Among other things, he reminds us of what was lost.
What, looking back, was so characteristic about the culture of a shortlived German republic that nobody had really wanted and most Germans accepted as faute de mieux at best? Every German had lived through three cataclysmic experiences: the Great War; the genuine, if abortive German revolution which overthrew the defeated Kaiser’s regime; and the Great Inflation of 1923, a brief manmade catastrophe that suddenly made money valueless. The political right, traditionalist, anti-semitic, authoritarian and deeply entrenched in the institutions carried over from the Kaiser’s Reich (I still remember the title of Theodor Plivier’s 1932 book, The Kaiser Went, the Generals Remained), refused the republic totally. It regarded Weimar as illegitimate, the Versailles Treaty as an undeserved national shame, and aimed at getting rid of both of them as soon as possible.
But almost all Germans, including the Communists, were passionately against Versailles and the foreign occupiers. I can still recall as a child seeing from the train the French flag flying on Rhineland fortresses, with a curious sense that this was somehow unnatural. Being both English and Jewish (I was ‘der Engländer’ at school) I was not tempted into the German nationalism of my schoolfriends, let alone into Nazism, but I could well understand the appeal of both to German boys. As Weitz shows, the authoritarian right was always the main danger both politically and, through their persistent and popular hostility to ‘Kulturbolschewismus’, culturally.
Among other things, a reminder to be careful about the dreams we dream.
This was the last time Germany was at the centre of modernity and Western thought. It might have held out better if the Weimar Republic had been followed not by Hitler’s wrecking crew but by a more traditional reactionary government. Yet in retrospect this option was as unreal as was the prospect of stopping Hitler’s rise by a comprehensive anti-Fascist union. The fact is that no one, right, left or centre, got the true measure of Hitler’s National Socialism, a movement of a kind that had not been seen before and whose aims were rationally unimaginable. Not even his intended victims fully recognised the danger. After the summer election of 1932 which left the Nazis as much the largest party, but short of a majority, the (Jewish) editor of the Tagebuch, a left-liberal weekly we took at home, published an article whose headline struck me even then as suicidal. I still see it before me: ‘Lasst ihn heran!’ (‘Why not let him in!’) A few months later, with very different intentions, the reactionaries around the aged President Hindenburg manoeuvred Hitler into office thinking that he could be controlled.
All attempts to make the Weimar Republic look more firmly established and stable, even before the world economic cataclysm broke its back, are historical whistling in the dark. It moved briefly through the debris of a dead but unburied past towards a sudden but expected end and an unknown future. For our parents it promised only an unrecoverable past, while we dreamed of great tomorrows; my ‘Aryan’ schoolmates in the form of a national rebirth, Communists like myself, as the universal revolution initiated in October 1917.
(Recently, I pointed to the German interview that Hobsbawm mentions and translated a few passages.)