History Books » German History

The best books on The Weimar Republic

recommended by Robert Gerwarth

November 1918: The German Revolution by Robert Gerwarth

November 1918: The German Revolution
by Robert Gerwarth


The Weimar Republic was not doomed to fail, says the historian Robert Gerwarth; it was, in many ways, popularly rooted and successful, and its artistic achievements remain influential to this day. Here he selects five books that illustrate the rich cultural life of the Weimar Republic, its pioneering modernism and the febrile political atmosphere that gripped it in the wake of the Great Depression.

Interview by Benedict King

November 1918: The German Revolution by Robert Gerwarth

November 1918: The German Revolution
by Robert Gerwarth

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Before we get on to the Weimar Republic books that you’ve chosen to recommend, please tell us a bit about the book you’ve just published, November 1918: The German Revolution. What contribution does it make to the story of the Weimar Republic?

It tries to offer a more balanced assessment of the German Revolution of 1918 which, I think it’s fair to say, hasn’t had the best press over the past hundred years. The main reason for that is that we all know how the story of Weimar Germany ends and we have tended to read the history of the revolution through the prism of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in January 1933, and the horrors that followed. I personally think that’s wrong and I have tried to write a more open-ended story of the revolution, one that also highlights its considerable achievements under difficult circumstances.

When we teach history, one of the first things we tell students is not to make the mistake of reading history backwards, but to contextualise events and try to see them through the eyes of contemporaries. There is an understandable obsession with where things went wrong in German history and how Hitler’s dictatorship was possible. But I don’t think it had anything to do with the revolution of 1918. In fact, I argue in the book that the revolution—which initially is very much a revolution to end World War I—actually had some considerable successes. First of all, it is worth bearing in mind that Germany had just lost the most catastrophic war in human history up until that point. So, the context was particularly challenging for Friedrich Ebert and the more moderate Majority Social Democrats who shaped the first phase of Weimar’s history.

It is also worth remembering that the eight-hour working day, the introduction of full voting rights for women and the avoidance of a bloody civil war were all considerable achievements. And the challenges were enormous. There were still several million German soldiers in the field around Europe. Bringing them back and demobilising them without any major incidents of violence was, in itself, quite a considerable achievement.

In my book I suggest that, by 1923, when the tumultuous first phase of the Weimar Republic is over, consolidation was more likely than failure. I think one also needs to bear in mind that the challenges that the Weimar Republic was facing were probably more considerable than any other democracy has faced since—hyperinflation, foreign occupation of parts of the western territories, very significant territorial losses, the issue of war debts plus reparations, and putsches from the left and the right.

Somehow the Republic was still there at the end of all of this. So, I think it’s a tale of both resilience and, post-1929, failure.

When I read the chapter on the establishment of liberalism in the Weimar Republic, one of the things that struck me was the initial hopes that there wouldn’t be a punitive peace. For instance, you show that there was a very widespread hope that there would be a liberal union with Austria after Austria had lost its empire at the end of the war. You can really see how the eventual territorial losses must have been hugely traumatic for the country.

In late 1917, early 1918, there was something that is often referred to as a ‘revolution of expectations’. But people had very different expectations of what the future should look like. The nationalist camp, after Russia’s exit from the war, was extremely hopeful that the war would be won because, at that point, the war on the Eastern Front was over. Germany could move military personnel west and Erich Ludendorff, who was the mastermind of the German war effort, was convinced that he could defeat the British and the French before American troops arrived in Europe in large numbers. So there was this widespread assumption that the war was going to end in victory.

On the other hand, people on the left were inspired by events in Russia, the Russian Revolution. Marx always had Germany and Britain in mind when he was talking about the future proletarian revolution, rather than Russia, which was not fully industrialised. So, if you were a Marxist at the time you would have been convinced that Germany was going to be next and maybe Britain would follow. There was labour unrest in most countries, including wartime strikes in France.

