Many are familiar with the intolerance of Nazi Germany
, and the image of this Germany as an ordered society of identical Aryans
still remains. Few however, might suspect that even as Weimar Germany
was giving rise to the ideas that would allow Nazi Germany to become a reality, many diverse
social groups were finally gaining acceptance, or at the very least some semblance
of tolerance. Among these groups were Africans
in particular, whose jazz culture
was quickly establishing itself as the vibrant and modern opposite of European
classical tradition. Some might find it surprising that someone such as Josephine Baker
could become both a superstar and a critical success in the Berlin
that would become the Nazi capital only a few years later. Yet it happened. How could a society so enamoured with something as foreign as jazz and African-American dancing turn xenophobic
and nationalist in such a short period of time? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the German struggle for identity
and the Weimar exploration of all things primitive
. The Nazi party exploited primitive hate
and fear and mixed it with modern, almost futuristic
ideas of order and power. Similarly, only through a true understanding of what Germans desired to gain from both the primitive and modern aspects of their nature was Josephine Baker able to "conquer
" Berlin. If one truly sees the different ways in which Baker was perceived by the German mass culture
, her success isn’t very startling at all.
The aspect of Baker which one might suspect would be the biggest barrier to her being able to perform in Europe was in fact one of the key factors of her success. Her race was a vital part of her allure. She was the first African-American woman who was accepted as beautiful in European terms although she had African-American features. Thus, while she was still seen as a traditional beauty, she also was able to interject a sense of the primitive into her performance merely because of the foreign aspects of her appearance. To her European audiences whose ancestors had been "civilized" since classical times, she represented a direct connection to the primitive. In the European mind, Baker was only a few generations removed from the jungles of Africa, and she still had the physical characteristics (most notably her skin color) that made this obvious. As a member of a race that was considered inferior, she was able to succeed by exploiting her audience’s obsession with the primitive and emphasizing her differences rather than trying to mask them. Through these means she was able to meet her audience’s expectations and succeed where success seemed unlikely.
Other than her dark skin and the subsequent tribal associations in the minds of many Europeans of the era, Baker was able to tap into the German sense of the primitive through her sexual freedom and her primal dance. Extreme sexuality was and still is often associated with the primitive for several reasons. Obviously one connection is the link between humanity and animals that sexuality provides. Whereas the "civilized" society of Western life has little in common with the allegedly more primitive societies found in other parts of the world, all cultures have the sexual act in common, as it is necessary for those civilizations to continue. Sexuality serves as a reminder that people are merely advanced animals who still have to eat, sleep, breathe, and procreate like every other animal. Also, sexual desire is for the most part involuntary, and this primitive force has the power to sometimes overwhelm many attributes associated with sentient human life, such as reason and common sense. In addition to the physical associations with the primitive, social constructs also help to categorize sexuality as a primitive trait. In Western society of the time, sexuality was not often discussed publicly and was more or less a private affair. This taboo surrounding sex made it seem like something below discussion and intrinsically base. So the overt sexuality of Baker’s body and sensual dance link her to the primitive and most likely would have done so even if she were not foreign or black. The combination of her race and her sexuality made her one of the strongest symbols of the primitive present in the high society of Weimar Germany.
So why is it that Weimar Germany was so open to assimilating such primitive forces as the dancing of Josephine Baker while simultaneously rejecting other symbols of the presence of the primitive in society? To many of those who study Baker, her success stems from her American background, which caused her to be associated with the "ultramodern" in the minds of the German public. While this is certainly true to some extent, I think her acceptance has to mostly do with the nature of her "intrusion" into German society. Whereas African troops in the Rhineland was seen as a violent and particularly vile intrusion, the dancing of Josephine Baker did not threaten Germany or its culture. Jazz was popular but did not gain widespread acceptance due to fears that it would replace the "civilized" and highly regarded German classical music. Baker (and jazz in some circles) was seen as something that could be appreciated in addition to German culture, not instead of it. It was so different that it in no way threatened to erase traditional entertainment. Also, members of high society who attended Baker’s shows could be seen as progressive for embracing her dancing, as long as they maintained respect for more conservative culture. Therefore, not only could one enjoy Baker’s shows without fear of rejection from mainstream society, but one could even improve their status by attending. Hardly representing a threat from primitive forces, Baker’s audience probably thought of her dancing as interesting and original, but not something that would last very long or would threaten their own culture. So although her Americanism made her seem more modern in the eyes of her audience, it was largely her knowledge of what was and was not acceptable that allowed her to succeed in Europe.
While several historians believe that Baker’s American birth gave her a sense of modernity, I believe that it was her femininity rather than her nationality that was the most important factor in her "Ultramodern" image. Her shows concentrated on her sexuality and femininity, and I think that in her dancing it was important that the modern have a similar source as the primitive. It was the combination of the two that made her act equally alluring and engaging, and therefore blending the two closely caused the audience to question its own perception of the relationship between modern and primitive. Associations with both the primitive and the modern were elicited by Baker’s sexuality. However, since the primitive aspect of her sexuality was based more on the physical act of sex, the modern aspect came from her gender and how she used it to her advantage. Baker was a decidedly modern woman, someone who was seen as independent and unique. She could never be confused with a traditional member of the high society, but her celebrity allowed her to act like one, only without the traditional element of family to keep her tied down. Her sexual promiscuity was also a thoroughly modern trait, a way of breaking with tradition. The fact that she was a female dancer allowed her to infiltrate the male-centric European society of early 20th century Europe in ways that no African-American male could have ever hoped for. Fear of African-American male sexuality would have prevented men from being so easily assimilated. Because of her gender, there was a certain extent to which the German public could write her off as harmless. Her sexuality and her gender in ways asserted the power of the European male. Baker was far from a sexual slave however. In her shows, Baker was opening a whole new world to her audience with her dancing, so she had more power over the way she was perceived than an average dancer would. This ability to create her own image and her knowledge of what was wanted are what enabled her to become as successful as she was.
Baker understood her limits as an African-American female in 1930s Berlin, but she also understood just how far she could push those limits. Through a well-crafted image and a truly innovative form of entertainment, she was able to legitimize aspects of the primitive that would have previously been considered barbaric or savage. She was very much a modern woman of the era, but as the boundaries of what she could do in Berlin closed in on her as the Nazis gained power, her "conquest" of the city came to an end. She reflected what the society of that time wanted and needed — a presentation of the primitive that affirmed the modern.