The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Commodification, Corporeality, Crisis? Weimar Modern Girls, Image, and Aesthetic in Cultural Criticism

Lilean Buhl
Leibniz University Hannover


This article investigates the Modern Girl in the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) and her relationship to crisis through a range of critical, contemporary voices. Throughout the 1920s, the German incarnation of the flapper or garçonne—usually called neue Frau (literally: “New Woman” but not to be mistaken for the Anglophone type of an earlier generation)—was the focus of critical attention by famous theorists and lesser-known columnists. The Weimar Modern Girl was chronicled, constructed, and interrogated in contemporary cultural journalism including seminal essays such as Siegfried Kracauer’s “The Mass Ornament” and more incidental, as yet untranslated, reflections on the Modern Girl by male and female writers of the age. These representations of the Modern Girl suggest that she was understood as an artificial image which nevertheless carried enormous significance for quotidian realities of life in the Republic: for the writers in this survey, the Weimar Modern Girl combined a living potential for authentic progress with the omnipresent possibility of regression. The latter expression found its apotheosis in the mass cultural spectacles of modernist dancing troupes: so-called Girlkultur, in which the Modern Girl-image became a subject male authors analyzed, abstracted, and politicized. Female critics, writing for smaller media outlets, kept closer to the pulse of actual modern women, and critiqued the pressures of commodification that seemed to determine their image. Read together, these essays present the Weimar Modern Girl as an embodiment of the contemporary understanding of crisis: that is, in terms of a fundamentally open situation (see Föllmer et al.). The Modern Girl becomes a figure who signifies ruptures with the past and imminent change, but whose emancipatory agency is variable, and whose avenues into the future are unclear.

Keywords Weimar Republic / Crisis / Mass Culture / Weimar New Woman / Fashion

When Siegfried Kracauer1 published an article titled “Girls und Krise” (“Girls and Crisis”)2 in 1931, his headline named two focal points of the Weimar Republic’s discourse. With every passing year in Germany’s first democracy (1918-1933), the image of the Modern Girl, or neue Frau —cropped hair, slender figure, straight attire—seemed to be more present in advertising, mass culture, and cultural criticism. Crisis, meanwhile, gripped the Republic from the beginning – or so it appeared to contemporary observers of a volatile German modernity. Yet although these tropes—Girls and crisis—were invoked so frequently, and often together, the relationship between Weimar Modern Girls and the crisis narratives of the Republic was not straightforward. For one, the incarnations of modern womanhood in the Weimar Republic as well as the articulations of that womanhood’s crises were eminently variable. While many conservative commentators treated the rapidly evolving image of the Weimar Modern Girl as signifying decadence and downfall, other critics constructed more nuanced explanations. Kracauer, in this essay, writes about a specific sub-type of the Modern Girl (the variety-show performer) and a distinct crisis (the economic fallout of the 1929 stock market crash). For him, this combination of Modern Girl imagery, actual experiences of women, and prevailing economic tension signaled revolutionary potential for Weimar society to emancipate itself from the illusions of capitalist progress and growth. Kracauer, after all, was a cultural critic who scrutinized seemingly minor phenomena of modern life and imparted to them immense historical significance. But the association between Modern Girls and crisis in Weimar Germany was not unique to Kracauer. In this article, I survey writings by German cultural critics, novelists, and journalists who wrote in similar terms about the Weimar New Woman througout the 1920s. The German neue Frau is the “Modern Girl” delineated in collections like The Modern Girl Around the World or Jane Nicholas’ The Modern Girl. Confusingly, the German term “neue Frau” literally translates to “new woman,” but it does not refer to the “New Woman” of the previous generation familiar to scholars of woman’s history in Anglophone societies. This interbellum type, Weimar critics recognized, represented a new development in women’s self-fashioning. For many German writers, the Modern Girl, her appearance, and her ways of life did not merely signify a critical momentum vis-à-vis modernity and its prevailing ideologies, but represented challenges to the status quo, and personified an open course into the future. Embodied in the Modern Girl, crisis was not—or not only—catastrophe, but alternatively—and also—possibility.

The two words in Kracauer’s headline have defined the Weimar Republic in cultural history, in both the popular and the scholarly imagination.3 Retrospectively, the interwar period and its political, economic, cultural, and social crises seem inseparably connected to the understanding of the epoch. Concrete historical events support this attitude. Especially during the beginning and end of its short existence, the Republic did experience significant upheavals and structural fragility. Weimar’s rapidly changing governments (and many of its political parties’ rejection of parliamentary democracy), hyperinflation in 1923, the Hitler-Ludendorff coup d’état of the same year, and the disastrous impact of the global economic crisis in 1929 loom large in public memory of the era.4 The impression that Weimar was in a perpetual state of crisis is sustained by studies showing that the rhetoric of crisis was ubiquitous in contemporary discourse. German historian Moritz Föllmer and his colleagues estimate that, during the Republic’s existence, 370 independent works containing the word Krise in their titles appeared in a range of disciplines (10). Curiously, many retrospective studies simplistically and pessimistically interpret these crises as overtures to impending catastrophe: The National Socialists’ 1933 ascent to power (14) that profited from many of Weimar’s lasting instabilities.

In recent years, scholars have tried to avoid and counter this fatalistic view. Eric D. Weitz made the imperative to avoid treating the Republic “as a mere stepping-stone to the Third Reich” (xiv) one of the key points of his grand historical study Weimar Germany. In such teleological characterizations, Weitz argued, the era’s emancipatory, progressive, and modernist dynamics are viewed as ultimately ineffective and, therefore, doomed from their inception. As Thomas Raithel has pointed out, “Weimar’s time was also an epoch of varied potential, promising departures, and great accomplishment [...] And until the end there were situations in which a different course could have been taken.”5 The contemporary understanding of crisis, Föllmer and colleagues argue, included these possibilities. Often, the term signified “not only the threat to the old but also, optimistically, the chance for renewal.”6 When authors in the Weimar Republic invoked these narratives, they thus understood crisis “not as a scenario of decline but as an open situation of decision-making.”7 This type of open-endedness and volatility runs through the most intriguing inquiries into the neue Frau. In the texts that I will discuss, the neue Frau becomes a nexus for the regressive potential of modernity (commodification, rationalization, reification) and its progressive possibilities (emancipation, self-fulfillment, friendship). By contemporaries, the Modern Girl was not imagined to be a passing fad. As Jochen Hung has observed, Weimar’s “figure of the ‘New Woman’ [Modern Girl] was a multi-faceted concept fed from very different sources” (53). Mass newspapers, for instance, not only propagate the image but also negotiate its characteristics with readers, integrating “both idealistic and realistic undertones” (Hung 53). This image and its lived realities were, at the same time, imbricated in all manners of crisis narratives: The neue Frau’s fashion sprang from the material constraints of World War I, her androgynous appearance called gender conventions into question, and her iteration in synchronized dance performances emblematized an imminent Americanization of German culture. 