“When we teach history, one of the first things we tell students is not to make the mistake of reading history backwards”

So, there were these different expectations and then you had people who, for different reasons, were in favour of democratisation which, in the autumn of 1918 and spring of 1919, was actually the vast majority of the general population. You can see this in the January 1919 general election results. They were hoping for a democratic new beginning that might also secure a non-punitive peace treaty. After all, Woodrow Wilson had promised a negotiated peace, but not as long as the Kaiser and his regime was still running the show in Germany. Only a government with a democratic mandate would be an acceptable negotiation partner.

All these expectations were out there and all of them clashed violently with reality in 1919, which really undermined some of the legitimacy of the Republic early on. Democracy was full of promise for many in November 1918, but couldn’t deliver on the high expectations and then, for lots of people, it became less attractive when they were confronted with what many people in Germany in 1919 perceived as a vindictive peace.

Let’s move on to your Weimar Republic books. The first one is by Eric Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. Tell us about this book and what it tells us about the Weimar Republic.

There are a lot of books that serve as general histories of the Weimar Republic. Weitz’s book is one of the more recent ones. It’s about ten years old, and it picks up on many of the things that I mentioned earlier: not reading Weimar history backwards, trying to acknowledge—as the title suggests—some of the promise and some of the achievements, while also, of course, acknowledging that, particularly in the period after the Great Depression, there was an unravelling of democracy. I think Weitz gets that balance right.

It is excellent on the artistic and literary scene, particularly on the cultural scene in Berlin. There’s also an excellent chapter called ‘Walking the City’, in which the author becomes a kind-of flâneur himself, playing with that prominent genre of the interwar period, where writers scribble down their impressions as they walk a cityscape.

“The Bauhaus had a lasting impact on modern architecture and design around the world—so Weimar is still with us in many ways”

It’s both very accessibly written and a great general introduction to the subject matter. I think it has a lot to offer, particularly for those who are interested in art and culture. Weimar culture is something that still speaks to us today in many ways, some aspects of it more obvious than others. Weimar paintings hang in galleries around the world, from George Grosz to Max Liebermann and many others, and fetch pretty steep prices at auction. The Bauhaus had a lasting impact on modern architecture and design around the world, from high-end products to IKEA furniture, which follows the philosophy of the Bauhaus—form follows function. Weimar is still with us in many ways.

Also if you think about Weimar philosophy, Martin Heidegger’s work Being and Time is one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century. It inspired many post-1945 philosophical debates in a really fundamental way, notably existentialism, but also post-modernism, with its focus on the human condition in modern times. And yet, Heidegger became a Nazi sympathiser and rector of his university after 1933, in spite of the fact that, in earlier years, he had famously had a romantic relationship with Hannah Arendt, his student, who was Jewish. These contradictions are described very well.

I think that, more generally, Weitz captures Weimar’s contradictions very well, its modernity and the adversaries of that modernity.

Does the book suggest that the avant-garde was a product of the Weimar Republic or was the Weimar Republic a product of the German avant-garde? I mean, was it the Weimar Republic that allowed this flourishing of a very modernist culture or did this very modernist culture exist before and the Weimar Republic was, in a way, just its political expression?

That’s a very interesting question. Many of the modernist movements precede World War I. So, in some ways, Weimar is the culminating point of classical modernity. Imperial Germany as a political entity was obviously not the same as the Third Reich, and the arts flourished before the Great War. Cultural modernist movements already had quite a lot of room for expression prior to 1914.

Under Weimar, the political and economic crisis that hung over it seems to have acted as an additional stimulus for the literary scene and for creative artists. Many of the writers and artists of the time were politically engaged and certainly, initially, welcomed the birth of a democratic republic.

Women got the vote in 1920 on an equal basis with men. As you point out in your book, they actually constituted a significant majority of the electorate in the Weimar Republic, because so many men had been killed in the war. Did Weimar radically advance the cause of women’s equality, or liberation? Was it politically modernist as well?

That’s one of the big things I feel is often overlooked. If you read a book that’s a general political history of the Weimar Republic, you could get the impression that this was a very male society, when in reality, as a result of the war, there’s a very strong female demographic surplus of about two million. And, in 1918, when German women get the vote after the revolution—it’s actually the first highly industrialised country where women get the vote—they use that right proportionately more than men. But, of course women, like men, voted for different parties across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right. They are not an homogeneous electoral group. Women are very politically involved in the 1920s. There are still far more male than female parliamentarians, but women certainly use their active right to vote.

