Frank McDonough: In Conversation
Frank McDonough is a living legend. Former Professor of International History at Liverpool John Moores University, he is author of many books on Germany between 1918 and 1945 - including the bestselling volumes of The Hitler Years - as well as an instantly recognizable 'talking head', appearing on numerous television programmes and documentaries. Now, with the third book in the series coming out, we caught up with him to talk about a period of history he finds infinitely fascinating: the Weimar RepublicThe unofficial name for the German state between 1919 and 1933..
You're here at Chalke Valley talking about your new book on the Weimar Republic, which precedes The Hitler Years volumes; were they always planned as a trilogy?
So, I call it The Weimar Years because it's the third volume of my history of Germany from 1918 to 1945, and it’s coming out on 31 August. When I was negotiating the books I went for dinner with the publisher – it was quite a heavy dinner actually, a lot of wine was drunk! He was very experienced and he said, ‘I'd like to do the first two volumes of The Hitler Years’. He liked the idea that every chapter was a year because the dates draw out the narrativeA story; in the writing of history it usually describes an approach that favours story over analysis.. He also wanted to put a lot of photographs in the books, which I loved because I wanted to attract new audiences. So, I agreed to do the two Hitler Years volumes and then he said, 'We'll have a prequel on the Weimar period. Do you fancy that?' That's exactly what I wanted to do.
The only thing that worried me is that there are only 12 years for the two Hitler volumes combined, but Weimar stretches for 15 years. Also, I thought it could be difficult because the Nazi period is well-trodden: there are umpteen books that give a chronologyThe arranging of events in the order they occurred in time. of the Nazis where there aren't with Weimar. But I found a Hansard of all the debates in the ReichstagDuring the Weimar Republic, the Reichstag was a legislative body in Germany. After the Nazi takeover, it became purely a ceremonial assembly. between 1918 and 1933, and there were a lot of papers that were already out there, as well as loads of books on it. So doing a synthesis proved quite easy, really, in the end. I had this structure I wanted to do, which is a full political history. There is no other political history of Weimar like that: when I taught Weimar, we either did the November Revolution, we did 1923 and inflationA general increase in prices and fall in the purchasing value of money., or we did the late rise of Hitler from 1930 to 1932.The November Revolution is the civil conflict within Germany at the end of the First World War, which led to the overthrow of the constitutional monarchyThe king/queen and royal family of a country, or a form of government with a king/queen at the head. and the establishment of the Weimar Republic. The 1923 hyperinflation crisis was caused when Germany missed a reparations payment (demanded by the Allies after the First World War), which in turn led to French occupation of the industrial Ruhr region, and eventually, to children using stacks of money as toys. So there was no overall information for Weimar – who was in power or who was the prime minister. But I foreground the political history with all the cultural highlights. If you're interested in Cabaret, or you're interested in Metropolis, if you're interested in New ObjectivityA German art movement, from the Weimar era, that was a reaction against Expressionism., if you're interested in BauhausA German artistic movement that attempted to combine fine arts with elements of design, including mass production and functionality., if you're interested in Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, then that's all there as well.
It's such a fascinating time because there are these two clashes of culture.
It's amazing how little the culture affects the politics. The culture is down to the fact that it was a democracy, and artists and people in general could feel more free, which made a difference. There were certain people who were glorying in this, mostly on the left. But the left was a contested area as well: about whether culture was just going to be some kind of capitalistSupporting an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. feeding feast, or whether it was going to be genuinely democratic. So I wanted to put the culture there, but it didn't seem to me, as I went through the story, that it was something that was changing the politics. It seemed to me that politics operated away from the culture. But I don't know: you could go and look at how many times Boris Johnson mentioned culture in his prime minister's questions. He might say, ‘Paul O'Grady's died; I loved his Lily Savage' or something like that, but it's not really a dominant theme – it's a bit flippant. Some people, like Simon Schama, think culture is central to change. I'm not so sure about that: I grew up in the era when The Beatles just finished, but two years later nobody was talking about them. People say, 'The Beatles changed the world', but then John Lennon, in some interview at the end, said, 'We didn't change anything. A lot of accountants have got longer hair, but that's about it.' So what was the impact? The impact was probably the hair.
One of the problems with studying Weimar and the early Hitler years is that we employ so much hindsight: we start at the Final Solution and the Second World WarA global war that lasted from 1939 until 1945. and work backward. Your history of Germany is very good for avoiding that.
It draws you away from that rise-of-Hitler narrative. Obviously Hitler's there, but you see him in a greater context. The politicians take no notice of him until about 1930. It's amazing how little he features in the big debates of Weimar. There are so many other things that happen. Who knew about Friedrich Ebert and the corruption scandals that went on? And he died of peritonitis, when he was only 54.Friedrich Ebert was the first president of Germany, from 1919 until his death in 1925. Also, we always think of the referendums that went on in Nazi Germany, but there were some big referendums during Weimar – one about the expropriation of the land of the princes, another is on the Young Plan. The other bit I like about this book is it shows you how important Gustav Stresemann was as foreign minister. He's a dominant figure in the book, but generally he's an unknown character.Gustav Streseman was, briefly, chancellor of Germany in 1923, but then served as foreign minister from 1923 until his death in 1929.
