Archiv für Sozialgeschichte

Thomas Albrecht, Für eine wehrhafte Demokratie. Albert Grzesinski und die preußische Politik in der Weimarer Republik, Verlag J. H. W. Dietz Nachf., Bonn 1999, 384 S., geb., 58 DM.

For decades following the collapse of the Third Reich, academic and popular biographical studies of Germany’s interwar and wartime leadership tended to focus on the key figures of the Nazi movement and regime, such as Hitler and his immediate henchmen in the party, SS, and military. This situation is not surprising given that Nazism’s crimes were so monumental that they naturally captured the attention of historians and lay readers anxious to grasp and understand their scope and causes. Unfortunately, one of the results of this concentration on the Nazis was the relative paucity of biographical studies of their most important opponents, especially of the Social Democrats, who were utterly defeated in the catastrophe of 1933.

While the study of the Social Democratic movement and its defeat has certainly produced an enormous historical literature, it is only in recent years that biographical works on many of the movement’s key figures have appeared. In addition to studies of Otto Wels, Rudolf Breitscheid, and Otto Braun, which appeared in the 1970s, more recent works on figures such as Rudolf Hilferding, Toni Sender, Carl Severing, and Albert Grzesinski have added much to our knowledge of the leadership of Weimar Social Democracy. Thomas Albrecht’s study of Grzesinski focuses not only on his political activities as one of Weimar Prussia’s top Social Democrats, but it also provides us with an interesting perspective on the nature of the Weimar system and the causes of its collapse.

Albrecht uses Grzesinki’s experience to show that the Weimar coalition that governed Prussia from 1920 until 1932 was capable of functioning well and carrying out important reforms to strengthen the republic. As a high ranking official in various policy-making posts, including Minister of the Interior and Police President of Berlin, Grzesinski worked hard to transform the Prussian bureaucracy and police into instruments to serve the public as well as to maintain order. That his efforts ultimately failed was due to a combination of broader social, economic, and political factors that were largely outside of his and the Prussian government’s control.

Albrecht does a good job tracing Grzesinki’s career from his working-class origins and experience as a socialist trade-union leader through his rise into the government. Grzesinski, like so many other trade union officials, was a very practical man whose actions were shaped more by experience than adherence to radical, abstract theories. Albrecht shows that, throughout his career, Grzesinski believed that the socialist system would be established through the creation of the democratic republic. Under Weimar, the SPD’s chief task was to exercise power through the republic’s institutions for the benefit of the working class. The party had to transform the Weimar state, from one dominated by the old, imperial bureaucracy, into one controlled by republicans committed to serving the workers.

Grzesinski was a skilled if sometimes overly blunt politician and administrator who believed that the SPD should be willing to make political compromises if it could achieve real, concrete change. As an administrator he was able to bring about substantial organizational reforms of the Prussian bureaucracy, though his purge of its personnel was incomplete. In contrast to other top SPD officials in the Prussian government, such as Severing, Grzesinski was willing to fight tough political battles and make enemies to accomplish his goals.

Albrecht’s analysis could do more to illuminate the differences that arose between SPD leaders on the Land and Reich levels, but his examination of the complex forces that shaped the Prussian political landscape and eventually led to the SPD’s and Weimar’s failure is compelling. He notes that Grzesinski and his colleagues made important mistakes, but he also points out that social and economic disintegration fueled the political polarization that undermined the work of democratic reformers like Grzesinki and brought the republic to its knees.

William Smaldone, Salem, OR

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Mai 2000