Feminism had existed as a political movement in Germany long before World War I, but 1918 marks the year in which one of the movement’s key demands, equal voting rights, is realised in Germany. Already, during the war, many women took up employment in what were traditionally considered to be male professions, because the men of fighting age tended to be at the front. There were growing opportunities in the sense that women were able to earn their own income and were less economically dependent on their male relatives than had been the case previously.

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This changed in 1918 when many of the men came back from the front, but there were also new employment opportunities for women, from department stores to creative professions. The early 1920s was the beginning of the golden age of advertising, the movie industry, et cetera, which is actually why I have suggested Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl as my second book, because it deals with some of these issues around new opportunities for women, but also the related pitfalls.

Yes, let’s move on to the next of the books you’ve chosen about the Weimar Republic, The Artificial Silk Girl. Tell us about this novel, the author and when she wrote it.

My selection of books is highly subjective, partly because I’m really interested in subjectivity as a historical phenomenon, but also because I felt I should highlight a couple of books that are probably lesser known to a general readership in the English-speaking world. I could have obviously chosen Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin in order to talk about the art and cabaret scene of the early 1930s. But I picked this one, first of all, because I think it’s important that we have at least one important contemporary female author on the list, and also because of the subjects that are discussed in the novel.

Keun is from Charlottenburg, the part of Berlin that I am from. I walked past the plaque marking the home she lived in as a child many times when I was a teenager, which sparked my interest in her writing at an early age. She became one of the most significant female authors of the late Weimar period, a very prominent representative of the Neue Sachlichkeit—the New Sobriety—style in literature. Her books were commercially successful as well. This particular novel was published in 1932. The protagonist is Doris, an eighteen-year old woman from a small town who wants to be famous and make it in the movie industry, in the big smoke.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the Ufa Studios in Babelsberg, just outside of Berlin, were one of the major hubs of the international film industry in the 1920s and early 1930s. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was produced there and so was The Blue Angel that catapulted Marlene Dietrich to fame. That’s the historical backdrop to the story.

“In some ways, Weimar is the culminating point of classical modernity”

Doris arrives in Berlin on an overnight train wearing a stolen fur coat, with high expectations for a great career. But she finds out that all the supposed glamour of late-1920s Berlin is not quite what it seems. She doesn’t find fame and fortune, but basically encounters lots of seedy, exploitative characters. She works in seedy bars and has affairs with men who offer her money because success is not really materialising. This is, ultimately, a tragic novel that deals with crushed hopes and expectations, but also a really good corrective to the slightly cliché-ed image that emerges from reading about the Roaring Twenties in Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.

What happens to Doris in the end, or can’t you say?

I think that would be a spoiler.

Okay, fine. I’ll have to read it.

I should have said: there are obviously other important books written by female authors in that time period. I was quite tempted to nominate Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel for various reasons. Baum, originally from Austria, was one of the most widely read female fictional authors in Germany, but also had a major international career in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Ten of her novels became Hollywood movies or Broadway musicals. Grand Hotel is probably the most widely known of them and offers an excellent take on a broken society. It is set in the Grand Hotel in Berlin during the Golden Twenties, which turn out to be less than golden in reality. The novel revolves around people working in the hotel and their guests. You have various characters that represent different sections of society and behind the glamorous façade of the hotel, they all turn out to be psychologically damaged. It is very critical of modern society and written in a very elegant way.

During what period of the Weimar Republic did Baum write the book?

The novel was published in 1929. The film came out in 1932. There’s a real flourishing of literature in the late twenties, early thirties.

Let’s move on to Joseph Roth’s The Spider’s Web. What does this book tell us about the Weimar Republic?

