The Meaning of Weimar
Last night I talked on themes out of the Weimar Republic to a big audience at the Art Gallery of NSW, coinciding with their excellent exhibition “The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-37.”
Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemann are the politicians I admire from this politically dismal era. Bear in mind that Weimar was a republic without republicans, a democracy without democrats. The judges, the teachers, the universities and the armed forces remained monarchist and hostile to the regime. So did the conservative parties on the political right. All the more admirable, then, were the fierce democrats at the centre.
Friedrich Ebert was the first working-class person to be head of state in the industrial era, anywhere. A saddler, he came to the leadership of the great German Social Democrat Party in 1913. He was elected President of Weimar in 1919. I admire him because he acted decisively to put down Germany’s version of the Bolsheviks, the gaggle of muddle-headed romantics and murderers who wanted nothing more than the opportunity to kill fellow citizens in the way Lenin was inflicting civil and class war on the Russians.
That Ebert used the Freikorps, a right-wing militia, to restore order simply proved that he had what it took. If there had been a Bolshevik revolution in Germany, it would have been carrying out slaughter on a Stalinesque scale. And – here’s the punch line if you ever have an argument with the revolutionary left – the German workers, even the worker and soldier councils established in the chaos after the collapse of World War One, never supported the revolutionary left. The revolutionary left never commanded a majority of the working class. As in Russia, the revolutionaries were a tiny minority. Ebert denied them the opportunity to cheat their way into power the way Lenin had cheated his way into power. Good old Friedrich Ebert, democrat.
Gustav Stresemann was a precursor of the Europe that emerged after 1945, the Europe of Franco-German reconciliation, of De Gaulle and Adenauer. Leading the German People’s Party, a centrist business bloc, he stabilised the currency after the great inflation of 1923. He concluded treaties with Germany’s neighbours and he defied the nationalists and revanchists. He told the League of Nations, eloquently:
[I]t cannot be the sense of the divine world order…to direct supreme national efforts against each other time and again, continually throwing back the general development of culture. Humanity will be best served by him who, rooted in his own people and culture, grows beyond it to serve all…. Away with the rifles, machine guns, cannons! Clear the way for arbitration, conciliation, peace! (My emphasis)
Away with the rifles, machine guns, cannons! Oh, to hear that in the Middle East today!
I said that the triumph of Weimar came with the success of the Federal Republic of Germany that was inaugurated in May 1949. West Germany became something approaching a social democracy. Its electoral system and constitution were profoundly democratic. It survived every challenge from the right and from the left (such as the Baader Meinhof terrorists). It made itself a multicultural society so that Turks might wave the German flag at the World Cup. It extended workers’ rights in industry. Its successful economic model was the reason the East German dictatorship collapsed in 1989. And the Federal Republic defied all expectations by absorbing the huge cost of reunification and, right now, exporting its head off – and in manufactures.
My heroes Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemann were harbingers of this success.
Weimar’s triumph lies in the success of modern Germany which it pre-figured.
The Federal Republic flies the flag that Weimar flew, the red, black and gold. It was the flag of the German liberals in the revolution of 1848.