Gustav Stresemann, who served briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister for most of the 1920s, was one of the Weimar Republic’s most effective statesman. Unlike many Weimar politicians, Stresemann demonstrated a thoughtful pragmatism, a passionate but rational nationalism and a capacity for getting things done. These qualities helped Germany endure the rocky political and economic waters of the 1920s.
Stresemann’s premature death in 1929 robbed Weimar Germany of one of its few political leaders not mired in self-interest, partisanship or extremism. His demise removed one of the republic’s few obstacles to chaos, dictatorship and totalitarianism.
Stresemann entered politics as a National Liberal Party candidate in Saxony. In 1907, he became the youngest member of the Reichstag, aged 28. By 1917, Stresemann’s political talents had propelled him to the party leadership.
At this point in his career, there was little to differentiate Stresemann from several other nationalist politicians. He was a fervent monarchist and nationalist and was firmly committed to the war effort.
When the National Liberal Party began to dissolve in 1918, Stresemann joined the newly formed German Democratic Party (DDP). His nationalist views placed Stresemann in the right-wing of the liberal-centrist DDP and he soon became disenchanted with the party’s program.
The German People’s Party
By early 1919, Stresemann and several colleagues had abandoned the DDP and formed their own party, the Deutsche Volkspartei (DVP, or German People’s Party).
In April, he explained his vision for the DVP: “We are on course to become the old ‘middle party’ which is indispensable to the life of the state”.
The Treaty of Versailles heightened Stresemann’s nationalism. He cursed the treaty as a “moral, political and economic death sentence” for Germany and labelled the League of Nations “a farce, an American-English world cartel for the exploitation of other nations”. He also condemned politicians like Ebert for believing the “foolish dreams” about Germany being treated fairly by the Allies.
Through mid-1919, Stresemann lobbied against the Reichstag’s ratification of the Versailles treaty (it was passed 237 votes to 138). In August 1919, Stresemann reasserted the nationalist view that Germany must work to restore her strength:
“We are united that we must again attain a respected position in the world, and this goal can only be achieved by strong leadership. We will not be deceived by talk of a ‘League of Nations’. Already we see the triple alliance of Britain, America and France… what is this except a return to the old system. Our views have already been proved more right than even we anticipated. There will be powerful alliances again in the future, and the task for us is to become alliance-worthy again.”
A shift in views
In the early 1920s, Stresemann’s nationalism began to dilute and his politics shifted towards the centre.
Historians have pondered the reasons for this change. Some suggest Germany’s economic turmoil in 1922-23 convinced Stresemann that recovery was impossible without international co-operation.
Stresemann was certainly disillusioned by the militant nature of German nationalist movements. He thought that reform rather than revolution was the best way to secure Germany’s future.
Stresemann disapproved of both the failed Kapp putsch (1920) and the NSDAP’s Munich putsch (1923). He was also alarmed by right-wing political violence, especially the assassinations of Matthias Erzberger (1921) and Walther Rathenau (1922). Though Stresemann had his share of disagreements with both men, their murders appalled him.
By 1922, Stresemann was working more closely with moderate and left-wing members of the Reichstag. In August 1923, chancellor Wilhelm Cuno was forced from office and Stresemann was invited to replace him, leading probably the broadest coalition government of the Weimar period.
The ongoing occupation of the Ruhr, spiralling hyperinflation and the weakness of Stresemann’s coalition doomed his government to inevitable collapse. He did not shy away from difficult decisions, however, calling a halt to ‘passive resistance’ in the Ruhr and giving the Allies a commitment to restoring Germany’s reparations instalments.
This did not mean Stresemann had changed his view of Versailles: he still loathed it and hoped for a revision of its strict terms. But he believed the best way to facilitate this was to abide by the treaty and begin negotiations with the Allies in good faith.
These measures were ultimately successful but they made Stresemann unpopular across the political spectrum.
The Social Democratic Party (SPD), the architect of ‘passive resistance’ in the Ruhr, opposed Stresemann’s cancellation of it.
The SPD would eventually withdraw from the Stresemann coalition. This forced Stresemann’s resignation as chancellor on October 3rd, though Ebert had little option but to reappoint him two days later, this time with a much thinner coalition.
Nationalists were also incensed by Stresemann’s preparedness to co-operate with the Allies. On October 21st, separatists in the Rhineland – who considered the Weimar regime spineless and incapable of protecting their interests – attempted to establish their own republic. The Rhenish Republic, as it was known, collapsed after just a month.
The government collapses
This separatism in the Rhineland was followed a fortnight later by an ambitious attempt to seize control of the Bavarian government. Initiated by Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists (NSDAP) in a Munich beer hall, the putsch was crushed in under two days.
Though both putsches were unsuccessful, they cast a shadow over Stresemann’s cabinet. Stresemann himself chose not to take strong action. He had low regard for political fringe groups like the NSDAP and considered their putsch a relatively minor incident.
Others in the Reichstag, however, were more concerned about the increase in ultra-nationalist activity under Stresemann’s watch. By late November, the chancellor was facing a no-confidence vote in the assembly. He resigned the chancellorship on October 23rd, this time for good.
Though no longer chancellor, Stresemann remained as foreign minister in the newly formed government of Wilhelm Marx. He would hold this office for more than six years under three different chancellors.
Stresemann continued his political pragmatism as foreign minister. He contributed to the Dawes Plan to renegotiate Germany’s reparations debt, forged reconnections with Germany’s European neighbours, restored diplomatic ties and sought international support.
In August 1928, Stresemann’s work was interrupted by a small stroke, suffered during a party meeting. He took no time off but while his mind remained keen, Stresemann’s essential skills – reading and writing – were noticeably affected.
Death and global reaction
Gustav Stresemann died in October 1929, aged 51, after another much larger stroke. The European press hailed him as a hero, a man befitting the ‘new Germany’. The London Times wrote that he saw “co-operation as the only escape from chaos [and] did inestimable service to the German Republic. His work for Europe as a whole was almost as great”.
A historian’s view:
“With the possible exception of Aristide Briand, no figure since the war has so dominated European affairs as did Herr Stresemann; and no statesman has shown so unwavering a devotion to what he conceived to be the right course for his country. By a fortunate coincidence, it was also the right course for the world. Herr Stresemann may be said to have been the first of the Europeans.”
1. Gustav Stresemann began his career as a right-wing nationalist politician. He supported the monarchy, detested the new republic and despised the Versailles treaty.
2. As the leader of the German People’s Party or DVP, Stresemann’s position moderated in the early 1920s. He adopted a pragmatic position and opposed political extremism.
3. Stresemann served as German chancellor briefly in 1923, ending passive resistance to the Ruhr occupation before his coalition collapsed and he was replaced by Wilhelm Marx.
4. As foreign minister, Stresemann worked to rebuild good relationships with Germany’s European neighbours, renegotiate her reparations obligations and revise the Versailles treaty.
5. Stresemann’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy was largely responsible for Germany’s re-entry into the community of nations. It helped to finalise the Dawes Plan, secure foreign loans and negotiate several treaties and agreements.