Limits to the ‘Whig’ Approach to the
1920’s Weimar Republic in Germany:
Gustav Stresemann, The Proportional Reichstag,
and the “Spirit of Locarno”
Primary Source Analysis
By David Shanet Clark
The careful and sympathetic approach to Weimar Germany, the ‘Whig’ interpretation of Gustav Stresemann’s ascendancy, valorizes republican constitutional loyalty and values a peaceful, but assertive, German foreign policy. The field is daunting in its careful and precise lexicon; the jargon is loaded with ambiguous words. Two examples, appeasement and revisionism, establish this. In the narrow field of the Locarno era, the “Spirit of Locarno” was appeasement, pure and simple. This would entail the granting of dignified dispensations from the Versailles strictures by the old allies, Britain, France, the USA and Belgium, specifically. The ‘Whig’ view holds that the appeasement agreed to with the Weimar Republic was beneficial all around. Appeasement earns its pejorative only after Munich conference and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The 1920’s Weimar period is known as the period of appeasement, with no particular pejorative attached. Revisionism, a word with many overtones relative to Germany now, is the basic German foreign policy goal in the 1920’s. The revision of Versailles, under various treaties and agreements, was the goal of all Weimar governments. Those who moved to the right of Stresemann generally preferred armed seizure of contested areas, revision by force.
Arriving at and maintaining an unbiased thread of analysis is difficult in relation to German 20th century history. Critiques and narratives should seek objectivity and the reduction of biases. We cannot accept our characters’ own values, nor identify too strongly with them. We cannot form normative support for the NSDAP, certainly, but does this critical imperative apply to other groups? What level of skepticism should we impose on the DNVP (the Nationalist Party) or the DVP (Stresemann’s People’s Party)? When perusing Weimar incidents how does the DNVP/DVP and rump SPD actions employ our empathy? Do we rally for constitutional statecraft achievements? Are we disappointed by its losses? How does a strict history of Germany avoid a natural enthusiasm for constitutional Germany? What are the limits of a traditional ‘Whig’ approach to the Weimar?
This problem becomes clearer when we consider that inside the Weimar in the 1920’s (after the SPD had broken out of the coalition in 1923), when only a right-center coalition could hold a majority, the right-center party already had an outlaw nature, relative to the Treaty of Versailles, in the eyes of the international world order. Yet the DVP’s Stresemann “was one of the most charismatic democratic statesmen of his time, a time when charismatic and democratic statesmen were in short supply in Germany.”
Born May 10th, 1878, Gustav Stresemann earned a doctorate in economics at age 22 and represented the National Liberals in the Reichstag when he was only 29. The DDP, the (economically) liberal German Democratic Party, a founder of the 1919 Weimar, refused Stresemann membership because of his ‘Grossdeutsch’ position. Stresemann responded by founding the DVP, the German People’s Party. In 1920 the DVP received 13.9% of the vote and in 1921 helped replace the troubled SPD-led coalition with a center-right government. This is the “liberal conservative” government of Chancellor Joseph Karl Wirth, a Catholic from the Centre Party, which shared the center position in the proportional Reichstag with DDP and DVP party members, like Stresemann, Wirth’s Foreign Minister.
Stresemann carried the weight (and cachet) of being considered a royal restorationist, or a monarchist, throughout his whole Weimar career. It was in 1922 that, according to Torstein Palmer, Stresemann “reluctantly acknowledged that there was no going back to monarchy. He placed his hopes in foreign policy successes, such as the softening of the terms of the Versailles Treaty, to reunite the torn nation.”
II. Stresemann as Chancellor
In 1923 Stresemann cobbled together a government by personally mediating and moderating the leadership of the DVP, the SPD (Social Democrats), the DDP and the Catholic Centre Party, and his premiership lasted just over one hundred days. Late in 1922, during a “Christmas Crisis,” Wirth fell when the SPD refused to work with the DVP, but Stresemann managed to work with both parties. This is evidence that Stresemann was a parliamentarian of unusually great resources and patience. Constitutional historians write enthusiastic ‘Whig’ analyses about these achievements. Meanwhile in Italy in 1922 Mussolini became dictator and the anti-Republican cant in Germany took on a new focus. Rumors of the coming dictatorship in Germany circulated freely.
In 1922 Stresemann already knew who the German candidate for German dictator was, “a great many circles in Germany have, with an unusual unanimity, already decided in favor of a dictatorship. To be sure, they have no dictator and do not even know how things will develop, but they see in dictatorship the only thing that can help us. Mussolini’s victory in Rome, which was regrettable from Germany’s standpoint, is acclaimed by them. Herr Hitler holds rallies in Munich which are allegedly attended by 50,000 people…”
Before his stint as Chancellor, Stresemann had participated in the lame and pensive Wilhelm Cuno coalition, well aware of the stresses and weaknesses of the Weimar. When France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr to speed reparative extractions of industrial wealth, Stresemann joined the Cuno cabinet in the policy of passive resistance, a general strike, in the Ruhr. This issue was so flaring and the reaction so costly in Germany that the strike is the largest causative factor in the hyperinflation event. Also in this period, Stresemann was deeply shocked and angered by the murder of Centre leader Matthias Erzberger on 26 August 1921 and the left-moderate Foreign Minister Rathenau 24 June 1922. Stresemann feared that terrorism and murder from the right would cause a swing to the left in elections, and called for justice and republican mediation. Ominous murders, Mussolini’s rise in Italy and the weak Weimar coalition made the era just before Stresemann’s Chancellorship foreboding. At this time he saw his own DVP party split left and right, and he went with the left wing of his center-right party, but the threat from the right was mounting up. So Stresemann, an anti-Kaiser leader of the monarchist party, the leader of the left wing of the center-right party in the Reichstag, becomes Chancellor in August 1923.
