Could He Have Stopped Hitler?

Gustav Stresemann, to whom the unlucky Weimar Republic owed whatever tranquillity, stability, and prosperity it attained in the mid-Twenties, has intrigued historians ever since. The subject of Jonathan Wright’s well-researched new biography, Stresemann was a “republican of the mind.” He held high positions in the Weimar Republic, but his heart remained in the defunct Hohenzollern monarchy. Weimar lived under threat of a military coup. It was said to be a “republic without republicans.” Thomas Mann—not surprisingly to those who knew of his intense support for Germany in World War I and his hostility to the Anglo-American model of liberal government—took several years to reconcile himself to it. Several governments fell; others were reshuffled regularly, often twice a month, only to be reconstituted with the same party coalition. As Walter Rathenau, another “republican of the mind,” put it, the German “revolution” of 1918 had not been a real one. It had only chased away the Kaiser:

The doors had burst open, the wardens ran away, the captives stood in the courtyard blinded and unable to move. Had it been a real revolution the forces and ideas that had brought it into being would have continued to exert their influence…. All the people wanted was peace and quiet.

As chancellor of the republic in 1923—though for only three months, during which his cabinet fell twice—Stresemann not only foiled an attempt by the army to force him to resign, but also helped to crush Hitler’s first attempted putsch and to successfully put an end to the runaway inflation. He introduced a stable new currency (the dollar’s exchange rate had risen to one trillion marks). As foreign minister during no fewer than seven subsequent administrations until his death in 1929, he relentlessly sought closer links with Germany’s former enemies and a wide European détente.

With his beer belly, thick neck, sensuous lips, double chin, bulbous nose, and slanted, almost reptilian eyes, he looked like a caricature of a Boche; he was in reality, at least after 1922, a citizen of the world and a man of peace, more in the mold of the failed liberal revolution of 1848. He was evasive and not always as outspoken as he could have been. In 1925, he vehemently opposed the election to the presidency of the aged war hero Paul von Hindenburg, the candidate of the far right, a man surrounded by a cabal of militarists and degenerate aristocrats, whom Stresemann had gotten to know only too well during the war and deeply distrusted. And yet he refused to say so openly just as he never made a serious attempt to create wider popular support for his fiscal policy. Privately, he told the diarist Harry Kessler that he feared the “catastrophic consequences” of electing the aged warlord as president of the republic. It would destroy two years of his life’s work, he told Kessler; he simply could not imagine himself briefing Hindenburg on Germany’s foreign policy …

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