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The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity

The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity

by Detlev J. K. Peukert
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ISBN-13: 9780809015566
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 09/01/1993
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 849,320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.79(d)

About the Author

Detlev J. K. Peukert is the author of Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life, a highly accaimed study of daily life in the Third Reich. Former professor of modern history at the University of Essen and director of the Research Institute for the History of the Nazi Period, he died in 1990 at the age of thirty-nine.

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The Weimar Republic




An age is always a farrago of different ages. Whole parts of it are unleavened and undercooked; it contains the husks of old forces, and the seeds of new ones.

Alfred Döblin, 1924




To define a phenomenon is to specify its boundaries. But it is an indication of the problems that the Weimar Republic poses for historians that even its temporal boundaries are open to dispute. The demarcation of a period of history necessarily rests on a particular conception of the period, explicitly underpinned to a greater or lesser extent by theoretical analysis. What different dates, then, can be proposed for the beginning and end of the Weimar Republic, and what analytical conceptions of the period are implicit in these different datings?


Some accounts of Weimar actually begin with the Imperial monarchy:1 to be precise, with the October reforms of 1918, which, as military defeat loomed, introduced parliamentary democracy into the constitution of the Reich and brought to power the governing coalition of Social Democrats, Catholic Centre and liberals that was later to usher in the Weimar constitution of 1919. In such an account, the continuity represented by the socialist-liberal-Catholic settlement takes centre stage, and the November revolution appears as a false trail.

On the other hand, to take the revolutionary proclamation of the Republic in Berlin on 9 November 1918 as a starting-point2 is to emphasize the break with the imperial monarchy and to highlight the role of the mass revolutionary movement. This approach was adopted early on by the political right, with the Dolchstoßlegende (the legend ofthe 'stab in the back') and the Nazis' vilification of the 'November criminals'. The left, on the other hand, has been faced with the dilemma whether or not to define the period by reference to a revolution which the Weimar Republic itself was responsible for terminating.3

Similarly, for those who view the creation of the Weimar Republic as the result of a verdict in favour of bourgeois parliamentary democracy and against Bolshevik dictatorship,4 the crucial event of the new era is the election of the National Constituent Assembly on 19 January 1919 (or perhaps even the promulgation of the Weimar constitution of the Reich on 14 August 1919).

Historians who deny that this was the only choice and whose interest is in the untapped potential for democratization that was present during the early period of upheaval, notably in the Rate movement (the soldiers' and the workers' councils, or soviets),5 inevitably focus their attention on the mass movements of the winter and spring of 1919, or even, indeed, on the so-called March revolution of 1920 that followed the Kapp putsch.

To do this, however, is to prolong the moment of the Republic's birth until it becomes identical with an entire phase of the republican era, namely the revolutionary post-war crisis. This crisis can be said to have ended with the Reichstag elections of 6 June 1920, in which the Weimar Coalition responsible for enacting the constitution lost its electoral majority, or perhaps to have lasted until the stabilization of domestic and foreign policy that was achieved at the close of the crisis-ridden year 1923.

Although stability arrived in 1924, contemporaries were not prepared to regard it as more than 'relative'.6 Certainly, it is only in comparison with the several near-fatal crises of the early post-war period, and then with the world economic crisis at the end of the decade, that the years 1924-9 can be termed 'stable'. The cracks in the fabric of the Republic remained fully visible, an outward sign of hidden weaknesses that might prove fatal when the structure was next subjected to severe strain.

Clearly, then, the way in which we judge the years of the mid-1920s are of crucial importance when we come to assess the extent to which the Weimar Republic was, on the one hand, prone to crises and, on the other, able to withstand them.7

In similar fashion, verdicts differ as to how long the collapse of the Republic was really averted after the renewed bout of crisis that began in 1929. The fall of the Great Coalition on 27 March 1930 can be viewed as the end of 'Weimar', if the relevant criterion is taken to be the capacity of the political system to produce a stable parliamentary majority and of the representatives of employers and workers to sustain the compromise on economic and social policy that was reached in 1918.8 The decision by Heinrich Brüning, appointed Chancellor two days later, to govern on the basis of emergency decrees and the backing of the Reich President, and not to depend on majority support in Parliament, was — and was intended to be — the first step in a change to a quite different form of constitution.9

