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.1

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. “The longer we talked, the gloomier he became,” Kessler noted mournfully. “He lacks the courage to stand up openly against Hindenburg.” Indeed, eight years later Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor.

Stresemann was more courageous on other issues. He led Germany into the League of Nations. In his maiden speech to the League he declared that

it cannot be the sense of the divine world order…to direct supreme national efforts against each other time and again, continually throwing back the general development of culture. Humanity will be best served by him who, rooted in his own people and culture, grows beyond it to serve all…. Away with the rifles, machine guns, cannons! Clear the way for arbitration, conciliation, peace!2

Stresemann believed that through arbitration, negotiation, and reconciliation he could lighten the heavy punishment imposed on Germany under the humiliating terms of the Versailles Treaty; perhaps he could even redraw Germany’s eastern borders with Poland so that East Prussia would no longer be separated from eastern Germany. As he saw it, he was a Realpolitiker, though not in the sense of Bismarck, who famously claimed that qui dit humanité ment (“who talks of humanity lies”) and who regarded the militarized empire he founded in 1870 as a bastion against the “obscenity,” in Treitschke’s words, of the French Revolution.

Stresemann’s chief policies were to achieve consensus at home and “reconciliation” with former enemies abroad—the latter aim was enough for Nazis and conservatives of the far right to condemn him for high treason. Walter Rathenau, his predecessor as foreign minister, had been assassinated for less. Stresemann was one of the architects of the 1925 pact of Locarno for which, along with Aristide Briand and Austen Chamberlain, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At Locarno, the three foreign ministers saw themselves recreating the concert of Europe, as Castlereagh, Talleyrand, and Metternich had done after the Napoleonic Wars. Germany and France mutually recognized (and Britain guaranteed) their post–World War I borders and Germany renounced all claims to Alsace-Lorraine. In Locarno, Briand said hopefully, on a parlé européen.


Stresemann became a republican because, as he saw it, the only alternative would be a tyranny by the extreme right or the extreme left. He sought to neutralize both. His great ambition was to reconcile to the republic both the reluctant provincial and lower middle classes and the unreconstructed army. Though the leader of the small, conservative, only partly pro-republican party he founded after the war—the Deutsche Volkspartei (DVP)—he was a major national figure, a senior minister in nearly all cabinets, and internationally the most trusted and highly regarded German politician. He was certainly the ablest, most astute German politician before the rise of Hitler, a master of parliamentary tactics, more capable than any other active politician of maintaining a precarious political balance in a republic that did not really like being one and of preventing extremist political forces from gaining the upper hand. Therein lies his interest. Ian Kershaw, author of a major Hitler biography and a leading authority in this field, goes so far as to claim (on the jacket of Wright’s book) that had Stresemann not died prematurely in 1929 “Germany might just have avoided a Hitler dictatorship.”

The problem with this speculation is that at the time of his death Stresemann was beginning to lose control. As Jonathan Wright shows in his detailed and very useful new biography, the best yet written, even his own party was getting closer to the Nazis all the time. Wright’s book relies on extensive new archive material that has not been available thus far to English readers. He believes that Stresemann was the only active politician who might have been able to maintain the alliance between moderate leftists and moderate rightists. His death was thus a devastating blow to the Weimar Republic.

In his lifetime, Stresemann had been a subject of much controversy, both in Germany and in Europe. The debate over him, Wright says, turned on the question of whether he was sincere about Germany’s aims. In both Great Britain and France, some claimed that his policy of rapprochement was a temporary ruse until Germany could recover its military power. André François-Poncet, the French ambassador in Berlin, seems to have suspected as much. He wrote of Stresemann’s “fundamental duplicity and hypocrisy,” although he also wondered, as Wright mentions, whether it was the situation more than Stresemann’s character that had made him play such a double game: “The French certainly wanted rapprochement but one which cost nothing. The Germans certainly wanted rapprochement but one which paid,” François Poncet wrote. “Only Stresemann’s skill enabled him to keep his balance on this unstable ground.” The left-wing British journalist Claud Cockburn, who later resigned from The Times to join the Communist Daily Worker, said he found Stresemann

entertaining provided that you did not believe in him. He was one of those Germans who had, at a fairly early date, discovered that the way to get away with being a good German was to pretend to be a good European. He had a wonderful act in which he pretended to be not only fat, which he was, but good-hearted and a little muzzy with beer into the bargain. In reality he was as quick and sharp as a buzz-saw, and if being a sharp, fast-moving buzz-saw was not enough, he would hit you from behind with a hammer.

A different assessment of Stresemann was made by the British historian John Wheeler-Bennett:

With the possible exception of M. Aristide Briand, no figure since the war has so dominated European affairs as did Herr Stresemann; and no statesman has shown so unwavering a devotion to what he conceived as the right course for his country. By a fortunate coincidence it was also the right course for the world. Herr Stresemann may be said to have been the first of the Europeans. [emphasis added]

The irony was that this “first European,” a constitutional democrat committed to protecting the republic from its enemies on both left and right, was a repentant monarchist and supporter of the war. Citing a line attributed by Stresemann to Goethe, he justified his shift from his former views by saying, “Only he who changes remains a kindred spirit.” In 1914, he had been convinced that England had “forged” the great coalition that fell on Germany “like the thief in the night.” Throughout the war, as a conservative Reichstag deputy, he had been close to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the two leading warlords, sharing their view that Germany must annex large parts of Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and replace England as the leading world power. In the Reichstag, he helped force the resignation of Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, who favored a Verständigungsfrieden, a “negotiated” peace, rather than a Siegfrieden, a “victorious” peace settlement imposed by the German victors with extensive annexations in Africa and Eastern and Western Europe. Belgium, in this view, had to become a German province; Calais must be Germany’s “Gibraltar.” He had supported unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic, accepting the risk that the United States might go to war in retaliation.


