Colin Storer. A Short History of the Weimar Republic. I.B. Tauris Short Histories Series. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Illustrations. vii + 239 pp. $15.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-78076-176-3.
Reviewed by William Smaldone (Willamette University)
Published on H-Socialisms (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Weimar in Retrospect
The Weimar Republic’s emergence from the chaos of the German Revolution of 1918 and, even more important, its collapse in the face of Nazism’s drive to power were pivotal moments in twentieth-century German and world history. Controversies regarding the republic’s political, economic, social, and cultural histories—especially as they relate to the causes of its fall—abound. Wading into a field that has drawn the attention of a small army of historians over the past eighty years, Colin Storer’s primary aim is as ambitious as it is clear: to bring together much of the older and newer research in the field and to provide an accessible introduction to the republic’s history. He accomplishes this goal admirably in a succinct and refreshing volume.
Unlike most works that focus on either the politics or the culture of Weimar, Storer’s book sets out to examine both subjects in six chapters organized chronologically and thematically. Following a brief introductory section providing essential background on the rise of Prussia, the formation of the Second German Empire, and the latter’s collapse in the crucible of the First World War, Storer’s first three chapters examine the crises of the republic’s first five years, the struggle of its leaders to chart a moderate political course, and the impact of Great Inflation on Weimar’s society and polity. In chapter 4, he moves away from the focus on domestic policy and turns to the subject of foreign affairs and Weimar leaders’ efforts to revise the much-reviled Versailles settlement. Finally, he devotes his last two chapters to an examination of Weimar society and culture and to the republic’s terminal crisis and demise between 1929 and 1933.
In each chapter, Storer effectively provides the reader with a good general sense of the trends in the historical literature and the areas in which he believes many traditional views of the republic have become obsolete. Like Eric D. Weitz (Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy ) and other recent historians, on the whole he stresses the importance of viewing the republic on its own terms, rather than simply as a mere interlude that ushered in the Third Reich, and he questions the degree to which the republic should be seen as a failure. Indeed, he asserts that the republic’s political institutions were much more successful than historians have generally recognized and he notes that Weimar culture has long shaped our contemporary world.
From the outset, Storer aims to show that it is simply inaccurate to follow the claim of many historians that Weimar was a “republic without republicans.” He does not dispute that many on the extreme right and left opposed the republic, but he also holds that support for it was wider and deeper than has generally been thought. As proof he contends that the constitutional settlement of 1919 was rooted in the “long cherished ideals of the liberals and social democrats and the desire of the conservatives for a strong executive” (p. 27). In Storer’s view, extremist opposition made the republic’s early years ones of turmoil and crisis, but they also represented a period of uncertainty and promise. What resulted was neither a restored monarchy, nor a military dictatorship, nor a Soviet-style republic, but rather a “moderate parliamentary democracy that enjoyed a high level of political support” (p. 56). That much of this support later evaporated was by no means inevitable, but resulted from a series of circumstances (e.g., the Great Inflation and the onset of the Depression), some of which were not under German control.
Storer argues that, contrary to the widely accepted belief that German democracy was weak, ineffective, and blighted by a lack of democratic institutions and traditions, Weimar politics rested on over fifty years of experience with universal male suffrage and participatory politics. Under the Second Empire, Germany had developed representative political parties and a political class whose influence carried over into the republic. When we think of Weimar’s dysfunction, we tend to think of the government’s paralysis in the years after the outbreak of the Depression, but Storer contends that, until then, its institutions—both formal parliamentary ones and those in the sphere of civil society—functioned reasonably well and were able to maintain order, pass legislation, and provide outlets for citizen activism.
One can certainly challenge this positive evaluation by focusing on the republic’s many institutional weaknesses on the state and national levels, such as its failure to purge the courts and the army of anti-republican elements prior to 1929, but Storer strengthens his case by showing how German institutions fared well compared to those of many of its immediate neighbors in the interwar period. Among the many new states to emerge in Central and Eastern Europe, Germany was not the only one to suffer from civil war, hyperinflation, and long-term structural unemployment. With the exception of Austria, however, it was the one that fended off authoritarian rule the longest, a fact often neglected by historians who tend to compare Germany to England and France, whose histories as unified, constitutional democracies go back much further. This comparative perspective is a particularly interesting component of this work and will serve introductory readers especially well.