Only after (though not before) the sensational success of the National Socialists in the Reichstag elections on 14 September 1930 (followed by their later successes in 1932 and the Machtergreifung, or seizure of power, of 1933) is there a case for the argument that the different form of republic which Brüning and Hindenburg wanted offered an alternative to Hitler as well as to Weimar .10 On this view, it was not until the fall of Brüning on 30 May 1932 that the precipitous slide towards the Third Reich can be said to have begun. By the same token, there were the Hitler-Papen cabinet on 30 January 1933, the emergency decrees following the Reichstag fire on 28 February 1933, the Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Law) of 23 March 1933 and the amalgamation of the posts of Reich Chancellor and Reich President in the person of the 'Führer' on 2 August 1934-before the functions and significance of the constitutional order of Weimar were finally nullified.11

In terms of political history, then, the Weimar Republic has neither a clearly defined beginning nor a clearly defined end. From the historiographical point of view, as we have said, periodization is always dependent on interpretation, and historical controversy on the interpretation of the Weimar era is still very passionate. But these very ambiguities also tell us something about the character of the Weimar Republic. The beginning of the Republic was not marked by an event that served as an old-fashioned but politically unifying symbol of a pivotal moment in national history, along the lines of the American Declaration of Independence, the quatorze juillet in France or indeed Sedan Day after the creation of the German Empire in 1870-71. On9 November 1918, the day when the German Republic was established, there were competing symbolic proclamations by the Spartacist Karl Liebknecht in front of the Hohenzollern palace and by the Social Democratic parliamentarian and minister12 Philipp Scheidemann in front of the German Reichstag: the revolutionary masses see-sawed between the two. The fact that the Republic had no legitimizing founding ritual implies a lack of legitimacy in general: it suggests that there was a lack of active commitment to the new order.


The Weimar Republic did not come into being as the result of an heroic act, or of an act which national mythology could represent as heroic; it was not conceived as a brave new world. Rather, it was the product of complex and painful compromise, of defeats and mutual concessions. And yet the unspectacular new arrangements might have survived if, or as long as, acceptable living conditions had prevailed. When, however, economic activity and social conditions reached the point of crisis, there were few reserves of public legitimacy on which the Republic could draw, and the search for stabilizing political solutions proved fruitless.

In addition, the Republic had to bear the heavy historic burden of a lost war, and this particular legacy of historical continuity, bequeathed to it in its role as the successor state to the collapsed Wilhelmine empire, was made more weighty by new social tribulations and economic upheavals that began to make themselves felt in the years-and decades-after the First World War. With hindsight, it can be said that the Germans embarked on their republican experiment at the most unpropitious possible moment: a moment when the political and social system was already about to be tested to the limits.

To understand the Weimar era properly, we must therefore go beyond the sorts of political and constitutional interpretation that underlie the standard models of periodization we have just discussed: we also need to adopt a social and historical approach that takes account both of long-term continuities and of patterns specific to the Weimarperiod itself. I shall attempt to do this in a number of complementary ways. By way of introduction, we can select three areas of sociohistorical continuity and change which would seem to be particularly significant indicators of the distinctive social make-up of the Weimar Republic. These are the shifting demographic pattern, the level of modernization, as reflected in the structure of employment, and economic growth (see figures 1-3).


From the turn of the century people in Germany were becoming more and more acutely aware that they were living in an age of new kinds of demographic change. Unexpectedly, it seemed possible that the population would no longer naturally reproduce itself. For decades the German population had grown regularly at a high annual rate. The process of industrialization had been accompanied by a high surplus of births over deaths (see figure 1), made doubly dramatic by the migration from the countryside into urban areas. The population of the cities, in particular, had become highly youth-dominated.13

Despite the cessions of territory that took place after the First World War-which entailed a loss of population of about 10 per cent-the overall population of the German Reich continued to expand under the Weimar Republic.14 The number of people living within the 1920 borders rose from 62.4 million in 1925 to 65.2 million in 1933, the latter figure exceeding the total for the maximal German borders of 1910 (64.9 million). More important, during the 1920s the pre-war 'bulge' age-groups came flooding on to the labour market. The proportion of young people in Germany had never been so high, nor had the potentially active section of the population-14- to 65-year-olds able to work-been so large. The labour market in the 1920s was therefore exceptionally crowded (see also chapters 4 and 5). This surplus of labour, and the particularly bleak outlook facing the virtually redundant generation of those born around the turn of the century, lent the nationalistic slogan 'Volk ohne Raum' (a people without space, or territory) a certain specious plausibility.


And yet from another angle the picture seemed to be very different. Another catchword was also coming into currency: the German people was ageing; it was undergoing terminal decline: 'Volkstod', or the very death of the nation, was said to be looming. This sort of cry from demographic commentators was provoked by a dramatic fall in the birth rate, which had in fact begun in about 1900 although its full extent had become apparent only gradually.

