Peukert, Detlev J. K. The Weimar Republic: the Crisis of Classical Modernity. Trans. Richard Deveson. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
As a fourteen-year window of constitutional democracy between the German Empire and the Nazi Third Reich, the Weimar Republic has justifiably received much scholarly attention. But in this study, Peukert argues that scholars have too often focused only on the tumultuous and fragile origin of the Republic and its collapse in the face of National Socialism. “‘Weimar’ is more than a beginning and an end,” he writes (xii). The rest of his book is dedicated to exploring this Weimar Era, utilizing social history to offer insights into cultural, political, and social aspects of Weimar Germany. Peukert ultimately concludes that the downfall of the Republic should not be seen as some specific failure of German modernity, but instead a warning of the fragile nature of modernity itself.
Peukert’s entire book places him squarely in opposition to the idea of a German Sonderweg, or “special path” of modernization that led to the Nazis and the Holocaust. To substantiate his argument, he asserts that historical conditions surrounding Weimar Germany’s modernization process, not some old elites trying to stave off modernization, are responsible for the Republic’s failure. To begin with, the “Weimar Republic was born out of national defeat…That, rather than the severe yet ultimately tolerable terms of the peace settlement, was the root cause of the revanchist Versailles myth” that so profoundly shaped the directions Weimar’s modernization process would follow (278). Additionally, the Weimar Republic was founded in a time of global upheaval and instability. Upheavals in demographics led to conflicts between generations, and the sick economy could not sustain attempts to create a new order in industry (83). Moreover, the effects of the global economic crises of 1929 were felt especially hard in Germany, exposing the limits and fault of the welfare state. As times got tough, more people needed the benefits, but because times were tough, the state needed to cut its own costs. When times were good and the state could afford to pay out, not as many people needed it. Weimar’s critics railed against such discrepancies as indicative of a deeply flawed system (129). All of these factors combined to create conditions that the young, fragile Republic, which was constantly in a crisis of legitimacy, simply could not overcome. “Germany’s experiment in modernity was conducted under the least propitious circumstances” (276).
This conclusion is important because it suggests that any nation going through modernization during such conditions would fail, thus meaning there was nothing particularly German about Weimar’s failure. In fact, Peukert argues that classical modernity itself (defined as “the form of fully fledged industrialized society that has been with us from the turn of the century until the present day,” 81) was going through a crisis of its own. “No sooner had modern ideas been put into effect than they came under attack, were revoked or began to collapse (276). And since “crisis and modernization seemed to be going hand in hand, modernity itself became the issue” (85).
This also has implications for how we understand the rise of the Nazis and the death of the Republic. The conservative elites were able to destroy the Weimar constitutional order, but were unable to understand or control the new masses and return to a pre-war order. The Nazis presented themselves as a modern, dynamic party of the masses, and in 1933, “the Nazis were handed over the keys of power by the old elites” (279). In this light, the Nazis can be seen as a last ditch effort to control the effects of modernization rather than an inevitable conclusion of German history.
For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews, here.