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A Collapse in Weimar Scholarship

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008


The purpose of these remarks is to contribute to the exposure of the egregious errors, tendentious misconstruals, and outright inventions contained in David Abraham's Collapse of the Weimar Republic: Political Economy and Crisis (Princeton, 1981). Clearly, therefore, this is not a normal book review. I would not consider it appropriate to review this book in any case, since I read two versions of the manuscript for the Princeton University Press in 1979 and recommended its publication. I did so despite severe disagreements with the methodology and the argument. I assumed, however, that the scholarship on which the argument was based was sound and respectable and that the argument of the book would stimulate fruitful discussion. Since publication, the book has been widely reviewed, and while reviewers have divided over the theses of the book, most have praised its scholarship. The notable exception was Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., who must be credited with first drawing attention to the book's deplorable scholarship. Turner, as well as another scholar whose review is soon to appear, Ulrich Nocken, had the advantage of knowing many of the documents with which Abraham “worked,” and thus had reason to be suspicious. Most other reviewers, as was true in my own case, operated under the usual assumptions, namely, that a scholar with a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from a respected institution who was teaching at Princeton University, where high tuitions are paid for instruction by carefully chosen persons of demonstrated competence, would operate in conformity with accepted scholarly standards.

Debate: David Abraham's The Collapse of the Weimar Republic
Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 1984

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1. I should point out, however, that my first reader's report contained eight single-spaced pages of critical commentary, and that I refused to recommend publication until substantial revisions were made. I must, therefore, take credit for the dubious achievement of having helped to make this book better organized and more plausible. Recently, when I inquired as to whether there was another reader, the Princeton University Press replied affirmatively on July 15, 1983, informing me that the other reader “strongly recommended publication with such comments as: ‘the author's new interpretation based upon economic sectors is highly original and very convincing. It is also thoroughly documented with new primary sources (documents drawn from economic organizations and associations). It is of enormous significance; I believe it is the most important book on 20th century Germany written in the last fifteen years.’”

2. For Turner's review, see The Political Science Quarterly (Winter 1982/1983): 739–41.Google Scholar For a sampling of more or less favorable reviews, see James, Harold in the Times Literary Supplement (07 31, 1981): 891Google Scholar; Spencer, Elaine, Business History Review 55 (1981): 609CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schneider, Michael, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 22 (1982): 772–73Google Scholar; Mason, Tim, American Historical Review 87 (1982): 1122–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rogers, Joel, Journal of Economic History 42 (1982): 452–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Burawoy, Michael, Contemporary Sociology 11 (1982): 568CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Borchardt, Knut, Historische Zeitschrift 236 (1983): 483–86Google Scholar; Childers, Thomas C., Journal of Social History 16 (1983): 188–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Moeller, Robert G., Labor History 4 (1983): 621–25Google Scholar; Osmund, Jonathan, Social History 8 (1983): 410–14.Google Scholar By no means untypical was Rogers's praise of the book for being “exhaustively researched, with extensive and intelligent use of archival materials.” The importance attached to Abraham's scholarship by a reviewer apparently sympathetic with Abraham's theoretical efforts is demonstrated by Osmond: “This is a masterly example of theoretical analysis combined with historical scholarship—a Poulantzas who uses the archives.” While James made some critical comments about the use of sources, and Borchardt noted that there were “Schönheitsfehler,” the first review to recognize that there was “a significant lapse from the care in note-taking or transcription” required in a work of this kind was Maier's, CharlesThe Vulnerabilities of Interwar Germany,” Journal of Modern History 56 (1984): 8999, p. 91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Unfortunately, Maier did not have sufficient information at his disposal when he went on to subject the book's arguments to a devastating if respectful criticism in what can only be called a tortured review. A full critique will be found in a forthcoming article by Ulrich Nocken, “Weimarer Geschichte(n)” in the Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte. I am indebted to Dr. Nocken and Professor Borchardt for a great deal of the information on which this article is based. Nocken, in particular, has devoted countless hours in the archives and libraries in his service to the integrity of our profession. I should make it clear, however, that I have personally read every document or source concerning which I criticize Abraham. I should also point out that Nocken, like the innocent author of one of the most favorable reviews of Abraham's work, is a former student of mine. Lest there be any misunderstandings, however, it was Nocken and his evidence which persuaded me that Turner had only revealed the “tip of the iceberg” and that a full exposure of the truth was worth the time and energy that this required.

3. Abraham's book is a revised version of his 1977 University of Chicago Ph.D. dissertation, which bore the title, “Intra-Class Conflict and the Formulation of Ruling Class Consensus in Late Weimar Germany.”