The image of the Modern Girl has remained an icon of the Weimar Republic and a personification of its modernity. In recent decades, the neue Frau has received significant scholarly attention.8 This interest, too, is owed partly to the Modern Girl’s pervasiveness in interwar media. As Petra Bock noted in a German study, Neuen Frauen zwischen den Zeiten (“New Women Between the Times”), there was neither a discourse about the neuer Mann (“New Man”) nor the neuer Mensch (“New Human Being”) in the Weimar Republic, whereas the neue Frau was prevalent.9 Compared to the rigid, overtly patriarchal structures of Wilhelmine society,10 the Republic offered new avenues for women— politically, culturally, in education, and in work. Young women seemed to strive most visibly for new self-fulfillment. In the Weimar Republic, emancipation from their parents now regularly predated marriage by several years. This emergence of a “‘intermediary stage of personal independence’ […] between adolescence and marriage” (Ankum 4) was a visible, new aspect of life in the Republic: these female types between ages sixteen and thirty flaunted their modernity through fashion, pastimes, and new relationships to men. Although usually dubbed neue Frau,11 the German Modern Girl type of the 1920s had its own national precursors in the first feminist movement. Similar to her Anglo-American counterparts, the Modern Girl of the Republic integrated claims for political emancipation, work, and education with a new body image and sophistication in matters of fashion, sexuality, and entertainment. The establishment of democracy in 1918 brought with it promises of equal rights in its constitution and led to voting rights for women, but some victories were pyrrhic: women could work in factories for less pay than male counterparts in the same position.12 The most striking novelty in women’s life practices was their new look: Women’s appearances “changed fundamentally” during the Weimar Republic (Boak 267), and, crucially, they “were seen to have changed more than men, certainly more visibly” (Sharp 118). In the 1920s, women’s clothes became simpler and straighter and hairstyles were markedly shorter (Boak 267ff.), contributing to a look that fused the demands of factory labor with the newfound appetite for athletics or gymnastics,13 as well as mass cultural forms of entertainment. Atina Grossmann has characterized the Modern Girl's struggles between self-actualization and consumerism, wage labor and leisure, motherhood and childlessness, and marriage and sexual liberty as expressing “in dramatic form the discontents of civilization and the discomfort of industrialized mechanized society. She embodied the conflicts […] and the ambivalence of modernity” (76). Her image, thus, “represented both danger and salvation” (76). Many commentators viewed this development with confusion and skepticism. A 1925 anonymous polemic from Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ) said that “women cut their long tresses and bobbed their hair; the dresses they wore hung down in an almost perfectly straight line, denying the contours of the female body, the curve of the hips” (“Enough!” 659). The androgynous fashions of Modern Girls unleashed a wave of misogynistic and xenophobic anxieties throughout German society. Their image was perceived as a “threatening visual symbol of the masculinization of Germany’s womanhood” (Sutton 28) and the effect of foreign influence. The BIZ article, for example, complains about the “odious fashions” that were “transplanted here from America.”14

Even if the neue Frau was not simply transplanted, the transnationality of her image is and was evident. Her look was also intricately connected to mass cultural aesthetics from the beginning if one considers its origins and spread: international stars like Danish silent film actress Asta Nielsen, French designer Coco Chanel, and American dancer Isadora Duncan introduced shorter hairstyles and minimalist clothing in central Europe around 1920 (Hake 187). Anglo-American modernist dance troupes also disseminated the rationalized look of modern women, although the omnipresence of the image in advertising and print media was probably the strongest factor in its establishment (Berghaus 204; Sharp). In the confluence of these factors, the Weimar Modern Girl appeared as both a “media fabrication” and drew on “flesh-and-blood individuals” (West 1)—although “few women could attain Hollywood-style glamour or financial independence” in the Republic (Weitz 307). The contemporary typology—as “Weimar culture was obsessed with taxonomies” (Frame 13)—shows that the increasing transnationalism of women’s fashion and mass culture was also apparent in the moment. The neue Frau was a typical composite phenomenon of modernity, fulfilling different purposes dependent on the given debate. Often, especially in analyses of mass culture, the English word Girl, capitalized, was the term of choice: a signifier for America’s cultural influence felt by conservative commentators and Marxist critics alike. Garçonne transposed French flapperdom into Germany and carried connotations of decadence, queer sexuality, and aloofness. This dynamic made the neue Frau simultaneously a national and transnational phenomenon.

For several writers who prefigured Frankfurt School criticism of mass culture,15 the Modern Girl was an emblem for the regressive influence of a rationalized, mechanized aesthetic which simultaneously tainted both labor and leisure. Its apotheosis was the mass of identical-looking women performers in modernist dance troupes like the Tiller or Lawrence Girls, who came from the United Kingdom but were often taken to be American. Their shows were obsessively analyzed under the heading of Girlkultur. And yet, critics did not wholly neglect the emancipatory potential in the life practices of contemporary women. Many female writers, especially in the more playful and incidental reports on the Weimar neue Frau’s status and experience, emphasized this dimension of the Modern Girl’s meaning for modern life at large. In a conjoined reading of mass cultural criticism and women’s writing, I locate the neue Frau as a complex and contingent figure of modernity who reconciled utopian promise with the omnipresent potential for decline. With this combination, she personified the contemporary understanding of crisis – not in the form of imminent and inevitable catastrophe, but as a decisive, open-ended, and dynamic situation of conflicting possibilities.

The essays sketched in the following discussion range from seminal ones (e.g. Kracauer’s “The Mass Ornament”) to nearly unknown (e.g. Fritzi Massary’s “Bubikopf-Dämmerung”). Most appeared in the rich and, in its time, highly accessible outlets of the Republic’s print landscape.16 Women-oriented quality journals and mass illustrated papers published the wealth of neue Frau imagery through reportage and advertising. Quality magazines like UHU or Die Dame, both published by Ullstein Verlag, as well as the best-selling BIZ, fulfilled multiple functions for the neue Frau, as they provided spaces for simultaneously chronicling, constructing, and critiquing the phenomenon. Beyond these sources, theater magazines like Austria’s Die Bühne, and literary-intellectual reviews such as Der Querschnitt or Die literarische Welt also provided reflections on the Modern Girl. The singular Frankfurter Zeitung (FZ), whose cultural section Inka Mülder-Bach calls a “production site of a fragmentary theory of modernity” (45), housed the most abstract and theoretical examinations.17 The critical modes of these authors oscillate between male, leftist writers preoccupied with the allure of mass cultural spectacles and the semiotics of omnipresent Girlkultur (Siegfried Kracauer, Fritz Giese, Alfred Polgar, Richard Huelsenbeck, Joseph Roth) and observations of female journalists and entertainers (Fritzi Massary, Vicki Baum, and Gabriele Tergit) who interrogated the demands that Weimar modernity and its imagery put on actual female citizens.18 From these contemporary cultural discussions, a distinct pattern of discourse emerges around the neue Frau in the Weimar Republic; these discourses, while actively discussed in German scholarship, are less familiar in Anglo-American scholarship on the Modern Girl.

The following pattern emerges: Male critics who took up the Modern Girl engaged with her image as a show performer and stressed the significance of the type for radical, historical changes. With each iteration of the Modern Girl, male critics further abstracted the type. Women writers generally kept closer to the pulse of actual modern women, without disregarding larger sociopolitical implications. One exception to this general tendency in this survey are the essays of Heinrich Mann. His two essays on gender relations, “Der Bubikopf” and “They Are Joining Hands” (“Sie reichen sich die Hände”), combine on-the-ground reporting with theorization. Mann traces the turbulent development of gender relations without panic and characterizes the newly volatile relationship between the genders as potentially invigorating for larger society in a critical historical moment. As such, his essays reconcile the narratives around Modern Girls and crisis and highlight the lost potential in deterministic readings of gender roles during the period.

