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Felix Gilbert on the Legacies of the Revolution (Retrospective Account, 1988)

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The Social Democrats, as I have indicated, had been a decisive factor in maintaining order and stability against extremism. But if the right refused to recognize that the revolution had taken place, those who accepted and approved the revolution—and I was certainly among them—felt that the revolutionary chapter was not yet closed. In many respects life went on as it had before the revolution. Class distinctions remained very noticeable, people continued to be carefully addressed with rank and titles, defeat had not extinguished the prestige of the military class, and there was a great display of wealth nourished by war profiteering and the onsetting inflation. Certainly the change of the regime had brought improvement in the situation of the working class: trade unions were legitimized and began to exert power and the grounds were laid for the development of a welfare state. However, Germany was not an egalitarian society and was still far removed from the realization of that perfect society at which the revolution had aimed.

Discontent, and a certain revolutionary ferment, remained alive among the younger generation and found an outlet in literature, art, and the theater. We liked to read books and writers who had not yet been accepted into the official canon. I read Nietzsche at this time, and was more interested in his Genealogy of Morals because of its attack on bourgeois values than in his Zarathustra. Like many of my contemporaries, I read Freud, particularly his Interpretation of Dreams which seems to me worth mentioning because in England and the United States Freud’s influence began to spread only much later. It was also at this time that I read Dostoievsky, in whom we thought we found something of Russia’s revolutionary atmosphere; for me The Idiot was his most impressive work. However, reading it gave me the most terrifying dreams, and still does whenever I take it up again.

Under the empire modern art and literature had not been banned, but official disapproval was powerful enough to limit its impact to small groups of society. I remember the immense impression that the van Gogh exhibition of 1920 or 1921 made on me; it filled an entire building, the former Palace of the Crown Prince. The theater, likewise, was an exciting and revolutionary intellectual force in Berlin at the time.

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