Peukert et al. on Weimar as Case Study for Pathologies of “Modernity” (Review)

Detlev J. K. Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. Translated by Richard Deveson. New York: Hill & Wang, 1992. xviii + 334 pp.

The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, written by Detlev J. K. Peukert (1950-1990) and translated from the original 1987 German in 1992, represented a fitting, if premature, capstone for a prodigious output of work in the then maturing fields of Alltagsgeschichte  and Widerstandsgeschichte in the context of the the Third Reich, documenting in great detail the effect of Nazi social policies on “ordinary” Germans and persecuted minorities, as well as Communist resistance to the regime. A promising career of further insightful and provocative contributions to the field was unfortunately cut short by the ravages of AIDS, and if the book presently under discussion is any indication, we were robbed of a critical and stimulating perspective in the ensuing debates over the relative balance and interplay of regressive and progressive tendencies in modern German society—a debate Peukert himself was partially responsible for instigating.

One of the book’s central arguments—certainly its most convincing—is that Weimar represented one of the first, if not the very first, modern welfare state. Granted that some of the specific social provisions had precedents in the Kaiserreich (i.e., Bismarck’s unemployment insurance program), but the Weimar constitution’s scope was hugely expanded not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, as it extended into universal education, public housing, unemployment benefits. Crucially, however, this welfare state had its inception during a decade of economic stagnation, or even contraction in some sectors, seriously restricted its room to maneuver, particularly in its capacity to distribute state funds, upon which the precariouslegitimacy of the so-called “trade union state” was ultimately incumbent.1 In other words, bereft of a founding mythology on which to stake its political survival and dependent on the qualified support of an intact bureaucracy and military, the Republic could only promise to hand out smaller pieces of the pie. To give just one salient example of this quid pro quo, the continuation of hyper-inflationary policies, initially implemented by the old regime to sustain wartime production, gave the newly instated Zentralarbeitsgemeinschaft agreement, with its mechanisms of labor arbitration and union representation, an extended artificial lease on life which promptly was quickly revoked under the conditions enacted by the Dawes Plan of 1924. As a consequence of currency stabilization, capitalists had to shift rising production costs from the world market back onto workers, precipitating protracted wage struggles, while economic rationalization and international competition meant that long-term unemployment became a structural feature of the later political landscape, reaching levels of around 50% in some industries towards the end of the Republic.

This study signaled a wider turn in twentieth-century German historiography that ramified beyond the specific arguments put forth about the Weimar period. In a signal departure from a school of social history which emphasized the outsize influence of preindustrial elites, retention of antidemocratic institutions and structural lag in key economic sectors in Germany, in other words the “persistence of the old regime,” as the title of Arno J. Mayer’s book on the same topic, generalized across Europe, puts it2—and that Nazism constituted the continuation and culmination of this legacy—Peukert contends that the Third Reich in a certain sense embodied the same internal contradictions of modernity under which its predecessor collapsed. Nazism emerges from this reading, then, not simply as an atavistic episode, a clinical mass psychotic reaction against modernity, but rather as an eminently 20th-century phenomenon—a dynamic movement uniquely primed to harness the potential of an expanded government sphere in the age of mass politics. This concern is neatly encapsulated in the unifying theme of totalitarianism, a concept to which he refers regularly to tie together several discrete strands of political thinking in this decade-and-a-half. The promulgation at the outset of World War I of a chimerical Burgfrieden, which promised the abeyance of domestic conflict, and the attendant attempt of the conservative-military complex to place “war socialism” on a permanent corporatist footing were derailed by the adverse outcome of the war and its domestic aftershocks. Yet they offered models of “chauvinistic integration under the hegemony of the military-conservative complex that was eventually to reach its fatal culmination in the era of totalitarianism.”3 The combined circumstances of a disintegrating military front, domestic upheaval and imposed peace terms dictated that the Weimar constitution, rather than emerging more or less “organically” out of a homegrown tradition of liberal and/or republican political theory, would take the form of a transparent “compromise document,” devised to accommodate the competing interests of an complex class society with established parliamentary institutions, yet

it was her very modernity that made Germany susceptible to the temptation to avoid resolving her internal conflicts within a social-liberal constitutional and political system, and instead to displace the pressure externally, resorting to an aggressive, authoritarian, nationalistic system dominated by a military-industrial complex.4

