THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC is the subject of this interview with historian Patrick Dassen. The interview is conducted by philosopher Jelle van Baardewijk.
Patrick Dassen is a Dutch historian and writer who won the ‘Arenbergprijs’ for European history. His particular field of interest is the political and cultural history of Germany from 1800 to 2000.
Jelle van Baardewijk is an empirical philosopher who studied at the universities of Amsterdam and Berlin. His research focuses on ethics in corporate life, politics and the public sector.
In this interview Jelle van Baardewijk en Patrick Dassen explore what happened in the Weimar Republic and how this contributed to the Rise of Nazism which eventually led to World War II.
Table of Contents
The vulnerability of the republic
INTERVIEW PATRICK DASSEN BY JELLE VAN BAARDEWIJK
Welcome to the New World, in depth conversations in a changing world. My name is Jelle van Baardewijk and our guest today is the historian Patrick Dassen. He’s come to talk about the Weimar Republic.
Patrick, you wrote a book, an impressive book; I enjoyed it a lot. You’re a historian at the University of Leiden. The book you wrote reveals how well-learned you are about this topic. I assume that has taken you many years of studying.
Yes… I wrote it in two years in 2019 and 2020. I finished in 2020 and revised it in 2021. I did the research many years before that and read and ordered everything. I wrote it in around two years’ time.
The Weimar Republic was Germany’s first democracy. It was created after the first world war, from 1918 until 1933. It was active for a very short period of time…
a brief history
What is the Weimar Republic?
The Weimar Republic was the German government between the two World Wars. After World War I, Germany went through a period of social and political upheaval.How Germany came out of WWI
During this time, Germany was a representative democracy led by a coalition of left-wing forces with Marxist sympathies, the largest of which was the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) led by Frederich Ebert. Other, more radical groups were grappling for control of Germany at the same time, including the newly founded German Communist Party (KPD). The Socialists and Communists both wanted to eliminate Capitalism and establish communal control over the means of production
In this spirit, the KPD staged an uprising in Berlin in January 1919. Military units called in by the SPD suppressed the uprising and captured two of the leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered while in custody on January 15, 1919. Their deaths struck a chord across the left-wing landscape and they were widely celebrated as martyrs to the Communist cause.
You gave the book the subtitle, the vulnerability of the republic.
Especially at the end you make some interesting comparison with the present. We’ll get to that at the end of this conversation. I first wanted to get into your diagnosis of the Weimar Republic. Maybe we should start at the end of the book. You say there that you sourced heavily from the so-called, Abel papers. Which was a research-, I’ll elaborate about that later but I’ll briefly explain it. The research was done by a sociologist or historian that lived during the Weimar Republic. He lived in the USA and went to Germany to poll what Germans thought about politics and why they joined the Nazi Party, did I say that correctly?
What The Abel Papers Tell Us About Germany in the 1920s and 30s
Yes, in 1934 he held a contest, where he asked people that joined the Nazi Party before January, 1933, to write down why they became a member. Of the Nazi Party or the SA. It was important that it was about people that joined before January, 1933 because a lot of people joined out of opportunism after that date. He asked this group of people that were often truly convinced that the Nazi party was a good political party because Hitler was the leader that could free Germany of all the misery. Around 680 reacted to the contest. Ultimately, 581 of them were stored. Nowadays, they can all be found on the internet. Some of them are two to three pages, some of them are thirty pages. They are truly interesting and remarkably lively. This can really grant you an insight into the soul of early Nazi’s. They truly draw a lively picture, they are also quite authentic descriptions. Some may object that these people knew their essays were going to be read and try to get into their leaders good side but if you read these essays, all historians that have worked with them agree that they are authentic. You can pick out the few that seem fake very easily. Most of them are authentic reports. And what you see a lot is that the biggest motivation for these people to become a member of the Nazi party was because they felt that Germany should become a volksgemeinschaft again. It’s a term that was used a lot and the idea that Germany should become a unity again. Opposing all of the division of the Weimar Republic. So all of the chaos and revolution, and such. So they wanted a unity, connecting all of the German people together.
And also a solidarity amongst themselves, this was a common thread that you can read in all of the essays.
-We’ll delve into the chaos and the entire Weimar Republic later. but let’s continue on the subject of the Abel papers. What you described beautifully, or at least, what I take from it. Is that there was very little antisemitism in them. You say that Jewish people are typecast by their behaviour. So, a typical Jewish or communist action but that idea of a different race and the eradication of it can’t be found, right?
Did I get that right?
