THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC
After Germany lost the First World War, the German Emperor Kaiser fled and a new democratic government of Germany was declared in February 1919 at the small town of Weimar. It was too dangerous to make a declaration in Berlin where there had just been a revolt by a Communist group called the Spartacists. The Weimar Republic was a genuine attempt to create a perfect democratic country.
Was the Weimar Republic perfect?
These features of the Republic served to ensure that it was the perfect democracy:
- A Bill of Rights guaranteed every German citizen freedom of speech and religion, and equality under the law.
- All men and women over the age of 20 were given the vote. This was even better than Britain where only women over 30 could vote.
- There was an elected president and an elected Reichstag (parliament).
- The Reichstag made the laws and appointed the government, which had to do what the Reichstag wanted.
Flaws in Weimar Republic:
It looked marvellous. However, hidden in the detail were two flaws that eventually destroyed the Republic:
- Proportional representation – instead of voting for an MP, Weimar Germans voted for a party. Each party was then allocated seats in the Reichstag exactly reflecting (proportional’ to) the number of people who had voted for it. This sounds fair, but in practice it was a disaster it resulted in dozens of tiny parties, with no party strong enough to get a majority, and, therefore, no government to get its laws passed in the Reichstag. This was a major weakness of the Republic.
- Article 48 – this said that, in an emergency, the president did not need the agreement of the Reichstag, but could issue decrees. The problem with this was that it did not say what an emergency was, and in the end, it turned out to be a back door that Hitler used to take power legally.
Why did the Weimar Republic Fail?
(a) It began with serious disadvantages
- It had accepted the humiliating and unpopular Versailles Treaty, with its arms limitations, reparations and war-guilt clause, and was therefore always associated with defeat and dishonour. German nationalists could never forgive it for that.
- There was a traditional lack of respect for democratic government and a great admiration for the army and the ‘officer class’ as the rightful leaders of Germany. In 1919 the view was widespread that the army had not been defeated: it had been betrayed – ‘stabbed in the back’ – by the democrats, who had needlessly agreed to the Versailles Treaty. What most Germans did not realize was that it was General Ludendorff who bad asked for an armistice while the Kaiser was still in power. However, the ‘stab in the back’ legend was eagerly fostered by all enemies of the republic.
- The parliamentary system introduced in the new Weimar constitution had weaknesses, the most serious of which was that it was based on a system of proportional representation, so that all political groups would be fairly represented. Unfortunately there were so many different groups that no party could ever win an overall majority. For example, in 1928 the Reichstag (lower house of parliament) contained at least eight groups, of which the largest were the Social Democrats with 153 seats, the German National Party (DNVP) with 73, and the Catholic Centre Party (Zentrum) with 62. The German Communist Party (KPD) had 54 seats, while the German People’s party (DVP – Stresemann’s liberal party) had 45. The smallest groups were the Bavarian People’s Party with 16, and the National Socialists, who only had 12 seats. A succession of coalition governments was inevitable, with the Social Democrats having to rely on co-operation from left-wing liberals and the Catholic Centre. No party was able to carry out its programme.
- The political parties had very little experience of how to operate a democratic parliamentary system, because before 1919 the Reichstag had not controlled policy; the Chancellor had the final authority and was the one who really ruled the country. Under the Weimar constitution it was the other way round – the Chancellor was responsible to the Reichstag, which had the final say. However, the Reichstag usually failed to give a clear lead because the parties had not learned the art of compromise. The communists and nationalists did not believe in democracy anyway, and refused to support the Social Democrats. The communist refusal to work with the SPD meant that no strong government of the left was possible. Disagreements became so bitter that some of the parties organized their own private armies, for self-defence to begin with, but this increased the threat of civil war. The combination of these weaknesses led to more outbreaks of violence and attempts to overthrow the republic.
(b) Outbreaks of violence
1. The Spartacist Rising
In January 1919 the communists tried to seize power in what became known as the Spartacist Rising (Spartacus was a Roman who led a revolt of slaves in 71 BC). Inspired by the recent success of the Russian Revolution, and led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, they occupied almost every major city in Germany. In Berlin, President Ebert found himself besieged in the Chancellery. The government managed to defeat the communists only because it accepted the help of the Freikorps. These were independent volunteer regiments raised by anti-communist ex-army officers. It was a sign of the government’s weakness that it had to depend on private forces, which it did not itself control. The two communist leaders did not receive a fair trial – they were simply clubbed to death by Freikorps members.
2. The Kapp Putsch (March 1920)
This was an attempt by right-wing groups to seize power. It was sparked off when the government tried to disband the Freikorps private armies. They refused to disband and declared Dr Wolfgang Kapp as Chancellor. Berlin was occupied by a Freikorps regiment and the cabinet fled to Dresden. The German army (Reichswehr) took no action against the Putsch (coup) because the generals were in sympathy with the political right. In the end the workers of Berlin came to the aid of the Social Democrat government by calling a general strike, which paralysed the capital. Kapp resigned and the government regained control. However, it was so weak that nobody was punished except Kapp, who was imprisoned, and it took two months to get the Freikorps disbanded. Even then the ex-members remained hostile to the republic and many later joined Hitler’s private armies.
3. A series of political assassinations took place
These were mainly carried out by ex-Freikorps members. Victims included Walter Rathenau (the Jewish Foreign Minister) and Gustav Erzberger (leader of the armistice delegation). When the government sought strong measures against such acts of terrorism, there was great opposition from the right-wing parties, who sympathized with the criminals. Whereas the communist leaders had been brutally murdered, the courts let right-wing offenders off lightly and the government was unable to intervene. In fact, throughout Germany, the legal and teaching professions, the civil service and the Reichswehr tended to be anti-Weimar, which was a crippling handicap for the republic.
4. Hitler’s Beer-Hall Putsch/ Munich Putsch (1923)
Another threat to the government occurred in November 1923 in Bavaria, at a time when there was much public annoyance at the French occupation of the Ruhr and the disastrous fall in the value of the mark (German Currency). Hitler, helped by General Ludendorff, aimed to take control of the Bavarian state government in Munich, and then lead a national revolution to overthrow the government in Berlin.
However, the police easily broke up Hitler’s march, and the ‘Beer-Hall Putsch’ (so-called because the march set out from the Munich beer hall in which Hitler had announced his ‘national revolution’ the previous evening) soon fizzled out. Hitler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment but served only nine months (because the Bavarian authorities had some sympathy with his aims).
Why did Hitler attempt the Munich Putsch in 1923?
- By 1923, the Nazi party had 55,000 members and was stronger than ever before.
- The Weimar Republic was in crisis and about to collapse.
- In September 1923, the Weimar government had called off the general strike, and every German nationalist was furious with the government.
- Hitler thought he would be helped by important nationalist politicians in Bavaria.
- Hitler had a huge army of storm troopers, but he knew he would lose control of them if he did not give them something to do.
- Hitler hoped to copy Mussolini – the Italian fascist leader – who had come to power in Italy in 1922 by marching on Rome.
Results of the Munich Putsch:
- The Munich Putsch was a failure. As a result:
- The Nazi party was banned, and Hitler was prevented from speaking in public until 1927.
- Hitler went to prison, where he wrote ‘Mein Kampf’. Millions of Germans read it, and Hitler’s ideas became very well-known.
- Hitler decided that he would never come to power by revolution; he realised that he would have to use constitutional means, so he organised:
- the Hitler Youth
- propaganda campaigns
- mergers with other right-wing parties
- local branches of the party, which tried to get Nazis elected to the Reichstag
- the Schutzstaffel (SS) as his personal bodyguard, which was set up in 1925. It was this strategy of gaining power legitimately that eventually brought him to power.
5. Private armies expand
The violence died down during the years 1924 to 1929 as the republic became more stable, but when unemployment grew in the early 1930s, the private armies expanded and regular street fights occurred, usually between Nazis and communists. All parties had their meetings broken up by rival armies and the police seemed powerless to prevent it happening. All this showed that the government was incapable of keeping law and order, and respect for it dwindled. An increasing number of people began to favour a return to strong, authoritarian government, which would maintain strict public order.
(c) Economic problems
Probably the crucial cause of the failure of the republic was the economic problems which plagued it constantly and which it proved incapable of solving permanently.
1. In 1919 Germany was close to bankruptcy because of the enormous expense of the war, which had lasted much longer than most people expected.
2. Attempts to pay reparations instalments made matters worse. In August 1921, after paying the £50 million due, Germany requested permission to suspend payments until her economy recovered. France refused, and in 1922 the Germans claimed they were unable to make the full annual payment.
3. In January 1923 French troops occupied the Ruhr (an important German industrial area) in an attempt to seize goods from factories and mines. The German government ordered the workers to follow a policy of passive resistance, and German industry in the Ruhr was paralysed. The French had failed in their aim, but the effect on the German economy was catastrophic – galloping inflation and the collapse of the mark. The rate of exchange at the end of the war was 20 marks to the dollar, but even before the Ruhr occupation, reparations difficulties had caused the mark to fall in value.
By November 1923 the value of the mark was falling so rapidly that a worker paid in mark notes had to spend them immediately: if he waited until the following day, his notes would be worthless. It was only when the new Chancellor, Gustav Stresemann, introduced a new currency known as the Rentenmark, in 1924, that the financial situation finally stabilized.
This financial disaster had profound effects on German society: the working classes were badly hit- wages failed to keep pace with inflation and trade union funds were wiped out. Worst affected were the middle classes and small capitalists, who lost their savings; many began to look towards the Nazis for improvement. On the other hand, landowners and industrialists came out of the crisis well, because they still owned their material wealth – rich farming land, mines and factories. This strengthened the control of big business over the German economy. Some historians have even suggested that the inflation was deliberately engineered by wealthy industrialists with this aim in mind. The accusation is impossible to prove one way or the other, though the currency and the economy did recover remarkably quickly.
The economic situation improved dramatically in the years after 1924, largely thanks to the Dawes Plan of that year (so called after the American General Dawes, who chaired the conference), which provided an immediate loan from the USA equivalent to £40 million, relaxed the fixed reparations payments and in effect allowed t!l1e Germans to pay what they could afford. French troops withdrew from the Ruhr. The currency was stabilized, there was a boom in such industries as iron., steel, coal, chemicals and electrical, and wealthy landowners and industrialists were happy to tolerate the republic, since they were doing well out of it. Germany was even able to pay her reparations instalments under the Dawes Plan. During these relatively prosperous years, Gustav Stresemann was the dominant political figure. Although he was Chancellor only from August until November 1923, he remained as foreign minister Until his death in October 1929, thus providing vital continuity and a steadying hand.
The work of the Dawes Plan was carried a stage further by the Young Plan, drawn up in October 1929 by the Allied Reparations Commission, under the leadership of an American financier, Owen Young. This reduced the reparations total from £6600 million to £2000 million, to be paid in annual instalments over 59 years. There were other successes for the republic in foreign affairs, thanks to the work of Stresemann, and it seemed stable and well established. But behind this success there remained some fatal weaknesses which were soon to bring disaster.
4. The prosperity was much more dependent on the American loans than most people realized. If the USA were to find itself in financial difficulties so that it was forced to stop the loans, or worse still, demand that they be paid back quickly, the German economy would be shaken again. Unfortunately this is exactly what happened in 1929.
5. Following the Wall Street Crash (October 1929), a world economic crisis developed. The USA stopped any further loans and began to call in many of the short-term loans already made to Germany. This caused a crisis of confidence in the currency and led to a run on the banks, many of which had to close. The industrial boom had led to worldwide over-production, and German exports, along with those of other countries, were severely reduced. Factories had to close, and by the middle of 1931 unemployment was approaching 4 million. Sadly for Germany, Stresemann, the politician best equipped to deal with the crisis, died of a heart attack in October 1929 at the early age of 51.
