Mir hat das mein Instinkt immer gesagt: Märtyrer ohne Wirkung, das ist etwas Sinnloses. – Tucholsky
Eric Kastner said that Tucholsky was a “fat little berliner who wanted to stave off a catastrophe with a typewriter.” Although Karl Kraus’ name has penetrated beyond the Germano-sphere, so that even people who have never read him have read about him, Tucholsky hasn’t been as fortunate.
So here are a few things I like about Kurt Tucholsky.
- He was eminently modern. There was not a shred of false nostalgia in his makeup. In an essay in which he talked about a French essayists phrase that, in Europe, they waste people and spare things, and in America they waste things and spare people, Tucholsky writes about the peasant that spends hours trying to bang out some crookedness in a metal flange and says that it isn’t exactly the height of civilization that we can brag about this banging peasant against the American response – to throw the flange away and get a new one. The elevation of the banging peasant, he thought, smelled a bit too much of reaction.
- He told the truth about war – that it was murder, and that the people who wage war are murderers, as well as the people who order it. He was not a support our soldiers kind of anti-war person: he was for a militaristic pacifism.
- He was wholly for: contraception; abortion rights; gay rights; sexual enlightenment. He was wholly against: catholic obscurantism; the stupid idea of women as breeders; the bourgeois hypocrisies of the family.
- He was against the death penalty.
- He found the upper class laughable.
Since LI has been pondering the Met’s exhibit of what was weirdly enough call the school of lucidity (or was it lucidists?) on the little notes that were attached to the walls where the pictures were hung (and that the truly snobbish viewer – i.e. me – tries not to read, since the snobbish viewer trusts that no curator or curator’s assistant is going to help his eyes along, and that you can pick up the references in medias res), we’ve been thinking of how Tucholsky threw himself at the reactionary forces he could see and feel gathering in Weimar Germany.
Tucholsky died on Dec. 21, 1935. He died from an overdose of painkillers, a death that many called suicide. This site has an interview with Peter Böthig of the Tucholsky-Museum in Rheinsberg, published last year. Here’s a translation:
Herr Böthig, seventy years ago today, Kurt Tucholsky died at the age of 45. Was it suicide?
Peter Böthig: Even today, that is not 100 percent clear. The one thing we can agree on is that it was a desired death. He had briefly before changed his will, written farewell letters, and sent his political testament to Arnold Zweig. Whether on this particular evening he had it in mind to kill himself or whether there was in it a component of accident, that is something we cannot explicate at this point .
Q:Michael Hepp, his biographer, brings up the possibility that it could have been a suicide ‘by mistake’. He speaks of a pill automatism.
Böthig: That is an answer we can agree on. There was also speculation that it could have been a morder.
Q: A political murder?
Böthig: We have proof that the Gestapo knew where Tucholsky was staying. He had intensively sought to conceal that. He received and sent his letters with a counterfeit address in Switzerland. But they certainly knew. He stood high on the list of those that they wanted to liquidate.
Q: What was the most important element in Tucholsky’s choice of death? the existential, the physical or the political motive?
Böthig: You have to give the existential motive the priority. But he was also sick, and very much in pain. And also, his economic situation was becoming ever more impossible. His accounts were sealed, and he had no income. Tucholsky, also, consciously did not join exile circles, didn’t publish. One shouldn’t undervalue political despair. The years between 1933 and 1935 were triumphant years for the Nazis. They had no opponent in Europe. Tucholsky saw very clearly that his epoch was over.
Q: What kind of person was this Tucholsky anyway?
Böthig: He had an artist’s nature. Highly sensible, highly gifted. At the same time he was a man who very much possessed a strong desire for social engagement. Who was really interested in people. He wanted to understand and be read. He wanted to have an effect.
Q: Where did he stand, politically?
Böthig: He belonged to the little group of intellectuals who believed in the possibility of a democracy and a republic – and that were willing to fight for it. With all their power, their minds, their spirit.
Q; Although the criticism is frequently made that Tucholsky ought to have done more to work with the Weimar Republic rather than criticize it.
Böthig: Yes, this argument keeps reappearing. However, it is an infamous inversion of the facts.
Q: The DDR had a hard time knowing what to do with Tucholsky. Why?
Böthig: Because he was a skeptic, who, of course, even critized the holy of holies, Marxism. He didn’t allow himself to become part of any party or group. He trusted his own powers of judgment. .
Q: He hasn’t been published in Israel for over 45 years.
Böthig: That has to do with his bitter and drastic complaints against the jews, to whom he threw the reproach from exile that they put up no resistance in 1933 through cowardice and opportunism, and that they didn’t leave en masse.
Q: What are the questions that drive Tucholsky research today?
Böthig: The question of his extremely complicated relationship to Judaism. Recently there was a conference on Tucholsky and the media. He was also a music critic, reviewing records, and he wrote about film. One tries to displace him from being the journalist of the Weimar time.
Q: What book would you recommend to Tucholsky beginners?
Böthig: A book I really like is the 1927 Pyrennes Book. It is a journey book in Heine’s tradition, a very beautiful essay about France and a very serious polemic against Catholicism, the cult of the saints and the belief in miracles. But also a wonderful read.
Q: What part of Tucholsky do you seriously miss in the present?
Böthig: I miss the concise satirist who was able to condense problems to such a dense point that they hurt. There is too little of this. Maybe Wiglaf Droste. But really, for this kind of literature we lack an informed culture.