Welfare, Modernity, and the Weimar State: 1919-1933

Welfare, Modernity, and the Weimar State: 1919-1933 – Review

Donna Harsch

By Young-Sun Hong (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998. xii plus 289pp.).

The Weimar republic has often been called the first welfare state. Scholars have devoted much attention to disputes between the Weimar Right and Left about who should pay for its new entitlement programs, recognizing that the battles over, especially, unemployment insurance fostered the severe polarization of late Weimar politics. Until recently, however, historians have neglected Weimar debates about ‘classic’ welfare, that is, about how to provide relief for the indigent, whether the “traditional” poor such as the aged, disabled, or sick or the “new” poor created by the economic ravages of the First World War and its aftermath. As Young-Sun Hong shows in her thoughtful and thoroughly researched book, controversies among social reformers, charity-activists, and welfare bureaucrats about support programs for the poor were just as heated, if less high profile, than the famous struggles between the trade unions and big business about unemployment payments. Her clear, theoretically-informed, and even-handed analysis situates the increasingly shrill arguments about the causes and cures of poverty within the debaters’ religious and political convictions and their gender, social position, and profession. Her study ties shifting conceptions of welfare policy to the crises that punctuated the republic’s history – revolution, hyper-inflation, depression, and the Nazi seizure of power. Her method allows her to make a strong case for the significance of the formation of welfare policy to the evolution of the modern state in general and to the devolution of the first German republic in particular.

Hong also contributes to our understanding of continuities between the Weimar approach to welfare and Nazi discourse about eugenics, indigent individuals, and the primacy of the “national community.” In the 1980s, the historian Detlev Peukert offered a major reinterpretation of early twentieth-century German history. Applying a Foucauldian framework, Peukert argued that welfare, modernity, and National Socialism were immanently related to each other. The Weimar republic’s modern welfare programs were democratically promulgated, he conceded, but propelled by a desire for social rationalization. Social reformers may have endorsed political rights, but were eager to reach the public arm into private lives in order to regulate social reproduction. Eugenic thought represented the culmination of this urge towards discipline of the individual for the sake of communal or racial well-being. Nazi ideology cracked the contradictory shell of modernity when it rejected the democratic form of the Weimar republic but kept its social content – control and discipline – and fulfilled the inherent tendencies of the modern welfare project – elimination of the unfit and unproductive in the interest of the Volk. Hong acknowledges the brilliance of Peukert’s reconceptualization of German history as quintessentially modern rather than peculiarly anti-modem, yet she substantially qualifies it. She argues, first, that Peukert misjudged the structure of modern discourse about welfare policy. Social rationalization may have occurred but it provoked a “proliferation of welfare reform groups and social service providers whose political and religious cleavages mirrored those of German society (p. 5)” and who disagreed massively about the who and why of relief. Second, he misunderstood the content of this fractured discourse. Social reformers argued constantly about the proper balance between recipients’ “social rights” and their “social duties” to the community. Out of debate, a distinctively ‘Weimar’ model emerged. The state did greatly expand the availability of social relief and, therefore, its purview over the poor, yet its approach was preventive and therapeutic, not punitive. The question of individual rights versus the rights of the state and obligations of the poor was never resolved – until 1933. In sum, the process of welfare reform in the republic was more complex, fraught, and multivalent than Peukert’s sweeping interpretation implies.

The book focuses on three levels of debate: arguments about the principles of relief, welfare policy, and the personnel and practice of social work. The major theoretical persuasions were those of the Progressives, the Christians, and the Social Democrats. The divide between secular bourgeois reformers and Christian charity had opened in the nineteenth century. Academics, bourgeois feminists, philanthropists, and municipal poor relief officials investigated the ‘face’ of German poverty and defined it as a remediable condition that a national social policy should address. In contrast, the Protestant Inner Mission and Catholic Caritas understood poverty as part of God’s order. Christian charity assumed, however, that a compassionate, self-sacrificing Christian volunteer could and should minister to the deserving poor, alleviating through merciful devotion not only material want but, more important, moral needs. While Progressives favored partial statification and professionalization of relief administration, Christian charities wanted it to remain wholly individualized, local, and voluntary. Virtually all bourgeois reformers believed that the poor needed to be uplifted or at least “improved” if they were to overcome their handicaps. When the Social Democrats stepped on to the stage of welfare reform in 1918 with their own organization, they rejected this individualistic, moralistic conception of poverty and poor people. Workers’ Welfare represented recipients as the subjects, rather than the objects, of a welfare policy that was only necessary in order to allay the social effects of capitalism. While the Progressives believed that both voluntary organizations and state agencies should play a role in relief, the Social Democrats had no fundamental qualms about state intervention in the private sphere as long as individual rights were protected and the policy followed was rational, national, and democratically negotiated.