6. The government of Chancellor Bruning (Catholic Centre Party) reduced social services, unemployment benefit and the salaries and pensions of government officials, and stopped reparations payments. High tariffs were introduced to keep out foreign foodstuffs and thus help German farmers, while the government bought shares in factories hit by the slump. However, these measures did not produce quick results, though they did help after a time; unemployment continued to rise and by the spring of 1932 it stood at over 6 million. The government came under criticism from almost all groups in society, especially industrialists and the working class, who demanded more decisive action. The loss of much working-class support because of increasing unemployment and the reduction in unemployment benefit was a serious blow to the republic. By the end of 1932 the Weimar Republic had thus been brought to the verge of collapse. Even so, it might still have survived if there had been no other alternative.
(d) The alternative – Hitler and the Nazis
Hitler and the Nazi Party offered what seemed to be an attractive alternative just when the republic was at its most ineffective. The fortunes of the Nazi Party were linked closely to the economic situation: the more unstable the economy, the more seats the Nazis won in the Reichstag. In the election of July 1932, with unemployment standing at over 6 million, the Nazis became the largest single party, winning 230 seats out of 608.
There is no doubt that the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, fostered by the economic crisis, was one of the most important causes of the downfall of the republic.
(e) What made the Nazis so popular?
- They offered national unity, prosperity and full employment by ridding Germany of what they claimed were the real causes of the troubles – Marxists, the ‘November criminals’ (the people who had agreed to the armistice in November 1918 and later the Versailles Treaty), Jesuits, Freemasons and Jews. Increasingly the Nazis sought to lay the blame for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and all her subsequent problems on the Jews. Great play was made in Nazi propaganda with the ‘stab in the back’ myth – the idea that the German armies could have fought on but were betrayed by the traitors who had surrendered unnecessarily.
- They promised to overthrow the Versailles settlement, which was so unpopular with most Germans, and to build Germany into a great power again. This would include bringing all Germans (in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland) into the Reich.
- The Nazi private army, the SA (Sturmabteilung – Storm Troopers), was attractive to young people out of work; it gave them a small wage and a uniform.
- Wealthy landowners and industrialists encouraged the Nazis because they feared a communist revolution and they approved of the Nazi policy of hostility to communists. There is some controversy among historians about how far this support went. Some German Marxist historians claim that from the early 1920s the Nazis were financed by industrialists as an anti-communist force, that Hitler was, in effect, ‘a tool of the capitalists’. But historian Joachim Fest believes that the amounts of money involved have been greatly exaggerated, and that though some industrialists were secretly in favour of Hitler becoming Chancellor, it was only after he came to power that funds began to flow into the party coffers from big business.
- Hitler himself had extraordinary political abilities. He possessed tremendous energy and willpower and a remarkable gift for public speaking, which enabled him to put forward his ideas with great emotional force. He used the latest modern communication techniques – mass rallies, parades, radio and film; he travelled all over Germany by air. Many Germans began to look towards him as some sort of Messiah (saviour) figure. A full version of his views and aims was set out in his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which he wrote in prison after the Beer-Hall Putsch.
- The striking contrast between the governments of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Party impressed people. The former were respectable, dull and unable to maintain law and order; the latter promised strong, decisive government and the restoration of national pride – an irresistible combination.
- Without the economic crisis, however, it is doubtful whether Hitler would have had much chance of attaining power. It was the widespread unemployment and social misery, together with the fear of communism and socialism, that gained the Nazis mass support, not only among the working class (recent research suggests that between 1928 and 1932 the Nazis attracted over 2 million voters away from the socialist SPD), but also among the lower middle classes – office-workers, shopkeepers, civil servants, teachers and small-scale farmers.