His celebrated negotiations with Belgium, Britain, France and the USA in 1925 are informed by this domestic party experience. He would take home the Nobel Prize for these careful Locarno agreements, but could only hold the reins of the proportional Reichstag for one hundred days. He could negotiate with the world powers and allied Europe, but could he limit the anti-parliamentary forces of the German right?
The resistance and logistics of feeding the striking Germans in the Ruhr fueled the inflation disaster, which toppled Cuno. This was a paradox because the resistance was a universally popular policy in Germany. Stresemann avoided taking power too early, and even threw his support to Cuno in May, when the Centre and DDP were balking at the Cuno coalition. The SPD was ready to bolt from Cuno over the inflation. Cuno, incredibly, expressed a position of no confidence in himself. So with the fascist press calling for tyranny-in-an-individual and howling for a dictator, Stresemann reluctantly agreed to assemble and negotiate a coalition government ministry. Stresemann was smart to have waited. The exiting Wilhelm Cuno, not the new Chancellor, was forced to announce the breaking news that Britain would not oppose the French occupation of the Ruhr. When Cuno announced the British failure to intervene for Germany, the SPD bolted from the Cabinet and the government fell. The SPD chief and Reich President Friedrich Ebert then appealed to the moderates to name a new leader, and this is the Weimar’s constitutional golden hour, from the ‘Whig’ perspective. Ebert accepted the consensus of the moderate parties for Stresemann.
In August 1923, Ebert and Stresemann debuted their Great Coalition Cabinet made up of four SPD ministers, three from the Centre, two from DDP (the Democrats), two from DVP, plus Stresemann as both Chancellor and Foreign Secretary. On a broad vote of general confidence the Reichstag voted in the new government 239-76.
When Stresemann emerged as Chancellor, the foreign crisis and the Ruhr issues exploded. In a foreshadowing of later events, Raymond Poincarre would not budge on reparations, and France demanded an end to passive resistance in the Ruhr. Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin declared Britain to be in support of France. Stresemann began to end the resistance policy in the Ruhr. First he clarified the issues, declaring he would never give up the Ruhr valley, but making it clear that resistance was breaking the country and making growth impossible. The nationalist DNVP and the Bavarian Land gave vocal protest, but the center/left/democrat coalition assented to the return to work in the occupied Ruhr. The Ruhr began to feed itself again and the border frictions cooled.
Stresemann was a moderate in the DVP because he was willing to work with the reviled but powerful SPD. He believed that the socialists would continue to mellow by sharing power. He feared the right more than the left and accepted Ebert and the SPD as a reasonable place to look for coalition support. As chancellor in the third quarter of 1923, Stresemann experienced a Bavarian uprising from the right and a Marxist uprising in Saxony. The record shows Stresemann cracking down harder on the communists than on the fascists. The ‘Whig’ analysis (Turner) sees Stresemann sagely constraining the leftist rebels, because to allow them any more toleration would trigger a rightist ascendancy, a shift to DNVP and extremism. We will come back to this issue.
The economy at this time was so poor that any governing coalition would have been vulnerable. The heavy industries were a part of the DVP right-wing faction. Stresemann had differed from the industrialists on some key issues. He had blocked the privatization of the German railroads in 1921. Business owners within the DVP had issue with the 1918 demobilization laws, which funded unemployment insurance and promulgated a strict eight-hour day. Industrialists in the right-wing DVP faction and the petty nobles, landers, junkers, the interests to the right of Stresemann abandoned the eight-hour day, which was an SPD litmus. The economy was so poor and the hopes of gaining a majority program were so weak that President Ebert invoked an enabling act that allowed the Stresemann national coalition Cabinet to rule by decree, and consult the Reichstag at a later date. The right wing of Stresemann’s own DVP was now ready to break the government, bolt from the SPD/Centre/DDP/DVP coalition and form a Centre/DDP/DVP/DNVP government. The nationalist DNVP conxxxxxed a full quarter of the assembly’s votes, but the Centre, DDP and Stresemann refused to enter a governing coalition with DNVP. It was generally feared that the DNVP were nor properly republican and would use a cabinet position as a springboard to a dictatorship. “Stresemann found himself engaged in an exhausting form of trench warfare within his own party.”
Stresemann at this time receives numerous death-threats, and the rumor that he is a Jew was floated at this time. In eerie meetings reminiscent of the Kapp putsch, Army officers visit him with suggested extortions.
As Chancellor, Stresemann helped a man he had great sympathy with, the exiled Crown Prince Wilhelm. Stresemann allowed the Crown Prince of the Hohenzollen back into Prussia, but stipulated a ban on any political activity. This is a Whiggish stroke, preventing greater agitation on the volatile issue of the restoration of monarchy.
In summing up the Chancellorship of Gustav Stresemann, Helmut Heibert says, “Stresemann’s cabinet, the grand coalition that embraced the peoples’ party, the center party, the democrats and the social democrats…(faced)…two major problems that called for instant solutions, the ending of passive resistance in the Ruhr, and, once this had been achieved, the stabilization of the mark…both these tasks were accomplished in the bare 103 days that Stresemann’s Chancellorship lasted.”