Born in Berlin in 1878 in a lower-middle-class family, Stresemann married Käte Kleefeld, daughter of an upper-middle-class family of Jewish converts known for its interest in music, literature, and the arts. (His wife’s brother, Kurt von Kleefeld, was ennobled shortly before the end of the monarchy.) In the perspective of the time, Wright says, Stresemann had married “above” himself even though his wife was of Jewish descent. Stresemann was open about her background, and even flaunted it when it served a political interest, as when he attempted to attract Jewish votes. (Wright quotes a 1920 letter explaining his party’s position on anti-Semitism to the Centralverein of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith.) But he could also claim it was “untrue” that his wife was Jewish—as he wrote in a 1919 letter to Oscar Hergt, chairman of an anti-Semitic conservative party. “He was able to take both positions,” Wright says, “by playing on the difference between Jewish descent and Jewish faith.” It was clearly a tricky game, potentially dangerous politically and difficult personally.

At the end of the war Stresemann was a changed man. He realized now, as he put it, that the old system had been “utterly bankrupt, could no longer be saved and also did not deserve to survive longer.” It was not a sudden revelation. His newly found republicanism was the pragmatic solution after a disaster. The new Deutsche Demokratische Partei (DDP) had just been founded and was soon to become the third-largest in the Reichstag. It was the brainchild of Theodor Wolff, the editor of the liberal Berliner Tageblatt who, during the war, had been one of the few to keep a cool head, rarely using the word “national” except ironically, something he could now take pride in. Other founders of the party were Max Weber, Albert Einstein, Walther Rathenau, and similar democratically minded academics and businessmen who before the war had been either unwilling or unable to assume public office because they were Jews, as was the case with Rathenau, Hugo Preuss, the author of the proposed republican draft constitution, and Stresemann’s brother-in-law, Kurt von Kleefeld. Stresemann’s DVP was more than anxious to fuse with the new party. But his own involvement, and that of his colleagues, with the nationalist hawks during the war had been so reckless that, at Max Weber’s insistence, the proposed fusion was firmly rejected by the DDP.

Stresemann’s colleagues were devastated. Their party was isolated and crumbling. Stresemann had been suspicious of the radical intellectuals of the DDP in the first place. The attempt to exclude him at first drove him back to the right, but not for long. He founded a new party which sought and found the middle ground but never succeeded in organizing the broad alliance he hoped for. As the years passed, Stresemann was shocked by the growing right-wing violence in a country still torn apart by the ravages of defeat, and he was especially appalled by the assassination of Walter Rathenau, his predecessor in the Foreign Ministry. He now realized that his natural coalition partners were the Social Democrats. Almost a year before the spectacular rise of the Nazis, a result of the 1929 slump, and shortly before his death, he declared at a party caucus: “I can see only that we must work with the left because parts of the right in Germany have gone mad.” As he said on another occasion, he was not a “carefully constructed book. I am a human being with human contradictions.”

He did not merely construct a career of survival, as Talleyrand did, even though, like Talleyrand, he always landed on his feet and at times on those of others. Despite his contradictions, Wright concludes, there was a consistency of principle in Stresemann’s achievements. Even though Stresemann never took the trouble to create a political organization fully committed to his policy, in the last seven years of his life he served Europe and his country well. The trouble is that his influence died with him. His death at fifty-one in 1929 came as a great shock. The British ambassador in Berlin maintained that the outside world had understood more clearly the great merits of Stresemann’s achievement than the Germans did. German and foreign mourners were unanimous in their fears that he was irreplaceable. The political equilibrium had somehow depended on him.

In his diary, Harry Kessler noted that Stresemann’s death was “an irreparable loss whose consequences cannot be foreseen.” Kessler was in Paris on the day he died, and he noted that “everyone talks about it.” Paris-Midi carried the headline “UNE éVéNEMENT D’UNE PORTéE MONDIALE ET UN DEUIL POUR LA CAUSE DE LA PAIX” (“An event of world importance and a loss to the cause of peace”). On the following day, Kessler wrote,

It is almost as if an outstanding French statesman has died, the grief is so general and sincere…. A legend is in the making—by his sudden death Stresemann has become an almost mythical personality. Not a single one of the nineteenth-century’s great statesmen…attained such worldwide recognition or such an apotheosis. He is the first to be admitted to Valhalla as a genuine European statesman.

Twenty-six days after Stresemann’s death, the New York Stock Exchange crashed. Germany’s short-term credits were withdrawn. Three months later Weimar’s parliamentary system collapsed. The Social Democrats broke apart the Great Coalition that Stresemann had built over an issue that under the circumstances was relatively insignificant—the reform of unemployment compensation. The slump grew worse. It gave Hitler his chance and he used it with great skill. The Social Democrats, badly led, lost their wits. The Communists never led a general strike against a Nazi takeover as they often promised they would. The far right smelled a chance to get rid of the unions. Lacking a working coalition of the parties, government was henceforth possible only by presidential decree. The President was a senile old general surrounded by militarists who dabbled in politics, and ultraconservative politicians and businessmen who believed they could “hire” Hitler to harness the unions and restore order. The President hesitated at first and then gave in to them. Had Stresemann lived, things might have been different.

This Issue

October 23, 2003