The Early Years of the Weimar Republic

map of the Weimar Republic
Map of the Weimar Republic in 1930. (Lehnaru/Wikimedia Commons/CC ASA 3.0U)

Because Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power in the final years of the Weimar Republic, the era has been seen as one of failure. But the history of Weimar, Germany's republican government from the end of World War 1 to 1933, is far more complicated and also crucial to understanding how Hitler came to power.

The Creation of the Weimar Republic

Germany entered into World War 1 as an autocracy under Kaiser Wilhelm II, a man who didn't have to pay much attention to requests from his neutered parliament.

However, as the war dragged on and as living conditions in Germany worsened, with food and fuel shortages as well as inflation, public opinion began to turn against the Kaiser. In 1918, with the German war effort failing, the now military government looked at the internal ferment in Germany and concluded the nation was ready to rise in rebellion. Eric Ludendoff, the war leader who had taken practical control of the nation from the Kaiser, tried to create a constitutional monarchy led by a reigned in Kaiser both to help Germany survive and to take the blame for the surrender from the military.

This was too little too late for a German populace shocked by the conclusion of the war, and across the nation, people rose in revolution; at this point, the demands were closely identified with socialism. Soon the Kaiser had fled to Holland and a coalition government of left wingers was created under Ebert to prepare a new constitution for Germany.

Ebert was a pragmatist who began to guide the government down a path of reconciliation, avoiding the more dedicated socialist reforms some were demanding, although he lost left-wing support by doing so. There was street fighting between left and right.

Ebert's government was able to hold elections, and a National Constituent Assembly was voted into being.

However, due to disturbances continuing in Berlin - the city had recently contained the Spartacist uprising - the Assembly met at a nearby town: Weimar.

Weimar's Constitution

As the Constituent Assembly sat, a team drew up a new constitution for the German Republic. This was finished and voted as approved by a heavy majority on July 31st. It was an interesting mix of ideas taken from elsewhere in the world, and parts of previous German states. While the term Reich was allowed to remain, the state was to be a republic and a democracy, built around a federal structure of 17 sub-states.

It was headed up by a president elected every seven years, who controlled the army, could force laws through by using a decree, could dissolve parliament, and appoint the Chancellor. In practice, the President was expected to choose the head of the largest party in the parliament as Chancellor, but this mixture of strong powers meant the President wasn't under parliamentary control. The parliament itself has two houses: the Reichstag, the largest, was elected every four years via proportional representation and the smaller Reichsrat, filled with representatives from the federal states. Weimar had a Bill of Rights which enshrined a number of key human rights, such as free speech, equal treatment from the law, welfare, liberty and religious freedom.

There were to be no state-approved churches.

However, alongside much of the new was a continuation of the old. The military retained a strong Prussian and landowning bias among the officer core, while the civil service bore the result of several decades of imperial practice. The legal system looked fair, but many of the judges were holdovers from the past and favored right-wing causes. Weimar had this been built by a left-wing coalition, but it left a lot of right-wing, or at least conservative, power in place, which would exert an ever greater pull on the nation. Much about Weimar has been blamed for allowing or causing the rise of the Nazis, and the constitution has taken some of the blame: proportional representative for allowing splinter groups and minority extremists to gain power, the great power the president could wield for allowing Hitler a chance to remold Germany, and the retention of conservative power structures for weakening the revolution.

The Treaty of Versailles

In 1919, the time bomb Ludendorff had left began to tick. Many Germans had hoped for an equitable peace by conceding defeat in World War One, but what they were given was the Treaty of Versailles, with war guilt clauses, destruction of their army and huge territorial losses. This outraged a Germany which thought Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points would have allowed a compromise. But Germany was in no position to reject the treaty, and certainly could not go to war again yet, and after the first Weimar government resigned in protest, a new one signed the peace. The Treaty soon became known to the Germans as the Diktat, the dictated piece, and it was hated widely in Germany for its perceived unfairness and the humiliation, attributes historians have continued to identify.