I’m a huge fan of Roth’s writing, not just his novels, but also his journalism. He was obviously a key figure in interwar Europe’s literary scene. He was Jewish, originally from Galicia and spent a lot of the 1920s in Germany where he worked as a journalist. In fact, he was one of the most widely known literary journalists of the 1920s, and one of the best paid. Apparently, he received the princely sum of one Mark per line, which was a lot of money in those days. The Spider’s Web was his first novel. Far more people know his nostalgic work, The Radetzky March, about the late Habsburg Empire. But I think this earlier novel, which was first serialised in a newspaper at the very beginning of the 1920s, is extremely insightful, even prophetic in a way.

The main character is a man, Lieutenant Theodor Lohse, who’s a decommissioned veteran of World War I. He returns home in late 1918 to a world turned upside down. He is a nationalist. He hates Jews and he hates socialists and he also finds himself in difficult personal circumstances. His mother and sister, with whom he’s now forced to live again, don’t seem particularly pleased to see him. There’s a great line in the novel where Lohse reflects on that and realises that a dead war hero would have generated a pension for the family and that would have been much more welcome than the return of a broken man, who’s unemployed and an extra mouth to feed when there’s no money.

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He looks for work and tries to get a job at his former school. He’s keen to get a job as a teacher. But the director is sceptical about returning soldiers. He suspects they’re all Communists and he refuses to give him a job. So Lohse is forced to work as the private tutor to the kids of a wealthy Jewish family. He obviously despises this because he is an anti-Semite and now has to live off handouts from Jews.

He gradually gets sucked into this parallel universe of right-wing underground organisations and secret societies, with honour killings and that kind of thing. What is remarkable about it is that Roth wrote this novel before Hitler’s putsch of November 1923, his failed attempt to gain power. When the book was serialised in a newspaper, the last instalment appeared on 6 November 1923, three days before Hitler’s putsch attempt. Roth is obviously interested in this ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic milieu that is percolating. It’s still on the margins of politics but, nonetheless, it exists. It’s a very important novel in which he plays with themes that would become much more prominent in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

This may not be addressed in the book directly, but was the radical right in Germany in those early years of the Weimar Republic very splintered? The Nazi party was very small, but were there lots of other small groups—or was it quite well organised around old veteran organisations, or the Freikorps?

You have a whole range of little underground sects and clubs on the political right. The right is just as fractured as the political left. Lots of these groups couldn’t stand each other. There are monarchists. That’s a relatively small group of people in the 1920s, largely diehard conservative ex-officers and aristocrats, who want the return of the Kaiser, which the vast majority of Germans do not want. The arch-conservative German Nationalist Party was partly monarchist. But you also have groups that are not fundamentally dissimilar to the Nazis, but which don’t necessarily work together with them, who are striving for some kind of right-wing dictatorship. There’s a putsch in 1920 called the Kapp Putsch, which is carried out by Freikorps soldiers and some small groups of the extreme right who want to overthrow the Weimar Republic.

“Roth is obviously interested in this ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic milieu that is percolating”

The putsch collapses because, for once, the Communists and the Social Democrats come together and call for a general strike, which brings public life in Germany to a complete standstill. It’s the biggest general strike in German history and the putschers are forced to give up quite quickly. That’s the historical context in which Roth becomes interested in these themes.

But also, of course, as a Galician Jew and someone who thinks very nostalgically about the bygone Habsburg Empire, in which Jews had legal equality, he is very concerned about the rise of nationalism in Europe more generally. He thinks that these nationalist successor states that treat minorities rather poorly are a real threat, and this is something that influences his general work. He wrote a very powerful book called The Wandering Jews about Jewish refugees, who are basically trying to escape from all these pogroms taking place in Eastern and Central Europe in and around 1918. Many of them moved to Germany and, particularly, to Berlin to find safety. He’s very interested in their plight and that is also one of the sub-themes of The Spider’s Web in which one of the characters, the ambiguous Benjamin Lenz, hails from the city of Lodz and lives among Jewish refugees.

How does Roth portray the relationship between Lohse and the Jewish family he works for? What’s their relationship with him? 

