A Lauded Satirist of the Weimar Republic Who Anticipated the Brutality of the Third Reich

Meanwhile, they can’t get out of their minds the girl they saw, visibly terrified, on an outing with her classmates. Her school and its sadistic German matron become a symbol of all that is wrong with the Weimar Republic in its death throes. When the vacationers step in to extract the girl from her ordeal, they do so knowing full well that they are leaving no dent in the institution of oppression.

According to one Jewish proverb, a man who saves one life saves the whole world. Tucholsky was too much of a realist to subscribe to that view. Yet he let nobody off the hook.

Consider this passage about the “quiet, thoughtful” craftsmen who built the boarding school that harbors so much suffering: “When it was finished, they plastered the walls, and some of the rooms were painted, many more were papered, all differently, and according to their instructions. Then they had gone away phlegmatically. The house was finished; it didn’t matter what happened in it now. That wasn’t their affair, they were only the builders. The courtroom where people are tortured was, to begin with, a rectangle of brick walls, smooth and whitewashed. A painter had stood on his ladder and whistled cheerfully as he painted a gray stripe right round the room, as he had been told to; as far as he was concerned, it was a piece of craftsmanship.”

Tucholsky’s verdict on his own ability to change things with his pen was devastating. In 1923 he wrote, “I have success, but no impact whatsoever.”

But outside politics his impact on his contemporaries was profound. Some of his quips remain in circulation to this day. His mix of snark and forensic social observation defined a certain brand of cool for the interwar generation. And, long before Lydia, he defined as a feminine ideal a woman who was outwardly capricious and ditsy, yet levelheaded, warm and fiercely independent.

The prototype was Claire, the protagonist of the illustrated novella “Rheinsberg,” which Tucholsky published in 1912 when he was barely 22. It prefigures “Castle Gripsholm,” featuring a young couple vacationing in the countryside where they bicker in a patois of their own devising, make love and poke fun at bourgeois mores. The book was a runaway success. For a while, Tucholsky and the book’s illustrator ran a pop-up store in Berlin where customers were served a shot of schnapps with each purchase. German couples adopted Claire’s droll mix of colloquial dialect and hapless High German, as their private language.

In both “Rheinsberg” and “Castle Gripsholm” Tucholsky uses patois to heighten the daffy sex appeal of his female characters. In “Castle Gripsholm,” it is Lydia’s use of Missingsch, a customizable blend of High German and the earthy Platt dialect of northern Germany, that reveals her no-nonsense character. As the narrator describes Missingsch, “it slithers about on the carefully wax-polished stairs of German grammar, before falling flat on its face in its beloved Platt.” In this translation, Hofmann forgoes any attempt at finding an English equivalent. In his introduction he writes that trying to render Missingsch using a “‘corresponding’ dialect” in English would be “distracting, paradoxical, absurd.” He cites Tucholsky’s own disdain for a German translation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” that had Mellors speaking in a “‘Bavarian mountain dialect.’”

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