The Fall of the Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic of Germany is currently not much more than a footnote of history. Established during and after WWI, the Republic was an attempt to replace the powerful government of the German empirical dynasty with a more balanced parliamentary monarchy with the new Kaiser to answer to a Reichstag, a governing body similar to parliament. (Craig, 518) This was an attempt to bring democracy to the central part of Europe, which had hitherto maintained the “old style” monarchies in the face of the more modern democracies of the west. (Davies, 938)That the Weimar Republic failed is not so much an indictment of the practice of democracy, but rather a function of internal and external pressures put on the new government of the Republic. (Craig, 518) Although Germany’s failure to fully democratize and subsequent slide into Fascism and Nazism had some social and political causes, it was ultimately the economic conditions of post-war Germany that were the most significant factor leading to the failure of the Republic.
The Weimar Republic arose out of the political upheaval following WWI in Germany. During WWI, the government of Germany was essentially run by the military hierarchy, led the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, Supreme Army Command) with the Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg. (Astor, 79) When it was clear that the war was going to be lost by Germany, these military leaders demanded that a civilian government be installed to balance the power of the Reichkanzler, Prince Max von Baden. (History…2003) In 1918, the 1871 German Constitution was amended to make the Chancellor answerable to the Reichstag, rather than the Emperor. The military leadership, unhappy with the ongoing peace negotiations with the Allies, ordered the German naval fleet to arms. (History…2003) Since this move was both unpopular, and potentially fatal to the peace talks, a number of sailors on two ships refused to follow the orders. (History…2003) When the military arrested 1,000 mutineers, the discord spread, and a general state of rebellion reigned in Germany. (History…2003) As the soldiers and seamen joined the workers, a rebellion similar to the Soviet uprising the previous year occurred. (History…2003) The rebels reached Munich in November, and Ludwig III of Bavaria was forced to flee the city. (History…2003) The working class of Germany at the time was not united either. It consisted of two political parties, the Independent Social Democrats and the Majority Social Democrats. (History…2003) The latter group decided to take the lead in the revolution, and demanded that Kaisar Wilhelm II abdicate his throne. On November 9th, 1918, (History…2003) from the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin, Philipp Scheidemann declared a new German Republic. (History…2003) Two hours later, Karl Liebknecht declared a German Socialist Republic on the site of Berlin castle. Later the same day, in a legally questionable move, Prince Max von Baden surrendered his powers to a third individual, Fredrick Ebert, leader of the Independent Social Democrats. (History…2003) The next day, a “Council of the People’s Deputies” was established featuring three representatives from each of the two political parties. Ebert quickly made some political moves that angered the Socialists. (History…2003) He cut a deal with the military (OHL) to secure authority, and had a parliamentary democracy established. (History…2003) The deal with the military was considered a betrayal by the left-leaning socialists. (History…2003) Additionally, the military authority lent a permanent, powerful and conservative element to the government. (History…2003) The marginalized left-leaning elements of the German Socialist Party broke off and formed a Communist party. (History…2003) When the elections for the assembly were conducted, the various Socialist groups could not organize, and the results of the election yielded a Reichstag dominated by moderates. (History…2003) The National Assembly convened in Weimar, and ratified a presidential democracy under a new constitution. (History…2003) The New Republic, under Ebert, signed the treaty of Versailles, agreeing to the catastrophic War Guilt Clause. (History…2003)
The new Republic was immediately under pressure from extremists from both the left and the right. (Evans, 81) Leftists felt betrayed that a Communist Revolution had not been staged, and Right-Wingers were hoping for a government more in keeping with the Authoritarian Constitution of 1871. (Evans, 81) Both sides used the loss of the war as a bludgeon against the authority of the Republican moderates. (Evans, 81) The first of numerous revolutions or “Putsches” occurred in March of 1920, when the military right-wingers took over Berlin and installed a Right-Wing journalist named Wolfgang Kapp. (Evans, 82) The Weimar government fled and called for a general strike, which shut down the German economy. (Evans, 82) The Kapp chancellorship was over before the end of March, 1920. (Evans, 82) Perhaps encouraged by the success of the work-stoppage, a 50,000-man Red Army formed in the Ruhr and took the province over for the Communists. The regular army retook the province, without authorization from the government, and put down a number of Communist uprisings through 1921. (Evans, 84) With the economy failing, inflation out of control, another Putsch, conceived in a Munich beer hall, was launched by the Bavarian Prime Minister, Gustav von Kahr, Erich Ludendorff, and a rising member of the National Socialists party, Adolph Hitler. (Evans, 84) They declared a new government and marched on Munich with about 3,000 supporters. (Evans, 84) The Beer Hall Putsch, as it became known, failed spectacularly and resulted in a five-year prison sentence for Hitler. (Evans, 84) He served only five months. (Evans, 84)