The Abstracted Modern Girl: Girlkultur

In the mid-1920s, cultural critics of the Republic regularly invoke the Modern Girl, her newfound physicality, and her accordingly rationalized body image in analyses of mass cultural phenomena. Male critics focused on the most abstracted and mass-produced version of the image, which they found in the urban dance and music halls, revue palaces, and stadiums: the large-scale, synchronized dances of groups like the Tiller, Jackson, Hoffman, or Lawrence Girls – this “curious combination of Prussian militarism and Weimar sexuality.”19 Modern, Anglo-American dance troupes had already been performing in Wilhelmine Germany. Girlkultur analysis was a phenomenon of the late Weimar Republic and thrived from 1925 to 1929.20 These essays, mostly reporting from Berlin-based shows, are remarkably similar in their focus, argument, and even rhetoric.21 As Berghaus notes, “all authors writing about the phenomenon of Girlkultur emphasize that its origins lay in America, that it was the product of a modern industrialized society, and that it could be interpreted as an expression of the hectic life in the urban centers of civilization” (203). To this list, one should add the absolute insistence of the authors that Girlkultur-Girls do not exist as individuals and not even as a group, but only as abstracted multiplicities (Mayer). For example, Alfred Polgar points out in his article “The Girls” that “Girl standing next to Girl […] does not ‘Girls’ make, that is only achieved through consummate addition, the fusing of the individuals into a collective.”22

Fritz Giese’s richly illustrated book on Girlkultur appeared in 1925, at the beginning of this outpouring. His objective, to explain the success of dance troupes, is apparent from the book’s subtitle: “Comparisons between American and European Rhythm and Spirit.”23 Giese advances with broad strokes, characterizing Girl-culture as a symptom of an American mentality (15) and as a fashion that will pass like page-boy cuts (18). Nevertheless, he establishes Girl-culture as a significant phenomenon of modernity, in which influences like race, the metropolis, music, sports, labor, and film converge. Giese formulates terminology that recurs in subsequent texts: His Girls are “movement-machines”; he notes an “Americanization of German tastes”; and, in his introduction, he apologizes for dwelling on a “marginal phenomenon.”24 He also asserts the potential of Girl-culture to possess an emancipatory effect: As the performers have proven to be the athletic equals of men, they reject patriarchal ideology (Herrenmenschendenken) and men with unmodern attitudes to gender relationships (109). Personal autonomy, Giese says, can flourish within mass culture – an insight that chimes with later examinations of modernist dance troupes and the individualization they afforded to female performers (Glenn). This perspective contrasts with Girlkultur writings that diagnosed a German public, flocking to the spectacles, with a deep crisis of consciousness: Not only were they cheering on a robotic and inauthentic female physicality, but they also mindlessly celebrated a militarist aesthetic, not even a decade after the First World War had devastated Central Europe.

The relationship critics posit between performers and quotidian Modern Girls was equivocal, as not all of the dance performers’ attributes were shared by the neue Frau. As seen on Weimar streets, these Modern Girls clearly shared phenomenological traits with the Tiller Girls: they seemed athletically trained and slender, were dressed in mass-produced clothing, and wore comparably minimalist hairstyles. But it was unclear to what degree, for Weimar critics, this resemblance implicated the female consumer in the regressive tendencies the dance troupes personified. In the mid-twenties, the Austro-Hungarian writers Joseph Roth (in the FZ) and Alfred Polgar (in Prague’s Tagblatt and later Die Dame) divide Girls on stage and actual girls in the audience. Roth deemed the Girl-shows “compositions of militarism and the erotic,” a combination which he obviously viewed as invented in America.25 Although the dancers are often naked, Roth writes that the performance itself is so clinical as to be essentially prudish: Tthe assembling of bare legs in geometrical patterns “serves not lust, but anatomy” and “hygiene, not eroticism.”26 In the multiplied mass performance, Roth comments, single bodies are dissolved into a multiplicity, a “quantitative sensuality that does not touch the individual.”27 Accordingly, he shields the performance against conservative accusations of indecency. “Indecent,” Roth says instead, “are only the visitors who wander to the Girl-attractions with lustful ideas.”28 Polgar, too, wonders aloud “why women even go to the revue theater,” as the dehumanized eroticism only caters to male onlookers: “The female appears cleansed of its human quality, ‘refined’ in the chemical sense of the word.”29 He describes the Girls in language of the mechanism: their most important organ is their legs, their “telegraph, sending waves of arousal into the auditorium.”30 Both authors agree that the suggestion of a militarist aesthetic— following commands, forming lines, subsuming the body into the corps—determines the allure of the spectacle. The militaristic aesthetic is, at least for Roth, the logical end of Girl-ideology, where possibility devolves into subjugation: the performers, once married off to lecherous audience members, become “good, moral housewi[ves] who prepare the morning coffee during gymnastic exercises, hygienically give birth to children and raise them as soldiers.”31 The modernity of the Girl image is, in this view, only a veil for the regressive and conventional morality of the lower middle classes—of which the left-leaning Roth and Polgar were intensely skeptical. Their warnings, however, are explicitly addressed to male audience members. The men wander in for shallow entertainment and become oblivious consumers of a spectacle propagating conservative ideologies. In this accusation, the authors invert the trope of modern women as prime targets for deception through mass culture and advertising.

Huelsenbeck’s views, representing a conservative strain in this criticism, were even more gloomy, and he readily identified the ideologies of Girl-culture with the modernity of women at large. Their modernity, in his view, was tainted by consumerism and a specifically American emphasis on practicality and standardization. In his newspaper review critique of Giese’s book Girlkultur, he rejects any positive influence of physical, American, and Girl-culture, which he treats as one and the same. He promotes, instead, a return to a religious or intellectual culture native to Europe currently threatened by naïve ideologies of progress. This cliché, which Polgar and Roth challenged, is taken up earnestly by Huelsenbeck. For him, the “Girl, the Woman, are ideal mass consumers,” unreflecting buyers and the object of all advertising—“readily hypnotized.”32 This essentialism and chauvinism, coming from a former avant-gardist who participated in Dadaism until the mid-1920s, is surprising. His Girlkultur article is part of an unabashedly reactionary genre of cultural criticism. One of his central verdicts provides a chilling glimpse into the future: The dance Girls “are the completed expression of a collective humanity that is to raise their limbs according to particular signs and orders.”33

Of the Girlkultur pundits, Kracauer stands out as the one most attuned to the volatility of the contemporary moment and, in a later stage of his writing, the varied actuality of Modern Girlhood and its relationship to the abstract Girlkultur performances.34 The most well-known of his texts, written in 1927 and invoked regularly in contexts that pay no attention at all to the Modern Girl, is the “The Mass Ornament” (1927). As Andreas Huyssen notes, this essay begins “by bringing the legs of the Tiller Girls into the reader’s view” (48). Its premise was that “[t]he position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself.”35 Kracauer, too, reads the performance of the Tiller Girls as an emblem of modernity: “The structure of the mass ornament reflects that of the entire contemporary situation,” he writes, which is defined by the “principle of the capitalist production process” (78). For Kracauer, the suggestive analogy for this aesthetic in the material conditions of modernity is the Taylorized system of labor, which compartmentalizes different stages of the production process. Kracauer and his fellow critics emphasized the similarity between the compartmentalization of work and the visual dismemberment of women’s bodies occurring in the Girls’ performance. In serving the patterns of the mass ornament, they rescind their individuality and bodily image: “The Tiller Girls can no longer be reassembled into human beings after the fact. Their mass gymnastics are never performed by the fully preserved bodies” (78). In the congruence of mass cultural Girl-aesthetics with the historical conditions of Weimar working classes, there seems to be no critical moment – at least not an open-ended one. Instead, the capitalist aesthetic, celebrating rationalization and geometry, takes its logical course into catastrophe: Kracauer, with this essay, appears to anticipate the rallies and mass spectacles of Nazi Germany: the “politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic,” as Walter Benjamin put it in 1935 (“The Work of Art” 242). Propaganda drawing on these aesthetics (such Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia) have been read as escalations of the mass ornament. Accordingly, Kracauer’s account is celebrated for its historiographic lucidity.

