Raffael Scheck, "Politics of Illusion: Tirpitz and Right-Wing Putschism, 1922-1924," German Studies Review 18, 1 (February 1995): 29-49.

Reviewed by Bruce Campbell

(originally published by H-German on 12 January 1996)


The Weimar Republic was beset by a host of internal foes, and though only one of them eventually emerged to triumph over it, the work of destroying the democratic system in Germany was a collective effort of a very wide range of right-wing forces and groups. Raffael Scheck makes a valuable contribution to the literature on the plots and plans of the German Right in its attempts to change the political system of Germany and escape the strictures of the Versailles Treaty in his article "Politics of Illusion: "Tirpitz and Right-Wing Putschism, 1922-1924."

The article discusses the ideas and plans of several traditional conservative opponents of the Weimar Republic during the period of acute crisis from late 1922 through the period of beginning stabilization in 1924. Though Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz is a central figure in the article, it actually goes well beyond him to include a wider circle of right-wing figures such as Gustav von Kahr, Karl Helfferich, General August von Cramon and General Hans von Seeckt. Scheck demonstrates that Tirpitz and the circles with which he conspired wanted to overturn the democratic system, establish a national dictatorship and throw off the Versailles system at virtually any cost. They preferred to use "quasi-legal" or "orderly" means if at all possible, but they were willing to go as far as an armed putsch if necessary, and were also willing to run the considerable risk of an armed conflict with France in the process.

By looking at several plots in detail (three led by von Tirpitz and one by von Cramon and Helfferich), Scheck establishes a widespread pattern of thinking which sought to force the Reichstag to name a national government led by a man or men chosen by the conspirators which would repudiate both the constitution and the Versailles Treaty, re-arm, and "restore" the rights of the federal states. This was to be done with Reichswehr support and under the armed pressure of the paramilitary leagues. Popular support for such measures was to be gained through media manipulation and the forcing of a confrontation with France. Though none of these various plans were successful at the time, and though they were in fact quite illusory, Scheck demonstrates that such plots persisted even after the failure of the Hitler Putsch and the stabilization of the Republic in 1924. Though he points out that the Right did become more pragmatic after 1924, he also points to the suggestive similarity between the failed plots of 1922-24 and the successful plot of 1933.

Scheck asserts at the outset that the "semi-legal" approach favored by Tirpitz and others like him was more typical of the German Right than the openly putschist approach of ultra-radicals like Hitler, though he also acknowledges that Tirpitz and those like him were so set on destroying the Weimar system that they were quite willing to risk a putsch if necessary. He also contends that the ferocious anti-French rhetoric of the German Right was not just empty talk, but indicated a genuine willingness to bluff and provoke France even to the point of war. While this may be too great a generalization based on the limited information included in the article, it certainly holds true for the conspirators Scheck examines in depth. Though the plots he discusses were all based on a number of false premises, Scheck ascribes this blindness on the part of otherwise "sober" politicians to the emotional similarities they saw between the crisis period of 1922-1923 and the end of the First World War, which defeat they had not yet fully digested. In effect, Scheck suggests that Tirpitz and company "appeared willing to re-fight the end of the world war in 1922-24," even at the risk of conflict with France and civil war.

One of the main contributions of this article is to demonstrate the degree to which the "putschists" and the "legalists" [my own very relative terms] actually sought to use each other, and to show just how broad the anti-republican consensus actually was, reaching far beyond the rather marginal elements represented by Hitler into the highest levels of the German political and military elite. In his discussion of attempts to overthrow the Weimar Republic, Scheck is to be commended for moving the focus to established and relatively more mainstream politicians like von Tirpitz, who were far more important in the 1920s than putschists like Hitler or Buchrucker. The abundance of sources stemming from the Nazi Party available to historians after 1945, the largely south German provenance of those sources due to the way Germany was divided by the Allies, and the willingness of many Germans and Western conservatives to ascribe the end of democracy in Germany to rogue elements like the Nazis has tended to this very day to obscure the wide range of anti-republican sentiment and active opposition to democracy which existed in Germany, even among mainstream conservatives, and to focus the story of opposition to the Republic too narrowly on the Nazi Party and the circles immediately around it. In his use of the Tirpitz papers and especially in his use of heretofore ignored Italian diplomatic documents, Scheck has stepped off the well-worn path of scholarship to bring new or long-ignored information to light. The article is also filled with gems of information such as a digression on the Swiss-German origins of the word "Putsch". This is a valuable article which needs to be read by anyone seeking to understand the deep and violent opposition of the German Right to the Weimar Republic.

Bruce Campbell, Old Dominion University

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