Modernity, Metropolis and Amerikanismus



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Modernity, Metropolis and Amerikanismus

© David Frisby

Paper presented to International Conference on

‘Werner Sombart and “American Exceptionalism”

at Erlangen-Nürnberg University, July 1999


I

Few would dispute the connection between the delineation of modernity at the turn of the century and the development of the modern metropolis. In other words, the spirit of capitalist modernity that in different ways concerned Weber, Sombart, Simmel and others was associated with a spirit of metropolitan modernity. With few exceptions, the analysis of the development of capitalist modernity at the turn of the century takes as their central focus – implicitly or explicitly – urban modernity. The detailed investigation of agrarian capitalism as a historical site, with few exceptions, is not of primary concern.1

The sheer scale of urban expansion in Germany after unification offers a ready correlation between urban existence and crucial – positive or negative – features of modernity. And if the concept of modernity is problematical in social science discourse and elsewhere, then so too is the concept of the metropolis itself. Hence, when Sombart asks what a town or city actually is as an historical entity, as in his 1907 article but also in Der Moderne Kapitalismus in 1902, it may have been framed as a mere historical inquiry but it was simultaneously a contemporary issue.2 The rapid urbanisation of Germany after 1870 and literally the creation or building of cities [Städtebau] stimulated the development of a new discipline devoted to urban creation (city planning) and a debate on the nature and significance of the modern city.3 The ostensibly merely quantitative expansion of urban areas produced attempts to explain the historical development of the modern city in terms of a crucial numerical threshold of dwellers. If, as was the case by 1910 (but also much earlier), it was agreed that a city should comprise a population of 100,000, then Germany possessed 49 cities. The more difficult estimation of a big city, a metropolis, whose quantitative expansion provided it with a qualitative transformation, was set at one million, giving Germany only one metropolis – Berlin – with Hamburg closely behind with a population of over 900,000.4

Such merely quantitative definitions of the city clearly obfuscated important differences. By 1900 Charlottenburg and by 1910 Rixdorf, Schöneberg and Wilmersdorf – all suburbs of Berlin – had achieved city status on those quantitative criteria, although all were shortly to be incorporated into Groß-Berlin. Also by 1910, Duisburg and Gelsenkirchen would join Dortmund and Essen (both 100,000 cities by 1900) to form part of what was, in effect, the largest urban conglomeration in the Rhine-Ruhr area but without this conglomeration itself achieving city status.5 Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna’s incorporation of outer suburbs in 1890 to form Gross-Wien could not count upon taking in populations the size of Charlottenburg for example, as was the case in Berlin. Instead, Vienna’s expansion rested upon natural population growth and migration. Furthermore, within the Empire, other cities expanded rapidly around the turn of the century such as Prague and Budapest, often at a faster rate than Vienna.6

The sheer expansion of cities in the last third of the nineteenth century in Germany created the need for the systematisation of a field of knowledge that sought to regulate urban development. The German concept of Städtebau reflects more closely the activity of building and expanding cities than does the English equivalent of city planning.7 As with many other disciplines at the points and sites of their emergence, the study of the regulation of urban development was deeply contested. The concern with problems of traffic regulation and hygiene, amongst others, that was ostensibly a prime focus for city planning theorists such as Richard Baumeister or Joseph Stübben, was contested in Camillo Sitte’s plea in 1889 for a city planning that concern itself more with the aesthetics of urban planning.8 The heated debate in the 1890’s between Stübben and Sitte’s supporters ostensibly around the issue of the efficacy of ‘straight or crooked streets’ coincided with the hitherto largest number of German urban areas in the previous decade (i.e. 1880 to 1890) becoming 100,000 cities.9 That number was exceeded again in 1910, by which time no fewer than 15 such new cities had emerged in Germany.10 Not surprisingly, therefore, the issue of urbanisation (and its increasingly researched social problems) and its connection with modernity came increasingly under discussion and debate. Where there was a cultural turn in the discussion, the culture of modernity became synonymous with the culture of the metropolis. Werner Sombart, amongst others, was a social theorist who made this connection.

II

In his Die deutsche Volkswirtschaft im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (1903)11 and more especially in his examination of the relationship between economy and culture, Sombart explores some of the foundations of the emergent new society. In particular, Sombart views massification and change as two crucial cultural features of modernity. They are both present in his earlier discussion of the spirit of capitalism and, as symbolic of modern trade, the department store (as an exclusively urban phenomenon).12 Mass and change are also crucial to his delineation of the culture of the modern metropolis. Finally, they are key features of Amerikanismus in exaggerated and accelerated form. In other words, the quantitative expansion of urban population and a corresponding increase in the quantity of commodities in circulation on the one hand, and the pervasive transformation in all spheres of society, on the other, are features of modernity most evident in modern metropolitan centres and are most accentuated in those spheres typical of American developments. If Berlin is identified as the most American city in Germany, then it will display in a heightened form the features of modernity and the corresponding impact upon urban culture that Sombart ascribes to modernity in general. For this reason, it is useful to outline briefly relevant dimensions of Sombart’s delineation of the material culture of modernity.