Stresemann made a very difficult but successful choice in his anti-inflation program he worked out with Hjalmar Schacht. He suspended unemployment insurance payments in the occupied Ruhr and Rhineland valleys. Heibert makes it clear that Stresemann’s strategic foreign policy was to retain the Ruhr and Rhine but not to allow it to siphon off of billions of marks. The few Germans under French control were sacrificed to save the larger German economy, and the sovereignty of the region’s land was held sacrosanct.
Here, in Stresemann’s Chancellorship, lay the roots of the Locarno movement. A Rhine/Ruhr security pact securing the borders of Germany was envisioned in 1923 and then accomplished two years later.
During the 103 days, the SPD bolted over breaches in the eight-hour day policy, and Stresemann was forced to rule by decree (without Reichstag action) through a minority Cabinet made up of DVP, DDP and the Centre. The center/democrat/peoples’ group was the central swing bloc, the rump left from the Grand Coalition. Rather than form a broad middle hump however, it existed in a trough. Socialists and Marxist legions loomed to the left while nationalist and Nazi tyranny reared up to the right of center.
The center was isolated. The position of the cabinet was weakened, threatened and shrinking, as the DVP lost industrialists to the DNVP and the rump’s SPD sympathizers withdrew farther away from the position of Stresemann, the Centre and the Democrats.
The Reichstag met on the 20th of November and on the 22nd the Chancellor spoke to his loyal middle, his bolting left and his alienated right in defense of his regime. The parliamentary cabinet system itself was “going through all the childhood illnesses that a completely new system must go through in any country.” He warned of Bolshevism, fascism and civil war. Stresemann warned the house, “A solution through force could have no permanence. There is hardly a country anywhere that is so divided by political, economic and social differences, only by bridging these differences can our recovery be permanent…not restoration and not counter-revolution, but rather evolution and reconciliation, these must be the guiding principles of our politics.” The DNVP and the SPD then united to pass a bill of no confidence 231-156. Stresemann resigned in a letter to President Friedrich Ebert the evening of November 23, 1923.
Gustav Stresemann’s Chancellorship is remembered for the currency and inflation miracle, his ending the Pyrrhic resistance in the Ruhr, and the favoring of the Bavarian right while constraining the Saxony far left. When Bavaria put down Hitler, Stresemann government’s mild southern strategy played out. He had had little choice, anyway, the German officers would order fire on Syndicalists and anarchists, but the man who ordered the German Army to fire on Bavarian conservatives may or may not have been obeyed. By separating himself from the dictatorial terrorists on the right, by solving major economic problems and mediating a diverging Reichstag, Stresemann gained the skills and international prestige needed to broker Locarno and earn the Nobel Prize.
President Ebert respected Stresemann for his achievements and courage. Ebert scolded the social democrats, his own SPD caucus: “The reasons why you have felled the Chancellor will be forgotten in six weeks, but you will feel the effects of your stupidity for the next ten years.”
The fact that Chancellor Stresemann was pushed out for petty causes is indeed borne out by the make-up of the next incarnation of Weimar. The new government was the same coalition that Stresemann had engineered across the low saddle of the Reichstag. Chancellor Wilhelm Marx compiled a Cabinet government made up of People’s DVP, the Centre and the Democratic DDP. Unable to hold a majority without support from the right (DNVP) or left (SPD), the Cabinet needed, and got, acquiescence from the SPD, as Stresemann had.
Gaining momentum from the fall of Stresemann the DVNP, the Communists and the Nazis voted together (!) in opposition. The government of Friedrich Ebert and Wilhelm Marx, with Stresemann still in the Cabinet as their Foreign Minister, faced monarchists, diktatorists, international Bolsheviks, Bavarian confederates, Italian style juntas, the Prussian Army clique and SPD paramilitary assaults on rioting Communists. Worse still, they faced anti-constitutional numbers and organization in the Reichstag and Reichsrat. The DVP turned to the right; it repudiated the SPD and would form no government with them. Such was the situation when Stresemann dropped the mantle of the Premier and returned to the Foreign Ministry full-time.
Several issues of international German interest had emerged quite rapidly at this juncture in late 1923. The principle emerging issue was the presentation of the international agreement of reparations, as demanded by Versailles. The Dawes Plan was the product of US moderation, economic theory and power. The offer of millions in loans sweetened the deal for Germany, and most international observers saw Dawes as a reasonable offer, even an olive branch to the capitalist, republican German state. It was obvious that the USA at least was not in an exploitive, extractive mode, like France and Belgium were.
Helmut Heiber contextualizes the difficulties faced by Stesemann in his ascendancy as long-term Foreign Minister: “Germany survived losing the war surprisingly well in economic terms, although the consequences included the amputation of 13 percent of her territory, including valuable areas of good agricultural land as well as industrial complexes. In psychological this was less true…the wartime assumption (was) that at some point Germany’s defeated enemies would have to pay the cost of the war…now, however, Germany was being asked to pay the bill for the rest of the world (it seemed)…the reparations issue thus turned out to be not only the most awkward in a technical sense, but also the most dangerous problem for the stability of the Weimar constitutional order that was inherited as a legacy of Versailles…it was reparation…that offered the anti-democratic right their unfailingly effective lever against the state.”
There were a few hopeful gleams in the first days of Wilhelm Marx’s new Weimar government. Ramsey McDonald, the first Labor Party Prime Minister of Britain, an artisan from the trades union, was a welcome sight to Stresemann in 1924, replacing the conservatives in a generational and political switch. In France the Nationalist Raymond Poincarre, Stresemann’s nemesis, was out of office as well, and the German Foreign Minister could breathe a little easier about the stability of the Ruhr and Rhine valleys.
