Eric Kurlander. The Price of Exclusion: Race, Nationalism and the Decline of German Liberalism 1898-1933. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006. 288 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84545-069-4.
Reviewed by William L. Patch (Department of History, Washington and Lee University)
Published on H-German (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Liberals into Nazis
Much scholarly analysis has been devoted to the curious phenomenon that most Germans who voted for the liberal parties in 1919 doubtless voted NSDAP in 1932. As Eric Kurlander notes, the most influential analyses focus on the social strains caused by industrial concentration, hyperinflation, mass unemployment, and the sometimes anti-democratic political strategies of economic interest groups. Kurlander criticizes the fixation on social history and political economy in these accounts, asserting boldly that the most important cause of the collapse of German liberalism was its "abject capitulation to a racialist (völkisch) worldview" (pp. 2-3). While a "universalist" liberalism inspired by a belief in human rights prevailed in France, Great Britain, the United States, and to some extent in southwestern Germany, most German liberals came to think in "exclusivist" racial terms. "German liberalism failed," Kurlander declares, "because it was progressively undermined by an increasingly ethnicized conception of national identity prevailing in German political culture after 1890" (pp. 5-7). The author is no doubt correct that most Germans exaggerated the extent of blood kinship among the German-speaking population of central Europe, and that many liberal politicians embraced the myth of a nation based on kinship, either because they shared this misconception or viewed the myth as useful for stimulating patriotism. This rhetorical strategy certainly fostered doubts as to whether Jews and the Polish-speaking minority belonged to the "German nation," and liberal politicians who embraced this rhetorical strategy found themselves in a weak position when they sought to refute Nazi propaganda. Kurlander nevertheless overstates the conclusions justified by the evidence he presents.
The author seeks to prove his thesis by analyzing the debate between "universalist" and "völkisch liberals" in three regions: Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Silesia, and Alsace. "Völkisch liberals" gained the upper hand in Schleswig-Holstein as early as 1907, he concludes, and liberalism therefore retained an unusually strong influence on voters there until the year 1928. Thereafter, these voters perceived little difference, however, between liberalism and National Socialism. In Lower Silesia, "universalists" usually won the internal party debates but thereby alienated their voters and hastened the collapse of liberalism. In Alsace, by contrast, "universalists" dominated politics and persuaded a substantial majority of the voters to ratify their positions, because here political culture was essentially west European.
One problem with the book's approach is the lack of behavioral criteria to distinguish between universalist and völkisch liberals. As Kurlander himself emphasizes, liberals could support Danish-language instruction for ethnically Danish children in North Schleswig because of a belief in human rights, or because they believed in the special racial value of Danes. Some liberals defended the Wilhelmine government's brutal colonial war in southwest Africa on the basis of racist thinking, but others adopted the same position based on arguments about the economic value of colonies identical to those advanced by French and British liberals. The author cannot identify litmus test votes in parliament where politicians demonstrated through action whether they adhered to universalist or völkisch principles. Virtually his only attempt to do so is one brief mention of a Reichstag resolution in 1920 to tighten the rules for issuing residence permits to immigrants from eastern Europe. Nowhere does this book discuss any specific policy debate that could compare in its repercussions for the liberal parties to the Reichstag votes on protective tariffs under the empire that actually caused party schisms and realignments.
The book also contains a few errors regarding the political history of the Weimar Republic that do not foster confidence in the author's judgment. In the maneuvers leading up to the Reichstag election of May 1928, we are told, the liberals of Schleswig-Holstein sought "to incorporate the more republican inclined DNVP (German National People's Party) splinter organization, the Volkskonservativen" (p. 211). Here Kurlander refers to a schism of the right-wing DNVP that did not occur until December 1929. In a passage more relevant to his core argument, the author asserts that in Schleswig-Holstein "the socioeconomic situation was not significantly different in 1928 than it had been in 1924," implying that the heavy electoral losses suffered by left liberals in May 1928 must have been related to trends in political culture (p. 212). In this region, the farm crisis actually began in 1926-27, however, when a steep fall in hog prices caused a rash of farm bankruptcies. Radicalized farmers engaged in mass protest marches and violent attacks on government buildings throughout the winter and spring of 1927-28. Analyzing the Reichstag election of September 1930, the author speculates that the right liberal DVP (German People's Party) suffered badly at the polls because it strongly supported the austerity policies of the Heinrich Brüning cabinet, while the left liberal State Party fared better because it offered a more "social" program. The DVP actually backed away from Brüning in June 1930, however, by withdrawing finance minister Paul Moldenhauer from the cabinet, who was replaced by Hermann Dietrich of the State Party. After that, the State Party was more closely identified with the policies of Brüning than any other politician. This book does not provide meaningful evidence about the motivation of voters who turned away from liberalism.
