Gustav Stresemann: Weimar's Greatest Statesman: Jonathan Wright Looks at the Career of the Statesman Who Might Have Steered Germany Safely through the Weimar Era

By Wright, Jonathan | History Today, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Gustav Stresemann: Weimar's Greatest Statesman: Jonathan Wright Looks at the Career of the Statesman Who Might Have Steered Germany Safely through the Weimar Era


Wright, Jonathan, History Today


GUSTAV STRESEMANN BECAME Chancellor of Germany in August 1923 at a time when it seemed as though the state was about to break up in chaos. With the French occupying the Ruhr coalfield, the mark suffering hyper-inflation to the point where it ceased to be a viable currency, separatists active in the Rhineland, Hitler in Bavaria and Communists in Saxony plotting different versions of revolution, the army wavering in its loyalty and Stresemann's own party far from united behind him, it was a desperate time. He wrote to his wife Kate that to become Chancellor in such circumstances would be `all but political suicide'.

By a mixture of courage, skill and luck he steered Germany over the next six years to a remarkable recovery. His government lasted only until November 1923 but he remained as foreign minister in successive coalitions until his death in October 1929. As Chancellor he took the crucial step of ceasing financial support to the general strike against the French in the Ruhr, making possible the introduction of a new and stable currency. He authorised the army to intervene against the extreme left in Saxony but refused to give in to pressure from the chief of the army command, General von Seeckt, to make way for an authoritarian regime of the right. With Ebert, the Social Democratic (SPD) President of the Republic, he faced down the threat from Hitler and his Bavarian allies, watching with relief as their divisions ended in the fiasco of the Munich Putsch.

As foreign minister over the next six years he consolidated these achievements: under Anglo-American pressure the French withdrew from the Ruhr and accepted the recommendations of the Dawes Committee for an interim settlement of reparations underpinned by American loans. In 1925 he took the initiative which led to the Locarno Pact under which Germany, France and Belgium mutually recognised their Rhineland frontiers with Britain and Italy as external guarantors. In September 1926 Germany joined the League of Nations with a permanent seat on the Council in recognition of its status as a great power. To allay Soviet suspicions that Germany would join a capitalist crusade of the League powers against it, Stresemann also concluded the Treaty of Berlin in May 1926 by which both states promised to remain neutral in the event that either was the victim of aggression.

Stresemann's diplomacy paid off. He earned the respect of his French and British counterparts, Aristide Briand and Austen Chamberlain, who were prepared to make concessions to Germany to win its co-operation. The first of the three Rhineland zones, which had been put under Allied military occupation by the Treaty of Versailles, was evacuated in January 1926 and in 1927 the Inter-Allied Control Commission to supervise German disarmament was withdrawn. In 1929 a conference at The Hague agreed a `final' reparations settlement with annual payments to continue until 1988, though in fact the scheme lapsed in 1931 as a result of the Depression. As part of the settlement Stresemann won complete allied evacuation of the Rhineland by June 1930 (instead of 1935 as stipulated in the Versailles Treaty).

It is hardly surprising that when he died of a stroke in October 1929 at the early age of fifty-one, Stresemann's reputation stood very high. The British ambassador in Berlin Sir Horace Rumbold described him as Germany's `greatest statesman since the days of Bismarck', adding that Stresemann's task had been `infinitely the more difficult of the two'. In Paris, the German author Count Kessler noted:

   It is almost as if an outstanding French statesman had died, the grief is 
   so general and sincere ... The French feel Stresemann to have been a sort 
   of European Bismarck. 

From a different standpoint even Hitler, according to Ribbentrop, acknowledged that in Stresemann's position `he could not have achieved more'. …

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