Monday, June 9, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Three

Decline, Decadence, and Weimar Germany

One hundred years ago this month, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the good duchess, thus plunging Europe into a war from which it has never recovered. The war was probably inevitable. The nations of Europe had been preparing for it for years. Some were in fact spoiling for war. I say nations, but most were actually more than nations. They were empires, and at least seven--the British, French, Italian, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman--became belligerents. You might as well throw in the Belgians as well. Two emperors claimed the title Caesar. They were the tsar of Russia and the German kaiser. Both were deposed as a result of the war. Four empires were destroyed and one--the Russian--was reduced, only to expand again a generation later. It may have been that every one of those empires was attempting to become the great Roman Empire of classical history. That ambition would also have made war inevitable, for a continent the size of Europe can hardly contain seven or more empires. The point of all this is you can look at the last 1,500 years of European history as simply the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire in which the last century or so has been marked by increasing decadence. We may today be in a final decadent age. If weird fiction is about the past and about decadence, then it's no wonder that it would be the first genre of fantasy to have its own magazine, nor that supernatural monsters--that is, monsters from the past--would stalk through most of the twentieth century.

Weimar Germany (1919-1933) is held up (or down) as the epitome of a decadent civilization. The origins of German decadence probably lie deep in the past, but even before the end of the war, a German historian and philosopher, Oswald Spengler, set the tone for the Weimar Republic in his book Decline of the West. Published in the summer of 1918, Decline of the West proved popular in its author's home country. Spengler revised it in 1922 and authored a second volume published in 1923. I'm not a philosopher and won't go into Spengler's ideas very deeply. I have never read him, only about him. I simply offer his work as evidence that a spirit of decadence hung over Europe, especially Germany, after World War I.

Oswald Spengler was influenced by Nietzsche. Apparently like Nietzsche, he saw his own time as a kind of end time. He also apparently foresaw the rise of an Übermensch--he called the process Caesarism--in the twilight time of decline. Like Nietzsche, Spengler accurately predicted much of what we see among us today. In any case, a process of decay evidently wasn't enough for the German people, for less than a generation after one war ended, they chose a second war of self-destruction, a Götterdämmerung from out of their own folkloric past. It's worth noting that the German title of Spengler's book--Der Untergang des Abendlandes--refers to the West as the direction in which the sun goes down, in other words, the land of the evening or of twilight. Götterdämmerung is of course a German expression for the twilight of the gods.

The world's first fantasy magazine was also a product of post-war Germany. Called Der Orchideengarten: Phantastische Blätter (The Orchids-Garden: Fantastic Pages), it went into print in January 1919, the same month in which the Weimar Republic was founded and only two months after the armistice. Der Orchideengarten ran for fifty-one issues, from January 1919 to November 1921. Its editors were Karl Hans Strobl (1877-1946) and Alfons von Czibulka (1888-1969). Despite the supposed decadence of the time, fantasy and weird fiction were not highly esteemed in Germany (if I understand my correspondent Lars Dangel correctly). In addition, Strobl and Czibulka were later associated with the Nazis. They and their work very likely fell out of favor after World War II. That left things to Weird Tales, the first American magazine of fantasy and weird fiction and the preeminent magazine of its kind in the world. First in print in March 1923, Weird Tales lasted until September 1954 in its first incarnation. Like the undead, it has returned again and again and is still being published today. I think it safe to say that both magazines came about in one way or another because of World War I, the spirit of decadence in the postwar period, and a kind of looking backward that characterized the early twentieth century.

Weimar Germany is also known for its cinema, which, according to Wikipedia, "focused heavily on crime and horror," in other words, the subjects of fantasy and weird fiction. Among the movies of that period:
  • Algol, Tragödie der Macht (Algol: Tragedy of Power, 1920)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
  • Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World, 1920)
  • Der Januskopf (1920)
  • Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, 1922)
  • Metropolis (1927)
  • M (1931)
All feature monsters of one kind or another: the space alien and at least the concept of totalitarianism in Algol; the man-made monster in Dr. Caligari and Der Golem; the degenerate human or psychopath in Der Januskopf (a retelling of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story); the vampire in Nosferatu; the machine-monster and another treatment of totalitarianism in Metropolis; and the psychopathic killer in M. (1, 2) American moviemakers were paying attention to developments in German cinema of the 1920s. They--as well as a passel of European immigrants to the United States--would dominate the next decade of horror movies.

The interwar period was of course characterized by the rise of totalitarians. Lenin came to power in 1917 and was succeeded by Stalin in the 1920s. In China, a young Mao was watching and began his conversion to Marxist-Leninism in 1919. The Nazi party came into existence in 1920 (in part on a foundation laid by occultists with beliefs drawn from Ignatius Donnelly and Madame Blavatsky). Thirteen years later, its leader, Adolf Hitler, put the Weimar Republic in its grave. In the meantime, Benito Mussolini rose to the premiership in Italy in 1922. The word totalitarian itself is either Italian or German in origin and seems to have come out of the 1920s.

The 1920s were a decade for the other real-life monster as well. The movie M, starring Peter Lorre as a serial killer, would have been a familiar story to the people of Weimar Germany, for their country had been plagued by psychopaths during the decade previous to its release. Karl Denke, a cannibal and a butcher of humans, died by suicide in 1924. Carl Großmann, "The Berlin Butcher," was also a cannibal and a suicide. Friedrich Haarmann,  known as "The Butcher of Hanover" and "The Vampire of Hanover," was guillotined in 1925. Peter Kürten, called "The Vampire of Düsseldorf" and "The Düsseldorf Monster," is supposed to have been the inspiration for Peter Lorre's character. He killed at least ten people before he, too, lost his head.

Oswald Spengler attached the idea of what he called Caesarism to a declining civilization, but is the serial killer also diagnostic of decadence? Both the totalitarian and the psychopathic killer are as old as time, but as we think of them today, they arose at the end of the nineteenth century, a period supposed to have been decadent. They also populated post-World War I Europe, again a time of decadence. So if our own time is decadent, then should we not have rampant totalitarian monsters and psychopathic killers? Maybe we do. But maybe they go by a different disguise.

To be continued . . .

(1) Algol, which sounds like a fascinating movie, is about the discovery underground of a space alien that has access to a source of unlimited power. That sounds an awful lot like Bulwer-Lytton's Vril-Ya, about which I wrote recently.
(2) The robot in Metropolis is considered the first of its kind in film. The word robot had entered the lexicon of fantasy earlier that decade through the play R.U.R. (Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti or Rossum's Universal Robots, 1920) by Czech writer Karel Čapek.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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