Most of this book is devoted to the analysis of political rhetoric, as Kurlander seeks to demonstrate a rising tide of racism on the basis of complex and sometimes incoherent utterances in politicians' speeches, newspaper editorials, and private letters. Some of his judgments about politicians seem arbitrary. Kurlander declares that the "democratic nationalism" of the distinguished champion of women's rights, Gertrud Bäumer, "contained völkisch elements little different from the radical right," but no evidence is adduced (p. 9). Kurlander seems highly ambivalent about Bäumer's political mentor, Friedrich Naumann, one of the most important founders of the Weimar Republic. Whenever Naumann's utterances are considered in detail, they are found to be admirably universalist, but when Kurlander reflects on the broad sweep of liberal history, Naumann's campaign to reconcile "national" and "social" values is depicted in a sinister light. Kurlander asserts that left liberals embraced the "basic goals" of Nazi foreign policy because they upheld the right of ethnic Germans in Austria and the Sudetenland to hold plebiscites on merger with Germany, but he ignores the central role in Hitler's program of the demand for Lebensraum; Nazis insisted that Germans had the right to steal land from other peoples and expel the non-German population.
In dealing with the linguistic element of political rhetoric, the author does not address effectively the basic problem of how to translate into English the German term "das Volk" (which could mean "people," "nation," or "race") and the various compound words based thereon. He cites approvingly a study by Steffen Bruendel, who concludes that politicians using the slogan "Volksgemeinschaft" leaned toward racialist thinking, while those who employed the slogan "Volksstaat" (people's state) were genuine democrats. Kurlander later brands a group of Silesian liberals as racist, however, because they used the slogan "Volksstaat," which he now translates as "ethnic state" (p. 243). At least a few democratic liberal and Catholic populist politicians employed the slogan "Volksgemeinschaft" only to persuade their listeners that the public good should take precedence over the special interests of any particular social class; the fact that Joseph Goebbels later seized upon this slogan does not convict everyone who employed it before 1933 of racism. The textual evidence is far more ambiguous than Kurlander acknowledges, so it is important to develop behavioral criteria to distinguish between völkisch goats and universalist sheep.
This book's two chapters on Alsace are its most illuminating, and Kurlander is to be applauded for incorporating French politics into his analysis in the final chapter. The author demonstrates that liberal politicians of Jewish descent remained capable of winning elections in Alsace long after the liberal parties in most regions of Germany refused to nominate them, and that Alsatian liberals proved better able to form coalitions that bridged confessional and ethnic divides than did most German liberals. Some experts on French history interpret the upsurge of regionalism in Alsace after 1919 as proof of a reactionary and racialist mentality, but Kurlander argues effectively that Alsatians had legitimate grievances against the centralizing policies of Paris, and that the most influential regionalists in Alsace also defended universal human rights. Kurlander's discussion of French history ends abruptly in May 1932, however, and it should be noted that under the Fourth Republic, French liberals suffered electoral losses almost as dramatic as those suffered by German liberals from 1898 to 1930. For students of social history and political economy this delayed onset of liberal crisis comes as no surprise, because only after 1945 did France experience the same levels of urbanization and industrial concentration that Germany experienced in the 1890s.
. See Dieter Gessner, Agrarverbände in der Weimarer Republik (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1976), 83-128.
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William L. Patch. Review of Kurlander, Eric, The Price of Exclusion: Race, Nationalism and the Decline of German Liberalism 1898-1933.
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