Yes, the latter definitely didn’t show up. Or seldom, there is one person that says that maybe the Jewish race should be eradicated. I only found it once and it was truly an exception. If they criticize Jewish people it’s more criticism of the behavior of Jewish people. And it was mostly centered around the revolution between 1918 and 1919. I’ll elaborate on that in a bit. But we’re going to-. It’s more focused on Jewish behavior than the implication that they are an inferior race. The race element is barely present. But that doesn’t take away that there was more antisemitism in those papers than you’d expect looking at secondary literature. There’s a consensus in secondary literature that people were becoming a member of the Nazi party for various reasons. But antisemitism wasn’t a deciding factor. It might not have been a deciding factor in the Abel papers but it did play a bigger role than for voters in general.
-So it’s not about voters in this case but for (nazi party) members. So if I understand correctly, the Abel papers are special because they give you an insight into the soul of the first Nazi’s that weren’t in the mindset yet of Jews needing to be eradicated. So they are proto Nazi’s, the holocaust wasn’t in the picture yet.
No, the holocaust started taking place in the end of 1941.
-Do you see an extreme line or militant people in the Abel papers? Or is it not that bad?
Most of them do enjoy violence. A lot of them are member of the SA so there’s a lot of brawling in the Abel papers. They are continuously fighting with the communists. Some were wounded, others even lost friends. For example, in 1932, 155 people died in fights. So there were almost civil war-like situations happening in 1932. Some of these people in the papers were involved. So these weren’t model citizens. But it doesn’t take away, and this is why I think that the essays are so interesting, they were written in 1934, that means that they had 1,5 year to see what the third reich is like. I mean, it speaks for itself, the book burning had already happened, the boycott of the Jews, the first concentration camp had already opened in Daschau. So they knew what was going on but with two very important remarks. The second world war hadn’t happened yet and the holocaust hadn’t happened yet. And this is what makes these essays so interesting. Because these people were writing with the perspective of 1934. It would have been very different if they were asked in 1945 of 1950: “why did you become a member?”. They would have been a lot more guilt-ridden and now you see that these people have the attitude that they picked the correct side. They do have a somewhat triumphant mentality. But this is also my whole approach for this book,
I try to approach the Weimar Republic from the perspective of the people back then. They didn’t know yet that Hitler would become a terrible dictator that would kill millions. That he would start a war. They see him as a saviour of the problems of Germany.
-Could you elaborate on that? What was the view on Hitler in the Abel papers? We have a historical view of him, a very charismatic person but also very totalitarian. Someone that managed to unite very special characteristics with the identity of an asshole. But how did people see him in 1934, 1935?
What’s remarkable is that they see him as a saviour. A religious saviour, there’s a lot of use of religious imagery. Some of them have read “Mein Kampf” and they call it their bible. Hitler being a common man of the people is also something that appears often. They see him as something of an equal. That’s what makes the Abel papers so interesting, they are simple people, farmers, workers, they are office works, etcetera. Not a lot of civilians.
But they are people that are participating in an essay contest.
-That’s remarkable, no?
Yes, and it’s surprisingly well written. It does show how literate the Germans are. They often did have good education and such.
-Now, that was the last question regarding the Abel papers. We’re going to zoom in on the Weimar Republic now, the professor that came up with this, how did he set his plan in motion? A contest is a weird construct for a scientist, right? How did he get this idea, I think it was a nice idea.
It was a brilliant idea, he wanted an inside look into what motivated those people. We know a lot about the voters and how the Nazi party became big. They grew in the countryside and in the north-west and north-east.
We have a lot of statistics, researched it all very well. But if you want to know the motives of the people, it’s hard to find anything about that. These papers supply us with practical answers to that.
-Has this professor done any other interesting research later in his life or was this…?
He became well-known for this research. Not as well-known as you might expect. You kind of brought him out of obscurity. Yes, kind of, remarkably very little was done with his research. I couldn’t believe it when I first read the papers. I thought it was such amazing material, I simply had to do something with it. I was already working on a plan for this book but I decided to use it as one of the main sources.
The most interesting thing about those Abel papers, which might be a nice bridge to the rest of the book. Is that most people that became a member of the Nazi party, had to deal with a lot of hostility in their local environments. They lost friendships, family events became more tense, parents became disappointed when they discovered that their child became a member of the Nazi party. And that they got strange looks from people. And this does show that the Nazi party, especially in the 1920’s, was a very marginal group. In 1928, they only had 2,6% of the votes. They only reached 18,3% of the votes in September, 1930. But even then, 80% wasn’t a member of the Nazi party. So it’s a minority that’s talking about their motives and how other people treat them. It’s a minority.
-Another thing that I thought was interesting, in the remarks about the second world war, for long time, it was thought that the people that voted for Hitler were poor proletarians. But you reference the Abel papers, and are saying that these were people of a certain standing. They are farmers, you couldn’t call these people middle-class but they weren’t poor people. Did I understand that correctly?
