Stresemann and Weimar

Prophet of European unity or pre-Hitler nationalist bent on wiping out Germany's Versailles humiliation? Sixty years after his death, Jonathan Wright reassesses the career and motives of Germany's leading statesman of the 1920s.

Gustav Stresemann, who became foreign minister of the Weimar Republic in 1923 and remained in that office until his death in October 1929, is one of the most controversial of the German political leaders of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He ranks, with Bismarck, Hitler, Adenauer and Brandt, as a figure who exerted a profound influence on Europe. From being a violent nationalist in the First World War, he became the leading statesman of the Weimar Republic. Together with the French foreign minister, Aristide Briand, and the British foreign secretary, Austen Chamberlain, he negotiated the Locarno Pact in 1925. This held out the promise of peace after the ravages of war and the turmoil of the immediate post-war period. Yet, over this achievement hangs a question mark. Was Stresemann's goal a peaceful Europe in which Germany was a reliable partner, or was his aim rather the step by step revival of Germany as a great power until it had regained a position of dominance?

His career provides evidence for both interpretations. He was born in Berlin in 1878 into a modest home. His father had a small business bottling beer and their house doubled as a bar. His grandfather had taken part in the revolution of 1848 and left a collection of radical books. The young Stresemann read these avidly and identified with the ideas and language of the intellectuals of the 1840s, a heady brew of nationalism and liberalism. This mixture, in origin the reaction of the German middle classes against the division of Germany under more or less autocratic rulers, stayed with him all his life. It is the first key to understanding his career and also the first obstacle, because it was itself ambiguous. Was the legacy of 1848 one of liberalism or nationalism? It was both.

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