which the Weimar Republic stood (p. 84). From this perspective, the liberal press, by concentrating on scandals, suicides, alarms and excursions, also contributed to the decline of democracy by fuelling dissatisfaction with welfare provision and democratic government, rather than focusing on the progress which these had enabled. Such dissatisfactions were then exploited both by Communist and National Socialist activists – the former by emphasising the inhumanity of the capitalist system and attempting to bridge the gap between personal interests and ideology, and the latter by recasting Berliners’ lives as an existential struggle, whilst promising protection of their livelihoods and consumer desires. Hence Föllmer’s contention that: ‘it is precisely the strength and diversity of individualist expectations that can easily overwhelm a democratic polity instead of underpinning it’ (p. 98).

The second section, which deals with Nazi Berlin, is explicitly intended to combat the idea that National Socialism and individualism were completely incompatible, aiming to bring new perspectives to the controversy over the extent of elite and popular support for the Third Reich (pp. 102-3), whilst also exploring Jewish Berliners’ quest for agency 'in conjunction with non-Jewish Berliners’…frequent willingness to pursue their personal desires and interests at the direct expense of the marginalised and persecuted’ (p. 104). Föllmer argues that many Berliners felt perfectly well able to realise their individualist expectations and desires within the post-1933 political framework – indeed, they were actively encouraged to believe that such self-realisation was only possible within the new regime, and to disassociate themselves thoroughly and completely from the Weimar past (whether this meant retreating into inner exile as persecuted opponents of the regime, or merely blaming Weimar officials for all their previous social problems). Newspapers hymned not only the decline of Individualismus, but the possibilities for self-fulfilment which the regime promised, praising the stability of the Nazi government and helping Berliners to believe that supporting the regime was in their own best interests. Space was even allowed (up to a point) for female individuality and (unmarried) women’s pursuit of careers (p. 114). In general terms, individuality and community were presented as mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive, and trends from the 1920s and earlier 1930s, such as the vogue for weekend leisure trips and suburbanisation, were also claimed by the press as Nazi innovations (p. 116). All aspects of individuality which could be considered problematic – such as those which had so exercised the press in Weimar Berlin: ruthless pursuit of self-interest and lack of personal authenticity – were now ascribed to the Jewish minority (pp. 119-20). Thus, the metropolitan press ‘constructed an image of Berlin as a city of legitimate individuals pursuing their interests in accordance with the common good versus illegitimate individuals with an inherent disposition towards exploitative business practices’ (p. 120). Finally, ‘naked pursuit of self-interest was [not only] defined as legitimate [but also] institutionally encouraged’, as Jewish families were turned out of their homes in order to make room for racially “suitable” welfare beneficiaries, and Jewish businesses were forcibly ‘Aryanised’. Föllmer considers such phenomena to be a form of ‘individual self-empowerment’, a realisation of ‘Aryan’ at the expense of Jewish individuality which reached its most radical form in physical or sexual attacks against Jews (pp. 125-7).

For Jewish Berliners, on the other hand, any attempt to retain a normal sense of individuality was fraught with extraordinary difficulty. If they were to emigrate (whether to Palestine, or elsewhere), they risked isolating themselves from the wider Jewish persecuted community, whilst those who were left behind risked jeopardising their very chances of survival. Legal restrictions, the constant threat of violence by Nazi activists, and expropriation by non-Jewish fellow citizens meant that, particularly after the introduction of the yellow star, nowhere felt safe, even in the supposedly blessed anonymity of the metropolis: ‘Jewish Berliners thus experienced a reduced form of individuality stripped of most economic, social and psychological resources, corresponding to their increasing exclusion from urban space’ (p. 136). Meanwhile, the Jewish press was torn between stressing the importance of individual flexibility in ensuring survival, and promoting cohesion and solidarity among their embattled readership – in this context, Zionism could come to seem as much a hindrance as a help. A constant tension was also evident between the need for émigrés to integrate in their host country, and their desire to preserve a sense of (specifically Jewish) individuality. In cases where children had emigrated and their parents had been left behind, the situation became still more complex (and contested), as the experiential gap between burgeoning self-reliance in a new land and ever-increasing persecution and denial of agency in the old widened yet further. At worst, seemingly reasonable decisions on the part of the newly-emigrated child could prove fatal – for instance, the desire to establish a new business sufficiently before inviting one’s parents to leave Germany and gain their freedom (p. 147). For those who remained, it was even more difficult to regain any semblance of agency or control over their lives – for those sentenced to forced labour such as the economist Elisabeth Freund, any attempt to pursue the task in hand with personal pride could lead to further victimisation for not seeming stooped or subservient enough (p. 148ff.). For those who had gone underground, there was the constant danger of betrayal, or of being spotted by one of the team of turncoat Jewish ‘snatchers’ who aided the Gestapo in hunting down those Jews who remained at large in Berlin. Any attempt to function as an ordinary individual was therefore constantly subject to potentially fatal limitations and ambiguities (p. 152-3).

