Published by EH.Net (February 2011)

Ursula B?ttner, Weimar: Die ?berforderte Republik, 1918-1933. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2008. 864 pp. 45? (hardcover), ISBN: 978-3-608-94308-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Thomas Ferguson, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Boston,

For all the long running controversies about a ?Sonderweg? (?special path?) in German history, scholarly work in the area looks exactly like the rest of Clio?s domain in at least one respect: the proliferation of subfields, specialized monographs, and interpretations narrowly focused on single topics. Readers acquainted with Ursula B?ttner?s earlier work, especially her marvelously detailed, but gracefully written studies of economics, politics, and society in Hamburg, might suspect that if anyone were capable of synthesizing the now gigantic literature on the Weimar Republic, it would be she.[1]

And they would be right: This splendid book surely ranks as one of best of the many studies of its dismal, but endlessly topical, subject. Despite the monumental detail (300 pages of notes and tables), readers are likely to appreciate the clear design of the work as a whole. This begins with a well-focused 200 page outline of the new state?s stormy genesis and Perils of Pauline escapes from the murderous forces of the far right, amid far less sanguinary rumblings on the left. Particularly impressive here is the close integration of economic history with broader social narratives. The next 130 pages are equally remarkable: The author?s years of work in many archives shows, very unobtrusively, as does her skill at summing up the subfield literatures and integrating them into a larger systematic exposition of how the economy and German society were changing in the twenties. Her ability to place gender relations and religion into a broader social and economic context is particularly impressive and points up the importance of these factors, which many earlier discussions shorted.

The third and fourth parts of the study turn the focus back on economics and politics, focusing, of course, on the chain of economic disasters and political maneuvers that ended in the complete destruction of the regime. These sections again display the author?s flair for integrating recent literature in economics with more traditional topics. They display another virtue as well: an economy of words and conceptual structuring that make it easy to follow the often labyrinthine maneuverings of the main players and social groups. B?ttner?s sensitivity to legal structures and reasoning is also quite helpful at several key points, where it fills out details that help explain some otherwise puzzling twists in the tangled path to the Nazi seizure of power.

In planning her exposition, the author made one decision that is perhaps not entirely happy. She chose to end the discussion in January, 1933, as Hindenburg finally gave in and invited Hitler to take over as Chancellor in a coalition government. Certain parts of her exposition and remarks in notes show that B?ttner is not in the thrall of Henry Turner?s well known views about the relative unimportance of German big business in either?s Hitler?s ascent or broader Weimar politics. That is very clear. But her portrait of the final days is spare and slightly anti-climatic. Its account could helpfully be supplemented by the evidence that has emerged from various archival studies and recent econometric work, which highlight the reality of the ties between the Nazis and major parts of German big business. Broadening the discussion to include Luther?s replacement by Schacht at the Reichsbank (part of the January 30 package, though only effected afterward) and Hugenberg?s eleventh-hour decision to throw in with Hitler, as well as the legendary February fundraiser with many leading big businessmen at G?ring?s house that the self-same Herr Schacht helped orchestrate would have further enhanced this splendid study, which like her earlier study on Hamburg in the Great Depression, deserves to be available in English.[2]

1. E.g., her Politische Gerechtigkeit und sozialer Geist: Hamburg zur Zeit der Weimarer Republik (Hamburg: Christians, 1985), but especially Hamburg in der Staats- und Wirtschaftskrise (Hamburg: Christians, 1982).

2. Cf. Barnard Ballon, Mercedes in Peace and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); Joachim Petzold, Franz von Papen (Berlin: Buchverlag Union, 1995); Thomas Ferguson and Joachim Voth, ?Betting on Hitler: The Value of Political Connections in Nazi Germany,? Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 123, No. 1 (February 2008), pp. 101-37.???

Thomas Ferguson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and a member of the Advisory Board of INET.

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