Sombart asks whether there is anything more characteristic of modern times than the mass nature, the sheer quantification of both the human world and the world of goods. The dramatic increase in population in the nineteenth century and the increasing density of population in Germany (that is greater than other European countries except Britain and Italy) has produced an ‘indistinguishable, unsurveyable mass’ that is concentrated in metropolitan areas. This quantitative human expansion and concentration has been accompanied by an even more rapid increase in the quantity of commodities and its corresponding increase in production, factories, traffic, etc. In turn, the world of goods is characterised by a massive increase in consumption. Drawing on earlier arguments in his study of modern capitalism, Sombart refers to a ‘collectivisation of consumption’ in department stores, in modern cities (in general utility consumption) and in rental barracks (as the consumption of urban space). The mass demand for commodities has been accompanied by less differentiated taste. This quantitative expansion extends into the spatial conception of things, a conception of dramatically increased spatial scale. In this context,

the outer size of many things grows into the huge, they become “imposing”: cities, streets, dwelling blocks, railway stations, public buildings, department stores, factories, machines, bridges, ships and thousands of other such things.13

This treatment of the concept of mass in human quantities, quantities of commodities and size of things accords with the discovery of the concept of mass in the social sciences in the late nineteenth century. Here, the concept remains undifferentiated and its treatment undialectical.

The massification of individuals and things is accompanied by ‘the characteristic change in every structure [Gestalt] in our times: movement, instability often paired with mass into a unified social phenomenon’.14 A crucial motor for change is capitalism itself, with its ceaseless search for improving the profitability of commodities and with its harnessing of technology to this process of unending renewal. Hence ‘what distinguishes our epoch... is the sheer size [Massenhaftigkeit] and hence the rapidity of change’15 that is manifested in the shortening in the turnover time of objects. This ceaseless change generates ‘a sense of uncertainty in the world of goods’, a permanent ‘change in the human ownership relation to the world of goods’. Not only are we unsure as to how tomorrow things will look, nor how and to what extent we can use them but rather ‘viewed from a given constellation of distribution, this form of change can be characterised as the uncertainty of existence (for its individual elements)’.16

Hence, although natural uncertainties may have been reduced in modern times, social and economic uncertainties have increased. Individuals are now dependent on many more factors beyond their control. Especially in the economic sphere, a characteristic of our times has become ‘the universality of uncertainty, uncertainty en masse’.17 Ownership, for instance, with its increasing dependency on market forces has become increasingly uncertain. Even land ownership in the countryside has been ‘mobilized’. And the same is true in an urban context: ‘ownership in the city, however, has also become “more mobile” and thereby more insecure’.18 Many categories of owners and workers are, Sombart argues, sitting ‘as if on a volcano’ that can and does erupt at any time. The uncertainties of ownership, even leaving aside the ‘agonies’ of speculation, are matched by those pertaining to labour and the labour market. This also applies today to most liberal professions, where ‘the mass of “the educated”, that distinguishes our times from others, has here produced what is subject to change, what is insecure precisely from its own foundations’.19 Although there are countertendencies against capitalist uncertainties in the form of communal economic organisations and co-operatives they have not fundamentally affected the endemic uncertainty.

A third location of change lies in the relationship of the human world and the world of goods to their location. ‘The change of place as mass phenomenon’ is a characteristic of modernity, one that manifests itself in the mobility of the mass of goods, news and communication networks, mass transport systems, changes in dwelling, mass migration (including seasonal migration and migration abroad). Indeed, viewed from the bird’s eye perspective, the German Empire is ‘like an ant hill in which the traveller has pierced his stick’.20

Such economic cultural dimensions of modernity have clearly had a significant impact upon modern intellectual culture. Thus, the effect of an emergent mass upon intellectual culture has been a broadening of the cultural base, an increase in cultural producers and mediators, a massive increase in literary and artistic production, a dramatic increase in published materials and a cheapening of published products. The latter would include the dramatic increase in newspapers and journals and, in the artistic-cultural realm, the significance of the feuilletons. At the collective level of cultural offerings, the increase in museums, concerts and theatres as cultural ‘omnibuses’ signifies their mass nature: the theatre as the ‘literature omnibus’, the concert as ‘music omnibus’ and the museum as ‘art omnibus’.21

The crucial question for Sombart, however, is whether and how such phenomena have transformed ‘the inner essence of the new culture’. His answer is that the domination of the mass of things over both the human mass and the individual has dramatically affected the cultural domain. The sheer wealth of commodities and sources of satisfaction, to the extent that ‘in the wealth of goods for enjoyment, that grow up around us, the ideal impulses of the heart find their natural grave’.22 This is most evident in the modern metropolis as far as Sombart is concerned.