Weimar faced having to pay back huge reparations which adversely affected the recovering economy, and the role they played in Weimar's economic struggles, while perhaps overplayed at one point, is still discussed and significant. Furthermore, the Treaty has often been blamed as a key factor in the start of World War II. While this is now downplayed by historiography, the Treaty did have a major effect on the new republic. It wasn't so much that Weimar was weakened by the losses of land, economic power and money, but the way the civilian, republican government had to sign the armistice, the treaty and take the blame, exactly as Ludendorff had wanted, and so they became associated with Germany's disgrace. This allowed the right wing, including the Nazi Party, to paint Weimar's government as traitors and cowards - as ' November Criminals' - who had stabbed true Germans in the back. It was an entirely inaccurate view, a pernicious one, and easy to use in propaganda.

Weimar’s First Period of Crisis

The Weimar republic lasted a little under fifteen years, but there was a period of stability in the middle. However, this was bookended by two periods of crisis, when extreme left and right-wing groups fought for power.

In the first period of turmoil, from 1919 through the early 1920s, people were more focused on the threat from left-wing extremists than the right wing whose later gains are more infamous.

During the revolution of 1918-19, Germany’s left wing had been largely divided into three groups: the moderate SPD who wanted parliamentary democracy, the extreme KPD who wanted a Marxist state run by workers and soviets, and a middle ground occupied by the USPD. In 1920 the USPD, having pulled out of the coalition government that created Weimar, basically dissolved, leaving German socialism with two poles: the moderates and the extremists. There was no possibility of a compromise because while the SPD wanted to work in Weimar’s government, the KPD wanted to dismantle the republican system entirely. They agitated to try and create the climate for a revolution, with strikes and minor uprisings, and enjoyed a small but significant level of support. It seemed to many in Weimar that the extreme left posed the greatest threat, but this was overblown. The KPD was poorly run, had no one with the messianic qualities of a Lenin, and could not provide a unified front for long enough to mount a challenge. They were noisy but ineffective.

The extremists weren’t just on the left. Weimar's right wing had many different groups and parties, and was initially fractious and divided, and at this stage, it lacked a unifying ideology. The left had Marxism and Russia to draw on, whereas the right groups used a mixture of authoritarianism and anti-democracy, anti-communism, racism and nationalism, fuelled by a desire to bring back a Kaiser-like dictator figure, a desire to reject Versailles and restore German pride, support the landed and wealthy and to attack people deemed non-German. There were numerous right-wing parties at this point – the largest far-right party in early Weimar was the German National People’s Party, or DNVP, polling just over 15% in elections, but there was also Anton Drexler’s German Workers’ Party, which Adolf Hitler joined in 1919 – and until Hitler began aggregating in the mid-20s their effect was split. However, there was a considerable body of right-wing paramilitary groups, the Freikorps, a force dominated by ex-soldiers which physically attacked the left wing, sometimes with the approval of the government. They carried out a ‘White Terror’ to crush the reds, but had little love for Weimar democracy either. There were over three hundred assassinations in this period, the vast majority by the right.

Two Notable Uprisings

In March 1920, the Freikorps became part of an uprising, a ‘putsch’ to seize power for the right. The government ordered two army units in Berlin disbanded, and Reichstag member Wolfgang Kapp and General Lüttwitz called on people to act: 12,000 marched into Berlin, proclaimed a government and took over key buildings, the regular army ignoring calls from the government to stop it. Crucially, the army also stopped short of joining rebels and the SPD were able to order a counter initiative: a general strike. It soon became apparent the Kapp putsch had not gathered enough support, and it collapsed. Kapp, who had been declared chancellor by his forces, fled. But while the putsch had failed, Weimar’s weaknesses had been revealed: only one person went to prison over the affair, although Kapp died while awaiting trial, and the army was convinced it had played a vital role in saving the state and could do so in the future.

The Munich Beer Hall putsch was also a fiasco which might have slipped from popular memory was it not for the involvement of Adolf Hitler. The official in charge of Bavaria, Gustav von Kahr, was a right-winger opposed to Weimar’s republic, and he was supported by the head of the army in the region, General von Lussow. They collaborated with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party to plan a march on Berlin and a seizure of power, but decided it would fail and backed out. Hitler ignored them and on November 8, 1923 led Nazi fighters in seizing a beer hall in Munich and using it as the base for a self-proclaimed ‘National Revolution’. Kahr and Lussow felt they had no choice but to join in, and one of the most important commanders of wartime Germany Erich von Ludendorff, was also giving his support. When the Nazis tried to expand their control the next day they lost a fight with the loyalist army, and fourteen Nazis died. Hitler was arrested.

