Germany 1923: Hyperinflation, Hitler’s Putsch, and Democracy in Crisis
Jefferson Chase, trans.
New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 2023.
Madness in gigantic proportions. That’s how Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described Germany in the 1920s. Between French re-occupation, communist and fascist putsches, regional separatist movements, mass migration from Eastern Europe, and the popular introduction of television and radio, there was also the main event: hyperinflation. After World War I, the dollar-to-mark currency exchange rate was thirteen and a half. Less than five years later, it would reach into the trillions. When you ordered a half-glass of water, so the joke went, it would cost you a hundred thousand marks. By the time it was poured, it would cost two-hundred thousand. And without a stable financial value, all other values—moral, political, artistic—seemed to lose their footing. Vice became indulgence. Reality took on a dream-like quality. In response, the country became a seance. It begged for a voice from the deep to make sense of what was happening. And eventually that voice spoke.
Germany 1923 by best-selling German historian Volker Ullrich, is about this time period. Ullrich became a household name after the publication of his two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler, Hitler: Ascent 1189-1939 (2016) and Hitler: Downfall 1939-45 (2020). Ullrich’s biography isn’t for the faint of heart. Not just because of its subject, but because of its simultaneous scope and nearness. We are exposed to the grand arena of forces swirling around history’s whiniest megalomaniac, while also never getting a break from his individual psychoses. In it, we see Hitler for what he was: a spectacle; and fascism for what it is: a politics of spectacle. “Who cares rather they laugh at us or insult us,” wrote Hitler in Mein Kempf, “The point is that they talk about us and constantly think about us.” He had no capacity to rule, only the cruelty to dominate. It might sound insulting to both books to compliment Germany 1923 by saying it has little in common with Hitler. But it really is a very different kind of book. It might also sound like a backhanded compliment to call Germany 1923 “accessible” and “a great book for beginners.” But it really is those things. In fact, it might not just be a great book for beginners, it might be the best book for them. Even those unfamiliar with the key parties and players of Weimar Germany will be able to effortlessly follow Ullrich’s narrative. And Ullrich makes plain why one should want to learn about this period. If the conditions between then and now aren’t the same, the mood in many ways is.
Everything has a trade-off, even clarity. In the case of Germany 1923, there is an abundance of factual clarity at the expense of lived experience. For example, the book is organized thematically rather than chronologically, which is great for narrative coherence, but not so much for conveying the overwhelming sense of chaos the average German must have felt during this “concatenation of crises.” Reading events this way, one can't help but detect in oneself a sneaking superiority that might consider Germans as merely moral failures. With all the ducks in a row, each can seem like an easy target. But all the ducks were not in a row. And no one, inside or outside Germany, was immune to the fear and paranoia that led to a longing for easy targets.
The difference was Germany was a defeated nation. A defeated nation that had anticipated being a victorious one. Of course, what country at war doesn’t? But Germany really put its money where its mouth was. Rather than fund their war effort by raising taxes, the government sold war bonds that it thought its conquered foes would pay once citizens came to collect. Marks-in-circulation went from 2.9 billion in August 1917 to 18.6 billion in December 1918. By the end of the war, payments on interest alone were ninety percent of the government’s budget. And it only got worse from there with veteran pensions, business compensations for lost property, and, under the Treaty of Versailles, an indefinite tribune to the Allied victors. Then, there were the inflation-relief payments—government payments to redress the imbalance of spending power with prices. It was the equivalent of putting out fire with gasoline. But what else was the government to do? Mass starvation? Total societal collapse?
While structurally Germany 1923 might make Germany’s impossible situation feel more comprehensible than it actually felt, the book does a brilliant job outlining just how impossible the situation was. To survive, Germany needed to suspend reparation payments. But to suspend reparation payments would invite French occupation. Perhaps commodity-based welfare, rather than monetary-based-welfare, could have tamed inflation. Or price and wage controls. Or full democratization of the economy. But Germany had no leadership for such measures. It was governed by a “grand coalition” of centrism—Bonapartism without a Bonaparte. And there was the rub. Germany never produced a great leader who betrayed its revolution by exporting it. For a time, General Han vons Seeckt was hoped to play that role, but the fact that he needed nudging proved his unworthiness. There was no interwar German Napoleon, there was just Hitler, who could only export the reaction to the revolution and who lacked the intellect and courage to save Germany. If Ullrich’s biography of Hitler is a study in inadequacy, his 1923 is a study in the conditions which bred that inadequacy.
Ullrich, for the most part, is fair and level-headed in his judgment of Weimar Germany’s failures. Ironically, when he fails at being fair and level-headed, he fails the same way Weimar Germany failed at being fair and level-headed. For example, he equivocates on who was responsible for the dissolvement of the first “grand coalition” government by blaming both right-wingers and Social Democrats—right-wingers for stubbornly insisting on abolishing the eight-hour workday and Social Democrats for stubbornly opposing the abolition. One of these, it would seem, is not like the other. Nonetheless, these are minor faults. Germany 1923 is an excellent, easy-to-read survey of an important time period, especially since Ullrich is right that the difference between now and then is circumstance rather than mood. The atmosphere of mediated mass anxiety is here. What we must do is make sure the conditions don’t arise to meet them, otherwise voices from the deep might speak again.