The modern metropolis, where we dwell alongside one another ‘in great stone canyons and upon hills of stone, glass and iron’, is the site of a new culture - ‘asphalt culture’. The ‘stone deserts’ of the big cities produce their own culture, their own new species of human being lacking in any real relationship to nature, ‘an artificial species’. Although an examination of this new urban species must take into account the nature of social factors such as living and working conditions, Sombart already reflects upon the ‘racial fitness’ of those in the suburbs of the major cities:

Whoever assembles the bow-legged, pasty-cheeked, raceless new generation on the sandpiles of the city playgrounds, can easily come to the view that in the realm of racial formation too the substitution of quantity for quality is the really distinguishing characteristic of our age.23

Although such a judgement should take into account other social factors, Sombart views as less disputed the ‘levelling of the distinctive cultural characteristics of individual parts of the country’ and the development of a new type of person: ‘in the place of rooted, concrete people of the specific localities there emerges increasingly the rootless, abstract, universal person [Allerweltsmensch]’.24 In the metropolis, there emerges a ‘unified urban human type’ that, overcome by the insecurity of existence, the struggle for existence, has been rendered ‘insecure, restless and hurried’. With no time to react to changes that fill modern existence, contemporary intellectual and cultural life has become ‘flatter’.

The application of undifferentiated categories such as mass and change to the diagnosis of modernity, combined with an already pessimistic prognosing for modern metropolitan existence, indicate some of the future directions of Sombart’s investigations of cultural dimensions of modernity. Only a few years later, he declared his task as ‘a struggle against the calamitous nature especially of metropolitan culture’, a battle in which ‘we can only erect protective ramparts in order that the slimy currents of modern culture do not devastate all that surrounds us’.25 Given such aims, it is not surprising that his cultural diagnosis of metropolitan culture should prove so negative: In contrast to a whole tradition of urban artistic and cultural avant-garde movements, Sombart could declare in 1905 that ‘I cannot conceive that an artist could ever grow from the asphalt’.26 Rather, the modern metropolis was the site of an absent genuine culture. And, as we shall see, so too was America – as a representation of modernity in which its crucial features of massification and endless change were present in their most accentuated form. Nowhere was this claim made so forcefully than in Sombart’s comparison of Berlin and Vienna.



III

Sombart’s favourable comparison of Vienna with Berlin – which contains his explicit references to Amerikanismus – appeared in the Berlin journal Morgen27 in 1907 as a kind of reply to an article by the Viennese writer and critic Felix Salten, that appeared earlier in the same year as a corrective to the romanticised outsider view of Vienna.28 This interchange may be located in the broader context of Hermann Bahr’s critical volume on Vienna29 – which was seized by the censor when it first appeared in 1906 – and, more importantly, the 1908 volume on Vienna by Franz Servaes,30 which makes positive reference to Sombart’s article. In turn, the article by Karl Scheffler31 in the Neue deutsche Rundschau in 1908 references Servaes and Bahr in his comparison of Berlin and Vienna. With the exception of Bahr’s volume on Vienna, Sombart, Servaes and Scheffler all take up Amerikanismus in relation to Berlin, or at least maintain that Berlin is the most American of German cities.

The more general affinity between Berlin and American – i.e. U.S. – cities has a longer history, as does Amerikanismus. For example, Max Weber, in the first of his essays on the ‘Protestant Ethic’ published in 1905, draws attention to Ferdinand Kürnberger’s disparaging general references to Americanism as early as the 1850’s.32 But the correlation of Berlin with features of American urban life was almost certainly accentuated and accelerated after Berlin’s rapid growth since 1870. Although there are many instances of hostility to Berlin as a rapidly developing urban centre that could draw upon a much more generalised hostility to urbanisation in Germany on the part of significant social strata – not least, sections of its intelligentsia and influential figures such as Nietzsche and Tönnies33 – the specific affinity between Berlin and Amerikanismus required a connection being drawn between rapid urban expansion and the (negative) transformation of cultural life in both Berlin and American urban centres. In short, Spreeathen (Athens on the Spree) became Chicago an der Spree – as Mark Twain maintained at the turn of the century.34 Julius Langbehn, in his Rembrandt als Erzieher (1890)35 whose content was already partly revealed on its title page as having been written ‘by a German’, already outlined briefly the affinities between Berlin and North America. Though the rapid urban development of Berlin compares only with that of North American cities, the real significance of their affinity becomes apparent only through examining ‘the inner appearance of the city, i.e. the average mental physiognomy of its inhabitants’. There are ethnic affinities insofar as both are ‘Low German’ settlements, neither of which deny ‘their common home [Heimat]’. The mental life in Berlin and American cities is also similar:

A restless commercial spirit characterises the inhabitants of the Spree as much as those on the Hudson; but, of course, this unrest is a barrier in both instances to the blossoming of an independent spiritual life […]. Both instances reveal a haste and hunt for diverse cultural achievements; both, however, reveal a lack of silent, quiet growth from within to the outside: a careless cultivation of culture is practised.36

Both Berlin and North American cities also have in common the fact that a significant proportion of their expansion is due to migration (though the more these migrants were to bring with them proponents of ‘ideal interests and self-creating intellectual forces’, the better the outlook for their respective cultures). Instead,

North America produces countless civil engineers and Berlin countless state architects; but they are “mechanical” engineers and architects… The excessive culture [Überkultur] on this side of the ocean and the lack of culture [Unkultur] on the other confront one another in their means; but unfortunately not in their success as well… This success can only be achieved through a single path: through creative, constructive, organised personalities; and not at all in the state – administrative but rather in the intellectual – cultural sense.37

Leaving aside the purported ethnic affinities, Langbehn’s highly influential volume already suggests parallels between Berlin and North American cities in terms of speed of expansion, restless urban commercial spirit, migration as a significant key to growth, and the absence of an organic culture even when its outward forms are in evidence. These are some of the features that were to be utilized in identifying Berlin as the site in Germany and Europe of Amerikanismus.

