Kurt Tucholsky - Biography
Kurt Tucholsky (January 9, 1890 – December 21, 1935) was a German-Jewish journalist, satirist and writer. He also wrote under the pseudonyms Kaspar Hauser, Peter Panter, Theobald Tiger and Ignaz Wrobel. Born in Berlin-Moabit, he moved to Paris in 1924 and then to Sweden in 1930.
Tucholsky was one of the most important journalists of the Weimar Republic. As a politically engaged journalist and temporary co-editor of the weekly magazine Die Weltbühne he proved himself to be a social critic in the tradition of Heinrich Heine. He was simultaneously a satirist, an author of satirical political revues, a songwriter and a poet. He saw himself as a left-wing democrat and pacifist and warned against anti-democratic tendencies – above all in politics, the military and justice – and the threat of National Socialism. His fears were confirmed when the Nazis came to power in 1933: his books were listed on the Nazi's censorship as "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") and burned, and he lost his German citizenship.
Youth, school and university
Kurt Tucholsky's parents' house, where he was born on January 9, 1890, was at 13 Lübecker Straße in Berlin-Moabit. However, he spent his early childhood in Stettin (now in Poland) where his father had been transferred for work reasons. The Jewish bank cashier Alex Tucholsky had married his cousin Doris Tucholski in 1887 and had three children with her: Kurt, their oldest son, Fritz and Ellen. In 1899, the family returned to Berlin.
While Tucholsky's relationship with his mother was strained throughout his life, he loved and respected his father. However, in 1905, Alex Tucholsky died as a result of syphilis. He left a considerable fortune to his wife and children, which enabled his oldest son to go to university without any financial worries.
Kurt Tucholsky started school at the French Grammar School (das Französische Gymnasium) in 1899. In 1903 he transferred to the Königliche Wilhelms-Gymnasium, but he left there in 1907 to prepare for his Abitur with a private tutor. After taking his Abitur examinations in 1909, he began studying Law in Berlin in October of the same year, spending his second semester in Geneva at the start of 1910.
When he was at university, Tucholsky's main interest remained that of literature. Thus he travelled to Prague in September 1911 with his friend Kurt Szafranski in order to surprise his favorite author Max Brod with a visit and a model landscape that he had made himself. After meeting Tucholsky, Brod's friend and fellow author Franz Kafka had this to say about him in his diary:
- "... a wholly consistent person of 21. From the controlled and powerful swing of his walking stick which gives a youthful lift to his shoulders to the deliberate delight in and contempt for his own literary works. Wants to be a criminal defence lawyer, ..."
Yet, despite his later doctorate, Tucholsky never went on to a legal career: his inclination towards literature and journalism was stronger.
First successes as a writer
While he was still at school, Tucholsky had already written his first articles as a journalist. The weekly satirical magazine Ulk ("Prank") had published the short text Märchen ("Fairy Tale") in 1907 in which the 17-year-old Tucholsky made fun of Kaiser Wilhelm II's taste in art. At university he worked more intensively as a journalist, among other things working for the social democratic party organ Vorwärts ("onwards"). He involved himself in the SPD's election campaign in 1911.
With Rheinsberg – ein Bilderbuch für Verliebte ("Rheinsberg – a Picture Book for Lovers") in 1912, Tucholsky published a tale in which he adopted a fresh and playful tone (which was unusual for that time) and which made him known to a wider audience for the first time. In order to support the sales of the book, Tucholsky and Szafranski, who had illustrated the tale, opened a "Book Bar" on Kurfürstendamm in Berlin: anyone who bought a copy of his book also received a free glass of schnapps. This student prank however came to an end after only a few weeks.
In comparison, the involvement that Tucholsky began at the start of 1913 was to be much more long-lasting. On January 9, 1913 his first article appeared in the theatre magazine Die Schaubühne, the weekly paper that was later renamed Die Weltbühne and which was owned by the publicist Siegfried Jacobsohn who was to be Tucholsky's friend and mentor until his death. Tucholsky wrote about this special relationship in a "Vita" (biography) which he wrote in Sweden two years before his death: "Tucholsky owes to the publisher of the paper, Siegfried Jacobsohn, who died in the year 1926, everything he has become."
