What was the role of conservatives in the demise of the Weimar Republic? For a long time, the historiographical picture was dominated by the notion of an unrelenting conservative hostility to Weimar democracy that eventually culminated in the disastrous set of decisions that facilitated the Nazi assumption of power. The persistent strength of the conservative opposition to the republic appeared as one of the main reasons for its ultimate collapse. In this massive work, Larry Eugene Jones presents a much more nuanced and more accurate picture of the history of the “German Right” between the November revolution and the final years of the Weimar Republic. Based on a staggering amount of archival research, Jones presents the most detailed and comprehensive history of “the Right” in Weimar to date. He casts his net widely and attempts to present a history of the entire conservative milieu. But his main focus and the red thread of his analysis is the history of the most important conservative political party in Weimar, the German Nationalist People’s Party (DNVP). In so doing, Jones seeks to answer a question that was first raised by the German historian Thomas Mergel in an important 2003 essay: why did the DNVP not develop into a version of British Tory conservativism, that is a conservative party that ultimately was committed to working within the confines of Weimar democracy?1
Jones’ answer to this question is more multifaceted and comprehensive than Mergel’s, who focused mainly on the DNVP’s post-1928 transformation. The dominant theme and central argument of the book is the emphasis on the disunity and division on the Right, which, as Jones argues, was just as crucial for the collapse of Weimar as the more frequently analyzed disunity on the Left. The DNVP sought to bring together various strands of Wilhelmine conservativism, including traditional conservatives, nationalist and antisemitic folkish groups as well as Christian social traditions. The party was based on an extremely heterogenous social and economic milieu, that included industrial and agricultural elites, but also conservative workers and middle-class professionals. Still, the DNVP embarked on synthesizing these various traditions and social groups in one large right-wing party and managed to achieve a “negative integration”, that is a unification of these heterogenous forces on the basis of shared rejection of both the Versailles treaty and the Weimar constitution. However, what the DNVP stood for was less clear. Even monarchism as a unifying force became ultimately problematic, mainly because of the unpopularity of ex-Kaiser Wilhelm in Belgian exile and the rise of Reich President Hindenburg as an alternative leader figure.
Nevertheless, the party was quite successful in establishing itself as the main opposition party in Weimar. It managed to increase its share of the vote from 10.3% in 1919 to its best result of 20.5% in the December 1924 elections. Yet from its onset, tensions between governmental conservatives such as Oskar Hergt or Kuno von Westarp and radical nationalists, like the leader of the Pan Germans Heinrich Claß and then especially the press czar Alfred Hugenberg shaped the history of the DNVP throughout its existence. These tensions and divisions led to various schisms, the first one in 1922 when the folkish wing left the party. Jones’ translation of völkisch as “racist” strikes me as somewhat misleading because it seems to suggest that the non-völkisch Right was not racist or antisemitic, which simply was not the case. Still, the author shows convincingly how the increasing electoral strength of the DNVP inevitably pushed the party toward some sort of participation in the government as an alternative to the left-wing Social Democrats.
The DNVP’s brief participation in two center-right governments – first in the cabinet Luther from January to November 1925, then in the fourth cabinet Wirth from February 1927 to February 1928 – illustrated that Gustav Stresemann’s strategy of stabilizing the Weimar Republic “from the Right” was not entirely illusionary. These periods pointed to the possibility of the DNVP becoming a version of the British Tories operating within the confines of the Weimar political system. It is also no coincidence that the DNVP’s constructive role in Weimar politics coincided with the republic’s temporary stabilization from 1924 to 1928.
Yet Jones makes clear that there were also powerful centrifugal forces that increasingly put the DNVP’s governmental wing on the defensive. While the growing importance of organized economic interest in Weimar constituted another incentive for the DNVP to assume governmental responsibility, these organized interests, especially from industry and agriculture, pushed the party in different directions. Middle class interests as well as the interests of conservative workers were difficult to reconcile with those of agriculture and industry. These tensions exacerbated already existing divisions and disunity within the Right, and they gave rise to a series of special interest and splinter parties. While Jones focuses mainly on the level of the national party leadership, much of the populist and radical nationalist energy within the DNVP came from local and regional party organizations. These tensions eventually led to open splits and various schisms on the Right, for example over the adoption of the Dawes plan in 1924 or the toleration of the Brüning minority government in the 1930.
While some of the more moderate members of the Reichstag faction like Westarp eventually seceded from the DNVP, the party’s radicalization resulted primarily from the rise of Alfred Hugenberg. For Jones, the election of Hugenberg as DNVP party chairman in 1928 marked a “critical turning in the history of the German right” (p. 431). Hugenberg represented the radical nationalists in the party, and his ascendancy essentially buried the prospects of the DNVP evolving into a governmental party. The results of Hugenberg’s rise to power were disastrous both for the DNVP and for the Weimar republic: the party’s share of the vote was reduced to only 5.9 percent in the elections in July 1932. Similar to political scientist Daniel Ziblatt, Jones argues persuasively that it was not the strength but rather the weakness of conservative nationalists that proved decisive for the collapse of Weimar.2 For a “strong and well-organized” conservative party could have provided an important counterweight to the rise of National Socialism. Instead, weakened and divided conservatives engaged in the disastrous illusion of seeking to “tame” the Nazi movement and of using Hitler’s popular support for their own purposes.
