Tucholsky, Kurt (1890–1935)

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TUCHOLSKY, KURT (1890–1935)


Weimar Republic satirist.

Kurt Tucholsky, the most famous satirist of the Weimar Republic, was born on 9 January 1890 into a well-off family belonging to Berlin's Jewish bourgeoisie; his father was a successful businessman. Tucholsky studied law in Berlin, earning a doctorate in 1915, but he never practiced that profession. Instead, he pursued his passion for writing, at which he was prolific from an early age. In 1912 he published Rheinsberg, a very successful novella about a young couple from Berlin on a romantic weekend fling. His major output, however, took the form of journalistic pieces, primarily for the Schaubühne, a left-liberal weekly of cultural and political affairs edited by Siegfried Jacobsohn (renamed the Weltbühne in 1918). Even before World War I, Tucholsky wrote so many pieces in various genres—ranging from political glosses to cabaret songs—that he adopted four pseudonyms in addition to his real name: Theobald Tiger, Peter Panther, Ignaz Wrobel, and Kaspar Hauser.

From 1915 to 1918, Tucholsky served in the army on the eastern front, where he ran a library for soldiers and edited a newspaper for the air corps. He was so successful at drumming up support for war bonds that he was awarded a medal for his efforts. But after the end of the war and the collapse of the monarchy, Tucholsky became one of the most outspoken voices on the German left. A member of the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) until its dissolution in 1922, when he joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Tucholsky was a passionate supporter of republican values. At the same time, he was harshly critical of the new republic's Social Democratic leaders, who called on the paramilitary, protofascist Free Corps to suppress leftist strikes and uprisings in 1919. When he in turn was attacked for not holding his fire until the new democratic regime had had time to be stabilized, Tucholsky replied with a programmatic essay, "We Negative Ones" (1919), in which he claimed that there was absolutely nothing laudable about Germany's revolution, its bourgeoisie, its officer corps, or its civil service. This attitude has led to persistent debates, continuing into the twenty-first century, about the wisdom of criticizing fragile democracies: although freedom of speech is an undeniable right, those who benefit most from it should employ it circumspectly—it is said—during times when the survival of republican government is at stake.

While he continued to write scathing political commentaries, Tucholsky adopted a lighter tone in the numerous chansons he penned for the lively cabaret scene of the Weimar era. One notable exception was his most famous song, "The Red Melody," a powerful indictment of General Erich Ludendorff by the ghosts of the millions who died in World War I. For a brief period at the end of the 1920s, Tucholsky was sympathetic to the German Communist Party, and from 1928 to 1931 he wrote pieces for its photojournal, the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung. That publication was especially noted for caustic photomontages by John Heartfield, who collaborated with Tucholsky on the book Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (1929), a bitterly sarcastic commentary on German politics and society.

One of Tucholsky's most popular satires was also one of his most controversial. From 1924 to 1926 he wrote a series of monologues by "Herr Wendriner," a fictitious Berlin businessman who was obsessed with finances, politically reactionary, culturally philistine—and Jewish. Tucholsky had a fraught relationship to Judaism: he officially abandoned the faith in 1914 and converted to Protestantism in 1918. Despite the undeniable humor of the Wendriner pieces, Tucholsky's critics (then and now) have claimed that at a time of mounting anti-Semitism, the monologues played into the hands of racist politicians. In 1966 the Jewish philosopher Gershom Scholem went so far as to call Tucholsky a Jewish anti-Semite. Defenders of the works assert that Wendriner's Jewishness plays an incidental role, and that Tucholsky was mainly lambasting Germany's conservative bourgeoisie in general; if anything, he was chiding those Jews who assimilated too deeply into German society.

Tucholsky was so dismayed at conditions in Germany that he gladly accepted the offer to be the Paris correspondent for the Weltbühne and for the liberal Vossische Zeitung in 1924. Aside from short visits, he never returned to Germany thereafter. For reasons of health, he moved to Sweden in 1929. After Hitler came to power in 1933, visits to Germany were impossible: Tucholsky's works were consigned to the flames in Joseph Goebbels's notorious book-burnings of 10 May 1933, and he was stripped of his citizenship three months later. Having stopped writing for publication in 1932, his health deteriorating, he committed suicide on 21 December 1935. Beginning in the 1960s, Tucholsky attracted much scholarly and public interest, both as a brilliant satirist of German society and as a highly problematic figure: his works raise persistent issues about the limits of critical engagement and about the nature of German-Jewish identity.

See alsoCabaret; Germany.


Hepp, Michael, ed. Kurt Tucholsky und das Judentum. Oldenburg, Germany, 1996.

Poor, Harold L. Kurt Tucholsky and the Ordeal of Germany, 1914–1935. New York, 1968.

Peter Jelavich