Most of them are definitely poor. They are. Yes, most Germans were very poor. Let’s get it right, in the 1920’s, a lot of people were hit by the hyperinflation, so a lot of them lost their savings, if they had any. And in the start of the 1930’s, well I don’t have to explain that, the great depression was raging through the world and a lot of people were hit by that. But, it is fact that the true proletarians voted for the KPD, so the communist party. The party for the jobless. The true proletarian, as Marx once might have had in mind. The ones that truly had nothing, they chose the KPD, but the Nazi party did attempt to get the working class on board. They did partly succeed in doing so.
Why did the Weimar Republic fail?
The Weimar Republic failed because it was at the mercy of many different political ideas and forces – socialism, communism, capitalism and fascism, internal and external, structural and short-term. On top of that the Weimar government had to deal with an impossible economy – hyperinflation, staggering reparation payments followed by the Great Depression that hit Germany especially hard. For democrat-president Frederich Ebert it was like trying to keep a sailing ship afloat during a Hurricane.
The Stab In The Back Legend
In analogy with today’s alternative truths, many believe the Weimar Germany failed in part because conspiracy theories were allowed to circulate and flourish. The most prolific and poisonous was the Dolchstosselegende or ‘stab in the back’ myth. According to this fallacious theory, Germany’s surrender in November 1918 was engineered by socialists, liberals and Jews in Germany’s civilian government – it was not brought about by military defeat.
The Dolchstosselegende had three significant effects. Firstly, it undermined public trust in the civilian government and particularly the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was painted as treacherous and unpatriotic by right-wing nationalists.
Secondly, the Dolchstosslegende perpetuated a belief that Germany could still have won the war. It implied that the German military was still strong enough to launch a counter-offensive and advance to victory. This theory is contradicted by almost all evidence on the state of the German military in late 1918.
Thirdly, the stab-in-the-back myth allowed military commanders to retain their prestige and position in German society. Despite their failures in 1918, figures like Paul von Hindenburg were able to retain their status and influence in the new republic. Evidence of this can be seen in the election of Hindenburg, who publicly supported the Dolchstosslegende, as president of the republic.
-We do call it the National Socialism. It is socialism, so it’s not aimed at the middle class.
Well, no… The term national social is incredibly interesting. As it appeals to the national socialism of, we were betrayed by the treaty of Versailles. The volksgemeinschaft that people had such a desire for. The idea of the volksgemeinschaft, is that everyone is equal. That there is a unity and that there is no difference between a worker, farmer, civilian, or someone of nobility. If you read Hitler’s speeches or those other people, you keep coming across the same tune of we are united and it doesn’t matter if you’re protestant or catholic, a farmer, a civilian or a student,
-You call it the same tune but isn’t it what we call equality nowadays? They did have the idea of, you’re German and that’s the core of us being equal.
Nowadays we would say you’re a human. It’s not a completely absurd experience. For us modern humans.
-No, but what you need to make very clear is that there were minority groups that were excluded from the volksgemeinschaft. The Jews, the communists, the physically and mentally handicapped, the gypsies. We know the minority groups that have suffered under the third reich. So when it comes to that, it was a volksgemeinschaft that would unify most Germans, but certainly not all. Because many important groups were excluded.
So actually it wasn’t an uniform volksgemeinschaft at all
No, not really no. It was all about the collective.
-Patrick, imagine if we go back to the beginning, I wanted to start with the Abel papers because it was a finding in your books. It clarified a lot and it is a foundation for your central ambition, namely: describing the Weimar Republic by its own merits and not in the perspective of the descent into chaos that happened later in the Nazi regime. That’s how we tend to look at it ourselves. You want to let the times speak for themselves. That’s why the Abel papers were such a success, methodology speaking definitely. Germany comes out of the first world war. But now back to the beginning. Can we tackle that immediately? We’re also going to talk about the treaty of Versailles. But before we get to that, the Weimar Republic is created first, and directly after the war, internal conflicts arise.
What’s a clever way of discussing that? Let’s start with, they lost the war and they are disappointed. An entire mythos originates from it, of why did the war actually fail? And then there’s the so-called stab-in-the-back myth. Can you explain how the Germans came out of the war?
The end of the war started a revolution. At the end of October, start of November, there’s uprisings in the harbours of Germany. In Wilhelmshaven and in Kiel. Sailors are called up to fight another battle against the English while they knew that the war was lost and that the battle was futile. This started uprisings. I’ll try to summarise, these uprisings spread to the rest of Germany. It eventually reaches Berlin.
On 9 November, 1918. It’s then announced that Wilhem the Second is not an emperor any more. That’s the revolutionary aspect of it, that a regime that had been in power for so long, was forced to abdicate. A new regime is then put into power, the government for the time being, consisting out of six people, three of the SPD, the social democratic part, three of the USPD, the independent social democrats. They were positioned left of the SPD. They tried forming an interim government, where they tried, especially Friedrich Ebert, tried making Germany as democratic as possible. So he urges for elections.
-He does become the Chancellor of Germany, right?