As the Second World War progressed, Föllmer argues that non-Jewish Berliners’ notions of individualism became increasingly multifaceted, but that many of these notions were still fundamentally compatible with Nazism and National Socialist ideology – for instance, heroism and loyalty to the regime often derived ‘from perceived self-interest and a desire to restore private life’ (pp. 158-9). Being in a state of war therefore did not immediately and necessarily signify the subordination of the individual to collective ambition. Even SS weeklies praised personal initiative and entrepreneurial courage, whilst their lionisation of war heroes (whether pilots, generals or submarine commanders) represented an appeal to individual Führertum underpinned by personal initiative, achievement and conviction, which could be used to create a cult of the “individual warrior” propagated particularly, though not exclusively, by the SS periodical Das Schwarze Korps. Goebbels then attempted to recreate this rhetoric on the home front, linking truly authentic individuality with a character refined by the trials and tribulations of total war (pp. 160-1). Yet, at the same time, Berlin’s increasingly dystopian city-scape led to the development of new forms of individual agency, such as the cultivation of black market networks, and a growing culture of absenteeism and potentially subversive reactions towards authority (pp. 164-5). However, such counter-discourses ‘did not necessarily reflect a disassociation from Nazism, and…a longing for a restored private life could often lead to a staunch loyalty to the German war effort’ (p. 167). Such desires were often framed in Nazified or at the very least Nazi-friendly terms, or were founded upon a conviction that German victory was an absolute precondition of continued domestic happiness in the future, as evidenced by a fascinating collection of correspondence between Berlin women and their spouses at the front (p. 169ff.). Föllmer concludes by arguing that the largely unproblematic co-existence of nationalist anti-individualism and Nazi ideology with personal hopes for the future and continued family life not only ‘explains these Berliners’ persistent loyalty to the war, but also makes it quite easy to imagine their subsequent transition to the rather unheroic husbands, fathers and consumers of the 1950s’ (p. 174).

Post-1945, Föllmer moves on to analyse the importance of individuality for Berliners on both sides of the incipient Iron Curtain, showing how both halves of the divided city faced parallel challenges, competing for the hearts and minds of citizens in the other Berlin through an appeal to individualist preferences, whilst simultaneously attempting to restrict movements across the border (p. 183). In this context, he aims to disprove the theory that the rise of individualism as a meaningful historical category dates only from the 1960s onwards. Rather, he argues that, immediately after the war, there was a drive in both halves of the city to define the Third Reich as embodying the exact opposite of legitimate individuality, portraying it instead as an anonymous bureaucratic system enacted upon mass society, which meant that Berliners only appeared responsible, ‘if at all, only insofar as they had abandoned personal responsibility and joined an unthinking herd’ (p. 189). In contrast, both the British, U.S. and Soviet occupiers were keen to emphasise the virtues of personal initiative and self-help, particularly in the various organs of the press which they supported or subsidised. The prevalence of such rhetoric in turn led to a renewed sense of victimization among those surviving Jewish Berliners and others who had been persecuted under the Nazi regime, who were often seriously ill or physically exhausted, yet whose attempts to gain compensation or draw attention to their plight were met with hostility, or even by claims that they had not suffered as non-Jewish Berliners had (pp. 203-5). As one survivor put it: ‘“I still don’t feel that I am allowed to rise to my full height from the stooped position, into which Nazism forced me to popular acclaim”’ (p. 205). Problems also ensued over gender relations, with returning prisoners of war often unable to resume their accustomed role as head of the family, or to accept the independence which their wives had had to gain in the intervening years in order to keep body and soul together (pp. 200-2).

During the 1950s, meanwhile, East and West Berlin followed complementary courses, each defining itself as the home of legitimate individuality, and decrying the decadence or pseudo-democracy of the other. In the Soviet sphere, the SED attempted – ultimately unsuccessfully – to convince all sectors of society that private happiness and personal and professional fulfilment could only be realized within ‘the sheltering and nurturing environment of a socialist society’, portraying the West as the home of all imaginable forms of deviance and criminality (p. 220). Nevertheless, Berliners of all classes, ages and genders still ‘held and voiced individualist expectations which they mostly refused to identify with the construction of socialism’, and the credentials of the leadership itself were compromised not only by the need to offer bourgeois professionals such as doctors and scientists favourable deals in order to ensure their remaining in the DDR, but by the ostentatious luxury enjoyed by Party officials, which utterly belied the socialist myth of the classless society (pp. 222-5). Föllmer argues that, from this perspective, the frustrated individualist demands of the workers were an important part of the complex of dissatisfactions which led to the revolts of 17th June 1953: ‘From the outset, the project of constructing socialism had encouraged working-class people to make individualist demands and consequently triggered enormous resentment when the regime refused to even listen to them, let alone satisfy them’ (p. 226). In response, the authorities attempted both to try to deal with discontented citizens ‘individually’ rather than using blanket, impersonal propaganda, and to win the people over with the ‘politics of consumption’ (pp. 229-31). Ultimately, this approach could never be wholly successful, since it was all too easy for East Berliners to see how very much greener the grass really was in the land of the economic miracle.

Nevertheless, Föllmer warns us how important it is to beware of hindsight in this respect – the fear that Communism really could live up to its ambitions and represent a real threat to the West in economic terms was a driving force for the West Berlin authorities in the 1950s (p. 245). Flagship building projects such as the Hansaviertel were intended to function as ‘symbolically potent architecture’ which could deny any challenges from the East and compete with the new Stalinallee (pp. 240-2); meanwhile, those who pursued individual consumer satisfaction at the expense of the (still very modest) West Berlin economy by going shopping or having their hair cut in East Berlin were vilified as ‘parasites’ (p. 251). It was also deemed necessary to ‘counter socialism’s cultural claims and argue that individuals could not really exist as such on the other side of the border’ (p. 245-6). However, as the economic miracle took hold, so did features of modernity which could be discomfiting as well as desirable – for instance, the growth of impersonal bureaucracies (pp. 254-5). Tensions also arose between women’s and teenagers’ growing independence and the desire to promote stable family life based on conventional social roles (p. 258ff). Thus, conflicts still flared up over definitions of legitimate individuality and the co-existence of controversial views during this period, even in the West’s much more liberal sphere of influence (pp. 259-62).

Overall, Föllmer’s analysis is stimulating, readable, and attractively structured – for instance, every chapter opens with a brief exposé of a situation (whether taken from a novel, film, or archival source) which aptly illustrates the chapter’s key contentions. The compendium of sources which the author has collated is fascinating; if anything, one wishes that he had had more space to explore some of the material in more detail, such as the routine – yet often outraged – complaints to welfare offices or newspaper advice columns, or the exchanges of letters between wives and their husbands at the front. One might also wish for a little more elucidation of the role played by the dawn of the era of the comprehensive welfare state in the post-war period,[3] and the effect that these developments might have had on changing conceptions of individuality, which could also usefully bring out comparisons with the chapter focusing on welfare in Weimar Berlin.

However, in general, this monograph provides the reader with an excellent range of conceptual tools for ‘thinking with’, allowing for reconsideration of a number of prevalent orthodoxies, and focusing on a broad time period which cuts across the traditional caesuras into which German history is so often divided. Föllmer’s work would also provide a useful paradigm for comparative studies of a similar ilk; it would be fascinating to compare conceptions of individuality during this period in, say, London or New York, and explore those factors which made the Berlin experience particularly distinctive. Ultimately, whilst firmly founded in a fresh and well-grounded historical analysis, this book provides us with an intriguing series of snapshots of everyday life in Berlin throughout three of the city’s most turbulent decades.


[1] cf. Mary Fulbrook, Dissonant Lives: Generations and Violence through the German Dictatorships (Oxford 2011), pp. 114-15.
[2] Some of the suicides were as young as fifteen. For evaluation of similar evidence under the Nazi regime, see Christian Goeschel, Suicide in Nazi Germany (Oxford 2009).
[3] cf. Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (London 2009), esp. pp. 36-73.