Ludwig Erhard
Ludwig Erhard; drawing by David Levine

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 Dr. Erich Eyck’s history of the Republic, while Mr. Turner supplies a counterpoint with a brief, competent, but somewhat hackneyed, biography of Gustav Stresemann, to whom the Weimar regime owed whatever political stability it attained for a brief period in the mid-Twenties. These fortunate years of relative prosperity and tranquility were a foretaste of the Adenauer era, which is why so many Germans now spend their time asking what went wrong. Many things went wrong, including the great economic crash of the early Thirties, but the basic fact was that the middle class had not accepted democracy; its defense was left to the Social Democrats, who would not have been able to carry the burden even had they been more competently led. The late Professor Arthur Rosenburg, who had the advantage of having been an active left-wing politician, as well as being a first-rate scholar, has told the story in a recently republished book which, for all its brevity, has never been bettered. Of late, his successors in Germany have come to include some younger historians of impeccably liberal-democratic outlook—notably Professor K.D. Bracher—who have turned out massively documented studies on the Nazi seizure of power. Dr. Eyck, who left Germany in 1937 at the age of nearly sixty to settle in London, is in a different category, having had to make a new career for himself at an age when most people think of retirement. His remarkable success with the wider public bears some resemblance to the vogue of Mr. Shirer, though unlike that gifted purveyor of melodrama he tends to deflate the events and personalities he describes. This is partly a matter of training. Dr. Eyck, who was born when Bismarck was Chancellor, and whose background is the law, has a view of history which was already passing out of fashion around 1900, but within his limitations he does remarkably well. The only thing he never explains is why the Republic foundered, and how Hitler came to power.


It is unfortunate that one should have to say this of so decent, civilized, and well-meaning a writer, who fully deserves his popular success. To anyone familiar with the cultivated German-Jewish bourgeoisie of that comfortable age before the flood, his book inevitably evokes an echo of numberless shared or overheard conversations. His mellow tone, which never rises above a dignified murmur even when he is obliged to record the most shocking departures from the golden mean, calls up a vanished life and a civilization that has sunk without trace. It was in some respects an admirable one. It was also curiously philistine and complacent. In the world in which Dr. Eyck moved, a Ministerial resignation counted for a great deal more than a general strike. To the shoemaker there is nothing like leather. To Dr. Eyck there is nothing like a political reshuffle. He tells the story of the Weimar Republic from the standpoint of an observer familiar with most of the personalities who made the wheels go round in Berlin during those fourteen hectic years. His politics are those of the center—even the dead center. He defends Ebert’s suicidal compact with the Army in 1918, which doomed the Republic from the start; gently deplores the murder of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, which turned the Communists from a sect into a fanatical mass movement; duly lists the Cabinet changes which increasingly bored the public and discredited the regime; and through it all firmly misses the point about everything, from the aborted Revolution to the Nazis. One must have had some personal experience of the milieu from which he stems to appreciate the unconscious irony that pervades his pages. ‘Only a group of people as remote from reality as these solid, prosperous, German-Jewish liberals could have imagined that Hitler was a bad dream which would pass if one kept one’s eyes firmly shut.

Stresemann, to do him justice, had no such illusions, but then he had himself in his youth been bitten by the Pan-German mania, and thus understood the Nazis very well indeed. Mr. Turner, a competent though uninspired historian, moves rapidly through the details of his political career: from his murky beginnings as a Pan-German before 1918 (considerably understated by his biographer) to his apotheosis as the Weimar Republic’s successful (but unpopular) Foreign Minister in 1924-9. A question he never answers, or even seriously asks, is why Stresemann so enraged the Right. He duly notes that by the time of his sudden death in October 1929, his own party—the successor to the pre-war National Liberals—was on the point of repudiating him, but has no explanation to offer. Which is a pity, since it would have led him to consider why German liberalism as a whole has been a failure.

The point about Stresemann is that he failed where Adenauer succeeded: in reconciling the provincial middle class to democracy; and he failed because “National Liberalism” was already a stage toward “National Socialism”. The reality beneath these changing labels was simply the ordinary German philistine, the Spiessbürger. There exists a legend to the effect that Hitler owed his electoral triumphs in 1930-32 to the unemployed; in reality they voted Communist. One has only to study the election figures to see that the Nazi following came from the old middle-class parties. It was the peasants and the small-town burghers who carried Hitler to power in 1933; above all it was the country population which made possible the mental atmosphere of the “Blood and Soil” circus dramatized by Nazi demagogues like Goebbels during the early years of the Third Reich: that fantastic Walpurgisnacht of the German psyche. The eruption had something elemental about it, because it welled up from strata of the population which had always been outside the official culture. The peasantry is not a civilized class—it is the achievement of Nazism to have recalled this forgotten fact. The peasants of course needed leadership and this the small-town demagogues were able and willing to provide. The whole thing came close to being a revolt against civilization. Certainly the urban, metropolitan civilization of Berlin—the only modern metropolis Germany has ever had—was the prime target.

