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Weimar Republic

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Weimar Republic
Nazi Germany
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The period of German history from 1919 to 1933 is known as the Weimar Republic (in German "Weimarer Republik"). It is named after the city of Weimar, where a national assembly convened to produce a new constitution after Germany's defeat in World War I.

This first attempt at establishing a liberal democracy in Germany was a time of great tension and inner conflict and, ultimately, failed with the ascent of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933. Although technically, the 1919 constitution was never entirely invalidated until after World War II, the legal measures taken by the Nazi government in 1933 that are commonly known as Gleichschaltung in fact destroyed all mechanisms provided for by a typical democratic system, so it is common to mark 1933 as the end of the Weimar Republic.

This article thus outlines the events from 1918 until the collapse of the Republic in 1933. The Nazi Germany article describes the following period; see also Gleichschaltung for details about how the Nazi dictatorship was installed.


Controlled revolution: the establishment of the Republic (1918-1919)

From 1916 onwards, the 1871 German Empire had effectively been governed by the military, led by the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, Supreme Army Command) with the Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg. When it became apparent that World War I was lost, the OHL demanded that a civil government be installed. Any attempt to continue the war after Bulgaria had left the Central Powers would only have caused German territories to be occupied. The new Reichskanzler Prince Max von Baden thus offered a cease-fire to US President Woodrow Wilson on October 3, 1918. On October 28, 1918, the 1871 constitution was finally amended to make the Reich a parliamentary democracy, which had been refused for half a century: the Chancellor was henceforth responsible to Parliament, the Reichstag, and no longer to the Emperor.

The then-current plan to transform Germany into a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain quickly became obsolete as the country slid into a state of near-total chaos. Germany was flooded with soldiers returning from the front, many of whom were wounded physically, psychologically, or both. Violence was rampant, with fights breaking out even between rival leftist groups at funerals for leaders assassinated by right-wing adversaries.

Rebellion broke out when, on October 29, the military command, without consultation with the government, ordered the German High Seas Fleet to sortie, which was not only entirely hopeless from a military standpoint, but was also certain to bring the peace negotiations to a halt. The crews of two ships in Wilhelmshaven mutinied. When the military arrested about 1,000 seamen and had them transported to Kiel, the local revolt turned into a general rebellion that quickly swept over most of Germany. Other seamen, soldiers, and then also workers solidarized with the arrested, began electing worker and soldier councils modelled after the soviets of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and took over military and civil powers in many cities. On November 7, the revolution had reached Munich, causing Ludwig III of Bavaria to flee.

Initially, the demands of the councils were modest: they wanted the arrested seamen to be freed. As opposed to Russia one year earlier, the councils were not controlled by a communist party. Still, with the emergence of the Soviet Union, the rebellion caused great fear in the establishment down to the middle classes. The country was on the verge of becoming a Socialist Republic.

At the time, the political representation of the worker class was divided: a faction had separated from the Social Democrats, calling themselves "Independent Social Democrats" (USPD, for Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) and leaning towards a Socialist system. In order not to lose their influence, the remaining "Majority Social Democrats" (MSPD, who supported a parliamentary system) decided to put themselves at the front of the movement and, also on November 7, demanded that Emperor Wilhelm II abdicate. On November 9, 1918, the Republic was proclaimed by Philipp Scheidemann at the Reichstag building in Berlin, two hours before a Socialist Republic was proclaimed around the corner at the Berlin Castle by Karl Liebknecht.

Still on November 9, in a legally questionable act, Reichskanzler Prince Max von Baden transferred his powers to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the MSPD. It was apparent that this act would not be sufficient to satisfy the masses, so a day later, a revolutionary government called "Council of People's Deputies" (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) was erected, consisting of three MSPD and USPD members, respectively, led by Ebert for the MSPD and Hugo Haase for the USPD. Although the new government was confirmed by the Berlin worker and soldier council, it was opposed by the Spartakus left wing of the USPD led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Ebert called for a National Congress of Councils, which took place from December 16 to 20, 1918, and in which the MSPD had the majority. Ebert thus managed to enforce quick elections for a National Assembly to produce a constitution for a parliamentary system, marginalizing the movement that called for a Socialist Republic (see below).

