When we think about the Weimar Republic, most likely we think about the time of the right-wing power. Certainly, many authoritarian forces were at work in the republic, but this was also the time of a Left government, one that shaped the social life of Germany profoundly.
The Weimar Republic was a relatively short experience in the history of Germany. It may even be true that the republic was too weak and unloved to ever be successful. But it was still the first democratic regime of Germany, the first time Left ideas got out of the rooms of philosophers to get into the thick of everyday life.
The SPD was a socialist party with a long history dating back to the 1800s, and when the XX century opened, it was the biggest party in Germany. Yet, it had never been at the guide of the nation, until Prince Max von Baden consigned that power in their hands. Unfortunately, the SPD was never able to create a parliamentary majority that would actually administrate the country. Fragmentation was the keyword of the Weimar Republic. Just like the Right, the Left counted a myriad of little political entities and movements, as well as two big parties – the SPD (Social Democrats) and the KPD (Communists) – who never found any kind of agreements.
This is one of the strongest arguments against the Left: they were never able to create the cohesive coalition that would have made the difference. Adding the many political crises that arose from the lack of a strong parliamentary majority, it becomes easy to see why the population never thought that the Left was able to administrate.
The gap between the SPD and the KPD didn’t help either. Together, they were the major forces against the Right, but there was always great diffidence between the two parties. In particular, the KPD never forgot that in 1919 the SPD had preferred to side with the army to suppress the revolution, which ended in the death of many communists, including the leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The KPD always considered the SPD as good as traitors after that.
On its part, the SPD was always diffident of the bond between the KPD and Bolshevik Russia. There was indeed very small room for agreement.In Weimar #Germany, the Left never found the necessary unity to make the republic successful #History #WWI Click To Tweet
German Jews and the Left
The majority of German Jews gravitated toward the Left, finding there their natural political place since the Right was mostly anti-Semitic – even when Anti-Semitism was not the main point in the party’s agenda – and the Zentrum was strongly Catholic.
Besides the Left suited them quite fine, since the Left acted on more liberal ideas than any previous administrator in Germany and supported freedom of expression and full citizenship rights for all Germans. The Left was also the side of the avant-garde, which was an art movement but also a way of thinking about the future.
Many of the Jews involved with politics were intellectuals. They worked in the field of communication, both for the SPD and the KPD. They were also involved in many of the revolutionary provisions of the republic. Their over-representation in the life of the republic was one element which instilled in the larger German population the idea that Jews were controlling their political as well as cultural life. Many believed that Jews were making a Judenrepublik (a Jewish Republic) out of the Weimar Republic, which added to their little love for the republic and willingness to listen to Anti-Semitic propaganda.
As in many other countries, intellectuals were prominent inside the Left – at least in numbers if not in power. Left intellectuals incarnated most of the republic ideals. They were mostly pacifists. They thought the law should be equal for everyone, and more rights should be given to more people. It was them who pushed for larger participation of women and Jews to the republic life, them who wanted abortion and homosexuality to be erased as prosecutable crimes.
One would expect them to be among the strongest supporters of the republic. This was not the case. There was a divide between the Left and its intellectuals, who mostly belonged to the middle class and, in small numbers, to the aristocracy. They had little to do with the majority of the members of any Left party, who mostly belonged to the working class. The leaders of these parties (including the SPD) thought he majority of their members were not interested in abstract ideals of freedom, but rather in more pressing problems of everyday life, like employment and the inflation. This created a divide between the Left and its intellectuals, who – far from being champions of the republic –usually gave just lukewarm support, disappointed as they were of a republic that wasn’t doing a good enough job, leaving out of its action many important questions regarding freedom.
In truth, the Weimar Republic Left had many qualities and many liberal aspirations, but it never found the necessary unity to make those ideals become a reality.
Visit Berlin – The 1920s in Berlin
Facing History and Ourselves – Weimar Political Parties
International Socialism – Divided they Fell: The German Left and the Rise of Hitler
Spartacus Educational – The German Communist Party
Walter Laqueur, Weimar, A Cultural History 1918-1933. Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd. London, 1971
Gunther Mai, Die Weimarer Republik, C.H. Beck Verlag, Munchen, 2009
Sad to see it all going downhill to the point where the right wing crazies took over!
