In the Introduction to his last, posthumously published book History: The Last Things Before the Last (1969), Siegfried Kracauer formulates a summa of his intellectual existence.footnote1 The discovery of the hidden connection between his interest in history and his interest in the photographic media reveals to him the central intention that guided his thought for half a century: ‘at long last all my main efforts, so incoherent on the surface, fall into line—they all have served, and continue to serve, a single purpose: the rehabilitation of objectives and modes of being which still lack a name and hence are overlooked or misjudged.’footnote2 Kracauer particularly mentions in this connection two books from his Weimar period: the novel Ginster of 1928, and the study Die Angestellten (The White Collar Masses) of 1930. Like Theory of Film (1960) and the History book, they survey regions of reality ‘which despite all that has been written about them are still largely terra incognita’.footnote3

When Kracauer wrote these lines at the beginning of the 1960s, the readership that might have understood them no longer existed—and did not yet exist anew. The essays and books written before his exile from Germany had never become known in the English-speaking countries and had fallen into oblivion in Germany; the books of his American exile met largely with misunderstanding or perplexed silence. The latter circumstance is directly related to the former. For just as Kracauer in the Introduction to History reverts directly to expressions coined in the context of his early writings, so his later work as a whole can be understood only against the background of the traditions, themes and figures of thought of his Weimar texts. A first step in introducing the German writer of the 1920s to an English-speaking public was the recently published translation of the essay collection The Mass Ornament.footnote4 It displays Kracauer as phenomenologist and philosopher of history, as critic of modern literature and film. Die Angestellten shows him in a related but somewhat different role: as a sociologist of culture and the quotidian, mapping the terra incognita of salaried employees in the last years of the Weimar Republic.

Like almost all his other writings from the Weimar period, Die Angestellten first appeared (in instalments) in the feuilleton—that is, the cultural section—of the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung. Following studies in architecture, sociology and philosophy, Kracauer worked for this paper from 1921 on—initially as a regular freelance contributor, after 1924 as a full editor, and from 1930 until his flight from Nazi Germany in February 1933 as cultural editor for the paper’s Berlin pages. From late April to July 1929, Kracauer stayed in Berlin to carry out the research for his study on employees. In October the text was completed, but objections from the paper’s editorial board delayed its publication.footnote5 Due to the support of Benno Reifenberg, the editor of the feuilleton section to whom Die Angestellten is dedicated, its pre-publication finally went forward in December. ‘A sensation has been handed us’, Reifenberg wrote to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Heinrich Simon,footnote6 and the readership’s reaction proved him right. In January 1930, the study also was published as a book.footnote7

Kracauer subtitled the book, ‘From the Newest Germany’—a phrase which, with laconic brevity, formulated the viewpoint, method and claim of his investigation. What his study aims to be is neither a scientific treatise ‘about’, nor a literary reportage ‘on’, the salaried class. Rather, Kracauer adopts the role of the ethnologist, who sets off on a sociological ‘expedition’ to a domestic ‘abroad’ and reports ‘from the brand-new Germany’ of the salaried employees as if from some exotic foreign land. Kracauer does not let slip the opportunity to juxtapose the ‘exoticism’ of this world with that of those ‘primitive tribes at whose habits the employees marvel in films’. The ethnological metaphor, however, is not meant merely ironically but is closely connected with the method and concern of his study. For Kracauer really is setting off. Leaving statistics and learned studies behind, he embarks on an empirical inquiry into the spheres of existence, habits, patterns of thought and manners of speech of salaried employees. He talks to the employees themselves, to union representatives and to employers; he visits offices and firms, job exchanges and labour courts, cinemas and places of entertainment; he studies company newspapers, classified advertisements and private correspondence. His procedure has occasionally been compared with the method of ‘participant observation’ that the Lynds were developing at roughly the same time in their study of Middletown. Yet Kracauer’s approach is characterized by a highly self-conscious individualism which resists methodological generalization and crucially involves the mise en scène of foreignness and distance as a condition of attention and a medium of knowledge.

The terrain Kracauer seeks to explore is indeed ‘the newest Germany’. The superlative evokes the sensationalism of contemporary reportage and at the same time ironizes it.footnote8 For the sensation Kracauer offers us is simply that of ‘daily life’, the ‘normal existence in its imperceptible dreadfulness’. If both aspects—newness and normality—are considered together, the ethnological metaphor acquires a further significance. Kracauer’s study is an expedition also in the sense that it not only offers a sociology of salaried employees, but through an analysis of this social stratum’s everyday world seeks to discover ‘the newest Germany’, the most advanced state of economic andsocio-cultural modernization. His inquiry thus leads into the heart of the modern large enterprise, which—as an extreme case of economic rationalization—provides a basis for studying the organizational forms that will determine the future process of production and distribution. And it also leads into the heart of the metropolis Berlin. For just as ‘the economic process engendering the masses of salaried employees has advanced furthest’ in Berlin, so have employees here for the first time become the formative power of the public sphere.

Kracauer compares the life of the employees with the purloined letter in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale, protected from discovery precisely by being on public display. By wresting it from anonymity and naming it, he places it in a two-fold light. He presents the employees as agents and victims of a socio-cultural modernization which has occurred in similar ways in all the advanced capitalist countries of the West. Thus, in reference to this stratum, Kracauer is the first to describe the functional connection between work and leisure, between economic rationalization and the distraction provided by the culture industry; he captures in nascent form the specific modern process of identity formation, no longer mediated primarily through origin and tradition, but increasingly through secondary and tertiary means of socialization; he describes the new physical mechanisms of selection and standardization, under the pressure of which physiognomies begin to resemble one another and a metropolitan type—uniform in terms of language, clothes and gestures—is formed; he discovers youth as a modern fetish; and he recognizes the increasing importance of women in the world of work and as targets and consumers of mass culture.

In retrospect, however, his study reads not just as a description of the modernization of everyday life, but also as an anticipatory diagnosis of the contradictions, distortions and delusions that the National Socialists were to mobilize a few years later. Below the surface of cosmopolitan fashion, the salaried employees cultivated models of self-definition in terms of bureaucratic rank and professional stratum, rooted in specifically German traditions. Indeed, there was no other Western country in which employees, both in their own consciousness and in that of the public, so early played such a central role.footnote9 In no other were they so intensively courted by politicians; in no other was the distinction between workers and salaried employees marked so sharply and with such far reaching consequences. The concept of the ‘new middle class’ had already been coined at the end of the nineteenth century. It defined the employees as the new centre of society; their function was to act as abuffer against socialism. The Angestelltenversicherungsgesetz of 1911—which had no equivalent in any other Western country—confirmed this concept by granting the salaried employees privileged terms of insurance and labour rights, and defining them as a higher stratum than the working class. The economic rationalization in the mid 1920s, however, which further effected the former bourgeoisie, already dispossessed by the war and the inflation, deprived this definition of any basis. For in the very process by which the salaried employees grew to mass proportions, they massively forfeited what had been used to justify their privileged position: higher earnings, relative autonomy, the chance for social advancement, and security of employment. The material conditions of their life came to resemble those of the working class.