Anthony McElligott, ed. Weimar Germany. The Short Oxford History of Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. xviii + 324 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-928006-3; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-928007-0.
Reviewed by Eric Bryden (St. Ambrose University)
Published on H-German (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
The Ambiguity of Modernity
Weimar Germany, the third installment of the five-volume Short Oxford History of Germany series, is intended to introduce students and non-specialists to the Weimar Republic. It assembles a set of essays covering a wide range of subject matter, from foreign policy and the national economy to the relationship between the Reichswehr and society to gender politics and housing reform. It thus offers much more than an introductory text on Germany's first democracy. Editor Anthony McElligott notes that volume argues for the study of Weimar in its own right, not simply as a prelude to National Socialist dictatorship. Mention of the Nazi movement or the establishment of the Third Reich within these pages is limited to places where it is clearly warranted. Instead of positioning the republic as a springboard into a fascist nightmare, the volume's contributors collectively paint a picture of a society rife with social-engineering schemes packaged as "reforms" and continuously torn between authoritarian and democratic solutions to pressing problems, between the top-down dreams of reformers, often liberal and progressive in their politics, and the bottom-up desires, sometimes conservative in nature, of the broader populace. Without question, the essays collected here explore the Weimar experience with intelligence and insight, though their utility in the classroom must be seen as mixed.
In the main, the assembled essays respond to the ideas of Detlev Peukert, both his argument that the Weimar experience represented a "crisis of classical modernity" and his evaluations of Weimar-era social disciplinary measures. While Weimar Germans undoubtedly experienced a number of crises, McElligott argues in his introductory essay, these were not spawned by conflict between adherents of liberal democratic modernity and those determined to stop them, but rather by the "ongoing tension between ... different paths to modernization" (p. 8). McElligott's introduction makes a spirited appeal to move past the still-dominant (though challenged) failure paradigm of Weimar studies, which portrays the republic as essentially doomed from the start. He also argues for a broader understanding of modernity, one which accepts that there are multiple and competing forms of modernity, often authoritarian in nature or inclination.
McElligott's chapter, "Political Culture," addresses the relative strength--over the course of the republic's life--of authoritarian political practice in comparison with that of the Volksstaat. McElligott argues that both authoritarian and democratic modernity were institutionalized in Articles 48 and 54 of the Weimar constitution. These articles granted the Reich president emergency powers and the Reichstag the power to pass government-dissolving motions of no confidence. The ultimate impact of these powers in practice, McElligott demonstrates, depended on the intentions of those who brought them to bear. His focus on institutional arrangements, cabinet formation, and parliamentary politics allows for a well-argued and coherent essay, but at the exclusion of much of what is commonly associated with the political culture concept, especially political symbolism and identity formation. He also writes surprisingly little on popular political life.
One learns more about popular political attitudes, at least on the nationalist right, from Wolfgang Elz's chapter on foreign policy. Elz's contribution provides a good introduction to Weimar diplomacy and the domestic pressures under which it operated, especially for the non-specialist. He argues that while domestic public opinion frequently constrained the postwar foreign policy of all the former belligerents, this effect was particularly noticeable in Germany. In all countries, the aftereffects of First World War propaganda still shaped public opinion; any conciliation could be seen as capitulation. The constraint of nationalist public sentiment was weakened during the period of relative economic prosperity in the mid- and late 1920s, however, which allowed foreign minister Gustav Stresemann to pursue his goal of improving Germany's position in the world through a policy of multilateral engagement. This effort built up trust among German, French, and British diplomats and resulted in a slow but steady stream of foreign policy successes for Germany. With Stresemann's death and the onset of the Great Depression, nationalist public sentiment was able to push for a more aggressive and unilateral diplomatic stance vis-à-vis Germany's former enemies.
Chapter 3, William Mulligan's "The Reichswehr and the Weimar Republic," outlines competing visions for the post-Versailles German military with their strongly contrasting potential consequences for German society. The first, advanced by General Hans von Seeckt, sought to develop the Reichswehr as a professional force, highly trained for mobility instead of static defense and insulated from greater society. The other advocated the active reshaping of society to meet the nation's military needs, including promotion of military values, such as discipline, and the formation of paramilitary defense groups, especially near Germany's eastern borders. In this way, many officers hoped to prepare Germans for fighting the total wars they envisioned for the future. In doing so, they joined the ranks of those who sought to engineer the German people from the top down: "Like social workers, engineers, and health experts, soldiers sought to remake society" (p. 78). Even so, Mulligan argues, most high-ranking officers were willing to work within the republican system until they came to believe, by 1930, that it offered no possibility for achieving Germany's military renewal.
In chapter 4,"The Weimar Economy," Harold James treats this theme primarily according to free market economic theory. James starts with a quick look at overall economic performance during the Weimar period. He describes it as stagnating at the same time as, and in part due to, dramatic increases in labor costs and taxation to pay for social programs. He focuses his attention on monetary policy, particularly the inflationary policy of the early 1920s and the deliberate deflationary policy of the Great Depression. This discussion provides a macro-level analysis of the impact of these varying government monetary policies on foreign and domestic commerce, foreign investment, and investors' trust in the central state. This last point was especially important, in James's view, since erosion of investor confidence in the republic made Keynesian solutions unworkable and thus limited possible responses to the Depression. James concludes, in agreement with Friedrich Hayek, that the mix of market- and state-directed economic measures pursued by republican authorities was fundamentally unworkable. Further addressing the economic issues of the day, but at a different level, John Bingham's essay, "The 'Urban Republic'," examines efforts by municipal authorities to influence the drafting of government measures that impacted them, particularly any programs that municipal governments would have to pay for, as well as the redistribution of resources from the national to the local level. Bingham notes that municipal governments were frequently forced to provide extensive services with little funding, due to a combination of urban growth and new welfare measures. Bingham focuses special attention on the Deutsche Städtetag, a national organization for city governments that advocated reforms that attempted to allow municipalities to bypass government at the level of the Länder and appeal directly to the Reich.
In chapter 6, Kathleen Canning addresses gender politics, particularly in regard to new roles women played in Weimar public life. Canning presents a well-organized and highly informative analysis, making hers one of the best essays in the collection for a university student readership. She focuses special attention on women as newly enfranchised political actors and on the "new woman" in image and rhetoric. Canning argues that women, provided with wartime experience in political agency through their participation in protests and workplace organization, acted as citizens during Weimar, not only through political activity and voting behavior, but also through their choices and actions in everyday public life. Even simple activities such as going to the movies or making choices about purchasing consumer goods carried political significance, since both expressed ideas or attitudes about proper behavior and women's place in society and made a direct impact on German economic vitality. The new woman, who enjoyed Weimar's consumer culture and took advantage of the weakening of traditional social constraints, certainly unsettled traditional gender expectations and norms. But, Canning argues, she was also associated with "the capacity to manage the challenges of modernity, including the dual demands of earning a living and running a household" (p. 163), thus exemplifying modern life while still maintaining a more traditional division of labor in the domestic sphere. Canning ends her piece with a look at the clash between emancipatory and right-wing authoritarian visions of female sexuality, centering on debates in the early 1930s over the legalization of abortion.
Chapters 7 and 8 address efforts at actively engineering German social behavior and the resulting clash between the hopes and expectations of reformers (or social engineers) and the people they sought to help. In "The Weimar Welfare State," Young-Sun Hong directs her attention to social welfare measures and the assumptions on which they were based. Hong argues that Weimar welfare measures were founded on the idea that all members of society were important for the well-being of the whole. Poverty was rooted in the social environment and so could be alleviated by changing it. Individuals had a right to aid, but this right also conferred duties towards the collective good. The state, therefore, could actively manage its citizenry and "compel the individual to anticipate, prevent, and treat need in all its diverse forms in order to secure the 'risk-free existence' ... which represented the perfection of this secularized utopia" (p. 176). In enacting welfare measures, three groups came into contestation: social workers, often from private civic associations; state officials; and the beneficiaries of welfare, especially youth and the "new poor," those impoverished directly or indirectly due to the First World War and its aftermath. A "clash between competing modernities" (p. 181) caused scientific expertise to come into conflict with democratic participation. Running headlong into the limits of human malleability and educability, Hong argues, progressives began to make an authoritarian turn. Still, she concludes, scholars should not make too much of the continuities between Weimar and Nazi welfare systems, since the two were based on fundamentally different assumptions and worldviews.
Adelheid von Saldern, in "'Neues Wohnen': Housing and Reform," examines efforts to mold social behavior actively through the use of "modern housing" design in new housing estates. These projects directly followed or were partially influenced by the ideas of the Bauhaus and similar schools of architectural thought. By limiting floor space, placing apartments to promote encounters and interaction between tenants, and providing little to no architectural ornament, reformers believed, modern housing would promote "socially rational" behavior. The way of life they imagined focused on a broadly defined hygiene, family planning, and freedom from sentimental attachment to "outdated" modes of living. For reformers, modern living was contemporary living. And while they did not challenge traditional gender norms, reformers did seek to rationalize domestic workspaces for housewives whom they hoped would see housework as a professional occupation. Many of these ideas, Saldern argues, could be espoused by all political groups, but they were promoted especially by progressive intellectuals and Social Democrats. She further notes that in practice, tenants in modern housing estates were not as easily shaped as reformers had hoped, even though estates deliberately chose tenants they believed to be well suited for modern living.