Langbehn’s reference to the Spree and the Hudson is obviously signalling Berlin and New York, though elsewhere he sees affinities between the two capitals, Berlin and Washington (in terms of their government architecture). But this latter comparison is seldom made in the subsequent discourse on Berlin. Rather it is Chicago that becomes one signifier for the imperial capital on the Spree. The fact that Chicago is not a capital city should indicate that this comparison is neither a symmetrical nor a self-evident one.

However, as Arnold Lewis has recently shown,38 the European interest in Chicago was given a dramatic stimulus with the World Columbian Exhibition held there in 1893. It should also be added here that the mid-West region around Chicago, the city itself and others such as Milwaukee had already attracted major waves of German migrants. The scale of expansion of Chicago in the second half of the nineteenth century suggested an apparent affinity with Berlin.

Between 1850 and 1890 the population of London jumped from 2.3 million to 4.2 million people, Paris from 1.1 to 2.3 million, and Berlin from 387,200 to 1.5 million. These figures meant that London almost doubled (1.8 times), Paris more than doubled (2.3), and Berlin more than quadrupled (4.2) their populations. Significant population growth also characterized American cities in this forty-year period; New York’s population rose 4.1 times, from 660,800 to 2.7 million. Despite these impressive statistics on both sides of the Atlantic, those of Chicago in the same period were incomparable. Its population increased 36.7 times, numbering approximately 1,100,000 people by 1990. 39

As the world’s sixth largest city by 1893, the sheer scale of urban expansion is indicative of the two cultural features of modernity outlines by Sombart in 1903 – mass and change. Amongst major capital cities in Europe, Berlin – for its part – could claim to have experienced the fastest growth in the period 1850 to 1890.

The extensive European coverage – not least in Germany – of the Chicago exhibition of 1893 and the exhibition’s success meant that it became a comparator for subsequent intended world exhibitions. Hence, according to the official catalogue and elsewhere, the Berlin Trade Exhibition of 1896 was intended as a reply both to the Paris 1889 Exhibition and the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893.40 The reality was, however, otherwise. As a result of political opposition from other German states, the 1896 Berlin exhibition was neither a world exhibition nor even a German exhibition but merely a Berlin exhibition.41 Nonetheless, many observers – including Georg Simmel, who wrote on the Berlin exhibition – viewed the event as a symbolic representation of the city’s elevation from a big city to a world city. But perhaps as an indication of other municipalities’ opposition to Berlin, it was decided in 1897 to hold the first German Municipal exhibition in Dresden in 1903.42 In connection with this event, which was the first positive celebration of urban modernity in Germany, Simmel, amongst others, contributed to a prior series of lectures on the nature of the modern metropolis. In the following year, prominent German academics were invited to the 1904 St. Louis Exhibition and the impressions made there of American metropolitan centres had a further impact upon German conceptions of America.

The possibility of a dramatic expansion of Berlin and the growing debate on Gross-Berlin was already under way by the time Sombart published his short article on Vienna in 1907. The major exhibition of 1910 and the competition for plans for Gross-Berlin was already two decades after Vienna had expanded its city boundaries to form Gross-Wien – an enlarged Vienna that in no way compared with the more dynamic expansion of Berlin. For its part, the major restructuring of Vienna after the 1857 decision to remove the medieval fortifications and subsequently to build the Ringstrasse had already created discourses on Old versus New Vienna. The post-1890 expansion of the city provoked another, more heated discourse on modernity and New Vienna and the threat to Old Vienna as an urban idyll.43

Felix Salten’s brief essay in Morgen titled ‘The Viennese Correspondent’ is a critical corrective to some of the clichés associated with images of Vienna.44 Salten argues that if the clichés concerning life in Vienna fervently held by those living in the German Empire are to be believed, the city would have collapsed long ago. The view from outside is of a city in which ‘time is frittered away’, ‘the city is conceived as an extensive place of amusement’ in which ‘trivial people squander their money travelling in fiakers, guzzling local wine and clapping their hands singing popular ballads’. In other words, the Viennese are viewed as an ‘easy living people’. However, ‘one should not so seriously believe in the fact that the Viennese either merely dance walzes or eat roast chicken [Backhändel]’.45 ‘Whoever was never here [in Vienna] must believe that in Vienna the people dance on their tiptoes through the streets, holding their walking stick between two fingers and performing a continuous minuette’. Their taste for these and other things is merely ‘an indication of Viennese superficiality’.