In July 1932, then, the Nazis were the largest single party, but Hitler failed to become Chancellor, partly because the Nazis still lacked an overall majority (they had 230 seats out of 608 in the Reichstag), and because he was not yet quite ‘respectable’ – the conservative President Hindenburg viewed him as an upstart and refused to have him as Chancellor. Given these circumstances, was it inevitable that Hitler would come to power? This is still a matter for disagreement among historians. Some feel that by the autumn of 1932 nothing could have saved the Weimar Republic, and that consequently nothing could have kept Hitler out. Others believe that the first signs of economic improvement could be seen, and that it should have been possible to block Hitler’s progress. In fact Bruning’s policies seem to have started to pay off, though he himself had been replaced as Chancellor by Franz von Papen (Conservative/Nationalist) in May 1932. This theory seems to be supported by the election results of November 1932, when the Nazis lost 34 seats and about 2 million votes, which was a serious setback for them. It seemed that perhaps the republic was weathering the storm and the Nazi challenge would fade out. However, at this point a further influence came into play, which killed off the republic by letting Hitler into power legally.
(f) Hitler becomes Chancellor (January 1933)
In the end it was political intrigue that brought Hitler to power. A small clique of rightwing politicians with support from the Reichswehr decided to bring Hitler into a coalition government with the Nationalists. The main conspirators were Franz von Papen and General Kurt von Schleicher. Their reasons for this momentous decision were:
- They were afraid of the Nazis attempting to seize power by a Putsch.
- They believed they could control Hitler better inside the government than if he remained outside it, and that a taste of power would make the Nazis modify their extremism.
- The Nationalists had only 37 seats in the Reichstag following the elections of July 1932. An alliance with the Nazis, who had 230 seats, would go a long way towards giving them a majority. The Nationalists did not believe in genuine democracy: they hoped that, with Nazi co-operation, they would be able to restore the monarchy and return to the system that had existed under Bismarck (Chancellor 1870-90), in which the Reichstag had much less power. Though this would destroy the Weimar Republic, these right-wing politicians were prepared to go ahead because it would give them a better chance of controlling the communists, who had just had their best result so far in the July election, winning 89 seats.
There was some complicated manoeuvring involving Papen, Schleicher and a group of wealthy businessmen; President Hindenburg was persuaded to dismiss Bruning and appoint Papen as Chancellor. They hoped to bring Hitler in as Vice-Chancellor, but he would settle for nothing less than being Chancellor himself. In January 1933 therefore, they persuaded Hindenburg to invite Hitler to become Chancellor with Papen as Vice-Chancellor, even though the Nazis had by then lost ground in the elections of November 1932. Papen still believed Hitler could be controlled, and remarked to a friend: ‘In two months we’ll have pushed Hitler into a corner so hard that he’ll be squeaking.‘
Hitler was able to come to power legally therefore, because all the other parties, including the Reichswehr, were so preoccupied with the threat from the communists that they did not sufficiently recognize the danger from the Nazis, and so failed to unite in opposition to them. It ought to have been possible to keep the Nazis out – they were losing ground and had nowhere near an overall majority. But instead of uniting with the other parties to exclude them, the Nationalists made the fatal mistake of inviting Hitler into power.
Could the Weimar Republic have survived?
Although there were signs of economic improvement by the end of 1932, it was perhaps inevitable, at that point, that the Weimar Republic would collapse, since the powerful conservative groups and the army were prepared to abandon it, and replace it with a conservative, nationalist and anti-democratic state similar to the one that had existed before 1914. In fact it is possible to argue that the Weimar Republic had already ceased to exist in May 1932 when Hindenburg appointed Papen as Chancellor with responsibility to him, not to the Reichstag.
How did the Weimar Republic survive?
- In 1923, the Weimar Republic was on the verge of collapse with problems such as hyperinflation, attempted revolutions and public discontent, pushing it increasingly towards the edge, but, surprisingly, the crisis was the start of a period of stability and success. The period 1923-1929 was a time when the economy boomed and cultural life flourished in Germany.
- This dramatic turnabout happened because Germany was saved by two people – Gustav Stresemann and Charles Dawes.
