Provincial Modernity. Local Culture and Liberal Politics in Fin-de-Siècle Hamburg

Jenkins, Jennifer
Anzahl Seiten
329 S.
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Max Voegler, History Department, Columbia University

Jennifer Jenkins’ book about modernist movements in fin-de-siècle Hamburg is a much revised version of her University of Michigan dissertation, completed 1997 under the supervision of Kathleen Canning and Geoff Eley.[1] In the book, Jenkins traces the development of a broad modernist program of “aesthetic education” developed by liberals in public museums, charitable and pedagogical associations, and through local history, amateur archeology, architecture and urban planning.

Within this account, Jenkins has two goals. First, she seeks to integrate local movements of aesthetic edification into the larger framework of work on liberalism and nationalism. Such movements, she argues, articulated a uniquely liberal ideal of citizenship, “of nationhood as encapsulated within a common culture, and of the state as a Kulturstaat (p. 6).” As such, this model presents a specifically modernist conception of the nation as a community imagined through its aesthetic sensibility. Second, Jenkins’ argues for the need to explore emerging modernist visions outside of the capital cities. Berlin might have been where the Kaiser lived, but it was not where the “nation” – as a figment of middle-class imagination – was constructed. Instead, in Jenkins’ account, the “nation” emerges as a provincial vision of an educated and aesthetically refined local liberal elite. Like other recent work on liberals in imperial Germany, such as by Michael Gross or Kevin Repp [2], Jenkins explores the remaking of the liberal project in the second half of the long nineteenth century, focusing on how this group continued to exert a certain hegemony in public life.

After an initial chapter on Bürgerrecht in Hamburg from the eighteenth to the twentieth century, Jenkins outlines the peculiarities of Hamburg’s notable politics on the city’s cultural institutions. The local notables who ran the city tended to favor a lean and cost efficient form of government; as a result, Hamburg could boast of no grand public institutions on a scale and of a reputation that compared with other cities of a similar size in the mid nineteenth century. While the city played host to world class art collections, these were in private homes or traveled through the city’s auction houses. When cultural institutions did prosper, it was through the initiative of like-minded local notables, not the local government.

Next Jenkins turns to one of the book’s central figures, Alfred Lichtwark, a Hamburg millers’ son who, in 1886, became director of the Hamburg Art Museum, bringing with him a strong sense of public mission. His ‘plan’ for the museum and its public – the two seem inseparable – consisted of three interlinked programs of aesthetic education deemed a prerequisite for the creation of a civic culture: First, he conceived of the museum as a pedagogical institution with a central role to play. Lectures, school-programs and exhibitions would ‘lift’ or ‘raise’ the masses into a proper, more refined aesthetic sensibility. Second, for, Lichtwark, local and national culture could only thrive when there was both a supply and a demand for its products. In his position as museum director he promoted a “new form of cultural authority, […] a new set of elites: the taste professionals and taste leaders,” who in turn would help create a new cultural man (and woman): the “German consumer” (p. 68). Finally, a third program emphasized the link between local and national culture. Lichtwark did not yet believe that Germany possessed an authentic national culture — he found the ‘Prussian version’ abstract, cold and inauthentic. Such a national culture could only be created by fostering local and regional cultures that could merge into a new and genuine national synthesis. While other big-city museums in the fin-de-siècle consciously internationalized their collections, Lichtwark build a collection with a decided regional focus, albeit amidst a vigorously modernist policy of commissions: commissioned portraits of Hamburg notables, everyday street scenes and familiar country landscapes were painted by the leading modernists, including Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth.

Jenkins next explores the relationship between the ‘masses’ and ideas of the progressive liberal elite. She begins with the Hamburg People’s Home (Volksheim), a project founded in 1901 with the aim of bringing a liberal national culture to the working classes. The People’s Homes sought to help liberal reformers better understand their constituency – in the original proposal, the middle-class staff was to live in the homes, located in working-class neighborhoods – while at the same time helping the working class learn about cultural and national values through an extensive program of lectures and discussions. She then turns to the “new public” in the form of the Literary Society (Literarische Gesellschaft), which was greatly influenced by Lichtwerk’s ideas. Here, the focus is on how the society’s aim “gradually shifted, as a fiercely defended naturalist ideology of political and cultural liberation through art began to be overtaken by the pedagogical mission lying just below its surface.” (pp. 128-9) With many schoolteachers as members, discussion began to turn away from the books and toward their reception.

The final set of chapters explores how “modernist culture” found a home in Hamburg. Jenkins shows how Lichtwark and liberal educators promoted Heimatkunde as a liberal meta-narrative of “individualism, local patriotism and economic strength” (p. 176), using instruction in schools and art exhibitions to link a perceived but not wholly original national culture with local modernist endeavors. “A healthy aesthetic education must stand on Munich’s ground in Munich, on Nuremberg’s ground in Nuremberg, and on Hamburg’s ground in Hamburg,” Lichtwark wrote in 1905 (p. 166). This also brings her back to Lichtwark’s museum and modernist memory. Using the museum’s historical collection, Jenkins shows how excavations, sudden art-“discoveries” and their exhibition became part of a carefully orchestrated effort at excavating an hitherto unknown Hamburg past, of combating “historical amnesia” (p. 10), and of placing this more complex sense of local history into a larger national context. Lichtwark’s ambitious programs sought to revolutionize the aesthetic senses of the masses, making them receptive to the modernist experiment by continually connecting the familiar with the unfamiliar, the local with the national, the traditional with the modern. The last chapter turns to architecture and the program to reshape the city after Fritz Schumacher’s appointment as the city’s new architect in 1909. Schumacher, co-founder of the progressive Werkbund, sought liberate the city from oppressive historicism and make it a “livable metropolis” (p. 263). Like Lichtwark and other figures in the book, Schumacher aimed to integrate a stridently modernist program of urban renewal into traditional structures. His building designs fused modernist design with local materials – notably red brick –, thus inscribing “a liberal vision of social transformation onto the face of the city” (p. 10).

The book, however, is not without its problems. Hamburg was an anomaly within imperial Germany in its economic and political autonomy, and in the dominance of local notables in politics. One might thus argue that of course this was the place where liberals could cultivate projects of public aesthetic refinement. Jenkins, however, does not place her argument into a broader geographical framework. While Berlin – as a symbol for the cold-Prussian model of national unification – is often used in the text, other cities, such as Frankfurt, never appear. And while Carl Schorske’s book on Vienna makes several appearances, Peter Jelavich’s important book on Munich [3] is not in the bibliography. Second, for a book focused on projects of cultural reconstruction for the broader public, this latter body – the broader public – seems distinctly absent from the text. Class and class antagonism, of which Hamburg as a port and industrial city had more than its fair share, is never mentioned and there is no effort made to gauge the reception of these policies on the ground. Nevertheless, these points should not distract from what remains an important contribution to the historiography of liberalism and culture in late imperial Germany, one that should inspire other authors to explore similar themes in other cities and regions.

[1] Jenkins, Jennifer, Provincial Modernity Culture, Politics and Local Identity in Hamburg, 1885-1914, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan 1997.
[2] Gross, Michael B., The War against Catholicism. Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany, Ann Arbor 2004; Repp, Kevin, Reformers, Critics, and the Paths of German Modernity. Anti-Politics and the Search for Alternatives, 1890-1914, Cambridge 2000.
[3] Jelavich, Peter, Munich and Theatrical Modernism. Politics, Playwriting and Performance: 1890-1914, Cambridge 1985.

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