Soldier in World War I
The beginning of Tucholsky's journalistic career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I – for over two years, no articles by Tucholsky were published. He finished his studies at the University of Jena in Thuringia where he received his doctorate in law (dr. jur.) cum laude with a work on mortgage law at the beginning of 1915. By April of that year he had already been conscripted and sent to the East Front. There he experienced positional warfare and served as a munitions soldier and then as company writer. From November 1916 onwards he published the field newspaper Der Flieger. In the administration of the Artillery and Pilot Academy in Alt-Autz in Courland he got to know Mary Gerold who was later to become his wife. Tucholsky saw the posts as writer and field-newspaper editor as good opportunities to avoid serving in the trenches. Looking back he wrote:
- "For three and a half years I dodged the war as much as I could. (...) I used many means not to get shot and not to shoot – not even the worst means. But I would have used all [means], all without exception, if I had been forced to do so: I wouldn't have said no to bribery or any other punishable behaviour. Many did just the same."
(Ignaz Wrobel, Wo waren Sie im Kriege, Herr –? (Where were you in the war, Mr –?) in Die Weltbühne; March 30, 1926; p. 490)
These means, in part, did not lack a certain comic effect as emerges in a letter to Mary Gerold:
- "One day for the march I received this heavy old gun. A gun? And during a war? Never, I thought to myself. And leaned it against a hut. And walked away. But that stood out even in our group at that time. I don't know now how I got away with it, but somehow it worked. And so I got by unarmed."
(Kurt Tucholsky, Unser ungelebtes Leben. Briefe an Mary. (Our Unlived Life. Letters to Mary.); Reinbek, 1982; p. 247)
His encounter with the jurist Erich Danehl eventually led to his being transferred to Romania in 1918 as a deputy sergeant and field police inspector. (Tucholsky's friend Danehl later appeared as "Karlchen" in a number of texts, for example in Wirtshaus im Spessart.) In Drobeta-Turnu Severin in Romania, Tucholsky had himself baptized as a Protestant in the summer of 1918. He had already left the Jewish community on July 1, 1914.
Although Tucholsky still took part in a contest for the 9th war bond (Kriegsanleihe) in August 1918, he returned from the war in the autumn of 1918 as a convinced anti-militarist and pacifist.
Battle for the Republic
In December 1918, Tucholsky took on the role of editor-in-chief of Ulk which he held until April 1920. Ulk was the weekly satirical supplement of publisher Rudolf Mosse's left-liberal Berliner Tageblatt.
He again worked regularly for Die Weltbühne at that time. In order not to make the left-democratic weekly paper seem too "Tucholsky-heavy", he had already created three pseudonyms by 1913 which he retained until the end of his journalistic work: Ignaz Wrobel (perhaps from the Polish word for "sparrow", "wróbel"), Theobald Tiger and Peter Panter (Panter means "Panther" in German). Since Theobald Tiger was for a while reserved for Ulk, poems written under a fourth pseudonym, Kaspar Hauser, appeared for the first time in Die Weltbühne in December 1918. There was then hardly any section to which Tucholsky had not contributed: from political lead articles and court reports via commentaries and satires to poetry and book reviews. In addition he composed texts and songs for the cabaret – for example the "Schall und Rauch" ("Hollow Words") theatre – and for singers such as Claire Waldoff and Trude Hesterberg. He also wrote "couplets" (jokey, satirical songs with a chorus and content which may be frivolous or intellectual – see also the article Couplet in the German Wikipedia). His poetry collection Fromme Gesänge (Pious Songs) appeared in October 1919.