Such a city is devoid of progress, a conglomerate of vestiges of the past. If this the case, Salten asks:

How are things to move forward in Vienna? This is a common difficult task for the journalists – how to explain the motionless state of a city from a thousand reasons. In Vienna, the men don’t exert themselves. An easy living people… and all puzzles are solved. Who still wonders at the fact that such a city remains backward. What is curious about all this however, is, that Vienna is advancing rapidly. It is even now an upturn. But no one speaks about it.46

Instead, much is written about ‘the old Viennese culture’. However, Salten argues this old culture ‘is no longer active, no longer a living culture’. But for those in Vienna, too, who maintain its mythological continued existence in order to assert the city’s unique identity, this is a strategy for not recognizing a new Vienna. Such people ‘speak of a Vienna that existed only in the dusty newspaper pages of the last century in the books and feuilletons of local humorists and deceive themselves that this is the real Vienna… These gentlemen do not know Vienna at all. And write about it. Such things are of course quite common in journalism. Here, in fact, it is the rule’.47 This ideology of an old culture is associated with that which is ‘only possible in Vienna’. This mythology also has a political dimension:

The fact that in our city 300,000 workers with unfurled red flags could march along the Ringstrasse, without our bourgeoisie becoming nervous and without our military receiving their marching orders, whereas in Berlin the mere rumour of an impending socialist demonstration was sufficient reason to close off the Lustgarten as well as unter den Linden with a regiment of the guards and with artillery, does not incite our know-all to make any comparison. Everything that is foolish, unjust and backward is, for him, “only possible in Vienna”.48

It is interesting to note that in his reply to Salten, Sombart does not address any political dimension of the comparison of Vienna with Berlin. This is all the more surprising given Sombart’s majority of contributions to Morgen which deal with political consciousness and the contemporary situation of the socialist movement in Germany.

Before moving on to Sombart’s reply to Salten, there are significant dimensions of Salten’s essay worthy of mention. The juxtaposition of the Berlin view of Vienna is only one of the dichotomies explored. The opposition between new and old Vienna is also being portrayed in a somewhat muted form. If this contemporary opposition were amplified and contemporary discourse on new Vienna explored more fully, then the correlation between proponents of a new Vienna and a favourable view of Germany and Berlin would become apparent. Thus, the dichotomy of Berlin (outside) and Vienna (inside) is complemented by Vienna (old culture) and Vienna (new culture, including that of Berlin). In other words, the polarities of Berlin and Vienna are also present within Vienna itself. As we shall see, Berlin as Americanism functions as signifier not merely in the context of Germany but also in relation to other specific cities, notably Vienna (as culture). In this and other respects, the much broader opposition between civilization and culture was already functioning ideologically at the turn of the century both between national identities, within state formations, and between major cities. The identification of Americanism with Berlin provides another, different thesis concerning exceptionalism, both within Germany in comparison with other German cities (none of which are viewed as Americanised) and in comparison with other non-Americanised (and cultured) cities such as Vienna.

Sombart’s ‘north German’ perspective on Vienna – as a reply to Salten – is unambiguous in its articulation of the signifiers civilisation (Berlin) and culture (Vienna), Americanism (Berlin) and culture (Vienna), unculture (New York) and unculture (Berlin). In a personal retrospective, Sombart declares that a decade earlier (around 1897) he shared the common north German positive evaluation of Berlin’s conception of progress (and, by implication, its attendant Americanism) and negative evaluation of Vienna’s lack of progress:

Even ten years ago I found it laughable that Vienna had no night life and no city railway and did not increase its number of inhabitants every year by 100,000… In these ten years (I believe) there occurred my development into a cultured human being and therefore I now love – Vienna.49

Vienna’s city railway, designed by Otto Wagner, was in fact officially opened in 1898. The city’s population had already been increased as a result of the establishment of Gross-Wien in 1890, two decades before Berlin’s 1910 enlargement.

But these and other material developments are not the focus of Sombart’s interest. Rather, it is the cultural attributes of Vienna and Berlin that are his concern. Quite emphatically, Sombart declares Vienna to be a city of culture:

One can really summarise the judgement on Vienna in a single word: Vienna has culture. I do not even say “old”. Culture as such. Or, if one wishes to add an epithet to the word, then: artistic culture.50

This culture is evident in Vienna’s ‘indescribably beautiful nature’, ‘a breath of culture’ in Schönbrunn, in the patrician dwellings in Rodaun, in the Prater – in short, in ‘pastoral’ Vienna. It is also evident in its music: ‘Vienna is music. Is harmony. And thus, once more, culture. Wholeness, reconciliation’. This music pervades the inner city itself: ‘Old Vienna as city: in each stone a song, in each street corner, in each courtyard adorned with vines, in each old palace a melodical musical piece’. Culture is evident in the city’s population too: ‘the Viennese: a human being. Not the fragment of a human being that we find so often in north Germany’. Culture resides also in the city’s women, ‘women whom one can taste, who carry with them something unique like a beautiful flower, like a beautiful animal’.

