The Weimar Republic and the Ominous Rise of Jon Stewart
Why Jon Stewart’s rise may signify bad news for the United States — and the world as a whole.
October 28, 2010
Satire is an important art form. The political satires by Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, for example, remain widely read and quoted across the Western world today. However, in contrast to standup comedy clubs, the form has never seemed much of an American thing. Jon Stewart’s rise on Comedy Central changed that long-held assumption.
Come to think of it, Jon Stewart is a powerful one-man version of all the darkly humorous cabarets of Weimar-era Germany. If the underlying causes of Stewart’s rise were in any way a reflection of what ailed the Weimar Republic, that would be bad news indeed — not just for the United States, but also the world as a whole.
Berlin, some 90 years ago, was the global center of satirical performances. Viewed from today’s perspective, it seems unlikely that the sober- (if not somber-) minded Germans would have become the Mecca for such a hard-hitting form of humor.
Then again, it was an understandable reaction to the tough times the Germans had been through. A lost world war, the tumble of a powerful royal house, a rocky but rapid start to a fledgling democracy, bouts of massive inflation and lost fortunes even for regular folks were just some of the hardships interwar Germans had to come to grips with.
Laughter and political vitriol
No wonder they willingly resorted to comic relief in the form of satirical cabaret clubs, most of which were located in Berlin (and some in Munich).
Part of what made finding such relief in barbed laughter so necessary was the relentless vitriol with which the various political groupings went at each other in the aftermath of the lost war.
The German militarists of the time blamed it all on the Socialists – and their supposed willingness to make common cause with the enemy across the border(s) – as well as any other groups who made easy scapegoats. This was the right-wing’s popular but ahistorical “stabbed-in-the-back” theory purporting to explain the humiliation of 1918.
The same was true for Germany’s loyal royalists. They could not bear a world in which the old hierarchical order had been turned upside down.
Meanwhile the country’s democratic-minded upstarts were concerned that the old-line forces in the military, nobility and heavy industry were doing their utmost to turn the young democracy into a rapid failure — so that the previously established order could be restored as soon as possible.
Foreign countries, for their part, mostly played unenlightened divide-and-rule games — along the old principle of European power politics principle according to which the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Little wonder then that the national economy wasn’t exactly going gangbusters — although that would have been most helpful in averting the whole country's descent into the political and social abyss.
Despite all their best efforts to make ends meet, people had a very hard time finding employment. And, if they managed to do so, it was often only for short periods of time before the next crisis hit, or their new employer collapsed.
Satire comes before the fall
Living in such trying times was quite a letdown for the Germans who had gotten quite accustomed to their recently found status near the top of the global economic and political order, prior to the first World War.
Such a steep decline is especially painful for any nation’s elites. In interwar Germany's case, many of them resided in Berlin, the capital city.
And so it was that Berlin came to prominence for a time as the global capital of political satire. The cabarets were a way to find some humor in a dark and trying time.
A quick switch of scenery, to present-day New York City. Jon Stewart owes his rise on television, and hence to national fame, to the peculiarities of the George W. Bush Administration.
While much energy is spent on examining the question of what it signifies that young people in America prefer to get their news from a comedian/satirist, rather than the old-line evening TV news, this line of inquiry probably misses the bigger point.
And that point is that there is indeed something ominously Weimaresque about the rise of Jon Stewart.
There are, of course, those who will argue against giving Mr. Stewart that much credit. They are liable to say that he is an isolated phenomenon. Even including his outgoing sidekick, Stephen Colbert – or Daily Show alum John Oliver, whose new show on HBO has already started leveraging audience pressure on government agencies via mockery – critics are keen to dismiss them as little more than a limited phenomenon.
In other words, Jon Stewart has nowhere near the impact that Berlin’s cabarets undoubtedly had in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Downplaying the impact
Well, let’s think about that for a moment. Four nights a week, Jon Stewart’s satire reaches about 1.5 million people (sometimes even 2 million) for half an hour. The next day, those numbers balloon via reruns and time-shifted web viewing. Mr. Stewart surely has a farther numeric reach than all of Berlin’s Weimar-era cabarets combined.
And yes, there are those who find him a sideshow, wholly unrepresentative of broader cultural trends in the United States — a bitter, repetitive, but understandable reaction from the left in order to vent the frustrations felt about George W. Bush.
But Stewart’s audience numbers in 2014 remain about where they were in 2008, even after Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House. In fact, they were well above his Bush-era ratings by the end of 2013. Could it be that there is a broader frustration and discontent being relieved by his humor?
May America be so lucky that the relevance of Mr. Stewart and his heirs and competitors is just a temporary and, on the whole, rather insignificant phenomenon.
For if he were to signify any more than that, and his rise were in any way a reflection of the rise of cabarets in the Weimar Republic, that would be bad news indeed — not just for the United States, but also the world as a whole.
Editor’s note: This essay was originally published on October 28, 2010 and was updated by the author on June 7, 2014.