4. Dozens of scholars have had the privilege and pleasure of working in the Historisches Archiv of the Gutehoffnungshütte in Oberhausen, from which many of the most extreme examples of Abraham's misuse of materials come. That archive does not provide its users with xerox, but it does provide chairs and a table and does permit users to type their notes.

5. It is difficult to understand how Charles Maier, whose splendid work rests upon the most careful integration of detailed archival research with structural arguments can suggest Abraham's “structural” argument is not to be discredited by his “errors.” This is all the more the case since Maier's review is largely a criticism of Abraham for presenting an argument that does not conform to the facts. Maier, Journal of Modern History, 56: 91–95.

6. See the letters by Turner, Henry, Mason, Tim, and Abraham, David in the American Historical Review 88 (1983): 1143–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7. This is based on my reading of the original documents from the Historisches Archiv der Gutehoffhungshütte (HA/GHH), Nr. 400101293/11.

8. Abraham in the American Historical Review 88: 1146; Maier in the Journal of Modern History 56: 91.

9. See Jenschke, Bernhard, Zur Kritik der konservativ-revolutionären Ideologic in der Weimarer Republik: Weltanschauung und Politik bei Edgar Julius Jung (Munich, 1971).Google Scholar

10. Neebe, Reinhard, Grossindustrie, Staat und NSDAP 1930–1933: Paul Silverberg und der Reichsverband der Deutschen Industrie in der Krise der Weimarer Republik (Kritische Studien zur Geschichtswissenschaft 45) (Göttingen, 1981), 117–19Google Scholar, 251n.9.

11. Ibid., 251n.9.

12. American Historical Review 87 (1982): 1414–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13. Ibid., 88 (1983): 1145.

14. The relevant portions of the Heinrichsbauer report are reprinted verbatim in Neebe, Grossindustrie, 118–19. In his review of Abraham, Harold James quotes Abraham's misquotation of Goebbels, Times Literary Supplement (July 31, 1981), 891, a good illustration of things to come as the Abraham book circulates.

15. Illustrations are to be found in Abraham, Collapse, 197, 200, 205, 236, 320. Exactly why some of these contain the ellipses that normally indicate missing words in quotations is difficult to say. On March 27, 1984, I inquired if the Princeton University Press could name any other historical work published by them which used a similar paraphrasing technique. As of the time of writing, May 1984, I have received no response. I have published two books with the same press and never imagined that I could do such a thing. Nor would I wish to.

16. See the entry for Harms in “Wenzel, Georg, Deutsche Wirtschaftsführer: Lebensgänge Deutscher Wirtschaftspersönlichkeiten unserer Zeit (Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, 1929), 859.Google Scholar For the source of the “quotation,” see Harms, Bernhard, ed., Strukturwandlungen der Deutschen Volkswirtschaft, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1928), 1:2325.Google Scholar

17. Many of the documents in question have now been reprinted in Mauer, Ilse and Wengst, Udo, Politik und Wirtschaft in der Krise 1930–1932: Quellen zur Ara Brüning, 2 vols., Quellen zur Geschichte des Parlamentarismus und der politischen Parteien, 3d ser.: Die Weimarer Republik, vol. 4, pts. 1, 2 (Düsseldorf, 1980).Google Scholar This document may be found in vol. 1, 621–22.

18. Ibid., 2: 944–45.

19. Ibid., 1044–46.

20. Ruhr und Rhein 13 (Sept. 23, 1932): 629–32.

21. Maurer and Wengst, Politik und Wirtschaft, 2: 1036–37.

22. Ibid., 1: 70.

23. Reusch to Dingeldey, Jan. 30, 1932, HA/GHH, Nr. 400101293/12.

24. Reusch to von Gilsa, Oct. 25, 1929, ibid., Nr. 4001012024/4b.

25. Blank to Reusch, Dec. 17, 1928, ibid., Nr. 4001012024/4b.

26. The three letters in question are now in print. Two of them, Schacht to Reusch, March 18, 1932 and Reusch to Schacht, March 20, 1932, are to be found in Stegmann, Dirk, “Zum Verhältnis von Grossindustrie und Nationalsozialismus, 1930–1933,” Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 13 (1973): 450–52.Google Scholar The third, Schacht to Reusch, June 6, 1932, is reprinted in Koszyk, Kurt, “Paul Reusch und die ‘Münchener Neuesten Nachrichten,’” Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 20 (1972): 99100Google Scholar. It should be noted that the alleged quotation on page 321 of Abraham from a letter by Springorum to Freiherr von Wilmowsky of March 22, 1932, dealing with industrialist support of the Nazis also contains deplorable distortion. See Maurer and Wengst, Politik und Wirtschaft, 2: 1352–54.