But it is in the following excursion into the realm of social reform that our author reveals most clearly his indebtedness to Foucauldian and Weberian modes of analysis—whereby ostensibly progressive reform, administered via a sophisticated bureaucratic state apparatus, accordingly takes on an increasingly sinister and coercive cast of “social engineering.”5 His thesis here is essentially an expansion on arguments first made in adumbrated form in an influential 1981 essay, “Die Genesis der ‘Endlösung’ aus dem Geist der Wissenschaft” (reproduced in English in 1993), in which he related the (internal) logic of Nazi atrocities back to a technocratic vision of positivistic social improvement. The gradual perfection of society by means of public education, state intervention and scientific endeavor had been an article of faith among progressive reformers since the Enlightenment, but the acute stresses of the modern era set in motion a “fatally racist dynamic” within scientific disciplines whereby the normative value of individual wellbeing was divided into qualitative categories and subordinated to the collective health of the body politic (Volkskörper). Criteria of life and death relative to the perpetuation of the race are subject to public negotiation.6 Geoff Eley basically endorses this viewpoint as follows, with clear references to Foucault:

The ambivalence of reform and the difficulties of assimilating the actual “modernizing” initiatives of the turn of the century to the progressive or liberal-democratic normativity…concerns the dynamics of disciplinary power…the framing and application to the “social body” of new knowledges of science and ambitions of control….it was precisely the most striking manifestations of modern scientific and technocratic ambition in the sphere of social policy that laid the way for Nazi excess….[Eugenics] convened biomedical knowledge, public health, and racial thought on the ground of social policy, and it was there that not only the politics of the family and motherhood but also the most progressive achievements of the Weimar welfare state were completely embedded.7

In a sense, this sort of argument will not sound unfamiliar to those acquainted with the assertions of Critical Theory from Adorno and Horkheimer through to a slew of post-modernists who boldly claim that the totalitarian excesses of the twentieth century represented the apotheosis of the Enlightenment project. But it was only by the early 1980s that trained historians began to examine these ideas more systematically in their particular contexts. Peukert, along with his like-minded colleagues, dealt a substantial blow to uncritical versions of the Sonderweg thesis, along with the adjacent notion that humane ideals must correspond in a linear fashion to “progressive” or modernizing trends. Far from “normalizing” Nazism, these critiques implied that there is nothing normatively stable nor innocuous about the modernization process as such.

Peukert’s thesis, however, has drawn a fair amount of criticism in turn. In the first place, Peukert, in the attempt to draw substantive continuity from Weimar-era reforms to the “racial hygiene” program implemented by the Nazis, from domestic eugenics policies culminating in mass extermination, assigns a greater coherence and unity to the welfare project than is supported by the evidence. Arguably, public opinion towards social welfare in the republican period proved too fractious, its implementation too inconsistent—to provide a popular mandate for its radical extension into family planning, public health, and youth education by racial criteria. As David Crew, who has reconstructed contemporary debates over the proper scale and scope of social welfare in his full-length study Germans on Welfare: From Weimar to Hitler (1998), argues in a separate essay, the welfare state had more proximate causes in the exigent demands of post-war reconstruction and, far from winning adherents to positivist designs for holistic reform, it constituted an arena in which myriad ideological, cultural and material interests to compete for control over limited state funds, leaving little space for disinterested experts to carve out a policy.8 “The discourse on welfare at the end of Weimar was dominated by a mounting ideological backlash against the utopian ambitions of the welfare state, not,” pace Peukert, “by eugenic reformulations of this utopia.”9 Given how prominently themes of conflict, contingency and compromise shape the rest of the book, it strikes the reader as odd that our author should choose to deemphasize these same elements at this particular juncture. More recent forays into the subject of social policy in modern Germany, such as Michelle Mouton’s From Nurturing the Nation to Purifying the Volk: Weimar and Nazi Family Policy, 1918-1945, improve upon Peukert’s speculations precisely to the extent that they foreground not only the divergent responses of various social groups to state mandates under both governments but also the quite dramatic departures themselves taken by the Nazis in state policy design.10 It is for this very reason that Peukert, in conflating the motives and agendas of diverse institutional agents, understates the important fact, which he himself concedes, that eugenicists and various related proponents of “racial science” exerted practically zero influence on policy at either the federal or local level before the Nazi’s capture of the state.

