Central European History


With a Passion for Reason: Celebrating the Constitution in Weimar Germany

Manuela Achillesa1

a1 University of Virginia

It has long been held that Weimar democracy lacked the symbolic appeal necessary to bind collective sentiment and to win popular support. While recent revisionist histories of Weimar politics and culture take their cue from Peter Fritzsche's argument that “Weimar is less a cumulative failure than a series of bold experiments,” the turn toward new approaches and perspectives is uneven and incomplete even in those studies that avoid conflating the fragility of Weimar democracy with the overall lack or absence of democratic identifications. Detlev Peukert, while admonishing his readers not to minimize the Weimar experiment in democracy, also argues that the first German republic had no founding ritual, and that this absence in national history attests to a general lack of legitimacy. Eric Weitz, in his eloquent survey of the republic's promises and tragedy, has little to say about the proponents and forms of Weimar democratic culture. Thomas Mergel, who shows that the Weimar parliament was marked by a cooperative atmosphere of pragmatic republicanism, attributes to the republican Left a certain tendency “toward a rationalistic understanding of politics, toward the underestimation of the emotional attachment to a flag.” This assessment is entirely in line with the earlier claim that the rationalistic optimism (Gotthard Jasper) of the republican forces led to a “consequential underestimation of the integrative power of state symbols” (Klaus Wippermann).

Manuela Achilles is the program director of the Center for German Studies at the University of Virginia, and teaches in the departments of German and History (Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400180, Charlottesville, VA 22904; e-mail: ma6cq@cms.mail.virginia.edu). Her recent publications include “Nationalist Violence and Republican Identity in Weimar Germany,” in German Literature, History, and the Nation, ed. David Midgley and Christian Emden (Oxford, 2004); and “Reforming the Reich: Democratic Symbols and Rituals in the Weimar Republic,” in Weimar Publics/Weimar Subjects: Rethinking the Political Culture of Germany in the 1920s, ed. Kathleen Canning et al. (New York, 2010). She is currently revising her manuscript, Democratic Culture in Weimar Germany: Beyond the Failure Paradigm.


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2008 German Studies Association Conference in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I would like to thank Eric Weitz, discussant for that panel, as well as Kathleen Canning, David Crew, Gaby Finder, and Ari Sammartino for their helpful comments.