Despite these early upheavals, beginning in 1923, a period of relative calm and stability pervaded the republic for about six years. (Evans, 88) Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann managed to stabilize the economy (with help from the American Dawes Act) and curb inflation. (Evans, 88) His death in 1929, however, led to a final period of upheaval, and the ultimate death of the Republic. Paul von Hindenburg, with the backing of the military appointed Heinrich Bruning as Chancellor expecting to use the emergency powers provision of the constitution to lead a shift to political conservativism. When the Reichstag members protested, Bruning tried to dissolve the body. The following elections saw Socialist representation in the Reichstag increase to nearly 20%. Without parliamentary support, Bruning was helpless to stop the impending economic depression, and instituted unpopular policies which cut social services. The Republic lost all credibility with the people at that time. Bruning stepped down and supported Hindenburg against Hitler in the election of 1932. The Majority Social Democrats (Hitler’s Party) held 37% of the Reichstag. (Evans, 92) After a second election failed to establish a clear majority, a collaboration of the various left-wing parties compelled Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chacellor. (Astor, 81) With the help of the German military, and a secret police force, Hitler was able to dissolve the Reichstag and eventually seize total power in Germany. (Evans, 92)
In concert with these political upheavals, there were numerous social problems which contributed significantly to the destabilization of the Weimar Republic. After the war, the entire country was wracked with assassinations, riots, strikes. (Evans, 118)The German population, from times pre-dating World War I, was rigidly stratified and group identity was a priority. (Evans, 119)Whether it was religion or political party, an individual’s identity was associated from beginning to end with that group. (Evans, 118)They had homogeneous clubs, schools, newspapers, magazines, and social circles. (Evans, 118) In contrast, the younger generation was less tied to Party, as they were distracted by a newly materialistic culture which featured tabloid news, dance halls, cheap novels and movies. (Evans, 120) Meanwhile, the military and civilian service sectors, long used to complete control by the government, never fully adjusted to the notion of Republic, and thus quickly gravitated to parties who established more strict control, most notably, the Nazi party. (Evans, 120) The massive number of civil servants also had no particular incentive to support the Republic, and those who vehemently opposed it in their ranks went unmolested. (Evans, 121) These servants were loyal to the government, but blind to the particular form it might take. The political fights that were endemic in the Weimar Republic were closely mirrored by cultural clashes among the populace. (Evans, 121) The German people were highly participative in the elections of the times (around 80%). (Evans, 121) In newspapers, magazines, and on the streets, civilian interest in political conflict was manifest. (Evans, 121) All major and minor parties had newspapers dedicated to their cause, but there was no majority to dominate media output. (Evans, 123) A German Movie producer named Hugenburg was particularly effective in promoting German hyper-nationalism, but did not translate his social influence to political power. (Evans, 123) A revolution in art and literature, spearheaded by the Dadists, and other art movements, created further tension between the “new age” minority, and the conservative majority, who viewed such things as a form of cultural communism. (Evans, 123) The ‘New-agers” battled in the press, novels radio and cinema with the old-style nationalism and idealism of the conservatives. (Evans, 123) The Republic’s permissiveness in the area of the arts did nothing in particular to quell the cultural upheaval. (Evans, 123) The radio led to the propagation of Jazz music, and American dances such as the Charleston, and Foxtrot became popular. (Evans, 123) This fed the animosity of traditionalists, who railed against the vulgarity of the styles and lamented the “inferior” black culture which these items reflected. (Evans, 124) The progressive and permissive attitudes of women led to the reactionary response against sexual immorality where both conservatives and hyper-nationalists blame sexual immorality for the undermining of the German state. (Evans, 124) Blame for all of these phenomena fell squarely upon the Republic, in the eyes of nationalists and conservatives. (Evans, 124) The virulent nationalism among the young men of Germany in the 1920s was engendered by their teachers at school, and their participation in social clubs which promoted German identity and conformity. (Evans, 126) All of these factors illustrate a culture that was ill-prepared to take control of their destiny politically, as subsequent events would prove.
