Book blog:

The Weimar Century

posted by Or Rosenboim

The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold WarThe international turn in intellectual history, which David Armitage announced in 2014, has evolved into a surge of publications on the global, international, and transnational aspects of the history of ideas. The migration of concepts around the world and moments of conceptual conjunction in history have attained growing attention from historians. Although methodological nationalism had never been the only option for writing the history of a specific country or society, it seems that now an international perspective is indispensable for explaining the political, cultural, or economic history of any given country. Historians seek to put their finger on the complex, dynamic moments which generate and reverberate influential ideas around the world. The patterns of relationship between different social, cultural, and political spheres, and the exchanges that lead to the evolution of ideas and concepts across national boundaries, have become increasingly appealing to historians of all creeds.

Udi Greenberg’s The Weimar Century: German Émigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War can be read as a contribution to this growing literature on international intellectual history. Greenberg, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, seeks to uncover the intellectual bonds between the United States and the German Weimar Republic (1918-1933) to reflect on the evolution of the American Cold War political mindset, as well as on the political and cultural transformation of Germany after the Second World War. This dual motion can be explained, he argues, through the stories of five German émigrés who escaped Nazism and settled in the United States: Carl J. Friedrich, Ernst Fraenkel, Waldemar Gurian, Karl Loewenstein, and Hans Morgenthau. Often, their political interests reached well beyond the Atlantic sphere of Germany and the United States, to Latin America, Korea, and Vietnam. In this sense, The Weimar Century provides a robust and convincing account of the international transition of ideas and draws intellectual connections that are both stimulating and unexpected.

The intellectuals and scholars at the core of Greenberg’s book built on their academic and personal experience in Weimar to offer their new host country a vision for postwar democratic politics in Germany and beyond. Greenberg provides an insightful analysis of their intellectual and political trajectories in their disparate fields of expertise: law, social theory, Catholic thought, politics, and international relations. Drawing on a range of published and archival sources, Greenberg follows the protagonists of his story as they leave their native Germany and seek to establish themselves as experts, academics, and, sometimes, public intellectuals in the United States. This process, he shows, was not without difficulties. While Friedrich, Gurian, and Morgenthau seem to have successfully integrated in their new academic, cultural, and political setting, for Fraenkel, the experience of migration was more traumatic. Regardless of the personal aspects of their transatlantic transition, Greenberg seeks to convince readers that these intellectuals’ perceptions of the ideals that formed the foundation of the Weimar Republic, and of the faults that led to its demise, were instrumental to shaping American global hegemony.

One of the key assumptions of this book is that individuals are endowed with significant power and agency to shape great political transformations. Moreover, Greenberg advances the idea that academic elites in the mid-century United States were able to influence American foreign policy. They often did so through institutions like the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) that Friedrich helped to establish or the Rockefeller Foundation that funded Gurian’s projects. Institutions of this kind provided the spaces for the resurfacing of ideas from the Weimar era in American intellectual and political life. The personal, private lives of the book’s protagonists remain largely obscured by the detailed discussions of their intellectual achievements and political goals that Greenberg carries with elegance and enthusiasm. The map of intellectual conjunctions between Germany and the United States emerges vividly from Greenberg’s description. It does, however, leave a degree of ambiguity about the American connections of these intellectuals. The chapters on Friedrich, Fraenkel, and Gurian emphasize the important conversations that these scholars held with German intellectuals in Europe and with fellow émigrés in the United States, including Jacques Maritain, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Eric Voegelin. Nonetheless, not much is made of their intellectual relations with American colleagues at Harvard, Chicago, Notre Dame, and Amherst College. It would have been interesting to know how the American scholars of the time responded to and influenced the political and international ideas of these German émigrés.

One of the book’s arguments is, of course, that the Weimar ideas re-emerged in the United States without undergoing major variations. Greenberg affirms that “the crux of Loewenstein’s theory remained largely unchanged” after he relaunched his career as a legal scholar in the United States. The reader therefore remains curious about the possible interactions (or lack of) between these five thinkers and their American colleagues and interlocutors. Were the German thinkers receptive of ideas that circulated in their professional and cultural environment in the United States? Were they influenced by any American thinker or political commentator? Were their ideas received wholeheartedly in American academia? Were they resisted, and if so, why? Greenberg provides ample evidence of the positive reception of the ideas of his five Weimar thinkers by the American political establishment, who employed their expertise to advance various political projects at home and abroad. But the interplay of the German émigré scholars and their American counterparts remains relatively unexplored.

The reception of the ideas of Fraenkel, Gurian, Loewenstein, Morgenthau, and Friedrich by their fellow scholars and international thinkers in the United States is particularly interesting in relation to their staunch opposition to communism. These thinkers did not seem to distinguish between different forms and shapes of communism, and associated its different variations (Stalinism, Bolshevism, socialism) with totalitarian, illiberal, and extremely dangerous politics. The intentional lack of nuance in their interpretation of communism—and their active role in shaping American anti-communist mentality in the Cold War—gives rise to questions about the reception of their views among both American and other émigré intellectuals and political commentators in the United States. These questions become particularly interesting in regard to the group of Catholic thinkers in the United States who, according to Greenberg, were influenced by Gurian to adopt a more democratic world view. The transformation of Catholic theology for the age of democracy was an important theme in the mid-twentieth century, but perhaps more elusive and ambiguous than Greenberg suggests.

Greenberg discusses, for example the Manifesto on the War, a public appeal for a new version of democracy proposed by a group of Catholic intellectuals including Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Otto Knab, and others, to which Waldemar Gurian agreed to add his signature. Greenberg argues that the “reactionary and revolutionary” manifesto reflected the centrality of Gurian’s “language of democracy” to the Catholic world vision. Yet he overlooks the tensions and disagreements that characterized the work of the Manifesto’s drafters, which is particularly evident in the exchanges between Jacques Maritain and Luigi Sturzo, an Italian Catholic priest and public intellectual whose support Maritain sought to rally. Sturzo had two important reservations about the Manifesto: its “language of democracy,” to use Greenberg’s term, was too mild and ineffective and its denouncement of communism was too strong. Sturzo lamented that the Manifesto reflected neither the Catholic engagement with democratic politics, which he campaigned for since 1919, nor the significant differences between different strands of socialism and communism. He claimed that while Stalinism was inacceptable because authoritarian and repressive, Western socialist and labor parties should be considered as the Catholics’ potential allies. Sturzo’s criticism, which may represent a minority position within the Catholic group that Greenberg discusses, nonetheless sheds light on the contradictions and tensions that characterized this group of thinkers.

The Weimar Century provides readers with an insightful and novel account of the intellectual exchanges between Germany and the United States in the mid-twentieth century. It reveals the long shadows of the Weimar Republic, which emerges from Greenberg’s prose not as a prelude to disaster but as an era of stimulating and innovative democratic political thought. The lives and works of the five intellectuals at the heart of this book form the concrete historical foundation for a moment of conjunction in history. Greenberg’s rich book also reveals the important international aspects of the intellectual history of the Cold War, which cannot be understood through an analysis based on methodological nationalism. The story of these individuals emerges as essentially international, characterized by crossing of national boundaries and the trauma of displacement. While the experience of migration did not seem to change these thinkers’ perceptions of the world in a significant way, Greenberg shows the continuities that emerge in these life stories and highlights their conceptual importance. Thus, his book offers an interesting reflection on the merits of international intellectual history and on the impossibility of containing a story of one nation within its political boundaries.

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