No, he’s the leader of the interim government and he eventually becomes the president of Germany in 1919. So he’s the first president of Germany and why is that so important? Because in the constitution, the president is the most powerful man in Germany. The second president of the Weimar Republic is Hindenburg, he also had a lot of power and he was the person that ultimately appointed Hitler in 1933. But Ebert is the person that has to try to keep Germany afloat as best as he can. So he has to integrate the soldiers into Germany society
-. Is that a good metaphor or did something really have to be established?
Of course, they had to establish things but they first had to solve a lot of practical problems. They had to prevent economical chaos from happening. 8 Million soldiers were returning from the front that all needed their own place-.
-8 Million? –
8 Million soldiers. They needed to have their place in society. There was a famine. And what he immediately had to deal with, which is important to mention already, there was a small group of radical leftist socialists, the Spartacists. Under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. They immediately protested Ebert’s leadership. In November, December, you see a lot of complicated situations arising. The situation only got out of hand at the start of January 1919, two months after the revolution took place. This was the Spartacist uprising as most people may know it. And you can kind of see that this was an attempted coup d’état as the communists were trying to prevent legitimate elections from taking place. So they turn start opposing the Ebert government. And Ebert is, I admire Ebert for all that he’s done but this was a very difficult situation. He couldn’t allow this to happen, of course. Ultimately, on the advise of Gustaff Nosken, another SPD member, used his military volunteers to squash the uprising. This happened disproportionately violent so you could criticise Ebert for this. Rightly so, as between 150 and 200 people died. Summary executions took place, I read the reports, terrible things happened there. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were also murdered at the end of this period. This ultimately led to a rift in the German worker movement between the more moderate social democrats around Ebert… and the more radical communists.
They also had a lot of intelligent people right? Two examples of them being writers. Luxemburg, for example.
Rosa Luxemburg was a very prominent theoretical scientist. A very clever woman that wrote in the “Die Rote Fahne” newspaper, and that could really entice the public. And that led to a massive rift in the labour movement. These events showed that during the entire period of the Weimar Republic, the communists have always opposed the Weimar Republic. So the attempts to establish a democratic Weimar Republic were undermined from the start by three different parties.
By the Nazi’s, radical right, and the communists who were radical left.
They tried in all sorts of way to attempt a coup but they all failed. They did keep trying. Furthermore, there was also another large third group, the National Conservatist, not Nazi’s but with a lot of antisemitism.
So they also opposed the Weimar Republic. So taking this in account, the Weimar Republic had a difficult time from the start. The first five years were incredibly chaotic. Just one more thing, I think it’s very important to note. Yet, after that period of five years, they did manage to establish something of a stable democracy in the period between 1924 and 1929.
That’s something that kind of ended up being overlooked. I tried emphasising that in my book that even through all the setbacks that they suffered, the Weimar Republic did manage to somewhat establish a democracy, that did manage to have a chance of working, that is quite some resilience.
-Can you tell us more about the Empire before the Weimar Republic and and how that dissolves into the first world war in comparison with the Netherlands. I’ll start, In the Netherlands we didn’t really have a democratic ethos in the 19th century. How was that for Germany? Could Ebert and the democratic use some kind of… pre-development that established a democratic sentiment? Could it be compared with how it happened in the Netherlands? Was it a big break that suddenly created a different political system after the first world war? Or was it more fluid?
Well… That’s a very good question because… The contrast between a totalitarian empire and a democratic Weimar Republic, It’s not a good contract. The empire was authoritarian of course, which meant that the emperor had a lot of power and that the government had limited power. The typical scenario. At the same time, I tried highlighting this in my previous book about Germany in the first world war and before it,
you can see that Germany had tendencies for a Democracy before 1914.
Germany is based on a rule of law. If you’re treated unjustly, you go to impartial judges and you’ll be given a fair process. Antisemitism was present but at the same time, the Jews did undergo a process of emancipation. The social democrats, the SPD, were the biggest party in the government from 1912 until 1932, the parties that were trying to turn Germany into a democracy, namely the leftist liberals and the social democrats, they are discriminated against a lot but they try their best and are quite successful in the empire. That group, the social democrats, the left liberals, together with the Catholics, that’s the group rises to the top in 1918, while before that, they were at the bottom. The social democrats and the Catholics in the culture struggle, were always discriminated against and treated very harshly. So they had a hard time. But that doesn’t mean that Germany was a dictatorship before 1914. There’s a lot of misconceptions about that. Germany was already on its way to become a more democratic state where liberal newspapers existed, etcetera.
-That’s a good analysis, the last missing puzzle piece for me, can you tell me in short why the Germans lost the first world war? What was the reason for their loss? Can you connect that to the stab-in-the-back myth? That was the story that went around in the Weimar Republic, that the loss was the fault of internal unrest, the communists and maybe even the Jews. That they didn’t support the soldiers while apparently, 8 million of them were underway. What was the reason that the war went awry and the Germans were burdened with the treaty of Versailles.