- Gustav Stresemann had been a nationalist, but he realised that something needed to be done to save Germany. The most important thing he did in 1923 was to organise the Great Coalition of moderate, pro-democracy parties in the Reichstag.
- At last, Germany had a government that could make laws. Under Stresemann’s guidance, the government called off the strike, persuaded the French to leave the Ruhr and even got the rest of the world to allow Germany to join the League of Nations in 1926.
- Stresemann also introduced reforms to help ordinary people such as job centres, unemployment pay and better housing.
- Charles Dawes was the US budget director. In 1923, he was sent to Europe to sort out Germany’s economy. Under his advice, the German Reichsbank was reformed and the old money was called in and burned. This ended the hyperinflation.
- Dawes also arranged the Dawes Plan with Stresemann, which gave Germany longer to pay reparations. Most importantly, Dawes agreed to America lending Germany 800 million gold marks, which kick-started the German economy.
Was Weimar stable during 1923-1929?
- Despite all the successes, many historians believe that the stability of the Weimar republic was illusory:
- The Great Coalition collapsed before the end of 1923, and the Reichstag returned to chaos. When the crisis came, it was unable to respond.
- The nationalists and fascists did not win many seats in the Reichstag, but they were allowed to exist and campaign, so they were just waiting for the right opportunity to attempt a takeover again.
- Everything depended on American money – if that stopped, Germany was ready to return to crisis.
Was it inevitable that Hitler and the Nazis would come to power?
The majority view is that this need not have happened; Papen, Schleicher, Hindenburg and the others must take the blame for being prepared to invite him into power, and then failing to control him. According to Ian Kershaw, Hitler’s most recent biographer:
There was no inevitability about Hitler’s accession to power … a Hitler Chancellorship might have been avoided. With the corner turning of the economic Depression, and with the Nazi movement facing potential break-up if power were not soon attained, the future – even under an authoritarian government- would have been very different. … In fact, political miscalculation by those with regular access to the corridors of power rather than any action on the part of the Nazi leader played a larger role in placing him in the Chancellor’s seat. … The anxiety to destroy democracy rather than the keenness to bring the Nazis to power was what triggered the complex development that led to Hitler’s Chancellorship.
However, there were some people in Germany, even on the right, who had misgivings about Hitler’s appointment. Kershaw tells us that General Ludendorff, who had supported Hitler at the time of the 1923 Munich Putsch, now wrote to Hindenburg:
You have delivered up our holy German Fatherland to one of the greatest demagogues of all time. I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.
Q. Was Hitler’s success because of Weimar’s failure? Was the Weimar constitution to blame or was Weimar doomed from the start?
- Weimar Republic was beset by problems in the early years, but the stability and prosperity enjoyed by Germany during the period 1924-1929, suggests that it was successful to a degree.
- However, throughout this time, Hitler and the Nazi party came to prominence and eventually gained control in 1933.
- It is arguable that the problems which beset the Weimar Republic from the start finally ‘got it in the end’:
- The vilification of the government as the November Criminals continued even into the 1930s, when Hitler referred to the government as the November Criminals in his election speeches.
- The weakness of the Reichstag governments because of proportional representation continued right to the very end, and lay behind the Hindenburg/Papen deal with Hitler in January 1933.
- Hitler used Article 48 to destroy the Republic after January 1933.
- The Republic lasted 13 years – the world in 1933 was very different to 1919, so there was no simplistic cause-and-effect.
- The Republic was very successful during the period 1923-1929. When the pro-democracy parties organised themselves properly, the Republic could be very strong.
- The Republic would have survived if Hindenburg and Papen hadn’t made Hitler chancellor; the Nazis had not done as well in the November 1932 elections as they had in July 1932, and some historians believe that their appeal was beginning to wane. One historian said that there was nothing wrong with the Weimar Republic per se: he blamed the stupid men who lacked the will to maintain democracy, the politicians of the Centre and Social Democratic parties, and particularly Hindenburg and Papen for Hitler’s rise to power.