John Newsinger Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

John Newsinger


Shaky foundations

(December 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Weimar Republic
Detlev Peukert
Penguin £.99

The key question in the history of the Weimar regime in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s is: why it was that the ruling class were prepared, however reluctantly, to work with the Socialist Party (SPD) in establishing the republic at the end of the First World War, but had turned decisively against it by the end of the 1920s even to the extent of embracing the Nazis? ‘There is,’ Detlev Peukert writes, however, ‘no clear or simple answer to this question.’ Not true.

In 1918 Germany was gripped by revolution and the ruling class was weakened and discredited by defeat. All that stood in the way of a workers’ takeover was the SPD which called for law and order, opposed the workers’ councils and promised to introduce socialism peacefully after parliamentary elections had been held. Instead of trying to fight the Socialists the ruling class entered into a unholy alliance with them, agreeing to tolerate parliamentary democracy as long as the SPD guaranteed that there would be no socialist revolution. This alliance was sealed with the blood of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the other Communists killed by the right wing Freikorps early in 1919. It was on this somewhat unreliable foundation that the Weimar Republic was erected.

By the end of the 1920s the German ruling class decided, first, that the new alliance was no longer necessary and, second, that it could no longer be afforded. With the onset of the Great Depression, German capitalism required wage cuts and welfare cuts on such a scale that trade unions, the Socialists and the Communists, indeed parliamentary government itself, had to be smashed. To achieve this they changed their alliance with the Socialists for an alliance with the Nazis.

The key to understanding the downfall of the Weimar Republic is the changing requirements of the German ruling class, the existence of which Peukert does not even acknowledge. From this point of view the only way to have effectively broken their power was through socialist revolution.

But according to Peukert what we are confronted by is ‘a crisis of modernisation’, ‘a failed experiment with modernity’ that finally falls victim to the totalitarian temptation from both left and right. This theoretical flourish is really only a thin disguise for what is a standard liberal account written from the perspective of how parliamentary democracy could have been saved, rather than from that of socialist revolution. Indeed, according to Peukert, socialist revolution in an advanced society like Germany was a utopian non-starter.

One last point. Most criticism of this period focuses on the criminal policies of the Communist Party (KPD) that campaigned against the ‘social fascist’ Socialists and ignored the growing Nazi menace. This is quite right. What must not be forgotten, however, is the consistent refusal of the SPD to offer any resistance to the German right in this period. Their cowardly opportunism was the other side of the KPD’s ultra-leftism.

The KPD’s sectarian assault on the Socialists meant that they could not win SPD supporters over to the need for joint action to fight the Nazis. This reinforced the Socialists’ passivity. This was a fatal mistake for which both the German and the European working class paid the price.

John Newsinger Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 26 February 2017