Book Review: Die Weimarer Republik: Krisenjahre Der Klassischen Moderne
American University, Bulgaria.
Peukert, Detlev J.K.. Die Weimarer Republik: Krisenjahre Der Klassischen Moderne. Suhrkamp Verlag am Main, 1987, 2001.
also available in English
Peukert, Detlev J.K.. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. Translated by Richard Deveson. Hill and Wang, New York, 1989.
Peukert's extraordinary and revealing examination of the Weimar experiment's failure provides a well-argued critique of the once widely accepted Sonderweg thesis of Germany's path to modernization. This thesis is often invoked to explain why and how the country's social transformation in the early twentieth century rapidly deteriorated in the interwar period and was eventually overthrown by the totalitarian and reactionary ideology of National Socialism. As Peukert defines it, the Sonderweg theory implies that the German pursuit of modernity was peculiarly burdened by traditionalism, illiberality and a yearning for powerful authority (271).
However, Peukert does not see the catastrophic debacle of the Weimar constitutional and parliamentary ideal in terms of pre-determined solutions or some form of a vaguely (even mystically) exceptional nature of the German ethnic organism and mentality. Quite to the contrary, Peukert refutes any notion of a normal modernization, or Western role-models of societal transformation. Relying on a vast number of primary and secondary, both scholarly and political/popular sources, and utilizing results of recent social historical research, he argues that there was nothing especially peculiar or fundamentally different about the German modernization process itself. Nevertheless, the central difficulty lay in the fact that the very political moment in which it was finally possible to inaugurate the final phases of the social evolution of classical modernity (that had begun around the turn of the twentieth century) was the very time when economic and political crisis made success most doubtful. The challenging domestic conditions and forceful external constraints in the aftermath of WWI diminished the state's capacity to mitigate many of the stresses and strains that rapid social change would cause (Peukert 85).
Peukert utilizes a social historical approach to examination of primary and secondary literature, and theories of causal relationships; he outlines a very impressive and in-depth analysis of the profound effects the social modernization process had on various sections of the German interwar population in terms of demographic, industrial, cultural, gender-related and everyday-life developments, transformations and crises.
Peukert's study provides a very critical, innovative and provocative assessment of certain scholarly common truths regarding the Weimar period. First of all, he does not agree with the statement that the 1919 Weimar Constitution imposed an absolutely imprecise, unfinished and unworkable institutional settlement and set of rules and procedures on the new republic (35-42). Peukert is also very suspicious of the claim that the unreasonably high and burdening levels of the post-war foreign-imposed financial reparations and other stipulations of the Versailles Treaty hindered all attempts at the country's economic and political recovery (42-46).
Peukert states that, in the final analysis, nothing was predestined, every failure and crisis could have been overcome, and the cause of republicanism and the ideal of parliamentary democracy were certainly not hopelessly and automatically doomed to failure. One of his major conclusions seems to be the scholarly denial of the frequently argued claim that the Nazi mass movement scored its incredible successes in an almost automatic manner, and that this outcome could have hardly been prevented regardless of political decisions of the non-extreme political actors in Germany of the period (253-257).
Certain elements of the structural weaknesses, ideological and political contradictions and crucial internal tensions of the Weimar system, as presented and argued by Peukert, deserve a more in-depth overview and comment in this review, since they tend to embody some universal challenges faced by a majority of transitional, modernizing societies in different periods of time.
Peukert stresses the political and moral responsibility of the moderate rightists and conservatives (the Catholic centre, the DNVP), and the far-reaching consequences of their decision in the early 1930s to opt for authoritarianism, paralyze the parliamentary structures and procedures, and thereby revoke modernity and return to the pre-WWI value systems. In a rather indirect manner, Peukert's book then becomes an impressive study of the inherent dangers of one of the crucial instruments of democracy - political compromise.
