Gustav Stresemann: The man who almost saved the world

Stresemann guided the Weimar Republic through its post-war crisis with agility and tenacity. The question of whether he might have been able to do the same following the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing chaos remains bitterly alluring.
German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann
Portrait of German Chancellor Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929). Credit: Public Domain / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
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‘Only a mind that believes unshakably in a remote, beautiful end is able to maintain the spirit that will guide it through everyday life.’ Gustav Stresemann knew the value of his own words. His everyday life consisted of a long and painful battle against a disease that permanently pushed him to the brink of the endurable while his enemies viciously chipped away at his resolve. But Stresemann’s spirit was indeed guided by an unshakable belief in a remote and beautiful end: to steer Germany away from the abyss that had opened up after the First World War. And he very nearly succeeded. 

From his humble origins as the son of a beer merchant to Germany’s chancellor, foreign minister and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Stresemann’s biography reads like the perfect rags-to-riches story. As the chief architect behind Germany’s ‘Golden Twenties’ – the brief period of stabilisation between the economic calamities of 1923 and 1929 – his achievements have posed tantalising ‘what-if’ questions, such as: what if he had pulled Germany back onto a permanent path to recovery? Stresemann himself would never see his efforts to save Germany go up in smoke. He died on 3 October 1929 – twenty-six days before the Wall Street Crash plunged the country into darkness. 

When Stresemann was born to a middle-class family in Berlin in 1878, Germany itself was only seven years older than him. The nation-state had been created by the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck in a succession of wars. It had yet to find a place for itself in the world. Young Gustav seems to have sensed early on that he wanted to play a part in this journey. He was the youngest of the family’s eight children, and the only one to attend a grammar school before he decided to study history, literature and economics at university in Berlin and Leipzig.

When he enrolled at university in 1898, Germany was embroiled in a heated public debate around its national identity. The brash young Kaiser Wilhelm II was in charge, and advocated a course of colonial expansion, or ‘Weltpolitik’ – if France and Britain had large empires, Germany too needed its place in the sun. Against him stood a growing number of socialists who advocated that domestic reform should take priority over expansive foreign policy.

It was in this tug of war over the soul of the nation that Stresemann joined fraternity organisations on campus – an experience that earned him the distinctive duelling scars, or Schmisse, on his face. He also joined the National Liberal Party in 1903 and his convictions embodied their name in every way. More moderate than many of his fraternity friends who often held anti-semitic views, he subscribed to the liberal values of the 1848 revolutions but without giving up on the idea of military, naval and colonial expansion. In 1907, he became the youngest member of the German parliament, having beaten the local Social Democrat on a ticket of naval and colonial policy. 

When the First World War broke out, Stresemann, like many of his compatriots, viewed it as an opportunity for Germany. In his eyes, it was a chance for the young state to stake a claim on overseas territory and become a world power on a scale that matched its economic potential in Europe. But unlike many other Germans who changed their minds in view of the staggering casualty figures and horrendous civilian suffering of the conflict, Stresemann defended the kaiser to the bitter end. He maintained, for example, that Calais was to become a Germany port, akin to Gibraltar for Britain, and that unrestricted submarine warfare was right and necessary. 

Even so, Stresemann remained his own man and did not fall neatly into one political camp or another. While his pro-annexation policies made him popular with the conservatives, his views on domestic policy pointed the other way. He had always strongly believed in democratic structures and claimed that the monarchies across Europe had taken a step back everywhere apart from Germany and Austria. Consequently, he argued that the chancellor should not be appointed and dismissed at the kaiser’s whim – a remarkable position, given he was no fan of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg who had been sacked for allowing parliament to mount a peace resolution in 1917. 

Perhaps it was precisely Stresemann’s enigmatic stance that helped him not only survive the tumultuous political reshuffle that followed the armistice of 11 November 1918 but thrive in it. He founded the national-liberal German People’s Party (DVP) in December and became its chairman. In this capacity, he sat at the table in the small Thuringian town of Weimar when the new German constitution was hammered out in the first half of 1919. When the country was presented with the draft version of the Treaty of Versailles which saw Germany’s territory cut down by 13 per cent, Stresemann was shocked, like most of his fellow citizens. His main issue lay with the economic fallout. How was Germany to survive economically having lost nearly half of its iron industry, while being forced to pay the astronomical sum of 132 billion gold marks (around $269 billion today) in war reparations as agreed in 1921? 

While Stresemann became a vocal critic of the Treaty of Versailles, he never gave in to the lure of political violence that became a hallmark of the dark early years of the Weimar Republic. His efforts always lay in stabilising the democratic republic by all means possible. He wanted to talk, particularly to the French. Fulfillment of the treaty and reconciliation with the West may have been unpalatable, but in his view, they were the only way to Germany’s recovery as a nation. Perhaps it was his family background in small-scale enterprise but everything flowed from economics as far as Stresemann was concerned. Fix the country’s finances and everything else would fall into place. 