Girlkultur, however, was a phenomenon which Kracauer revisited from the mid-1920s into the 1930s, with different emphases and varied attitudes. In early treatments of this phenomenon, he did not see dance troupes strictly as a political emblem. As Miriam Hansen has revealed through readings of essays preceding the “Mass Ornament,” Kracauer’s later abstraction denied the earlier “Kracauer’s pleasure in such precision” (45). In a 1925 review of a variety dance, for instance, the Girls’ “standardization translates into a sensual celebration of collectivity, a vision, perhaps a mirage, of equality, cooperation, and solidarity” as well as “gender mobility and androgyny” (Hansen 45). Here, the ambivalent potential of the Girlkultur aesthetic comes to the fore again. In the vision/mirage dichotomy, Kracauer personifies the open crisis moment in the Modern Girl: Are the dancers interlocking their arms in authentic solidarity or are their synchronized movements just an empty promise?

Even though Kracauer’s fascination with the dance performances themselves waned, and he increasingly treated revues as a political semiotic, he would again emphasize the “different and potentially liberatory” effects of this specific culture (Hansen 45). In a later text, responding more urgently to a particular crisis, his outlook is, again, less fatalistic than in “The Mass Ornament,” although the critic does not revert to his earlier, more optimistic, stance. “Girls und Krise”, published in the FZ in 1931, reports on a performance by the Jackson Girls, whose aesthetic has hardly budged. Their synchronized movements still “correspond to the ideal of the machine”; they are “an allegory in flesh” for the “functioning of a blossoming economy.”36 Whereas in “The Mass Ornament,” Kracauer had only rhetorically asked how long the underlying ratio that seemed to determine both production and entertainment in the capitalist system could sustain itself, by 1931 the fallout of the 1929 stock market crash had openly thrown these structures into question: “One does not believe them anymore, these rosy Jackson-Girls!”, Kracauer writes, because the economic crisis that laid waste to factories and institutions “has also quietly liquidated these girl-machineries.”37 For the critic, a sense of possibility emerges from the chasm between the ideology performed for, and the reality experienced by, Weimar audiences. The mindless consumption of the Jackson-Girls’ aesthetic is disrupted by lay-offs, bankruptcies, and mass unemployment; the suspension of disbelief formerly extended to spectacle and economic system halted momentarily. The dialectic between the mutually supportive ideologies of productivity and mass entertainment, Kracauer insinuates in this moment of cautious utopianism, might just reverse course and engender a dismantling of the status quo. What Marx had called “awakening [the world] out of its dream about itself,”38 is the potential of the crisis moment: “The happy dreams they are meant to arouse were exposed years ago as foolish illusions.”39

Another pair of Kracauer’s texts explored the ramifications of crisis for the Modern Girl at-large. In “Mädchen im Beruf” (“Girls in Employment,” 1932), printed in the intellectual journal Der Querschnitt, Kracauer gestures to the dissonance between mass culture and mass experience. Here, the mass cultural product consumed is film, and the audiences are young women. Kracauer summarizes typical romance plots that marry off a female worker to “her boss or a rich American” in a “happy ending” that suffices to “shackle” girls—the main character as well as the viewers—to “the system” (238).40 This—admittedly sketched and simplistic—characterization of audience corruption through mass-market films resonates with Adorno and Horkheimer’s examinations of the culture industry,41 but it also echoes a series of articles Kracauer wrote in 1927, entitled “The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies” (republished in The Mass Ornament). In “Little Shopgirls,” episodically published vignettes recount a similarly typical Hollywood plot. The “Little Shopgirls” represent the audience whose reaction forms the punchline to each summary: After a female protagonist marries up the social ladder, the “poor little shopgirls grope for their date’s hand and think of the coming Sunday” (297). In watching a propagandistic military film, it “is hard for the little shopgirls to resist the appeal of the marches and the uniforms” (298). And faced with a plot that begins to show exploitative dynamics within the economy, “the little shop girls were frightened,” but as the film resolves in a happy ending, “they can breathe easy again” (304). What matters more than the unreality of the film is its success in representing the “daydreams of society,” according to Kracauer (292). “Never,” he writes fatalistically, would a film producer “allow himself to be driven to present material that in any way attacks the foundations of society” (291).

In “Girls in Employment,” the article Kracauer wrote four years after “Little Shopgirls” and amidst a socioeconomic crisis, the cinema performances (like those of the Tiller Girls) have indeed not come to challenge the premises of capitalist society. But there is a crucial “tension between the illusion created in these films and reality,” Kracauer observes, which has become “so large that the majority of female employees is not as easily enchanted.”42 The status quo, propagated by conventional plots, is simultaneously threatened by them as the (largely female) audience gains class consciousness. While Kracauer had misogynistically singled out lower middle-class women as vapid targets of mass culture propaganda in the mid-1920s, he now thinks women perceptive readers who are capable of reversing the mass cultural dialectic. They are the chief consumers of mass culture and thus incessantly faced with their own constructed image: “I know enough employed girls who comment condescendingly upon the swindle on screen,” he writes.43 The crisis in the labor market has trained consumers to view their situation more critically, and, as Kracauer continues, they can also draw on a wealth of sociological material enlightening them on their living conditions. Kracauer highlights rational faculties, especially a differentiating mode of seeing, as preconditions for emancipation: Because the Modern Girl is not only a collective visuality, but also an individual, living being with agency, she can respond actively to the exploitative mechanisms of the culture industry. Kracauer’s cinema setting is appropriate for this tradition of feuilletonistic criticism. In this mode, the status of the neue Frau image, comprising utopia and catastrophe, regression and emancipation, shares some resemblances to two other phenomena of modernity: The fashion industry and film at large. Walter Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and the Arcades Project, teased out the emancipatory potential of both concepts. He contended, however, that as long as they were “commanded by the ruling class” ( “Über den Begriff” 700), any apparent progress, achieved technologically or through transitions of the commodity, would be ultimately inauthentic. But unlike the commodity itself, the neue Frau brought agency into the dialectic, a “living, human capacity for change and infinite variation” that left her course wide open (Buck-Morss 99). She is thus a much more authentic embodiment of change, similarly comprising liberating and oppressive possibilities. Crisis, in this system of thought, becomes perilous not by its potential to revolutionize but by the possibility of stasis: As Benjamin would write in the Arcades Project, the “critical moment” is where “the status quo threatens to be preserved“ (474).

Emancipations of the Modern Girl: The Weimar New Woman, Fashion, and Society

Women writers of the Republic were crucial in spelling out this latent potential for the Modern Girl to seize the critical historical moment for emancipatory leaps into the future. These female writers, for the most part, were not as readily lured into grandiose theorizations of Girl-culture in their commentary on modern dance revues. The journalist Gabriele Tergit, for instance, reporting from a Berlin theater, only had this to say about the chorus line dancers: “Naked legs in mass appearance are immensely embarrassing. Mass smiling is shame-inducing, because [it is] unabashed prostitution; fifteen women to five hundred men alleviates the issue somewhat.”44 Rather than dealing in abstractions, female journalists attended to the pulse of the everyday Modern Girl without losing sight of the economic dynamics that influenced her image and jeopardized her agency. The manifold experiences of individual dancers – fictional and documentary – printed in popular magazines also contributed to a more nuanced appraisal of the girl within the culture. Where chauvinist critics constructed crises from an alleged masculinization of women’s fashion, female writers were quick to understand shorter, minimalist styles as shaped by living conditions. In an issue of Die Dame from 1920, the painter and author Marie von Bunsen rebuffed outrage over short skirts with a recap of wartime labor and coincident material shortages. Modern Girls’ rational dress used fewer resources, and thus was more appropriate for the historical moment than voluminous fashions of previous decades. “Apparently,” she writes, “The Pope, archbishops, parliaments, authorities, newspapers [...] have not paid enough attention to the [...] symbolic embodiment and illustration of world crisis through precisely this clothing [...] Never in a thousand years have women’s clothes been this perfectly healthy, this sensible.”45 Bunsen embraces the emancipatory potential of fashion, which she locates in its surreptitious “break with the past” (“Bruch mit der Vergangenheit”). Future historians, Bunsen posits, thus may learn as much from Weimar fashion as from of the radical aesthetics of Futurist and Cubist art. Both signify the “embodiment of [...] extreme, most merciless change” in history and anticipate avenues of renewal in the ensuing, open situation—they are remnants of the critical moment.46 Like the avantgarde movements of modernity, the everyday aesthetics of the Modern Girl introduce new categories and possibilities of seeing the world.