To ensure that his fledgling government was able to maintain control over the country, Ebert pacted with the OHL, now led by Ludendorff's successor General Wilhelm Groener. This Ebert-Groener pact essentially stipulated that the government would not attempt to reform the Army so long as the army swore to protect the government. On the one hand, this agreement symbolized the acceptance of the new government by the military, soothing concerns among the middle classes; on the other hand, it was considered a betrayal of worker interests by the left wing, and it also established the Army as an independent and conservative group in Weimar who would wield a large amount of influence over the fate of the republic. It marked one of several steps that caused the permanent split of the worker class's political representation into the SPD and communists.

The split became final after Ebert called upon the OHL for troops to put down another Berlin soldier mutiny on November 23, 1918, in which the revolting soldiers had captured the city commandant and closed off the Reichskanzlei in which the Council of People's Deputies resided. The put-down was brutal with several dead and injured. This caused the left wing to call the split with the MSPD, which, in their view, had pacted with the counter-revolutionary military to suppress the revolution. The USPD thus left the Council of People's Deputies after only seven weeks. The split deepened when, in December, the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD) was formed out of a number of left-wing groups, including the left wing of the USPD and the Spartakus group.

In January, more bloody attempts at establishing a proletarian dictatorship by workers in the streets of Berlin were put down by paramilitary Freikorps units consisting of volunteer soldiers, culminating in the beating deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht on January 15. With the affirmation of Ebert, the murderers were tried not before a civil court, but a military court, leading to very lenient sentences, which did not exactly lead to more acceptance for Ebert on the left wing either.

The National Assembly elections took place January 19, 1919. In this time, the new left-wing parties, including the USPD and KPD, were barely able to get themselves organized, leading to a solid majority of seats for the moderate forces. To avoid the ongoing fights in Berlin, the National Assembly convened in the city of Weimar, giving the future Republic its unofficial name. The Weimar Constitution created a republic under a semi-presidential system with the Reichstag elected by proportional representation.

During the debates in Weimar, fights continued. A Soviet republic would be declared in Munich only to be put down by Freikorps and regular army units, and sporadic fighting would continue to flare up around the country.

There were also fighting in the eastern provinces of Germany, that were loyal to the emperor, but didn't want to be a part of the republic: Great Poland Uprising in Provinz Posen and 3 Silesian Uprisings in Upper Silesia.

Meanwhile, the German peace delegation in France would sign the Treaty of Versailles, accepting heavy reductions of the German military, heavy reparations payments, and the infamous "war guilt clause." Adolf Hitler would later blame the republic and its democracy for this treaty.

The Republic's first President, Friedrich Ebert of the MSPD, signed the new German constitution into law on August 11, 1919.

The early years: Internal conflict (1919-1923)

From the beginning, the Republic was under great pressure from both left-wing and right-wing extremists. Essentially, the left wing accused the Social Democrats in power of betraying the ideals of the workers' movement by pacting with the powers of the old state instead of staging a communist revolution; the right-wing was opposed to a democratic system because it would have preferred to keep an authoritarian state like the 1871 Empire. To undermine the Republic's credibility, the right wing (especially the military) accused it of being responsible for Germany's defeat in World War I; see Dolchstoßlegende.

On March 13, 1920 the Kapp Putsch took place. This involved a group of Freikorps troops capturing Berlin and installing Wolfgang Kapp, a right wing journalist, as Chancellor of a new government. The national government had to flee to Stuttgart from where the government called for a general strike. This was effective in completely halting the economy, and the Kapp Government collapsed as early as March 17.

Inspired by the success of general strikes, a communist uprising occurred in the Ruhr region in 1920 when 50,000 people formed a Red Army and took control of the province. The regular army and the Freikorps put an end to the uprising without receiving any orders from the Government. More communist rebellions were put down in March 1921 in Saxony and Hamburg.

By 1923 the Republic could no longer afford to maintain the reparations payments as stated in Versailles and the new government defaulted on payments. In response, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region, Germany's most valuable industrial area at the time, taking control of the mining and manufacturing companies in January of 1922. In January of 1923, strikes were once again called for, and passive resistance was encouraged. The strikes had to last for eight months, which caused the German economy to suffer, and importing had to begin.