This summary can hardly do justice to Jones’ detailed and nuanced reconstruction of the history of the German Right. His narrative closely follows the twists and turns of the party’s fortunes, and there is no doubt that this book will be the standard treatment of the political history of the German Right for a long time to come. Jones’ analysis reveals the structural problems and tensions that the DNVP and, by extension, the German Right faced during the Weimar period; and it shows how these tensions played out over the always contingent history of the party. His analysis makes clear that there was nothing predetermined about Weimar’s history and that it was “specific actions of specific individuals or groups of individuals at specific points in time that shaped the course of events” (p. 1). At the same time, the book highlights the powerful set of forces that were lined up against German democracy and offers a multifaceted and nuanced explanation as to why the DNVP ultimately did not become a stabilizing force in Weimar politics.
Jones’ impressive achievement notwithstanding, book also leaves some questions unanswered or treats them rather cursorily. First, the author presents a traditional political history that mainly focuses on the actions, motivations and deliberations among political elites. What remains less well understood, however, are the dynamics of popular mobilization and radicalization from below. In Jones’ account, these processes mainly appear as challenges for political elites to manage or they are portrayed as the driving forces of shifts in leadership, especially the rise of Hugenberg. But they are never analyzed in their own right. As a result, these forces mainly appear as promoting and exacerbating “divisions” and “disunity” on the Right, less as the ideological and political basis for the coalescence of a “new Right” in the 1930s. Jones’ focus on national decisionmakers persuasively supports this story of the Right’s increasing fragmentation. But, as Geoff Eley criticized some time ago, this focus runs the risk of losing sight of a new form of unity based on populist nationalism.3 Secondly, Jones repeatedly notes the importance of the female vote for the DNVP – up to 60 percent of the party’s electoral support came from women –, yet he does not engage in any form of sustained gender analysis to explain this fact. Likewise, the DNVP’s women’s committees are briefly mentioned but their role is not really analyzed, perhaps also following up and expanding upon Raffael Scheck’s work.4 Since, as Jones notes, these women mainly lined up “behind Hugenberg and the radicals,” (p. 496) such an analysis might have provided further insight into the social (and gendered) dynamics of the party’s radicalization. Thirdly, Jones’ analysis focuses mainly on issues of political strategy as well as on socio-economic interest whereas the broader ideological debate gets less attention. Although the book includes a very good chapter on the intellectuals of the “conservative revolution”, this analysis remains rather isolated and there is no extensive attempt to probe how and if these ideas percolated into elite political discourses. An analysis of widely-shared ideological beliefs might also have mitigated against the emphasis on the Right’s divisions over political strategy and competing socio-economic interests. Finally, it is a bit curious that the book ends in 1930 and does not carry the story all the way to 1933. The rise of Hugenberg and the DNVP’s declining electoral fortunes until 1930 certainly shaped the party’s history between 1930 and 1933. Yet based on the author’s own rejection of predetermined outcomes, it would have been interesting to read a more detailed account of how and why the DNVP eventually assumed its fateful role of helping Hitler into the saddle.
These objections are not really meant as a criticism of the book. As with every other methodological approach, Jones’ version of political history provides important insights while also obscuring other aspects of historical reality. Still, nobody who seeks to understand the history of the German Right and, by extension, the political history of the Weimar Republic can afford to ignore this book. It is the most comprehensive and most authoritative treatment of the history of the German Right to this date. Based on decades of research, this book will remain an indispensable point of reference for historians of Weimar and of the troubled history of 20th century democracy. In fact, the book’s argument entails an implicit important reminder for our present, namely that “responsible” governmental conservativism constitutes an essential element of liberal democratic systems. By contrast, the takeover of conservative parties by popular nationalists represents a major and dangerous threat to the survival of modern democracies – then and now.
1 Thomas Mergel, Das Scheitern des deutschen Tory-Konservativismus. Die Umformung der DNVP zu einer rechtsradikalen Partei, 1928–1932, in: Historische Zeitschrift 276 (2003), pp. 323–368.
2 Daniel Ziblatt, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, Cambridge 2017, esp. pp. 259–333.
3 Geoff Eley, The German Right from Weimar to Hitler. Fragmentation and Coalescence, in: Central European History 48 (2015), pp. 100–113.
4 Raffael Scheck, Mothers of the Nation. Right-Wing Women in Weimar Germany, New York 2004.