The Weimar Republic lasted just 15 years – but the historiography of the Weimar Republic has been busy and fertile. Hundreds of historians, economists and political scientists have attempted to make sense of Germany between 1918 and 1933. As usually happens, their research has produced different findings, theories and perspectives.
The historiography of the Weimar Republic is dominated by one particular question: why did the Republic fail? Some historians suggest it fell victim to the perilous conditions of the interwar years. Others believe the Republic was undermined and betrayed by dark forces. Others argue that longer-term factors, peculiar to Germany and its historical development, made the collapse of Weimar democracy inevitable.
The shadow of Nazism
Perceptions of the Weimar Republic are often tainted by the National Socialist regime that replaced it. Because the Weimar Republic gave way to Nazism, many consider it a failure. They regard the Weimar Republic in a similar vein to Russia’s Provisional Government before the Bolshevik Revolution or China’s Nationalist government before the communist takeover in 1949.
Other academics and historians take a more positive view of the Weimar Republic. They prefer to concentrate on its achievements, such as its advances in art and culture, its strong focus on democratic representation, improvements to the rights and conditions of workers and progressive attitudes about sex and gender.
The Weimar Republic was not necessarily doomed to failure, these historians usually argue. It was deliberately destroyed by reactionaries and nationalists who despised modernity and its progressive values.
Weimar in its context
Whatever perspective you prefer, the Weimar Republic must be considered in its national and historical context.
Understanding the problems and failures of the Weimar Republic demands an awareness of the broader history of Germany. In other words, it is impossible to fully understand the Weimar period without knowing what came before and after.
The Weimar Republic was bookended by the authoritarianism and militarism of Wilhelmine Germany, the horrors and devastation of World War I and the oncoming storm of National Socialism or Nazism. As a consequence, the historiography of the Weimar Republic must be considered part of a longer narrative.
Perceptions of doom and crisis
A common modern perception is that the Weimar Republic was a struggling state that lived in constant peril of collapse or takeover. Much of its time, therefore, was taken up dealing with one crisis after another.
Contemporary accounts and early histories of the Weimar Republic bear this out. As the German historian Rudiger Graf has noted, between 1918 and 1933 there were 370 books written about the Weimar state, all of which had the word “crisis” in their title.
This perspective is underpinned by an assumption that the Weimar Republic was destined to fail. It is still often described or categorised as a “failed experiment” or a “doomed state”. But was this really the case?
The Sonderweg theory
Historians of the Sonderweg movement suggest it was. Sonderweg (German for ‘special path’) is a historiographical theory that emerged during World War II. In the last 50 or so years, it has gained popularity with both German and non-German historians.
Proponents of Sonderweg believe an authoritarian government in Germany was inevitable because of the nation’s unique history and development. The origins of Nazism, they argue, can be found in 19th century Germany, the Prussian militarism of the 18th century, even the political and religious ideas of Martin Luther in the 1500s.
At the heart of the Sonderweg theory are assumptions about German character. It implies that Germans during this time were aggressive, brutal and emotionless. They valued strength, power and control over negotiation, cooperation or compromise. These factors meant the democracy of the Weimar period was destined to fail.
A prominent exponent of the Sonderweg theory was Fritz Fischer (1908-1999). Of Bavarian birth, Fischer joined both the National Socialists (NSDAP) and the Wehrmacht (German military) at the start of World War II. After the war, Fischer returned to academia and renounced his support for National Socialism.
Fischer’s first major book, published in 1961, argued that Germany had deliberately instigated World War I to gain territory in Europe and Africa and with it, world power. German elites carried out this imperialist agenda and encouraged intense nationalism, Fischer argued, to maintain domestic obedience and to suppress calls for democratic reform.
Another notable Sonderweg historian is Hans-Ulrich Wehler (Germany, 1931-2014). Wehler suggested the path to Nazi authoritarian was drawn when Germany industrialised its economy in the mid-1800s but failed to implement any matching political reforms.
Other Sonderweg historians include Edmond Vermeil (France), A. J. P. Taylor (Britain) and William Shirer (US). Shirer’s 1960 book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich claimed that National Socialism was derived more from 18th and 19th-century German authoritarianism than the rising fascism of the 1920s.
“The army had preserved a degree of independence which left it virtually untouched by political change. It was a ‘birth defect’ of the Republic that it relied upon an officer corps… Part of the problem, no doubt, was that the Social Democrats lacked the confidence to build up a republican army… Living in the past, and for the future of the ‘nation’, this [Reichswehr] maintained a cool and frequently hostile distance towards the existing state, towards the Weimar Republic.”
Hans Mommsen (1930-2015) was one of Germany’s most prominent 20th-century historians. He is perhaps best known as a functionalist who deconstructed myths about Adolf Hitler, suggesting he was a ‘weak’ dictator who exercised a limited degree of authority over both the NSDAP and the Nazi state.
Mommsen is often represented as a Sonderweg historian. He had little interest in it, however, believing that Germany’s development was shaped more by self-interest, bad decision-making and moral failures than structural problems.
Mommsen wrote extensively on Germany between 1918 and 1933, most notably in his 1996 book The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy. This is chiefly a study of politics and government, touching little on Weimar society or culture.
In this text, Mommsen attributes the failure of the Weimar Republic to German conservatives: aristocrats, industrialists, bankers, bureaucrats and army officers. Besotted with ideas of German exceptionalism and intent on restoring authoritarianism in one form or another, this group repeatedly attacked, sabotaged or undermined the Weimar Republic.
“There was no inner logic of any kind determining that German historical development should lead from Weimar to Auschwitz. But that this fall could take place in little more than two decades and drag the whole of Europe with it is a lesson to us never to become complacent about inner threats to freedom.”
Fritz Stern (1926-2016) was a German-American historian who specialised in the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. The son of a World War I soldier, Stern was raised in the Weimar Republic but his family fled Germany in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution.
Stern was a notable critic of the Sonderweg position. He rejected the idea that Germans were pathologically militaristic, racist and genocidal. Nazism, Stern wrote, was an “avoidable disaster” and “the German roads to perdition, including National Socialism, were neither accidental nor inevitable”.
The title of Stern’s first major work (The Politics of Cultural Despair, 1961) also encapsulated his view on why the Weimar Republic failed. Focusing on three prominent intellectuals of the 19th century, Stern explained how their regressive nationalism and criticisms of modernity shaped German thought and hindered Germany’s political development in the 20th century.
“Born in defeat, humiliated by Versailles, mocked and violated by its irreconcilable enemies at home, the Weimar Republic never gained the popular acceptance which alone could have given its parliamentary system permanence, even in crisis.”
Karl Dietrich Bracher (1922-2016) was another German historian who specialised in the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. Bracher served in the Wehrmacht during World War II before completing a doctorate in Tübingen, as well as further studies at Harvard.
Bracher rejected the Sonderweg theory of German development. He argued that Weimar democracy was inherently fragile because it failed to attract sufficient support from the German people. In the end, the Republic perished because there were not enough people willing to save it.
Bracher traces the death of republican democracy not to Hitler and the National Socialists but the chancellorship of Heinrich Bruning, who he argues rode roughshod over the Reichstag by ruling through presidential decrees.