Differences in principle led to political battles, though theoretical intersections also allowed for temporary alliances. Progressives played the pivotal role in deliberations about welfare policy. Not only did their German Association for Public and Private Welfare produce the most important position papers and research on welfare reform, but they were able to compromise with the other camps. The fundamental fault line ran between the private, religious approach to the needy soul of the Christians (and conservative politicians) and the public, secular strategy of social change favored by Social Democrats. Alarmed by the republic’s increasing control over the terms and provision of relief, the charities decried the politicization of welfare and their own loss of autonomy. They complained that new maternal, infant, and youth programs were amoral, unchristian, and anti-family and endangered the moral health of pregnant women and youth. Workers’ Welfare retorted that the churches wanted access to proletarian families to propagate their insidious pious message. A stream of pamphlets, conferences, and parliamentary working groups debated, for example, the terms of a National Youth Welfare Law, arguing about everything from the scope of state authority to the composition of the boards of local youth welfare offices. In the end, a fragile compromise created the boards but left them financially weak, without a clear right to statutory guardianship, and with heavy representation by voluntary welfare.

Women play a prominent role in Hong’s story, setting her book apart from most studies of intellectual and political conflict in the Weimar republic. Among others, Progressives such as Gertrud Baumer and Alice Salomon and Social Democrats such as Helene Simon and Hedwig Wachenheim made fundamental contributions to the discussions about principles and policy. Only in the debates about the practice and personnel of social work, however, did gender emerge as an explicit topic of contention. As Hong shows in an excellent chapter, schools of social work expanded in the 1920s and became more demanding and professional. Yet the field, and training for it, were plagued by basic questions about identity and raison d’etre. Since its beginnings, the bourgeois women’s movement had insisted that social work was “an exclusively women’s sphere of social activity” in which women could apply their “feminine qualities of nurturing and caring . . . (p. 141).” In so far as it assumed social work to be an essentially feminine mission, the charities shared this conception of “social motherhood.” They balked, however, at the feminists’ belief that women should control all aspects and levels of the field. Against the “social pedagogy” model of social work training, put forward most forcefully by Alice Salomon and based on the supposition that social work was a unique therapeutic and educational enterprise, the charities supported a “social hygiene” model that subsumed social work training under the medical category and subordinated social workers to (male) physician experts. Moreover, to Christian dismay, the practice of social work in the republic demanded less motherly feeling than psychological knowledge and legal expertise as social workers took on responsibility for a wide range of programs, including “maternal advising, welfare programs for infants and small children, school health services . . ., correctional education, juvenile court assistance, social housing programs, and general applications for monetary relief . . . (p. 159)” Progressive reformers recognized the need to transform a voluntary calling into a professional occupation, but became almost as distressed as the charities by the republic’s alleged bureaucratization and “masculinization” of the relationship between the Fursorgerin and her client. Social Democrats had little patience with such concerns and, instead, aimed to make the relationship as egalitarian as possible.

In her chapters on the late Weimar years, Hong shows that the bourgeois reformers, whether secular or Christian, grew more conservative as the republic’s social and economic crises ballooned and the number of people on the welfare roles exploded. She agrees with Peukert that in the early 1930s hereditary explanations of indigence gained much credence. Prominent Progressive and Christian reformers complained that public funds were squandered on the undeserving, overly prolific poor, rather than the “socially productive” Volk. Before 1933, however, Progressive reformers never scuttled their concern about protecting the individual against the possibly predatory interests of the state. Among the bourgeois organizations, Caritas emerged, especially after the Nazi seizure of power, as the most vocal defender of the inherent value of individual human life. Thus, no eugenic consensus cohered, despite the increasing pull of racist thought on prestigious welfare thinkers. Though I found this conclusion convincing, I wished for a more explicit discussion of the attraction of eugenics for many bourgeois feminists as well as Social Democrats. In general, the Socialists drop out of the book’s analysis of the welfare debates during the republic’s last years.

This intelligent, important study would benefit scholars and students of the history of modern welfare policy as well as advanced undergraduates and graduate students of twentieth- century Germany.

Donna Harsch

Carnegie Mellon University

Erratum: In the previous issue of the JSH (32 #3) Thomas R. Williams’ review of John Lankford’s book included an error introduced in Journal copy editing. On p. 734, the fourth line down should read “number of computers, individuals . . .”

COPYRIGHT 1999 Carnegie Mellon University Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group