Bohemia liquidates itself

The party’s over. In our last Munich-related post this week, we look at the comprehensive overview of “genius, glamour and doom” in the artistic avant-garde, Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts. Using the example of the Bavarian capital before, during and after the First World War, author Elizabeth Wilson illustrates what happens when bohemians drift to ideological extremes and social revolution turns into plain old revolution:

In 1909 Erich Mühsam formed an Action Group in an attempt to bring vagabonds, unemployed youth and prostitutes of both sexes into political activity. His efforts met with little success. When the execution of an anarchist in Spain led to international outrage, demonstrations in Munich included the detonation of a bomb near the town hall. Accused of having caused the explosion, Mühsam was indicted along with other members of his group. Their trial degenerated into farce when prostitutes admitted that their main purpose in attending Action Group meetings had been to tout for trade, while others claimed to have participated because of the free beer and to have been too drunk to understand what was going on.


Erich Mühsam

With the outbreak of war, ‘Bohemia liquidated itself’, wrote [Franz] Jung. A surprising number of German bohemians enlisted, carried away at first by the general atmosphere of patriotism. Most soon thought better of it (and Fanny Reventlow staked out a pacifist position from the beginning). Jung, the cartoonist George Grosz, and the writer Oskar Maria Graf joined up, deserted, were recaptured, escaped again. Graf was repeatedly arrested for refusing to obey orders, and when examined by a doctor, shrieked abuse at him for passing conscripts fit to be killed as cannon fodder. The result of this outburst was that he was diagnosed as insane, a fate – preferable to court martial and execution – that befell several of the German bohemians.

In 1918 Mühsam’s friend Frank Wedekind died. For Mühsam this marked the end of the old Schwabing spirit and inaugurated a grimmer struggle. In the chaotic and volatile situation after Germany’s defeat, there were insurrections, violent uprisings violently crushed, hunger and desperation. In Munich the revolution passed through several stages. A provisional social democratic government was set up, but came under continual pressure from the ultra-radicals, such as Mühsam, to move further to the left. An Artists’ Council was formed, and there was a Council of Brain Workers, which discussed ‘educative propaganda in the press, school reforms and the right of intellectuals to take part in decisions relating to other cultural questions’. There were chaotic meetings at which no one could agree, and Ernst Toller, who, with Mühsam and the anarchist Gustave Landauer, led the short-lived Räterrepublik, afterwards described how they had been besieged by cranks advocating every form of utopian lifestyle from dress reform to Esperanto.


Ludwig Klages

It was predictable that Schwabing should have nurtured anarchists, pacifists, left-wingers and rampant individualists who were Bolshevik only in the sense of being ‘bolshie’. Perhaps more surprising was the extent to which it nourished extreme right-wing views. At the turn of the century, a Nietzschean group formed as disciples of the poet Stefan George. These Nietzscheans, Ludwig Klages, Karl Wolfskehl (himself Jewish) and Alfred Schuler, held utopian views about cultural regeneration. Schuler, an archaeological historian, believed that the ‘life fire’ had burned most strongly in ‘das Volk’ in heathen times, becoming ever weaker until in the present day only a few individuals retained any trace of it. The Germans were the foremost bearers of this ‘life fire’, followed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, but the Jewish race was excluded because it had promoted Father Right (patriarchy) and had thereby fallen prey to damnation. However, Christians such as Martin Luther were equally condemned as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Molotisisch’ on account of their patriarchal beliefs. (‘I never realised Luther was a Jew!’ cried Frau Wolkskehl in amazement.)


[Roderich] Huch was sceptical about Schuler’s theories, but Klages insisted that everything about Schuler was cosmic, even his plan – fortunately not carried out – to visit the mentally ill Nietzsche and free him from his derangement through the performance of Greek Korybantic dances. ‘I realized then,’ concluded Huch, ‘that Klages lacked a sense of humour…’


  1. I’m so looking forward to your posts on Schwabing, and thanks for the ones you’ve already put up. I’ll have to look up this book by Wilson. Did you know that Landauer, the anarchist leader, was grandfather of Mike Nichols (who directed the films The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)? When I visited Munich, I found Wolfskehl’s old house, which has a plaque about him. Lenin lived nearby but I don’t think he interacted much with the Bohemians.

  2. Se my review of “Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts”. It’s an interesting read, despite a certain lack of theoretical rigour.

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