Germany had to fight a war on two fronts. They had to fight the Russians in the east, but eventually, a revolution broke out there and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed. In the spring of 1918, started a massive offensive. Which was a massive gamble and Germany was ultimately beaten on the battlefield. In 1918, the Americans arrived in massive numbers and brought modern weapons and ultimately, the Germans simply lost the war in the summer of 1918. But, the leaders of the army decide that they don’t want that on their conscience. So what do they do in October? They want a civilian government to sign the armistice.
Which ultimately happens, Matthias Erzberger was one of the persons eventually signed on the 11th of November, which allows the army to stay in the clear. That’s when the stab-in-the-back myth emerges. Paul von Hindenburg helped this myth into the world. Hindenburg, the important man in the army, together with Ludendorff. This happens in November, 1919, when he has to explain in front of a commission why the war was lost. He explains that the army was stabbed in the back with a dagger.
– How did that happen?
Because of the revolution that broke out in Germany. And this is why we lost the war. And that revolution? It was primarily the social democrats, and the cowardly civil politicians such as Matthias Erzberger, who was ultimately murdered because of this legend. He was seen as a traitor to Germany.
-He was already taking steps to make Germany into a democratic state, right?
He eventually realized that the war wasn’t salvageable any more. It was ultimately civilian politicians that signed the armistice. It was ultimately also civilian politicians that signed the Treaty of Versailles a half year later.
But the stab-in-the-back-myth wasn’t completely untrue then? The idea that the army had been overruled is correct, no? It was politicians that made the decision to stop. But the army was losing already.
The army had already lost the battle, but they were smart and decided that they are not the person that are going to acknowledge it. Let the civilian politicians acknowledge that we’ve lost the war.
It was already set in stone that they had lost.
Yes, but that was covered up in public until the end. As this isn’t motivating to the morale of the public.
This remained an important point of reference in the Weimar Republic for critics of Ebert. This story, of why did we lose this war, was it our own fault or was it these “dirty communists”.
The stab-in-the-back-myth is incredibly important, it keeps coming back. In Mein Kampf it’s the main aspect, but you also can see that Hitler keeps reiterating in the second world war: We have to prevent that what happened to us in the first world war, happens again. If we have enemies from within, we’re going to lose this war as well. That’s why he wants every Jew eradicated, because they ruined everything in the first world war. Hitler truly believed in the stab-in-the-back-myth, and together with him, a lot of others. It’s a recurring trend in the Abel papers. So it’s truly a myth that…
That became reality?
Well, reality in the way that it stayed a live and that a lot of people, mostly rightist, truly did believe in it. That’s a bridge to the present, it’s comparable with USA now, that a lot of people think that Trump didn’t actually lose the election but that it was lost because of voting fraud and other reasons. There are tens of millions of voters, I believe that 70% of Republican voters still believe that the election was stolen.
These are shocking facts. So it’s not reality, so it’s fiction.
They are real alternative facts.
They are alternative facts, they are myths.
Back to that period where Ebert is in power, he eventually becomes President of Germany. Then, a lot of social unrest happens and he displays his bad side. In your book, you call it a clear and violent signal to the communists. We talked about that and how the first world war ended, can you tell us more about when had to sign the Treaty of Versailles? And what that entailed in general.
He actually didn’t sign it himself, two other politicians had to do so.
The Treaty of Versailles held in that Germany lost a lot of territory,
around 13% of the territory is lost, mostly in the east. So it ends up becoming part of Poland. The Army had to be limited to 100.000 men.
They were decimated by going from 8 million to 100.000. They only ended up half doing that, right?
They did try to rearm in secret with the help of the Soviet Union.
But go on, what else was in there?
They had to pay reparations. Ultimately, the amount of 132 billion gold marks is decided. And what is not very known, the treaty was divided into three sections,the ??? section, was 82 billion, everyone generally assumed that it would never have to be paid anyway. It was implemented to pacify the public in Germany and outside of it. But ultimately, a much lower amount was paid in the 1920’s and in the start of the 1930’s,
than the originally intended 132 billion gold marks. Eventually, I don’t know from the top of my head, but only 35 billion gold marks ended up being paid. A much lower amount. But that didn’t matter, as opposition against the Weimar Republic kept abusing it.
I did learn from your book that the last reparation payment happened in 2010. I thought it was interesting as the Second World War went over it but the debt remained.
Yes. The put an end to the payments in 1932, in Lausanne.
After the war, they did resume payments but the amount wasn’t so obscenely high any more. But correct, they last payment happened in 2010. Oh, so they did stop in the second world war. It stopped in 1932 until the end of the Second World War.