Stresemann had new friends to help him who had trusted him as Chancellor; for example, he enjoyed the trust of the U.S. bankers who wanted to loan Germany funds to rebuild. This expansive dollar diplomacy was a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy then, and it shows continuities with the Marshall Plan while it belies the “isolationism” usually attributed to the U.S. in the 1920’s under the GOP. A credible foreign partner was essential to the U.S. plans, and Gustav Stresemann satisfied the requirements perfectly.
Stresemann’s program, in the year before Locarno, carried the liberal Dawes plan through the Reichstag. “In spite of the international credit, the more nationalistic business circles rejected the whole idea of resuming reparations payments and bitterly opposed the plan. The radicals of the right, led by the Nazi-Racist group, assailed it as ‘a Second Versailles’…the Nationalists (DNVP), who warned that acceptance of the reparations…and international control…would result in the ‘enslavement’ of Germany.” But to reject Dawes (which would provide huge loans to Germany while reducing the 1919 reparations) in the Reichstag would mean continued and stricter armed French occupation of the industrial river valleys. Using a platform agenda of stabilization of the Ruhr and Rhine, Stresemann pushed the Dawes Plan through the house. Ease the tensions, take the money, stop the separatist movement in the Rhine, accept the reparations--in order to negotiate them away--this was his appeal. At this time, despite the success of the currency control policy, the end of German passive resistance in the occupied areas was unpopular. New elections were held on the heels of the fallen government, and the saddle slumped farther. The ruling center bloc saw their power erode. The walls of the saddle rose up to form a trough, which would sandcastle and collapse in the 1930’s. The DVP, Stresemann’s party, dropped from 60 to 45 seats, the Democrats went from 39 to 28 seats, the Centre lost three seats to hit 65 and the SPD, the key to any constitutional government, lost 71 to fall to 100. The DNVP passed the SPD, electing 106 seats, and in 1924 the Communist and Nazi parties reached parity in the Reichstag with the Centre and the Democrat DDP. With the SPD out of the new Cabinet over the suspension of the eight-hour day, Chancellor Marx had to approach the DNVP to join in with his regime. The DNVP responded as expected. To participate, it must have a Nationalist Chancellor, specifically Admiral Tirpitz, and the new government had to revise the Dawes Plan before approving it. Stresemann knew that if the Germans made any revisions, then the French could make counter-demands; a simple yes/no was important in the reparations and loan vote.
Eventually the DNVP broke over Dawes. The moderates supported it and Stresemann scraped by. The moderates in this case were, ironically, heavy industrialists (who wanted U.S. loans) and the Army, many of whom feared a SPD revival if the right was seen as responsible for blocking the moderate Dawes compromise on reparations.
A synergy of domestic and foreign competences was building up in Streseman. As Turner points out in his ‘Whig’ analysis Stresemann used his statesman’s role to build domestic coalitions while he was building domestic support for his international agenda. This synergy of ministerial strengths in 1924 sets the immediate stage for Locarno.
In late 1924, conscious of the fragile nature of the current minority Cabinet government, Stresemann reaches out. He attempts to slow his opponents’ gains by bringing their leadership into the Cabinet, hoping that the discipline of this executive responsibility will moderate the harsh DNVP. He sees that the Nationalists’ growth is caused by its voicing its opposition to all of his programs--without having to take any actual responsibility for governing. Chancellor Marx insisted that overtures to join the executive Cabinet be extended to the SPD simultaneously with the DNVP approach. Stresemann goes behind the scenes in personal negotiations with party leaders, as he had done under Cuno and Wirth. To build a majority government he shops the SPD to the DNVP, hawks the DNVP to the Centre, pitches the DDP on the DNVP and then his own party, the DVP, bolts the government. No one really wanted the new larger DNVP to rule, and the minority coalition lost the People’s Party. President Ebert dissolves the Cabinet and Stresemann tours Germany on a speaking tour in support of Dawes and the DVP Party.
As foreign minister he pledges to uphold the traditional German principle, “primacy of foreign policy.” He explains himself on the eve of the Locarno year, popular after his respected period as Chancellor in the previous summer and fall. He pitched his support for the Dawes Plan as savvy German “Bismarckian Realpolitick.” He spoke to both his German and international colleagues and constituencies. He laid out his vision. Realpolitick did not lie in the field of denial, like the DNVP. Facing reparations as one would a tax, he insisted on the territorial sanctity of the German Ruhr and Rhine valleys.
Here we find limits to the empathetic ‘Whig’ analysis, and pitfalls for close identification. Stresemann’s party, the DVP, a party of the “propertied…middle class” was actively committed to bringing the DNVP into the government, the popular Nationalist Party led by Army officers, Prussian landowners, industrialists, the petty nobility, junta cells, etc. While Stresemann’s platform was complicated by this imperative, he finessed by indicating his hope that Cabinet responsibility would have a sobering effect on the shrill DNVP leadership in the Reichstag.
In this election the floor of the saddle rose relative to the walls and the center parties gained seats at the expense of the Nazis and KPD parties. The SPD, Centre, DDP and DVP (the Stresemann coalition bloc) all gained, but the DNVP and extra-party domestic power blocs had to be dealt with. These were the Bavarian Land, the Army and Officer’s corps, the trade unions, the press and heavy industry.
