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The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical…

The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity (1987)

by Detlev Peukert

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Deutsche Geschichte bei C.H. Beck (9)

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In my opinion the best book ever written on the Weimar Republic. Superbly-written, creatively-organized and well-researched. It would have been difficult indeed to have imagined another, better book on a period of history upon which so much has been written but that is what Peukert did. His early death was a blow. ( )
  Tpoi | Aug 10, 2011 |
In my opinion the best book ever written on the Weimar Republic. Well-written, well-researched and creatively-organized, it his synthesis of huge swaths of primary and secondary literature which makes this magisterial. It would have been difficult indeed to have imagined another, better book on a period of history upon which so much has been written, but that is what Peukert did. His early death was a blow.I am unsure of who to recommend this to but it does assume some knowledge of German and European history. ( )
  Tpoi | Aug 10, 2011 |
Explaining the Collapse of the Weimar Republic and the Role of German Big Business in the Rise of Hitler
Michael E. Dobe, Sr.

Works Covered in This Review

The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity by Detlev J. K. Peukert, Hill and Wang, 1992.
Perspectives on Modern German Economic History and Policy by Knut Borchardt, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Weimar: Why Did German Democracy Fail? edited by Ian Kershaw, St. Martin's Press, 1990.
German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler by Henry A. Turner, Oxford University Press, 1985.
"Zum Verhaetnis von Grossindustrie und Nationalsozialismus 1930-1933" by Dirk Stegmann, Archiv fuer Sozialgeschichte 13 1973.

The constitutional structure of the Federal Republic of Germany, as expressed in the Grundgesetz, draws heavily upon lessons from the failed Weimar Republic. By including the stipulation that a political party must obtain 5% of the vote in order to be represented in parliament and requiring that a chancellor can only be removed from office by a vote of no confidence when a new chancellor can be simultaneously elected, the framers of the Grundgesetz hoped to avoid the political fragmentation and disarray of the Weimar years. Yet, few analysts have been content with lessons drawn from the collapse of Weimar which would place too much reliance on constitutional structures for insuring the continued success of democracy.

Along with the Grundgesetz, the vitality of the post-WWII German economy has insured prosperity. The presence of NATO troops on German soil has served as a healthy counterbalance to any nascent radical tendencies. The present world-wide economic downturn, in addition to the ongoing withdrawal of NATO troops from Germany in the wake of re-unification, has occasioned renewed concern in the international community over the stability of German democracy.

Given this concern, Detlev J. K. Peukert's last book appears to be a timely contribution to the debate over the lessons of Weimar. Peukert's work cannot be properly understood unless one understands its context. During the past quarter century, the result of scholarly debate over the course of German national history has been a tendency to revise the previously held conclusion that Germany's development lies somewhere outside a hypothetical "normal" path to modernization. Among early theorists of a German peculiar path to modernity, or Sonderweg, the tendency was to portray the nation in the 1920s as hopelessly encumbered by the political backwardness of the Imperial legacy. This line of argument, which would seem to doom the Weimar Republic to failure from its very outset, attracts considerably less scholarly attention today than it once did.

Peukert is therefore solidly within the present historiographical consensus in viewing the Sonderweg thesis as inadequate to an explanation of the collapse of German democracy. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity represents an effort to take the revision of the Sonderweg theory one step further by demonstrating, contrary to the assessment of a good many scholars, how very modern Germany was during the years of the Weimar Republic. He approaches the task of explaining the collapse of German democracy and the subsequent rise of Hitler by performing a thorough analysis of the Republic's economic, political, social, and cultural structure. He discovers that Germany was undergoing the same ambiguity-fraught process of entry into the 20th century as were other nations of Western Europe during the 1920s. Weimar Germany was not 'special' in any perverse sense of misshapen development. Peukert sums up his view of the collapse of Weimar democracy:

"What was 'special' about Germany between 1918 and 1932 was, on the one hand, the sudden and uncompromising manner in which modernization arrived and, on the other, the simultaneous presence of several different elements of crisis. It was a unique conjuncture, and yet one which at the same time demonstrates how easily the process of modernization which we are accustomed to regarding as part of our normal experience can tip over into catastrophe." (p. 281)

Peukert's analysis rests on the observation that the Weimar Republic was a democracy without democratic tradition, burdened with the stigma of having lost a war, and dependent for its very existence upon the complicity of a class of traditional elites which was fundamentally hostile to democracy. He points out, however, that Weimar Democracy did survive for over a decade. Democracy failed only after being subjected to a unique combination of difficulties, which were made acute by the economic slump and which presented challenges that would have arguably been too much for any democratic society to bear. Peukert's universalized analysis of Weimar therefore recognizes the important role played by a number of contingencies.

