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  • The Meanings and Function of Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic
  • Ben Lieberman

There are few, if any, ideological terms in the extensive historiography of the Weimar Republic so omnipresent and yet at the same time so obscure as the word “system.” Historical accounts of the Weimar Republic are strewn with references to the “system.” In recent works on the Weimar Republic Hagen Schulze points to the opposition of bourgeois (bürgerliche) parties to the “Weimar ‘system,’ “ Detlev Peukert notes “hatred of ‘the system,’ the political and social order of the Republic”; Knut Borchardt observes the loss of faith in the capacity of “the system” to satisfy expectations; and Hans Mommsen refers to the “political system,” the “party system” and the “parliamentary system.” 1

Historians, whatever their other differences, agree that mounting opposition to the System weakened the Weimar Republic, but the usefulness of this observation requires analysis of the meaning or meanings of the System. What, then, was the Weimar System? Surprisingly, many accounts of the Weimar Republic do not even attempt to provide a definition of the System, and the term receives only cursory treatment in several specialized works on ideology of the Weimar era. 2 Anti-System politics does receive attention, but Thomas [End Page 355] Childers’s insightful and pioneering essay on “anti-system politics” concentrates on mobilization against the System rather than on the problem of defining it. 3

The best existing analysis of the System in Kurt Sontheimer’s valuable study of anti-democratic thought in the Weimar Republic suggests that historians cannot take the meaning of the term as a given. Sontheimer establishes that the System formed part of the array of anti-democratic thought of the Weimar Republic, but he also notes that the term’s meaning cannot easily be pinned down. The System conveyed a variety of political and economic meanings and ultimately formed a “nationalist counter myth.” 4

During the Weimar Republic, attacks against the System emanated from a wide range of sources, most notably from a variety of nationalists as well as from Communists. Nationalists of many leanings detested the System. The DNVP (German National People’s Party), the largest political party of the right for most of the Weimar Republic, hated the System. So, too, did conservative revolutionaries and völkisch (ethnic or racist nationalist) groups including nationalist associations and the National Socialists. At the other end of the political spectrum, attacks against the System also surfaced in the pronouncements of the KPD (German Communist Party). 5

No single ideological line of attack doomed the Weimar Republic, but use by an extraordinarily broad range of political groups lent tremendous force to anti-System discourse. Adopted by foes who sometimes agreed on little else, the System was the targets of repeated attacks spread across the German political spectrum and called into question Weimar legitimacy. Analyzing this broad pattern of use raises several tasks. As a prelude to investigating anti-System terminology, it is necessary to map out the patterns of use of the System during the Weimar Republic. The very ability of rival groups to adopt anti-System suggests that the System incorporated varied meanings.

Beyond investigating the meaning or meanings of the System, an analysis of anti-System terminology should also explore the appeal and influence of anti-System terminology. Why did such a broad range of groups adopt anti-System discourse, and how did acceptance of anti-System terminology help to discredit the Weimar Republic and designate alternatives for Germany’s future? [End Page 356]

Describing Weimar’s perceived failings, anti-System terminology simultaneously provided a partial guide to a presumably-better Germany without the System. The System came to envelop many institutions of German public life, but attention should also be paid to spaces left unoccupied by the System. What, if any, institutions or structures of public life were left untainted by the broad wave of attacks against the System? If the hated System could be swept away, what would be left in its place? It is noteworthy that the many enemies of the System generally desired a strong state.

Exploring the effects of broad attacks against the System, analysis of the System should also...

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pp. 355-375
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