The story of Weimar Germany is an intriguing one, beginning in the last days of World War I and ending with the development of totalitarian rule under Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Even as the Weimar Republic was dissolving, historians and political scientists sought to understand why democracy failed in post-war Germany. They found no easy answers. The Weimar Republic died a death of a thousand cuts, hamstrung and undermined by a myriad of factors and forces.
In November 1918, as the German war effort was collapsing and surrender to the Allies was imminent, the German navy mutinied and the Hohenzollern monarchy collapsed with scarcely a whimper. The government of Germany was assumed by civilian politicians, liberals and social democrats like Friedrich Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann and Gustav Noske. These men were political moderates – but they were also optimists who believed that Germany could make a successful transition to democratic republicanism. True to their liberal values, they crafted a constitution that gifted the German people probably the freest, most democratic political system of its time. Once commanded to follow and obey, Germans could now select their representatives, their government and their head of state. All were given legal equality, civil liberties and the right to vote, regardless of status, wealth, education or gender.
But for all their idealism and good intentions, the men of Weimar were confronted with enormous challenges and difficulties. They inherited a nation exhausted, depleted and starved by four years of total war. Even as they planned the future Germany was threatened by a struggle for power between the Spartacists (local communists who wanted revolution), the Freikorps (former soldiers of nationalist political views) and other nationalist counter-revolutionaries. Germany was also at the mercy of foreign powers, who wanted to punish it for the war and prevent future threats by decimating the German economy. The humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) ignited paranoid nationalists, who already clung to the belief that the 1918 surrender was unjustified, the work of socialists and Jewish conspirators. The men of Weimar crafted an ambitious model for republican government – but uniting all or even most Germans behind this model proved almost impossible.
The most pressing and visible problems of Weimar Germany were political instability, violence and economic suffering. These problems were particularly acute in the early 1920s. The government’s ability to respond was constrained by the new political system. The proportional voting system adopted by the new Republic was more democratic than any ever devised – but this proved detrimental to getting things done. Rather than encouraging decisive leadership and facilitating action, the Reichstag became a swamp of small parties, conflicting ideas and self-interest. The perils of the 1920s screamed for strong leadership but the Weimar system coughed up a series of weak coalition governments and no less than 15 different chancellors, most of them politically impotent. The Reichstag was divided, paralysed and unable to implement necessary policies or reforms; running the state proved a difficult, if not impossible task.
Eric D. Weitz, historian
Germany’s economic condition was even more perilous. Though hostilities formally ended in November 1918, Germans continued to suffer from an Allied food blockade that continued until mid-1919; the ensuing starvation contributed to the deaths of more than one million civilians. The Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of her colonial possessions, important European territories and valuable industrial regions. In 1921 Berlin was handed a reparations bill totalling more than $US30 billion. This outrageous burden killed off any hope of post-war economic recovery. The already devastated German economy could not shoulder this burden and by 1922 Berlin was defaulting on its quarterly reparations payments to the Allies. France and Belgium responded by sending troops to occupy the industrial Ruhr region and seize German material and produce. Germans responded by initiating a paralysing general strike and – as a last resort by the desperate Weimar government – frantically printing of banknotes, a move that triggered the devastating hyperinflation of 1923.
Germany was eventually raised from this swamp by the pragmatism of Gustav Stresemann, the restoration of foreign relations and American financial assistance. Recognising that a bankrupt Germany would destabilise Europe and threaten its own economy, the United States intervened, negotiating with a more conciliatory Weimar government. The Dawes Plan of 1924 reconfigured reparations payments and facilitated billions of dollars worth of foreign loans to kick-start the German economy. This injection of capital allowed German industrial and manufacturing sectors to quickly recover, leading to rapid improvements in employment, wages and standards of living. The period 1924-29 is consequently referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Weimar‘. It was a time of progress of improved living standards, of bourgeois values and surges in art, film and popular culture.
But the Golden Age was a temporary and artificial prosperity – something that Germans themselves seem to understand. In 1929 the nation was ravaged by the Great Depression, which drained Germany of foreign money and capital. Threatened with unemployment and starvation for the second time in a decade, German voters lost faith in the government and abandoned mainstream political parties. Instead, they turned to fringe groups who were committed to dismantling and destroying democracy. One of these groups, the NSDAP or National Socialist German Workers Party, had been small and insignificant during the 1920s. But as conditions in Germany deteriorated, the NSDAP’s electoral fortunes improved – and the ranting speeches of its leader, Adolf Hitler, began to strike a chord with the German people. By 1932, the path to a Hitler-led government – and to the death of Weimar republicanism – was being cleared.