L Is For Margo Lanagan
I know. But those were very difficult, complex times, where insecurity about everything was the norm. We should always remember that.
The infighting between different Leftist groups is always disheartening and disappointing. We have the same common, basic goals and ideals, even if our methods and philosophies aren’t identical.
True. But as the history of Weimar shows very clearly, ‘The Left’ is not a compact entity. Many different interpretations of the same ideals live there (as it should be, I believe). Sometimes a way of working together arises, sometimes it doesn’t. Isnt’ this how democrazy is supposed to be?
Men in the streets with guns is rarely a good sign.
Hi Sarah – a post I need to re-read … the divisions are interesting and informative to read about – I’ll be back … cheers Hilary
Thanks Hilary. I have so many blog to catch up on too 🙁
What an interesting post! We do usually remember Germany at that time as being ‘ruled by the Right.’ But as you remind us, the Left had some power during the Weimar years. I wonder what would have happened had it been a more unified front.
There’s a lot of room for speculation, isn’t there? In fact, the speculations whether Weimar could ever been successful as a democratic experiment are very lively in the community of historians.
Personally, I agree with what seems to be the more recent line of thought on the republic: it had to face so many enemies that it’s surprising it even lasted 14 years. But in spite of its ‘failure’ it was extremely important that it existed.
JOHN T. SHEA
I’ve always considered Nazism a distinctly Leftist system, with it’s overwhelming Statism, central planning, and cultivated envy and jealousy (particularly of Jews). I’m far from alone in that belief. The one thing about the German National Socialist Workers Party that was not a lie was its name. So it’s not surprising that other Leftist parties were pushed aside by Nazism and that Hitler formed an alliance with Stalin, which continued openly the secret military cooperation between the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union.
Seeing the Nazis as leftists makes the guilt of German conservatives even greater. They allowed themselves to be deceived by the Nazis and thought they could use Hitler when it was Hitler who used them. They should have known better and many of them probably did, but they traded their principles for power and soon lost both.
The effort to falsely label the Nazis as rightists was aided and abetted by Hitler’s attack on Russia. We should never forget that Allied propaganda from then until the end of the War painted the Soviet Union as almost a democracy! Yet leftist tyrants often fell out with each other. Hitler vs Stalin. The Soviet Union vs China. China vs Vietnam. And so on.
The whole Right vs Left duality or spectrum is tricky. How many people even know its origin? Perhaps it is time we reconsidered (over?)simplifying our politics and culture into just two groups based on the seating arrangements of the pre-revolutionary French parliament? But colors are no better. The recently popular custom of classing ‘conservative’ US states as red and ‘liberal’ states as blue is weird and back to front.
A heavy responsibility bears on democrats (small ‘d’!) anywhere on a political spectrum to see and acknowledge what unites them with other democrats elsewhere on the spectrum and separates them from those opposed to democracy. But even that is not the full answer since democracy can degenerate into majoritarianism and people can elect tyrants and vote their own freedoms out of existence.
Many thanks for this post and your whole Weimar series, Sarah!
I understand what you are saying, John, but what you call Right and Left, I’d call Totalitarianism and Liberalism. In this sense, both nazism and stalinism are totalitarian movements, since Totalitarism as well as Liberalism can be founded on any ideals.
Also, I’ll always suggest to not judge the past with our mind of today 😉
Here in Italy, we call the Left of that period ‘The Historical Left’ because, even if in many places it touches what ideals the Left follows today, the historical Left had very specific characteristics that also distiguishes it from today’s Left. I wonder if this is the case for Germany too (but I suspect so).
As for the Nazi party, guess what N will be about 😉
We call it ‘right-wing’ for convenience and for the idea we have about the extreme Right today, but from what I understand the NSDAP supported any idea (whether it was right, left, volkish, modernist, populistic, social, even capitalistic) as long as it brough votes to them. In truth, like all movements of that sort in that time, they considered themselves a rivolutionary movement.
But then, I don’t suppose to be able to give a thorough explenation of the political environment of the Weimar Republic here. The only thing that is very clear to me is that it was an extremely complex situation under every aspect you might look at it.
JOHN T. SHEA
I strongly disagree with equating Totalitarianism with the Right and Liberalism with the Left. The Left can be just as Totalitarian as the Right, and the Right as Liberal as the Left.