They are not the most fully developed characters. Lohse quickly leaves his job there to join a right-wing underground organization led by Ludendorff and then re-joins the army. But Jewish characters are present throughout the novel. The Jewish population in Germany was about one per cent of the overall population. It was a relatively small, but very diverse, group. Some of them were orthodox, others not religious at all. The cliché of the far right was that they were all extremely wealthy, that they were the wire-pullers behind what was often referred to as ‘The Golden International’—capitalism. But, in reality, they were a very diverse group and there were far more poor Jews living in Germany than extremely wealthy ones. The relationship with his employers is that he despises them in private, but he is obviously reliant on that income. So, he has an ambivalent relationship with them. They are generous enough to him, but there is a clear relationship of dependency. They are the employer and he needs the money.

It’s always puzzled me that the far right think the Jews are the wire-pullers for capitalism, but also the wire-pullers for communism.  

Absolutely. It’s highly contradictory. The only thing that holds these two conspiracy stories together is a kind of chaos theory—the Jews are trying two different tacks to bring chaos to the world. One is through communism and the other is through capitalism. And, of course, the ultimate objective of that Jewish world conspiracy is to enslave Christians and to rule the world. That’s a very prominent theme in right-wing thinking.

It’s interesting that simultaneously with the rise of anti-Bolshevism you had the remarkable success of the forged ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, which were translated into almost every language and became this massive phenomenon. They were forged by Tsarist offices and their key theme was how these ‘Elders of Zion’ were plotting to bring about Jewish world domination. They were a huge success with the German right, but also in other countries.

And they were produced in the middle of World War I, is that right?

They were first published in Russian before the war, but their international publication success story really starts afterwards, in the 1920s, despite being exposed as a hoax in 1921. It’s quite remarkable. People like Henry Ford, for example, in the United States, subsidised their translation and distribution to keep the price down, so that people would be well informed about this alleged world conspiracy. It obviously found a receptive audience.

Let’s move on to your next book, another novel written in the Weimar Republic, Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now?

Here I was tossing up between Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? and another novel about ‘small people’, the more well-known Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, but I felt it was important to have a contemporary novel on my list that deals with the fallout of the Great Depression, which was the big game-changer in Weimar history. If you look at the general elections in Germany in 1928, they ended with a victory for the Social Democrats, who were returning to power. The new Chancellor, Hermann Müller, who was leader of the SPD, published a book that year which dealt with the 10-year anniversary of the November Revolution. And the tenor of the book was, ‘We’ve made it. This has become a success story against all the odds.’

Then, one year later, the situation completely unravelled. Germany was particularly badly affected because the temporary recovery of the German economy in the mid-1920s was heavily dependent on short-term American loans and they started being recalled. On top of that, there was a massive banking crisis of unprecedented proportions in 1931, which actually saw a number of Austrian and German banks go bust. The German government tried to fight the financial situation with austerity politics, also designed to show to the Allies that Germany couldn’t pay its war debts. This massively increased the plight of many people. At the worst point of the crisis there were six million people unemployed, which is a number that only gives you a glimpse into the overall situation, because those six million often had several dependents and many more people were forced to work on short-term contracts, making their employment very precarious. That’s not always captured in statistics. A third of the German workforce was unemployed and Little Man, What Now? deals with the effects of that crisis.

“When people write about the Weimar Republic, it’s very often about Berlin and other urban centres. But the vast majority of Germans at the time continued to live in smaller cities, villages and rural areas”

It was first published in 1932 and it is set between 1930 and 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. The ‘little man’ in question is Johannes Pinneberg, a bookkeeper from northern Germany, and his girlfriend Emma, who is expecting their son. Just after they find out that she’s pregnant, he is fired from his job and must now find ways to make do in the middle of the world’s worst economic crisis. He tries to find a new job in Berlin and is hired as a salesman in one of the large Berlin department stores, where he and his colleagues have to meet extremely ambitious quotas to keep their jobs. Otherwise they get fired. The book really depicts how people became more and more dependent on occasional labour, how businesses became more and more exploitative because they knew that there was a large sea of unemployed people who could be forced to accept any work conditions.

