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WEIMAR REPUBLIC LESSONS January 30, 2008

Posted by wmmbb in Modern History.
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75 years ago Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor, and his assumption of that office marked the end of an era. The Wiemar Republic lasted from its establishment at the end of World War I in 1919 until 30 January 1933. The extent of the Wiemar Republic was something I had not appreciated: weimar-republic.png

Map: Wikipedia(Enclave of East Prussia not shown here).

Deutche Wella posed the questions to US historian Eric Weitz:

Yet there were people in Germany who hated the Weimar Republic. Who were they? And why did they want it to fail if it was so promising and attractive?

Everything about the Weimar Republic was contested. The kinds of artists, thinkers, architects whom I focus on in the book — much or all of their work was intensely challenged from the right. By that I mean the establishment right — the old-line aristocrats, high government officials, army officers, businessmen, bankers, people from the church who by and large were not only anti-socialist and anti-communist but anti-democratic as well. The revolution in 1918/19 left their powers intact by and large. It established a political democracy but did not undermine at all the social situation and powers of this old-line conservative elite.

That conservative elite, after the initial flurry of revolution, challenged the republic every step of the way. Many of the focal points of conflict were not just in the political sphere but in the cultural and social sphere as well. There was, for example, the so-called “Zehlendorf Roof Wars” in which conservatives, architects, and critics — Nazis as well — claimed that the flat roofs of modern architectural style was distinctly un-German and true German architecture had pitched roofs. These critics would charge that flat roofs were a form of Jewish architecture. The emancipation of women in the 1920s and very active talk of erotic fulfillment was another focal point of intense conflict.

Would you say the Weimar Republic was an early victim of globalization? Do you think it would have survived if the Great Depression of 1929 hadn’t occurred?

The Great Depression was the final blow. If we look at the economy and the election of 1928 just prior to the onset of the Great Depression, we can see a move back to the center politically and signs of serious economic progress. This is the last year of the so-called fabled golden years of the republic. Without the Depression, the republic would at least have had a chance. It had managed to survive the hyperinflation of 1923, as disruptive and disorienting as that event was. But it was the depression that came from the United States to Germany very fast and very strongly that certainly unleashed the final blow.

Hyperinflation in the early 1920s made German currency completely uselessBildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Hyperinflation in 1923 made German currency worthless and sparked an economic crisis

At the same time we should not forget that few democracies have been founded in such difficult circumstances as the Weimar Republic. The republic needed a long breathing space, it needed a more expansive and forgiving attitude on the part of the Western allies, it needed economic stability and progress — all of that was in precious short supply in the post-World War I years.

What led finally to the demise of democracy in the Weimar Republic? After all, in the 1928 general election, the Nazis won just 2.6 percent of the vote; five years later Hitler was in power.

It’s true, in 1928, the Nazi party was a marginal, unimportant political group which had very little resonance beyond some very distinctive places that were already in depression before the Great Depression — agricultural areas in particular. But in many ways, the republic was seriously undermined and the political system paralyzed prior to the Nazi seizure of power. In a depression especially, people look for solutions and the republic was not offering any to the economic crisis. From 1930 onwards, Germany was governed under a presidential dictatorship because the political system was so fragmented that the Reichstag could not assemble or function in parliamentary majority. So the chancellor from spring of 1930 onwards, Heinrich Brüning and his successors, governed largely through emergency powers proclaimed by the president, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg.

Hitler in Nuremberg on Sept. 2, 1933Bildunterschrift: Großansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: The Nazis never received a majority vote

But I do want to underscore the fact that the Nazis never received a majority vote in a popular, freely contested election. In the summer of 1932, they received 37.4 percent of the vote — the highest they would ever receive. It’s a significant jump to be sure but that’s not a majority and the popular phrase that one hears so often in the United States, “the German people elected Hitler to power or elected the Nazis to power” — that’s wrong, it’s inaccurate, it’s untrue. The Nazis were never elected to power. In the next election, in the fall of 1932, they already lost a significant percentage of the support they had gained in the summer. The Nazi party was in disarray. At the very end, they came to power because the establishment conservative elite, a coterie of powerful men around President Hindenburg, handed power over to the Nazis. That alliance is what ultimately killed the republic.

