Weimar and the Intellectuals: II

Weimar Germany’s Left-Wing Intellectuals: A Political History of the Weltbühne and Its Circle

by Istvan Deak
California, 346 pp., $9.75

Kurt Tucholsky and the Ordeal of Germany, 1914-1935

by Harold L. Poor
Scribner’s, 285 pp., $7.95

Social Conservatism and the Middle Classes in Germany, 1914-1933

by Herman Lebovics
Princeton, 248 pp., $8.50

Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider

by Peter Gay
Harper & Row, 205 pp., $5.95

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 …

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