Surveying magazines like Die Dame and UHU, one does encounter a phenomenology of the Modern Girl that was constantly rearranged and interrogated. As Ingrid Sharp writes,

In Die Dame, the readership is supposed to be more knowing, aware that their modernity is a veneer […]. The superficiality of the concept did not, however, mean that it was seen as trivial. […] UHU took the issue most seriously, aiming not simply to reflect but to inform and shape contemporary debate about the changing role of women. (124)

The importance of differentiating the mere aura of modernity from authentic emancipation was highlighted, for example, in Vicki Baum’s Die Dame article “People of Today” (“Leute von heute”) from November 1927. Baum, who was one of the most successful authors of the Republic, imagines a consumerist who relentlessly follows trends in her quest to be original. Her protagonist “Ypsi,” despite keeping close tabs on advertisements, films, and magazines, and spending her entire income on the newest fashions, always ends up as an invisible part in an army of identically fashioned girls (not dissimilar to the Girlkultur troupes). The problem, the narrator interjects, is her facile equation of modernity with originality: “It is modern to be original. It follows that all modern women are original. Accordingly, and because all are simultaneously original, not a single one of them is.”47 Caught in this syllogism, Ypsi endures sickness and addiction, boredom and humiliation. “Poor Ypsi!” Baum concludes, dripping with irony, “Poor martyr of Today who keeps running from Yesterday and can never catch up with Tomorrow.”48 Ypsi’s thoughtless fetishization of the commodity is fueled by the allure of fashion’s inherent contingency – teasing fulfillment, but always in transition to the unforeseeable. Baum’s vignette reads like a parable of Walter Benjamin’s later writings on the fashion cycle. In the Arcades Project, Benjamin’s interest in fashion stems from the simultaneity of regressive and liberating potentials: Fashion is a “manifestation of commodity culture” and a “manifestation of a long repressed utopian desire” (Wollen 131). Ultimately, however, as Ypsi’s story shows, fashion itself will never provide the progress it promises. Susan Buck-Morss encapsulates Benjamin’s conclusion: “Reified in commodities, the utopian promise of fashion’s transitoriness undergoes a dialectical reversal: the living, human capacity for change and infinite variation becomes alienated, and is affirmed only as a quality of the inorganic object” (99). If liberation through the commodity is impossible, liberation of the commodity remains paramount: Ypsi, too, contains this capacity. As Baum writes, her protagonist’s “only means” to accomplish originality would be to “grow out her hair, ash blond and a bit thin,” a move that would signify “bravery, grandeur, a heroical trait.”49

While the social progress of the neue Frau was not accomplished with the attainment of a particular image, it could sometimes be expressed through the semiotics of fashion. As Sabine Hake writes, “Weimar fashions always involved the staging of ambivalences. It foregrounded the promises and the betrayals of modernity itself, and through that association, became a powerful tool of self-reflection” (199). It could be argued that style-conscious journals like Die Dame played both sides of the divide by critiquing the consequences of unabashed consumerism – and propagating in the very same journal (Bertschik). The only tool with which to approach the inundation with Modern Girl imagery was an eye trained in differentiation and a keen sensibility for the vagaries and the arbitrariness of the fashion cycle. Authors like Baum, Gina Kaus, and Fritzi Massary provided this double-sided reporting from the eye of the storm, as all three women were staged as neue Frauen and imitable star authors at the same time (Bertschik). Massary, a Viennese operetta star closely acquainted with Alfred Polgar, ran a regular column in Die Dame where she casually commented on latest trends like motor cars, cosmetics, or the pervasive Bubikopf hairstyle (a spectrum of cuts from wavy bobs to Eton crops). The hairstyle she pronounced as passé in 1926 (when male authors were just getting wise to its existence): The Bubikopf, she says, surely had been modern in that it signified the characteristics of the contemporary moment, but slowly, women were tiring of a modernity that declared femininity inconvenient “in labor, sports, and the erotic” (“bei Arbeit, Sport und Erotik”). Massary’s turn to the practicalities of women’s fashion was a response to misguided theorizations by male critics. Massary suggests that, instead of nebulous market forces, women’s criticism of one another kept the fashion cycle moving. The gendered identity and practice of the Modern Girl was paramount to understanding these developments. Accordingly, Massary wrote that “Men, even if they pretend to be informed and throw around fashion jargon, understand not a hoot” about the phenomenon.50 In a 1930 UHU column, the journalist Stephanie Kaul expressed a similar point. Fashion makers, she observed, responded to “turning points in the attitude” of women (“Wendepunkt der Gesinnung” 36). In the critical moment of fashion’s development, female consumers retained control—which, according to Benjamin, had a historical significance. A late-1920s timeline of ever-elongating dresses illustrates Kaul’s article. Both she and Massary constructed timeless ideals of femininity towards which fashion would always tend. Their determination to regain women’s agency in self-fashioning provides a counterbalance to the swaths of male critics who were content to take this agency away.

Gabriele Tergit and Vicki Baum showed that it was possible to view the phenomenology of the Modern Girl as fundamentally connected to her emancipation without facilely reifying her image. Both authors, towards the Republic’s end, gauged the accomplishments of the women’s movement by comparing their own situations with the lives of their mothers. Baum pitied the typical mother of an earlier generation more genuinely than she pitied the Ypsis of today: “Poor mothers of 1890!” she writes in UHU in 1929, “Your world was as cramped as a rabbit hutch.”51 Whereas the image and character of the previous generation’s ideals were characterized by a certain Ungleichzeitigkeit (asynchrony)—a picture of Baum’s eighteen-year-old mother shows the “look of a forty year old woman and the rationality and life experience of an eight year old girl”—today’s Modern Girls had gained authenticity and poise even if they were not entirely liberated.52 A look at the open avenues available to the “Mothers of Tomorrow,” as the article title translates in English, gives Baum hope that this development might continue. Four years later, in 1933, Tergit had no optimism left. Authentic progress was on the verge of annihilation. “Our mothers,” she wrote in “Die Frauen Tribüne,” “were rich citizens, even if they did not think so, and they were married and remained unhappy romanticists their whole lives.” In contrast, when young men went off to World War I, Modern Girls “worked and became Someone. Became doctors and jurists and journalists and ministry officials […]. Wherever we emerged, short-skirted, short-haired, and thin-legged, men of the older generation flinched and asked: ‘What creatures are these?’ We responded: ‘Die neue Frau’”. Whereas the crises of World War I catalyzed legitimate forms of progress, the future seems bleak in January 1933. Published on the eve of the Nazi dictatorship, Tergit’s recapitulation ends on a defeatist note: “That was all yesterday.”53

Before hopes in the Modern Girl were banished by the urgencies of 1933, Heinrich Mann, prolific novelist and public intellectual of Wilhelmine Germany and the Republic, wrote two related essays on the neue Frau that differ from most other male engagements with this figure. “Der Bubikopf” (“The Bubikopf”) and “Sie reichen sich die Hände” (“They Are Joining Hands”) were written in 1926/27 and chronicled both young women’s physical leisure and the look that went with their novel pastimes. The Modern Girl, he claimed, heralds a new camaraderie between genders that was based on physicality, and which would define Weimar modernity as much as, if not more than, its intellectual cultures. Both essays were part of Mann’s almost weekly contributions to periodicals; furthermore, they were printed in outlets aimed at female readers: “Der Bubikopf” came out in a supplement of the FZ called “For the Woman” (“Für die Frau”), “Sie reichen sich die Hände” appeared in UHU in January 1927, and both texts were reprinted at least a dozen times in other newspapers. The former included a photograph of the Swiss artist Chichio Haller sporting the hairstyle; the latter—in an illustration by Fritz Eichenberg—depicted athletic young men and women joining hands and surpassing older generations in athletic feats (like running or high-jump). In another image signifying a transition from intellectual to physical culture, a muscular boxer shoves away a professorial type, grabbing his laurel wreath and assuming his throne, which is labeled “Education." The nastiness of the illustration clashes somewhat with Mann’s attitude. His essays are two of just a few Weimar texts where the Modern Girl meets the Modern Boy—and does so on equal terms, observed by a well-meaning, if melancholic, public intellectual. The lens through which Mann focuses on this relationship is the Modern Girl’s image and the pressures and pleasures that shaped it. His attitude sways between hopefulness and defeatism.