I agree the Nazis were nationalists, since I already said their name was the one thing about them that was not a lie. Of course the descriptions ‘Nationalist’, ‘Socialist’, ‘Workers’ and ‘Party’ were far from complete! ‘Autocratic’, ‘Genocidal’, and ‘Nihilistic’ could be added.
I suspect German conservatives were in a better position than Social Democrats to stop the Nazis, but failed for the reasons I outlined above, because they underestimated the Nazis in general and Hitler in particular. Likewise German generals and industrialists, who betrayed their principles for power and money.
Incidentally, Margaret Thatcher famously and rightly claimed to be a Liberal in the 1980s, but she meant it in the Nineteenth Century sense of ‘Liberalism’, which emphasised economic and other freedoms and a minimal state.
You must have misunderstood me, John. What I was saying is exactly the same as you, that Totalitarianism and Liberalism can be both right or left. It isn’t the ideology, is the way you use it.
I was ansering your suggestion that we should reconsider what Right and Left means today: to me, the opposition is not really between Right and Left, who both have a right to excist and express their view, but between authoritarian and liberal forces.
I agree with everythign else you said 🙂
JOHN T. SHEA
Thanks, Sarah. Such a broad definition includes Liberalism in both its Nineteenth and Twentieth Century meanings, a Liberalism that opposes the Totalitarianism of dictatorships and the Authoritarianism of Illiberal Democracies such as present-day Russia. The popular American definition of Liberalism as Leftism is too narrow. I’ve read several commenters suggesting that Chancellor Angela Merkel is now the world’s leading Liberal, which may very well be true!
Roland R Clarke
Left and right are meaningless if we ignore the attitudes to rights and freedoms. Hence, Stalin and Hitler can be in the same camp as neither regime promoted individual rights or freedoms. In fact, when the two extremes are compared the similarities are too clear. And Stalin was never a true Bolshevik in the sense that Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebnicht interpreted that is. Nor was Hitler a conservative.
I completely agree, Roland. I suppose that’s what I was trying to say when I answered to John about Totalitarianism and Liberalism.
I recall reading about a few Leftist people who were hanged, one being a young woman who was very strong in her beliefs. They write leftist but, in the states, some Americans consider the Democratic Party leftist which is so very wrong so I wonder, if they could have united, if Germany would have gone down a different path. On the other hand, if it was communist that came to power, it would have been equally horrendous considering Stalin was in power and killed millions of people.
I think what is intersting to see is that at that time nobody really knew what was happeniong in Russia. We know today Stalinism was only a different kind of dictatorship, the same as many others in Europe, but back in the 1920s people only knew the idealogy, and either embraced it or rejected it – or so I understand.
In Germany, what they feared was the dismatlement of the capitalistic way of life (which was a fear the Right – and Hitler in particular – played cleverly), or on the other hand, they hoped to create and egalitarina society where everything was in common. It was still very much just a question of ideaology. History, of course, made things much more compex.
JOHN T. SHEA
Birgit makes interesting points. The US Democratic is only Leftist on the US political spectrum, whose center is to the right of the typical European spectrum. The US Democrats are generally centrists by European standards.
Marx hoped for a Communist Germany and thought Russian just about the last place in the world that would go Communist. A Communist German could indeed have been as bad as the Third Reich. So democrats in the broadest sense, Conservatives, Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, or whatever, should have united enough to opposes both the Nazis and Communist, instead of despairing about democracy and resigning themselves to a choice of dictatorships.
I never realised that difference between US and UE standars. How interesting.
I’m just speculating, but I think there were many reasons why the Left parties didn’t unite in Weimar Germany. First, they didn’t really know what was going on in Russia. It was still vary much a matter of ideaology, and in Germany they feared the communist ideaology, which would unhinge the capitalistic way of life they had known so far.
On the other hand, I don’t think anybody knew what a totalitarian regime would have meant. Many people, and not just in Germany, saw with favour a strong man at the head of the nation, because they thought at monarchy and at how things had worked up to before the war. Authoritarian regimes were a completely different beast… but of course WE know it today. Nobody knew back then.
So I think that back then, the SPD and the KPD just didn’t realise they were on the same side and certainly they didn’t see things as we see them today.
As you can tell, I’m late & catching up. Interesting post & even more interesting discussion in the comments. Most enjoyable!
A-Zing this year at:
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Let’s not talk about delays. I’m doomed!