So, it’s very critical of these practices but, at the same time, it is also about how he and his small family make do under difficult circumstances. At some point Pinneberg is fired and they’re forced to leave the city because they can no longer afford accommodation in it. In the end, he returns to Berlin to collect his dole money, but is further humiliated when a policeman confuses him for a beggar and chases him away from the front of a fancy department store.

This is a novel that deals with the harsh realities of ordinary people’s lives after 1929. At the same time, the novel also has some positive things to say about the Weimar Republic, in the sense that Pinneberg is surprisingly complimentary about the institutional social safety nets that exist in the Republic. At least for a while, he gets unemployment benefits, his wife’s medical bills are paid during the pregnancy and she gets paid maternity leave. There are lots of important themes that highlight both the plight of working class families during the Great Depression, but also some of the mitigating factors.

Fallada has recently had a bit of a renaissance in the Anglophone world, with the publication of his book Alone in Berlin a few years ago. Yet his earlier works are also worth re-visiting. Apart from Little Man, What Now? I also like his important but perhaps underappreciated, A Small Circus, which deals with the often-overlooked rural population of Germany in the late Weimar period. When people write about the Weimar Republic, it’s very often about Berlin and other urban centres. But the vast majority of Germans at the time continued to live in smaller cities, villages and rural areas. A Small Circus is about how the economic crisis affected the rural population which, in turn, radicalised. There were arson attacks and bomb attacks on public institutions by members of the so-called Landvolk, a farmers’ self-help organisation, with mass demonstrations of tens of thousands of men. I think Fallada is an amazing chronicler of some of the most pressing social issues of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In this book, does he directly tie the social distress of the people he’s talking about to the collapse of the Weimar Republic? Is the blame attached to the Republic and its perceived failures, rather than the withdrawal of short-term American loans?

He chronicles the effects of the economic crisis. He doesn’t blame the Weimar Republic per se in the book, but is critical of capitalism and how businesses exploited people who are desperately looking for jobs. A Small Circus is about how the very real issues of the rural population have been neglected. It’s not so much a blame game against the Republic that he’s playing because, as I mentioned, the novel also highlights that the Republic has introduced certain measures that mitigate the suffering of people. I think he sees himself, in the same way as Döblin, as a chronicler of what happens to ordinary people.

Döblin’s 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, deals with somewhat related issues—the poorer neighbourhoods around Alexanderplatz, but it is set before the beginning of the Great Depression. The protagonist, Franz Bieberkopf, is recently released from prison and moves in—and drinks himself through—the world of prostitutes, pimps, and crime in 1920s Berlin. Döblin, in what is probably the most acclaimed Weimar Berlin novel, follows an approach that is similar to Joyce’s in Ulysses. By introducing these literary techniques, I would say he also contributes to the genre of the ‘big city novel’ more generally by making more prominent than had previously been the case the lives of ‘little people.’ That is, of course, something that can also be found elsewhere in Weimar literature. Bertolt Brecht wrote some of his most powerful plays during this period, too. So, I’ve picked one example of that genre and I think Fallada’s novels on Weimar are worth revisiting.

Last book up is Harry Kessler’s Berlin in Lights. Who was he and what does his book tell us about life in the Weimar Republic?

These are the diaries of, I would argue, one of the most interesting characters in Weimar Germany. There are lots of interesting characters in the Weimar Republic, but he stands out, not just for biographical reasons, but because he is one of the main chroniclers of what is going on in those years.

The diaries cover the years 1918 to 1937. Kessler himself was born in Paris in 1868. He was the son of a wealthy Hamburg banker and an Anglo-Irish noblewoman, who was famous at the time for being one of the most beautiful women of her era. She was pursued by many powerful men including, allegedly, Kaiser Wilhelm I himself. In any case, he grew up in an extremely privileged setting and enjoyed an elite education in various countries. He studied law and became a very multicultural, multilingual, cosmopolitan figure, who embarked, as a young man, on journeys around the world from Japan to China, India, Egypt and elsewhere.