This Viennese pastoral of culture, beautiful nature, music, complete human beings not overcome by obsession with ‘efficiency’, attractive women, is contrasted with contemporary Berlin – ‘how rapidly we become impoverished when we are still only enraptured by Berlin’s nature’. What is this Berlin?

Berlin is a suburb of New York: no more, no less. Everything of which the Berliner can be proud, New York has ten times more: it is three times as big, it grows even more quickly, it has ten times more traffic, ten times more theatres, its restaurants and amusement parks are ten times as large, its noise is ten times louder, its distances are even greater.

And what is New York? A desert. A huge cultural cemetery. Is humanity to end up in it?! 51

This Americanism that threatens to overwhelm Berlin has a number of distinctive features. First, it is characterised by ‘the overevaluation of the large scale, the huge, the purely quantitative’. Second, it is ‘the over evaluation of technical means, about which we ultimately forget the final and true words. As if “traffic” represents any kind of value and in the cities not merely satisfies a sorry necessary need. The traffic about which the American (Berliner) is so proud. Third, the organisation of things is to provide a ‘good order’ through efficiency, ‘as if the issue is that of “achievements” of whatever kind and not that of human beings who bring them about. What is the use to me of the whole north German (American) culture, if I only see about me fragmented human beings, unattractive, loathsome scoundrels’. Fourth, within ‘the devastating current of modern pseudo-culture’ there is a ‘proletarian-like revaluation of the old cultural values’.

In contrast, for those of us who ‘live in the desert of modern technical culture’, ‘Vienna, to speak in a Kantian manner is, – the regulative idea of culture: we orientate ourselves around Vienna and Viennese norms when we wish to know what culture is. We restore our resolve once more with Vienna when we are overcome by disgust at modern human development’. But Vienna too is threatened by ‘progress’. If Salten wished to ridicule the false conceptions of Vienna as ignoring modern developments, then Sombart sees Vienna as threatened by this progress. For Sombart, Vienna should not progress too much and should resist the negative means-orientation of modern civilization ‘as if underground railways and street cleaning and the restaurant for a thousand people and good state administration were the end of culture’. The contrast of high and low culture is also already present in Sombart’s image of the threat to Vienna’s ‘culture’. In a revealing statement, he ascribes the negative aspect of progress to the working class as itself the destroyer of high culture:

Vienna too is threatened by “progress”, like Florence, Rome and Paris. I spoke of Schönbrunn as a holy symbol of the highest culture: yet one should look out from there on the city, at how a gloomy modern proletarian district intervenes [between the city and the palace] and damages all fine impressions.52

The working class did not ‘choose’ to live in gloomy areas such as Favoriten; such districts were developed in order to house an expanding labour market.

At all events, Sombart is convinced that Vienna should not choose to be like Berlin (America):

Do the Viennese really wish to invest their highest pride in being “Berlin-American”? To have traffic? A “nightlife”? To be “efficient”? They will never totally succeed in this. For the old cultural foundation remains intact. And in order to totally give oneself up to “modernity”, in order to be totally impressed by the fact that in a single restaurant 6000 people could eat together, that every two minutes a city railway train departs: for this one would have to be completely devoid of all tradition, all culture, all qualities like the – New Yorker.53

Those who sought to solve even the traffic problems of Vienna in the context of a growing resistance of Old Vienna to New Vienna at the turn of the century often laid themselves open to the criticism that they were merely seeking to import American conceptions of city planning. Such people were, however, unsuccessful. Vienna’s city railway went around the centre of the city for military reasons (no easy rapid mass access to the centre) and an underground railway was not built until the 1970s (in contrast to Budapest’s turn of the century development). But as we have seen, Sombart’s juxtaposition of Berlin (America) and Vienna is concerned with culture or, more accurately, representations of culture not with actual features of either city. Although there was no response to Sombart’s essay in Morgen, his stance on Vienna was taken up by the writer and critic Franz Servaes in his volume on Vienna (in a series on cultural sites) in 1908.54 In passing, it is worth noting that the text is written as a series of ‘letters to a Berlin girlfriend’ who might visit Vienna and hence an exercise in persuading a Berliner to visit the city. Servaes’ representation of Vienna is that of an old city:

Vienna is not that which, in common parlance, one terms a “modern city”.... Of course there exists a modern veneer and an often very glittering new sheen and varnish in Vienna.... Yet all this is not the real Vienna... The soul of this city is old and shy. One must go in search of it.55

There is thus an inside (the real, old Vienna) and an outside (the modern surface) to this city. Hence it is distinguished from other cities by the fact that,

the innermost core of its built surface is still not totally that of the “city” pulsating with the most modern commercial city; not yet a piece of America in which warehouses are built on top of one another, where telephone and telegraph wires are the only voices on offer, and where all values are expressed exclusively in gigantic columns of figures.56

This city, Servaes argues, possesses much that Berlin can learn from. Indeed, ‘Professor Sombart’s warm and knowledgeable praise has not sunk without trace’. But however much each city can learn from the other, their historical roles are quite different:



Vienna has a totally different life-task compared to Berlin. It can be expressed epigrammatically as follows: Berlin wishes to “become” (I read shortly somewhere: Berlin is “on the way to acquiring culture”), Vienna, however, should remain Vienna.57

More pointedly – and beyond the cliché that Vienna remains itself – Servaes, in identifying Vienna as ‘a “German” city’ (and therefore overlooking one of the significant differences between Berlin and Vienna, and the empires in which they are located), views Vienna,

in the total sphere of German culture [as] Berlin’s important and fruitful counterweight. Its task is – to present it once more epigrammatically: to be a dam and bulwark against the invasive Americanism [...] an extremely important and at the same time extraordinary difficult task.

