Weimar Germany’s Left-Wing Intellectuals: A Political History of the Weltbühne and Its Circle
Kurt Tucholsky and the Ordeal of Germany, 1914-1935
Social Conservatism and the Middle Classes in Germany, 1914-1933
Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider
While Weimar’s leftist intellectuals were being ground up by events, a rightist intelligentsia was coming into its own. Herman Lebovics has explored the process by which the social ideas of conservative critics of modern society were gradually assimilated by the German middle class and became ideological fuel for the fascist political machine. Because the values of his characters are remote from our own, Lebovics’s book does not speak so directly to the contemporary political sensibility as do Deak’s and Poor’s studies of the left-wing intellectuals of the Weltbühne, which I discussed in the last issue. But Lebovics provides a better understanding of the interaction of ideas with the social development that enabled the enemies of the Republic to subvert it. One comes away from the book with a strengthened sense that the fundamental differences between Weimar Germany and present-day America make analogizing a dubious game. One becomes aware also of shortcomings in the German left intelligentsia which neither Deak nor Poor discerns.
In Lebovics’s title, Social Conservatism and the Middle Classes in Germany, 1914-1933, the term “middle classes” needs clarification. The word which the author would have used, had our language a clear equivalent for it, is “Mittelstand.” The term means “middle estate,” implying status in a feudal, hierarchical order, as distinct from “class,” which refers to position in a socio-economic order. Yet “Mittelstand,” for all its feudal ring, is not a truly feudal term. It arose in the nineteenth century, and was developed by conservative social theorists to apply to the pre-industrial artisans, shopkeepers, peasants, etc. threatened by the new industrial capitalism. The term expressed both nostalgia for the lost privileges and rights of medieval guilds-men, and a claim to status independent of wealth. Above all, the concept of “estate” offered a psychological refuge—though no economic defense—against the two modern classes which were squeezing the industrial middle class between them: big capital and big labor.
The American reader mindful of the history of our own pre-industrial middle class will be struck by the differences between the responses of the American and German little man to the cruel process of economic modernization. The ideological defenses of American farmers and small businessmen against big capital in the late nineteenth century emerged from the democratic individualist tradition. In their political and social programs—trust-busting, railway and utility regulation, land grants for public higher education—the threatened little men justified their special interests as indistinguishable from the general public interest.
Even in their later, soured manifestations, such as in the Taft and Goldwater movements, they professed an ideology of rugged individualism rather than one of corporate status. American populism developed under the same economic conditions as the German “völkisch” nationalist movement. Both adopted some measure of racism to justify their hatred of those above and their fears of those below. But the fact that in late nineteenth-century Germany, corporate capitalism grew out of a feudal social order, rather than an individualistic liberal-democratic one as in America, made all the difference in the social and political responses of the victimized pre-industrial strata in the two countries. This difference has relevance for those who would read the fortunes of the US in the tea leaves of Weimar.
World War I provided the Mittelstand, like the rest of German society, with a nationalistic outlet for its pent-up aggressions. But the Imperial war economy, with its fattening of big business and concessions to big labor, only accelerated the economic decline of the artisans, farmers, and small businessmen. Politically, too, defeat hit them with particular force, destroying confidence in the national monarchy which had at least fed their egos while it bled their sons. The November Revolution seemed to make the erosion of security total. It brought to the helm of state the political formations first of the powerful unions, then of the big corporations—the two principal enemies of the class that wished to be no class.
Both economically and socially, the German Mittelstand desperately needed the special protection of the state. The Weimar Republic, Lebovics shows, was neither able nor willing to provide it. In the title of his first chapter, “Organize or Perish,” Lebovics expresses the real need of the pre-industrial social mass which had survived into the Weimar Republic only half-assimilated into modern capitalist society. Although the Weimar constitution stipulated that “the independent agricultural, industrial, commercial Mittelstand shall be fostered by legislation and administration,” this was interpreted in the narrowest way. The state, said the Minister of Economics, had only to ensure the middle classes “free participation in the economic process.” In short, the Mittelstand could only hope for as much support from the liberal state as it could develop power in the market place to exact it.
Fragmented as they were, the independent middle classes could not succeed in organizing politically or economically to secure a place in the Republic equal to that of big labor, big business, or big agriculture. The ablest and most fortunate were absorbed into the corporate structure as a white-collar class, the “new Mittelstand.” The Great Depression, however, knew no distinction between new Mittelstand and old. Completing the destruction of the economic security of both, it laid them open to the Nazis. “Organize and Perish” is the apt title of Lebovics’s final chapter describing the mobilization of the neglected and embittered men of the Mittelstand into the Nazi party.
Lebovics devotes the major part of his book to the conservative thinkers who provided the elements of a social theory for the unprotected Mittelstand. Under the flail of politics, their ideas were threshed into constituents of Nazi ideology. Lebovics is not the first to seek the intellectual origins of Nazism in conservative theory; older American historians, such as Fritz Stern, Klemens von Klemperer, and Stuart Hughes have already done much work on this question, studying the ideas of the precursors of Nazism by analyzing the intellectual traditions and personal experiences from which the ideas arose. Lebovics adds a new dimension by tracing the transformation of conservative ideas as they passed from the academic world through the medium of journalism into the political arena.
