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The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy.

The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy, by Hans Mommsen. Translated by Elborg Forster and Larry Eugene Jones. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 1996. xv, 604 pp. $65.00 U.S. (cloth), $24.95 U.S. (paper).

This impressive study of Germany's failed attempt to establish a working democracy after the fall of the Imperial Regime at the end of the first world war was originally published in German in 1989 as volume eight of the Propylaen History of Germany. The lavishly illustrated and elegantly produced first edition, dramatically entitled: Die verspielte Freiheit: Der Weg der Republik yon Weimar in den Untergang 1918-1933 (which roughly translates as "Freedom Discarded: The Weimar Republic's Path to Destruction 1918-1933") was intended for the educated non-specialist reader. The following year, the publishers brought out a German paperback version. Now, English readers, too, have access to this major work of scholarship.

In Germany, Mommsen's detailed account of the Republic's short and crisis-filled life has rivals (notably Hagen Schulze's volume on Weimar published in 1982 in the Siedler Verlag's series, Die Deutschen und ihre Nation). In English, it stands alone as the only full-length history of Weimar. Although stripped of its illustrations, and in a translation that lacks the stylistic sparkle of the original, the English version is therefore to be welcomed.

During his long and distinguished academic career, Professor Mommsen of the University of the Ruhr in Bochum, who comes from a family of prominent German historians, has never shied away from public controversy. In this history, he not only provides a masterful synthesis of the recent literature on the Weimar Republic by German and foreign scholars; throughout what is essentially a narrative account, Mommsen scatters his own contentious interpretations of events. More than once, the reader is left wishing that the author were present in person to argue his positions at greater length!

I shall give only two examples of Mommsen's many debatable conclusions. Most scholars would agree with him that by 1930, the Weimar political system had been eroded to such an extent that parliamentary democracy was unlikely to survive, even if Hitler and his National Socialists were not the inevitable beneficiaries of its collapse. Mommsen shows persuasively that, from its birth in defeat and revolution, the Weimar Republic faced determined opposition from powerful individuals and interests, while its supporters were few, divided, and -- for the most part -- inept; and he gives a riveting account of the intrigues that brought Hitler to the Chancellorship in January 1933. More questionably, however, he maintains that the main threat to the Republic was always from the Right. This leads him to play down the threat from the Left during the chaotic period following World War I when the recent Bolshevik takeover in Russia was fresh in people's minds, and, again, in the early 1930s, when the German Communists sought to exploit the depression in the belief that the economic crisis would lead to the destruction of both the hated "bourgeois" Republic and the capitalist system. Second, one can argue with Mommsen's tendency to minimize the role of ideas in political life, in favor of "structures." His otherwise excellent account of the rise of National Socialism (which he terms "fascism") in my opinion underestimates the role of Nazi ideology. While Mommsen is undoubtedly right to discount the importance of the Nazi party's program of 1920 in explaining the party's growth and to stress the role of organization, tactics, and leadership, I would argue that one cannot understand the party's political effectiveness without also taking its "ideas" -- including anti-Semitism and nationalism -- more seriously than he is inclined to do.

Mommsen's decision to focus on the political history of Germany between 1917 and 1933 means that he largely omits from his story a number of topics (for example, the dramatic alterations in the social, and economic conditions of German life that took place in the 1920s, and the remarkable burst of intellectual and artistic creativity often referred to as "Weimar culture") that other students of the period have deemed of central importance. The bibliography does include sections on "Social Policy and Industrial Relations" and "Cultural Life and Political Culture," but Mommsen gives little attention to these aspects of the period which, he asserts, had "little impact upon the political life of the Republic" (xi). Instead, he tends to confine his analysis to the economic and political considerations (both domestic and international) that, in his view, largely determined how Germany's most important decision-makers acted at critical moments.

The translators have managed to reproduce the essence of the German text, but they have failed to reproduce the vivacity of Mommsen's style (witness the much more prosaic title of the English version) or to match the clarity of his exposition. Here and there, indeed, I found their rendering so opaque that I had to reread the passage to find out what was meant, or even to consult the German original. I also had to look at the German text to ascertain that the unsigned and undated preface was in fact a truncated version of Mommsen's 1988 original. In this preface, Mommsen. explained his decision not to interrupt his narrative with acknowledgements to his sources. While the failure to cite references (even for direct quotations) may have been justifiable in the German original, it represents a serious shortcoming of the English version, which is likely to attract a predominantly academic readership.

The volume under review reproduces Mommsen's topically-organized selective bibliography of the sources he referred to in preparing his work, usefully updated (by Mommsen or the translators, one wonders?) to include a number of titles that appeared after 1988. It also benefits from an expanded index. Nonetheless, I believe that even advanced graduate students will find this translation heavy going. Given the importance and fascination of the subject, I would urge them to persevere; but I would recommend that anyone with sufficient mastery of the German language read Mommsen's beautifully written history in the original.
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Author:Campbell, Joan
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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