Inflation 1923-24: a woman feeds her tiled stove with money
Inflation 1923-24: a woman feeds her tiled stove with money

Since striking workers also had to be paid by the state, additional currency was printed, which fuelled a period of hyperinflation. The value of the Mark declined from 4.2 per US dollar to 1,000,000 per dollar by August 1923 and 4,200,000,000,000 per dollar on November 20. On December 1, a new currency was established at the rate of 1,000,000,000,000 old marks for 1 new mark, the Rentenmark.

Reparation payments were resumed and the Ruhr was returned to Germany.

1923 also saw an attack from the right in the shape of the Beer Hall Putsch, staged by Adolf Hitler in Munich. In 1920, the German Workers' Party had become the Nazi Party (NSDAP) and would be the driving force in the collapse of Weimar. Hitler had become chairman of the party in July, 1921. The SA was established in November, 1921 and would act as Hitler's personal army in his seizure of power. Then, on November 8, 1923, the Kampfbund in league with Erich Ludendorff took over a meeting by the Bavarian Prime Minister, Gustav von Kahr , at a beer hall in Munich. Ludendorff and Hitler declared a new government and planned to take control of Munich the following day. The 3,000 revolters were suppressed by 100 policemen and Hitler was arrested and sentenced to 1 year in prison, a very lenient sentence.

After the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch, his imprisonment, and subsequent release, Hitler focused on legal methods of gaining power.

Stresemann's Golden Era (1923-1929)

Gustav Stresemann was Reichskanzler for a brief period in 1923 and served as Foreign Minister from 1923--1929. This period was a period of relative stability for the Weimar Republic where there were fewer uprisings and seemingly the beginnings of an economic recovery.

Stresemann's first move was to issue a new currency, the Rentenmark, to halt the extreme hyperinflation that was crippling German society and economy. It was successful in its aims as Stresemann repeatedly refused to issue more currency, the initial cause of the inflationary spiral. To further stabilise the economy he also reduced spending and bureaucracy as well as increasing taxes.

During this period the Dawes Plan was also created, tying reparations payments to Germany's ability to pay. Germany was admitted into the League of Nations, made agreements over her western border, signed a neutrality pact with Russia and disarmament was brought to a halt. However this progress was funded by overseas loans, increasing the nation's debts, while overall trade was decreasing and unemployment rising.
The reforms which Stresemann put into place did not reform the underlying weaknesses of Weimar but merely gave the appearance of a stable democracy.

In 1929 Stresemann's death marked the end of the "Golden Era" of the Weimar Republic.

The collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler

The last years of the Weimar republic were stamped by even more political instability than in the previous years. On March 29, 1930, the finance expert Heinrich Brüning had been appointed the successor of Chancellor Müller by Paul von Hindenburg after months of political lobbying by General Kurt von Schleicher on behalf of the military. The new government was expected to lead a political shift towards conservatism, based on the emergency powers granted to the Reichspräsident by the constitution, since it had no majority support in the Reichstag.

After an unpopular bill to sanify the Reich's finances had not found the support of the Reichstag, Hindenburg established the bill as an emergency decree based on Article 48 of the constitution. On July 18, 1930, the bill was again invalidated by a slim majority in the Reichstag with the support of the SPD, KPD, the -- then small -- NSDAP and DNVP. Immediately afterwards, Brüning submitted to the Reichstag the president's decree that it would be dissolved.

The following Reichstag general elections on September 14, 1930 resulted in an enormous political shift: 18.3% of the vote went to the NSDAP, five times the percentage compared to 1928. This had devastating consequences for the republic: there was no longer a majority in the Reichstag even for a Great Coalition of moderate parties, and it encouraged the supporters of the NSDAP to bring out their claim to power with increasing violence and terror. After 1930, the Republic slid more and more into a state of civil war.

From 1930 to 1932, Brüning attempted to sanify the devastated state without a majority in Parliament, governing with the help of the President's emergency decrees. During that time, the Great Depression reached its highpoint. In line with liberal economic theory that less public spending would spur economic growth, Brüning drastically cut state expenditures, including in the social sector. He expected and accepted that the economic crisis would, for a while, deteriorate before things would improve. Among others, the Reich completely halted all public grants to the obligatory unemployment insurance (which had been introduced only in 1927), which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and less benefits for the unemployed -- not exactly a popular measure to adopt.