In describing the collapse of the Republic, Peukert has also dealt with the issue of human agency in a manner informed by the work of those economic historians who have struggled with this issue since the early 1970s. In his consideration of the Bruening government's policies, an aspect historians agree represented a critical juncture, Peukert recognizes the role of economic constraints. Despite this, he holds out the possibility of human actors having influenced the ultimate course of policy. Peukert deals with the economic determinist group of thinkers by a characteristic reference to Knut Borchardt, the originator of this school of thought on the collapse of the Republic. He points out that Borchardt is correct in saying "we should not judge the Bruening Government's handling of the crisis up to this time [early 1931, when economic indicators suggested a possible recovery] in the light of the subsequent downturn of 1931-32. On the other hand, the government behaved passively not only because it lacked the gift of second sight but because it wished to use the crisis to secure its objectives in domestic and foreign policy." (p. 256)

The world of Weimar, as evoked by Peukert, is indeed a complex one in which a combination of economic crisis, authoritarian traditions, and the actions of individuals such as Bruening resulted in a "meltdown" of a quintessentially modern society. For Peukert, modernity contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

It would seem, as Peukert points out, that Borchardt goes too far in removing human agency. Yet, one essay entitled "Constraints and Room for Manoeuvre in the Great Depression of the Early Thirties," contained in his Perspectives on Modern German Economic History and Policy, is quite useful to the student of Weimar. In it, he describes the excruciatingly limited maneuver room available to the politicians of late Weimar. He notes that in 1918 labor and management had entered into an agreement on the establishment of a welfare state in order to undermine the Spartacists. The high wages mandated by this accommodation did not rest upon the rational calculation of levels supportable by economic growth, but rather on artificial political considerations:

"From the end of the First World War the new Weimar state, unstable both internally and externally, depended on buying the agreement of elites and voting masses in order to stabilize itself. It obtained their assent with the tools of economic and social policy; far more than any previous German state had done, it became a state of subvention and redistribution. Without doubt, wonderful things happened - but equally without doubt, these wonderful things also imposed a considerable burden on the country's economy. The state, for whatever political reasons, lived beyond its economic means." (p. 157)

Germany was constrained in its monetary policy by u.s. demands for Hooverian conservatism, demands the government had to meet in order to secure the loans which would allow them to make reparations payments. Internally, the succession of Weimar governments faced the artificial demands of a welfare state. Caught between these two contradictory demands, Borchardt's Weimar was doomed to failure. At that critical juncture when the Weimar Republic faced the ultimate test of the world economic slump, what could be expected of mere mortals like Mueller, Bruening, von Papen, and Schleicher? In retrospect, Borchardt argues:

"Only on a very high level of abstraction, in a blackboard exercise far removed from political reality, could one sketch certain solutions: however, the conclusion would still be unavoidable that these solutions would not have worked. No one had - and has - an answer." (p. 159)

Borchardt's determinism has occasioned a productive debate amongst historians over the role of human agency in the collapse of Weimar. In a recent collection of essays on this topic, edited by Ian Kershaw and entitled Weimar: Why Did German Democracy Fail?, several historians weigh in on the question of human agency. As Kershaw notes in his introduction, the Borchardt debate

"has lead to something of a polarization of the approaches, though with much nuance and differentiation. One group of interpretations takes a basically pessimistic view of the Weimar Republic's chances for survival, and emphasizes both the magnitude of the problems facing democracy even before the onset of the depression and the lack of room for maneuver after 1930. Another set of interpretations is more optimistic about possibilities of establishing a viable democratic system, disinclined to see foreclosed options until the very end, and prepared to stress human agency, anti-democratic strategies, and policy blunders." (p. 8)

The most pessimistic of the four approaches, that of Richard Bessel, is essentially a subtle defense of Borchardt's thesis. At the other extreme, Carl-Ludwig Holtfrerich's assessment that Bruening's ineptitude caused the failure of German democracy seems overly optimistic in its estimation of the strength of the Republic. The most convincing approach to the role of human agency is likely to be found somewhere in the
middle with the mild pessimism of Harold James or restrained optimism of Dick Geary.

Harold James does not dispute that the paucity of economic options open to the Weimar governments was significant to the destruction of the Republic. Yet, the political volatility of the Republic and the limitations imposed by the economic slump are not sufficient to explain Weimar's collapse. It was the removal of the stabilizing element of international control, in the form of the reparations regime, which dealt the death blow to Weimar democracy. James points out that:

"What had in fact happened was that the unifying bracket that had clamped German politics together - the prospect of reparations revision - had been removed, while the explosive force of the wish to avoid responsibility for economic decisions remained. Papen found that demanding, preparing, and negotiating an end to reparations brought better political results than actually achieving it." (p.54)

Harold James also notes that the outcome of the collapse of Weimar could well have been an authoritarian government. One is reminded of the various manifestations in the modern world of military socialism. Perhaps something in the way of Nasser's Arab Socialism could have emerged from the authoritarian rule of Schleicher. Though the limited economic maneuver room made democracy a tentative proposition at best, democracy did last more than a decade. In the end, the political decision was made by Hindenburg to offer Hitler the chancellorship. Human agency, though limited with respect to the collapse of German democracy, cannot therefore be removed with respect to the rise of Hitler.

