Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy by Eric D. Weitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book provides a comprehensive look at the politics and culture of Weimar Germany which existed from the end of World War I through the end of World War II, although it functionally was non existent once the Nazis seized control of the government in 1933. The republic was born in the death throes of World War I when the Kaiser abdicated and a revolution took place. “Weimar’s economy was, then, a bundle of conflicts and contradictions. And like its politics, its economic history divides easily, though roughly into trhee phases. The first phase, 1918-1923, was the era of inflation; 1924-29, of rationalization; 1929-33 of depression.[p 131]
When it became obvious the the had lost the war, the military and the government realized the Americans would require some domestic reform before peace could be negotiated. The German generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, “who had spent two years directing a military dictatorship over Germany, initiated a process of democratization.”[p 15] As a harbinger of the future, the generals “wanted to shift the blame for the impending defeat from the kaiser and army onto the parliament.”[p 15]. So, one of the purposes of the political changes was to shift the blame away from the failed military and onto the organization they had just created. They had ruined Germany but didn’t want to take the blame. “Avoiding public responsibility for its own actions, the military would quickly claim that Germany was robbed of its victory by the traitors at home, the Social Democrats and Jews and even Catholic like Erzberger. The infamous stab-in-the-back legend, which would be used to stunning effect by Adolf Hitler, was launched even before the armistice had been signed.”[p 20]
Like most revolutions there were many sides, ranging from the communists on the left to the army, church, and industrialists on the right. This divided society, coupled with a Right that never accepted the very idea of a republic, resulted in a government and society that just couldn’t work. “Throughout the fourteen years of the republic, Germans would fight and argue about every single issue. On only one item could all of them, Nazis to Communists, agree: Versailles [the peace treaty] was deeply unjust, a victors’ peace that saddled Germany with enormous burdens to the benefit of foreign nations.”[p 38] Nevertheless, at first Germany made it work. “The first phase, 1918 through 1923, indelibly marked the character of the republic. The constitution established a highly democratic political system, including free and equal suffrage, proportional voting, and basic political liberties.”[p84]
After this set up Weitz takes a long look at many aspects of post war German culture: architecture, art, film, literature, theater, opera, even sexuality. Great strides in modernism were made in all these fields which gave a feeling of freedom to some and repulsion and fear to the establishment. “The founding of the republic, the constitution, stunning examples of modern architecture, philosophical and literary musings on the meaning of modernity, dazzling theatrical productions and engaging films, women’s emancipation, sexual experimentation, new social welfare programs – all the great achievements of Weimar were bitterly contested every step of the way.”[p331]
In addition to the cultural issues, outside influences of post war depression followed by hyperinflation, then by the worldwide Depression proved too much for the young republic to withstand. “Coming right after the war, the economic crisis made Germans jittery and desirous of nothing so much as security.” [p 167]. “Was the liberal republic even capable of resolving the country’s enormous economic problems? Or was it, perhaps, part of the cause? For the Right especially, unrelenting in its hostility to Weimar, the Great Depression (or as Germans tend to cal it, the World Economic Crisis) provided a golden opportunity. Now it could again contemplate seriously the overthrow of the republic.”[p 161]
And of course we know how it ended. “National Socialism [the Nazis] provided not freedom but security, which ‘binds the individual to the most oppressive apparatus modern society has ever seen.'” [p 383] In the end Weimar did not just collapse; it was killed off. It was deliberately destroyed by Germany’s antidemocratic, anti-socialist, anti-Semitic right wing, which, in the end, jumped into political bed with the Nazis, the most fervent, virulent, and successful opposition force.”[p 404]
Germany traded its insecurity for security; the trade off was made easier by the”Right blaming the troubles on outsiders – the victors of World War I – and the Jews. Never looking inward, it is tempting in hindsight to see that the rise of the Nazis was inevitable. But it didn’t have to happen. In July 1932, “the Nazis received 37.3 percent of the vote, the highest they would ever achieve in a free election…. [T]he German people never elected the Nazis to power. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate cast their votes against the Nazi Party.”[p 356] In the end, “Weimar’s demise was, in the final accounting, the result of a conspiracy of a small group of powerful men around the president who schemed to place Adolf Hitler in power. There was nothing inevitable about this development. The Third Reich did not have to come into existence.”[p 358]
As I read this I couldn’t help but make comparisons to America’s politics in 2016. A minority party led by an incoming president who received over 2 million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent is building an extreme conservative cabinet with a focus on “others” as the problem – in our case it is the Arabs rather than the Jews. As the president elect builds his cabinet it is plain to see that the conservative movement is plotting to undo decades of progress in the areas of women’s rights, LGTBQ rights, and environmental protection. Perhaps it is the very progress we’ve made in these areas is the reason for the bcklash. It seems to me that this is possible by fomenting division among the citizens and pointing to the “others” as the trouble makers.
This book was good; it shone in the areas of politics and society but I was not as taken by the extended essays on the arts.