Wilhelm Ribhegge. Preußen im Westen: Kampf um den Parlamentarismus in Rheinland und Westfalen 1789-1947. Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2007. VIII, 840 S. (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-402-05489-5.
Reviewed by James Brophy
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (August, 2009)
W. Ribhegge: Preußen im Westen
The impact of Konrad Adenauer and his Rhenish sensibilities on the political culture of the “Bundesrepublik” is a common premise for postwar German political history. His western-oriented policies and his pragmatic style of Christian Democractic conservatism stamped the first decade of the Federal Republic’s centrist parliamentary politics, just as the newly constituted North Rhine-Westphalia, the republic’s largest and economically most powerful state, forged a new era in accommodative labor relations. This political orientation has, of course, a longer history, which is the subject of Wilhelm Ribhegge’s impressive work. This study examines the roles played by Westphalia and the Rhineland in the development of Prussian-German parliamentary politics, from the French Revolution to Prussia’s dissolution in 1947, placing regional developments into the larger frameworks of Prussian and Reich politics. Four chapters examine the long nineteenth century, another four appraise the Weimar Period, and an epilogue traces the founding of North Rhine-Westphalia. (The National Socialist period is not examined; parliamentary activity effectively ended in July 1933.) The book’s heft clearly lies in the Weimar period, but its insightful analysis of nineteenth-century developments is indispensable for viewing trends and continuities. Blending close reading of legislative stenographic records with memoir and secondary literature, Ribhegge makes the case that Rhenish and Westphalian parliamentary practices figure significantly in any discussion of Prussian-German politics.
As non-contiguous provinces of the Prussian state between 1815 and 1866, Westphalia and the Rhineland infused Prussia’s “Obrigkeitsstaat” with constitutionalism, Napoleonic law, entrepreneurial pragmatism, and a high regard for civil society. Thumbnail sketches of prominent leaders in the Provincial Diets (e.g., Ludolf Camphausen, Georg von Vincke, David Hansemann, Hermann Beckerath) underscore their oppositional leadership in both the Vormärz and in the parliamentary forums of 1848/49. Although Ribhegge acknowledges the subsequent influence of liberalism in regional politics and urban development (with such figures as Leopold von Hoverbeck, Eugen Richter, and Georg von Hertling), he sharpens his focus on the oppositional roles of political Catholicism and Social Democracy. Under Ludwig Windthorst’s leadership during the “Kulturkampf”, the Center Party replaced liberalism as the region’s dominant political movement. Its regionally affiliated newspapers, journals, unions, clubs, and societies played a significant role in developing a Catholic milieu and its accompanying political program of constitutional social conservatism. Ribhegge notes the Center Party’s opposition to Bismarck’s Septennat bill in 1887 to underscore its crisis of political independence. The party’s stance to oppose military expansion brought conflict with papal wishes, which expressly desired cooperation with Berlin, but the Center’s resolve to represent voters and not bishops ultimately strengthened the party’s base in the 1890s. For the Wilhelminian period, his portraits of such Center Party deputies as Karl Trimborn (Cologne), Peter Spahn (Aachen), and Wilhelm Marx (Neuss-Grevenbroich-Krefeld) illustrate how western deputies shaped national debates and furthermore provided firm continuity in party leadership between the Wilhelminian and Weimar periods. In doing so, the author favorably interprets the party as possessing a constructive character. Its constitutional pluralism and its pragmatic views on brokering coalitions made it the linchpin of parliamentary politics.
A similarly practical quality is ascribed to the region’s SPD leadership. As the Rhenish and Westphalian provinces entered into the era of high industrialization and mass politics, they became labor strongholds. The regions produced such union leaders as Otto Hue (Bochum) and Theodor Bömelberg (Dortmund), whose influence in organizing Ruhr miners also extended to the region’s trade-unionist preference of pragmatic gain over the political strike. Westphalian districts also elected Philipp Scheidemann (Solingen), Carl Severing (Bielefeld), Friedrich Ebert (Elberfeld-Barmen), and the future USPD leader Wilhelm Dittman (Remscheid-Lennep-Mettmann), all of whom played crucial roles in the Revolution of 1918/19 and in subsequent Weimar politics. For Ribhegge’s story, the career of Carl Severing is especially important. His alliances with bourgeois and trade-union wings of the party strengthened its political base, and his tenure as minister of the interior in Otto Braun’s three Prussian governments during the 1920s made him a central architect in reconstituting Prussia’s civil service and police corps. Overall Ribhegge characterizes both the Center Party and the SPD as eminently capable of compromise, growth, and evolution, thus drawing an important arc between the oppositional politics of the Kaiserreich to parliamentary governance in the Weimar period. Although they diverged significantly on several fronts, the two parties shared an esteem for constitutional rights and political pluralism, enabling them to form coalitions in the Weimar Republic.
