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.
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″
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
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
 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|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|