Another interesting dimension of the Treaty of Versailles, you described it as the Germans being prohibited from forming a union with Austria. So that there’s a limit to what the volksgemeinschaft is allowed to include. And that a lot of Germans resented this decision. I thought it was interesting because I didn’t really realise that the Germans identified so closely with the Austrians. You could get to that because of Hitler but it was about the big German empire and not just Germany. Austria was simply seen as a part of that Empire.
If you look at the complicated history of Germany, that isn’t such a crazy thought. It feels fair but the was a war in 1866 between Prussia and Austria that led to Austria falling outside of the German Confederation. Germany technically only started since 1871. The Austrians weren’t a part of them any more from that moment. But a lot of German speaking people live there and those Germans that lived in Austria, identified as German and Austria wanted to be a part of Germany as well. Germany also wanted Austria to become a part of it again. Even the social democrats, a moderate character such as Ebert has said from the start, these are our brethren and we want them to be one with them again. So it’s not comparable to the Flemish and the Dutch?
-No, that’s a different context.
-If I summarise the sore points of the Treaty of Versailles, Reparation payments, a debt is incurred that has to be paid by the Germans.
They aren’t allowed to unionise with Austria and they have to decimate their army. Is there anything.
Well, the occupation of Germany. The Rhineland was occupied.
-Yes, so that’s the fourth point.
The Ruhr area was also occupied in 1923 when Germany wasn’t able to pay their reparations payments, by the French and a little bit by the Belgians. This leads to hyperinflation, it’s a wonder that chaotic Germany even remained to exist in 1923. There’s hyper inflation, occupation by French troops, there are separatist movements in Germany.
Hold on, you’re going a bit too fast here. How are the occupation and hyperinflation connected?
Well, firstly, Germany is occupied.
-Could you explain that part again? The French troops invade in order to ensure that Germany fulfils their obligations. This was a kind of punishment by the French.
When did this happen?
The French troops invade in January, 1923. This led to a rise of nationalism again in Germany, People thought that they just had a war in 1914 against the French and now this is happening again.
This seemed like an act of revenge, what was the motive? The Treaty of Versailles was already in place right?
It’s about territory? We can’t go fully into the details but the French are without a doubt the faction that treats Germany the harshest, the Americans are a lot more mild and the English ultimately also kind of relented. They French, the direct neighbour, want to prevent Germany from ever starting a war against the French again. They are the most strict faction by far. They are also the ones that pressure Germany about the reparation payments. Germany defaults on the payments, France then occupy the country with the idea that this will force the payments to happen. This leads to Germany passively resisting, the government calls for that. They do continue paying salaries, the inflation was already happening for months, money kept being printed and this ultimately got completely out of hand. So this isn’t the inflation of 1929, 1930 but of 1920? This is the hyperinflation of 1923. What happened during the Great Depression, is that from the end of 1929 and the start of the 1930, the exchange in New York crashes. This was a very global phenomenon, the entire world felt its influence. Germany is hit even harder and why?
Because Germany had loaned a lot of money from the USA, these are short-term loans and Germany has to pay them back. This leads to a big economic crisis. This leads to a drastic increase in unemployment.
These are the 1930’s, right? Let’s go back to 1923 for a moment, not necessarily the financial crisis but the difficult situation, the French had just invaded, hyperinflation… In your book you describe it beautifully, it’s an absurd scenario, a democratic state with a new leadership under Ebert, were forced to deal with a punitive measures meant for a previous regime. They were dealing with the burdens of the past, so to speak.
What do you mean?
Well, they had to pay reparations for the war. The empire as well, in the mean time they want to set up a new democracy. So you kind of drag it along with you. The French invade, there’s an economic crisis, this is a difficult situation for a new political system. A bit of an understatement, but the problems that Ebert had to deal with were massive.
On all terrains, financially, economical, politics. Mentally too, he was sued a lot. He was accused of treason in January 1918 because he allegedly had called for a strike during the war. This man went through a lot of lawsuits. Eventually, he dies, completely exhausted, in 1925 due to a neglected disease. This man tried his best to find a solution for all of the problems he were thrown in his lap. He was attacked from so many sides that he ultimately just expired.
A very special man, Friedrich Ebert.
There’s an anecdote in my book. In 2003, German television, ZDF researches who the most famous Germans are. A list of 200 people was made, the first was Adenauer, rightly so, a very important man in post-war Germany. Ebert isn’t even listed in the list of 200 people. I think that was entirely undeserved.
-Patrick, I think that your book should be translated in German. That might help. We’ll continue with our in-depth analysis as we don’t have too much time. If I can walk through this story, taking giant steps. We’re going to finish the story of the start of the Weimar Republic, we already discussed the Abel papers and the descent into Nazism. There’s a period of the roaring 20’s in between it (called Weimar Culture) . With a lots of cinema, Fritz Lang, big writers, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, that made Germany’s culture big. It’s amazing that in such times of crisis, so much culture could be born. Can you elaborate on that? Not only is the first German democracy created but in the midst of all that chaos, a vital culture is also created. That’s remarkable.
It does speak of the vitality of the Weimar Republic. A lot of great artists arose during the time of the Republic. For example, the Bauhaus, which is created in 1919. A group artists that also teach, a kind of art academy that also makes amazing modern art. Furniture, lamps but also houses. They stood at the inception of amazing modern housing that was about to take off in the 20’s. Bauhaus might be the most important art movement but there’s amazing movies too, you already named Fritz Lang, Metropolis, a lot of other amazing, expressionistic movies that are made in this time. Radio takes off in the 20’s as well. There’s also amazing literature, you already named Thomas Mann, Nobel Prize winner of 1920. What’s interesting to note and what a lot of people don’t know, Thomas Mann was searching at the start of the Weimar Republic but he was mostly rightist. You could say that we has a national conservative writer. He sometimes makes weird, pro-communist and anti-semitic statements But he ultimately converts to the Weimar Republic in 1922. He becomes a person that takes a political stand. He defends the Weimar Republic, Ebert, and Stresemann. He ultimately also turns his back on the Nazi’s. You could say that he’s the most important writer of the Weimar Republic. The most known and celebrated, his books also sell the most copies. Every little text he wrote went public. Everything he said was important. He calls for people to not vote for Hindenburg in the elections of 1925. He truly was someone who’s opinion was important. And someone that fully backed the Weimar Republic.
People often talk nostalgically about the ‘roaring 20s’ in Paris and New York, but the truth is, there was no place in the world like Berlin during that time.
Although Germany’s economy and political affairs were suffering heavily, during the Weimar Republic Berlin became the intellectual and creative center of Europe and perhaps the world, doing pioneering work in the modern movements of literature, theatre and the arts, and also in the fields of psychoanalysis, sociology and science. What may have contributed to Berlin’s populatity amoung liberals, scientisits and artisits in the roaring 20s, is Germany’s laissez-faire stance on anything related to sexuality – prostitution, homosexuality, transgenderism, etc. These golden years in the cultural history of Germany is often referred to as the ‘Weimar Renaissance’ or Weimar Culture.
The documentary Sin City, Berlin does a beautiful job tracing the socio-political history of the era, showing how this vibrant Weimar culture could emerge amidst the political and economic turbulence of the time.
– Sometimes I feel that there’s a kind of critical question in your book. In your book you don’t condemn certain writers but you do hint that historians, for example, someone like Bregt or Tucholsky, let’s not even consider Heidegger, Schmitt or Spengler. Let’s just talk about Tucholsky.
Historians think, shouldn’t he have voiced his support more for the Ebert regime? Like Thomas Mann, if you’re wondering why so many people are a fan of him, I do think all the enthusiasm about him is exaggerated. We could discuss that another time, perhaps. The enthusiasm surrounding him is, looking back now, undoubtedly connected to the moment that he started to take good political decisions. Don’t you think that you’re being too critical to certain authors? Imagine if you were Tucholsky. It would have been quite remarkable if he had quickly been critical to the rise of the true radical right conservatism. Or do you think that it’s a fair question because it was possible, look at Thomas Mann?
Hold on, I can be quite clear about Tucholsky. Tuchoslky’s accomplishments, other than the great pieces he wrote, they were readable, comical. Poetry.
He was a very versatile person. He was one of the most prominent opponents that warned about national conservatism. He warned everyone about the Nazi’s, a big accomplishment. But, my criticism of him is that he didn’t voice enough critique about the communists. Let’s be clear about that. The communists were the ones that wanted to dissolve the Weimar Republic and wanted to establish a totalitarian regime in the style of the Soviet Union. You can imagine what kind of society would have been formed if they had had their way.
-Could they have known that back then?
Well, they saw what was happening in the Soviet Union.- Could they?
Yes, some of them.
-t’s an open question, did people know back then how communism was derailing?
Yes, Hitler was able to exploit that a lot. By claiming that they had to prevent what was happening in the soviet union, to happen in Germany as well. Everyone would lose their possessions and everything would become nationalised.
-So if I understand correctly, he does renounce too far right radical thinkers, but he doesn’t defend the status-quo enough, that’s what you’re saying?
No, what I….think that he could and maybe should have been more critical of the communists. He didn’t distance himself enough from them. The same could be said about Bertolt Brecht?
-Yes the same is true for Bertolt Brecht.
Look, the Weimar Republic, Ebert and Stresemann didn’t exactly enjoy
a lot of support of these critical thinking intellectuals. You mentioned Heidegger, maybe I can say something about him. I am very critical about Heidegger because he’s someone that asks a lot of supposedly very deep questions in his works. But if you consider how he was witness to all sorts of derangement of the public, and that he let it all just happen, even after the war when he knew what had happened and that a holocaust taken place, and still didn’t distance himself from that. I do see it as my job as a historian to point this out. That someone who held the job of principal of the University of Freiburg, didn’t distance himself from this dark German past, this shows that there was a problem with certain German intellectuals.
