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Gordon, Peter E., and John P. McCormick, eds.: Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy.

Gordon, Peter E., and John P. McCormick, eds. Weimar Thought: A Contested Legacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013. 464 pp. $35.00 cloth.

Gordon and McCormick's edited volume provides a critical companion to the intellectual and cultural history of the Weimar Republic. Nineteen essays, in each of which a different perspective is articulated and developed, cover the interwar period's major intellectual trends in the fields and discourses of, among others, sociology, theology, aesthetics, film, law, literature, historicism, science, and femininity. Ultimately, however, this book achieves much more than an historical overview. Revolving around the notion of crisis, the editors, through the volume's thoughtful composition and nuanced choice of topics, challenge the assumption of a natural continuum between Weimar's culture and politics. By deploying intellectual history's "fruitful tension between hermeneutic contextualism and transcendental claims to truth" (2), this collection renders visible the limits of teleology and chronology as instruments of historical understanding.

Responding to the seminal works on the period--Peter Gay's Weimar Culture (1968) and the studies by Detlev Peukert (1992), H. A. Winkler (1993), Hans Mommsen (1996), and Eric Weitz (2007)--the editors espouse in their concise introduction a nominalist approach within certain limits: While eschewing any type of political meta-narrative and advocating radical openness to diversity, disunity, and the epoch's multiple temporalities, the authors of this intellectual history want to remain conscious of Weimar's unifying patterns of contemporaneous self-diagnoses. In other words, no single narrative about the fourteen years of the Republic can claim superior validity or even consequential necessity. Concurrently, however, any individual account must not ignore, for instance, the period's frequent self-characterization as a time of crisis, the lingering elements of the German Empire, and the ending of the Republic with the rise of the Third Reich. On the basis of these premises, the editors hope that sensitivity towards the interplay of "continuity and crisis" can reveal within the intellectual landscape of the Weimar Republic "possibilities of continued inspiration and reappropriation" (3).

The first section offers comprehensive presentations of the major themes in the works of Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Karl Mannheim, and Carl Schmitt. Two further essays deal with Weimar psychology's striving for holistic explanations and the transformations of legal theory. The second section opens with John Michael Krois's remarkable depiction of Ernst Cassirer's Kulturphilosophie, followed by Frederick Beiser's reconstruction of Neo-Kantianism's battle against the "dark forces" of historicism, nihilism, and pessimism. Three further essays focus on historical thinking; theological efforts to find a viable compromise between historical time and eternity, and the relationship of the natural sciences to their historical and social preconditions.

The third section begins with Michael Jennings's essay on Siegfried Kracauer's and Walter Benjamin's critique of avant-garde and popular culture. Weimar literature and poetry are represented by Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Kurt Tucholsky, and Alfred Doblin, and by the "aesthetic fundamentalism" (244) of the George Circle. Further discussions of aesthetics include the major contributions to film theory and John V. Maciuika's intriguing depiction of the history and politics of the Bauhaus. Michael P. Steinberg's engaging presentation of Aby Warburg completes the section, containing one of the few attempts in this book to link the period's criticism explicitly to the socio-political deficiencies of the present. The final section begins with reconstructions of the debates during the era on orientalism and femininity. Two particularly provocative treatments conclude the volume: Martin Jay contests the idea that the internal unity of socialism could have prevented the eventual failure of the Republic, and Anson Rabinbach analyzes the aftermath of the ideological disruption of the epoch, pointing out the significance of the lower strata of Weimar culture.

The collection also points out a series of desiderata: Beiser calls for new histories of the Southwestern and neo-Friesian schools of Neo-Kantianism (115 fn3), and Jennings asks for a definitive study on Benjamin's turn to media and popular culture around 1924 (204). Topics left for additional consideration include music, phenomenology, philosophical anthropology, and Heidegger. Appended is a helpful chronology of the major political events and publications of the era.

The fragmented reality of the Weimar period is the appropriate touchstone for a critical historiography that presents its object as a constellation of discordant narratives. By seeking understanding and refraining from evaluative synthesis, every contribution in this volume prompts the reader to reflect on lessons of Weimar in light of the present social, political, and cultural situation. Its innovative methodological outlook and its numerous field-specific interventions make Weimar Thought an indispensible resource for any future study of the epoch.


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Author:Johanssen, Dennis
Publication:The German Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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