Americanism, in its greediness and soullessness, is our enemy: Europe must recognize this or otherwise it will perish. If it is conscious of this enmity (that certainly does not exclude the most urbane forms and the happiest recognition), then it will remain inwardly strong and, in possession and awareness of its old culture, will never be vanquished.58

One of the ironies of this binary opposition of Berlin and Vienna is that it is the most American German city that is a site for the ‘Ideas of 1914’ less than a decade later, one of which is to preserve genuine European culture. In the present context, the implication of Servaes’ – and Sombart’s – argument is that Berlin is incapable of performing the task of being a ‘bulwark’ against Americanism.

Reflections upon the polarity of Berlin and Vienna were continued in an article by the Berlin art and architecture critic Karl Scheffler in 1908 that makes passing reference to Bahr and Servaes. Scheffler had already reflected critically in 1901 upon Berlin culture with its ‘American-tempo growth’, its ‘Babylonian imbroglio’, as a capital of ‘parvenue culture’ (a critique developed more fully two years earlier in Walther Rathenau’s ‘The most beautiful city in the world’).59 In ‘Berlin as Artistic City’ (1901), Scheffler reflects upon the impoverishment of the arts in Berlin since unification, and the fact that,

for the first time in history, an epoch of feverish building activity does not coincide with social and artistic culture. The most vulgar profit style confronts the most inconsiderate entrepreneurs.60

The city’s ‘world bourgeoisie’ is no longer trained in philosophy but ‘in the halls of the stock exchange’. Scheffler sees this as, in part, a continuation of a longer process evident already in the wealthy bourgeoisie in pre 1848 Berlin formed out of too many heterogeneous elements (including ‘French education and Jewish mentality’). Today’s wealth lies,

in the hands of speculators and city sharks; Jewish intellectuals have studied metropolitan needs in London, Paris and New York and have awakened and satisfied a desire for them with fabulous success in the German metropole. In the sandstone palaces is housed a parvenu species that knows nothing of culture and art but rather as substitute for them promotes fashion; it does not desire what is beautiful but what is new and ascribes eternal value only to that which has a high price. For money becomes for it the measure of value of every ideal.61

The correlation between lack of culture, trader mentality and Jewish mentality is, of course, a thesis developed later and more fully by Sombart, and is to be distinguished from the thesis that modern culture is dominated by Jews.

Scheffler’s comparison of Vienna and Berlin introduces other dimensions to the metropolitan polarity. As with Sombart und Servaes, the German capital city is ‘the Americanised Berlin’. This city which grew so rapidly was compelled to borrow from others its cultural features. This modern Berlin is

a city that has emerged astonishingly quickly and continues to grow restless, of rapid work, without powerful traditions, without a visible history worth of educating its citizens in, without unified forms of life and social conventions. It looked outwards to France, England and America.62

Berlin also looked towards Vienna although to the Berliner as emergent type as ‘the Viennese appeared to be a person of the past, saturated, one who savours life’. Though critical of the new Viennese style, it was perceived as at least a style and not ‘the Prussian-American stylessness’ prevalent in Berlin. Indeed, in a disparaging manner, Scheffler maintains that in contemporary Vienna ‘Makart culture’ pervades its products.

In terms of their respective position within their empires, Vienna is reminiscent of Paris ‘ because Vienna too is simultaneously a historical and a modern city, an old city and a new city in one... a site of old traditions, a place of conservative spirit...and the real living focal point of a great empire. Vienna is much more of a capital city and centre than Berlin’. The reason for this is that the German Empire is much more decentralised, such that ‘each industrial and commercial city in the new empire is really the core of a metropolis, is a small-Berlin’.63 Unlike Vienna, there is little left of Berlin’s original population. The fact that,

the imperial capital lacks a local culture, that it is temporarily merely the rendezvous site for many different Germans, who have not found themselves in a new urban culture, makes this city lacking in physiognomy, weak in tradition and gives it its American stamp: the modern Berliner stands in relation to his city much more free and much more critically unconstrained than does the Viennese to his. Berlin is a settlement of uprooted East and West Prussians, Schlesiens, Rhinelanders, however Germans, and Saxons, Jews and Poles, of Wendish and Germanic elements of peoples. Only in one thing are this still unorganised people united: in their unbroken energy for work.64

This negative, abstract conception of freedom, lack of physiognomy and dependency on migration is compensated for in the energy for work – another feature of Americanism, but one which Scheffler views as opening up the possibility for a new urban culture. The irony of this depiction of Berlin as dependent on external population movements is that, in the context of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with over a dozen nationalities, cultures and languages, the diversity of its capital city’s population was much more marked at the turn of the century than was Berlin.