Once again, the right-wing elements of Weimar belatedly aided those involved with the putsch. Hitler was given a minimum sentence and served less than a fifth, and Ludendorff was found innocent.

Hyperinflation: Weimar Wobbles

As Weimar moved through a series of crises, the vote for democratic parties began to fall as people grew frustrated. Weimar went through six coalition governments in the first five years, and people were increasingly worried the republic and its moderate parties would not, could not, tackle the economic, social and international issues which bedeviled it, not least of which was the hyperinflation of 1923.

Hyperinflation stemmed from a consistent mismanagement by a succession of German governments. In the build-up to World War One Germany had turned into one of, if not the major economic force on the continent, with a wealth of industrial resources, large manufacturing output and the brains and initiative to push the industrial revolution forward. Unfortunately for Germany, there had been no plan for a long war, and the conflict dislocated the economy. The German government financed much of the war by selling war bonds - a method of borrowing - saddling the country, and thus Weimar, with huge debts that a losing nation would have trouble paying. Furthermore, inflation had begun growing during the war, as manufacturing provided for the war effort and civilian prices rose while wages fell. But Weimar faced another problem from the war: while the origins of the hyperinflation crisis lay in 1914 – 18, many Germans instead blamed the Treaty of Versailles, and thus the Weimar signatories, instead of the Kaiser, because the treaty took away prime economic land from Germany and gave it to others.

The early Weimar government was thus faced with huge debts which were really only paid off by tax, demanding that they either tax Germany more or reduce government spending. The problem for the Weimar coalitions was that neither of these looked like a good idea, and they instead opted for deficit financing, a system where tax isn’t raised or spending cut, and instead the debts are allowed to increase in order to stimulate the economy and maintain a welfare system. The idea was the economy would be stimulated, jobs would be created, and the millions of returning soldiers would find employment, all bringing in extra tax. Unfortunately, this meant inflation continued to rise.

Reparations also caused problems. In 1921, Germany was ordered to pay £6,600 million in reparations to their wartime opponents, further increasing German debts. But Germany wasn’t allowed to pay this in the depreciating German marks, and so the country had to find and buy gold, US dollars, and other safer currencies. But Weimar printed ever more marks to buy these other currencies, and the result was the mark kept falling in value, and inflation kept spiraling up.

In 1923, this came to a crisis when France, angry at the lack of reparations payments so far, sent troops to occupy the Ruhr, Germany’s economic core, and bring back the profits. Germany responded with ‘passive resistance’, essentially mass strikes, but the result was economic chaos, and as government finances collapsed the declining inflationary situation turned into hyperinflation. Wheelbarrows full of money were needed to buy a loaf of bread, and it cost more to print a note than it was worth. Prices for items like shoes went from a few marks through a million marks to trillions of marks. Some benefitted, buying from the desperate or paying off debts with worthless money, including businesses and homeowners. However anyone relying on savings was crippled, and the war bonds were worthless. Public health suffered, mortality rates rose, crime increased and people grew angry at government and anyone they blamed.

Enter Gustav Stresemann

As Germany suffered hyperinflation, foreign occupation in the Ruhr, a lack of co-ordinated government responses beyond striking and an increase in both left and right wing agitation, confidence in the Weimar government fell. The democracy seemed doomed, but then someone came along who was able to steady the ship. His name was Gustav Stresemann, and he was the greatest politician of Weimar Germany. He became Chancellor of a coalition government in 1923, and then made a number of key changes over the ‘100 Days.’

These included agreeing to pay reparations and getting the Ruhr, and Germany, producing again; setting up a group to create a new currency to replace the worthless marks with the new Rentenmark; cut public spending and sacked nearly three quarters of a million public sector workers; managing to calm those owed reparations enough to get the Dawes Committee established, which produced the Dawes Plan in 1924, setting a timetable to pay and fixing payments with regard to how much Germany could actually pay without suffering; defeating extreme attempts on power, which failed partly because they weren’t sufficiently organized and supported yet. He also used a state of emergency to act against left and right rebellion.

Stresemann was helped because some of the anger was directed at the occupying French - Weimar could help unify people against them - and because amazingly the hyperinflation, while making life difficult, was not as devastating as the Depression which was to cripple Weimar in the early 1930s. And things did begin to change, with the economy coming back under control, the extremists being pushed back to the fringes, inflation falling and the situation in Weimar returning to normality. A major storm had been weathered, and democracy had so far survived.

