The End of the Weimar Republic: Individual Agency, Germany’s ‘Old Elites’ and the ‘Crisis of Classical Modernity’

Type Chapter
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMass Dictatorship and Modernity
EditorsProf Michael Kim, Prof Michael Schoenhals, Kim Jong-Woo
PublisherSpringer Nature
Pages230-252
ISBN (Print)978-1137304322, 1137304324
Publication statusPublished - 13 Nov 2013

Publication series

NameMass Dictatorship in the Twentieth Century
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Abstract

From the 1960s into the 1980s, the destruction of parliamentary democracy in the Weimar Republic and Hitler's accession to the office of Chancellor were widely attributed to Germany' the East Elbian aristocracy (whether as landowners, army officers or high-ranking civil servants) and a 'feudalised' capitalist class. They had survived Germany's defeat in 1918, the Revolution and the birth of the democratic Republic with their power, deeply rooted in the underlying structures of Germany, essentially intact. Given their undiminished commitment to authoritarianism, they wielded that power first to undermine democracy and then, fatefully, to hand Hitler the keys to office. The work of Detlev Peukert, however, appeared to reduce most of this argumentative edifice to rubble. Peukert contended that, far from being overburdened with pre-modern vestiges, the Weimar Republic met the criteria of what he called 'classical modernity' advanced industrial capitalism, a welfare state, vast bureaucracy, faith in science as a 'cure-all' and mass-participatory politics. Embedded within that condition, however, was a 'dark side' of pathological potential which was unleashed as Germany entered a crisis of classical modernity. This chapter points out, however, that Peukert nevertheless accorded the elites a vitally important collective role in determining that, of several conceivable exit-routes from crisis, it was the one offered by Nazism that was chosen. Peukert's statements to that effect are brief but unambiguous. Other historians have since argued that the 'old elites' had no collective agency whatever in producing the outcome of a Hitler-led government. Were Peukert's references to the elites' role themselves just vestiges of an outdated historiography? Were they unfortunate anachronisms and a distraction from the force of Peukert's paradigm-shifting work? Peukert died too young to revise or to explain his position. But this chapter contends that, for all its seeming awkwardness in relation to the rest of his thesis, Peukert's insistence on the significance of the elites is not only commensurable with it but eminently defensible.