Stresemann was disappointed. The DVP stayed relatively small. He did not receive the credit he believed he deserved. As Torstein Palmer states, “from 1923/24 the currency reform, the Dawes plan and foreign credit—particularly from America—sparked an upturn in the German economy. Production, consumption and national income grew constantly in the period between 1924 and 1929. Dramatic growth was achieved by the electrical, chemical and optical industries…automobile and aircraft…film and radio…(yielded) countless jobs…state finances also showed a positive result for the five years from 1924 to 1929 and the budget was almost balanced in spite of the enormous burden of reparation payments.”
III. Locarno 1925
With his continuous Cabinet experience and the concessions he was able to wrest from the British, French and American leaderships, Gustav Stresemann became the indispensable minister of the Weimarreich. He stayed on as Foreign Minister as Hans Luther replaced Wilhelm Marx as Chancellor and built a new Cabinet of portfolio experts made up of one minister from the Centre, DDP, DVP and DNVP parties. Luther was stronger and more self motivated than Marx or Cuno, yet Stresemann was still seen as the shadow premier of Germany. He cultivated journalists and photographers, “successful in the realm of public relations.” He held frequent and informal briefings, and Friday tea for the international press. His open and moderate press image differs strongly from the DNVP example, Hugenburg, who was “spreading venom…sought to indoctrinate the masses by playing upon old fears and hatreds.” Stresemann was optimistic in estimating his audience, calm, logical and rarely emotional, never hot. Under Luther, he was unofficial spokesman for the Cabinet government. Stresemann pushed the Luther program through the Reichstag. Chancellor Luther, who was not a House veteran, said that Stresemann was “a master at handling Parliament.”
The foreign policy landscape in Europe was complex in 1925, but the impact of WWI and the Versailles treaty still hung over the landscape. The US had failed to ratify the Versailles treaty, which altered Britain’s commitments on the continent of Europe. In a nutshell, the Locarno security pact was initiated by Britain, who wanted to avoid joining a Belgian French alliance.
In January 1925 the British ambassador Lord d’Abernon approached Stresemann about building a new security pact. This way the U.K. would not have to participate in the aggressive policies of France and Belgium. French ascendancy threatened the balance of powers on the continent, and Britain turned to Germany. Churchill, a conservative pariah in the new Labor regime, even supported D’Abernon’s plan.
A mutual arbitration agreement securing the western boundaries of Germany, Locarno provided for a mutual recognition and defense of borders. It would slow the exploitive rapacity of the allied victors Belgium and France, who were still bitter about the war. The agreements would also bring prestige and tangible economic credit to Germany, enhancing Germany’s sense of sovereignty and self-determination. Feeling isolated and fearing a new Anglo-Belgian-French alliance against Germany, Stresemann quickly agreed with D’Abernon on the wisdom of a new international mutual security pact. Stresemann certainly saw this as a way to prevent the alienation and loss of the Rhine and Ruhr, and Locarno is known primarily as a Rhineland security pact. In his initial notes to Britain and France Stresemann envisioned a pact where the parties to Versailles agree to guarantee those borders.
Stresemann and Chancellor Luther did not immediately tell the DNVP, now represented in Cabinet, about their diplomatic initiative. Stresemann briefed the DNVP a few weeks later, in February. He told the Nationalists that the treaty would break the Anglo-Belgian-French alliance, and force Britain to take Germany’s side in case of deeper French aggression in the Rhine. He predicted that the Rhine and Cologne would be released from occupation by the allies due to German moderation. The permanent loss of Alsace Lorraine (as enshrined in Versailles) and a general taint of capitulation were the arguments used against the mutual security pact plan. Germany would join the League of Nations as part of the new treaty; many Germans also considered this an insult.
At this point in 1925 President Ebert, the founder of Weimar, dies. Party squabbling over the candidates for President result in numerous military figures, including Seekt and Gessler being considered and eliminated. Stresemann felt he needed a constitutionalist and a civilian figure in office for maximum leverage overseas. He got neither with Paul von Hindenburg. But Hindenburg was surprisingly mild and cooperative, however, and the Locarno talks went on normally. The new French government, the regime of Paul Painleve and Aristide Briand waited for the new German President to take power normally. When the status quo continued on, France sent back her acceptance to joining the mutual security pact talks, in June 1925. France had a proviso, however, and suggested that Germany enlarge the mutual security pact to include its eastern frontier neighbors, Poland, Russia, etc. Stresemann knew that Britain would veto any military commitments to the east. He was upbeat in the summer of 1925.
The Nazis and the Pan-German League called for Stresemann’s indictment for treason, for talking with France about a “third Versailles.” Seekt and the politico-military group wanted to build up armed strength and reconquer with force the denied areas around Germany, and they thought diplomatic bonds would constrain covert armament. The DNVP Nationalists intended to use their new Cabinet seat to sink the treaty.
Stresemann forced a showdown with Chancellor Luther over the issue of whether or not the treaty talks with France were official German policy or not. Stresemann threatened to resign and pull the DVP out of the Cabinet if Luther refused to back him and the treaty policy. Luther backed down, but the air was strained between the top two ministers in the late summer season. Likewise the DNVP had to support the Rhineland security pact or leave the Cabinet. The Nationalists wanted to stay in power in order to push their domestic agenda (a protectionist tariff of foodstuffs).
On July 20th Stresemann sent an important cable to Paris. He carefully broached the subject of concessions from the allies, meaning the early end of extractive occupation of the river valleys and Cologne. The Nationalists also pushed Stresemann to modify the note by spelling out Germany’s unwillingness to fully participate in League defenses, due to its “crossfire” position in Europe and the post 1919 disarmament. The French accepted the note as modified and supported by the DNVP party. The SPD and the DDP joined the Centre, DVP and DNVP in the confidence vote. Luther and Streseman were the most solidly supported Weimar government in years. This broad confidence vote in the Reichstag, along with a breakthrough with France propelled what would be known as the “Spirit of Locarno.” Like the Pentecost it arrived to elevate and inspire the Weimar factions on July 23, 1925. Meanwhile the powerful Nationalist DNVP party was plotting to topple Stresemann and wreck the mutual security pact with the West. They “supported” the government in order to conspire from within for its failure.
