Weimar Germany is usually considered from its endpoint: Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on 30 January 1933 and the subsequent Nazi seizure of power. Generations of school pupils have been taught to think of the republic as doomed from its start in late 1918, weighed down by the pressures of a punitive Treaty of Versailles, hyperinflation, and the Great Depression. In this reading, the republic, premised on an inclusive voting system that enfranchised all men and women from the age of 20, parliamentary democracy and progressive welfare state policies, never had a future to begin with and its collapse seemed inevitable.
This assessment, however, is entirely based on hindsight, on the knowledge of those who look back at the era from a post-1945 vantage point. Such a view fundamentally disregards the perspective of contemporaries and the future that they envisaged for their republic. Their future was, to be sure, a ‘present future’, based on expectations of what would happen in the five, ten, or even fifteen years following their present situation in 1920 or 1925.
The present future, in other words, was not something fixed or to be determined by means of chronology. It was rather a horizon of expectations that was shifting and, most importantly, open to the possibilities of different future developments.
How does our understanding of the Weimar Republic change when we interpret the period from the perspective of the present futures of the contemporaries?
First, we see a large degree of historical optimism not only in intellectual debates, but also in wider political discourse. There was a widespread sense that the future was open and that society was malleable. This optimism was shared across the political divides, from Social Democratic trade union functionaries who hoped that US-style Fordism would alleviate the plight of the industrial workers, to Communists who admired a Soviet-style solution to the ills of capitalism and to right-wing intellectuals who posed as the ‘Conservative Revolution’, embracing technology to heal the wounds of a defeated nation.
Optimism is a notoriously imprecise analytical category. Yet even then it is necessary to challenge the conventional wisdom that the devastation caused by the First World war had rang the death knell to the optimistic nineteenth century liberal belief in progress.
Quite to the contrary, Weimar Germans displayed a broad consensus that challenged both optimism and pessimism, and criticised both sets of outlooks for leading to a passive attitude with regard to the future. By contrast, this third strand of thinking was encapsulated in the title of the right-wing journal Die Tat (‘The Deed’) – an important buzzword of Weimar political discourse. Germans, it was agreed, should take the future into their own hands, instead of merely contemplating reasons to be optimistic or pessimistic.
A focus on the present futures allows – second – to highlight those who had an active stake in the future of the republic and supported it with dedication. Engaged republicans formed a large and committed group, belying the established, yet dated trope that Weimar was a ‘republic without republicans.’ Weimar’s republicans were active in many different fields and organizations, yet their most important pressure group was the Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold.
Founded in 1924 mostly by war veterans, the Reichsbanner quickly grew into a nationwide body of about one million members, vastly outnumbering the veterans’ and combat leagues of the anti-republican right such as the Steel Helmet (Stahlhelm). Reichsbanner activists supported and defended the colours of the republican flag, encapsulated in the name of their league, and they were keen to emphasize that the republican constitution was best suited to serve the interests of the German nation.
Devised as a rallying point for dedicated republicans after the putsch attempts from the radical left and right in 1923, the Reichsbanner developed an optimistic outlook on the future, brimming with confidence that the enemies of the republic could be contained.
Focusing on the present futures of Weimar Germany’s contemporaries entails – third – a reassessment of the notion of ‘crisis’. Every historian of the Weimar republic employs the notion of an endemic crisis, in politics, the economy and many other societal fields. Most textbooks use the term as a reified notion, a compact, straightforward reality in which crisis leads to inevitable decline.
Yet Weimar contemporaries had an entirely different understanding of the term Krisis, in the rather old-fashioned spelling that many authors of the 1920s and early 1930s preferred. For them, in line with its etymology, Krisis denoted a moment of openness and of decision-making, in which the future course of events could be mapped and shaped. Where we associate decline, contemporaries saw a potentially dangerous yet open future.
Only those contemporaries who wanted to destroy the republic, the Nazis in the first instance, understood crisis as inevitable decline. Historians who see Weimar society as riddled by perennial crisis – as a reified notion – are running the danger of simply reiterating a narrative that was masterminded precisely by those who wanted to replace democracy with an authoritarian system.
A focus on the present futures of the Weimar Republic does not change the fact that the Nazis ultimately destroyed the democratic system. Yet this outcome was never a foregone conclusion. To state that it was means ignoring the vibrant optimism and belief in the malleability of a better future that many contemporaries held.
Studying History requires the ability to historicise, to understand the past in its own context and by its own standards and expectations. A proper understanding of the Weimar Republic relies on this ability.
Benjamin Ziemann is Professor of Modern German History at the University of Sheffield. He has published widely on twentieth century German and European history. His book Hitler’s Personal Prisoner. The Turbulent Life of Martin Niemöller is forthcoming with OUP in 2023.
This blogpost draws on ideas in the joint introduction to: Nadine Rossol and Benjamin Ziemann (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Weimar Republic, Oxford: OUP, 2021. The book can be ordered with a 30% discount by entering the discount code AAFLYG6 at the checkout.
Cover image: On 21 August 1919, Friedrich Ebert was sworn in as Reich President by the National Assembly. After this ceremony, Ebert – above the left column –, Constantin Fehrenbach, the President of the National Assembly – to the right of Ebert –, and members of the government were greeting the crowd in front of the National Theatre in Weimar. This was the festive and civic founding ritual of the Weimar Republic. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Treaty of Versailles led directly to World War II.