In “Der Bubikopf,” Mann approaches the contradictory image of the neue Frau from the top down – that is, from her hairstyle, or her Frisur. With an enthused tone reminiscent of advertising, he observes that in the bubikopf, “there exists something wherein every women thinks like the worker and every woman thinks like the lady.”54 The Modern Girl has a progressive image, but one that always implicates her in two of modernity’s more regressive mindsets: The ideology of capitalist production and a bourgeois mentality. At the same time, the new physicality of the Modern Girl bridges gender and class divides. In “Sie reichen sich die Hände,” Mann asserts that being in shape “achieves better relationships between genders, yes, even between classes.”55 In observing a dancing competition, the author goes even further, stating in both essays that “A true couple of dancers embodies, far from social chasms, the most exact interplay and the most complete accordance that both genders could ever realize.”56 In a swirling heterosexual couple, the synchronicity in dance that Kracauer had identified in the Jackson Girls as the alluring image of community, appears to find an authentic realization.

This harmony in physicality between the sexes, as we learn in “Der Bubikopf,” is a significant influence on modernity as it determines many aspects of Weimar Modern Girlhood. “The religion of dance” (“die Religion des Tanzes") (48) has come from World War I, Mann notes in this essay, which he reports from a dancing competition. Young men, according to Mann, weaned off sitting, need a new reason to stay on their feet, and find it in the dancehalls of European metropoles (48). Unobstructed by a “superfluous adornment of hair,” he observes, the modern couples find a new, modern relationship between the sexes—one that, because it happens on the physical level, is free of the “hypocrisy” of the “mental-emotional modes.”57 This argument is put in highly ambivalent tones, as the dancing couple finds a way to represent larger modernity: Outside, “the public and fellow men move with them” because “their most human expression is the dance”—yet the couple winning the competition is described in mechanical terminology: They set their feet in an “exact” manner, they spin with “unanimity” and “as if the same electricity ran through them.”58 If the sexes find companionship, it is because they find each other enduring the same daily existence. “One works,” Mann recapitulates in “Sie reichen sich die Hände,” “in the same factories and offices, has the same technical-motoric interests, leaves the theaters empty and does not read much.”59 For Mann, a commentator already in middle age, this crisis of consciousness has become a perpetual state. “Are they happy?” (“Sind sie glücklich?"), he asks with a glance to the youth, and concludes: “Even the greatest pessimist, who sees these bodies so happily at play, has to admit that while corporeal life on earth is sad, the life of minds is tragic.”60 Mindless physical activity and self-fashioning, which young workers undertake with fervor, lose their critical momentum when they function only as escapism in an otherwise alienating modernity. The innovations and instabilities of the Weimar Modern Girl had retained a critical momentum which is, for Mann, dangerously close to ossifying into a retrograde domesticity.


In the figure of the Weimar Modern Girl, contemporary critics observed a confluence of sociohistorical tendencies spelling out an uncertain course into the near future. There was the undeniable truth that modern women could live with more autonomy than previous generations, especially in the liminal years after adulthood and before marriage. Yet the fascination with the palpably different image of women in this age group stemmed from the fact that the same modernity engendering a cautious liberation had brought with it new power dynamics, new modes of exploitation, and new developments of false consciousness. Male cultural critics saw the Modern Girl as particularly susceptible to the rationalized, mechanized appeal of the mass Girlkultur aesthetic, in which she was both performer and consumer, yet did not take control of cultural production. Nevertheless, her central position within the mass cultural dialectic, a critic like Siegfried Kracauer would realize, also gave the Modern Girl in Weimar a privileged position to recognize and reverse the prevailing power dynamics. Female journalists reported and commented on workings of commodity culture that seemed to disproportionately pressure women but also emphasized that, despite facing a media landscape rife with deception and objectification, women had gained agency and could use modern body imagery and fashion as a subversive influence among the new visual sensations that accompanied urban life in the 1920s.

Contemporary attitudes to the Weimar Modern Girl further demonstrate that we must imagine the Republic and its crises as fundamentally variable, at least in the 1920s. My sample of critics, of course, is a rather progressive one. I have ignored a plethora of reactionary, chauvinist, and right-wing voices that demonized the Modern Girl both for her modernity and her womanhood. It speaks for itself that almost all of the writers I have quoted—Benjamin, Kracauer, Mann, Roth, Polgar, Massary, Baum, Tergit, and Huelsenbeck—had to emigrate, hastily, after the Nazis’ rise to power. The only writer in this present study who conformed himself to Nazi ideology was Fritz Giese, who died in 1935. In 1925, ten years earlier, he had also imagined himself to live in a “time that is about to be superseded by an epoch of enormous structural change”— not daring to specify, and never knowing, how this change would manifest itself.61 In Nazi Germany, ideals of German femininity and girlhood were dictated from the top down. Seemingly stable characteristics came to define women’s everyday lives from 1933 to 1945, under the slogan “Kinder, Küche, Kirche.” What was lost, not only as a matter of historical development but also in scholarly analysis of the period, was the potential for significant and emancipatory historical change which the figure of the Modern Girl had personified in the Weimar Republic.


1. In Anglo-American scholarship, Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) is possibly most well-known for his analyses of photography and cinema, such as in his monograph From Caligari to Hitler (1947). Arguably, Kracauer’s more important contribution to the chronicling of the Weimar era, and later scholarship of mass culture and German society, were his myriad articles, columns, and reviews. In essays such as “The Mass Ornament” (1927) or “The Cult of Distraction” (1926), he seemed to foreshadow not only the advent of totalitarianism and its aesthetics but also later approaches to mass culture by the Frankfurt School and Walter Benjamin, with whom he correspondended.

2. All translations in this essay are by the author, unless noted in the bibliography.

3. Understanding Weimar—or indeed longer periods of history—in terms of crisis is a tradition in German scholarship. The sources quoted here, which challenge the conventional understanding of crisis, are untranslated. Two important studies available in English are Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis (MIT Press, 1988) and Detlev Peukert’s The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity (Penguin, 1993). Koselleck, writing in 1954, imagined European history since 1789 to have perpetuated the liminal state of crisis (2). In this study of political discourse from the Enlightenment until the 1950s, he locates the perception of crisis as a motif of European philosophy of history. For Koselleck, crisis means that a decision is imminent, but has not occurred yet: the solution is unknown but radical change appears inevitable (105). The Weimar Republic could be understood as an extreme manifestation of this historical mode. Peukert’s 1987 study examines conflicting impulses of social, economic, and cultural modernization playing out almost paradigmatically in the Weimar Republic and positions these dynamics as constitutive forces of the epoch.

4. Further reading on the Weimar Republic’s history and crisis: see Weitz; Peukert; Hung, et al.; McElligott.

5. N.p.:“Die Weimarer Zeit war auch eine Epoche vielfältiger Potentiale, verheißungsvoller Aufbrüche und großer Leistungen […] Und bis zum Schluss gab es immer auch Situationen, in denen ein anderer Weg hätte eingeschlagen werden können.”