-He didn’t hold that position for long but it’s correct that he, like a lot of Germans, didn’t distance himself afterwards and initially made the mistake in joining the corrupt regime. But there are intellectuals, like Spangler, who did distance himself after a initial flirt with conservative idea’s. He didn’t want to follow the Nazi’s in their biological categories and racism. For example, he didn’t accept a professor position, etcetera. It probably was related to other things as well then just rejecting the regime. But Heidegger built on his career under the Nazi’s and that was rather abject. The question is if it detracts of his quality of thought.
I don’t think we’re on the same line there.
I think that Spengler is an amazing figure in regards to him being an amazing historic source. As he wrote a lot about what Germany thought back then about the Weimar Republic, democracy, etcetera. However, the quality of his diagnosis as a scientist is not optimal. His thinking is very deterministic which is interesting as a source, but as a diagnosis…It differs from someone like Max Weber who was ore critical.
– Let’s talk about that. We can make a separate episode about Spengler. I don’t think that determinism is the only aspect to his work. It’s a difference between historians and philosophers, I think that if you read it well, it won’t be so bad. Let’s leave that in the middle. Der Untergang Des Abendlandes deserves more attention. But we could discuss Weber in 5 minutes as you make a very interesting connection to the contents of his thoughts and what was happening in Germany. My starter question, If Weber had lived longer, it could have been nice to see him develop as a side diagnostic. Someone that could have written and would have the readers to convince people to do things differently. He had a very ambivalent role in the Weimar Republic Perhaps you can briefly describe it, because, interestingly enough, he was partly responsible for Hitler’s rise to power. It is very much oversimplyfied to state it like that, but he co-wrote the constitution of the Weimar Republic.
Weber died in 1920 so he only experienced the Weimar Republic for 1,5 years. But he did co-write the constitution that was created in 1919. In it he advocated for a presidential role with a lot of power because he believed that bureacracy should be a counterbalanced. And that there should be a strong, charismatic politician that could provide counterbalance. That’s why he left a lot of room for power for the role of a president. Afterwards, he was somewhat blamed for creating room for charismatic politicians such as Hitler. Because for the role of a president, demagogic measures were inherently necessary. To draw votes, you had to apply demagogic measures.
– It’s a bit like the American model.
Exactly. But I think that if Weber had lived longer, we can’t know for sure, he was always critical and keen on, for example, the Emperor and everything that tried to impair movements that were trying to emancipate themselves. For example the women’s right movement, he’s always defended them. His wife, Marianne Weber was a member of a very important women’s right movement. She was a famous scientist as well back then. He’s always defended social democrats. He was extremely against any form of antisemitism. So I’m almost reletavely sure that he would have strongly resisted the Nazi’s. And that he would have wanted nothing to do with the antisemitism and irresponsible behaviour of the Nazi’s. He would have thought that the Nazi’s had stupid idea’s about what Germany should become. Because it could have gone wrong, which eventually happened.
Weber was a very clear nationalist. I would say that ambivalence is the core of my book. There are always multiple sides to a story.
Why were students so susceptible for Hitler's National Socialism
– Weber was definitely a genius. I think that his nationalism can easily be defended. It’s all in the shadow of the second world war, where the national thought deranged. Patrick, we’re out of time but I want to ask you one last question. Sometimes you read a book and the general statement is well drafted and reasoned. So for the Abel papers, how you illustrate that you can understand a period of time on its own merits, I think that’s amazing, the culture phase that we discussed, how the treaty of Versailles works, Ebert, it’s all great. There was only one thing that shocked me, maybe you can elaborate on that. That Nazism was so active under students. That students were so receptive for Nazism. Could you talk about that for a bit? How could that happen and why.
I think that an important factor was that they were being taught by very strongly nationalistic professors. They naturally were influenced by them. So the entire academic world in Germany was strongly nationalistic conservative. The Nazi’s didn’t have a lot of trouble establish a foothold there. The role of the professors was a very prominent one. They were a group that were hit hard by the war, they had lost a lot of possessions,
they had always been a quite conservative group. They thought that Germany had ended up in a wrong position and that Germany was going into the wrong direction. The students picked up on that but it was a group that initially had it quite rough anyway, there was a lot of poverty,
a lot of them were literally hungry in the first years of the Weimar Republic. When Jewish students joined, they would think that they are competition and are they even real Germans. So there is a grudge against other groups that had risen to the top under the new regime. And that they thought that they could become the victims of that. Those are possible explanations for the students that were such proponents of national conservatist Germany.
Curious, but explained well. Patrick Dassen, thank you for being a guest here at New World to talk about it. For the readers, I hope that you read the book. Let us know in the comments what you think of the book and this interview, so that we can enter a dialogue about this interview.