In the immediate post-war period came a chapter of Tucholsky's life little worthy of praise: his short-term but well-paid work for the propaganda magazine Pieron. Under orders from the German government, the magazine was intended to turn the people against Poland because of the final drawing up of the German-Polish border in Upper Silesia. This task, strongly criticized by other newspapers finally led to Tucholsky no longer being allowed to write for USPD publications. Tucholsky himself later described the work he had done on Pieron as a mistake, which he had got into because of financial difficulties.
At the time, however, Tucholsky had also not ceased writing in left-wing publications to defend the democratic Weimar Republic (which had emerged from the November Revolution) against its avowed enemies in the military, in justice, in the administration, in the old pro-monarchist elites and in the new anti-democratic popular movements. He had already started the anti-military series of articles Militaria, an attack on the wilhelminian spirit of the officer ranks which he saw as further coarsened by the war and which lived on in the Republic. His own conduct as a soldier during the war did not substantially differ, however, from that of those in the German officer corps which he so strongly criticized. Biographers thus see in the Militaria articles "a kind of public self-analysis" (Michael Hepp). In the first article of the series he wrote:
- "We must take the blame for the trouble a degenerate militarism has put us in.
- Only by completely turning away from this shameful period can we return to order.
- It is not Spartacus; neither is it the officer who saw his own people as a means to an end – what, then, will it be in the end?
- The upstanding German."
("Militaria: Offizier und Mann" ("Militaria: Officer and Man"), in Die Weltbühne; January 9, 1919; p. 39)
Tucholsky denounced equally strongly the many political murders which shook the Weimar Republic during its first years. Again and again attempts were made on the lives of left-wing, pacifist and even merely liberal politicians and publicists, for example Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, Walther Rathenau, Matthias Erzberger, Hans Paasche and Philipp Scheidemann or Maximilian Harden. As a court observer in proceedings against right-wing radical Fememörder (murderers carrying out killings ordered by a Vehmgericht) he realised that the judge shared and sympathised with the defendant's monarchist and nationalist views. In his article Prozeß Harden (Harden Trial) he wrote in 1922.
- "The German political murder of the past four years is schematically and tightly organised. (...) Everything is certain from the outset: incentives from anonymous financial backers, the deed (always from behind), sloppy investigation, lazy excuses, a few phrases, pitiful skiving, lenient punishments, suspension of sentences, privileges – "Carry on!" (...) That is not bad justice. That is not poor justice. That is not justice at all. (...)
- Even the Balkans and South America will refuse to be compared with this Germany."
("Prozeß Harden" ("Harden Trial") in Die Weltbühne; December 21, 1922; p. 638)
Tucholsky also did not hold back in his criticism of democratic politicians, who he believed were too lenient with their opponents. After Foreign Secretary Walter Rathenau was murdered in 1922, on 29 June of that year he wrote the poem "Rathenau" in Die Weltbühne appealing to the republic's self-esteem: it called upon people to stand up and pound with their fist, not to fall back to sleep again. Four years of murder, it said, were enough, and now it was time to fight or die – there was no alternative. This was their last breath. Eleven years before Germany's first attempt at democracy really took its last breath, when the Nazis came to power in 1933, in this poem Tucholsky already pointed a finger at those responsible – the poem describes the "mob" living off the republic, sabotaging it and scrawling swastikas on its doors.
Tucholsky's actions did not stop at writing – he was also directly politically active. He was one of the founders of the "Peaceful League of Combatants" (Friedensbund der Kriegsteilnehmer) and was active in the USPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party, which he joined in 1920. However, just because he was a member of a party, this did not hold Tucholsky back from criticising its members. For example, he made this comment on Rudolf Hilferding's work as the chief editor of the USPD's newspaper, Freiheit:
- Mr Rudolf Hilferding was dispatched by the Imperial Federation to the editorial office of the "Freiheit" to fight social democracy. Within two years he managed to run down the dangerous newspaper so much that we can no longer describe it either as a newspaper or dangerous.