In the profound institutional crisis of 1932-1933, certain authoritarian conservative forces found it more acceptable and politically/morally palatable to cooperate with an ultimately totalitarian, aggressive and destructive movement than with the parliamentarian liberals and social democrats (Peukert 269-272). Members of both the Catholic center, as well as more rightist conservatives and nationalists (most notably the DNVP), approached the economic, cultural and political transition process with a high degree of ideological and practical reservation and were utterly unprepared to accept any return to Germany's pre-war setting. Their failure to reject certain problematic traditions of the Wilhelmine proto-authoritarianism and nationalist expansionism undermined what Peukert refers to as the Weimar modernist compromise.
This attitude was properly reflected in their cooperation with the NSDAP, which was much more than a mere incident. Peukert provides enough scholarly evidence for one to state that the anti-republican and anti-parliamentary moves of the presidential governments of the 1930s destroyed or isolated precisely those values and achievements of post-war progress that might have made larger sections of Germans more immune to the Nazi rhetoric.
Dangerous compromises, no firm determination to carry out as decisively as possible the most radical and painful transformations and breakthroughs demanded by the speedy process of modernization were among the most conspicuous mistakes of Germany's interwar political leadership. Consequently, many essential elements of the Weimar experiment very often tend to be referred to as half-measures or unfinished revolution (Peukert 49-51; 278).
Another point which makes Peukert's book useful reading for the leaders of states presently experiencing modernization is the negative outcome of the fact that, in interwar Germany, there was no clearly expressed willingness to announce nor promote any uncompromising discontinuity with the past. Liberal Stresemann's hidden revisionism, perseverance of the myth of the Versailles Diktat or Dolchstosslegende (belief that the politicians of the Weimar Coalition - SDP, liberals and the Catholic Centre - actually betrayed the otherwise victorious German army in 1918), etc. effectively prevented a sort of a national catharsis and self-critical questioning of the previously established political aims and moral value systems.
Therefore, the notion of the utmost necessity to make a fresh start, or Stunde Null (so apparent and profoundly pervasive in the aftermath of the catastrophe of WWII) could not become an inseparable ingredient of the general mental framework in Germany of the 1920s. Genuine public adherence to such a notion certainly would have made the Nazi extremist appeal to German wounded national pride much less persuasive.
Peukert argues that it was not democracy and its procedures but precisely the lack of them that enabled the radicalization of the German masses and the NSDAP seizure of power. The road to democracy had been blocked by the pro-Wilhelmine traditionalists much before the National Socialists formally dispensed with its institutions (Peukert 258-265).
However, it seems that Peukert misses a major internal contradiction in his argument. He claims that a coalition of the non-extremists on the German political scene would have certainly prevented, or at least postponed, the demise of the Weimar Republic. However, just a few pages earlier he bitterly (and rightfully) criticized the political and socio-economic compromises that eventually rendered the modernization agenda meaningless, but that needed to be made because of the unlikely coalition of the left and right, socialists, liberals and conservatives. That said, it is highly naïve to conclude that a new and even more disloyal coalition of similar political forces in the wider context of the world economic crisis could have done anything more constructive for the ideal of the Weimar constitution. The somewhat heretical question of viability and applicability of democratic procedures and institutions in a specific environment of economic instability, deep political crisis and necessity for radical societal transformations poses itself clearly in relation to the Weimar experience. The issue of whether frequent elections and government alterations help or undermine processes of democratic transitions and modernization is an exceptionally appropriate one. There are certainly numerous examples of attempts at restructuring and breaks with the past interrupted or even completely prevented by the fact that decision-makers gave precedence to the democratic system's procedural formalities and political means over the actual ends of the radical institutional reorganization. It is justifiable to at least consider an option of allowing a somewhat firmer rule, longer mandates and a greater scope of operation to a progressive political leadership in the initial periods of modernization. It does make sense to assume that additional instability is created if the popular will is being tested at the very beginning of an economic transformation, when painful changes have already generated uncertainty and hardship but while the first palpable positive effects of the process have not yet been widely felt. The Weimar Republic probably would not have been as delegitimized and weakened by the unstable compromises and wavering over crucial reforms if the agenda of political means and procedures had not shadowed the agenda of actual goals.
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