The economic downturn lasted until the second half of 1932, when there were first indices of a rebound. By this time though, the Weimar Republic had lost all credibility with the majority of Germans. While scholars greatly disagree about how Brüning's policy should be evaluated, it can safely be said that it contributed to the decline of the Republic. Whether there were alternatives at the time remains the subject of much debate.

On May 30, 1932, Brüning stepped down after no longer having Hindenburg's support. Five weeks earlier, Hindenburg had been reelected Reichspräsident with Brüning's active support, running against Hitler. (The President was directly elected by the people, while the Reichskanzler was not.)

Hindenburg then appointed Franz von Papen as new Reichskanzler. Von Papen had the backing of Hitler, but at the cost of a series of demands:

  • The Reichstag was to be dissolved again to call for new elections;
  • the Ban on the SA, imposed after the street riots was to be lifted;
  • the Social Democratic Prussian Government would be dismissed by emergency decree.
SPD election poster, 1932. Translation: "Against Papen, Hitler, Thälmann; List 2, Social Democrats".
SPD election poster, 1932. Translation: "Against Papen, Hitler, Thälmann; List 2, Social Democrats".

The general elections on July 31, 1932 yielded 37.2% of the vote for the NSDAP, making it by far the largest party in the Reichstag. Hitler now demanded to be appointed Chancellor, which was rejected by Hindenburg on August 13, 1932. But there was still no majority in the Reichstag for any government; as a result, the Reichstag was dissolved and elections took place once more in the hope that a stable majority would result.

This was not the case. The November 6, 1932 elections yielded 33.0% for the NSDAP: it lost over four percent. Franz von Papen stepped down, succeeded by General von Schleicher as Reichskanzler on December 3. His audacious plan was to find a majority in the Reichstag by uniting the trade unionist left wings in the various parties, including that of the NSDAP led by Gregor Strasser. This did not prove successful either.

On January 4, 1933, Hitler met secretly with von Papen at the house of the Cologne banker Kurt von Schroeder . They agreed on forming a joint government; besides Hitler, only two other NSDAP members would be part of the Reich government (Wilhelm Frick as Minister of the Interior and Hermann Göring as Commissary for Prussia), with von Papen being Hitler's Vice Chancellor. The new cabinet included the influential media mogul Alfred Hugenberg, who was chairman of the (also right-wing) DNVP party at the time.

When Hindenburg was finally presented this plan, he appointed Hitler to be the new Reichskanzler on January 30, 1933. Although he was fiercely anti-Nazi and had defeated Hitler in the 1932 presidential election, he reluctantly agreed to von Papen's theory that, with Nazi popular support on the wane, Hitler could now be controlled as chancellor. The date dubbed Machtergreifung (seizure of power) by the Nazi propaganda is commonly seen as the beginning of Nazi Germany.

Reasons for the Republic's failure

Why the Weimar Republic so catastrophically collapsed in favor of the Nazi dictatorship, is the subject of much debate even today. On the one hand, Hitler became Reichskanzler legally through the mechanisms set forth by the constitution, and the NSDAP had gained the relative majority of the seats in Parliament in the two 1932 elections. On the other hand, Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler at a time where support for the "movement" had proven not to be sufficient to gain power.

Many attempts were made by scholars to give various reasons, and depending on the individual political standpoint, one analysis might give more emphasis on a specific reason instead of another. The situation is complicated by the fact that during the Cold War, historical analysis was, more than not, blurred by attempts to justify a certain ideology.

Besides, it is entirely hypothetical to claim that Nazism could have been avoided, had a certain decision not been made. For example, one interesting such speculation is how the NSDAP would have fared in the 1933 elections if Hitler had not had the bonus of government.

It is probably safe to state, however, that no single reason is sufficient to explain the rise of Nazism. The most commonly stated attempts shall be outlined below; one can group these into three major patterns, being economical, institutional, and personal.