One of the groups of human agents often credited with a decisive role in the collapse of Weimar and the rise of Hitler is German big business. Indeed, ever since the Nazis began to gain electoral victories in Germany in the years of the Weimar Republic, it was part of the rhetorical arsenal of various opponents of National Socialism to link German big business with a collective desire for the destruction of the Weimar Republic and burden this group with the responsibility for financing Hitler's success at the ballot box. This view found its way into the common wisdom after the end of the Third Reich. The defenders and attackers of this common wisdom have often succumbed to the temptations of ideological predisposition. -7-
The works of Henry A. Turner, Jr. and Dirk Stegmann are not free from this tendency.

Henry A. Turner, Jr. is a revisionist historian of obviously pro-capitalist sentiments who has consistently attacked as "myth" the common wisdom about German big business' responsibility for the collapse of Weimar and the rise of Hitler.2 In his book entitled German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler, Turner uses extensive archival resources in Germany to provide carefully documented support for the innocence of German big business. This book represents a more mature presentation of the basic line of argument forwarded in his essay entitled "Big Business and the Rise of Hitler," which appeared in the American Historical Review in 1969.

In both the article and the later book, Turner concludes that big business was ineffectual in bringing its influence to bear within the Weimar system and incapable of any truly concerted effort to finance the rise of Hitler. The main force of Turner's argument derives from his finding that members of the German big business community during the Weimar period neither gave large contributions to the Nazi party nor expressed in written correspondence any desire for a Nazi government. It is his claim that, if any capitalists supported Hitler, it was the owners of small and medium sized businesses who did so out of a fear for their own existence in the Weimar system.

Dirk Stegmann defends the orthodoxy Turner attacks. Stegmann's "Zum Verhaeltnis von Grossindustrieund Nationalsozialismus 1930-1933" was written in 1972 in large part as a refutation of Turner's claims in articles such as the AHR article referred to above. In his article Stegmann hopes to convince the reader that leaders of German big business undermined the Weimar system and assisted Hitler in claiming the mantle of Bismarck. Stegmann claims to demonstrate ways in which big business legitimized Hitler in a process he dubs Faschizierung. The reader never actually gets a clear definition of what this construction means, outside of the more general argument that German big business acted politically to undermine democracy in the context of Weimar's acute crisis of legitimacy from 1930-1933. Turner is undoubtedly correct in attacking the slipperiness of such a construction, but his search for the money or paper trail leading from big business to the Nazi party misses the point.

A rather extensive knowledge of specific historical events and actors would be necessary to adjudicate the seemingly endless disputes between Turner and Stegmann over the reliability of sources or their interpretation, a body of knowledge which is possessed by a relatively narrow group of experts. For the more generally literate public, it may be helpful to begin by pointing out where these two historians agree. They both believe that German big business was fundamentally hostile to the Weimar system, especially after the onset of the world economic slump. What seems to be the key to understanding the argument is the degree to which German big business participated efficaciously in the political process. Where Turner portrays big business as politically inert or inept, Stegmann argues that big business was significant in the politics of Weimar. Though he overplays his hand in portraying a pattern of responsibility on the part of the German big business community in legitimizing Hitler throughout the 1920s, evidence of big business participation in government from 1929 onward seems to support Stegmann's assertion that they aided in the destruction of the Republic.

The involvement of prominent men of big business in the the German People's Party (GPP) did contributed to the destabilization of the Weimar Republic.4 After the conclusion of the Young Plan, the GPP withdrew from the governing coalition and thereby contributed to the fall of the Mueller government on the eve of the world economic slump. Though initially happy with the Bruening government, which replaced the Mueller government, the GPP soon became disaffected.
As Borchardt pointed out, the Bruening government's room for economic maneuver was extremely limited. However, it must be remembered that German big business clearly believed, even after the economic slump set in, that an authoritarian government could effect a reversal in the nation's situation by cutting welfare expenditures. In 1932 the petitions of German big businessmen played a role in the fall of the Bruening government, which had refused to adopt such measures. These political expressions of hostility towards the accommodation with labor undoubtedly constitute part of the causation of the collapse.

Those searching for an answer to the question of "Why Hitler?" will not find a satisfying solution in the well-placed financial contributions or indirect political support offered by the men of big business to the NSDAP, items which Stegmann argues prove that German big business supported Hitler. As Turner has pointed out, these measures were insignificant. Stegmann is right, however, to argue that the guilt of German big business in the rise of Hitler is no more and no less acute than that of Germany's political leadership as a whole. They too willfully sought the destruction of democracy in
Weimar's last years and made no protest when Hindenburg handed over control of the German government to Hitler.
  mdobe | Jul 26, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0809015560, Paperback)

The nature of Weimar's terminal crisis - how a politically liberal and culturally progressive society could succomb to fascism - remains one of the central historical questions of our century. In this major work, Detlev J.K. Peukert offers a stimulating interpretation that not only places Weimar in the history of twentieth-century Germany but also reveals it as an archetype of the ambivalences and pathologies of advanced industrial society.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:57 -0400)

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