Why the Weimar Republic failed

why the weimar republic failed
Lighting a fire with worthless banknotes, 1923

Countless historians have investigated and sought to explain why the Weimar Republic failed. The only established certainty is that the answer is 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 practically impossible to isolate one or two as being chiefly responsible for the death of the republic. To the average observer, Hitler and Nazism appear the main architects of the downfall of Weimar democracy – but it took a confluence of critical conditions and events before the Nazis were able to emerge from the margins of German politics and become a national force. This page summarises some of the main factors that contributed to failure and eventual fall of the Weimar state.

Responses to the Treaty of Versailles. The post-war peace settlement signed at Versailles in June 1919 imposed extremely harsh terms on Germany. The severity of these terms generated intense political debate and division. While the vast majority of Germans opposed the treaty, they were sharply divided about how to respond to it. Right-wing nationalist groups, like the NSDAP, insisted on refusing to acknowledge the treaty or comply with its terms. The moderates and pragmatists of the Weimar republic rejected this approach, believing it could provoke economic strangulation, 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 a relaxation of its punitive terms.

Germany’s reparations burden. Also stemming from the Treaty of Versailles was the burden of reparations, placed on Germany for its involvement in World War I. Historians have reached different conclusions about whether the final reparations figure was justified, or whether the exhausted German economy was capable of meeting this obligation. The general consensus is that the final amount was excessive. The heavy reparations bill hampered Germany’s post-war economic recovery – and therefore its capacity for political stability. By 1922 Germany was unable to pay quarterly reparations installments, 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.

why the weimar republic failed
A representation of the ‘stab in the back legend’, 1924

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 result of military defeat or exhaustion. The Dolchstosse myth had two significant effects. First, it undermined trust in post-war civilian government, and particularly the SPD, which was painted by nationalists as treacherous and unpatriotic. Second, the Dolchstosslegende protected the prestige and position of the military and allowed German militarism to survive the war. Despite their profound failures in 1918, military commanders retained their status and influence in the new republic. Evidence of this can be seen in the 1925 election of Hindenburg, a failed general who publicly expressed his belief in the Dolchstosslegende.

“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 Weimar Constitution. Germany’s post-war constitution has shouldered much of the blame for the political instability of the 1920s. The men who drafted the constitution in 1919 attempted to construct a political system not unlike that of the United States, incorporating democracy, federalism, checks and balances and protection of individual rights. Tellingly, they created an executive presidency who had considerable emergency powers, allowing him to bypass or override the elected Reichstag. Some historians suggest that the president – with his seven-year term and these hefty emergency powers – was not far removed from the former kaiser. Stalemates in the Reichstag meant that the president’s emergency powers were frequently called into action, which only enhanced and worsened political divisions.

Weimar’s divisive electoral system. The proportional voting system used in Weimar Germany was inherently democratic, in that it allocated Reichstag representation based on the share of votes each party received. The problem was that proportional voting ruled out any prospect of a majority government (see below). It also filled the Reichstag with smaller parties, many with membership and policies that were wholly sectional or regional. The scattered composition of the Reichstag meant that these coalitions were fractious and fragile. The presence of so many parties and interests hindered both debate in the chamber and the process of passing legislation.

The difficulties of minority government. For the duration of the Weimar Republic, no single political party ever held an absolute majority of Reichstag seats – which means that no party held government in its own right. To form government and push through legislation, coalition voting blocs had to be coddled together to form a majority. But the political divisions of the 1920s meant that these coalitions were fragile and unstable. Some parties, especially those on the radical fringes, refused to participate in Reichstag coalitions, or they entered them reluctantly or insincerely. Right-wing parties, for instance, were reluctant to participate in coalitions with the large SPD. When a coalition was formed, a contentious bill or measure could put it at risk of fracturing and collapsing. The fragility of these 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 working to undermine Weimar democracy. The main repositories for these ideas were military organisations – including the Reichswehr, the Freikorps and the various ex-soldiers’ leagues – as well as 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 had ended in a disastrous war, yet were romanticised as better times.

Hostility to democracy and parliamentarian government. Several political parties gave little or no support to the Weimar political system, instead opting 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 sabotage and 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. These attacks on Weimar democracy caused public trust in the Weimar political system to fall.

The impact of the Great Depression. The economic collapse of 1929 had dire effects on Germany. By 1932, two-fifths of the German workforce, some six million people, were without a job. This resulted in many German voters abandoning their support for mainstream and moderate parties and voting instead 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 Adolf 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.

why the weimar republic failed
Members of the NSDAP in 1930

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 party rather than a Bavarian group. 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 January 1933 appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor was the dagger through the heart of Weimar democracy. Yet just a few months before Hitler’s appointment 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, by then showing signs of senility, changed his mind. The actions of those around Hindenburg, men like former chancellor Franz von Papen, were critical factor in persuading the president that a Hitler cabinet could succeed, yet could be controlled.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Why the Weimar Republic failed?”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/why-the-weimar-republic-failed/.