(Dienstzeugnisse, in Die Weltbühne, 3 March 1925, p. 329)
Tucholsky took the SPD to task in a particularly harsh manner, accusing its leadership of failure, even of betraying its own supporters, during the November Revolution. In 1922 in the "Harden Trial", he wrote of Friedrich Ebert:
- And above them all this president is enthroned, a man who threw his beliefs out of the window at the very moment that he became able to put them into practice.
At the worst point of inflation, Tucholsky was forced to hold back on his work in publishing and take on work in economics. However, it was apparently not only financial reasons which led him to make this step. In the autumn of 1922 he suffered badly from depression, had doubts about the sense of writing at all, and is said to have even made his first suicide attempt. On March 1, 1923 he then started work in the Berlin bank "Bett, Simon & Co.", but on 15 February 1924 he already signed a contract to work with Siegfried Jacobsohn at the Weltbühne again. In the spring of 1924 he set off for Paris as a correspondent for the Weltbühne and the renowned Vossische Zeitung.
In 1924 there were also great changes in Tucholsky's private life. In February 1924 he divorced the doctor Else Weil, whom he had married in May 1920. On 30 August of the same year he went on to marry Mary Gerold; he had corresponded with her by letter since being sent from Alt-Autz. In Paris, however, the couple was to discover that they also could not live together happily in the long term.
Between France and Germany
Just like his role model Heinrich Heine, once he had left for Paris, Tucholsky spent most of the rest of his life abroad, returning only occasionally to Germany. But this distance served only to whet his interest in German affairs and the German people. He used the Weltbühne as a stage from which to remain part of political debate in his home country. Furthermore, like Heine in the 19th century, he tried to help the French and the Germans understand one another.
Upon Siegfried Jacobsohn's death in December 1926, Tucholsky immediately agreed to take over his job at the head of the Weltbühne. However, working as a "directing editor of headlines" did not suit him, and he would have had to return to Berlin permanently, so shortly afterwards, he handed over the position to his colleague and friend Carl von Ossietzky. He remained a coeditor, seeing to it that unorthodox articles such as those of the Socialist Kurt Hiller were published.
In 1927 and 1928 Tucholsky brought out his essayistic travelogue Ein Pyrenäenbuch ("A book on the Pyrenees"), the collection of articles Mit 5 PS ("At 5 hp", meaning his name and his four pseudonyms) and Das Lächeln der Mona Lisa ("Mona Lisa's smile"). He used his literary figures "Herr Wendriner" and "Lottchen" to describe typical contemporary Berlin characters.
During his time abroad, once more Tucholsky was taken to court by political opponents who felt insulted or under attack by his writing. In 1928 a case was even brought against him for blasphemy because of his poem Gesang der englischen Chorknaben ("The song of English choirboys")
In 1928, Kurt and Mary Tucholsky (née Gerold) finally divorced. Tucholsky had met Lisa Matthias the year before and now went on holiday with her to Sweden in 1929. This stay inspired him to write the short novel published in 1931, Schloß Gripsholm ("Gripsholm Castle") which had the same youthful, lighthearted feel as Rheinsberg.
His work Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, a piece of social criticism produced with graphic designer John Heartfield in 1929, could hardly provide a greater contrast. In it, Tucholsky managed to combine vicious attacks on everything he disliked about Germany in his days with a declaration of love for his country. In the last chapter, under the headline Heimat, he wrote:
- We have just written "no" on 225 pages, "no" out of sympathy and "no" out of love, "no" out of hate and "no" out of passion – and now we would like to say "yes" for once. "Yes" – to the countryside and the country of Germany. The country where we were born and whose language we speak. (...)
And now I would like to tell you something: it is not true that all those who call themselves 'national' and who are nothing but gentrified militants have taken out a lease on this country and its language just for them. Germany is not just a government representative in his tailcoat, nor is it a headmaster, nor is it the ladies and gentlemen of the steel helmets. We are here too. (...)
Germany is a divided country. We are one part of it. And whatever the situation, we quietly love our country – unshakably, without a flag, or a street organ, no sentimentality and no drawn sword.
