Rethinking the Weimar Republic as Paradigm: Authority/less and Authoritarianism

Anthony McElligott (University of Limerick)

The Weimar Republic is invariably seen as a weak and divided polity that failed to both overcome the structural and contingent problems that plagued its economy and to transform the anti-modern forces that undermined its fledgling democratic institutions; weakened from 1929 onwards, it finally succumbed to political and social extremism that ended in Hitler’s chancellorship in 1933. For scholars of the republic, especially German scholars, the ‘Weimar paradigm’ became the object lesson in failed democracy – they studied it in order to avoid the pitfalls.[1]

This approach is now undergoing revision, and has been for some time. For example, Weimar’s cultural scene in particular has been the object of much scholarship that has sought to reinstate a positive image of the republic as a site of exciting and experimental modernity that was ahead of its time. But Weimar modernity too, succumbs to the paradigm of tragic failure.[2]

Perhaps it is now time to reassess the paradigm. Recent scholarship suggests a less supine republican culture[3]; more resilient institutions[4]; robust civic culture[5]; but also harbouring an authoritarian strain in its efforts to reform the social body and to regenerate the nation after the deprivations of the First World War.[6] My paper attempts to rethink the republic, not as weak and divided, nor as a failed experiment in democracy, but as a complex hybrid of liberal progressivism and authoritarian supervision.


[1] See for example, Sebastian Ullrich, Der Weimar-Komplex: das Scheitern der ersten deutschen Demokratie und die politische Kultur der frühen Bundesrepublik 194 –1959 (Göttingen, 2009)

[2] For a recent example of this approach Eric Weitz, Weimar Germany. Promise and Tragedy (Princeton, N.J., 2007)

[3] Nadine Rossol, Performing the Nation in Interwar Germany: Sport, Spectacle and Political Symbolism, 1926-36 (London and New York, 2010)

[4] Thomas Mergel, Parlamentarische Kultur in der Weimarer Republik (Düsseldorf, 2002)

[5] John Bingham Weimar Cities: The Challenge of Urban Modernity in Germany, 19191933 (London, 2007)

[6] Young-Sun Hong, ‘The Weimar Welfare System’ and Adelheid von Saldern, ‘‘Neues Wohnen’: Housing and reform’ both in Anthony McElligott (ed.), Weimar Germany (Oxford, 2009)

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