Kurt Tucholsky

Kurt Tucholsky
Kurt Tucholsky

Kurt Tucholsky (Berlin, January 9, 1890December 21, 1935 in Gothenburg) was a German journalist, satirist and writer. He also wrote under the pseudonyms Kaspar Hauser, Peter Panter, Theobald Tiger und Ignaz Wrobel.

Tucholsky was one of the most important jounalists 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 und justice - and the threat of National Socialism. His fears were confirmed when the Nazis came to power in 1933: his books were burned and he lost his citizenship.


Tucholsky's life

Youth, school and studies

Kurt Tucholsky's parents' house, where he was born on January 9, 1890, was located at 13 Lübecker Straße in Berlin-Moabit. However, he spent his early childhood in Stettin 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 live, he loved and respected his father. However, by 1905, Alex Tucholsky had already died as a result of a syphilis infection. To his wife and children he left a considerable fortune, which enabled his oldest son to carry out his studies without andy financal 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.

Even during his studies, Tucholsky's interests turned to literature. Thus he travelled to Prague in September 1911 with his friend Kurt Szafranski in order to surprise his favourite author Max Brod with a visit and a miniature 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 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

Even while he was still at school, Tucholsky had completed his first journalistic work. 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. During his studies, he intensified his journalistic activity, among other things working for the social democratic party organ Vorwärts ("Forwards"). 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 mentur until his death. Tucholsky wrote about this special relationship in a "Vita" (biography) which he wrote in Sweden two years befor his death: "Tucholsky thanks the publisher of the paper, Siegfried Jacobsohn, who died in the year 1926, for what 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 at 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 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 once 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 that."
(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 suddenly led him to be 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 had still been involved in the competition for the 9th war loan (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

Already by December 1918, Tucholsky had taken 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 Tagesblatt.

He again worked regularly for Die Weltbühne at this 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, Theobald Tiger and Peter Panter. Since Theobald Tiger was at times 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, songs and "Couplets" (jokey, satirical songs with a chorus and content which may be frivolous or intellectual - see also the article Couplet in the German Wikipedia) for the Cabaret - for the stage "Schall und Rauch" ("Hollow Words") - and for singers such as Claire Waldoff and Trude Hesterberg. His poetry collection Fromme Gesänge (Pious Songs) appeared in October 1919.

In the immediate after-war period came a chapter of Tucholsky's life little worthy of praise: his short-tem but well-paid work for the propaganda magazine Pieron. Under orders from the German government, the magazine was supposed to turn the people against Poland over the final drawing up of the German-Polish border in Upper Silesia. This task, strongly criticized by other newspapers in the end 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.

But also at this time Tucholsky had 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 alredy started the anti-military series of articles Militaria - an attack on the wilhelminian spirit of the officers which in addition he saw coarsened during the war and which lived on in the Republic. His own conduct as a soldier during the war did not substantially differ, howeve, from that of those in the German Officer corps which he so strongly criticized. Biograhpers thus see in the Militaria articles "a kind of public self-analysis" (Michael Hepp). Thus in the first article of the series he wrote:

"We must take the blame for that which a degenerate militarism has broken down.
Only by completely turning away from this shameful period can we return to order.
It is not Spartacus; it is also not the oficer who saw his own people as a means to an end - what, then, will it be in the end?
The upstanding German."
("Miliataria: 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 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 had to confirm that the judge shared the defendant's monarchist and nationalist views and sympathised with them. 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 backwards), sloppy investigation, lazy excuses, a few phrases, pitiful skiving, lenient punishments, suspension of sentences, priviledges - "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)

Missing image
Mariefred: Tucholsky's grave

Born in Berlin-Moabit, he moved in 1924 to Paris and in 1930 to Sweden. He probably committed suicide in Hindås near Göteborg and died in a hospital in Göteborg while in Swedish exile.

Tucholsky, like other writers and artists of the Weimar era, had the same combination of mordant objectivity and political insight that made them mock the illusions of those who thought that everything would somehow work out for the best. His poem about the production of Danton's Death, a nineteenth century warhorse restaged in Berlin by Max Reinhardt in the early 1920s, only a few years after the German Revolution of 1918-19 was brought to grief, expresses this well:


Bei Reinhardt wogte der dritte Akt.
Es rasten sechshundert Statisten.
Sieh an - wie das die Berliner packt!
Es jubeln die Journalisten.
Mir aber erschien das Ganze wie
eine kleine Allegorie.
Es tost ein Volk: "Die Revolution!
Wir wollen die Freiheit gewinnen!
Wir wollten es seit Jahrhunderten schon -
laßt Herzblut strömen und rinnen!"
Es dröhnt die Szene. Es dröhnt das Haus.
Um Neune ist alles aus.
Und ernüchtert seh ich den grauen Tag.
Wo ist der November geblieben?
Wo ist das Volk, das einst unten lag,
von Sehnsucht nach oben getrieben?
Stille. Vorbei. Es war nicht viel.
Ein Spiel. Ein Spiel.


Act Three was great in Reinhardt's play —
Six hundred extras milling.
Listen to what the critics say!
All Berlin finds it thrilling.
But in the whole affair I see
A parable, if you ask me.
"Revolution!' the People howls and cries
'Freedom, that's what we're needing!
We've needed it for centuries —
Our arteries are bleeding.'
The stage is shaking. The audience rock.
The whole thing is over by nine o'clock.
The day looks grey as I come to.
Where are the People — remember? —
That stormed the peaks from down below?
What happened to November?
Silence. All gone. Just that, in fact.
An act. An act.

English editions and books

  • Grenville, Bryan P.: Kurt Tucholsky: The Ironic Sentimentalist. London 1981.
  • 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: "Germany? Germany": a Kurt Tucholsky Reader. With translations by Harry Zohn, Karl F. Ross and Louis Golden. Manchester 1990
  • Tucholsky, Kurt: What if - ?; Satirical writings of Kurt Tucholsky. Translated by Harry Zohn and Karl F. Ross. New York 1967 (1968).


  • This article draws heavily on the corresponding article in the German Wikipedia, retrieved April 24, 2005.

External links


eo:Kurt TUCHOLSKY pl:Kurt Tucholsky sv:Kurt Tucholsky zh:库尔特·图霍夫斯基


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