After the catastrophe it became the fashion among emigrés who stood close to the political center to bewail Stresemann’s untimely death, and to hint that he might have saved the day. This is a fantasy worthy of its authors. In fact Stresemann was already politically defeated when he died—“we have lost the youth” was one of the last things he said—and had he lived he would have been swept away by the flood in 1933 as surely as the rest of the Republic’s classe politique. People simply will not recognize that the Nazi movement came from the depths. It is, however, arguable that Stresemann might have put up a fight. He had been ready for it ten years earlier, at the height of the Ruhr crisis in 1923, when for a week or so it looked as if a Nationalist putsch with Army support might give Hitler’s and Ludendorff’s armed bands a chance to force their way into Berlin. On that occasion he had made it clear that he was not going to give way—“they’ll have to shoot me down at the place where I have the right to sit.” (The place was the Chancellery.) Stresemann was not cast in the heroic mold, but he had more character than most Germans of his class. What a paradox, though, that this last considerable figure of German liberalism should have been a repentant Nationalist who as late as 1918 still held out for the Monarchy and a victorious Greater Reich! Stresemann indeed almost managed to square the circle, for he looked and sounded like the typical Boche, which is why the French were so delighted when they discovered that he was really quite civilized. Unfortunately he could not carry his clientele with him. The industrialists who financed his party thought of nothing but how to smash the unions, and the Protestant middle class which supplied the electoral following was incurably nostalgic for the good old days. Both groups joined Hitler even before 1933, and served him to the bitter end.


To anyone who recalls these apocalyptic years, there is inevitably something a little uncanny about the surface calm of Western Germany at the present day. Are not the waters perhaps as deep as ever? Have we not seen it all before? It is a reasonable question, and yet I doubt its relevance. Unlike its luckless predecessor, the Bundesrepublik is not only prosperous and respected, but has genuinely struck root. It is of course an extremely philistine sort of place, but precisely for that reason it suits the provincial middle class which after a century of turmoil has finally come out on top. The country is now genuinely conservative. Not only has Pan-German imperialism collapsed: there is no faith in socialism either. All the old political elites—from the aristocracy to the Jews—have disappeared, and with them the cosmopolitan element so prominent under Weimar. The new “ruling class” of car salesmen and sausage manufacturers is adequately represented by Dr. Erhard, who in many respects resembles Stresemann, though he is decidedly less interesting. But then the Bundesrepublik with its stagnant politics, its dreary journals, and its increasingly parochial universities, is altogether not a very stimulating affair. Perhaps it is to the advantage of Europe that it should be so. After all, France can always be relied upon to provide fascination: perhaps even political leadership.

However that may be, West Germany appears to have settled down to an honorable career as the Common Market’s solid economic backbone: not a very exciting part to play, but not discreditable either. Its present Chancellor, successor to the seemingly indestructible Adenauer, epitomizes the new order. People—even Germans—are already in the habit of describing him as a transitional figure. They are doubtless right, but the transition is likely to be toward more of the same. On the whole he sounds reassuring. His book—really a collection of speeches and articles—is well-meaning and platitudinous like the man himself. German academics tend to look down on him as an the embodiment of lower-middle-class philistinism; but Erhard represents the peaceful aspect of the philistine syndrome. He has of course been overrated. The Wirtschaftswunder was no great miracle, given Germany’s basic competitive strength, and the much-touted “social market economy” is simply laissez-faire plus old-age pensions. But though he lacks originality, Erhard is not without importance; his popularity suggests that the Germans, for the first time in the their history, have genuinely accepted capitalism and middle-class values. They are becoming bourgeois, and may become as dull as the Belgians if they are not careful.

The only thing that can prevent this consummation is the reuniting of their country, and this does not depend on them but on the Powers, who can probably be relied upon to prevent it. Cynical? But Adenauer, who knew his countrymen, built his whole fourteen years of rule on the realization that they did not really want national unity with all its dangers, through they never stopped talking about it. He deliberately put Europe first, though he gave it a Catholic-conservative interpretation. His successor, a Protestant, appears to favor Atlantic orientation, which makes him more sympathetic to the people whom De Gaulle calls “the Anglo-Saxons.” But if he shows too much readiness to turn his country into a mere satellite within something that is coming to look like an American Empire, he will have to face trouble from European federalists and pro-Gaullists alike. For the moment he is safe. He has what Stresemann never possessed: the confidence of the average German.

This Issue

January 9, 1964