The Golden Age of Weimar?

Life in Weimar between the end of hyperinflation and the start of the Great Depression has been likened to a Golden Age, especially when you consider the economic troubles and then wars which bookended it. There are certainly reasons to conclude that the German economy was experiencing a boom time, with industrial production rising to levels greater than pre-World War 1 and then going even higher, and large German companies coming to dominate their fields. The public were able to afford greater numbers of consumable goods, and affluence seemed to be spreading.

However, it’s important to qualify the idea that the Weimar economy was sound before the depression by explaining that unemployment stayed above a million, nearing two million before the depression, there was also an export deficit, and agriculture remained mired in trouble. As German investors had often lost money in the hyperinflation, Weimar relied upon foreign investment, particularly from the USA. Stresemann was able to conclude shortly before he died that Weimar was too dependent on foreign investment, on a mirage of growth and the state couldn’t weather economic troubles around the world.

The same debate can be applied to Weimar’s political situation. On the face of it, Weimar was a fully functioning democracy until the depression and the Nazi subversion, but the truth was that Weimar’s proportional representation was causing coalition after coalition, and the divisions between the parties meant these ad hoc partnerships never lasted that long. Weimar thus lacked stability and the chance for long-term planning, and all parties have come under attack for being reckless with the country’s future by refusing to compromise and find a middle ground. Extreme parties, on the left and right, now began to grow their support, and turnouts for the republican elections spiraled downwards. Moderate democracy in Weimar was always weak and began to crack.

The situation was exacerbated in 1925 when President Ebert died, and the country voted on his replacement. The old war leader Hindenburg polled 48% of the vote for the right-wing DNVP (after Ludendorff had been humiliated in the first vote), enough to beat the 45% of the ZP’s Wilhelm Marx. On the one hand, Hindenburg showed he was content to act within the constitution rather than try to restore a Kaiser or take other right-wing measures, and Weimar moved forward. On the other, Hindenburg was no fan of the democracy and did little to safeguard it or work on reducing the growing dangers from the right wing he was associated with.

Aside from hyperinflation and the picture of someone wallpapering with useless banknotes, Weimar is famous for the flourishing culture which emerged during the ‘Golden Age.’ This evolution was triggered by the release of pressure after the crises of 1914 – 1923 and aided by the end of censorship in Germany.

Stresemann and Foreign Policy

One area where Weimar did seem to have success during the ‘Golden Age’ – unless you were a German right winger – was in foreign affairs. Stresemann became the man responsible for foreign affairs, and this meant trying to restore Germany’s place in Europe to that of a major power. For many on the right this was a process demanding a restore military and land grabs, but to Stresemann and others it was about recognising what the war had done, working with neighbours like France and Russia to restructure and rebuild, and coming back to international prominence via economic strength. His first success was the Dawes Plan, a system which bought in US-dominated foreign investments and allowed Germany to pay (actually less) in reparations, smoothing the links between France, Germany and the US. It was a good system as long as the US economy stayed afloat.

Stresemann then worked on gaining international allies and agreements in the Locarno Pact. Backed by Britain, who worked to persuade an uncertain France, all the signatories guaranteed the Franco-German and Belgian-German borders, and Italy and Britain agreed to support any of the other three who were attacked. It was agreed the Rhineland would remain demilitarised. While the borders in the east were left out of the deal, in the west Germany had resumed a position as an equal member of European politics. This led to an invitation to join the League of Nations, an earlier exit from the Rhineland by foreign occupiers, and the Young Plan of 1929 which reduced the reparations figure by three quarters. On the eastern front, Stresemann inherited a deal with the USSR, and signed a further understanding in the 1926 Treaty of Berlin. However, Stresemann died of a heart attack in 1929. A surprisingly divisive figure accused of being a secret nationalist, the question which haunts Weimar’s history is whether he, as the era’s leading statesman, could have defeated the rise of the Nazis.

The Problems of Weimar

By mid-1929, it was apparent that though Weimar had survived a near-terminal crisis and been through six years of apparent prosperity, there were deep-seated problems under the surface. These cracks included the economic and political situations, which had not developed permanent and internally strong structures. When they were tested in the early 1930s, Weimar would fall apart.