(Heimat, in Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, Berlin 1929, p. 226)
It has been suggested that Tucholsky is the original author of a quote often attributed to Joseph Stalin: "One man's death: that is a catastrophe. A hundred thousand dead: that is a statistic" (Der Tod eines Menschen: das ist eine Katastrophe. Hunderttausend Tote: das ist eine Statistik!). The quote appears in Französischer Witz] ("French Wit"), in which it is attributed to an unnamed French diplomat.
Relapse into silence
At the beginning of the 1930s it became clear to Tucholsky that his warnings were falling on deaf ears, and that his actions in favour of the Republic, for democracy and human rights were apparently to no effect. It was a crushing blow to him, as he recognised the danger approaching with Adolf Hitler. "They are preparing to head towards the Third Reich" he wrote, years before Hitler's Machtübernahme in 1933, and was under no deception as to where Hitler's chancellorship would take the country. Erich Kästner, looking back in 1946, described him as the "little fat Berliner" who wanted to "prevent a catastrophe with his typewriter". (From Erich Kästner, "Kurt Tucholsky, Carl v. Ossietzky, 'Weltbühne'", in Die Weltbühne, June 4, 1946, p. 22)
In 1930 Tucholsky finally moved permanently to the Swedish town of Hindås near Gothenburg. The "Weltbühne Trial" had made clear to him that critical publications already faced severe restrictions in Germany: from 1929 an investigation had been carried out of Carl von Ossietzky and the journalist Walter Kreiser for treason and the leaking of military secrets. The Weltbühne had published an article, Windy affairs in German aviation revealing the Reichswehr's illegal air rearmament. At the end of 1931, Ossietzky was then sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for espionage. Ossietzky was also indicted for Tucholsky's now famous sentence, "Soldiers are murderers" ("Soldaten sind Mörder"). In July, 1932, however, a court pronounced the sentence not to be defamation of the Reichswehr.
As Tucholsky lived abroad, no action was brought in against him. Nonetheless, he considered travelling to Germany for the trial, as at the time Ossietzky was already in prison because of the aviation article. But the situation was too risky for Tucholsky; he was afraid of falling into the hands of the Nazis, even though he realised that his failure to appear would not leave a good impression. Writing to Mary Gerold, he referred to the final scene of Faust: "Outwardly it is still distressing to carry earth's remains. There is something about it which makes one think of desertion, a foreign country, failing someone in need, my comrade Oss in prison". Mary, he wrote, had been "so kind as to point out to [him] that there was deadly danger from the Nazis". (Kurt Tucholsky, Unser ungelebtes Leben. Briefe an Mary, Reinbek 1982, p. 537)
A few days before his death, Tucholsky wrote that he regretted the decision he had made in 1932:
- But in Oss' case I didn't even come, I failed him then, it was a mixture of laziness, cowardice, disgust, contempt – and I should have gone. I know that it would not have helped in the slightest, that we would certainly both have been sentenced, that I might have fallen into the clutches of these animals; but a trace of consciousness of my own guilt still remains.
(letter to the woman Hedwig Müller, December 19, 1935, in Kurt Tucholsky, Briefe. Auswahl 1913-1935. Berlin 1983, p. 325 ff.)
From 1931 Tucholsky's voice was to be heard less and less often in the press. His resigned attitude had been worsened by the end of his relationship with Lisa Matthias, a close friend's death and a chronic nasal ailment. His last major piece was published on November 8, 1932 in the Weltbühne. It was merely "snippets", as he called his aphorisms. On January 17, 1933, he appeared in the Weltbühne again with a short note from Basel.
Tucholsky was increasingly losing the strength to write longer literary forms. He presented the Rowohlt publishing house with the outline of a novel but political developments in Germany prevented him from carrying out the project. In 1933 the Nazis closed down the Weltbühne, burned Tucholsky's books (see book burning) and expatriated him.