6. 14: “[Damit gerät aus dem Blick, dass die Krise nicht nur pessimistisch] die Bedrohung des Alten, sondern eben auch die optimistisch die Chance zur Erneuerung [bedeuten kann].” In many cultures of modernity and modernism, the enthusiastic embrace of the threat to the old was a central aspect to the narratives of newness and renewal.

7. Follmer et al. 38: “[Doch insgesamt sticht ins Auge, dass die 'Krise’ meist] nicht als Niedergangsszenario sondern als offene Entscheidungssituation [verstanden wurde].”

8. See Boak; Bock; Ankum; Poiger; Sharp; Sutton. For an early collection interrogating the ideologies of the Weimar New Woman, see Bridenthal et al. For later studies on the emancipatory qualities of Modern Girl imagery, see Ganeva; Graf. Compare to Huelsenbeck in “Bejahung der modernen Frau” (“Saying Yes to the Modern Woman”): “In earlier times there may have been good and evil, old and young women – but there was never a ‘modern’ woman […]. There was no type of woman that was taken to be a particular creation of the times” (18). Orig.: “In früherer Zeit mag es gute und böse, alte und junge Frauen gegeben haben – es gab aber keine 'moderne Frau' […]. Es gab keinen Frauentypus, den man als eine besondere Schöpfung der Zeit empfand.”

9. 21. To modify this point: Exclusively male-gendered modern types like the dandy or flâneur did exist in contemporary discourse.

10. “Wilhelmine” denotes the period in German history under the reign of King Wilhelm II (1890-1918), which is characterized (perhaps too generally) by militarism, the imperialistic efforts of the German government, social conservativism, and strong, patriarchal hierarchies.

11. As mentioned above, translating the terminology of the Modern Girl between German and English can be confusing, especially with the cast of critics involved in this article. “Neue Frau” means “Modern Girl” but translates as “New Woman.” In contemporary writing, “Mädchen” (“girl”) was often a term of choice for unmarried, adolescent, or young adult women. Many German writers did use the English word “Girl(s)” when referring to exceptionally modern women, usually when discussing mass cultural performances. To alleviate some of the confusion in the following translations, I will use a lower-case “girl” when “Mädchen” appears in the original and an upper-case “Girl” when the English word is in the original.

12. Berghaus’s article “Girlkultur” (1988), drawing on work by Renate Bridenthal, summarizes statistics from the 1920s showing that women were generally underpaid. For a contemporary account, see Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses (1931), where he undercuts the progressive image of the female worker with descriptions of unhealthy working conditions and drab routines.

13. Boak reports that women’s participation numbers in gymnastics and sports associations rose throughout the 1920s (260).

14. “Enough!” 659. The actual interplay between Weimar women and American fashion, entertainment and consumer culture, as well as the attitudes towards this perceived unilateral influence on the Weimar and its Modern Girls, could serve as the subject for another article.

15. Theodor W. Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) is the most cohesive document of the Frankfurt School. Most of the Frankfurt School philosophers were pushed into American exile by the Nazis and continued to publish on social theory, aesthetics, and power in the post-WWII period. In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer investigate a central paradox of European history: How the establishment of Enlightenment principles (especially rationalist tenets and scientific methods) not only failed to prevent but actually laid the groundwork for 20th century German society to regress into totalitarianism, barbarism, and genocide. Perhaps surprisingly, their focus is on culture, especially modernity’s “culture industry,” an unending stream of mass-produced and -disseminated products (film, radio, print), which they understood as stifling authentic creativity and revolutionary consciousness in their audiences. As these forms of mass culture flourished, at least in Germany, in the Weimar Republic, left-leaning cultural critics of the era voiced similar concerns in reporting on variety shows, cinemas, sporting events, and mass spectacles. These uncollected writings, some of which I present here, prefigure aspects of Adorno/Horkheimer’s account. Some have become subjects of scholarly interest only recently (see, for instance, Hansen), while others remain unread.

16. Mass print, as Boak argues, was truly and practically a mass medium of modernity, as newspapers and magazines were available even in provincial towns and villages, which, at the same time, lacked cinemas, vaudevilles, and music halls (258). Despite her wide dissemination through print products, however, the neue Frau was essentially an urban type.

17. Mülder-Bach’s study centers on Kracauer as the main producer, but alongside him, even if not as regularly, theoreticians like Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Bloch also published commentary on the marginalia of modern life.

18. Fritz Giese (1890-1935) was a psychologist and therapist who wrote extensively on the impact of modernity’s life practices (such as gymnastics, sports, labor, and traffic) on the human psyche. Alfred Polgar (1873-1955) was a Jewish Austrian author, critic, and columnist working chiefly in Vienna, and, between 1933-1949, in exile. His aphorisms and essays were praised by contemporaries, and he left behind a large oeuvre of reviews, vignettes, and screenplays. Richard Huelsenbeck (1892-1974) was a German writer and physician most well-known for his participation in early Dadaism, first in Zurich, then in Berlin. In the 1930s, he was forced to emigrate by the Nazis and became a psychoanalyst in New York. Joseph Roth (1894-1939), Austrian author and journalist, was, like Polgar, part of the Viennese writing scene. He published fiction and essays, chiefly in newspapers like the Frankfurter Zeitung, and is now recognized as one of the most important writers of the interwar period in German literature. Fritzi Massary (1882-1969) was an Austrian-American opera singer who provided frequent social commentary in the German illustrated press and quality magazines. In 1932, she had to stop performing in Germany as Nazi groups interrupted and sabotaged her concerts due to Massary’s Jewish heritage. She emigrated to the United States in 1939 and died there without having worked on stage again. Vicki Baum (1888-1969), Jewish Austrian author, was one of the most-read writers in the Weimar Republic and published a wealth of novels and novellas. She, too, emigrated to the US in 1932. Gabriele Tergit (1894-1982) was a German writer and journalist, known during her life for her court reporting. Due to her Jewish heritage and opposition to Nazi ideology, police and SA harassed Tergit with constant raids after 1933. She was pushed her into exile, where she spent the next twelve years. After WWII, she lived and published in London. Scholars rediscovered her writings in the late 1970s onwards and now recognize them as integral fictionalizations of Weimar city life.

19. Weitz 313.These dance troupes, headed by male impresarios such as John Tiller, consisted of highly trained, similar-looking female performers, clad in identical costumes, who performed precision dances for large audiences. Their numbers ranged from two dozen girls on a variety stage to hundreds in stadium performances. The troupes were first assembled in the early 1900s and quickly gained popularity in Europe, performing in mass venues until the late 1920s. For more information on modern dance troupes, see Reilly; Fleig.

20. Berghaus writes that the Tiller Girls first appeared in Berlin in 1896 and were a staple of revue shows in the 1920s (201), so it is intriguing that they became a subject of criticism towards the end of their heyday.

21. Some of this overlap is explained by connections between texts and writers. Huelsenbeck’s “Girlkultur” was a critical review of Giese’s book, for instance, and Roth wrote for the feuilleton that Kracauer edited.

22. 247: “Girl neben Girl gestellt […] macht noch lange keine ‘Girls’, das macht erst die vollzogene Addition, die Verschmelzung der Einzelwesen zum Kollektivum”

23. German subtitle: “Vergleiche zwischen amerikanischem und europäischem Rhythmus und Lebensgefühl” “Lebensgefühl” could also be translated as “awareness of life.”

24. “Bewegungsmaschinen” (15); “Amerikanisierung des deutschen Geschmacks” (139); “Randphänomen” (7).

25. 392: “Ihre Spiele sind Kompositionen aus Militarismus und Erotik.”

