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The Meaning of Weimar

September 1, 2011

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.

Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Stresemann – the men who could have stopped the Third Reich

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.

  1. POH permalink
    September 1, 2011 11:54 am

    As a member of the audience last night, I was very impressed by your clear and conclusive speech on the Weimar period and its consequences, both for the Nazi upsurge and also setting Germany up for its successful re-building after WW2. Congratulations!
    You mentioned the Weimar voting system based on an ‘unfettered’ form of proportional representation, where very small blocs of votes ensured seats to marginal political players, eventually leading to massive instability and Hitler’s rise. As you pointed out, after WW2 the Germans had leant their lessons, and designed their new constitution and PR voting system accordingly. The successful role of minor parties in the post-war period, including the Greens & FDP (centrist), in those nation-building coalitions, is also interesting to note and contrast with the tried (tired?) & tested (found wanting?) Australian two-party system. Maybe you would be a supporter of a change to PR German-style here, come the Republic?

    • Bob Carr permalink
      September 1, 2011 12:07 pm

      PR here would mean Labor only ever governing in coalition with the Green Party. For us I don’t think it would be so good. Majority government enables you to get things done.

  2. POH permalink
    September 1, 2011 12:15 pm

    But, as you also described it, those German coalition governments got plenty done too! They had to get used to a more consultative process of governing, which you also mentioned as underlying their industrial sucess. Beware the Bismarck temptation!

    • Tom Round permalink
      September 2, 2011 12:20 pm

      POH, side by side and high up on the list of articles of faith unwaveringly held by Labor politicians in the mainland Australian States are:

      (1) That northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, represents the world’s best practice model of the sorts of societies that social democrats should aim to build; and

      (2) That proportional representation is marginally better than appointment or malapportioned single-seaters, as a method for selecting an un-abolishable Upper House, but is otherwise a recipe for disaster.

      So say they all.

    • September 2, 2011 4:59 pm

      We already have proportional representation in the Senate. So, the range of opinion gets represented while we (generally) have stable Governments: seems an excellent compromise to me.

      • Tom Round permalink
        September 3, 2011 6:24 pm

        “Stable”? Lorenzo, surely if you had paid the slightest attention to No2AV’s very well-researched and empirically-based arguments in the UK’s May 2011 referendum, you would know that preferential voting in single-member electorates has given Australia perpetual minority governments, formed in smoke-filled rooms – governments that the voters are unable to “kick…out”. Or do you know something about Australian electoral systems that Prime Minister Cameron, Baroness Warsi, Lord Ashcroft, various “Daily Mail” columnists,, and a series of eminent Oxbridge historians don’t?

  3. nick permalink
    September 1, 2011 10:44 pm

    Dear Mr Carr,

    A very interesting article. In regards to your historical interpretation that the revolutionaries in Russia and the aspirant revolutionaries in Germany were a fringe radical group that were not representative of larger group; do you hold the same view in regards to the French Revolution (1788-89) as Edmund Burke did, or even the Iran revolution and the revolutionary war in China. Also do you consider your view of these revolutions as reactionary?

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