Germany’s first experiment in parliamentary democracy ushered a mélange of social forces onto the stage of history footnote . Forged in the crucible of the successive epochal defeats of the imperial military order and the revolutionary Left, the Weimar Republic achieved notoriety for being an ineffectual bulwark against the onslaught of fascism. Crippled by internecine feuding between the German Communist Party (kpd) and the Social Democratic Party (spd), the parliamentary Left stood by helplessly while the Nazi Party (nsdap) garnered sufficient electoral strength to legitimize its claim to rule: a claim that, in the event, the dominant classes’ representatives were all too willing to recognize. In the end, it was the very mechanisms of the constitutional settlement that gave the quietus to democracy: power was handed over to the Nazis by the ancient symbol of Wilhelmine authority, Reichspräsident von Hindenburg, who had legally ruled by decree since March 1930 under the provisions of the constitution’s infamous Article 48.footnote2

If Weimar has become proverbial for the inadequacy of constitutional protections against a Blitzkrieg from the Right, its other enduring historical image is that of economic ineptitude. The sight of Germans hauling wheelbarrows of banknotes to the local shop to buy food has been indelibly etched in popular memory. . . and not only among present-day Germans. The hyperinflation of 1922–23, which did so much to undermine confidence in the Republic among the Mittelstand, whose savings were wiped out virtually overnight, continues to haunt the dreams of international bankers and national politicians alike. The recent fiascos of the Mexican peso and several East Asian and Latin American currencies pointedly illustrate how readily panic spreads from local oligarchy to global finance when the spectre of cascading devaluation renders even comparatively marginal national currencies radically unstable.

Neither of these historical commonplaces about Weimar is without warrant, but they tend to obscure the Republic’s positive virtues. At the political level, the constitution held firm until the unendurable strain of world crisis plunged the economy into a precipitous contraction that, by 1932, would leave some thirty per cent of the workforce officially unemployed, with perhaps another million actually out of work but unregistered.footnote3 Moreover, while periodic economic crises significantly narrowed its room for manoeuvre, the government’s record of social provision was far from negligible. Many of the basic features in the Federal Republic’s vaunted welfare state revived Weimar programmes under more favourable economic conditions.footnote4 And, famously, Weimar witnessed the flourishing of an avant-garde culture, much of it left-wing in orientation, unequalled by any of the other centres of European modernism.footnote5

At the very height of economic and political crisis in 1923, a somewhat improbable concatenation of individuals and circumstances coalesced in founding an Institute for Social Research, attached to Frankfurt University but independent of it by virtue of possessing a substantial private endowment. What became known in the 1960s as the Frankfurt School was the brainchild of a self-described ‘salon Bolshevik’, Felix Weil, and an economics professor of social-democratic leanings, Kurt Albert Gerlach.footnote6 Weil aimed to establish a German version of Moscow’s Marx-Engels Institute, and envisioned handing it over one day ‘to a German Soviet Republic’.footnote7 Neither goal was to be realized.

The story of how Weil’s utopian dream of a Marxist think-tank was transformed, under pressure of political circumstance and with the willing accommodation of its guiding lights, into a pillar of the post-war German state’s educational and research apparatus, is told authoritatively and in detail in Rolf Wiggershaus’s monumental history, originally published in German in the mid-1980s but only translated into English in 1994. It is unlikely that Wiggershaus’s book will be superseded anytime soon, and certainly not in English. The hitherto standard account, Martin Jay’s The Dialectical Imagination, stopped in 1950 and relied, for the most part, on published writings by Institute members and associates. Wiggershaus carries the story forward to the death of his teacher Adorno in 1969, and bases much that is new on the Horkheimer Archive, an invaluable resource for illuminating the Institute’s internal dynamic, especially the machinations of its long-time director. In addition, Wiggershaus exhibits a sure grasp of the political history that continuously inflected the Frankfurt School’s trajectory, as he unfolds the tale of critical theory’s variegated fortunes from the rise of fascism to the moment of the sds.