How a German became a European by degrees

Gustav Stresemann
April 4, 2003

Bismarck once noted that he had "always found the word 'Europe' in the mouths of those politicians who wanted from other powers something they did not dare to demand in their own name". It is perhaps for this reason that Gustav Stresemann, who served the Weimar Republic as foreign minister in the mid-1920s and who spoke a great deal of Europe, continues to inspire unease and controversy.

Was he, as his defenders, such as the redoubtable and sceptical John Wheeler-Bennett, argued, "the first of the Europeans"? Or was Stresemann an unreconstructed German nationalist who had donned ill-fitting sheep's clothing to rejoin the European flock with predatory intent? The leftwing British journalist Claud Cockburn, who had heard Stresemann in bibulous and unguarded moments, certainly thought so: "He was one of those Germans who had, at a fairly early date, discovered that the way to get away with being a good German was to pretend to be a good European." It did not help that Stresemann looked the very model of the bourgeois nationalists savagely caricatured by Georg Grosz.

Stresemann has been much studied, but he has now found a sympathetic and authoritative biographer in Jonathan Wright. His Gustav Stresemann is very much a political biography. There is hardly anything about Stresemann's private life. There is also relatively little discussion of his personality as such, or of his broader cultural and intellectual interests. Instead, Wright provides a full and persuasive account of Stresemann's professional progression: from a young and impatient star of the National Liberal Party in the last decade of the German empire before 1918 to the leader of one of its successor parties, the German People's Party (DVP), and thereafter, international recognition.

Wright's biography brings detail and understanding to Stresemann's role in German domestic politics. Thanks to his achievements in organising export-oriented Saxon entrepreneurs against heavy industry and subsidised agriculture, Stresemann rose rapidly to national prominence on the left of the National Liberals. His skills were to be tested to the limits after 1918, as he sought not only to dissociate himself from the ancien régime and its extravagant war aims, but also to establish the DVP as the main Protestant middle-class and centrist party. In this project, Stresemann sought to marginalise and to poach from the more left-liberal German Democratic Party, to seek rapprochement with the Social Democrats despite repeated rebuffs, and to keep the rightwing German National People's Party at arm's length until it was willing to accept the Weimar Republic. By the end, Wright argues, Stresemann had developed a level of "emotional identification" with the republic.

Internationally, during his brief chancellorship in 1923 and as foreign minister from 1924, Stresemann had an even greater mountain to climb. It was a daunting task to carve out some room for manoeuvre for a Germany that had lost the war and been subjected to a territorially and financially punitive peace treaty at Versailles. But Stresemann's job was complicated by the fact that he had been an ardent supporter of annexations during the war. To overcome this handicap and bring about the famous détente with the British and French at Locarno in 1925 was a formidable achievement. To have done so in the teeth of violent opposition on the parliamentary right, suspicion on the left and with little help from fractious party colleagues was even more impressive.

Moreover, Stresemann did it all with mirrors. He was quick to see that Germany, though economically prostrate, could potentially deploy immense financial power to compensate for military weakness. Though deeply opposed to a Soviet alliance, he played on western fears of a "Rapallo-style" rapprochement between Moscow and Berlin to press his claims for a revision of the territorial settlement in the east. Above all, he was sufficiently convincing about détente to persuade the French and Belgians to evacuate the Rhineland slightly early in 1930. At the same time, he cajoled, bluffed and blustered a sceptical audience at home into believing that all this was simply the prologue to a more comprehensive revision of Versailles.

Foreign and domestic policy were inextricably linked for Stresemann. He believed that a successful foreign policy required a domestic consensus within a strong democracy. To that extent, Wright perhaps underestimates continuities with Stresemann's prewar thinking. He reminds us that Stresemann was influenced at university by the neo-Rankean historian Max Lenz and by Otto Hintze. He might have added that Stresemann's subsequent thinking was steeped in classic notions of "geopolitics" and the "primacy of foreign policy" as expounded by Hintze and Leopold von Ranke. Stresemann repeatedly stresses the supreme importance of foreign affairs to a state located "in the heart of Europe" and threatened on all sides.

It was therefore logical that the failure of nationalist annexationism should have driven Stresemann to try more radical ways of guaranteeing German security through cooperation and economic interdependence. He sought to "fulfil" the obligations of Versailles and in so doing overcome them. It is also unsurprising to find Stresemann accommodating the Social Democrats to achieve the domestic cohesion necessary for a vigorous foreign policy.

And because the parliamentary right had to be appeased, too, it was equally necessary for Stresemann to make the kinds of nationalist "noises off" that so unsettled foreign critics and later historians.

In short, Wright is justified in stressing Stresemann's sincerity. He may not have been a "German European" in the self-denying mode that emerged after the second world war: he did not seek a common European future to contain German ambitions. But nor did he regard Europe simply as a vehicle for German expansionism. It may be that his policy of "fulfilment" began that way. If so, Stresemann was soon carried along by the transformative logic of his project: process and rhetoric became substance. As Austen Chamberlain, who as foreign secretary worked with Stresemann in the mid to late-1920s, later observed to Lord D'Abernon, the British ambassador to Berlin: "I have always thought it was by degrees, as it were, that Stresemann became a convert to his own policy and accepted its consequences."

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge.

Gustav Stresemann: Weimar's Greatest Statesman

Author - Jonathan Wright
ISBN - 0 19 821949 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 569

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