The trail blazers of Lebovics’s group of theorists are two professors of economics, Werner Sombart and Edgar Salin. Neither originated in the lower middle class; both espoused its cause out of genuine sympathy with its lot as a victim of capitalism. Sombart began as a maverick socialist, trying to incorporate Marx’s conception of economic process—especially that of the concentration of economic power—into his analysis of Germany’s special development. In the 1890s, he stood among those who, with the Marxists, cheerfully proclaimed the old Mittelstand to be dying. He even cautioned the Social Democrats against allying themselves with that moribund class. With this background of economic realism, Sombart avoided the characteristic nineteenth-century social-conservative dream of a return to a pre-industrial era.
His acceptance of modern industrialism, however, did not mean that Sombart accepted capitalism. At first he looked to Social Democracy and the big labor unions to curb it. Then he turned against Social Democracy, seeing it as infected by business opportunism and other unsavory characteristics of late capitalism. Like capitalism itself, the working class had become overorganized, bureaucratic, devitalized.
Without losing the sense of economic realism which was the basis of his awareness of the plight of the middle class, Sombart turned to ideas of community. Before 1914, he looked briefly for “social harmony” in the collaboration of big business and big labor. During World War I he sought community in the military nation-state. Finally under Weimar, he found it in the tenaciously surviving artisan and peasant class. In the face of the sharp vicissitudes of the postwar economy, Sombart concluded that it was not the old Mittelstand that was declining, as he had believed in 1900, but capitalism itself. Whereas Communists believed that the economic crisis created the conditions of revolution, Sombart saw it as opening the way to “German socialism.” State planning, directed toward curbing the power of business and labor and toward strengthening the old middle class, would pave the way to social regeneration. Sombart conceived his future bourgeois utopia not very differently from William Morris in News from Nowhere; peasant simplicity and bourgeois comfort would create an idyllic contentment beyond “the uniformity of a grey proletarian poverty.” How the proletariat was to be brought to share in these blessings troubled Sombart much less than it did Morris. The German state would find a way.
To Sombart’s critique of capitalism and ideas of redemption through nationalism and state planning, Edgar Salin added a dangerous touch of poetry. A follower of Stefan George, Salin deplored the quality of life under capitalism and the Philistinism of the German burgher as much as any left radical. But where the radical critics looked to socialism and democracy for renewal, Salin called for a German Caesar who would restore heroism to modern life and resolve the raw conflicts of crass economic interest which were poisoning the national scene.
Lebovics recounts with sympathetic understanding Salin’s polemic against an economic theory based on the natural-scientific model in favor of a social-ethical one. Salin’s rejection of economic rationalism, windy and romantic though it was, was based on a genuine humanism, and he spoke to real psychological problems of the class that later became Hitler’s troops. Lebovics responds more positively than perhaps an older generation liberal could to Weimar’s neglect of this stratum:
The anomie felt by the middle classes that had been engendered by the radical alterations in their position in society was well suited to arouse pity in those with a finely attuned moral sense. The failure of the democratic governments of Weimar to solve the agrarian question was a serious shortcoming too….
The views of the academic spokesmen of social conservatism had little appeal until they were fortified by nationalist aggressiveness and adapted to the situation of the new Mittelstand, the white-collar class. Ernst Niekisch, a national Bolshevik who had been expelled from the Social Democratic Party for heresy, introduced a strain of Marxist militancy into the developing ideology of the new right. By identifying capitalism with the Western powers, Niekisch found a formula to make the Germans a “revolutionary people.” He built an ideological bridge between Mittelstand and proletariat by representing both as victims of international capitalist oppression under the Versailles system.
German capitalists, complicit with the Western powers, had passed the burden of reparations on to the middle and lower classes. “Liberation from social oppression,” Niekisch wrote, “is impossible without emancipation from national enslavement.” Here truly was a “national socialist,” One who synthesized nationalist aggression with class conflict in order to shatter both the Versailles system and the Weimar Republic.
In the journals of Niekisch and other right-wing intellectuals, the middle-class grievances which Sombart and Salin addressed in their economic programs acquired political form. On the one hand, the neoconservative journals conveyed popularized academic ideas into lower middle-class homes and beer halls; on the other hand, they extracted and emphasized the moral content of extreme nationalism so as to dignify and rationalize right-wing street politics for the more squeamish of the bourgeoisie. The most intellectual of the conservative journals, Die Tat, vigorously agitated for a so-called “Third Front” that would unite the victims of the Weimar “system” of capitalist exploitation and foreign domination. Workers, old and new Mittelstand, socially conscious entrepreneurs, academic youth, and the more sophisticated younger officers of the Reichswehr: such were the constituents whom Die Tat summoned to create a new social-authoritarian polity. In 1932, the Tat group looked to the enigmatic “social general,” Kurt von Schleicher, to supplant the Republic with a state of their Third Front. They got Hitler’s Third Reich instead.