In mid-September the allies invited Germany to a summit meeting in Switzerland at a town called Locarno. Hugenburg’s newspapers and the Nazi-Racists howled about losing Alsace Lorraine and the indignity of joining the League of Nations. Stresemann calmly responded that only violent means were ruled out by the communiqué, that peaceful plebiscites and bi-lateral agreements could still bring in the orphan frontiers. The League of Nations seat would have a veto on the whole, he reasoned, a tool for legitimate German authority in the world.
In the actual meetings with the other foreign ministers in Switzerland, Stresemann got most of what he and the British Ambassador D’Abernon had envisioned in January. “Belgium, France and Germany greed to refrain from any forceful revision of their mutual boundaries, and Britain and Italy acted as guarantors…the British vetoed the French attempt to extend the territorial guarantees to the East…The French had to content themselves with non-compulsory, and hence meaningless, arbitration treaties between Germany on the one side and Poland and Czechoslovakia on the other.”
The promised allied concessions, like leaving Cologne, the Ruhr and the Rhine were not immediately forthcoming. Aristide Briand promised to pursue this in Paris, but after Locarno was settled and without linkage.
Luther and Stresemann returned from Locarno to Berlin on 18 October 1925 and faced the Reichstag and DNVP. The Nationalists wanted revisions, including the promises Stresemann was declaring to be in the works. By the 26th the DNVP had bolted the Cabinet and aired its grievances. Stresemann called this “inconceivable stupidity”
With the large DNVP now opposed to the Locarno treaty and the Luther government, Stresemann awaited the sense of the SPD. He expected the SPD to link sweeping domestic changes to their support of Locarno. The SPD rose above that divisive strategy, however, and supported Locarno without making any further demands. Stresemann also feared that President von Hindenburg would withdraw support from Locarno under DNVP pressure, but both the SPD and Hindenburg held firmly for the Locarno security package. “The SPD supported all of Stresemann’s foreign policy measures in order to prevent his strategy from foundering on the opposition of the DNVP.”
With the large and powerful DNVP now outside the discipline of the Cabinet, Stresemann faced a huge threat from his right, as they howled about treason, appeasement and Versailles III. Many Germans saw him as a traitor, and the death threats increased in seriousness and frequency. This angry response cast doubt on Germany’s commitment to Locarno as Stresemann and Luther returned in December to Berlin after signing the instrument.
Heibert agrees with Turner in the general shape of Locarno. The east was left out because of Germany’s strong desire to re-arrange the Polish boundaries, and Britain was not up to enforcing any eastern settlement. “France concluded mutual assistance pacts with both states (Poland and Czechoslovakia) assuring them of military aid should Germany attack them. The Rhine Pact (Locarno) between Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Italy, however, embodied an additional undertaking that they would not go to war against each other. Backed by the two powers not directly involved (Italy and) Britain in particular, it guaranteed the inviolability of the Versailles frontiers in the west, as well as the de-militarization of the Rhineland.”
Aristide Briand and Gustav Stresemann won the Nobel Prize for Peace in the glow of Locarno, in 1926. Stresemann progressed from a “conservative monarchist” to a “pragmatic republican” in the early 1920’s, or, as Palmer states, he “made his peace with the new state for a lack of any feasible alternative. In foreign policy he took the crucial steps leading to Germany’s re-integration into the international community.”
Stresemann’s center path through the steep saddle of the Reichstag’s distributive curves was a difficult position to rule from. He was in the shallow center, reaching to the left, to a constitutional SPD, to avoid the anti-republicans on the right. He followed in the footsteps of DDP Democratic Party leader Rathenau and Centre Party leader Matthias Erzberger. These men had been realists in the aftermath of the Great War and both had been murdered by Hermann Ehrhardt’s “Consul” cell. Death threats, and these murders, made the achievements of Stresemann a matter of fearless courage.
Torsten Palmer supports Turner on the critical exterior dynamics leading up to Locarno. The fall of “the National Block in France, which had been responsible for the aggressive actions in the Rhine and Ruhr, (which) lost its parliamentary majority to a coalition of left wing parties.” Meanwhile the new Labor government in Britain “was more interested than its conservative predecessors in achieving a Pan-European balance of power, and was increasingly critical of French efforts to gain hegemony in Central Europe.” Palmer also calls the U.S. mediated Dawes Plan for loans and lower reparations “a fundamental precondition for this (Locarno’s) easing of tension in Europe.” This shows that Stresemann recognized positive U.S., French and British signals when he initiated the Locarno talks.
In September 1926 Germany was given a permanent seat in the League of Nations and in December Stresemann and Briand won the Nobel Prize. This is the time of optimism known as “the Spirit of Locarno.” Austin Chamberlain of Britain, the third member of the Big Three, won fame and universal applause for acting as guarantor of the Locarno pacts. The Rhineland pact conveyed prestige on Stresemann and the Weimarreich and paved the way for Germany to enter the League of Nations. Five months after the Swiss summit, Austin Chamberlain believed the induction of Germany into the League required innovative means of diplomacy. Chamberlain saw Poland, Italy and France as deeply involved in the seating of Germany in the League. He proposed to do away with cumbersome, formal and written negotiations. In March 1926, in Geneva, the Locarnites met in Austin Chamberlain’s hotel room for a “roundtable discussion of the real Locarno kind.” With this newsreel sound bite, Chamberlain, Briand, Stresemann, Mussolini and Vandervelde, ‘the Locarno group,’ reconvened. Stresemann, Briand and Chamberlain met quarterly throughout the rest of the 1920’s.