It's those kind of things that I like the reader to tease out. When I did the Gestapo book, I felt the same: that nobody knows this stuff. And that's a good feeling. Because, of course, The Hitler Years is a familiar narrative, so you are bucking against a ton of different narratives there. With this one, I'm more free. We find out that President Paul von Hindenburg is a bigger figure in bringing down the democracy: I argue democracy is finished in 1930, which is different, and that the Wall Street CrashThe American stock market crash of 1929 that started the Great Depression and had worldwide economic and political consequences. doesn't have any impact on Hitler. He doesn't even mention it in his campaign speeches – he just talks about the corruption of the Weimar system. And there's the fact that there were so many different governments: 20 different governments, 12 different chancellors, eight general elections. The longest serving chancellor is Wilhelm Marx: three years, seven days.
You talk about the instability of Weimar government and one's mind immediately goes to the debacle of British politics in the last year. Is it sensible to draw parallels between now and these democracies that failed?
I think it is very similar to Weimar, except we haven't got an extreme right-wing party to take advantage of it. But we've got the chaos of Weimar: governments come and governments go, and laughing-stock chancellors, laughing-stock prime ministers. We've had five different prime ministers since David Cameron; they had 12 in total, but if you take it over a shorter period of time, say over a five-year period, they had actually fewer during the last part of Weimar than we've had.
Do you think Weimar was just finding its feet, that it could have succeeded given the chance?
It doesn't look like it. If you look at the trajectory of the people who supported Weimar in 1919, 79 per cent of voters vote for parties who support the Weimar Republic. In 1932, 51 per cent vote for parties who want to destroy democracy: the communists want to destroy democracy and, of course, so does Hitler. That statistic alone tells you how much democracy is getting degraded over that period.
What would you say are the main causes for the swing towards totalitarianism?
I think it's because the public, the voters, basically don't think it matters. They don't think the Reichstag matters. And I think they feel as though democracy is not working. So Hitler's plea for a strong leader is starting to have resonance because Germany has become ungovernable. But also there are people pushing down the walls of Weimar, so it's very hard for it to become popular at that stage.
The biggest mistake was to have a constitutionA body of fundamental principles and established precedents by which a state governs itself; or the composition of something. that gave too much power to the president. Now, the constitution was a good idea, based on the American system with its checks and balances. The president is powerful, but he's not all-powerful because of the Senate. The Senate can stop him enacting laws. With this system, they turned that on its head. Only the Reichstag could enact laws and the president couldn't stop them. But he could actually stop the system and start picking his own chancellors; he could enact laws himself. What he could do is take a law that was enacted in the Reichstag by his selected chancellor, and then he gives it a decree under Article 48Article 48 allowed the president of Weimar Germany to assume dictatorial powers for short periods during a state of emergency. and then it's made law.
So I think that's the biggest thing, and I don't think they thought it through. People point to the fact that Friedrich Ebert, who was the president between 1919 and 1925, actually enacted Article 48 about 139 times, and Hindenburg when he first came to power from 1925 to 1930, didn't enact it once – he starts to enact it after 1930. The difference is that Ebert wanted to save the Weimar Republic and Hindenburg was indifferent towards it.
Were there any things about Weimar that shocked you?
The entire violence of the early periods: it seemed to me the violence in the early period was greater than the violence at the end. There was a group, called Organisation Consul, who were an assassination squad who picked out certain famous politicians. One of them was Matthias Erzberger, who'd signed the armisticeAn agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting., and the other one was Walter Rathenau, who was the foreign minister and had just signed the Treaty of Rapallo and a very respected figure around the world. They found out where he went, from his house to work in the morning, and they killed him with two bombs. The way they picked these cases shocked me. Kurt Eisner was the socialist leader of Bavaria, and he got shot in the street. But the assassins of all those people got really lenient sentences.
Is it possibly because there was, from Bismarck and before, this quite authoritarian instinct?
I think so. I think that the dominant group in society were really old conservatives who wanted to bring back the Kaiser. Hindenburg wanted to bring back the Kaiser, which tells you something about him. Even Stresemann supported bringing back the Kaiser – he moved towards a much more liberal approach, but only in about 1928.
How much do you think that Germany is representative of a more general move towards totalitarianism?
I think there was a strong feeling of cracking down on the communists. The communists would get a good beating from the police, who were also less likely to arrest right-wing groups or the Nazis. But the communists in the big cities try to keep the Nazis away. There's this idea that the Nazis are all over the big cities and they're popular. The truth is that 80 per cent of the big fights were started by the communists, and they were territorial: communists would say 'This is a no-go area', but the Nazis would try – they would march through the communistSomeone who believes in the ideals of communism, where property is owned collectively and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. areas, although they normally got a good kicking if they did, because they weren't very popular. If you look at it, they only polled 10 per cent in working-class big cities, but they polled nearly 60 per cent in rural areas that were protestantSomeone following the western non-Catholic Christian belief systems inspired by the Protestant Reformation..