From 1960 Tucholsky's letters came into publication, giving an insight into the last years of his life and his thoughts on the developments in Germany and Europe. Some of the letters were to friends such as Walter Hasenclever, some to his last love affair, the Zürich doctor Hedwig Müller, whom he called "Nuuna". He sent his letters to Nunna with pages from his diary, now known as the "Q diaries". In these letters and others, Tucholsky described himself as an ex-German and an ex-poet. On April 11, 1933 he wrote to Hasenclever:
- Kurt Tucholsky,Politische Briefe, Reinbek 1969, p16)
Neither did Tucholsky subscribe to the view held by many exiled Germans that Hitler's dictatorship would soon collapse. He recognised with bitterness that the majority of Germans came to terms with the dictatorship and that even other countries accepted Hitler's rule. He expected a war within only a few years.
Tucholsky refused outright to join the developing group of exiled writers. For a start, he did not consider himself an emigrant as he had already left Germany in 1924 and was considering taking on Swedish nationality. In a moving last letter to Mary Gerold he went into the deeper reasons why he no longer bothered with Germany:
- (Kurt Tucholsky, Unser ungelebtes Leben. Briefe an Mary, Reinbek 1982, p. 545)
In reality, however, he was not yet finished with everything, and in fact did take an interest in the developments in Germany and Europe. To back up Ossietzky in prison, he considered stepping back into the public eye. Shortly before his death, he had plans to get even with the Norwegian poet Knut Hamsun, whom he had once admired. Hamsun had spoken out publicly for the Hitler regime and attacked Carl von Ossietzky who was imprisoned in the Papenburg-Esterwegen concentration camp and was unable to defend himself. Behind the scenes, Tucholsky also supported the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to his imprisoned friend in 1935. Ossietzky was given the award the year after, retroactively, but Tucholsky did not live to see the success of his efforts.
Weakened by the chronic illness, on the evening of December 20, 1935 Tucholsky took an overdose of sleeping tablets in his house in Hindås. The next day he was found in a coma and taken to hospital in Gothenburg. He died there on the evening of December 21. Recently, Tucholsky's biographer Michael Hepp has called into doubt the verdict of suicide, saying that he considers it possible that the death was accidental.
In the summer of 1936 Kurt Tucholsky's ashes were buried under an oak tree near Gripsholm Castle, Mariefred, Sweden. The gravestone, with its inscription "Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis" ("All that is transitory is but a parable" from Goethe's Faust II) was laid down after the end of the Second World War. Tucholsky himself had suggested in his satire Requiem (1923) an epitaph for his pseudonym Ignaz Wrobel: Hier ruht ein goldenes Herz und eine eiserne Schnauze. Gute Nacht -! (Here rests a golden heart and an iron trap. Good night -!).
English editions and books
- Grenville, Bryan P.: Kurt Tucholsky: The Ironic Sentimentalist. London 1981.
- Hierholzer, Michael: Kurt Tucholsky 1890-1935 : aspects of the man and his works. Bonn 1990.
- Poor, Harold Lloyd: Kurt Tucholsky and the ordeal of Germany, 1914-1935. New York 1968.
- Tucholsky, Kurt: Castle Gripsholm. A Summer Story. Overlook Press. New York 1988.
- Tucholsky, Kurt: Deutschland, Deutschland über alles: a picture book. U Massachusetts Pr., 1972.
- Tucholsky, Kurt: "Germany? Germany": a Kurt Tucholsky Reader. With translations by Harry Zohn, Karl F. Ross and Louis
Kurt Tucholsky (alias Kurt Severing) is portrayed in the political/historical comic series Berlin by Jason Lutes.
- This article draws heavily on the corresponding article in the German Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2005.
- Kurt Tucholsky-Gesellschaft at www.tucholsky-gesellschaft.de (in German)
- Authors: Kurt Tucholsky – German Language at german.about.com (biography in English)
- Kurt Tucholsky at blogspot.com (English translations of Tucholsky)
- Kurt Tucholsky's Gravesite