Economic problems

The Weimar Republic had some of the most serious economic problems ever experienced by a western democracy in history. Rampant hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and a large decrease in living standards compared to before the World War I were the primary factors in its collapse. By the Great Depression of the 1930s, the institution of the Republic as such was blamed by many for the economic problems; this is apparent in the election results where the political parties that wanted to disband the Republic altogether on both the right and the left wings made a democratic majority in Parliament impossible.

In this context, the Versailles treaty was considered by the German people as a punishing and degrading document, which forced them to surrender resource-rich areas and pay massive amounts of compensation. These punitive reparations not only severely damaged the German economy, but caused great consternation and resentment from the German populace.

Today, most historians would agree that many industrial leaders identified the Republic with labor unions and the Social Democrats, since those had established the social concessions of 1918/1919. But although some did see Hitler as a means to abolish these, the Republic was unstable already before certain industry leaders turned to support Hitler. Besides, even those who supported Hitler's appointment did not want Nazism in its entirety and considered Hitler only a temporary solution in their quest to abolish the Republic. Certainly, the industry support alone is not sufficient to explain Hitler's backing in large parts of the population, which included many workers who had turned away from the left parties.

Institutional problems

It is commonly agreed that the 1919 constitution had a number of fundamental weaknesses, which made the establishment of a dictatorship all too easy. Whether a different constitution could have prevented the Third Reich is debatable though; in any case, the 1949 West German constitution (the Grundgesetz) acknowledged this criticism and can largely be seen as a strong response to these flaws.

  • The institution of the Reichspräsident was frequently viewed as an Ersatzkaiser, an attempt to replace the Emperor who had resigned in 1918 with a similarly strong and authoritarian institution. This is most visible in Article 48 of the constitution, which gave the President the power to "take all necessary steps" if "public order and security are seriously disturbed or endangered". Although this was intended only as an emergency clause, this article was used in many years even before 1933 to issue decrees without the support of Parliament (see above); it also made Gleichschaltung easier. For example, the Reichstag Fire Decree was issued on the basis of Article 48.
  • The use of almost pure proportional representation (similar to present-day Israel) meant that any party with a small amount of support was able to gain entry into the Reichstag, the republic's parliament. This led to a large number of small parties, some of which were extremist in ideology, and gave them a chance to build a political base inside the system
  • The Reichstag could remove the Reichskanzler from office even when it was unable to agree on a successor. This "destructive" Motion of No Confidence led to many Chancellors in quick succession and added to the Republic's political instability (see Chancellor of Germany for a list). As a result, the 1949 Grundgesetz stipulates that a Chancellor may only be voted down by Parliament if a successor is elected at the same time; see Constructive Vote of No Confidence.
  • The constitution provided that in the event of the death or resignation of the president, the Reichskanzler (Chancellor) would assume the office (and crucially then possess its powers) pending the election of a new president. This allowed Hitler to unite the offices of Reichskanzler and Reichspräsident after the death of Hindenburg in 1934. However, by this time, the dictatorship had already been firmly installed, and this clause alone can probably not be blamed for Nazism in general.

Personalistic views

Some historians prefer to look at certain individuals and the decisions that they made. This brings up the problematic question of what alternatives were available at the time, which leads to speculation and hypothesis.

For one, Brüning's economic policy from 1930-1933 has been the subject of much debate. That it caused many to identify the Republic with cuts in social spending and extremely liberal economics is probably safe to say; whether there were alternatives to this policy at the time the Great Depression had reached its full impact is a different question.

Another focus seems to be Paul von Hindenburg, who became Reichspräsident in 1925. He certainly was a representative of the older, authoritarian 1871 Empire and it is hard to label him a democrat in support of the 1919 Republic. It is also known that at least during the later years, being well over 80 years old, he was senile. He was, however, no Nazi. One could wonder if a different President with solid democratic beliefs would have allowed Parliament to be so extensively circumvented with the use of Article 48 decrees; more specifically, would a different President have signed the Reichstag Fire Decree? It has also been speculated why Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Reichskanzler in the first place on January 30, 1933; after all, Hindenburg waited one and a half days before making that decision. Some claim that Nazism would have lost much public support if Hitler had not become Chancellor.

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Last updated: 02-07-2005 17:17:10
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