26. 393: “dient nicht der Lust, sondern der Anatomie” and “im Dienste der Hygiene, nicht der Erotik.”

27. 394: “eine Quantitätssinnlichkeit, die das Individuum gar nicht berührt.”

28. 392: “Unsittlich sind nur die Besucher, die mit lüsternen Vorstellungen zu den Girl-Attraktionen wandern.”

29. “Warum eigentlich Frauen ins Revuetheater gehen[, verstehe ich nicht]” (249) and “Das Weibliche erscheint da gereinigt vom Menschlichen, ‘raffiniert’ im chemischen Sinne des Wortes” (248).

30. 249: “Sendeapparat, der erregende Wellen in den Zuschauerraum schickt.”

31. 394: “brave, sittliche Hausfrau, die den Morgenkaffee mit gymnastischen Übungen zubereitet, Kinder hygienisch gebiert und zu Soldaten erzieht.”

32. 3: “Das Girl, die Frau sind ideale Massenkonsumenten” and “[der durch Reklame] jederzeit zu hypnotisierende [Mensch].”

33. Huelsenbeck 3: “Sie sind der vollendete Ausdruck einer kollektiven Menschheit, die nach bestimmten Zeichen und Befehlen die Glieder zu heben hat.”

34. It is tempting to attribute the development of Kracauer’s attitudes towards women to the sociological groundwork completed for his study The Salaried Masses.

35. Kracauer 45. Kracauer’s assertion could serve as a raison d’être for feuilleton writers. The feuilleton, in the early 20th century, was the cultural section of most daily Central European newspapers, separated by a thick, printed line from political reporting. “Under the line,” critics and journalists playfully or seriously reflected upon many facets of the present moment. Most Girlkultur essays appear in this section of the newspapers.

36. 202: “entsprechen dem Ideal der Maschine,” “ein fleischgewordenes Gleichnis,” and “Das Funktionieren einer blühenden Wirtschaft.”

37. 204: “Man glaubt ihnen nicht mehr, den rosigen Jackson-Girls!” and “hat auch diese Mädchenmaschinierien stillschweigend liquidiert.”

38. 346: “[Die Reform des Bewußtseins besteht nur darin, daß man die Welt ihr Bewußtsein innewerden läßt,] daß man sie aus dem Traum über sich selbst aufweckt.”

39. Kracauer, “Girls” 203-4, emphasis in original: “die Glücksträume, die sie erwecken sollen, sind schon seit Jahren als törichte Illusionen entlarvt”

40. 238: “Sie sind hübsch […] und werden am Schluß von ihrem Chef oder einem reichen Amerikaner geheiratet. Ein happy end […]. Und wäre selbst die letzte Bank verkracht, so bliebe vermutlich den imaginären Bankdirektoren im Film immer noch die Doppelaufgabe vorbehalten, diese Mädchen an sich und das System zu fesseln.”

41. In a representative passage of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer write that “to be entertained [by mass cultural products] means to be in agreement” with the prevailing social order (115). The pleasure provided by such films, as Kracauer explains them, even when utopian in intent, confirms the realities of exploitation underlying the systems of labor and leisure. Through the valorization of an audience reception measured in terms of pleasure, and by suppressing forms of negative or critical consumption, the culture industry reinforces dynamics of domination in society: “Entertainment […] is indeed escape, but not, as it claims, escape from bad reality but from the last thought of resisting that reality” (116).

42. “Mädchen” 238: “Allerdings ist die Spannung zwischen den in den Filmen erzeugten Illusionen und der Wirklichkeit nachgerade so groß geworden, daß die Mehrzahl der weiblichen Angestellten sich nicht mehr so leicht verzaubern läßt.”

43. 238: “Ich kenne genug berufstätige Mädchen, die sich über den Schwindel auf der Leinwand abfällig äußern.”

44. 32: “Nackte Beine als Massenerscheinung sind ungemein peinlich. Lächeln als Massenerscheinung ist schamerregend, weil unverhüllte Prostitution; fünfzehn Frauen zu fünfhundert Männern mildert die Sache allerdings.”

45. 97: “Papst, Erzbischöfe, Parlamente, Behörden, Zeitungen […]” “Anscheinend hat man nicht genügend den Zusammenhang, die symbolische Verkörperung und Veranschaulichung der Weltkrisis durch eben diese Kleidung beachtet. […] noch niemals seit tausend Jahren ist die Frauenkleidung eine gesundheitlich so einwandfreie, eine so vernünftige gewesen.”

46. 98: “Verkörperung von […] krassester, schonungslosester Umwälzung.”

47. 166: “Es ist modern, originell zu sein. Folglich sind alle modernen Frauen originell. Folglich, und da alle zugleich originell sind, ist es keine einzige von ihnen.”

48. 167: “Arme Ypsi! Arme Märtyrerin des Heute, die immer dem gestern davonrennt und nie das Morgen einholen kann.”

49. 166: “Ein einziges Mittel gäbe es, um wirklich originell zu sein: wenn Ypsi ihr Haar lang wachsen ließe aschblond und etwas dürftig [… Aber gerade dazu fehlt ihr der] Mut, die Seelengröße, der heroische Zug.”

50. 2: “Die Männer, auch wenn sie fachkundig tun und mit Schneider-Ausdrücken um sich werfen, verstehen ja doch einen Schmarrn.”

51. “Die Mütter” 52: “Arme Mütter von 1890! Eure Welt war so eng wie ein Kaninchenstall.”

52. “Die Mütter” 48: “Sie hat das Aussehen einer vierzigjährigen Frau und den Verstand und die Lebenskenntnis eines neunjährigen Mädchens von heute.”

53. All quotations are from Tergit: “Unsere Mütter waren reiche Bürgerinnen, auch wenn es ihnen nicht so vorkam, und sie wurden verheiratet und blieben unglückliche Romantikerinnen ihr Leben lang […]. [Wir] arbeiteten und wurden Jemand. Wir wurden Aerztinnen und Juristinnen und Journalistinnen und Ministerialbeamtinnen […]. Wo wir aber auftauchten, kurzröckig, kurzhaarig und schlankbeinig, fuhren die Männer der älteren Generation zusammen und fragten: ‘Was sind das für Geschöpfe?’ Wir antworteten: ‘Die neue Frau’” and “Das war alles gestern.”

54. 47: “Es gibt etwas, worin jede wie die Arbeiterin und jede wie die Dame denkt.”

55. 49: “das bewirkt bessere Beziehungen der Geschlechter, ja, sogar der Klassen.”

56. 48: “Ein richtiges Tanzpaar verkörpert jenseits sozialer Abstände das genaueste Zusammenspiel und die vollkommenste Uebereinstimmung, die beide Geschlechter jemals verwirklichen können.”

57. “Der Bubikopf” 48-49: “kein überflüssiger Haarschmuck” and “Bei geistig-seelischen Moden ist immer viel Heuchelei.” 

58. “Der Bubikopf” 48: “Oeffentlichkeit und Mitwelt schwingen draußen mit, denn […] sein allgemein menschlichster Ausdruck ist der Tanz,” “haargenau” (a pun, literally “hair-exact”), Einmütigkeit,“ and “als liefe durch sie derselbe Strom.”

59. “Der Bubikopf” 51: “Man arbeitet in denselben Fabriken und Büros, hat dieselben technisch-motorischen Interessen, läßt gemeinsam die Theater leerstehen und liest nicht viel.”

60. “Der Bubikopf” 62: “Der größte Pessimist, der diese Körper so munter spielen sieht, muß zugeben, das Leben der Leiber auf Erden sei höchstens traurig, indes das Leben der Geister tragisch ist.”

61. 8: “Zeit, die im Begriffe steht, durch eine Epoche unerhörter Strukturveränderungen abgelöst zu werden.”

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