A History of the Weimar Republic
by Erich Eyck
Harvard, vol. II, 535 pp., $12
Stresemann and the Politics of the Weimar Republic
by Henry Ashby Turner Jr.
Princeton, 287 pp., $6
The Economics of Success
by Ludwig Erhard
Van Nostrand, 412 pp., $6.50
A widespread nostalgia for the literature of the Weimar Republic is among the more surprising phenomena encountered by the visitor to the present Bundesrepublik: the literature, not the politics. No one in West Germany, however enamored of the roaring Twenties, desires a return to the age of Ebert, Hindenburg, and Stresemann. The Berlin of those days has acquired a legendary aura for the sake of its hectic and undeniably brilliant intellectual life. Nobody wants the politicians back, not even those Germans (a dwindling number) who go on believing in the reunification of their country. No myth attaches to the first German democracy, which perished so ingloriously in the flames of the 1933 Reichstag fire. It is as though its memory had been swallowed up in the cataclysm of 1945, when the fire spread to engulf the whole city, and much besides.
The Weimar Republic was unlucky from the start. Its very birth was due to a misunderstanding. The abdication of the Emperor had been forced upon the bewildered politicians by events which they showed themselves unable to control. The very names and symbols surrounding the new regime were equivocal and potentially subversive. The Republic officially harked back to the abortive 1848 revolution: its colors were the democratic black-red-gold. Yet the new Constitution had to be tailored to fit the old imperial Reich. Its first paragraph ran, “The German Reich is a Republic.” This hardly made sense. To anyone familiar with German political nomenclature, the term Reich evoked a plentitude of associations rooted in the medieval world of the Holy Roman Empire, whereas “Republic” stood for everything the Germans had been taught to regard as foreign and unpatriotic: It was French, hence unGerman by definition. No wonder the Constitution had to be drafted by a Jewish lawyer, one of the handful of liberals who in 1918 got together in the newly formed Democratic Party. The bulk of the educated middle class stood aloof from the Republic. Even Thomas Mann thought it deplorable, and took four years to become a reluctant convert to it.
The trouble did not end there. The Republic had been hastily proclaimed by the Social Democrats in November 1918, to head off the threatened Bolshevik coup (whose danger existed chiefly in their own imagination). But its defense lay with the unreconstructed Army, led by an officers’ corps which dreamed of restoring the Monarchy. When in 1925 Hindenburg was elected President, the Monarchist threat lessened, for the Conservatives now became reconciled to an ersatz emperor. But the Executive power had been legally turned over to a man who symbolized the old order, and whom the Army obeyed because he was the Field Marshal of the 1914-18 war. When in 1933 Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor, the wheel had come full circle, though now it was the demagogic wing of the Nationalist movement which won control, with the Conservatives increasingly reduced to the role of helpless bystanders.
The troubles which beset this lackluster regime are discussed at great length in …