The Weimar Republic’s eventual failure, Ribhegge suggests, was not inevitable. After 1918, the personnel and creative initiative existed in such parties as the Center and the SPD to sustain parliamentary democracy (p. 339). He thus looks beyond the conventional notion of dysfunctional government – what Wilhelm Marx called “die deutsche Sucht zur politischen Selbstzerfleischung” – to explore the various levels of Weimar’s governments that functioned properly. At the municipal level in the Rhineland and Westphalia, the cities developed into pillars of Weimar democracy, producing such influential “Oberbürgermeister” as Konrad Adenauer (Cologne), Hans Luther (Essen), and Robert Lehr (Düsseldorf). Adenauer also served as the president of the Prussian State Council, providing him with additional national clout. At the Prussian state level, the SPD’s Otto Braun served as Minister President of Prussia from 1920 to May 1932 (notwithstanding a few months in 1921 and 1925). During this tenure, he organized various coalitions of SPD, Center, DDP, and DVP governments to democratize the administration, reform state education, and introduce land reform. Under his firm hand, Prussia emerged as a “fortress” of democracy. At the national level of the Reich, the Center Party took the spotlight, forming five governments and exercising influence far beyond its proportional representation. For Ribhegge’s argument of flexibility and pragmatism, Chancellor Wilhelm Marx, a Kölner who represented Mülheim/Ruhr-Wipperfürth, is especially important. On the one hand, he worked with the DNVP, Hindenburg, and the big-business interests of the DVP; on the other, he cooperated effectively with such leading SPD leaders as Friedrich Ebert, Otto Braun, and Carl Severing. Taking the temperature of the Republic in 1928, Ribhegge finds as many harbingers of democratic stability as he does find adumbrations of authoritarian triumph. In Wilhelm Sollmann, the SPD politician and editor from Cologne who served under Stresemann in 1923 as minister of the interior, one sees an ideal type of the left-center political hybridity that Ribhegge so admires: a reformist politician who pleaded for a liberalization of Weimar’s political culture. In 1929, he warned parties of falling into “ideological paralysis” and becoming “political churches” (p. 442).
Neither voters nor politicians heeded Sollmann’s call, and Ribhegge’s final chapters on the descent into dictatorship provide numerous reasons for the increasing polarization of political views that undermined parliamentary work. The failure to consolidate sustained political coalitions during the 1920s, the overly ideological cast of Reich politicians in contrast to Prussian lawmakers, the shortsighted and rash decision of the SPD to leave the Great Coalition in 1930, and the shrinking ability of the Reichstag to act in the face of the KPD’s and NSDAP’s oppositional tactics are merely some of the factors explored. Although the general story line is familiar to readers, Ribhegge’s close adherence to stenographic records and his lush use of quotation from memoirs provide a fresh and unmediated quality. Nor does Ribhegge ignore the roles of Heinrich Brüning and Franz von Papen, both Westphalians and Center Party deputies. Because the strain of von Papen’s Catholic conservative nationalism is not a central theme in the book’s portrait of the Center Party, his pre-eminent role in the presidential system after 1930 appears all the more arbitrary and disturbing. The detailed analysis of the “Preussenschlag” in 1932 is particularly insightful, and it is the book’s climactic turning point toward dictatorship. Less impressive was the book’s analysis of the Center’s capitulation to the “Ermächtigungsgesetz” of 1933. Given the party’s strong constitutional principles, as well as its relative independence from clerical conservatism, the Center’s craven behavior of 1933 warranted fuller explanation.
There is much to praise in this compendious study. Close attention to parliamentary records and adroit use of memoir and biographical literature studs the work with arresting material. His biographical portraits of Wilhelminian and Weimar politicians are a pleasure to read, providing concrete agency to bills, elections, and coalitions. Moreover, his authorial voice is “besonnen”: judicious, even-handed, and critical. In view of this praise, some critical comments are also apposite. First and foremost, the premise that Rhenish and Westphalian political cultures distinguish themselves in Prussian-German parliamentary history is assumed more than demonstrated. Ribhegge notes that the noncontiguous provinces played a special role yet the characteristics of “western” parliamentary practice are not rigorously articulated. Implicit in the research design is comparison, but clear distinctions do not emerge with other Prussian provinces, nor with other regions of Germany. How, for example, did SPD politics in the Ruhr differ from those in Hamburg, Berlin, or Saxony? How does Rhenish political Catholicism differ from that of Paderborn’s, Bavaria’s, or Silesia’s? In view of the fact that liberalism took root in Königsberg as well as in Cologne, what role did geographic proximity to western Europe play for the two provinces? Because of the tight focus on parliamentary matters, the provinces’ economies and social structures that shaped their constituencies’ “western” political attitudes are not sufficiently handled. Further, this reader occasionally wondered about the argument’s organization. The author’s aim to synchronize provincial, Prussian, and national parliamentary history is no easy task, and at times the large omnibus chapters, with their many subsections, lost their way among the highways and byways of parliamentary life. Finally, this reader would have welcomed fuller and more synoptic conclusions to the book’s critical subjects. For instance, the climactic chapter on 1933 ends with an exculpatory quote from Karl Bachem, which is simply an insufficient way to close the door on this momentous tragedy. Here and elsewhere, Ribhegge wears his knowledge too lightly and ought to have argued his leading points with greater force and clarity. This is particularly pertinent for the book’s conclusion, which lacks the necessary magisterial peroration. To provide room for such commentary, the longer descriptions and many paraphrasings of parliamentary speeches could easily have been edited.
Such comments, however, should not cloud the larger achievement at hand. Ribhegge admirably shows us the rich textures of Prussian parliamentary history, especially of its western provinces, which not only links centuries but also opens up possibilities not realized. The book deserves a wide readership.
James Brophy. Review of Ribhegge, Wilhelm, Preußen im Westen: Kampf um den Parlamentarismus in Rheinland und Westfalen 1789-1947.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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