A Bridge Between Chasms : THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, By Detlev J.K. Peukert Translated by Richard Deveson (Hill and Wang: $28; 334 pp.)

Chernow is the author of "The House of Morgan," which won the 1990 National Book Award for nonfiction. He is currently writing a history of the German-Jewish Warburg banking family

The Weimar Republic was the epilogue to one tragedy, the prologue to another. It was a bridge between two abysses so fathomless and dark that the historian can scarcely write about it without getting sucked into the two adjoining whirlpools. Born amid the despair of German defeat in World War I, the new constitutional order was a burst of righteous anger against an obsolete monarchy and outmoded values and a fervent expression of faith in a new order. Its failure would be freighted with the terrible burden of having ushered in the Third Reich.

The period has long been celebrated for its modernism, its restless experimentation in arts and letters. The abrupt demise of inherited beliefs created a vacuum in which old inhibitions vanished and forbidden thoughts and feelings surfaced. Meanwhile, so many new economic and social institutions emerged as to form a virtual laboratory for the coming century.

In "The Weimar Republic," Detlev J. K. Peukert points out that the modernity that so excites us was precisely what aroused anxiety at the time. Germans shrank from the sudden modernization of society, the accelerated tempo of change. If we view the racy Berlin world of cabarets with nostalgia, many contemporaries saw it as something closer to Sodom and Gomorrah. For these cheerless souls, the Third Reich wouldn't seem a lapse into madness so much as a healthy restoration of sound values. Overwhelmed by change, people sought psychic relief from the stress and found it in the oblivion of totalitarian politics.

Taking the reaction to modernity as his central theme, Peukert has written a book on Weimar so densely packed with insights as to feel almost monumental in scope. Written with formidable Teutonic density and weight, it is a study of trends, not people and events. Specialists will find it a richly rewarding tour d'horizon , while the lay reader may have the disturbing sensation of stepping off a train in forbidding territory amid a babble of alien voices. He will look about for Brecht or Hitler or some familiar face and find a blizzard of statistics instead. That's a shame, for Peukert has not only an encyclopedic knowledge of the period, but a mind bristling with fresh and unexpected observations.

He disputes the common idea that Germany inevitably followed a Sonderweg , or special path of development, setting it apart from its neighbors. Yet if some special curse lay over Germany's destiny--if it was doomed to dreadful happenings--it had to do with the belated advent of industrialization in the 19th Century.

At first, change was seen as welcome and overdue. Imperial Germany prided itself on its gigantic, forward strides as it joined the club of modern nation-states. Patriotic bombast submerged whatever uneasiness existed about the rapid reshaping of the new Reich. In Peukert's view, many modernist tendencies that flowered in the 1920s began to germinate at the turn of the century. The Great War, which began in euphoria and ended in disenchantment, banished old elites, allowing change on a scale hitherto unthinkable.

For Peukert, the Weimar Republic wasn't an embarrassing disgrace but a brave failure, crushed beneath the weight of economic crises that would have destroyed even more solid regimes. "Perhaps the miracle of Weimar is that the Republic--despite a never-ending series of greater and lesser crises--actually survived as long as it did," he writes. The hyper-inflation and reparations had especially dire effects, he argues, because the Weimar Constitution had enshrined the welfare state. It granted citizens not only political freedoms but also economic expectations and social entitlements. By raising expectations amid stagnant or even shrinking wealth, it fell victim to its own millennial dreams and sweeping ambitions. The crisis of the welfare state led to the republic's loss of political legitimacy.

Outwardly, the transition from monarchy to republic to barbarism has always seemed like a chaotic series of radical discontinuities. It is still hard to believe that the sophisticated, avant-garde art and reform efforts of the 1920s gave way to some of the most brutish, regressive forms of behavior in human annals. Peukert shows that many disturbing aspects of the 1930s already existed a decade before, albeit in harmless, even benign forms. In many cases, the Nazis didn't simply reject Weimar but also transmogrified it and exploited it for their own purposes.

For instance, social reformers of the 1920s had a Utopian faith in science and social engineering. They stressed health, cleanliness and eugenics, and were preoccupied by how the poor would affect the national "genetic stock." Some wondered what would happen as the welfare state sustained feeble citizens who might otherwise have perished. In the Third Reich, these concerns would be transformed into racial biology.

The 1920s also introduced technologies that lent a mechanized feeling to mass society. On the industrial front, the time-and-motion studies of Taylorism and the rise of industrial cartels produced workplace regimentation. The radio and loudspeaker produced a capacity to mobilize the populace into a mass movement. Peukert's verbal portraits of Weimar eerily foreshadow the coming era: "It was a period of mass marching columns, huge rallies, great sporting events and mass spectacles in the theatre, as well as of mass production in industry and mass construction in the new architecture."

These technocratic visions tantalized and repelled the Germans. There was a vogue for things American--smart clothes, bobbed hair, home appliances, movies, etc.--that had great appeal, but also seemed fraudulent in a collapsing economy. Drab realities mocked the synthetic glitter. "Americanization" also led to overblown fears that the German character would be obliterated in the process. The revulsion against this mechanized society perhaps had something in common with the frenzy that swept Iran in the 1970s, as people escaped from modernity into absolutist conformity and a mythical past.

As Peukert notes, the uneasiness about modernism was more than just a reactionary reflex. The Nazis, to be sure, represented "a resentful anti-modernism pure and simple." But many "modernists," such as Brecht, actually rebelled against the organized vulgarity of the new consumer society. In a brilliant intellectual turn, Peukert shows that the Nazis, despite their Nordic pageants and pseudo-mythology, represented an extreme form of modernity. The goose-stepping soldiers, the stadium rallies, the blaring loudspeakers shrill with command--all reflected the soulless machine age of pliant automatons doing the Leader's bidding: the Third Reich as mechanized nightmare.

In the final section, Peukert shows that the Nazis stepped into the political vacuum of the failed Weimar experiment, but didn't bring it about. The moderate political parties had bludgeoned each other to death, while the old guard dealt Weimar the coup de grace in the early 1930s in their bid for an authoritarian politics founded on the old elites. Demoralized and divided after the crisis-ridden years, the German people turned to a charismatic Fuhrer as their last hope. The Nazis' predecessors had trampled down all obstacles in the Weimar landscape, paving the way for their triumphant entry.

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