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Henning Grunwald

Censorship through the back door: the Berlin Reigen trial of 1920/21


Political trials were a powerful driver of the ideological and cultural polarization that racked Europe’s interwar democracies. At the same time, they transcended ‘politics’ narrowly conceived. Litigating cultural norms, sexual mores or access to public goods, sanctioning or attempting to sanction expressions of opinion and preference linked political to cultural, religious and socio-economic cleavages and tended to fuse these separate spheres.

My research at Jena University and the Stiftung Weimarer Republik focuses on a particular aspect of this nexus of justice, politics and culture: the attempt to control and sanction artistic expression. It is based on a case study – the Berlin Reigen trial of 1920/21 – but seeks to illuminate a much grander project, the attempt by conservative forces to reassert a cultural code and limits of publc speech commensurate with their own pre-democratic value system. In effect, it was a creative and daring attempt to reintroduce a kind of moral and political censorship in the ‘freest of all states’.

The Reigen trial litigated the production of Schnitzler’s eponymous theatrical dissection of bourgeois sexual hypocrisy. The case study highlights, I argue, the great efforts Weimar conservatives put into amplifying the trial’s emotional heft and harnessing it to a reactionary agenda of ‘public mores’. However, the actual course of the trial also provides a glimpse of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the progressive coalition in defense of artistic freedom and freedom of expression. Centered around Gertrud Eysoldt and the Social Democrat lawyer Wolfgang Heine, the defense team managed to expose the manufactured quality of the ‘moral outrage’ allegedly provoked by Schnitzler’s play. The court, and through it the interested public, learned that the supposedly spontaneous ‘scandal’ had in fact been choreographed by the German Nationalist people’s party and its allies, including elements within the Berlin police department. Effectively, the trial had turned into a clash of contesting legal and ideological performances.

My research thus focuses on a spectacular attempt by Weimar cultural reactionaries to use public obscenity norms as a political weapon, and on the significance of its failure (in this instance at least). It links to recent research, including my own, on Weimar political justice that re-emphasizes its noxious impact on democratic political culture but moves beyond a previous, exclusive focus on judges and verdicts. Grasping trials as performances of ideology that went far beyond the ‘mere’ adjudication of legal norms helps to illuminate how interwar politics could become so polarized and emotionally charged.

Henning Grundwald Kontakt: henning.e.grunwald[@]


Current position

Senior Research Fellow, Institut für Politikwissenschaft, Arbeitsbereich Politische Theorie und Ideengeschichte, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena

Previous positions

2012 - 2018 - DAAD University Lecturer in Modern European History
- Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge University, UK
- Director, MPhil in Modern European History 2013-15
2006 - 2012 - DAAD Assistant Professor of History
- Associate Director (2010-12), Max Kade Center for European and German Studies, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
- Inaugural Director, Vanderbilt in Berlin study abroad program
2010 - Visiting Scholar, Columbia University, Faculty of History
2006 - Assistant for Academic Strategy to the President, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin
2003 - Postdoc, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute for Theatre Studies (funded by the German Research Foundation, DFG)
2003 Ph.D. dissertation 'Party lawyers, political trials and judicial culture in the Weimar Republic' (supervisor: Christopher Clark), Cambridge University
1998 M.Phil. in Political Thought and Intellectual History, Clare College, Cambridge, Distinction
1997 BA (Hons) History, Clare College, Cambridge, First Class

Publikationen (Auswahl)


‘Courtroom to Revolutionary Stage’: Performance and Ideology in Weimar Political Trials, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012

Krisis! Krisenszenarien, Diagnosen, Diskursstrategien (ed., with Manfred Pfister), Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag 2007

Articles, chapters in edited volumes, blogs (selected)

‘Skinnydipping, Spies and Shortages’, blog on Deutschland ’83 for The Conversation (January 2016)

‘Genocide Memorialization and the Europeanization of Europe’ in Karner, C./ Mertens, B. (eds.), The Use and Abuse of Memory. Interpreting World War II in Contemporary European Politics, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers 2013, pp.23-41

‘Justice as performance: trials and the history of political culture’ in InterDisciplines. Journal of History and Sociology, vol.3 No.2 (November 2012), pp.46-78

‘Nothing more cosmopolitan than the camps? Holocaust Remembrance and (De-) Europeanization’ in Patel, K./ Conway, M. (eds.), Europeanization in the Twentieth Century: Historical Approaches, New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2010, pp.253-70

‘“Turning the courtroom into a revolutionary stage” – Performing ideology in Weimar political trials’ in Wamhof, G. (ed.), Wie der Vergangenheit der Prozess gemacht wurde. Der Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozess in historischer Perspektive, Göttingen: Wallstein-Verlag 2009, pp.41-52