Interwar Germany: The Rise and Fall of Weimar and the Rise of Hitler

Between World War One and Two, Germany experienced several changes in government: from an emperor to a democracy to the rise of a new dictator, a Führer. Indeed, it’s this last leader, Adolf Hitler, who directly began the second of the twentieth century’s two great wars.  The question of how Hitler took power is often tied to how democracy in Germany failed, and the following series of articles take you through the ‘revolution’ of 1918 to the mid-30s, when Hitler was unassailable.

The German Revolution of 1918-19

Faced with defeat in the First World War, the military leaders of Imperial Germany convinced themselves that a new civilian government would do two things: take the blame for the loss, and persuade the soon to be winners of the war to demand only a moderate punishment. The socialist SDP were invited to form a government and they pursued a moderate course, but as Germany began to fracture under pressure so calls for a full-fledged revolution were demanded by the extreme left. Whether Germany really did experience a revolution in 1918-19, or whether that was defeated (and what Germany experienced was an evolution into democracy) is debated.

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The Creation and Struggle of the Weimar Republic

The SDP were running Germany, and they resolved to create a new constitution and republic. This was duly created, based at Weimar because the conditions in Berlin were unsafe, but problems with the allies’ demands in the Treaty of Versailles produced a rocky path, which only got worse in the early 1920s as reparations helped hyperinflation and impending economic collapse.

Yet Weimar, with a political system that produced coalition after coalition, survived, and experienced a cultural Golden Age.

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The Origins of Hitler and the Nazi Party

In the chaos following the end of World War One, many fringe parties emerged in Germany.

One was investigated by an army man called Hitler. He joined, displayed a talent for demagoguery, and soon took over the Nazi Party and expanded its membership. He might have moved too early believing his Beer Hall Putsch would work, even with Ludendorff on side, but managed to turn a trial and time in prison into a triumph. By the mid-twenties he’d resolved to at least start his rise to power semi-legally.

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The Fall of Weimar and Hitler’s Rise to Power

The Golden Age of Weimar was cultural; the economy was still dangerously dependant on American money, and the political system was unstable. When the Great Depression removed the US loans the German economy was crippled, and dissatisfaction with the centre parties led to extremists like the Nazis growing in votes. Now the top level of German politics slipped towards authoritarian government, and democracy failed, all before Hitler managed to exploit violence, despair, fear and political leaders who underestimated him to become Chancellor.

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Did the Treaty of Versailles Aid Hitler?

The Treaty of Versailles was long blamed for leading directly to the Second World War, but this is now considered an overstatement.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to argue several aspects of the Treaty did contribute to Hitler’s rise to power.

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The Creation of the Nazi Dictatorship

By 1933 Hitler was Chancellor of Germany, but was far from secure; in theory President Hindenburg could sack him whenever he wanted. Within months he had wrecked the constitution and established a powerful, gripping dictatorship thanks to violence and the final act of political suicide from the opposition parties. Hindenburg then died, and Hitler combined his job with the presidency to create a Führer. Hitler would now reshape all areas of German life.

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Hitler's Germany