Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929) was the son of a well-to-do restauranteur. He worked in the family business and studied hard. After attending the Andreas Real Gymnasium in Berlin, Stresemann studied literature, philosophy, and political economy at Berlin and Leipzig. During these student days, he discovered that he had powers of leadership as well as a capacity for literary attainment. He wrote critical essays on Thomas More’s Utopia and historical pieces on Bismarck and Napoleon, and acted as spokesman for his student association. His doctoral dissertation was an economic investigation of the Berlin beer trade, assessing the pressures of big business capitalism on the independent middle class of Berlin.
Stresemann entered the real world of commerce in 1901 at the age of twenty-two as a clerk in the Association of German Chocolate Manufacturers in Dresden. A year later he took over the business management of the local branch of the Manufacturers Alliance, an association of entrepreneurs. With his organizing talent and his persuasiveness, he increased the number of members in the alliance from 180 in 1902 to 1,000 in 1904 and to approximately 5,000 in 1912. Although he represented capital, Stresemann nonetheless supported the idea, novel at the time, that management should accept labor’s right to organize and should recognize its representatives as official negotiators of collective bargaining demands.
Always convinced of the relationship between economics and politics, however, Stresemann sought elective office. In 1906 he was elected to a seat on the town council of Dresden, which he held until 1912; in 1907 he won election to the Reichstag. In 1917 he was elected leader of the National Liberal Party.
While in Dresden, Stresemann married Käthe Kleefeld; they had two sons. One of Stresemann’s biographers remarks that his devotion to his wife was «the axis on which his whole life turned [so that he was free to fling] his entire intellect and energy, his almost superhuman powers of concentration, into his one concern, politics»
Stresemann passionately supported Germanic policy both before and during World War I. He believed in force, in authority, in discipline. He argued as early as 1907 for the creation of a strong navy, seeing in it the instrument by which to extend and protect German overseas trade; in 1916, he supported unrestricted submarine warfare; he helped to defeat the government of Bethmann-Hollweg which he thought too temperate; he opposed the Treaty of Versailles.
Dismayed, however, to discover Germany’s true military position in the fall of 1918, Stresemann found his ideas of the world changing. Disillusioned with an imperial government that believed in force yet did not possess adequate force, and indeed realizing that the policy of force and conquest in itself is ultimately ruinous, he began to see the world as a jigsaw of political and commercial interrelationships, each nation an individual piece in the puzzle and each fitting into another.
A month after the armistice of November 11, 1918, Stresemann formed the German People’s Party, was elected to the national assembly which gathered at Weimar in 1919 to frame a new constitution, was elected to the new Reichstag in 1920 and spent the next three years in opposition. From August 13 to November 23, 1923, Stresemann was chancellor of a coalition government. In his short-lived ministry he dealt firmly with insurrection in Saxony, restored order in Bavaria after Hitler’s Putsch failed, ended the passive resistance of Germans in the Ruhr to the French occupying forces, and began the work of stabilizing Germany’s currency.
In 1924 Stresemann’s successor chose him as his secretary of foreign affairs, an office he was to fill with such distinction under four governments that he was called the greatest master of German foreign policy since Bismarck. He enjoyed immediate success with the acceptance of the Dawes Plan, which restructured reparations on the basis of Germany’s ability to pay. With his note of February 9, 1925, he took the initiative in arriving at a rapprochement with the Western Allies, especially with France, in guaranteeing the maintenance of the boundaries established at Versailles. After careful preparation for a conference, Gustav Stresemann, Aristide Briand, and Austen Chamberlain, along with representatives of the other four nations involved, met at Locarno, Switzerland, to draw up mutual security pacts. The three were a study in contrasts: Chamberlain, tall, elegant, monocled, schoolmasterish, cool; Briand, slightly stooped, hair disheveled, moustached, informal, amused; Stresemann, stiffly erect, bald head reflecting the light, cautiously formal. But they shared a common goal: to provide general security so that political and economic stability could be achieved.
After initialing the Locarno Pact on October 16, Stresemann hurried home to insure its acceptance by the government. In a speech broadcast to the nation on November 3, 1925, he appealed for support, saying: «Locarno may be interpreted as signifying that the States of Europe at last realize that they cannot go on making war upon each other without being involved in common ruin.»
As another part of his peace offensive, Stresemann signed a rapprochement with Russia, called the Treaty of Berlin, in April of 1926. And, following an unsuccessful trip to Geneva in March, he finally saw on September 8, 1926, the unanimous acceptance of Germany’s admission into the League of Nations.
Despite his health, which declined rapidly after the Christmas of 1927, and against medical advice, Stresemann retained his position as German foreign minister. In 1929 at The Hague, he accepted the Young Plan which named June 30, 1930, as the final date for the evacuation of the Ruhr.
Stresemann did not live to see that evacuation. The victim of a stroke, he died in Berlin in October of 1929.