Post-war Germany was so unsettled and politically fertile that it gave rise to many different groups and movements. While the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Centre Party dominated the Reichstag, there were several other notable Weimar political parties.
A politically fertile period
This increase in political activity and organisation is understandable. Germany was a nation in flux and transformation. It was confronted by many challenges, both internal and external. Four years of war had produced more questions than answers. There was also interest in emerging political ideas like socialism and fascism.
With the removal of the authoritarian Wilhelmine regime, Germans were curious about the political direction their nation would take. In addition, the Weimar constitution and electoral system encouraged the formation and participation of political parties, no matter their size. A party needed only to muster 50,000 to 60,000 votes to win a seat and have a voice in the national assembly.
Some of the better-known parties, listed in order of their formation, included:
German National People’s Party (DNVP)
Formed in 1918 from a coalition of smaller right-wing parties, the DNVP embraced strong conservative policies and values.
In its early years, the DNVP opposed the Weimar constitution and the new political system. It called for the restoration of the monarchy and an authoritarian government.
The party’s best election results were in 1924 when it exploited the misery of the Ruhr occupation and hyperinflation to win 103 of a possible 493 Reichstag seats. The DNVP was an obstinate political force, however, and refused to participate in coalition governments.
In the mid-1920s, the DNVP marketed itself as a ‘classless’ party, setting up party-run unions and appealing to Germany’s farmers. The party leadership and most of its members, however, came from the upper and middle-classes.
Most DNVP leaders were aristocrats, businessmen, industrialists and former military men – groups that nurtured the strongest opposition to the Weimar government, the Treaty of Versailles and Germany’s desperate economic state. The stab-in-the-back theory was rife in DNVP ranks, as was anti-Semitism and talk of a right-wing counter-revolution.
German People’s Party (DVP)
Formed in 1918 from a Prussian group, the DVP was the party of Gustav Stresemann. For much of its political life, it mirrored Stresemann’s own views and values.
The DVP began as a nationalist, conservative, pro-industrialist and anti-socialist party that was largely dismissive of the Republic. Its more influential members were industrial capitalists and businessmen who wanted a stronger, authoritarian government to protect their corporate interests.
Under the influence of Stresemann, however, the DVP mellowed. It formed an effective working relationship with other Reichstag parties, forming a long-standing coalition with the Centre Party and the SPD. It also favoured a revision of the Versailles treaty, rather than its total abolition.
The DVP enjoyed consistent electoral success during the 1920s, winning between 30-65 Reichstag seats in five different federal elections. The death of Stresemann saw the DVP return to its old right-wing values – but by the late 1920s, this ground was already well occupied by the NSDAP and DNVP. By the July 1932 election, the DVP held just seven Reichstag seats.
German Democratic Party (DDP)
Founded in 1918, the DDP had nationalist strains, with many of its members opposing the Versailles treaty and reparations payments. Despite this, it was chiefly a centre-left party, most of its values and policies being liberal or social-democratic.
DDP members supported the existence of the Weimar Republic, the League of Nations and the rights of ethnic minorities (in contrast to the anti-Semitism found in most right-wing parties). It urged government support for both capital and labour and foreign policies to facilitate Germany’s return to the European community.
The DDP won 39 seats in the 1920 Reichstag election but the party’s numbers dwindled consistently through the Weimar period. By July 1932, the party held just four seats.
In spite of its small size, the DDP contributed several prominent Weimar ministers, including murdered foreign minister Walther Rathenau and long-serving defence minister Otto Gessler.
Bavarian People’s Party (BVP)
The BVP was the Bavarian section of the Centre Party. It began as a faction but broke away to become independent in 1920. The BVP was more conservative than its parent party. It was firmly pro-Catholic, anti-socialist and focused on interests specific to Bavaria.
The BVP naturally drew its electoral support from southern Germany. It was consistently represented in the Reichstag, winning between 16-22 seats at each election, but never threatened to become a national force.
By the early 1930s, the BVP had thrown its weight behind the NSDAP, calling for a Hitler-led coalition government.
Several smaller parties could also be found campaigning for or occupying in the Reichstag. This fringe parties tended to represent specific groups, religions, economic or regional interests.
Among these smaller parties were the Bavarian Peasants’ League, the Agricultural League, the German Farmers Party, the Economic Party of the Middle Classes, the Reich Party for Civil Rights and the Christian Social People’s Service.
These groups only ever held a handful of Reichstag seats, so their influence was usually minimal. They occasionally grouped together and formed temporary coalitions to support or oppose legislation.
A historian’s view:
“The role of splinter parties in the Weimar period is often much exaggerated. The functioning of the parliamentary system was less impaired by the existence of a few small parties than by the difficulty of forming coalitions among the larger ones. Bourgeois parties lost their enthusiasm for working with the Social Democrats by means of fair compromise. Their ‘anti-Marxism’ steadily gained strength – and these decidedly anti-Marxist positions are to be seen as the real germ of the disease in the Weimar party system.”
1. Between 1919 and 1933 the Reichstag was filled with a plethora of middle-sized and small parties, occupying all parts of the political spectrum.
2. These parties were encouraged by the fertile and volatile political state in post-war Germany, as well as the Weimar constitutions’ electoral system.
3. Some nationalist parties, like the DVP and DNVP, began as opponents of the Weimar Republic but mellowed over time to participate in the Reichstag and government.
4. Several of these smaller parties became important coalition members, aligning with major parties like the SPD and Centre Party to form a voting majority.
5. The rise of the NSDAP in 1932 dramatically changed the composition of the Reichstag, as the Nazis absorbed votes and seats from the other right-wing nationalist parties.