6. Cabaret wasn’t all fun and decadence – as the shockingly dark, satirical Ballad of the Dead Soldier showed
The people of the Weimar Republic liked to have a good time. Indeed, for many people, the decadent parties, drugs and sex served as a way of not thinking about the darker side of life, and in particular about the horrors of the First World War. But that doesn’t mean that all entertainment was completely frivolous. There was a deeper side to cabaret, with performers mixing silliness and eroticism with darker messages about German society and politics.
In 1920s Berlin, no subject was off-limits. Both on the stage and in the audience of the biggest dance and cabaret halls, politicians were routinely criticized and ridiculed. When Adolf Hitler emerged onto the political scene, he was routinely mocked. But he wasn’t the only one. The left-wing political titan Friedrich Ebert was also subjected to widespread ridicule, though mostly for his weight than for his beliefs and policies. By the mid-1920s, most of the comedians performing on Berlin’s stages included at least some satire or political observations in their material, it wasn’t all about having a good time!
Most famously of all, Bertolt Brecht, arguably Germany’s most celebrated man of letters of the time, scandalized Berlin society by reminding the city’s partygoers of the grimness of recent history. In January of 1922, Brecht performed his Ballad of the Dead Soldier in a popular nightspot. It was a tale set in the First World War. In it, the German Army, running low on manpower, decides to dig up the body of a dead soldier. They load the deceased young man’s body with schnapps and cover it with incense to mask the smell and then send him back to the front to fight and die all over again. In a city that tolerated drugs and even child prostitution, this was an outrage too far. Brecht would only perform the work for six nights before ditching it completely.