Prof Rempel lecture: foreign policy problems

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Weimar 1926-29: Foreign Policy Problems

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


One of the handicaps from which the republican regime suffered was its acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles. The conduct of foreign policy was, therefore, an especially tricky matter for any republican government. Having opted for the West and for democracy in 1919, Germany could regard herself as having been rebuffed by the West at Versailles. It was natural to reconsider the other option, alignment with Russia, without, of course, accepting communism. As a dissatisfied ''revisionist'' power, Russia could regard the League of Nations as an organization of the victors alone.

Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, foreign minister in 1919 and later ambassador in Moscow, tended to think in terms of an alliance with Russia. But Walther Rathenau, the German foreign minister in 1922, conceived of German-Russian relations differently. He wished to gain freedom of diplomatic maneuver by means of treaties and agreements with Russia, but without sacrificing the long-range goal of accommodation and alignment with the West.

I. Treaty of Rapallo

The celebrated Treaty of Rapallo between Germany and Russia reflects this attitude. The treaty came into being more on Russian, not German, initiative. The Russians took advantage of German reaction against what was regarded as French sabotage of the Genoa conference on reparations. The circumstances of its signing were more dramatic than its contents. It provided for the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries and for abandonment of any claims to reparations on either side. It constituted, therefore, much more a liquidation of past unpleasantness than an indication of a fundamental shift in German foreign policy for the future.

The treaty was taken much more seriously in the West by public opinion and the press, than by the governments whose protests were mostly pro forma. The press tended to regard it as a symbol and to suspect that it contained more than met the eye. Rapallo did not damage Germany's relations with the western powers in general or with respect to reparations specifically. The occupation of the Ruhr a few months later, had nothing to do with it.

The ghost of Rapallo is still brought up when a German rapprochement with Russia is discussed, but an assessment of the treaty in cold-war terms is off the target. There did exist secret agreements between Germany and Russia, but these for the most part preceded Rapallo, were unrelated to it, were concerned specifically with military matters. They were negotiated by military leaders of the two countries, though with the knowledge of the civilian leaders in the governments. They provided for purely practical cooperation between the two armies in matters of supply and training, without political implications. General Hans von Seeckt, the commander-in-chief of the German army, did harbor ideas of a future extension of the agreements into the economic and political spheres, and for this reason welcomed Rapallo, but that does not mean that Rapallo reflected Seeckt's anti-French views.

The best proof of the compatibility of Rapallo with a continuing fundamentally western orientation of German foreign policy is the welcome Gustav Stresemann gave to to Rapallo when he was in the middle of negotiations with the western powers on reparations. Stresemann approved the military cooperation agreements between Germany and Russia, though as a right-of-center politician he, no more than Seeckt, had any use for Russian domestic politics. The left-of-center politicians such as Rathenau and the Social Democrat Carl Severing, who had consented to the military agreements, were aware of and at least tacitly approved the undercover German rearmament to which the agreements contributed. It should therefore come as no surprise that Stresemann did likewise. He believed that a strong army would strengthen his hand in negotiations to relieve Germany of the other disabilities imposed at Versailles.

He believed even more strongly in Germany's capacity for economic recovery and expansion, provided a lessening of political tension, a better international climate, could be brought about. Therefore Stresemann's first concern was to win confidence abroad in the peaceful aims of German foreign policy, even while he was secretly supporting rearmament in violation of Versailles. What he needed above all, in the short run, was to gain time.

He once compared himself to the medieval man about whom the story went that, having been sentenced to death, he asked for a year's grace during which he promised to teach the king's horse bow to fly. When his friends pointed out that it was useless to prolong the agony with no hope in the end, the man is said to have explained: ''By the time a year has passed, the king may die or I may die or the horse may die. Or perhaps, who knows, the horse may really learn how to fly!''

Stresemann's long-range aims, if he could succeed in gaining time, were to put an end to the Allied occupation of the Rhineland; obtain a tolerable solution to the reparations question; recover Danzig and the Polish Corridor and seek restoration of territory in Upper Silesia; ultimately, unite with Austria; and gain German admission to the League of Nations as a means of achieving these other goals. Stresemann had not abandoned nationalism, but was determined to pursue it realistically, in the tradition of Bismarck, not after the fashion in which he had once been a fanatical annexationist. To the extent that realism meant appreciation of the necessity of re-establishing and maintaining a European comity, Stresemann, like Bismarck, was a European, not just a German, statesman.

But attempts to see Stresemann as a ''good European'' by the standards of the European Economic Community, are as wide of the mark and as false as the cold-war perspective on Rapallo. On the other hand, it is equally true that Stresemann should not be judged by comparison with the policies and activities of the DNVP, or of even more extreme forms of nationalism, which ought not be allowed to set standards.

It is nevertheless relevant to point out that Stresemann achieved a far greater degree of success, from a purely German point of view, than the nationalist hotheads who made his life miserable could have done. The Dawes Plan for relief of the reparations burden; the treaties of Locarno and Berlin; German admission to the League of Nations; the evacuation of the Rhineland; and the final settlement of reparations in the young Plan-all these were Stresemann's achievements (though the last two took effect only after his death). They were achievements for which, as foreign minister in successive governments, he had to struggle continually against the domestic German opposition on the right which accused him of being ''soft on the Allies.''

It is only a slight oversimplification to suggest that Stresemann bought the consent of the DNVP for his foreign policy with domestic concessions. As early as 1924 the DNVP was brought into government at the insistence of Stresemann's own party, which felt exposed to the pressure of the DNVP, which was twice its size. This move did indeed bring about some moderation within the DNVP under changed leadership. At the same time, a policy of compromise with the still anti-republican DNVP endangered the support that Stresemann also needed from the SPD. No sooner was the DNVP in the government than it began pressing for reintroduction of protective agricultural tariffs, adopted against SPD opposition in the Reichstag. The tariffs were of such nature that they helped the big estate owners more than the small peasants, large numbers of whom continued to be evicted from the land for nonpayment of mortgages.

Under such conditions discontent with the republican ''system'' grew among those who remained on the land. When in 1927 the SPD finally abandoned its admiration of large-scale agriculture and came out for land reform, it was too late. The SPD had tried to establish cooperation between peasants and urban workers in support of the republic and of democracy. It also wanted to maintain a balance between producers and consumers. But it did not work. The Junkers were strongly entrenched and the peasants alienated.#

II. Breakdown of Stresemann's Government

On the other hand, the SPD also bore much of the responsibility, indirectly, for the entry of the DNVP into government. This shifted of the whole political spectrum further to the right. The SPD had left the Stresemann government as early as October 1923, because of the inequity in Stresemann's treatment of right wing radicalism in Bavaria and left-wing radicalism in Saxony. The first ''Great Coalition'' had lasted less than two months. But the SPD found itself no better off, for Stresemann's rump government was in a minority in the Reichstag and could survive only if it were tolerated by either the DNVP or SPD. Since the DNVP would have nothing to do with the chancellor who had called off the Ruhr resistance, the responsibility was still the SPD's.

It was the misfortune of the SPD, the most wholehearted of all the parties in its commitment to the Weimar Republic, to be repeatedly confronted with insoluble problems of operation of a multi-party system in an unsettled society with disloyal oppositions on both left and right. In this particular situation, the party's leaders were fairly certain that if they brought Stresemann down the next government would be no better from their point of view; on the other hand, they were convinced that they would lose many voters to the Communists if they did not maintain their strong stand against federal intervention in Saxony.

This latter consideration prevailed; President Ebert, himself a Socialist, declared to the SPD leaders in the Reichstag after they had voted Stresemann out in November 1923: ''The reasons for your overthrow of the government will be forgotten in a few weeks; but you will continue to feel the consequences of your folly for ten years.'' The futility of the SPD's gesture was emphasized by the fact that the party saw itself obliged not only to tolerate the succeeding government of the Center leader Wilhelm Marx, which did indeed stand to the right of Stresemann's, but even to grant it temporary emergency powers.

By the following March, however, the SPD could no longer hold to this line. The Communists were again putting pressure on SPD voters over the government's use of its emergency powers, and the SPD forced a dissolution. But this policy proved no better than the other, for in the elections the Communists made big gains. Most former USPD voters did not follow their leaders in their fusion with the SPD, but voted KPD instead. Marx still found himself with a minority government, and in due course called a second election; but the middle parties still remained a minority needing support from either right or left. It was then that the new chancellor, the Independent (but generally conservative) Hans Luther, on the DVP's urging, drew the DNVP into the cabinet.

The two parliamentary elections of 1924 were followed by the presidential election of 1925 after Ebert's death. Here also there was a marked drift to the right, precipitated by short-sighted and inconsistent behavior on Stresemann's part. He torpedoed the candidacy of Otto Gessler, a member of the Democratic Party but a Catholic and as minister of war a strong supporter of the army, on whom all the non-Socialist parties were about to agree, on the ground that he would make a bad impression in France. But when, after an inconclusive round in which each party offered its own candidate, the DVP and DNVP drafted Field Marshal von Hindenburg to stand against Marx, the candidate of the Weimar Coalition parties, Stresemann raised no objection.

Hindenburg won, partly because of his great personal prestige and his attraction for all who indulged in monarchical nostalgia or Great-Power longings, partly because the KPD persisted in its own candidacy which drew off sufficient votes from Marx to throw the election to Hindenburg. The president of the Republic had been elected by an anti-republican plurality, as well as being anti-republican himself. Perhaps the closest parallel to such an event is the election of Louis Napoleon in 1848.

The rightward trend in German politics continued until 1928, when it was halted by the return of a political issue from another world. The DVP, regarding itself as the successor to the National Liberals and in memory of the Kulturkampf, brought down Marx's fourth coalition government over a confessional-school bill. This development was not unwelcome to Stresemann, who had been pressing for some time for a government oriented more toward the parties which approved his foreign policy. When the elections registered a modest swing to the left, he successfully urged the formation of a Great Coalition similar to his own of 1923, but under the leadership of the SPD as the largest party. The SPD leader, Hermann Müller, thereupon became chancellor.

But the decision to seek support on the left came too late. Stresemann was losing control of his own party. Nobody will say that he had not enough to do directing German foreign policy and in a general way watching over domestic developments with a view to securing freedom to execute that policy. Nevertheless, it remains that he was also a party leader, and his failure to align the party firmly behind him proved extremely damaging both to him and to the idea of political reconciliation and collaboration with the SPD. In fact, the DVP was drifting rapidly to the right and became increasingly restless as the SPD's coalition partner. It was in the cards that any serious tension would cause the coalition to break apart again, as had Stresemann's own coalition.

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


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