What lessons can be drawn from the Weimar Republic? Implied throughout your book is the question of whether it is possible for contemporary democracies to succumb to neo-fascist forces in the same way that the Weimar Republic fell to the Nazis.

Present day Germany is a well-established democratic system. It gives me no worries whatsoever. To be sure there are some extreme right-wing groups that can be dangerous and the reaction against them is still a little slow sometimes. But these groups are marginal and Berlin is not Weimar.

My worries are more about my own country, the US, in the sense that the threats to democracy don’t always come from abroad. The most dangerous threat may come from within. That was certainly the case in Weimar, especially in its last years. What worries me is when certain people or institutions mouth talk of democracy but in reality undermine the very practices of democracy. Of course the Nazis were never committed to democracy but they used the populist rhetoric that resonated with people. When that kind of populist rhetoric masks undemocratic practices, that’s where I think we truly need to be concerned.

The analogy that does worry me greatly is when establishment conservatives make radical conservatives salonfähig or in colloquial English “acceptable in polite society.” I think to a certain extent that indeed has occurred in the United States. When establishment conservatives go beyond the bounds of legitimate democratic discourse and constitutional provisions and make the program, the individuals and ideas of radical conservatives acceptable — that’s when we’re in trouble.

Historians are entitled to their opinions, and more entitled than most for periods they have studied. It is useful to keep in mind that the Nazis were never supported by a majority of Germans, the crucial support for their ascendancy to power came from conservative forces, and that the constitutional process had been undermined by the actions of previous governments. It is news to me that the period following the First World War to the end of the Weimar Republic was a period of artistic creativity. The Weimar Republic seems to have been a victim of international forces, principally economic pressures.

To the extent that any parallel can be drawn with the contemporary United States is a cause for concern.

Footnote: 06 February 2008

Just another piece of information, to which I was previously oblivious. The Third Reich is of course the “third empire”. Implicitly, by adopting this terminology we are adopting the Nazi frame on history, which was to deny the Weimar Republic.

The first empire is marked with the crowning by Pope John XII of Otto I (The Great) on 2 February 962. The first empire was more a Saxon than a German empire:

For in the tenth century the Germans did not recognize themselves as such. They might conceivably have recognized that all Germanic peoples, including the Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Anglo-Saxons, were akin, but till the twelfth century they had no conception at all of what we would now call Germany. When Otto the Great referred to the German parts of his kingdom he called it Francia, and its people were described as Saxons, Franks, Bavarians, or Swabians.

p210.R H C Davis, A History of Medieval Europe

The Second Empire lasted from 1871 to 1918, and the reunification of Germany under the leadership of Prussia and Bismarck. The explanation for 19th Century origins of both Germany and Italy lie in their Medieval past, as is true with different stories for the development of nation states in England (then Britain) and France.

Each empire, and the Weimar Republic, represented an experiment in nation building. We tend to take the nation state for granted, especially those of us born in former colonies. The nation state is just another institution whose time may have come. This thought is not new; it has been around for 40 years to my direct knowledge.

The European Unity was created in part to successfully pattern of war between Germany and France over such contested multi-lingual ground as Alsace-Lorraine (originally Lotharingia). Such a war, in which many of our father’s and grandfather’s generations died, is now fortunately is unthinkable, but curiously the EU provides the umbrella for the development of new European right wing parties and the evolution of new nation states, of which Kosovo is the model for Scotland and the Basque country.

ELSEWHERE – 18 January 2010

Professor David Kruger, in making a current comparison, provides more background information on the Wiemar Republic.

Comments»

1. Ralph W. Davis - June 6, 2009

Very interesting. I had always heard that at first, Hitler was elected…and so he was, but, by a plurality (by about the same percentage that elected Bill Clinton), NOT a majority. I believe in the USA there is a LOT of misunderstanding still about modern Germany–and I also believe there is probably just as high a percentage of anti-Semites in America as their are amidst native Germans(which isn’t particularly high). I’ve spent 3 summers studying in eastern Germany, 04, 05, and 06, and found everyone very friendly and open minded, with not one German having neo-Nazi attitudes.

2. wmmbb - June 6, 2009

Thank you very much for your comment Ralph.

They will be on interest to the people likely to visit here, which typically shows as among the leading posts on this blog.


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