The difficult inter-war period and the political instability of Weimar Germany provided the historical context for the rise of Nazism. The decade following World War I was one of the most tumultuous periods in European history. The war left more than 15 million dead, devastated national economies and shattered many existing political systems. Returned soldiers filed home to find their countries turned upside down, economically exhausted by four years of total war. The dynastic monarchies of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia were overthrown, replaced by new and unstable forms of government. International tensions and hostility continued long after the armistice of November 1918. The poisoned relationships between European nations hindered rebuilding and the restoration of diplomacy and trust. No country suffered greater amounts of animosity and mistrust than Germany, which shouldered much of the blame for the catastrophic war.
Within Germany itself, the dominant post-war issue was the composition of the new national government. Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated in November 1918, leaving a power vacuum that both the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Communist Party (KPD) rushed to fill. The SPD formed a government under Frederich Ebert but faced challenges from radicals. In early 1919 many communist groups revolted and seized power in several cities and regions around the country. In January, the KPD attempted to gain control of Berlin and the national government. The SPD managed to stave off a communist revolution by calling on units of ex-soldiers, called Freikorps, to crush the uprising. By August most communist revolts had been crushed, and the situation was stable enough for an elected assembly to draft and enact a new constitution. Under this new system, drafted in the city of Weimar, Germany would become a democratic republic with an elected president, who would act both as head of state and commander-in-chief of the military. An elected legislative assembly, the Reichstag, would pass laws and represent the people. A cabinet of ministers, headed by the chancellor, would lead the government.
The constitution they drafted in 1919 created one of the most liberal political systems ever attempted to that point in history. But in a period beset by political division and turmoil, this proved to be its greatest weakness. The proportional voting system used to elect the Reichstag allowed several smaller parties to win seats – so the assembly contained representatives from more than a dozen different groups, rather than two or three dominant parties. During the entire Weimar period (1919-33) no single party won enough seats to hold government in its own right. The closest any party came was the Nazis, who would win just over one-third of Reichstag seats in 1932. Weimar governments had to rely on coalitions between different political parties, in order to pass legislation. These coalitions were fragile and routinely collapsed, leading to political instability and many changes in government. In the years between 1919 and 1933 there were nine general elections, while the chancellor and cabinet were replaced 15 times.
The 1920s were also a bitter decade for international relations. After World War I, the victorious Allies sought retribution rather than reconciliation, and Germany felt this vengeful spirit most of all. Its people were starved by an Allied food blockade which extended beyond mid-1919, many months after the ceasefire. German politicians were coerced into signing the Treaty of Versailles and its humiliating ‘war guilt’ clause (in effect, a national confession that Germans had single-handedly started the war). The treaty also required Germany to pay reparations, mainly to France and Belgium. The final reparations bill, confirmed in 1921, was a staggering 270 billion marks – the equivalent of 100 million kilograms of gold. The German people were also stripped of their foreign colonies, while some important industrial territories were also lost. Berlin was ordered to scrap its air force and submarine fleet; Germany’s navy was downsized and its army restricted to just 100,000 men.
The severity of these terms created an uproar within Germany. Many former soldiers believed the armistice was a compromise to protect Germany’s civilian population, which through 1918 had suffered from dire shortages of food and fuel. The German military had not been defeated in the field; no foreign force had invaded Germany itself. The nationalist press fumed about the terms of the Versailles treaty when its contents were leaked in May 1919. There were demands German officials boycott treaty negotiations and refuse to sign any final agreement. Conspiracy theories about the German military being ‘stabbed in the back’ by civilian politicians (see picture) began to circulate. Former soldiers, nationalists and right-wing political groups began to voice opinions that Germany’s ‘defeat’ was really caused by the machinations of corrupt liberals, socialists and Jewish agents.
Post-war exhaustion and the penalties imposed by the Allies caused Germany to slip into economic depression in the early 1920s. The Weimar government struggled to meet the three-monthly reparations instalments; by early 1923 it had already defaulted on several payments. This led to France and Belgium ordering troops into the Ruhr, one of Germany’s most significant industrial regions, to seize raw materials and manufactured goods in lieu of reparations payments. This foreign occupation sparked unrest across Germany, particularly among nationalists and ex-soldiers. The Ruhr’s industrial workers also began an indefinite general strike, in protest against the French occupation. The Weimar government pledged to continue paying the striking workers, as a show of support – but with almost no cash reserves, the government ended up relying on large print runs of banknotes. This initiated the hyperinflation crisis of late 1923. As the Weimar regime released more banknotes into circulation, paper money lost its value and prices sharply rose. There were cases of food prices rising as quickly as 50 per cent in an hour. Wages and other payments had to be spent immediately, lest they lose much of their value. The worst of the hyperinflation crisis came in October and November 1923, when loose paper money was effectively worthless; large bags or boxes of banknotes were needed to buy ordinary goods.
The situation was rectified in 1924, though only superficially. Wiser heads in the government scrapped the old banknotes and replaced them with a new currency, the Rentenmark, which was backed by the gold standard. They also sought the assistance of foreign governments, particularly the United States, to resolve Germany’s economic woes. The US-led Dawes Plan (1924) and Young Plan (1929) were diplomatic agreements that reduced Germany’s reparations figure and negotiated more flexible payment schedules. Massive loans from foreign banks and financiers, the majority of them American, were provided to German industries. This injection of cash and capital allowed industrial production to recover and grow. New factories were built, jobs were created and living standards began to improve. German cities were revitalised and cultural outlets such as music, cabaret, art and cinema began to flourish. The prosperous five-year period between 1924-29 would later become known as the ‘Golden Age of Weimar’.
But the prosperity of the late 1920s was based on a false economy. The Weimar government and German industrial employers were both propped up by foreign money – and any global economic crisis would have devastating effects within Germany. When the Great Depression unfolded in America in late 1929, Germany’s economic lifeline withered and the country tumbled into years of unemployment, deprivation and misery. Lurking on the fringes of German politics, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party was able to exploit the dire conditions of the early 1930s, to attract and expand its popular support.
1. The Weimar period of the 1920s saw Germany disrupted by political instability and economic failure.
2. In 1919 a communist revolution was put down by nationalist ex-soldiers, many of whom later joined the Nazi Party.
3. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles, particularly the final reparations figure, rankled with many nationalists who believed Germany had been unfairly punished.
4. In 1923 the nation was paralysed by the French occupation of the Ruhr, general strikes and devastating hyperinflation, which destroyed much of the wealth of the middle class.
5. The German economy recovered from 1924, but only with the assistance of US schemes and foreign loans, which tied Germany’s fate to that of other nations.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Weimar Germany”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/weimar-germany/.