27. Feldman, Gerald D., “Big Business and the Kapp Putsch,” Central European History 4 (1971): 99130, p. 108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar It is now less difficult. My most recent research shows that Stinnes opposed the Kapp Putsch along with most of his colleagues in heavy industry. To quote the confidential report of the April 13, 1920, meeting of the directors of the RDI to be found in the Stinnes papers: “Herr Stinnes then reported that the circles represented by him along with the representatives of the iron and steel industry had already taken a position on the Kapp Putsch on March 13. It was completely clear at that time that, aside from domestic political considerations, Kapp had to be opposed for foreign policy reasons. Never again must the Reichsverband so fail in a similar situation, which could easily occur again, as in this case. Under no circumstances ought Germany to come again under military rule, which would inevitably lead to civil war. In economic life one must come to terms with the present constitutional conditions, for Germany's economic life can only be built up again in cooperation with the democratic states of the West. Germany, however, will never come to a bearable relationship with England and America if prerevolutionary conditions are taken to be an option here.” Bericht über die vertrauliche Besprechung der durch den Kapp-Putsch geschaffenen Lage anlässlich der Vorstandssitzung des Reichsverbandes der Deutschen Industrie am Dienstag, den 13. April 1920 vormittags 10 Uhr im Hotel Esplanade, Berlin Bellevustrasse, Archiv für Christlich-Demokratische Politik der Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, Bestand I-220 (Nachlass Hugo Stinnes), Nr. 027/1. Unless Stinnes was a “closet” chemical industrialist, this makes utter nonsense of Abraham's attempt, totally unsupported by the evidence I present in any case, to make industrialist differences over the Kapp Putsch an “indication” of alleged “things to come” in later industrialist politics.

28. Whether one agrees with Neebe's argument that the German industrialists were “premodern” in their political outlook, Abraham's reference to this argument as a “bit of a cop-out” and his charge that Neebe's effort to make up for the “empirical deficit” is “not fruitful” and “is a bit like fishing with a hoop in place of a fishnet” is more than a bit ironic in the context of this discussion. See Abraham, in American Historical Review 87 (1982): 1414–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29. Wengst, Udo, “Unternehmerverbände und Gewerkschaften in Deutschland im Jahre 1930,” Vierteljahrschrift für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte 25 (1977): 99119, pp. 113–14.Google Scholar

30. Abraham, Collapse, 132–33.

31. Geary, Dick, “The Industrial Elite and the Nazis in the Weimar Republic,” in Stachura, Peter D., ed., The Nazi Machtergreifung (London, 1983), 93.Google Scholar He also picks up on one of Abraham's misleading “quotations” in page 97, but he wisely sides with Bernd Weisbrod's interpretation of the 1925 change in the RDI leadership.

32. Weisbrod, Bernd, Schwerindustrie in der Weimarer Republik: Interessenpolitik zwischen Stabilisierung und Krise (Wuppertal, 1978).Google Scholar

33. Ibid., 217–45.

34. Abraham, Collapse, 166, 173, 322. See Wenzel, Wirtschaftsführer, 1107, 2135–36, 2498.

35. Abraham, Collapse, 133; “Wenzel, Wirtschaftsführer, 336.

36. Abraham, Collapse, 105n.187, 107, 166, 171. Paul Moldenhauer was finance minister from March to June 1930; Hermann Warmbold was economics minister from October 1931 to May 1932, and again under von Papen and Schleicher.

37. Abraham, Collapse, 39. See Petzina, D., et al. , eds., Sozialgeschichtliches Arbeitsbuch III: Materialien zur Statistik des Deutschen Reiches 1914–1945 (Munich, 1978), 61.Google Scholar

38. Hoffmann, Walther G., Das Wachstum der Deutschen Wirtschaft seit der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 1965).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

39. Hoffmann, Wachstum, p. 556ff.

40. Ibid., 542.

41. Ibid., 342–43, 392–93.

42. Compare with ibid., 195, 198.

43. Abraham, in the American Historical Review 88 (1983): 1149.Google Scholar

44. Ibid., 1144.

45. In this context I must express some dismay over the political tone of Henning Köhler's review of Abraham in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (March 19, 1983). Nothing whatever is added to scholarly discussion or to his well-founded criticisms of the Abraham book by arguing that “empirical history does not stand a chance against Marxist scholasticism.” There is plenty of good Marxist and neo-Marxist history around.