October 10, 2013

This week in 1913: the “German Woodstock,” Walter Benjamin’s first public appearance, and Futurism becomes “the movement of the hour”


From now until the end of the year, we’ll be publishing weekly excerpts from 1913, which  The Observer called “An absolute gem of a book.”

 1913 was the year Henry Ford first put a conveyer belt in his car factory, and the year Louis Armstrong first picked up a trumpet. It was the year Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract, and Coco Chanel and Prada opened their first dress shops. It was the year Proust began his opus, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring, and the first Armory Show in New York introduced the world to Picasso and the world of abstract art. It was the year the recreational drug now known as ecstasy was invented.

OCT. 7-13:

Oct. 11-13: Between 11 and 13 October the legendary meeting of reformist and youth movement groups takes place on the 753-metre-high Meissner in the Kaufunger Wald. Ever since then, the mountain has been known as the “High Meissner.” The German Woodstock of the last generation to be born in the nineteenth century is an attempt to unite the Wandervogel hiking associations and the Free German youth groups in the open air. It’s a protest against the pompous statement of hyper-German patriotism going on at the same time in Leipzig, with the inauguration of the Leipzig Monument to the Battle of the Nations. Ludwig Klages tells the young people that the modern age poses a grave threat, endangering Germany’s forests and, by association, the very essence of the German life principle. These men are also the audience for the young student Walter Benjamin’s very first public appearance. As one of the speakers at the gathering, he explains that there can only be a truly free German youth once anti-Semitism and chauvinism are no longer in the picture. The conference’s closing statement, the “Meissner Formula,” states that “the free German youth bases its life around inner truthfulness.”

But once everyone comes back down from the mountain, returning to the valleys of the Fatherland, disillusionment quickly sets in. For Walter Benjamin too, who draws the following conclusion under the pseudonym “Ardor” in Fritz Pfemfert’s Berlin magazine Die Aktion: “Hikes, festive garb and folk dances are not the ultimate and—in the year 1913—not yet intellectual. This youth has not yet found its enemy, the born enemy it must hate.”

Date unknown: Just when Futurism is once again being proclaimed as the movement of the hour in Berlin, with Tommaso Marinetti speaking at the “First German Autumn Salon,” Dr. Alfred Döblin, the great doctor, great author and great friend of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Else Lasker-Schüler, publishes his “Letter to F. T. Marinetti.” It contains these delightful words: “You tend to your Futurism, I’ll tend to my Döblinism.” Döblin asks this of writers: don’t destroy, but rather get closer to life.