David Abraham’s The Collapse of the Weimar Republic and Henry A. Turner, Jr.’s German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler have been somewhat overshadowed by their reviews, which have generated as much controversy as the books themselves. Some historians, for example, incensed at Abraham’s distortions, actually wrote to departments of history where Abraham was being considered for employment and suggested that Abraham’s work was, well, tripe. Fortunately, real issues exist here, and a great deal more than professional animosity is at work.
Abraham’s book provided the ammunition for its own critics. It would have suffered some mild but obligatory attacks in any event simply because it is a Marxist approach to the Weimar period in Germany (although serious philosophical challenges to Marxist methodology are rarely made any more, except in conservative journals). But an entirely different controversy arose over Abraham’s loose application of historical ground rules (you know; evidence is supposed to exist for the point one is trying to make; it must be identified in notes so that others may check one’s sources; it should support one’s argument-that kind of thing). “Loose application” actually is a generous description of what Abraham does with evidence.
But what exactly does The Collapse of the Weimar Republic say? Abraham argues that Weimar was the final stage of the German nineteenth-century processes. This then leads Abraham to use class analysis and set Weimar in a Marxist context. After approaching a workers’ revolution, the laboring class retreated, permitting the middle class to stage its own, flawed revolution which “disguised old conflicts while never being fully accepted by the majority of . . . the dominant social classes” (p. 7). The rest of the book explores “conflicts” within and between classes, the most interesting and important of which is the “labor/capital conflict.” Ultimately, the “dominant social classes [especially businessmen] came to see the NSDAP [Nazis] as the most reliable or best available basis of support for continuing their own dominance and for liquidating Weimar democracy” (p. 324).
Conclusions such as these should raise eyebrows, not because they contribute “to the reformulation of a major scholarly debate,” as one Abraham defender said in The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 6, 1985, p. 9), but because they accept class analysis as a legitimate method of writing history. In this method there is, indeed, madness. While a question remains in this reviewer’s mind whether any devout Marxist can develop meaningful historical interpretations, it is at least clear that the “class conflict” method of analysis itself seems to encourage the outright misuse of sources. Consider the abuses cited by reviewers of The Collapse of the Weimar Republic in the American Historical Review, October 1983: (1) a “nonexistent book” (actually, Abraham admits that it was merely an incorrect title in his note); (2) a “nonexistent journal article” (Abraham claims that he had only the author and pages incorrect); (3) a letter of a meeting that purports to give reactions to a meeting that took place five days later (Abraham admits the letter is misdated, then cites another, written five days later, as his proof); (4) a letter written in November 1932 by a man who had died five months earlier (Abraham bothered to find only a last name, and apparently there were several men with the name Scholz involved in events he described); (5) “the use as evidence of nonexistent archival documents” (Abraham claims they exist, exactly where he cited them); and (6) “gratuitously misleading” paraphrasing leading to “factually incorrect” interpretations. (This includes, apparently, the arbitrary insertion of the word not in a quotation to render a meaning completely opposite to that intended.) Another scholar checked seventy of Abraham’s footnotes and found only four correct!
These serious errors stem less from carelessness than from a world view that is dictated by method. (The best explanation of this phenomenon appears in Robert Loewenberg’s article in the May 1976 issue of the Historian, “‘Value-Free’ vs. ‘Value-Laden’: A Distinction Without a Difference.”) The issue is not so much why those abuses occurred as why they recur, seemingly without a response from the profession. In 1973 Robert Maddox* exposed the widespread, deliberate errors of citations, omissions, and misinterpretations in seven separate New Left works on the Cold War. A close reading of Maddox’s book, followed by an examination of Abraham’s, shows that the history profession apparently learned little from the scandal of the New Left historians a decade ago.
Still, more than a few voices critical of such historical hanky-panky have been raised. Perhaps the most influential is that of Henry A. Turner, Jr., who has provided an accurate and verifiable history of the Weimar period in his German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler. Turner sensibly avoids class struggle as a theme and simply asks if big business liked Hitler. Did business leaders support him? Did they give him money? Turner concludes that they did not. Only “through gross distortion can big business be accorded a crucial, or even major, role in the downfall of the Republic” (p. 340). Turner claims that bias “appears over and over again in treatments of the political role of big business even by otherwise scrupulous historians” (p. 350).
In his own examination of the evidence, Turner looked at the correspondence of German business leaders, minutes of their meetings, and their contributions. While it might be reassuring for some to think that Hitler came to power through the financial support of a few evil businessmen, the facts are that most of the Nazis’ money came from the German people. Turner carefully discusses Hitler’s policy stances toward business. Hitler was always wary of alienating the businessmen, but his failure to present a clear, procapitalistic economic program made the corporate leaders all the more leery of him. Modern Marxists, quite naturally, would like to implicate capitalism in the Holocaust. But, of course, Hitler’s themes were those of Stalin and, in our own day, Gorbachev. Nazism, as Turner suggests but never makes sufficiently clear, resembled Marxism in many ways, including Jew-hatred and hostility to the individual. In any case, Turner’s book has completely refuted the accepted notions that German corporations supported Hitler.
Quite candidly, therefore, Turner has called Abraham’s book “the Brinks robbery of German history” and castigated the “personal communications” sections of the historical journals, where errors such as those committed by Abraham should be exposed. As Maddox and Loewenberg both point out, a major failure of the scholarly journal “system” is that book reviews sometimes do not appear for a year or more after a book is published; moreover, faculty members now often gain promotions and/or tenure on a publisher’s acceptance of a book. Thus, once a book reaches this point (no matter how poor or inaccurate), it lands in a safety zone. Communications to journals face severe space limitations, so that few major errors of fact or interpretation can be scrutinized.
Finally, of course, a vast majority of the editors, publishers, and reviewers themselves share the “value-free” attitudes that result in books such as The Collapse of the Weimar Republic and therefore respond with the type of comment cited above by the Abraham defender (often such works are called “fresh approaches” or “new formulations” by reviewers). Modern editors and reviewers generally favor works such as Abraham’s, which makes the quest for accuracy and truth all the more difficult. Turner is right when he contends that historians “continue to subordinate the study of Nazism to a crusade against capitalism. As always when the writing of history is made subservient to some other goal, the result has been poor history.” One would hope that twice is enough. First the New Left historians, and now Abraham, threaten to make historical scholarship meaningless. Of course, that is exactly what Marx wanted.
*The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).