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Economics and Politics in the Weimar Republic

Author(s):Balderston, Theo
Reviewer(s):Spoerer, Mark

Published by EH.NET (March 2003)

Theo Balderston, Economics and Politics in the Weimar Republic.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. vii + 123 pp. $13 (paperback),

ISBN: 0-521-77760-7; $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-521-58375-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mark Spoerer, Department of Economic and Social

Sciences, University of Hohenheim (Stuttgart, Germany).

The economic and political fate of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) has always

been seen as the prehistory of Hitler’s rise to power, and still is seen this

way. No other period of German economic history has inspired so much attention

from both historians and economists. The two most outstanding issues that have

sparked debates among them are the questions of whether and, if so, why the

Weimar Republic suffered from structural problems already in her supposedly

‘Golden Years’ (1924-29), and whether Chancellor Heinrich Br?ning had a

feasible alternative to his pro-cyclical austerity policy from 1930 to 1932,

which intensified the crisis in Germany. The latter issue is related to the

former: If the Weimar economy was not ill, Br?ning had more economic leeway for

work creation programs and the like; and had he made use of it, Hitler possibly

would not have been able to seize power in January 1933.

It was the German economic historian Knut Borchardt who questioned in the late

1970s the then orthodox view that Br?ning’s policy was a complete failure. Not

only did Borchardt’s hypothesis that Br?ning did not have realistic

alternatives to his policy provoke many historians and economists, but all the

more his supply-side arguments. In essence, Borchardt saw the German economy of

the late 1920s as one that was torn by distributional conflicts between labor

and capital. The political revolution of 1918 soon lost its political impetus

and faded to a wage movement. Pay increases that outweighed productivity

increases constrained corporate profits and investment in the late 1920s, which

in turn led to only moderate growth and budget deficits. In this pessimistic

view, Br?ning was a captive of circumstances that were beyond his control.[1]

To date there has not been a textbook that summarizes the arguments and

evidence brought up in the academic debate, either in German or English. Now

Theo Balderston, Senior Lecturer in Economic History at the University of

Manchester, has written a small textbook that is published in the ‘Economic and

Social History’ series of Cambridge University Press. Balderston is very well

acquainted with the topic — in 1993 he published a very detailed study on “The

Origins and Course of the German Economic Crisis, November 1923 to May 1932″

(Berlin, 1993).

Balderston has structured his text in a conventional chronological order: (1)

Demobilisation and revolution, 1918-1919; (2) Treaty, reparations and ‘capacity

to pay'; (3) Inflation, 1918-1923; (4) Normalisation and stagnation?,

1924-1929; (5) The slump; (6) Epilogue. In his book, the author amply

demonstrates that he is familiar with the vast literature on the subject,

including even unpublished manuscripts of colleagues who work in the field.

Balderston, however, does not get lost in the details. What I did appreciate is

that Balderston, though not totally neutral, gives a balanced account of

conflicting views. His readers are not faced with an authoritative story but

are made familiar with different, often contradictory, explanations of various

authors. History students and first- or second-year economics students will

have difficulties with the underlying economic concepts, especially in chapters

(2) and (3). Though very useful, the ‘glossary of economic and political terms’

will not spare the attentive reader from having to acquire some elementary

economic knowledge.

To sum up: this booklet is a very useful introduction into the turbulent

economic and political events that shaped the Weimar economy. As the reader

soon will find out, this book does not offer simple answers to difficult

questions.

[1] See for Borchardt’s article, as well as others on the issue: Juergen von

Kruedener (ed.), Economic Crisis and Political Collapse: The Weimar Republic

1924-33 (German Historical Perspectives, 5), New York et al.: Berg, 1990.

Mark Spoerer is Lecturer in the Department of Economic and Social Sciences,

University of Hohenheim. Among his recent publications are “Forced Laborers in

Nazi Germany: Categories, Numbers, and Survivors,” Journal of

Interdisciplinary History, 33 (2002), pp. 169-204 (with Jochen

Fleischhacker); and “Economic Crises and the European Revolutions of 1848,”

Journal of Economic History, 61 (2001), pp. 293-326 (with Helge Berger).

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII