© Neil Spark

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Democratic defender

May 29, 2018



The man who paved the way for Hitler or the last bulwark against dictatorship? That’s the question historians have asked about Heinrich Brüning, the 12th of the 14 Weimar Republic Chancellors of Germany. Eighty-six years ago on 30 May, Brüning, above, was sacked. Most historians are on the side of paving the way. Professor of History at Washington and Lee University William Patch’s 113,500-word book makes a convincing case for Brüning.


Heinrich Brüning and the Dissolution of the Weimar Republic isn’t the usual biography, though there are details of Brüning’s early life, education, war service and career. There aren’t a lot of details about the personal influences that shaped the man. He was pious, studious and sagacious. His deep devotion to politics precluded almost all else, certainly marriage. The book is an invaluable source for anyone interested in the Weimar Republic and/or the rise of the Nazis. It provides a detailed chronological account of Brüning’s chancellorship, the years immediately before and after.


The defining period of Brüning’s life was his chancellorship. President Paul von Hindenburg appointed the Catholic Centre Party leader on 30 March 1930 to succeed the Social Democrat Party’s (SPD) Hermann Müller. Brüning was chancellor for two years and two months, more than double the average term. He felt bitter and betrayed by his dismissal which led to depression and paranoia. But after leaving Germany in 1934, he had a successful academic career that included roles at Harvard University from 1937 to 1952. Ever the activist, he used his salary to help bring Social Democrats and other Germans persecuted by Nazis to the United States.


The three factors on which historians subscribing to the paving-the-way position rely on:

  1. Economy: Brüning’s policies worsened an already dire economic situation caused by The Great Depression.

  2. Decrees: he used Article 48 of the Weimar Republic constitution that empowered the president to issue decrees without the approval of the Reichstag (parliament/congress)

  3. Memoirs: Memoiren 1918–1934, published in 1970 after his death, in which Brüning makes various claims, including a desire to restore the monarchy.




Patch provides intricate details of Brüning’s economic policies, how they arose and the battles he had trying to implement them. He was close to executive political decision-making in the years immediately before his appointment. He would’ve seen at close quarters the challenges the chancellor faced determining and implementing policies. Critics say Brüning was ambitious but Patch refutes the claims. He writes Brüning was motivated by doing what he considered the best for the country. He accepted the job “out of respect and sympathy” for Hindenburg. As one would expect of a field marshal, and someone who had been the president for five years, Hindenburg was well versed in the Machiavellian art of manipulation. When Hindenburg offered Brüning the chancellorship, he “raised himself up at his desk, clutched Brüning’s hand between his hands and delivered the following appeal with tears in his eyes: ‘Everyone has abandoned me in my life; you must promise that your party will not leave me in the lurch at the end of my life.’ Brüning was overwhelmed by the feeling of the deepest sympathy.” It is possible of course to be sympathetic and ambitious at the same time but the latter seems out of character for Brüning.


Brüning became chancellor just four months after the Wall Street Crash on 24 October 1929. Factors over which the German government had no control wreaked economic havoc. The Great Depression hit Germany harder than any other country, even the United States. Germany had relied on US loans that had been propping up the economy since 1924 in the aftermath of the Great Inflation. Brüning’s deflationary policies of tax increases to reduce the budget deficit and cuts to wages created more unemployment. About 1.5 million Germans were out of work at the end of 1929; within a year it was three million; by early 1933 it doubled again to six million – more than 30 percent. In the US in 1932 unemployment was 24 percent.   Added to this chaos, was a banking crisis in 1931 that ended with a run on the banks and several closing. Note: he was trying to get relief from repartriation payments to ease burden. Lousanne conference. 



The debate about Brüning laying the ground for dictatorship relies on Brüning’s use of Article 48 of the constitution. Hitler made extensive use of the clause that empowered the president to issue decrees without reference to the Reichstag (parliament/congress). By the time the Nazis were in power, there was nothing unusual about its use.


Brüning’s chancellorship is sometimes called government by decree. The undemocratic clause was framed in 1918 when right-wing parties feared a Communist revolution which had happened in Russia the year before. Article 48 was intended to be used at a time of national emergency to ostensibly preserve the peace but was a bulwark against Bolshevism.