But Germany’s finances spiralled deeper and deeper into crisis between 1919 and 1922. A society brutalised by the mass violence of the First World War, humiliated by defeat and economic deprivation, began to despair. Politics quite literally became a matter of life-and-death. The ultra-nationalist group Organisation Consul alone assassinated over 350 people, including the foreign minister Walther Rathenau and the finance minister Matthias Erzberger, who had been instrumental in bringing about the armistice. In this context, Stresemann was understandably reluctant to accepted the position of chancellor when it was offered to him in 1923. He wrote to his wife that it was akin to ‘political suicide.’ Having vociferously called for a new coalition to sort out Germany’s problems, however, he could hardly turn down the opportunity to lead it when it finally came. 

When Stresemann became German chancellor in August 1923, he had a mountain to climb. No fewer than seven people had occupied this office since 1919, and all had failed to maintain the confidence of a raucous and splintered parliament. Stresemann too was trying to hold a coalition of five parties together while dealing with Germany’s existential problems. French and Belgian troops had occupied the Ruhr region in protest against Berlin’s failure to pay the reparations, unemployment had risen to 4 million, and in November, Adolf Hitler attempted to seize power in the so-called Munich Putsch. But the political and social instability was dwarfed by the staggering scale of hyperinflation. In November 1923, one kilogram of beef cost 4800 billion marks. 

But somehow, Stresemann managed it. Against immense political resistance from the left and the right, he called off the anti-French strikes in the Ruhr, introduced an emergency currency to stabilise the economy and began to talk to France, Britain, and the US about a way out of the crisis. Even after his government was brought down by parliament in November, he carried on with the fulfillment of this aim as foreign minister, a position he would hold until his death in 1929.

Stresemann seemed to achieve the unachievable. In 1924, the so-called Dawes Plan granted Germany a loan of 800 million marks ($1.63 billion today) alongside more manageable rates to pay off reparations. The French also agreed to withdraw from the Ruhr, and their new foreign minister Aristide Briand developed an amicable relationship with Stresemann. The two men would share the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926 for their reconciliatory work. This included the Locarno Treaties of 1925, in which the new borders in Western Europe were accepted by all sides, as well as Germany’s admission into the newly formed League of Nations in 1926. In the east, Stresemann also trod a path of reconciliation with Russia, culminating in the Treaty of Berlin, also signed in 1926. By 1928, he had a fixed seat at all international tables and was instrumental in the Kellogg-Briand Pact which denounced war as a means of politics. While despised at home – by the right for his fulfillment of the Treaty of Versailles and by the left for his nationalist agenda – Stresemann had become one of the most respected statesmen in the world. To American, British, and French observers he was the face of a new and better Germany.

For all of Stresemann’s charisma and success in the mid-1920s, those years were also marked by a steep deterioration in his health. He had never been a physically strong man – he was exempted from compulsory military service as a youth on health grounds. In June 1919, as the Treaty of Versailles was about to be signed, he had suffered a heart attack, which had in turn exacerbated long-term damage to his kidneys and heart, now believed to be a result of Graves’ disease. The hectic lifestyle, immense workload and constant hostility of his years as foreign minister were hardly conducive to recovery. 

When Stresemann died on 3 October 1929 of the consequences of a stroke, his demise triggered an outpouring of public sentiment. He was given a state funeral on a scale not seen since the death of Germany’s first kaiser, Wilhelm I in 1888. Less than four weeks later, the Wall Street Crash in New York would set Germany on a path to renewed economic disaster. Stresemann himself was spared the calamities of Nazism, genocide and war that were made possible by this crisis, but posterity was left to wonder what might have been. 

But could Stresemann really have saved the Weimar Republic? Ultimately, the system had few friends at the time. It was Germany’s first taste of unmitigated democracy and was fraught with social and economic misery right from the beginning. The atmosphere of violence, chaos and devastation was masked by the borrowed prosperity of the gilded years between 1924 – 1929, and Stresemann knew this. He told the League of Nations in September 1929, shortly before his death, that ‘Germany is in fact dancing on a volcano. If the short-term loans are called in by America, a large section of our economy would collapse.’ Ultimately, his lifelong conviction held true: everything stands and falls with economics.  

To date over a dozen biographies of Gustav Stresemann have been written. The unabated allure of the man stems partially from his charisma, which held contemporary statesmen in its thrall but also clearly echoes through the ages. For Germans, it also stems from the fact that he had somehow pulled the country out of its nadir in 1923, almost miraculously. The question of whether he might have achieved the same again in 1929 has never-ending allure.

Katja Hoyer

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and journalist. She is a Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Katja writes for The Washington Post, The Spectator, Die Welt and other newspapers on current political affairs in Germany and Europe. She is the author of the bestselling Blood and Iron - The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.

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