Colin Storer is currently Teaching Fellow in Modern German History at the University of Warwick and a Teaching Associate at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Britain and the Weimar Republic: The History of a Cultural Relationship
What initially sparked your interest in Weimar Germany?
My eyes were first opened to modern German history by an A-Level course back in the 1990s. Before that I’d only had the haziest notion of German history, but something about the Imperial and Weimar periods piqued my interest and captured my imagination. I was fascinated in particular by the political and cultural upheavals of the Weimar Republic. I had known about the Russian Revolution, of course, but up until that point had no idea that Germany had experienced something very similar and that this had led to such an exciting and vibrant period of political conflict and artistic expression. My fascination with Weimar was only increased once I started looking exploring the art and literature of the period, and I’ve been researching and/or teaching about the period almost ever since.
Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which the collapse of the Weimar Republic was the result of economic factors, but whatever side of this argument you come down on it can’t be denied that the structural weaknesses in the German economy and the international economic situation were vitally important during this period. One of the most important (and hotly debated) forces (if it can be called that) which has attracted the attention of historians of Weimar Germany is ‘Modernity’. To a great extent politicians of all stripes spent most of the short lifespan of the republic trying to deal with the political, social and economic legacies of the Imperial period and the First World War, and much of the historical writing on Weimar over the past thirty years or so has focused on the strains placed on Germany by the transition to a modern industrial society and the ways in which different groups and individuals sought to deal with them. Nationalism continued to be a powerful force on the right of German politics, albeit in an increasingly virulent and anti-Semitic form, as did socialism/communism at the opposite end of the political spectrum.
In terms of important events, the unification of Germany as a single nation-state in 1871 should be the starting point for any attempt to understand Weimar Germany. The First World War and the Versailles peace settlement were vital, as was the November Revolution and subsequent political upheaval. The collapse of the Reichsmark in 1923 proved a turning point in the life of the Republic, and the signature of the Locarno Treaties in 1925 seemed to pave the way for Germany’s re-entry into the community of nations. However, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression ushered in another period of economic turmoil and political upheaval which ultimately led to the replacement of the Republican democracy with Nazi tyranny.
A number of individuals played a key role in the development of Germany’s first democracy. Friedrich Ebert, co-chairman of the German Social Democratic Party and first president of the Republic, tried his utmost to create a stable parliamentary democracy after the collapse of the German monarchy in 1918. Similarly, his successor in that office, Paul von Hindenburg proved an important figure in German history, first as wartime Chief of the General Staff and later as a powerful figure on the political right and the man who appointed Hitler Chancellor. Gustav Stresemann, briefly Chancellor in 1923 and subsequently Foreign Minister until his death in 1929, has been called 'Weimar’s greatest statesman'; while other prominent politicians such as Rosa Luxemburg, Phillip Scheidemann, Matthias Erzberger, Walther Rathenau, Hermann Müller, Alfred Hugenburg and Heinrich Brüning played vital roles in the development and ultimate demise of the Republic. Kurt von Schleicher, the eminence grice of the German Army, did much to maneuver Hitler into power, while his mentor, General Wilhelm Groener, played a key role in the crises that book-ended the Republican period. At the same time, in the fields of art, science and culture individuals such as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Martin Heidegger, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Walter Gropius and Josef Sternberg helped make Germany a leader of the European avant-garde.
Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
Most areas of the history of the Weimar Republic have been pretty well covered, but one area that has received less attention (in English at least) is Germany’s foreign relations. There has been comparatively little work in this area outside the study of 'high politics', and Germany’s more informal links with other states deserve further exploration. Related to this is the need to focus less narrowly on Germany and view developments in the Weimar period in a comparative international context. Such a viewpoint can yield interesting and often surprising results and sometimes cause us to revise long-held opinions.
What is your favourite book?
This is a difficult question to answer, as there are so many wonderful books that I find it hard to single out one as my favourite. I think in terms of history books, Gordon Craig’s Germany 1866-1945 remains a firm favourite – insightful, scholarly, elegantly written and still useful and relevant forty-odd years after it was first published. Another firm favourite is Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War which I first read many years ago and found as gripping as any novel.
Britain and the Weimar Republic: The History of a Cultural Relationship (I.B.Tauris, 2010)