Youth and education.
As a liberal Prussian Protestant, Stresemann became a typical representative of the chauvinistic spirit prevailing in imperial Germany. He believed in the spiritual, military, and economic superiority of the German Empire, and his political idealism manifested itself in a sentimental enthusiasm for the heroic liberalism of 1848, as well as in a romantic style of speech.
After initially sympathizing with the ideas of the Protestant social reformer Friedrich Naumann and collaborating with his National Social Union, Stresemann joined the rightist National Liberal Party in 1903. Strongly represented in Saxony at the time, the party became Stresemann's political home. Often involved in conflicts over his support of social-welfare measures with the right wing of his party (which was dominated by representatives of heavy industry), he attracted general notice at his first appearance at a party congress in 1906.
As a Dresden city councillor from 1906 to 1912 and editor of the Dresden magazine Sachsische Industrie ("Saxon Industry"), Stresemann became a well-known writer on economics and an expert on municipal affairs. Recognizing the importance of the press in influencing public opinion, he took advantage of it to support his aims.
He was elected in 1907 to the Reichstag (parliament) as a National Liberal from the Annaberg district in the Saxon metal-mining country, and thus he succeeded in gaining a foothold in national politics. At 28 he was the youngest deputy in the Reichstag. The party chairman, Ernst Bassermann, helped to advance his political career, and he was soon considered Bassermann's "crown prince." Stresemann was primarily interested in economic policy both as a journalist and a deputy. He energetically defended the interests of the commercial middle class, but his advocacy of extended social-welfare legislation embroiled him in a conflict with the representatives of his party's right wing, which in 1912 prevented his reelection to the National Liberal Party executive committee. After losing his seat in the new Reichstag elections in the same year, he traveled with other business leaders to the United States to study economic conditions.
By this time Stresemann, who had moved to Berlin, was one of the best-known leaders of German economic life. He occupied leading positions in a number of trade associations, including the German-American Economic Association, established at his suggestion. Stresemann's many offices brought him financial independence. He was known for his organizational gifts, knew how to handle people, and was aware of the power he wielded. As a member of the pan-German Deutscher Kolonialverein (German Colonial League) and an advocate of a strong naval construction program, he supported the imperialist goals of German policy carried out under the aegis of Alfred von Tirpitz and Bernhard, Furst von Bulow. Tirpitz had served as state secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, in which post he created the German battle fleet, and Bulow was chancellor of Germany (1900-1909).
Stresemann played a leading role in Bethmann Hollweg's overthrow in July 1917 but failed to bring back to power the former chancellor Bulow, whom he admired. After Bassermann's death in the same month, Stresemann succeeded him as leader of the party's Reichstag faction, becoming chairman of the entire party later in the same year. Despite radical differences within the National Liberal ranks, Stresemann was able to prevent a party split between the Reichstag faction and its more conservative counterpart in the Prussian House of Deputies over the Prussian three-class suffrage system, in which a citizen's vote was weighted according to the value of his property. Hoping to strengthen the monarchy, Stresemann advocated abolition of the voting system. On the other hand, he allowed himself to be deceived about the seriousness of the military situation of the Reich and its allies until the Supreme Command admitted defeat at the end of September 1918.
As chancellor from Aug. 13 to Nov. 23, 1923, during the crisis over the Allied occupation of the Ruhr, and as foreign minister from August 1923 to his death, Stresemann exercised decisive influence over the fate of the Weimar Republic, and he became a statesman of European stature. His first decision as chancellor was to abandon the policy of passive resistance in the Ruhr, which in January 1923 had been occupied by French and Belgian troops to enforce payment of German war reparations. This policy had accelerated inflation and was precipitating a financial collapse.
On the domestic scene, he sought to steer his way among opposing domestic forces. While proceeding harshly against communist-influenced state governments in Thuringia and Saxony, he displayed a lenient attitude toward revolutionary attempts of the radical right, such as Adolf Hitler's putsch of Nov. 9, 1923, in Munich. At the height of the internal political crisis of November 1923 there was danger that the occupied territory west of the Rhine (occupied by the Allies) might withdraw from the Reich. Only the stabilization of the currency in the middle of November--the last significant achievement of Stresemann's government--restored domestic order and created the basis for economic recovery.
Stresemann's successes in dealing with the Allied powers during those years can be marked out in stages. In 1924 the U.S.-proposed Dawes Plan was signed, providing for reduction in payment of reparations and stabilization of German finances. It was followed by the Pact of Locarno in 1925, which included acceptance of the new Franco-German border, agreements to arbitrate disputes with other nations, and immunity from new sanctions by the victors of World War I.
In 1926 the first Rhineland zone was evacuated by the Allies, Germany was admitted to the League of Nations, and the Berlin Treaty with the Soviet Union, an agreement providing for mutual neutrality, was signed. In 1928 the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war was signed by Germany. Stresemann did not live to see the complete evacuation of French troops from the Rhineland and the completion of the new settlement reducing German reparations through the Young Plan (also a U.S. proposal) in 1929, and he had conducted the negotiations when already marked by death.
Any summary of Stresemann's diplomatic successes should not obscure the fact that he had to devote an extraordinary amount of effort to combatting strong domestic opposition that arose, above all, from his own party. Stresemann, who took the importance of the press into consideration, used publicity to promote his policy but, by making premature statements, often aroused political hopes that could not be realized. After his spectacular secret meeting in 1926 with Aristide Briand, which gave rise to exaggerated hopes, Franco-German rapprochement came to a standstill. In the last two years of his life, which were marked by illness, Stresemann became increasingly dissatisfied at his failure to further his foreign policy, especially after his party dwindled and large sections of it went over to the extreme right. He himself contemplated formation of a new party of the liberal centre. The domestic struggle in particular weakened his already precarious health, and he died after suffering two strokes, at the age of 51.
As an advocate of a "policy of national realism," as opposed to a "pacifist policy of resignation," he was by no means a champion of European unification. He supported its objectives, however, since he could thus more easily obtain the urgently sought revision of the Treaty of Versailles.
Stresemann's image is still controversial. He was first pronounced a hero after 1945, when he was viewed as a champion of a united Europe. This view was succeeded in the 1950s by an increasingly critical evaluation, especially during the disclosure of his voluminous literary estate, which was at first exclusively at the disposal of U.S. historians. He was then portrayed as a flexible and opportunistic politician of nationalistic sympathies who shrewdly adjusted his aims to meet the needs of the time, and it was said that Stresemann had not become a democrat out of conviction but rather that he had raised "finessing" to the level of a principle. His volatile character and sentimental attachment to uniforms and tradition were also emphasized. The communists, meanwhile, regarded him as a representative of monopoly capitalism and a forerunner of Hitler.
One of his more recent biographers has convincingly characterized Stresemann as a "pragmatic conservative" who remained flexible in his choice of political means while pursuing his national aims of restoration of German wealth and power and the continuation of German traditional social and economic order. Others have emphasized the European aspect of the German "patriot" Stresemann, a viewpoint from which German historical research has in the meantime departed. Yet, his political changeability notwithstanding, Stresemann is counted among the few statesmen of his time.
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