Is it the return to those traditional values?
Did some of the people who wanted Hitler in power want to turn the clock back? I think they did. Also, I don't think they liked this system that was introduced whereby the people had the power. It's funny, isn't it? Weimar is probably more enlightened than Britain, yet Weimar is only more enlightened to a smaller group of people. The rest of the population are against that culture; they're against democracy, they don't think it's any good. There aren't really big demonstrations against Hindenburg and in fact, in 1932, he wins the presidential election.
There are the two standard reasons why Weimar fell. One is the Versailles TreatyThe Versailles Treaty was the peace treaty signed at the end of the First World War. In reality, it was especially harsh towards Germany and has been called 'the twenty-year truce'..
I reject that. My view is the Versailles Treaty was very important in the early part of Weimar, when they couldn't pay the reparations and it led to the high inflation. But then it starts to be less important because America gave them loans to make the payments. And then by 1930, they're not paying anything. So the Versailles Treaty actually wasn't having any impact after 1931. People will go on and on about it, but they had another RM132 billion to pay, which they never paid. They wrote it off themselves: they just defaulted for good. The Allies had had enough of it by then, so they just said ‘leave it’. So Versailles couldn't have brought Hitler to power because it had gone by then.
The other one is that it's all about the economic collapse. Yet the economic collapse was much worse in 1923 with hyperinflation, but the system didn't break down then. It could have broken down, but it didn't – it stayed more or less a liberal system. So it can't be that, can it?
The third one is to say, was it Hitler? But really Hitler never got a large enough vote to be given power without Hindenburg saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. So it couldn't have been that; it's got to be Hindenburg. My view is that we've neglected Hindenburg – let him off the hook. He was the one who suspended the political system. He was the one who moved over to these presidential cabinets which were picked by him. They had absolutely no legitimacy. Look at his last three chancellors: you've got Brüning, he's the austerity chancellor, he's the speaker of the Reichstag, but that's all he is. And then you've got Franz von Papen. He's unknown, he's a member of the Catholic Centre Party, but they've already thrown him out, he's not the leader of a party. Then you've got von Schleicher who's a member of the Army General Staff. Then you're moving from a general to a fellow called Hitler in a pinstriped suit. So it's got to be Hindenburg and the people around him, because these people are important as well: von Papen and von Schleicher, his son Oskar, and Meissner, who's his state secretary. Those are the four people. And he just listens to them. He's against giving Hitler power because he thinks Hitler will want a dictatorship, so at least he's clear about that. But finally von Papen decides, ‘Give him power and we'll control him in a coalition’. I say at the end of the book that Hindenburg's not just the murderer of the Weimar Republic, he's also the undertaker and the grave digger.
It feels like there should be a new biography. Could that be a next project?
It feels like there should be. There should also be a new biography of Stresemann. But there could be the sequel: we all know that from 1945 to 1949 Germany was occupied, so maybe The Occupation Years? I definitely think that's a good project and I think people have got an appetite for these books because the two Hitler Years were bestsellers: they sold more than all my other books put together. Books on Weimar do well as well. I think it’s because it’s not a guilty pleasure. You can say, 'The cover's nothing to do with Hitler: it's about Weimar.’ You don't feel uncomfortable on the train with it!
If you had a safety bubble and could travel anywhere in history, where would you go?
When I was a child, I was given a book as a prize in school, The Rise and Fall of the Third ReichLiterally meaning the third realm or empire. It is the name used to describe Nazi Germany, from 1933 until 1945.. I read the bit about Weimar, and the Munich Beer Hall PutschA failed coup in Munich, led by Hitler and involving other Nazi members as well as the First World War hero General Ludendorff. It led to Hitler having a propaganda platform at his trial, after which he spent a very brief period in prison (where he wrote 'Mein Kampf'). in 1923 fascinated me. Sometimes I'd have dreams of actually being there, as a reporter or something like that. I think it would be a fascinating period – more interesting than the Hitler period. It's in transition, and also it's an experiment. The experiment is where the Germans suppose that they want democracy, but in the end I don't think they ever did. I think the Germans were going down that road towards a dictatorship – it was inevitable. They just had the right people involved at the top of the system to make it happen. Hindenburg wanted rid of the Weimar system, so he was happy. And look at him: he says he doesn't want Hitler in power and then three months later, he's at Potsdam with him saying, 'He's my greatest ever chancellor'. He freezes out Franz von Papen and everyone else and, of course, Hitler kills Schleicher in the Night of the Long KnivesThe Night of the Long Knives was a purge of elements within the Nazi Party - particularly the SA paramilitary arm - and other political opponents between 30 June and 2 July 1934. Officially almost 100 people died (although it's likely to be many more) and many others were arrested..
Who would you have from history as dinner party guests, assuming that language were no barrier?
I'm going to be predictable here and say Oscar Wilde. As I wrote a biography of Sophie Scholl, that'd be a good one, and probably Gandhi.
You can pre-order a copy of The Weimar Years here.