Why the Weimar Republic failed

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

Countless historians have sought to understand and explain the failure of the Weimar Republic. The only certainty is that the answer is complex and many factors were involved. Weimar Germany was at the mercy of so many different ideas and forces – political and economic, internal and external, structural and short-term – that it is difficult to isolate one or two as being chiefly responsible for the demise of the republic. To the average observer, Adolf Hitler and Nazism appear the main architects of the downfall of Weimar democracy – but it required a ‘perfect storm’ of economic conditions before Hitler and the Nazis could emerge from the margins of German politics to become a national force. Some historians believe the Weimar Republic was brought undone by post-war conditions; others believe that longer term factors, such as Germany’s inexperience with democratic government, were just as significant. This page summarises some of the main factors that contributed to the failure and fall of the Weimar state.

Responses to the Treaty of Versailles. The post-war peace settlement signed at Versailles, France in June 1919 imposed extremely harsh terms on Germany. The severity of these terms generated intense political debate and division within Germany. 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 (Nazis), demanded the government repudiate the treaty and refuse to comply with its terms. The moderates and pragmatists of the Weimar republic rejected this approach, believing it would provoke retaliation, economic strangulation, even war or invasion. Later, under the ministership of Gustav Stresemann, the government’s approach was to restore foreign relations, to work for a re-negotiation of the Versailles treaty and a relaxation of its punitive terms. Among the German people there was a consensus that Germany had been treated unfairly by the Treaty of Versailles – and that the Weimar government had meekly obeyed the will of foreign powers.

Germany’s reparations burden. Also stemming from Versailles was the issue of reparations: financial payments imposed on Germany for its role in World War I. Historians have formed different conclusions about whether the final reparations figure was justified – or whether Germany was capable of meeting this obligation. The general consensus is that the final amount was excessive. The burden of large reparations obligations hampered Germany’s post-war economic recovery – and thus undermined its political stability. By 1922 Germany was unable to fulfil its quarterly reparations installments, triggering the occupation of the Ruhr region by French and Belgian troops, the hyperinflation crisis of 1923 and the collapse of two Weimar 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 fertile political scene in post-war Germany allowed several conspiracy theories to circulate and flourish. The most prolific and poisonous of these was the Dolchstosselegende or ‘stab in the back’ theory. According to this fallacious theory, Germany’s November 1918 surrender was engineered by socialists, liberals and Jews in Germany’s civilian government; it was not the result of military defeat or exhaustion. The Dolchstosse myth had two significant effects. Firstly, it undermined public trust in the post-war civilian government – and particularly the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was painted by nationalists as treacherous and unpatriotic. Secondly, the Dolchstosslegende protected the prestige and position of the German military and its commanders. Despite their failures in 1918, military commanders like Hindenburg and Ludendorff managed to retain their status and influence in the new republic. Evidence of this can be seen in the election of Hindenburg, who publicly supported the Dolchstosslegende, as president of the republic.

“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 the Weimar president – with his seven year term and these hefty emergency powers – was not far removed from the former kaiser. Stalemates in the Reichstag meant the president’s emergency powers were frequently called into action, which only enhanced and worsened political divisions.

Weimar’s electoral system. The proportional voting system used in Weimar Germany was inherently democratic, in that it allocated seats in the Reichstag based on the share of votes each party received. The problem with proportional voting was that it prevented any realistic chance of a majority government, where one party could form government in its own right. Proportional voting filled the Reichstag with a number of smaller parties, many with membership and policies that were wholly sectional or regional. The scattered composition of the Reichstag meant that coalitions were required, and these coalitions were often fractious and fragile. The presence of so many parties and interests hindered debate in the chamber and made passing legislation difficult.

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 meant that no party was able to form a government on its own. To form government and push through legislation, parties had to group together into coalitions 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 Social Democratic Party (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; they survived in the post-war period and helped 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, such as the NSDAP (Nazis). 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 they were often romanticised and recalled as better times.

Hostility to democracy and parliamentarian government. Several political parties gave little or no support to the Weimar political system, instead choosing to undermine, attack or sabotage it. Parties like the Communist Party (KPD), the Nazis (NSDAP) and the German Nationalist People’s Party (DNVP) had anti-democratic platforms that sought the destruction of parliamentary democracy. These groups stood candidates in elections, not to participate in the Reichstag but to damage 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 also contributed to the loss of public trust in the Weimar political system.

The impact of the Great Depression. The economic collapse of 1929 had dire effects on Germany. By 1932 two-fifths of the German workforce, or some six million people, were without a job. This resulted in many German voters abandoning their support for mainstream and moderate parties, instead voting 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 the Great Depression, Hitler and the NSDAP would likely have remained a powerless entity on the margins of Weimar politics.

why the weimar republic failed
Members of the NSDAP in 1930

Rising support for Hitler and the Nazis. While Hitler and the NSDAP could not have seized power without the Great Depression, they were well placed to do so when the time came. Between 1924 and 1932, Hitler and his agents busied themselves with reforming and expanding the Nazi movement. They re-badged the NSDAP as a legitimate contender for Reichstag seats; they toned down their anti-Semitic and anti-republican rhetoric; they recruited members to increase party membership; and they expanded the NSDAP from a Bavarian group into a national political 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 tactical changes, Hitler and the NSDAP would not have been in a position to claim 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/.