The Weimar Republic

Emerging from the revolutionary tremors of the immediate post-World War I period, the German Reich established itself as a parliamentary democracy. While many Germans connected with the political beginning the hope of overcoming nationalism and social norms, social misery embittered and radicalized millions of people. The frequent change of 16 governments in the Reich during 14 years proved to be an equally heavy burden for political stability. During the difficult initial years the republic was attacked by left- and right-wing extremists. Violent uprisings broke out frequently. It wasn’t until 1924 that Germany enjoyed a phase of relative stability. From then until 1929 the republic experienced a period of domestic tranquillity with an economic upswing and cultural blossoming. The “Golden Twenties” came to an end in October 1929 with the beginning of the worldwide depression. Poverty and despair gripped the nation. Opponents of the Weimar Republic from left and right successfully unleashed an unprecedented attack of agitation against the state, which was unable to create the means to overcome the economic and political crisis.

The Difficult Beginnings

Political power was in the hands of the parties. They represented comparatively closed social circles. In the disparate political landscape the parties had extremely different ideas about the direction German politics should take. Together, the SPD, Centre Party and left-liberal DDP (German Democratic Party) had a majority of three quarters of the votes in the newly elected National Assembly, which passed a new imperial constitution on 11 August 1919. However, barely in office, this coalition of parties favouring the republic and democracy lost their parliamentary majority in the first election to the Reichstag on 6 June 1920. This loss was an unmistakable sign that large sectors of the population were dissatisfied with the young parliamentary republic. The political instability and social misery at the beginning of the 1920s were an ideal breeding ground for radical parties and extremist factions. In March 1920 rightist elements within the military attempted to take over the government in a coup in Berlin. In 1920/21 revolutionary uprisings erupted in the Ruhr district and in central Germany.

In 1919 Germany had to sign the Treaty of Versailles. People were aghast at the harsh stipulations of the treaty, which most Germans rejected as a shameful, dictated peace. The nationalist right wing saw the struggle against the “fetters of Versailles” as a question of honour. They carried on a malicious campaign against the republic and its representatives. Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau, who, not least of all because of his Jewish background, had become a symbol of the hated “Jew Republic”, as it was called, became one of their victims. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated for the republic and democracy after his murder in 1922, but the demonstrators could do little to overcome the overt anti-Semitism of the “völkisch”-oriented circles and anti-republican and anti-democratic movements.

Occopation of the Ruhr District and Inflation

The Weimar Republic was drawn into an almost hopeless situation when French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr district on 11 January 1923 as a result of a slight delay in the German reparation payments. The imperial government thereupon called for “passive resistance” and pumped immense sums of money into the occupied territory as compensation for those who laid down their work. The inflation that had made itself felt since 1914 now spiralled completely out of control. By the time it reached its peak in November 1923, the currency had lost its function as means of exchange. The savings of millions of traumatized people were wiped out – and their faith in the state was completely and irrevocably lost.

In the critical year of 1923 a bloody civil war threatened to break out, because in the wake of the occupation of the Ruhr district, hyperinflation and the economic crisis, both the Right and the Left were now more and more ready to rise up and launch a coup. While the aborted rebellion of October 1923 by the Left “based on the Russian model” collapsed without a trace, the plans for a coup by Bavarian rightwing extremists were more dangerous. For them the only way out of the crisis they claimed had been caused by the “parliamentary system” was to establish a “legal” dictatorship. Adolf Hitler, chairman of the NSDAP and leader of an alliance of Bavarian fighting societies known as the “Kampfbund” as well as of the Sturmabteilung (SA), or Storm Division, was among those who worked on plans for the “March on Berlin”. He used a “national event” in the Munich Bürgerbräukeller as a forum for his attempted putsch, which, however, was already crushed on the following day. The gravest threat to the republic was thus averted.

The Phase of Relative Stability

After the crises and rebellions of the initial years of the republic, the monetary reform of November 1923 eventually led to a normalization of the political and economic situation. In foreign policy, relations with the victorious powers of the First World War began to ameliorate in the mid-1920s. During his six years in office, Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, appointed in 1923, consistently pursued a policy of reconciliation toward the victorious powers. For Stresemann the only reasonable way to overcome Germany’s international isolation and have changes made in the severe stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles was through cooperation. And in fact Stresemann’s ideas of international security and economic interrelations met with understanding in Western Europe in the mid-1920s. With the signing of the Locarno Treaties in October 1925 Germany overcame its international isolation and acquired a seat in the League of Nations.  