Furthermore, the analytical reorientation towards the institutional practices and discursive politics attendant to bureaucracies and medical-scientific professions almost inevitably prejudiced sympathetic scholars towards both the initial phase of domestic sterilization and euthanasia programmes (most notoriously, the Aktion T4 initiative) and the organization of the extermination camps proper—at the expense of any necessary link between these discrete events. Without treading too deeply into the functionalist vs. intentionalist debate, suffice it to say that the regime of regulated terror which prevailed in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Sobibor and elsewhere was the late development of a campaign of annihilation up to that point carried out largely by improvised conventional and archaic means. Any account of the Holocaust which neglects to connect the later and earlier stages of total war will necessarily leave out part of the explanation. As elsewhere, Peukert arguably searched for continuity in the short-term while missing deeper-set developments.

Along these lines, Helmut Walser Smith, while also appreciative of Peukert’s particular insights, is on the whole skeptical towards the very framing itself of the central questions guiding the research, in that he isolates potentially eliminationist tendencies in Germany from their contemporary, transnational contexts.11 This shift in emphasis not only obscures a common European legacy embedded in colonial policy and racist doctrine, but it further begs the question as to which conditions should have allowed the theoretical positions laid out by scientific racism to realize themselves so fully in one country and not in others. It is this very line of interpretation which he credits, by way of painterly metaphor, for foreshortening the “vanishing point” of German history from 1933 to 1941, shifting the register from the root causes of political authoritarianism to the theory and application of eliminationist racism without tracing “historically profound roots” which made such proposals possible in logistical terms but, more importantly, morally conceivable in light of previous standards of human solidarity.12

While some readers may thus find some of his more general conclusions overdrawn and excessively abstract, Peukert’s study did the salutary service of revising established paradigms and throwing up challenges to scholarly consensus that still powerfully shape Holocaust studies—though many of his points about Weimar itself are uncontroversial now. From a Marxist perspective, there is a further argument to be made for how, under Weimar’s less-than-propitious circumstances, party politics devolved into a crude form of clientelism, exposing the hollow, internal contradictions of both progressive capitalism and liberal democracy, though its implications are not fully articulated. Likewise, eugenic selection as a comprehensive strategy for controlling welfare costs is a provocative and strikingly plausible proposition;13 as uninformed and alarmist as talk of “death panels” in the specific context of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was, there is, unfortunately, very real precedent for such procedures. The book has much to recommend it for, say, a college seminar on the period, where it is guaranteed to generate debate. While it doesn’t offer a similarly synoptic view of the period offered by Eric Weitz’s, Jost Hermand’s or Peter Gay’s more general survey texts, it presents for that same reason a much more focused, streamlined argument. Peukert’s decision to regularly summarize the main takeaways from a particular section in enumerated form helps to maintain the overall flow and readability of the text.


1. Detlev J. K. Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, trans. Richard Deveson (New York: Hill & Wang, 1992), 118-128, 130-146.
2. Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981).
3. Peukert, Weimar Republic, 24.
4. Peukert, Weimar Republic, 51.
5. Peukert, Weimar Republic, 134-136.
6. Detlev J. K. Peukert, “The Genesis of the ‘Final Solution’ from the Spirit of Science,” in Reevaluating the Third Reich, eds. Thomas Childers and Jane Caplan (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1993), 234-252.
7. Geoff Eley, “German History and the Contradictions of Modernity: The Bourgeoisie, the State, and the Mastery of Reform,” in Society, Culture, and the State in Germany 1870-1930, ed. Geoff Eley (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 101.
8. David Crew, “The Ambiguities of Modernity: Welfare and the German State from Wilhelm to Hitler,” in Society, Culture, and the State in Germany 1870-1930, ed. Geoff Eley (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 325-328.
9. Crew, “Ambiguities of Modernity,” 341-342.
10. Michelle Mouton, From Nurturing the Nation to Purifying the Volk: Weimar and Nazi Family Policy, 1918-1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
11. Helmut Walser Smith, The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 192.
12. Smith, Continuities of German History, 1-12.
13. Peukert, Weimar Republic, 139-140, 145-146.