“These ‘Geneva tea parties’ as they were derisively called, became far more important than the meeting of the League which occasioned them…the unique qualities of the Locarno diplomatic method were the exclusiveness, secrecy and informality of the meetings and their frequency and regularity…the meetings were criticized at the time…as a return to secret diplomacy dominated by a few great powers.”
By the first of August 1928, Locarno was struggling. Stresemann signed the vague Kellogg-Briand pact, a lame encore to Locarno. Occupation continued and evacuation did not occur, as promised. Germany’s position hardened as occupation and limits on their sovereign negotiating power was over-ruled in Eupen Malmedy. Stresemann, who had practically promised the end of the occupation of the Rhine to the Reichstag in his pitch for Locarno, was compromised. Austin Chamberlain and Aristide Briand combined to sign the Anglo-French Disarmament Compromise. This “completely disregarded German interests…London and Paris would not hesitate to collaborate at Berlin’s expense.” With his Locarno contacts secretly engaged in an anti-German treaty, Stresemann was isolated, as well as ill.
The repudiation of Stresemann in the German government was a repudiation of a moderate European consensus approach, but the swings to the right--and towards violence--in Germany in the late 1920’s happened in a context of French inflexibility. Greater concessions on the occupation of the Rhineland could have better secured the stability of the Weimar Republic. Raymond Poincarre in his narrow reading of Thoiry, Locarno and Versailles (in reference to the Eupen-Malmedy and occupied Rhine) was a great irritant, especially considering the manifest moderation of Germany during the Locarno/League processes. In his refusal to allow Germany to negotiate, Poincarre weakened the German leadership’s position in the Reichstag.
Of course the Belgian and French governments did feel justified. They saw good reasons for resisting evacuation until reparations had been paid. They felt justified in not appearing to “sell” the Eupen-Malmedy provinces assigned to Belgium by Versailles.
Continental European governments did not want to go in front of the electorate looking ‘soft’ on Germany. Aristide Briand and Austin Chamberlain had seen the Weimar republic as something greater, a vehicle for them to balance the powers in Europe. Gustav Stresemann was their indispensable window into the inscrutable Reichstag.
Stresemann brought himself and Germany to the table as a major player to be respected. His identity, as a reformed monarchist, a center right bourgeoisie democratic republican placed him in the dexterous center of the German political spectrum. But his degradation by foreign and domestic forces brought the death of Locarno and the rise of the far right to power.
Grathwol plainly states, “Gustav Stresemann counted on the Locarno accords of October 1925 to pave the way for peaceful revision of the Versailles treaty.” Grathwol times the death of ‘esprit d’Locarno’ to Stresemann’s comments of August 22, 1926 (the principals signed in Switzerland on 16 October 1925). Stresemann’s notes indicate him telling the French charge d’affaires in Berlin of an imaginary wake, where “the hopes which arose in Locarno are laid to rest, under a tombstone bearing the inscription: “Here lies the Spirit of Locarno.”
At that moment the French under Raymond Poincarre had just vetoed any restoration of Eupen and Malmedy to the German Reich. Belgium, under pressure from the new government in France, could not continue to negotiate a currency bond from the German government in exchange to the release of the (non-Belgian) border provinces. Poincarre had held too strictly to a Versailles border freeze, and had not allowed Germany to continue its sensitive bilateral boundary and occupation negotiations.
If Poincarre was going to stand on a narrow Versailles boundaries freeze, German ascendancy was premature and false. Any fully sovereign state could parcel out or absorb a region the size of Eupen Malmedy with ease. France’s heavy-handed treatment of Stresemann’s sovereignty undercut the appearance of a new Constitutional Weimar partnership. Essentially, Stresemann had to stop working with Belgium, after committing to sensitive negotiations. This French order marks the end of Locarno’s ascendance.
Critical analysis of the German 20th century experience usually hinges on political, economic, race, class and gendered role discussions. Gender, class, race, ethnicity issues and liberal political models of analysis are all needed to interpret the period. One further axis of profitable probative value is the human generation factor. Stresemann's death in the fall of the tenth year of the interwar decade gives this approach an emphatic punctuation and an easy starting point. There was a Nazi generation in Europe circa 1925 to 1945 and this is the generation that broke faith with the constitutional system, law proper. This generational approach, which is related to rigorous periodization, supports the emerging consensus that the Weimar did not ‘fail,’ per se. The Weimar generation passed on responsibility and the generation of the 1930’s in Germany failed. Certainly Stresemann’s passing is a strophe, beyond which no ‘Spirit of Locarno’ or any internationally respected Germany resides.
The generational analysis shows us a youth culture in Weimar torn by Hitlerjunge and western preserves. Very rapid modernization of mass media endowed the late Weimar with an exceptionalism, which was masterfully driven into mass militant reaction by Alfred Hugenburg, Herman Goering and Adolf Hitler (for the DNVP, Luftwaffe and NSDAP). After the death of Ebert, Stresemann and countless other politically savvy internationalist republicans die away. “Revision” gives way to re-arming, while “appeasement” gives way to invasions. The will to oppose the militants fades without the experienced leadership of Stresemann, Luther and the center coalition. The youth, with a limited memory of 1914-1919, is driven by voluminous and corrosive propaganda, and participates in a ‘legal junta’ between 1930 and 1945. These events fall beyond the scope of this enquiry, but the Weimar generation of leadership, the Republican ‘adults’ of the 1920’s did not fail. Their successors did indeed fail, by any standard.