In his chapter examining Weimar society and culture, Storer shows how the social and cultural tensions that had emerged in the rapidly industrializing empire intensified after 1918. “The social changes wrought by modernity,” he argues, “together with the political and economic upheavals of the early years of the republic, combined to create a heightened sense of anxiety which was widely reflected in the culture of the period” (pp. 142-143). He grounds this assertion by surveying the class structure under the republic and showing the many fractures and tensions within and between different groups. He notes the important shifts in attitudes toward gender, sexuality, and the family that occurred during this period and locates these changes and the conflicts that accompanied them within their transnational context. Storer associates Weimar culture with the process of urbanization and the contradictions that it entailed, especially in the great cities, such as Berlin. In addition to the rapid transformation of such spheres as housing, transportation, advertising, communication, and entertainment, it also brought poverty, deprivation, fear, and alienation for many of the less prosperous. Cultural production reflected these contradictions. Following the work of such historians as Walter Lacqueur (Weimar: A Cultural History ), Peter Gay (Weimar Culture ), and Weitz, Storer provides a brief overview of the world of letters, film, and architecture, in which Weimar’s achievements, such as the Bauhaus school of design, are best known and have remained internationally influential to this day.
Storer’s chapter on the republic’s collapse provides a cogent analysis of the impact of the Depression, the breakdown of the parliamentary system, and the rise of Nazism. He rightly argues that Weimar collapsed “beneath the cumulative weight of successive crises and the forces ranged against it” (p. 195). War, defeat, revolution, counterrevolution, hyperinflation, foreign occupation, unemployment, street violence, and increasingly unstable governments undermined the republic’s legitimacy and caused increasing fear and anxiety among growing sectors of the population. Gradually more and more Germans ceased to support the republic and were willing to turn to the Nazi and Communist alternatives. But Storer does not think Adolf Hitler’s popular support was the key to his coming to power. Indeed, drawing on the work of such historians as Anna von der Goltz (Hindenburg: Power, Myth, and the Rise of the Nazis ), he asserts that it was the actions of Germany’s established elites that brought Hitler to power in 1933, just as his electoral backing had ebbed.
As should not be surprising in a review of a book of this scope, there are elements of Storer’s analysis with which I disagree. For example, I think the author’s view of the Social Democrats’ role in the German Revolution and during the crisis years of the early republic is altogether too forgiving. It may be that “[Friedrich] Ebert’s government was not pernicious in intent,” but whether its policy was as “clear sighted” and “realistic” as Storer contends is certainly questionable (p. 37). Storer is on solid ground in his assertion that only a small minority of Germany’s workers wanted a Soviet-style republic. But there is also evidence that many workers wanted the new government to go much further in transforming German society than Ebert and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) leadership were willing to contemplate. No doubt the government faced huge obstacles given Germany’s difficult situation, but Ebert’s exaggerated fear of the Bolshevik threat and willingness to rely on the army officer corps to maintain order had disastrous long-term implications for the republic’s stability, as did the Social Democrats’ unwillingness to purge the institutions of the new state of anti-republican opponents, to say nothing about the issue of breaking the economic power of the old elites. To argue that the Social Democrats missed opportunities to build a republic on a stronger social and economic foundation is not to assume a “negative” or “deterministic” approach, but rather simply to note a road not taken.
Overall, however, Storer’s work succeeds remarkably well in emphasizing the importance of viewing Weimar on its own terms and in its transnational context. His arguments that the governance of the republic was in many ways more successful than has been generally accepted and that Weimar’s fall was the result of political choices that were by no means inevitable are compelling. For teachers and readers looking for an accessible introduction to the subject, it is an excellent choice. The book is equipped with a useful timeline of key events, detailed footnotes, and an up-to-date select bibliography of secondary works in English.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-socialisms.
William Smaldone. Review of Storer, Colin, A Short History of the Weimar Republic.
H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews.
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