Why the Weimar Republic failed

why the weimar republic failed

A representation of the ‘stab in the back legend’, 1924

The question of why the Weimar Republic failed has been explored by scores of historians. The reasons for the failure of Weimar democracy are complex and multi-faceted. Post-war Germany was at the mercy of so many different forces and factors – political and economic, internal and external, structural and short-term – it is impossible to isolate one or two as being chiefly responsible for the failure of the Republic. To the casual observer, Hitler and Nazism appear to be the main villains – and perhaps the main architects – behind the death of the Weimar state. But there were many seeds of crisis in interwar Germany and the Nazis were only bit players until the late 1920s. It took a fortuitous set of conditions and events to allow Hitler’s party to emerge from the margins of German politics and successfully gain control of the Weimar state. This page summarises some of the main factors that contributed to the end of Weimar and the rise of Nazism.

Responses to the Treaty of Versailles. The post-war peace settlement, signed in 1919, imposed harsh terms on Germany which generated intense political debate and division. Though the vast majority of Germans opposed the treaty, they were strongly divided about how to respond to it. Right-wing nationalist groups, like the Nazis, demanded the Weimar government refuse to acknowledge the treaty or comply with its terms. Moderates and pragmatists rejected this approach; they believed it would provoke foreign powers to strangle Germany economically and possibly incite war or invasion. Under the ministership of Gustav Stresemann, the government’s approach was to restore foreign relations and to work for a re-negotiation of Versailles and its punitive terms.

Germany’s reparations burden. Also stemming from the Treaty of Versailles was the issue of reparations. Historians have reached different conclusions about whether the final reparations figure was justified and the extent to which the exhausted German economy was capable of meeting this obligation. The general consensus is that the final amount was excessive; this hampered Germany’s post-war economic recovery and therefore its ability to stabilise politically. By 1922 Germany was unable to pay quarterly reparations instalments, triggering the Ruhr occupation, the hyperinflation crisis and the collapse of two government coalitions. Reparations remained a divisive issue for the duration of the Weimar Republic.

The impact of conspiracy theories. The political fertility of post-war Germany gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories, the most prolific and poisonous being the Dolchstosselegende or ‘stab in the back’ theory. This fallacy claimed that the 1918 surrender was engineered by socialists, liberals and Jews in Germany’s civilian government, rather than being the product of military defeat. This myth had two significant effects. Firstly, it undermined trust in post-war civilian government, and particularly the SPD, which was painted as treacherous and unpatriotic. Secondly, the Dolchstosslegende protected and maintained the prestige of the military and its commanders, despite their profound failures in 1918.

“The Weimar Republic, born from monarchy and followed by dictatorship, is too often viewed only in terms of its origin and what rose from its collapse. However its life was entwined with the major developments of the 20th century and, in its own terms, it speaks to us today of changes and problems that we face. It was a noble experiment and provided many lessons in both its failures and its successes. It was a Republic of those who were willing to be reasonable, to put aside short-term self interest and work for the longer-term interests of the broader community. However not enough people supported this reasonable Republic, the first democratic state in German history.”
Paul Bookbinder, historian

The nature of the Weimar Constitution. Germany’s post-war constitution has footed much of the blame for the political instability of the 1920s. The constitutional drafters of 1919 attempted to construct a political system not unlike that of the United States, with democracy, federalism and checks and balances. They created an executive presidency with considerable powers to bypass or override the elected Reichstag. Some historians suggest that the president – with his seven-year term and hefty emergency powers – was not that far removed from the former kaiser. The stalemate in the Reichstag encouraged and possibly required the use of these powers, which only enhanced and worsened political divisions.

Weimar’s divisive electoral system. The proportional voting system adopted in Weimar Germany was inherently democratic, in that it allocated Reichstag representation based on the share of votes that each party received. Proportional voting ruled out any prospect of majority government. It also filled the Reichstag with smaller parties, many of which had membership and policies that were wholly sectional or regional. The scattered composition of the Reichstag made maintaining and forming coalitions difficult and hindered the process of debating and passing legislation.

The difficulties of minority government. For the duration of the Weimar Republic, no single political party ever held a majority of Reichstag seats. To form government and push through legislation, coalition voting blocs had to be coddled together in order to form a majority. But the political divisions of the 1920s made these coalitions fragile and unstable. Some parties, especially those on the radical fringes, either refused to participate in Reichstag coalitions, or entered them reluctantly or insincerely. Right-wing parties, for instance, were reluctant to participate in coalitions with the SPD. When a coalition was formed, a contentious bill or measure could easily cause it to fracture and collapse. The fragility of coalitions made the task of the chancellor and his cabinet enormously difficult.

Lingering militarism, nationalism and authoritarian political values. Germany’s defeat in World War I should have killed off or critically weakened German militarism, nationalism and faith in authoritarianism. But these powerful ideas refused to die, surviving in the post-war period and undermining Weimar democracy. The harbours for these ideas were military organisations – the Reichswehr, the Freikorps and ex-soldiers’ leagues – and political parties on the far right. Military leaders like Paul von Hindenburg, who should have been disgraced into retirement by the defeat of 1918, remained as heroes and important political players in the new society. The ‘old days of empire’ under Bismarck and authoritarian monarchy were romanticised as better times.

Hostility to democracy and parliamentarian government. Several political parties gave no support to the Weimar political system but instead chose to undermine and attack it. Parties like the KPD, the NSDAP and the DNVP (in its early years) had anti-democratic platforms that called for the destruction of parliamentary democracy. These groups stood candidates in elections not to participate in the Reichstag but to destroy it from within. In the early 1930s the NSDAP used its growing representation in the Reichstag as a platform for anti-democratic rhetoric and propaganda. Other radical parties were similarly intransigent and destructive in their approach to parliamentary government.

The impact of the Great Depression. The economic collapse of 1929 had dire effects on Germany; by 1932, two-fifths of the German workforce was without a job. This resulted in many German voters abandoning their support for mainstream and moderate parties, to instead vote for radical groups. It is unclear how much of this was genuine support for these parties and how much was a protest vote – but whatever the reasons, the NSDAP recorded significant increases in Reichstag seats in 1930 and July 1932. This propelled HItler into the public eye, first as a presidential nominee and then as a potential chancellor. Without the miserable conditions created by this external event, Hitler and the NSDAP would likely have remained on the margins of Weimar politics.

Rising support for Hitler and the Nazis. Between 1924 and 1932, Hitler and his agents busied themselves with reforming and expanding the NSDAP. They re-badged the NSDAP as a legitimate contender for Reichstag seats; toned down their anti-Semitic and anti-republican rhetoric; recruited members to increase party membership; and transformed the NSDAP into a national rather than a Bavarian party. Hitler also chased support from powerful interest groups: German industrialists, wealthy capitalists, press barons like Alfred Hugenberg and the upper echelons of the Reichswehr. Without these changes, Hitler and the NSDAP would not have been in a position to seek power in the early 1930s.

Political intriguing in 1932. The knife through the heart of Weimar democracy came with the January 1933 appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor. Yet just a few months before, Hitler’s rise to power seemed unlikely. The man whose approval was required for Hitler to become chancellor, president Paul von Hindenburg, had a low regard for the NSDAP leader and no desire to appoint him as head of government. It took weeks of intriguing, rumour-mongering and lobbying before Hindenburg changed his mind. The actions of men like former chancellor Franz von Papen were a critical factor in persuading Hindenburg that a Hitler cabinet could succeed, yet could be controlled.

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