A street named after Frederick Ebert, former president of the Weimar Republic, being renamed Hermann-Göring Strasse shortly after the Nazi takeover of
A street named after former Weimar Republic president Frederick Ebert is renamed Hermann-Göring Strasse after the Nazi takeover of 1933 © Bridgeman Images

European history between the two world wars contains two traps for the unaware. The first is the instinct to read history backwards. Because we know that the period ended in the most destructive war in history, it is tempting to conclude that this outcome was foreordained in events 10 or 20 years earlier. Such determinism often comes with an assumption that there was something inevitable about the collapse of Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic, whose fall in 1933 and replacement by the Nazi dictatorship were major factors in the drift to war.

The second trap is the tendency to make overdrawn comparisons between the interwar era and the troubles of our own times. For sure, authoritarian rulers and demagogic nationalists rose to the fore in the interwar era, as in ours. Economic crises piled up and internationalism fell into discredit. But no two eras are the same. As Paul Jankowski notes: “Aggressive dictatorial regimes and the ideological challenge presented by communism and fascism gave [the 1930s] a unique face, while the spectres of environmental crisis, nuclear proliferation, and the cyberspace jungle confer an unwelcome distinction on our own [decade].”

Jankowski’s All Against All and Robert Gerwarth’s November 1918 are two of the most stimulating histories of the interwar period to have been published in recent years. Jankowski ranges beyond Europe, tracing developments in China, Japan and the US. He shines a valuable, detailed light on less familiar episodes such as the failure of the Geneva disarmament talks and London world economic conference in 1933.

A new meeting hall was built in Geneva for the disarmament conference which opened in 1932. The hall was to be connected to the Secretariat of the League of Nations
A new meeting hall was built in Geneva, seat of the then League of Nations, for the disarmament conference of 1932 © Bridgeman Images
British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (1866 - 1937) making a speech at the opening of the World Economic Conference at the Geological Museum, London, 12th June 1933
British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald at the World Economic Conference, London, in June 1933 © Getty Images

Meanwhile, Gerwarth’s book is an attempt to correct what he calls “a very one-sided image of Weimar as a stillborn republic”, a reading that obscures, in his view, the fact that the 1918 revolution gave birth to the most progressive state up to that point in united Germany’s history. In its first four years of its life the Weimar Republic fought off numerous challenges to its stability, emerging by 1923 in a condition where “the failure of democracy would have seemed far less probable than its consolidation”, writes Gerwarth, professor of modern history at University College Dublin.

The revolution that overthrew Kaiser Wilhelm II coincided with imperial Germany’s defeat in the first world war, prompting old-regime conservatives and a new breed of extreme rightwing nationalists to make the entirely mendacious claim that unpatriotic socialists, Jews and other “traitors” had lost Germany the war. The reactionaries saddled the moderate politicians of Weimar with responsibility for the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, whose harsh terms were associated in many German minds for years to come with the revolution and the ensuing democratic experiment.

“The German revolution is a very German one, even if it is a proper one. No French savagery, no Russian communist excesses,” the novelist Thomas Mann wrote in his diary on November 10 1918. It was, unfortunately, a premature judgment.

An attempted far-left coup in January 1919 led Germany’s democratic politicians to rely on ultranationalist Freikorps militias to crush the would-be revolutionaries. The problem for Weimar’s future was that the Freikorps were not merely anti-communist but loathed the republic they were summoned to save. Moreover, institutions of the new republic such as the armed forces, bureaucracy, judiciary and police were filled with diehards insufficiently committed to democracy, a point that Gerwarth could perhaps have developed at greater length.

Freikorps unit takes to the streets in Berlin during unrest in the years of the Weimar Republic. Circa 1924
A Freikorps unit takes to the streets in Berlin during unrest in the years of the Weimar Republic (c1924) © Alamy Stock Photo

Amid the post-revolutionary turmoil it is easily forgotten that Friedrich Ebert and other Social Democrats who took power in 1918 pushed hard for Austria’s absorption into Germany, a step that the Allies would never countenance. For Ebert and his colleagues, the point was not territorial expansion as such but, as Gerwarth says, an effort to fulfil the liberal promise of the 1848 revolution across the German-speaking lands.

The project came to nothing, and “Greater Germany” morphed into an obsession of the nationalist right. But the Social Democrats were successful in building a form of welfare capitalism that was remarkably advanced for Europe in the early 1920s. Business and trade union leaders struck deals on wage arbitration, the eight-hour day and workers’ representation on company boards.

The social and economic basis for a stable liberal democracy was beginning to take shape. True, Weimar was dogged from the start by “the continuing refusal of small minorities on the extreme left and right” to accept the legitimacy of the 1918 revolution and the new polity. Yet Gerwarth makes a powerful case that it is an exaggeration to write off Weimar, as many historians have done, as “a republic without republicans”.

For Jankowski, professor of history at Brandeis University, the early 1930s were “a ferment of isolationist conceits, pacifist reveries, revolutionary chiliasm, imagined existential threats to race, nation or class, and kindred collective delusions”. His core argument is that it was between the autumn of 1932 and early summer of 1933 that “the world finally changed from postwar to prewar.”

He stresses that this is not the same as saying global war was inevitable from mid-1933: “ . . . the spreading disorder of the 1930s culminated in the second world war. It did not have to.” The choices of political leaders matter, in other words, and “anarchy, indeed, is what states make of it”.

Jankowski illustrates his point by focusing on a set of events that hammered at the crumbling post-Versailles international system or were symbolic of its decay. Not all were unambiguously ominous for world peace. Franklin Roosevelt’s US presidential election victory in November 1932 gave hope of a vigorous approach to combating the Great Depression. In Germany’s elections that same month, the Nazis lost 2m votes compared with their result in July 1932.

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However, as Jankowski says, FDR and his New Dealers were adamant that no international commitments should stand in the way of domestic recovery. Soon after entering the White House, Roosevelt took the dollar off gold and torpedoed the London economic conference. There were good reasons for his steps but the fact remains that the US, like the UK before it, was giving up on the old economic order just as Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union were going down the road of autarky and preparations for war.

Likewise Roosevelt had retreated well before his election victory from his old enthusiasm for the League of Nations. His administration saw no profit in 1933 in becoming entangled in efforts to resist Japanese expansionism in China. Not until much later in the decade did FDR begin to challenge isolationism at home.

President Paul Von Hindenburg with Chancellor Adolf Hitler in 1933
Germany’s President Paul Von Hindenburg with newly appointed Chancellor Adolf Hitler in 1933 © Universal Images Group via Getty

As for Germany, the Nazi election setback was rendered irrelevant by the determination of the conservative elites to dismantle Weimar democracy, much weakened by the economic crisis, once and for all. Franz von Papen famously predicted that “we’ll have Hitler in a corner and make him squeal”, but the decision to let the Nazi leader become chancellor in January 1933 was catastrophically misjudged.

Around the world, national self-sufficiency became the rallying cry of political systems both liberal and authoritarian. Soviet antagonism towards the capitalist powers was matched by western suspicions of Stalin’s foreign policy and misunderstandings of his repressions at home. Jankowski ends his book on the bleak note of the collapse of the economic and disarmament conferences: “London and Geneva, theatres of the same failure, presented the world with the demise of interdependence.”

November 1918: The German Revolution, by Robert Gerwarth, Oxford University Press, RRP £20/$25.95, 329 pages

All Against All: The Long Winter of 1933 and the Origins of the Second World War, by Paul Jankowski, Profile Books/HarperCollins, RRP£25/$32.50, 454 pages

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe commentator

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