As his contribution to this collection, Anthony Kauders looks at the situation of Jews in the Weimar Republic. Kauders argues that Weimar-era Jewish life reflected many of the same political and ideological debates playing out among the broader German population. Throughout the Weimar period, Jews were politically divided between liberalism and the communitarian ideology of Zionism. They also divided philosophically and theologically between liberal rationalism and ideas that emphasized the irrational and emotional to the point of promoting a Jewish form of völkisch mysticism. Despite their internal rifts, Kauders argues, Jews remained solidly behind the republic and political liberalism. For Kauders, the strength of Jewish support for the Weimar state and liberalism truly sets Weimar-era Jews apart from other Germans at the time. Still, he notes that with the steady collapse of state institutions as well as the National Socialist rise to power, accompanied by a surge in open antisemitism, Jews began increasingly to rely on themselves, forging a closer and stronger community life and so forming a distinct subculture.
In the final chapter, "High Brow and Low Brow Culture," Karl Christian Führer examines the importance of culture in Weimar Germany. Directing his attention solely to radio, film, and theater productions, Führer argues that the cultural modernity in avant garde art was profoundly outweighed by the importance of light entertainment and sentimental works created for the majority of Germans, much to the displeasure of intellectuals and officials who wanted to use the media to further their audience's cultural education and cultivation. The type of programming brought to film and stage was determined in large part by public taste (what audiences were willing to pay for) and, in the case of public theaters, political considerations and a desire to avoid controversy. Only radio dedicated its programming to cultural uplift, in this case by broadcasting classic works. Indeed, most Germans outside the traditional middle and upper classes did not regularly partake in Weimar's cultural life, even in outings to movie theaters, if only for economic reasons. Führer provides a useful reminder for scholars that "[c]ultural consumption is luxury consumption" (p. 278). If Weimar culture was "less spectacular and less experimental than it appears in many accounts" (p. 260), it was unique in the degree to which local and regional public officials, supported by a broad consensus from across the political spectrum, actively subsidized and promoted cultural consumption, especially in by supporting theaters, orchestras, operas, and ballets.
The myriad strengths of these contributions notwithstanding, given the stated purpose of the volume, we must ask whether this collection can actually be used as an introductory text in a university setting. Many of the essays assume a fair degree of prior knowledge of German history's basic narrative, knowledge that the vast majority of undergraduate students in the United States, and many graduate students, do not possess. Kauders's essay, for example, discusses Jewish Gemeinde elections, but with little explanation of what these entailed and how Gemeinde government was different than or related to civil government at the local, regional, and national level. While this distinction may strike the expert as self-evident, to the undergraduate student, the early-career graduate student, or the intelligent lay reader, it will be confusing. The collection's overall engagement with historiographical debates may further constrain this work's usefulness for undergraduate classes. Furthermore, several essays focus their attention narrowly enough that they could not be given to students without additional material, whether from lecture or another text, to provide them with crucial background for understanding the authors' arguments. To this book's credit, it does contain an annotated "timeline," assembled by Nadine Rossol, that offers a basic narrative of events. Rossol's timeline provides valuable background information for introductory-level readers, but also contains some statements that could use further explanation, if only in a few words. Still, the timeline provides some necessary context for the proceeding chapters. Rossol is to be commended for making mention of efforts to support the republic, such as the founding of the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold in 1924, which often remain overlooked by Weimar scholars.
Despite these reservations, I do recommend this work. It could be used in an undergraduate classroom, if paired with adequate background material and if historiographical issues are ignored. Perhaps a better option for undergraduate education would be assigning individual chapters, though some, such as Elz's and Canning's, would work better for instructional purposes than others. For graduate students, who will benefit most from the historiographic positioning of the essays, Weimar Germany is useful in its entirety. It would perhaps work best if paired with Peukert's now classic study on the Weimar Republic, or his work on social discipline. This collection has potential utility for established scholars as well, especially since most of the essays present original arguments, sometimes based extensively on primary-source material. Saldern's chapter on housing and social engineering, for example, holds up well as an original piece of research as well as an introduction to the subject matter. Many of the arguments found in other chapters also warrant future mention, if not direct engagement, by other scholars in their work.
. Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, trans. Richard Deveson (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992). For his views on social discipline, see Peukert, Grenzen der Sozialdisziplinierung: Aufstieg und Krise der deutschen Jugendfürsorge 1878 bis 1932 (Cologne: Bund-Verlag, 1986), Max Webers Diagnose der Moderne (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1989); and "The Genesis of the 'Final Solution' from the Spirit of Science," in Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945, ed. David Crew (London: Routledge, 1994).
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