As long as the death rate fell in parallel with the birth rate, the surplus of births over deaths remained constant. But when the surplus itself began to decrease and a new demographic balance began to emerge, bitter complaints about women's refusal to perform their child-bearing duty began to be uttered. Women-and their partners-had,indeed, come to adopt in a relatively short space of time the new ideal of the two-child family, and small families were rapidly becoming the statistical norm. Stated in summary terms, the new demographic structure in the Weimar Republic was one of rising life expectancy (or falling mortality), a falling birth rate, a new ideal of the two-child family, a partial removal of the reproductive burden from women and a more pronounced segmentation in the age make-up of the overall population. As if these changes were not enough, there were also the drastic demographic effects of the First World War: the loss of young and middle-aged men created a surplus of women, and also caused a fall in the birth rate during the war years.

These complex processes were the result of far-reaching changes in social values and forms of social behaviour that had already been under way for some time: changes in attitudes towards sexuality and contraception, for example. Society, however, had not yet evolved new values and forms of behaviour in response to these new demographic patterns. Accordingly, there were increasing conflicts between the generations, and growing tensions between the sexes. (We shall return to these questions in chapter 4.)


As far as the social structure is concerned, there was not the same dramatic transformation during the years of the Weimar Republic as there was in the case of population. The long-term processes of industrialization and modernization continued in force. Nevertheless, the period had its own specific tensions and distortions. If we look at the distribution of employment among the main sectors of the economy (see figure 2), we can see that the primary sector, agriculture and forestry, at first continued to decline in importance, in accordance with long-term trends. During the hard times of the 1920s and the post-1929 slump, however, the percentage of workers employed in agriculture temporarily rose, mainly because employment in the secondary sector of industry and small business declined. But in the 1930s industry and small business regained their dominant position, although they were now followed in second place by the steadilyexpanding tertiary sector of services, commerce and administration.


The class structure similarly evolved in accordance with the long-term process of modernization. The proportion of the self-employed in the workforce fell from 19.6 per cent in 1907 to 15.6 per cent in 1925, although the proportion of family members working in family enterprises temporarily rose from 15.4 to 17 per cent during the same period. The percentage of white-collar workers and public officials rose perceptibly within the period, from 10.3 to 17.3 per cent, betokening the arrival of the 'new Mittelstand' (middle class), while manual workers only just maintained their standing as an absolute majority of those in employment, with figures of 54.9 and (in 1925) 50.1 per cent.

Migration figures likewise continued to conform to the modernization pattern, though migration from the countryside into the towns, which had been a central feature of the decades around the turn of the century, began to abate. By 1925 one German in three was a city-dweller. A further one-third lived in smaller towns, and the remaining one-third in the country.

If we take the distribution of employment among the main sectors of the economy and the geographical distribution of the population between town and country as indicators of the extent of the growth of modern industrial society in Germany, then the national debate that took place around the turn of the century as to whether Germany's future would lie in agrarianism or industrialism cannot be dismissed as an irrelevance. From a present-day perspective, certainly, the situation in the 1920s can only be viewed as one of transition towards a fully fledged industrial society. But at the time the future was still imponderable, its course by no means settled. Agrarian romanticism and hostility to the big city were responses to genuine problems created by industrialization and modernization. Roseate nostalgia and reformist calls for alternative life-styles were both, in their own way, addressed to a pre-modern form of society in which a substantial proportion of German people still lived.

We should be wary of using generalized statistical data as a basis for drawing conclusions about the state of society. Developments which can now be seen to have been part of a long-term process of modernization were perceived by people at the time as events whose outcome was far from clear. Aggregate statistical data also obscure the existence of great disparities, and often conflicts, between regions and specific social groups. Thus contemporaries were unable to see the wood for the trees, and the debates on modernization that took place during the Weimar era itself produced highly disparate responses. (We shall discuss these debates more closely in chapters 4-9.)

Some social critics had already voiced their unease at industrialism and modernization during the late-Wilhelmine period; others had welcomed 'progress' with bombastic imperial enthusiasm. Both attitudes became more pronounced in the years after the First World War. The apologists for modernization now trumpeted the 'Americanism' of the 'golden twenties', while the pessimists embraced the more extreme doctrine of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) and denounced the 'asphalt jungle' of the cities. And yet it is not possible to make a simple division of attitudes towards modernization into two polar categories, 'progressive' and 'reactionary': the processes of modernization were too heterogeneous and inconsistent themselves. The point that needs to be stressed is that the inter-war debate on modernity became both fiercer and more inconclusive precisely because modernization itself had reached a state of crisis.