Despite the political and social turmoil endemic in Germany at the time, the Weimar Republic had a chance of survival. The Constitution, relative to those of their European neighbors, was democratic, fair and stable. (Evans, 102) Given time, the population might have settled into a routine practice of these new forms of government. The factor which prevented this, and was the most compelling factor leading to the fall of the Weimar Republic, was the economic crisis that crippled the nation, and left political and social considerations in the shadows. (Evans, 102) The Treaty of Versailles, which the Republic supported to end WWI was devastating to the economy of an already strapped German Nation. (Evans, 103) Having acceded to the “War Guilt” clause of the treaty, the government effectively agreed to “foot the bill” for the damage done to the countryside during the War. (Evans, 103) In addition to having to export resources in order to make reparations, the German government also ceded productive regions of its territory to other sovereignties. (Evans, 104) On top of these concerns, Germany still had its own war debt that needed to be paid. (Evans, 104) The government was also responsible for financing the welfare of thousands of returning soldiers. (Evans, 104) Any leader in the government who suggested raising taxes for any of these expenses would stand accused of taxing the German people to pay reparations. (Evans, 105) Their only recourse was to push the notion to foreign nations that the value of the German currency was declining only because of reparation payments. (Evans, 105) Despite the aggressive pursuit of this policy, the value of the German Mark against the dollar fell over 100% in a six-month period in 1921-22. (Evans, 105) The situation continued to deteriorate quickly. The Mark, valued at just under 500 to the dollar in July of 1922, fell to 7,000 to the dollar by December of that year. (Evans, 106) To make matters worse, the French and Belgium military occupied the Ruhr region in late 1922, in response to Germany falling behind in its payments. (Evans, 106) This region was a major industrial base for the Republic, and its loss further aggravated the economic situation. (Evans, 106) Even German resistance to the occupation, in the form of work stoppages, sabotage and slowdowns, further heightened the inflationary trend. (Evans, 106) By 1923, the situation could best be described as hyper-inflationary. (Evans, 107) By December of 1924, the rate of exchange was 4.2 trillion marks to one US dollar. (Evans, 107) The inflation took on ridiculous proportions. (Evans, 108) Workers would collect wages in wheel barrows, and rush to spend the money before it lost further value. (Evans, 108) Municipalities began printing emergency money, only printed on one side. (Evans, 108) Prices in shops and the streets changed by the hour. (Evans, 108) They were typed and posted multiple times a day, and always on the increase. (Evans, 108)
Food riots began breaking out, and Jews were targeted in many cases. (Evans, 110) In the middle class, a clear set of winners and losers in the economic climate emerged. (Evans, 112) Those who bought war bonds never were paid, while those who borrowed money, for mortgages and the like, were able to pay their debts for pennies on the dollar. (Evans, 112) Often, these two circumstances would exist in the same individual’s fiscal situation. (Evans, 112) The result was that bitter creditors, and other members of the middle class fragmented politically, to the extent that they no longer acted as a unified, stable voice for the status quo. (Evans, 112)
Another result of the economic crisis was crime. (Evans, 114) Since money was virtually valueless, goods became the target of theft and robbery. (Evans, 114) Jails filled with thieves who were so impoverished, these literally did not have shirts on their backs. (Evans, 115) Dockside workers, who traditionally stole a bit of what they were unloading, became so desperate that they would refuse to load or unload any goods that they could not use for themselves. (Evans, 115) Coffee, Flour, sugar and bacon became currency. (Evans, 115) Fewer and fewer people accepted cash at all, preferring these goods. (Evans, 115) Armed gangs of young people roamed the countryside, ransacking barns and stealing anything they could get their hands on. (Evans, 116) As it had done in America, the prevalence and myth of the successful criminal led to a fascination with the criminal element, which contributed to the general moral and ethical decay of the Republic. (Evans, 116)
Because the so-called winners of the financial situation were financiers and industrialists, the public began to characterize such individuals as criminal exploiters of the working class. (Evans, 118) Along with criminals and black marketers, such people were vilified, and inevitably connected with the Jews of Germany. (Evans, 118) On top of the profitability of borrowing to build up industry, and paying back reduced amounts after inflation, the industrial dynamics in the 1920s became focused on automation, “Fordism” and Taylorism. (Evans, 119) All of this had the effect of greatly decreasing the need for labor, thus contributing to the massive unemployment already in place. Many people began to reflect with longing on the pre-war Empire, and focus the blame for economic strife in the Weimar Republic. (Evans, 120)
Of these political, economic and social conditions that contributed to the destruction of the Weimar Republic, the most important one was the economic conditions. Despite being a society that was socially unready to embrace a democratic republic, the German people may have readily adapted to a new style of politics, especially given their passion for it, but the economic crisis forced them to either demonstrate a faith in the government that they simply did not have. The fragmented and chaotic political situation was another factor that lent the Republic instability, but again, peaceful economic waters would have soothed the more radical elements in government. The Communists, Nationalists, Socialists, and Nazis would have little to point out in criticism of the Republic. As it stood, the Weimar Republic’s error in accepting reparation requirements precipitated an economic situation that few governments would have been able to manage. While other lands experienced economic depression, none had inflation to the extent and rate that the Germans faced. (Davies, 943)As a group, individuals will put up with a great deal of nonsense from their government, so long as their own needs are being met, and their attention is held by earning a living, culture, cinema and things of that nature. The German people did not have these things going for them, and were looking desperately for a savior and a scapegoat. The found the latter with the Jews of Germany, and the former in Adolph Hitler.
Astor, W. & Showalter, D. Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism Washington, D.C. Potomac books, Inc. 2005.
Craig, G. Germany: 1866-1945 New York, Oxford University Press, 1978.
Davies, N. Europe: A History New York Oxford University Press, 1996.
Evans, R. The Coming of the Third Reich new York, The Penguin Press, 1994.
“History of Weimar Republic”. (2003) Retrieved November 10th, 2008 from German Notes Website: