The Weimar Years, Frank McDonough
Frank McDonough's The Weimar Years is the third instalment of, and also the prequel to, the bestselling Hitler Years volumes one and two, published over the last four years. Where the first two volumes considered the periods of Hitler's 'triumph' and Hitler's 'disaster' – 1933-1939 and 1940-1945 respectively – this new volume examines Germany's brief flirtation with democracy from the end of the First World War in 1918 to the death of the Weimar RepublicThe unofficial name for the German state between 1919 and 1933. in March 1933. Primarily a political history, it covers the dramatic and often brutal events that plagued the fledgling democracy in a chronological fashion, taking each year as a separate chapter, providing a detailed yet enthralling step-by-step account of fifteen years of extremes, of successes and failures, and of the gradual descent into madness. As such, all the big events are there – the November Revolution of 1918-1919 and the birth pangs of the Republic, the occupation of the Ruhr and hyperinflation of 1923, the calm before the storm of economic collapse from 1929, and, of course, the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists. But beyond that, there are the lesser-known stories of political assassination, backroom deals and personality clashes, as well as that other aspect that made Weimar so remarkable: the explosion of new ideas in the arts and culture. It is an immense history, and one that is not only accessible but also enjoyable.
McDonough's written style plays no small part in this. Despite dealing with some extremely heavy subjects, he is light, approachable, witty. Dry concepts and ideas, all the nitty-gritty of treaties and economic turmoil, are explained in a clear and never-patronizing manner, becoming interesting and relevant. One of the problems with Weimar – and one of the reasons for Hitler's later popularity – was a lack of charismatic politicians, at least in the long list of Cabinets, each one different yet somehow the same. To many, at the time and since, these men were like Spitting Image's John Major: grey, dull, perhaps with too much of an interest in peas – rather than peace. They were pen-pushers, not personalities. Yet McDonough has breathed life into them in a way that few have. We care when they are assassinated or die of natural causes, brought on too early by the stress of holding the impossible together, and we see how important they actually were. It is a remarkable feat.
There is a further reason, however, for The Weimar Years being so engaging: the use of pictures and illustrations. Politicians are not just faceless names, protests are not just people gathering in streets, patriotism and poverty are not just concepts. Instead, they are there in black and white, and occasionally colour, tangible and evocative. It is a clever technique, used in both of the other volumes as well as being more frequently utilized in other history books, to bring first-rate history to a wider audience, making the big issues and grand tales less daunting, more approachable. No longer is a volume on Weimar only attractive to a bookish few; this will engage holiday-readers, commuters, school children.
The Weimar Republic is one of those periods that will always be part of school and university curricula. My eldest son will be starting his GCSE course this year and, just as I did an unnamed number of years before, he will be studying 'Weimar and the Rise of Hitler'. There is something fascinating about it: how can a respectable society descend so quickly into supporting a regime that is not just autocratic but, very literally, murderous? This, surely, is a question that goes to the very heart of understanding the nature of civilization and, indeed, humanity. It is the essence of the study of history, from Herodotus onwards. And McDonough doesn't disappoint: despite the amount of ink spilt over the fall of Weimar, he has a new, well-considered answer to that question. Whether or not individual readers agree with his conclusions is a matter of personal choice – and his arguments are so balanced, his use of evidence and explanation of historiographyThe study of writing history, or of history that has already been written. so thorough, that there is space to be challenged and still arrive at a different interpretation – but his reasoning is forceful and perceptive. What is more, the text is littered by one-liners – insightful yet concise, and very easy to commit to memory. Examiners for years will be spotting extracts from The Weimar Years.
But The Weimar Years is not just for the student market, despite McDonough's long years of service as a professor of international history. It is a popular history on a subject that has somehow remained out of the popular consciousness – despite its importance. For perhaps there has never been a more necessary time to read this book than now. Although it was planned years ago – before the war in Ukraine; before Covid; before the economic shocks; and before the shambolic politics on both sides of the Atlantic, with one country leaning towards violence and 'notable' personality and the other running through a series of inept governments, and where politicians of both consider the law to be more of a guide than a rulebook – it speaks exactly to where we currently are. History, of course, never repeats itself, but it does plagiarize and it should serve as a reminder. Regimes change, society – particularly when suffering under a cost-of-living crisis and real or imagined external threats – fragments, people make poor decisions. The Weimar Years is a history of all of that; it is the synthesis of a generation's hopes and fears; it is the story of clashing cultures and opposing outlooks, of international relations and internal explosions. It is, quite simply, a book that must be read.