His father died in the mid-1890s, leaving Kessler an enormous amount of money, so he was in the fortunate position of never having to work too hard to finance his fairly extravagant lifestyle. He spent his days as a dandy figure and collector of art. He met many artists as well, from Rodin to Maillol. Edvard Munch painted his portrait in 1906. In the context of Weimar, from 1918, he chronicled not just political events, but also his meetings with lots of interesting characters. He became friends with people like Igor Stravinsky, George Grosz, John Heartfield, had Einstein over for supper and met up with leading politicians such as Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau.

“He became friends with people like Igor Stravinsky, George Grosz, John Heartfield, had Einstein over for supper and met up with leading politicians such as Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau”

He was an interesting intellectual. He had a very brief stint as a diplomat, as ambassador to Warsaw in the winter of 1918, and remained involved in liberal politics. He was also very involved in the arts both before the Great War and after. In 1902 he temporarily moved to Weimar which was, of course, the spiritual home of Goethe and Schiller, but also a symbolically important city after 1918 because the German National Assembly met there in the spring of 1919 to draft Germany’s new constitution. Subsequently, it also become very closely connected with the Bauhaus and also has an important fine arts museum, which Kessler helped to put on the international map through his vast connections to the art scene in Paris, and elsewhere.

So he’s really interesting as a curator, as a patron of the arts, but also as a socialite and political observer who engages with lots of different figures.

The diaries go up to 1937. What happened to him after 1933? Presumably his interest in modern art and his service to the Weimar Republic did not make him popular with the Nazis.

No, they did not. He travelled to Paris in March 1933 and never returned. Because of the speed of the Nazi takeover, he left quite a lot of his artwork and fortune behind, so he actually died with little money left. But it’s interesting that he captured the four years after the Nazi seizure of power as well, because he shared the fate of lots of Germans who were either forced to leave the country in 1933 or, like Kessler, left voluntarily.

Having said that, the fate of these people differed quite profoundly. There were people like Albert Einstein, who immediately found employment in the United States because he was already a famous Nobel laureate. Thomas Mann also found it quite easy to transition to life in the United States because, in his case, he was already a celebrated author. But for others, who didn’t have the language skills, or were not quite as famous, which is the majority of people who went into exile, it was much harder to adjust to their new lives.

Kessler briefly lived in Majorca because of his declining health, but left again in 1936 because of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and then moved to France. He died there, in Lyon, in 1937.

Does he reflect in the book on the causes of the collapse of the Weimar Republic?

He does a little bit, and had previously warned against the Nazis. But he is also unsure what the future holds for him personally and that dominates his immediate reaction. Up until March 1933, he was busy negotiating the advance for his memoirs, then he left Germany with an uncertain future. Shortly after the burning of the Reichstag building, he realises that this is the essence of Nazi rule. But, of course, he is unsure about what exactly the future is going to hold. On the night that Hitler seized power in Berlin and the torch-lit SA parades through the Brandenburg Gate are taking place, Kessler drowns his sorrows in a pub nearby with a friend and two blond prostitutes. In a way, I think it shows the defeatism of many republicans in 1933. There was a realisation that the situation in January 1933 was fundamentally different from that in 1920, when the Communists and the Social Democrats briefly joined hands in a general strike to frustrate the Kapp Putsch.

But in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, it was quite unclear whether people would adhere to such a call, whether there wouldn’t be hundreds of thousands of strike breakers, much more concerned about their own livelihood than about working-class solidarity. But also there was, at this point, a very deep schism between the Social Democrats and the Communists. The Comintern, in Moscow, essentially dictated the policy line that the Social Democrats were just as bad as the Nazis and that the Communists should not collaborate with them. So there wasn’t an opportunity for a united front against the Nazis at this point, even though the majority of the electorate voted against Hitler in November 1932. He was leader of the largest political party in parliament but, nonetheless, not voted in by the overall majority of the population. Instead he was appointed as Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg.

Interview by Benedict King

July 20, 2020

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Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth is Professor of Modern History at University College, Dublin and Director of the Centre for War Studies. His work has been translated into some thirty languages.

Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth is Professor of Modern History at University College, Dublin and Director of the Centre for War Studies. His work has been translated into some thirty languages.