If we study the course of our cultural life during the last twenty-five years we shall be astonished to note how far we have already gone in this process of retrogression.
Everywhere we find the presence of those germs which give rise to protuberant growths that must sooner or later bring about the ruin of our culture. Here we find undoubted symptoms of slow corruption; and woe to the nations that are no longer able to bring that morbid process to a halt.
In almost all the various fields of German art and culture those morbid phenomena may be observed. Here everything seems to have passed the culminating point of its excellence and to have entered the curve of a hasty decline. At the beginning of the century the theatres seemed already degenerating and ceasing to be cultural factors, except the Court theatres, which opposed this prostitution of the national art. With these exceptions, and also a few other decent institutions, the plays produced on the stage were of such a nature that the people would have benefited by not visiting them at all. A sad symptom of decline was manifested by the fact that in the case of many ‘art centres’ the sign was posted on the entrance doors: FOR ADULTS ONLY.
Let it be borne in mind that these precautions had to be taken in regard to institutions whose main purpose should have been to promote the education of the youth and not merely to provide amusement for sophisticated adults. What would the great dramatists of other times have said of such measures and, above all, of the conditions which made these measures necessary? How exasperated Schiller would have been, and how Goethe would have turned away in disgust!
But what are Schiller, Goethe and Shakespeare when confronted with the heroes of our modern German literature? Old and frowsy and outmoded and finished. For it was typical of this epoch that not only were its own products bad but that the authors of such products and their backers reviled everything that had really been great in the past. This is a phenomenon that is very characteristic of such epochs. The more vile and miserable are the men and products of an epoch, the more they will hate and denigrate the ideal achievements of former generations. What these people would like best would be completely to destroy every vestige of the past, in order to do away with that sole standard of comparison which prevents their own daubs from being looked upon as art. Therefore the more lamentable and wretched are the products of each new era, the more it will try to obliterate all the memorials of the past. But any real innovation that is for the benefit of mankind can always face comparison with the best of what has gone before; and frequently it happens that those monuments of the past guarantee the acceptance of those modern productions. There is no fear that modern productions of real worth will look pale and worthless beside the monuments of the past. What is contributed to the general treasury of human culture often fulfils a part that is necessary in order to keep the memory of old achievements alive, because this memory alone is the standard whereby our own works are properly appreciated. Only those who have nothing of value to give to the world will oppose everything that already exists and would have it destroyed at all costs.
And this holds good not only for new phenomena in the cultural domain but also in politics. The more inferior new revolutionary movements are, the more will they try to denigrate the old forms. Here again the desire to pawn off their shoddy products as great and original achievements leads them into a blind hatred against everything which belongs to the past and which is superior to their own work. As long as the historical memory of Frederick the Great, for instance, still lives, Frederic Ebert can arouse only a problematic admiration. The relation of the hero of Sans Souci to the former republican of Bremen may be compared to that of the sun to the moon; for the moon can shine only after the direct rays of the sun have left the earth. Thus we can readily understand why it is that all the new moons in human history have hated the fixed stars. In the field of politics, if Fate should happen temporarily to place the ruling power in the hands of those nonentities they are not only eager to defile and revile the past but at the same time they will use all means to evade criticism of their own acts. The Law for the Protection of the Republic, which the new German State enacted, may be taken as one example of this truth.
One has good grounds to be suspicious in regard to any new idea, or any doctrine or philosophy, any political or economical movement, which tries to deny everything that the past has produced or to present it as inferior and worthless. Any renovation which is really beneficial to human progress will always have to begin its constructive work at the level where the last stones of the structure have been laid. It need not blush to utilize those truths which have already been established; for all human culture, as well as man himself, is only the result of one long line of development, where each generation has contributed but one stone to the building of the whole structure. The meaning and purpose of revolutions cannot be to tear down the whole building but to take away what has not been well fitted into it or is unsuitable, and to rebuild the free space thus caused, after which the main construction of the building will be carried on.
Thus alone will it be possible to talk of human progress; for otherwise the world would never be free of chaos, since each generation would feel entitled to reject the past and to destroy all the work of the past, as the necessary preliminary to any new work of its own.
The saddest feature of the condition in which our whole civilization found itself before the War was the fact that it was not only barren of any creative force to produce its own works of art and civilization but that it hated, defiled and tried to efface the memory of the superior works produced in the past. About the end of the last century people were less interested in producing new significant works of their own–particularly in the fields of dramatic art and literature–than in defaming the best works of the past and in presenting them as inferior and antiquated. As if this period of disgraceful decadence had the slightest capacity to produce anything of superior quality! The efforts made to conceal the past from the eyes of the present afforded clear evidence of the fact that these apostles of the future acted from anevil intent. These symptoms should have made it clear to all that it was not a question of new, though wrong, cultural ideas but of a process which was undermining the very foundations of civilization. It threw the artistic feeling which had hitherto been quite sane into utter confusion, thus spiritually preparing the way for political Bolshevism. If the creative spirit of the Periclean age be manifested in the Parthenon, then the Bolshevist era is manifested through its cubist grimace.
In this connection attention must be drawn once again to the want of courage displayed by one section of our people, namely, by those who, in virtue of their education and position, ought to have felt themselves obliged to take up a firm stand against this outrage on our culture. But they refrained from offering serious resistance and surrendered to what they considered the inevitable. This abdication of theirs was due, however, to sheer funk lest the apostles of Bolshevist art might raise a rumpus; for those apostles always violently attacked everyone who was not ready to recognize them as the choice spirits of artistic creation, and they tried to strangle all opposition by saying that it was the product of philistine and backwater minds. People trembled in fear lest they might be accused by these yahoos and swindlers of lacking artistic appreciation, as if it would have been a disgrace not to be able to understand and appreciate the effusions of those mental degenerates or arrant rogues. Those cultural disciples, however, had a very simple way of presenting their own effusions as works of the highest quality. They offered incomprehensible and manifestly crazy productions to their amazed contemporaries as what they called ‘an inner experience’. Thus they forestalled all adverse criticism at very little cost indeed. Of course, nobody ever doubted that there could have been inner experiences like that, but some doubt ought to have arisen as to whether or not there was any justification for exposing these hallucinations of psychopaths or criminals to the sane portion of human society. The works produced by a Moritz von Schwind or a Bocklin were also externalizations of an inner experience, but these were the experiences of divinely gifted artists and not of buffoons.
This situation afforded a good opportunity of studying the miserable cowardliness of our so-called intellectuals who shirked the duty of offering serious resistance to the poisoning of the sound instincts of our people. They left it to the people themselves to formulate their own attitude towards his impudent nonsense. Lest they might be considered as understanding nothing of art, they accepted every caricature of art, until they finally lost the power of judging what is really good or bad.
Taken all in all, there were superabundant symptoms to show that a diseased epoch had begun.