It wasn’t the communists who destroyed the Weimar Republic, it was the petty-minded politicians of the multitude of parties that represented every interest imaginable. Candidates from 36 parties contested the 577 seats in the election on 14 September 1930. Every cause imaginable had a party. There was the Reich Party for Civil Rights and Deflation, the War Damaged and Bereaved Party, Evangelical Voters, the Party Against Alcohol, among many others. They didn’t win seats but 15 parties did and they acted in self-interest, not the national interest. Politics is the art of compromise but the parties were incapable of it. Brüning hoped the election would break the deadlock. No party won a majority so the intractable politics continued.


Patch provides many examples of the political chaos, one was the development of the 1930 budget. The middle-class supporters of the right-wing German People’s party (DVP) and the Bavarian People’s party (BVP) refused to allow their respective Reichstag members to compromise with the Social Democrats to pass the budget. Brüning managed to get the major parties to agree to drop any increases in direct taxes, or the beer tax, in favour of an increase in the sales tax. The BVP Reichstag delegation agreed but at the last moment, the party’s head of the Bavarian government, Heinrich Held, and party chairman, Fritz Schäffer, demanded a written guarantee from the chancellor that the beer tax would not be raised in future. They ignored a personal appeal from Hindenburg because they had been deceived so often by federal cabinets and could not rely on informal agreements.


Brüning said publicly: “The viability of every cabinet must be determined according to whether it is in a position to formulate a budget and secure its passage. Even though we now have a very strong form of democracy anchored in the Constitution, today we still have many views in the parliaments and among the voters that are not compatible with a truly responsible democracy. If a party that provides the finance minister refuses out of hand to support the fiscal program of its own finance minister, preferring instead to conduct electoral propaganda, then that is the end of all political responsibility, that is also the end of democracy.” The Head of the Württemberg state government, Eugen Bolz, said publicly and presciently the “failure of the parliament and parties” made “dictatorship” inevitable. The only question was whether the dictatorship would be “constitutional, legally regulated, and temporary” or “unconstitutional, revolutionary, led by the radical left or right”.


Brüning had little choice but to use Article 48, which he did 60 times in 1932.  If he hadn't, government would've been impossible and revolution probable. He thought using Article 48 was a short-term solution to get the country through the crisis.


Unreliable narrator

Patch argues Brüning’s motivation for writing his memoirs was to show Hindenburg was wrong to sack him. Patch argues if Hindenburg hadn’t sacked Brüning, Hitler wouldn’t have become chancellor. Brüning’s sacking led to life-long anger, depression and paranoia. His judgement became warped in later years and he imagined himself as a right-wing authoritarian, which was inconsistent with his actions during his time in office. Patch says Brüning believed in parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and the Prussian ideals of diligence, self-denial and devotion to the common good. There is no evidence he was working to destroy democracy. Brüning claimed in his memoir he had been working to restore the monarchy overthrown in the 1918 revolution. Patch argues there is no evidence to suggest Brüning was doing as he claimed. Why Brüning would make such claims is open to speculation, though Patch seems to attribute it to warped judgement caused by anger about his sacking.


Brüning respected Hindenburg until he was sacked. Brüning felt betrayed which was consistent with the president’s character. Hindenburg wasn’t committed to democracy or the constitution he had sworn to uphold. He wanted a right-wing “establishment” cabinet but not one led by Hitler, though he later reneged. He hoped he would get the cabinet he wanted from Brüning. When he sacked him, he said: “At long last, I must go toward the right; the newspapers and whole nation demand it. But you have always refused.” Brüning hadn’t. Both his cabinets had strong right-wing party representation, although four of the nine second members of the second cabinet were independents. Neither cabinet had left-wing Social Democrat members.


Hindenburg was the Supreme War Commander of the German army in World War but managed to elude blame for the defeat. There were numerous similar incidents in which Hindenburg left others to take the blame for his decisions.


William Patch’s book is a major contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the complex circumstances that enabled the Nazis to gain power.


Heinrich Brüning and the Dissolution of the Weimar Republic

by William L, Patch,Jr. 2006, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.



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