The crisis is most clearly apparent if we look at economic growth. The expansion of industrial production, which can be regarded as the principal motor of modern economies,15 breaks down into three distinct phases in Germany during the past hundred years (see figure 3). Thirty years of practically uninterrupted industrial expansion were followed, after 1914, by virtually three decades of crisis, stagnation and, frequently, falls in production. Only after the Second World War did a new period of continuous economic expansion set in, which lasted into the 1970s. During the Weimar period, and in some respects throughout the inter-war years, production levels at best only equalled those of 1913 and in poor years either remained below pre-war norms or, in times of acute crisis, sank appreciably lower still. The causes and effects of this endemic economic weakness will be discussed in more detail later (see chapters 5 and 13). Suffice it to say for the moment that any verdict on the Weimar Republic must take account of the fundamental social and economic fact of stagnation and crisis.

Economic historians have put forward many different explanations of this phenomenon, and their accounts go hand in hand with different ways of placing the Weimàr Republic within the longer spanof German history.16 Writers who postulate that the specific growth trajectory of a nation's economy is basically governed by the conditions prevailing at the start of industrialization have viewed the inter-war period as a short-term, externally induced perturbation which was overcome by the economic expansion that followed the reconstruction after the Second World War. Those, on the other hand, who see capitalist development as a succession of long-term waves of growth and stagnation regard the inter-war period of economic weakness as a phase that was virtually inevitable, and maintain that new expansion could occur only after painful structural adjustments. While this pessimistic account of the period at least acknowledges that renewed expansion was conceivable, economists living at the time were often impelled to even bleaker conclusions. During the depths of the recession between 1929 and 1933, in particular, there were 'right-wing' and 'left-wing' economists alike who maintained that capitalist industrialization had either reached saturation point (for example, Wagenführ) or had even entered its final phase of collapse (Varga).17

The responses of ordinary people caught up in economic crisis may not be entirely commensurable with the prognoses of professional economists, but Germans did not merely complain about the trials and tribulations of the moment: they placed the particular events that affected them within the wider framework of their own lives and their future hopes and expectations. These longer-term perceptions of the prospects for everyday life cast events in the twenties in a very bleak light. Conditions were deteriorating yearly: this was certainly the common verdict during the period 1930-3, at any rate, as the brief recovery of 1927-8 gave way to world recession. But earlier, too, the performance of the economy had lagged behind its pre-war levels. The only way in which demands for higher wages could be met was by redistribution from one group to another or by higher deficits. There was never sufficient growth to permit agreement on higher welfare provision, except during the false inflationary boom of 1920-21. To Germans living through these years of crisis, the 'good old days' of the monarchy were bound to take on a nostalgic afterglow.

As if its problems of political legitimacy were not enough, the Weimar Republic was also unable to win popular confidence on the economic front. Whether or not the new republic was actuallyresponsible for the economic misery of the times, the effect on ordinary people of living through unremitting crisis was deeply demoralizing. Long-term economic prospects were grim; there was no chance of higher living standards in the short term; and memories of the Wilhelmine past grew fonder as the realities of life under the Republic grew more austere.

This hankering for the past on the part of many Germans was particularly significant because it was not a nostalgia for a few isolated myths and symbols but rested on real remembered opportunities and hopes from the pre-war period. Increasingly, the dark side of the Wilhelmine world-which, after all, had gone giddily to war in 1914-was ignored as the shadows descended over the present.


We can get a fuller sense of the longer-term continuities affecting people's lives if we consider the different generations of public figures who played a prominent role during the Weimar Republic. We can broadly distinguish four generations of leading political actors; the figures selected are not meant to constitute a representative sample in every sense, but they are sufficiently representative for our purposes. Births, of course, form a continuum, and to label a particular succession of age-groups as a 'generation' is not to pick out a 'real' objective entity. We can use the notion of a generation, however, as a way of focusing attention on certain specific features which a particular collection of age-groups, in a given context, can be seen to have in common.18 We can ask when the formative political and social experiences of the leading personalities of the Weimar period took place, and under what circumstances these individuals emerged as figures who, in turn, influenced the politics and society of their own times. This is a difficult task, but a well-defined one. Asking different questions would, of course, lead to the tracing of different generational patterns.

The four generations of public figures who played leading roles during the Weimar Republic can be defined as follows (see also figure 4):

-the Wilhelmine generation: contemporaries of Wilhelm II


-the Gründerzeit generation: those born in the decade of the establishment of the Reich


-the wartime generation: those born in the 1880s and 1890s, the generation which saw military service during the First World War


-the generation that was, in various senses, 'superfluous': those born after 1900.