The Whig analysis of Weimar gives us much that conforms to the Gladstone and Disraeli view of politics--and much that does not. Empathizers with romantic notions of the proportional plurality’s political infallibility have certain blind spots and limited range when considering the Weimar period. Certainly, Gustav Stresemann’s dealings with the DNVP, heavy industry and royalism should make these limits clear.
One final question can close this study of Weimar in the 1920’s. Did the stock and banking failures of late October 1929 have their roots in Stresemann’s death? As Palmer states, when Stresemann died on October 3rd, “everything pointed to continuing disintegration of the democratic consensus, of the…coalition, and the increasing radicalization of all parties and interest groups…Stresemann’s life work was completely ignored by the German right.” Confidence can reside largely in one man or woman, and Germany’s cartel of international heavy industries was deeply interknit with the U.S. corporate elite. Did Stresemann’s death cause the Great Depression? No, but the question brings up some interesting points. First, the generational shift is key to understanding Nazi ascendancy, which is centered in a specific time frame. Second, the new modern electronic and high-resolution photographic mass media were placing unprecedented attention on a few visible figures, enlarging their sway and authority. And thirdly, to the world at large and powerful Allied elites in particular Stresemann was a living symbol--or rather the actual representative—of a lawful, constitutional Germany they could trust.
At the time of Stresemann’s death in October 1929, the Catholic Centre party shifted to the right and called for a charismatic leader. The DDP Democrats turned nationalist and anti-Semitic. The SPD shot at the Communists in the street. By December 22, 1929, the DNVP and the Nazis had combined to kill the Young Plan (a Stresemann sponsored U.S. reparations plan) in the Reichstag. A week later the 1920’s were officially over and the ‘Spirit of Locarno’ was dead. Fascism, war and genocide would follow.
The Constitutional Republic would fall under the weight of the right wing paramilitary racists in the early 1930’s, and the optimism that had developed for a German Republic was squelched. While we feel some natural empathy for the loyal Weimar republicans, there are limits to the ‘Whig’ analysis. In explaining the successes and failures of Gustav Stresemann and the Weimar era, the traditional ‘Whig’ analysis must be bolstered by class, race, gender and generational methods of critique.
Grathwol, Robert P. “Germany and the Eupen Malmedy Affair 1924-1926: ‘Here Lies
The Spirit of Locarno’” Central European History (September 1975) 221.
Heiber, Helmut. The Weimar Republic. Translated by W.E. Yuill. Cambridge, Mass:
Jacobson, Jon. Locarno Diplomacy: Germany and the West 1925-1929. Princeton NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1972
LaFeber, Walter. The American Age: US Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad Since
1896 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Palmer, Torsten. The Weimar Republic: Through the Lens of the Press. Edited by Henrik
Neubaur. Translated by Maike Dorries et al. Cologne: Konemann, 2000.
Peukart, Detlev. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. New York:
Hill and Wang, 1992.
Stresemann, Gustav and Aristide Briand, et al. Final Protocol of the Locarno Conference:
The Conference of Locarno, October 5-16, 1925. Updated August 1997.
<http://www.lib.byu.e...8/locarno.html> (February 18, 2001)
Turner, Henry Ashby, Jr. Stresemann and the Politics of the Weimar Republic.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
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Gustav Stresemann, the Spirit of Locarno
and the Weimar Foreign Policy of the 1920’s.
This paper allowed me to conduct a fairly
in-depth political study of an important period.
I used secondary and primary sources.
A Guide to Primary Visual Documents
1. Mock Menu for Locarno Conference. Top left, Austin Chamberlain and Aristide Briand. Stresemann second from right top. Signers as angels eating duck.
2. David Low cartoon of signers Briand, Chamberlain and Stresemann. Briand holds a boxing glove behind his back. The French use of force hangs over pact.
3. Photo of Gustav Stresemann, circa 1919.
4. Photo of Stresemann and microphone, circa 1928.
5. Photo of Stresemann, c. 1922, with bio and bibliography.
6. Photo of Aristide Briand, 1930.
7. Photo of President Friedrich Ebert, late 1918.
8. Friedrich Ebert Dining with American Quakers, 1923.
9. Murdered moderate Mathias Errzberger.
9a. Chancellor Joseph Wirth.
10. President Paul von Hindenburg with military aides, circa 1927.
11. A typical political event in Weimar, ex-Chancellor Muller, 1925.
12. Death Mask of Gustav Stresemann, October, 1929.
13. Gustav and Kathe Stresemann, c.1925.
14. Stresemann; Stresemann with Briand and Austin Chamberlain, 1928.
15. Stresemann at Lugano, 1928.
15b. DNVP rally against Locarno.
16. May anti-Nazi rally of the SPD in Berlin, c.1926.
17. Weimar Chancellor Bruning 1931.
17b. Elite Nazis in uniform.
18. NSDAP Reichstag members going into parliament in uniform. C. 1932.
19. Nazis march against Locarno Treaty, 1926.
20. Nazi demonstration, early 1920’s.
21. Tourism Description of Locarno, Switzerland.
22. Cordell Hull memo to FDR concerning Rhineland, the breach of Locarno 1936.
All photos from Palmer’s Weimar, unless otherwise credited.
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