The Founding of the Weimar Republic

The Founding of the Weimar Republic.

Lesson 3: The Decline of the Weimar Republic and the Rise of the Nazi Party

Lesson Essay

When you can accomplish the learning objectives for this lesson, you should begin work on the lesson essay described below. You may use any assigned readings, your notes, and other course-related materials to complete this assignment. Be sure to reread theessay grading criteria on the Grades and Assessments page.

This essay should be about 750 words long, typed double space with one-inch margins on each side. It is worth 100 points and should address the following:

What does General Ludendorff’s notion of a “stab-in-the-back” refer to? Discuss the political implications of this theory for the newly founded Weimar Republic in 1919. You should take into account both the relationship between civil government and the military command and the public’s perception of the republic and the lost war.

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to do the following:

· Define crucial terms and events such as the stab-in-the-back legend, Kapp-Putsch, NSDAP, SA, SS, Night of the Long Knives, andErmächtigungsgesetz.

· Provide a brief summary of the Treaty of Versailles.

· Summarize the various reasons the Weimar Republic was an emergency solution disliked by large segments of the German population.

· Broadly discuss the genesis of the NSDAP and its development until 1933.

· Enumerate the major political goals of Hitler and the NSDAP.

· Provide an account of how Hitler established a totalitarian regime within the first six months of his being voted chancellor.


The First World War

We have already briefly touched upon the multiple factors that led to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Chief among them was the widespread imperialist ambitions of the major European nations at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Since Germany developed its industrial power relatively late, it felt left behind in comparison with the other powers, notably France and Britain, which had already built huge imperialist empires in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. Demanding its own “place under the sun,” as the German Emperor Wilhelm II put it, Germany rapidly increased its military and economic presence in other parts of the world and established colonies in southwest Africa, China, and the Pacific islands, among others. Compared with the strong sense of competition among European powers around 1914, the assassination of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Serbia, generally considered the “actual” cause of the war, was merely the final straw that unleashed the storm that had been building for decades.

The war itself was enthusiastically embraced by most peoples in Europe, with only a few critical voices in the beginning. This changed later on, particularly after it had become clear in 1916 that the war could not be won as easily as each nation had hoped. The central powers (comprising Germany and Austria together with Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) made quick advances against Russia and the Serbs in the east. Most importantly, Germany succeeded in smuggling the great revolutionary Lenin into czarist Russia in 1916, and thus helped unleash the Bolshevik October Revolution in Russia in 1917. After the revolution, Germany secured a gain of territory (including Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, and some regions in the Caucasus) by signing the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.

In the west, however, things looked completely different. Germany had violated Belgian neutrality when it followed the so-calledSchliefenplan (worked out by General Schliefen). The basic idea had been to attack France from the north in order to avoid the strong French fortifications along Germany’s western border. To do so, however, required German troops to march through neutral Belgium, and this, in turn, caused Great Britain to join the war against the central powers. In 1917, Germany would again commit a similar error by declaring unrestricted submarine warfare. This policy was directly responsible for the destruction of the American luxury linerLusitania, causing the Americans to join the war on the Allied side as well.

After some initial advances into France, the Germans were stopped in eastern France and bogged down in trench warfare that led to a complete stalemate lasting almost three years. At home, the pressure on the German High Military Command (Oberste Heeresleitung) consisting of the two leading generals, Ludendorff and von Hindenburg, grew stronger, particularly after the bad harvest in 1916 and 1917 led to a famine in many parts of Germany. The social democrats in particular were pushing for peace initiatives, yet von Hindenburg and Ludendorff successfully ruled over both the emperor and the German parliament. Insisting on continuing the fight, Ludendorff and von Hindenburg also helped block an initiative from the Pope to end the war. The only hope was to force a decision prior to arrival of American troops in 1918. Hence, Ludendorff ordered another huge offensive against French and British troops in March of 1918. The Germans reached the Marne River, yet lost half a million soldiers before they were pushed back by an Allied counterattack in the summer. In September of 1918, von Hindenburg finally admitted that the war was lost. Austria collapsed as well. The German emperor abdicated and fled the country, living the remainder of his life in Holland. The military ceded control back to the civil government, and a socialist revolution was proclaimed in various parts of Germany (Kiel, Munich, and Berlin) in November of 1918.

The Founding of the Weimar Republic

The time immediately after the war was characterized by socio-political chaos throughout Germany, which slowly dissipated with the creation of the Weimar Republic. Elections were held on January 19, 1919, and the socialists emerged as the biggest party amidst a plethora of smaller ones. The socialist Friedrich Ebert was declared president of the Reich (Reichspräsident) and hence had to represent Germany on the international scene. The Treaty of Versailles, which Germany was not invited to draft but had to sign in totoin June of 1919, led to a significant reduction of Germany’s territory and the demilitarization of the Rhineland. Allied troops were to occupy many areas. Since Germany was considered solely responsible for the war, it had to pay enormous war reparations to the winning parties (thirty-three billion dollars in war reparations and indemnities over a period of seventy years). The treaty was enormously unpopular in Germany, in no small part because it impinged extensively on internal German sovereignty. Moreover, it was drafted and signed in the same Hall of Mirrors in Versailles (France) where several decades earlier the Second German Reich had been pronounced after the successful war against France in 1871. This symbolic humiliation of Germany remained a considerable burden of the newly founded republic throughout its short existence (until 1933), particularly because the military, having been solely responsible for losing the war, was quick to blame the republic for what they called Germany’s “dishonor.”

In his famous “stab-in-the-back” theory (Dolchstosslegende), General Ludendorff claimed that the German army had been defeated not by the enemy but by the revolutionary forces inside Germany who crept up and killed them from behind. (One must not forget that at the time of Germany’s surrender, its troops were still stationed in Belgium and France; none of the fighting had taken place on German soil.) Although this was a complete fabrication, it proved to be an enormously powerful myth that allowed Germans to maintain their illusions of grandeur by blaming the disliked republic for all that had gone wrong with the war and its aftermath.

Because the Weimar Republic was born out of chaos, it remained an emergency solution rather than a desired political development. It represented an impossible compromise between reactionary and revolutionary forces in Germany, between those who criticized private ownership and those who defended it, between detractors and advocates of the church, between forces who argued for a strong central government and those who supported the federalist tradition of Germany. There simply had not been enough time to work out a compromise and to allow the population to identify with the democratic principles of the new republic. Rather, Germany remained steeped in undemocratic traditions and structures in the areas of administration, economy, and education

The Founding of the Weimar Republic

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