Instead, the external and often many internal representations of Vienna in this period seldom extended beyond the clichés of old Vienna. Although Scheffler and Servaes deal with modern Viennese culture (though Scheffler doubts whether its products will have a lasting impact). Further, even though Servaes – as one would expect from a guide to a city that is announced as not modern – indicates some of the city’s recent cultural achievements, this is not the case with Sombart’s delineation of Vienna. As Brigitt Morgenbrod has pointed out,

In Sombart’s words we are not confronted – as for later generations – with the so fascinating Vienna of the fin de siècle with its outstanding artistic and intellectual achievements – the architecture of Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, the music of Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schõnberg, Karl Kraus’s critique of language or Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis – but rather we are confronted to a certain extent with an “older” Vienna that seems to distance itself considerably from the inner workings of modernity with all its breaks and innovations.65

Rather, Sombart establishes a false continuity between past and present which allows him to retain the romantic conception of Vienna as repository of old (high) culture. In contrast, Berlin with its asphalt culture, its Americanised culture, could hardly form the basis for a genuine urban culture as far as Sombart was concerned. Like many anti-modernists, the possibility of a genuine modern culture is already prejudiced at the outset by a definition of culture whose attributes are all located in the past.

The widespread identification of Berlin with Americanism around the turn of the century – the historical conjuncture of Berlin and Americanism in Weimar Germany is different in crucial respects – creates the possibility of another ‘exceptionalism thesis’. Stated simply, it is that unlike other metropolitan centres in Europe at the turn of the century, Berlin is an Americanised city. The thesis is outlined by the writer and critic Ludwig Fulda in 1913 in his essay ‘Berlin and German Mental Life’, which commences with the statement that,

Berlin is an American city.... The predicate ‘American’ would already be justified with reference to its rapid expansion; but there also exist inner qualities. There exists the stormy drive forwards, the feverish activity, the unlimited desire for enterprise, the flying tempo of life, in short, all the characteristics that impress upon this community at large such an unrestrained modernity. Alongside this, there is in fact a critical overtone contained in the word. It is intended to signify that Berlin, in contrast to other European centres, also possesses a shadow side in common with America’s cities: the absence of old culture, of a monumental past, of noble tradition and established taste.66

Berlin is exceptional because it is the site of ‘unrestrained modernity’. An unfettered modernity is what characterizes Americanism. The course of unconstrained modernity is not held back by the past, by old cultural values, by fixed normative rules. Everything is in motion, expanding at a dramatic rate. This ceaseless modernity is identified with newness as such. In Berlin, Fulda argues, ‘what is new is preferred for its own sake, not because it is good but because it is new. Newness in Berlin denotes unconditional praise’.67

Fulda’s identification of Berlin with modernity accords with that of Servaes, Scheffler, Sombart and many others. But the judgement upon metropolitan modernity is already implied in the latter’s association with Americanism. As is so often the case with Sombart’s writings on modern capitalism and the culture of metropolitan modernity, insights into its features are accompanied by negative judgement. For those who supported modernist movements emerging out of the experience of metropolitan modernity, Berlin’s identification with modernity could have positive implications. To give but one example, the Viennese critic – and analyst of Viennese literary modernisms – Egon Friedell could view the dynamism of Berlin’s modernity as an indication of a positive future over against old Vienna.

Sombart’s contrast between Vienna and Berlin contains an explicit longing for a retreat from metropolitan modernity, not to Vienna as such but to the romanticized version of old Vienna, to a pastoral Vienna shared by many Viennese opponents of modernity in that city. Of course, such a retreat was only one of several available at the turn of the century. Another prominent alternative was the garden city. Yet many were sceptical of such retreats. Hermann Bahr, for instance, writing in 1910 was sceptical of attempts

to form islands or cloisters, as it were, such as are intended by garden cities to preserve oneself from the metropolis. Garden cities can help us against land speculators, their use is hygienic, their development is to be applauded for many reasons. But if one hopes that the German spirit will gradually migrate to the garden cities in order to breathe freely away from the metropolis – of that I am not sure. For many intellectuals the garden city will be welcomed as a solution to their own personal problems. Yet it will not solve the general problem of the German spirit. It cannot be solved by emigration. Indeed, America has attempted to pack its spirit, as it were, in an undisturbed cupboard of its own: Boston. We can read in Wells’ amusing portrayal what has become of this: a museum. No, the metropolitan problem can only be solved in the metropolis itself.68

The city as undisturbed garden with a harmonious (high) cultural existence – which is how Sombart viewed Vienna – was no solution to the problems of the modern metropolis which Sombart had outlined elsewhere. The differentiation and contradictions in modernity are real enough not to be subsumed within an undifferentiated image of America too. If Vienna is not Berlin, then Boston is not Chicago either.


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