The term “modern” is replete with ambiguity. Its plurality of meanings betrays the complexity of society and cultural production in the Wilhelmine era. A new mass commercial culture emerged in which technological change and high levels of literacy led to an explosion of printed matter (Doc. 7). While some contemporary observers were struck by the unity of cultural life, this conceit ignored the burgeoning forces that challenged the character and values of the Kaiser (Doc. 1). Throughout the 1890s, especially around the turn of the century, a heterogeneous array of cultural critics, prophets, and reformers became dissatisfied with the stultifying atmosphere of officialdom (Docs. 2, 3, 14, 17, 18, 19).
In the visual arts, many painters broke with the hierarchies of academic art, which were embodied in the figure of Anton von Werner, to stage their own exhibits – or “secessions” – outside the traditional structures of state sponsorship and with an eye towards innovation in form and subject-matter (Docs. 3, 4, 5, 6). In literature as well, many young writers freed themselves from the conventions of past masters (Doc. 8). Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks used modern literary devices (such as radically changing perspectives), and his depiction of the modern bourgeoisie revealed the strains that economic and social change imposed on a merchant family in Lübeck (Doc. 9). In poetry, fascination with the city, impressions of daily life in constant flux, and the desire for stylistic innovation led artists in many directions. From August Stramm’s evocation of the physicality of the uttered word, to the lyrical aestheticism of Rainer Maria Rilke, German poetry flourished from the countryside to the battlefield (Docs. 10, 11, 12, 13). Die freie Volksbühne [The People’s Free Stage] fostered innovation in the theater but acted as a conduit of Socialist critique as well (Doc. 14). Oskar Panizza’s Das Liebeskonzil [The Council of Love], a scathing satire of the Catholic Church, was banned for most of the author's lifetime (Doc. 15). Satire, a weapon most successfully brandished in illustrated magazines like Simplicissimus, was an antidote to the Kaiser's pomposity.
Reform movements challenged Wilhelmine society. They embodied the aspirations of many who sought to change the sphere of everyday life – from clothing, lifestyles, and sexuality, to education, youth, the environment, architecture, interior design, and urban planning. The “Law against the Deformation of Villages and Regions with Exceptional Landscapes” represented the victory of environmental movements (Doc. 16). Paul Schultze-Naumburg, an artist and champion of environmentalism and naturalism, was also concerned with interior design and applied arts (Doc. 17). Karl Mann’s Kraft und Schönheit [Vigor and Beauty] stressed the health and moral benefits of nudism. Julius Langbehn, a failed academic, invoked Rembrandt as the spiritual father of a new Reformation, which would place art above politics, religion, and science (Doc. 19).
Social thinkers meanwhile sought purchase on many of these same "modern" developments. Ferdinand Tönnies’s distinction between Gesellschaft [society] and Gemeinschaft [community] and his investigations into the evolution and structure of modern societies still remains a point of departure for sociologists (Doc. 20). Likewise, Max Weber’s approach to understanding social processes, particularly the individual's relationship to religion and capitalism, is still central to modern sociology (Doc. 21). Georg Simmel’s meditations on the city evoked many of the same themes that informed artistic production at the time (Doc. 22).