The representative figure of the first of these generations19 is Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) himself. He and his contemporaries were children when the Reich was founded. Their political views were formed during the Bismarck era, and they became dominant figures in politics and society in the last decades before the First World War. Several of them continued to exert an influence as 'elder statesmen' during the Weimar Republic. Examples of this generation include industrialists such as Carl Duisberg (1861-1935) and Walther Rathenau (1867-1922), politicians such as Gustav Noske (1868-1946) and the socialist Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), and the Catholic social reformer Agnes Neuhaus (1857-1933). We might also include the artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Certain representatives of an even earlier generation should perhaps also be mentioned here, such as the painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935) or the soldier Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), who first went into retirement in 1911.

Flanking the divide between the Wilhelmine generation and those figures who constituted a 'younger generation' during the monarchy we find the two representative socialist politicians who performed the dual act of proclamation of the Republic on 9 November 1918: Philipp Scheidemann (1865-1939), the elder of the two, who had only just been brought into the government, and Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919), who was not only the son of one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Wilhelm Liebknecht, but was also a leading younger opposition politician in his own right.

The figures who made up the younger generation of politicians under the monarchy were born in the decade after the establishment of the Reich. Their political attitudes were shaped, and their careers launched, during the period following Wilhelm II's accession to thethrone. These younger, Gründerzeit figures did not attain positions of responsibility and influence until after the turn of the century, and most of them had still not reached the very top by the time of the revolution. But this was the generation from which the dominant personalities of the Weimar Republic were drawn: for example, Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925), who became a member of the Reichstag in 1912, and Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929), who had been a member of the Reichstag (apart from one brief hiatus) since 1907. Among the many representatives of this generation there is room to mention only a few: Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919), Otto Braun (1872-1955) and Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967); the industrialists Fritz Thyssen (1873-1951) and Hugo Stinnes (1870-1924); two important figures in social reform and the women's movement, Alice Salomon (1872-1948) and Gertrud Bäumer (1873-1954); and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Thomas Mann (1875-1955). This somewhat arbitrary list of names indicates that much of the achievement we associate with the Weimar era was the work of people who had lived the first forty or so years of their lives under the monarchy.

The image of Weimar, however, also conjures up a distinct, younger generation, mainly born in the 1880s, among whom Heinrich Brüning (1885-1970) may be taken as a representative figure. The members of this group reached adulthood around the turn of the century and experienced both the expansionist euphoria and the anxious forebodings of the years leading up to the First World War. The men in this age-group included many who underwent long and frequent spells of service at the front during the First World War. They can thus be termed the 'front' or wartime generation.20

Because of the war, the members of this generation did not gain their political experience, and often did not choose a career or start a family, until after 1918. And with the Weimar political landscape dominated by the Gründerzeit generation, they were often obliged to play second fiddle or to project themselves as rivals to their elders. Among them were the leaders of the KPD (the Communist Party), Ernst Thälmann (1886-1944), and of the NSDAP (the National Socialists), Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). This younger generation also included many figures who were prominent in the avant-garde culture of the 1920s, such as Walter Gropius (1883-1969), George Grosz (1893-1959)and Carl von Ossietzky (1889-1938). Plainly, it was easier to make headway in the world of culture than it was in national politics. It is noteworthy, however, that the leading personalities in the women's movement during the Weimar years belonged either to the Gründerzeit generation or even to the preceding Wilhelmine age-group. In this instance the stalwarts from the period of the monarchy do not seem to have had so many successors among those who were in their thirties when the First World War ended.

Although there were tensions between the older, Gründerzeit figures who were prominent during the Weimar era and their younger rivals from the wartime generation, the age-group born around the year 1900 had even more reason to assert the claims of a younger generation against the established Weimar gerontocracy. 21 These young men felt 'superfluous' because they were confronted by a stagnant economy and a saturated labour market; their adolescence had been disrupted by war, and yet they had also been deprived of the legitimizing rite of passage of active service at the front. Later this generation was particularly hard hit by the mass unemployment caused by the world slump. It was thus understandable that sizeable numbers from this age-group should attach themselves to the radical extremes of the political spectrum. Representative names here include Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945), the charismatic Communist leader Heinz Neumann (1902-1937) and the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969). At the same time, however, we should not forget those figures whose response to the crises of the time was to forge an identity by submerging themselves in what they regarded as non-political normality. A characteristic example of this sort of member of the 'superfluous' generation, who passed unscathed through fascism and war into the post-war Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle, of the 1950s, was the film actor Heinz Rühmann, born in 1902 and thus only a little younger than Heinrich Himmler and Martin Bormann.

Copyright © 1987 by Suhrkamp Verlag am Main

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The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Tpoi on LibraryThing 5 months ago
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.