Art and culture made a break with the received forms and structures. In architecture and design an increasingly dry language of form came to replace expressivist tendencies. At this time an artistic and cultural avant-garde reached its greatest height. Foreign investment brought with it economic prosperity. By introducing the latest modern technology, German firms won back their position in the global market. Actual earnings rose with the increase in production and trade. Rationalization and new technological devices were supposed to modernize the household and simplify domestic work. After the turbulent years of crisis, revues and variety entertainment satisfied people’s desire for amusement. For more and more people everyday life was marked by this leisure- and consumption-based-mass-culture. Sporting events drew a mass-audience for the first time. Print media and movie theaters were booming. In the middle of the 1920s, around two million people daily went to the cinemas. In big cities, modern music and dance in particular were a big part of the lifestyle of the so-called Golden Twenties, which were so golden only for the richer people.

Radicalization and the End of the Weimar Republic

The glittering parties ended with the beginning of the Great Depression in October 1929. After the short-term foreign credits were called in from Germany, the German economic expansion that had been financed in particular by these loans collapsed. At the beginning of 1931 there were already five million jobless people in Germany. The social system of the Weimar Republic was not prepared for the consequences of the economic crisis. Poverty, resignation and a general feeling of impending catastrophe permeated daily life in broad sectors of society. The widespread dissatisfaction of the masses erupted in the Reichstag elections on 14 September 1930: compared with the previous election the National Socialists increased their votes by nearly 800 percent. Openly campaigning for the downfall of the parliamentary system, the NSDAP captured 18.3 percent of the votes, and with 107 delegates was now the second strongest faction in the Reichstag (national parliament of the German Reich). Despite being conspicuously rooted in the middle classes, the NSDAP developed into Germany’s first “Volkspartei” (people’s party) in the divided party constellation. Frustrated voters from all social classes cast their vote for the National Socialists.  

Democratic conditions had already begun to dissipate in March 1930 when a cabinet independent of the Reichstag was appointed after the Grand Coalition parties SPD and DVP (German People’s Party) got into a terrible row about the extent of the necessary increase in funding for unemployment insurance and the cabinet under Hermann Müller resigned. This was the beginning of the transition to the constitutionally problematical “presidential cabinets”. Since there was no parliamentary majority for an operational government, Hindenburg charged the Centrist politician Heinrich Brüning with building a minority government whose real power was based on the right of the Reich President to proclaim emergency decrees and to dissolve the Reichstag. For more than two years Brüning implemented rigorous austerity measures until the conservative camarilla finally succeeded in getting Reich President Paul von Hindenburg to commit himself to Brüning’s resignation. On 1 June 1932 the Reich President appointed the “Cabinet of National Concentration” under Reich Chancellor Franz von Papen. 

In the Reichstag election on 31 July 1932 the NSDAP under Adolf Hitler received more than 37 percent of the votes, while the KPD (Communist Party) got more than 14 percent. At this peak of the economic crisis the voters had clearly spurned the “middle-of-the-road” parties and the parliamentary democracy. Although Hindenburg at first balked at the idea of naming Hitler Chancellor of the Reich, Hitler not only had by far the largest parliamentary faction in the Reichstag at his disposal, but his SA had meanwhile also taken command of the “street” in a series of violent battles. The democratic voices of reason were drowned out in 1932/33 by the cries of “Rot-Front” and “Sieg-Heil”. In gigantic protest marches Communists demonstrated against the republic no less rigorously than National Socialists. They battled against each other more and more frequently in the beer halls and streets, demonstrating their own strength and bracing their will to take power. The democratic centre could do nothing to counter the promises of a better world offered by the extremist parties in the form of a “Third Reich” or a “Soviet Germany”. The influence of the moderate parties deteriorated in the face of economic decline and rising unemployment. The appointment of Adolf Hitler to the office of Chancellor of the Reich on 30 January 1933 sealed the downfall of the Weimar Republic.

Arnulf Scriba, 6. September 2014
Translated by Stephen Locke