The story of the Weimar Republic is an intriguing one – not only because of its tragic ending and descent into Nazi totalitarianism but also the lessons it offers the modern world.
An idealist experiment
The future of Germany was then grasped by political idealists who sought to make their homeland the most liberal democratic nation in Europe. The political system and society they created became known as the Weimar Republic. It lasted for barely 15 years, ending in 1933-34 when it succumbed to the totalitarian rule of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists (NSDAP).
Even as the Weimar Republic was being dismantled by the Nazis, historians and political scientists sought to explain why democracy had failed in post-war Germany. They found no easy answers. The Weimar Republic died a death of a thousand cuts. It was weakened and undermined by a myriad of factors and forces.
The Republic is born
The government of Germany was assumed by civilian politicians, liberals and social democrats like Friedrich Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann and Gustav Noske. These men were political moderates – but also optimists who believed Germany could make a successful transition to democratic republicanism.
True to their liberal values, they crafted a constitution that created probably the freest, most democratic political system of its time. Once commanded to follow and obey, the German people could now select their representatives, their government and their head of state. All Germans were given legal equality, civil liberties and the right to vote, regardless of status, wealth, education or gender.
Problems and challenges
But despite their idealism and good intentions, the leaders of Weimar Germany were confronted with enormous challenges and difficulties.
These politicians inherited a nation exhausted, depleted and starved by four years of total war. It was also divided and filled with a myriad of political groups, including revolutionaries on the extreme left and reactionaries on the far right.
In its first months, the new regime was threatened by a struggle for power between the Spartacists (local communists who wanted revolution), the Freikorps (former soldiers of nationalist political views) and other nationalist counter-revolutionaries.
Germany was also at the mercy of foreign powers, who wanted to punish it for the war and prevent future threats by decimating the German economy. The humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) inflamed paranoid nationalists, who clung to the belief that the 1918 surrender was unwarranted, the work of socialists and Jewish conspirators.
Division and disunity
The men of Weimar crafted an ambitious model for republican government – but uniting all or even most Germans behind this model proved almost impossible.
The most pressing and visible problems of Weimar Germany were political instability, violence and economic suffering. These problems were particularly acute in the early 1920s. The government’s ability to respond was constrained by the new political system.
The perils of the 1920s screamed for strong leadership but the Weimar system coughed up a series of weak coalition governments and no less than 15 different chancellors, most of them politically impotent. The Reichstag was divided, paralysed and unable to implement necessary policies or reforms; running the state proved a difficult, if not impossible task.
A collapsing economy
Germany’s economic condition was even more perilous. Though hostilities formally ended in November 1918, Germans continued to suffer from an Allied food blockade that continued until mid-1919. The ensuing starvation contributed to the deaths of more than one million civilians.
The Treaty of Versailles stripped Germany of her colonial possessions, important European territories and valuable industrial regions. In 1921 Berlin was handed a reparations bill totalling more than $US30 billion.
This outrageous burden killed off any hope of post-war economic recovery. The already devastated German economy could not shoulder this burden and by 1922, Berlin was defaulting on its quarterly reparations payments to the Allies.
France and Belgium responded by sending troops to occupy the industrial Ruhr region and seize German material and produce. Germans responded by initiating a paralysing general strike and – as a last resort by the desperate Weimar government – frantically printing of banknotes, a move that triggered the devastating hyperinflation of 1923.
The ‘Golden Age’ – or was it?
Recognising that a bankrupt Germany would destabilise Europe and threaten its own economy, the United States intervened, negotiating with a more conciliatory Weimar government. The Dawes Plan of 1924 reconfigured reparations payments and facilitated billions of dollars worth of foreign loans to kick-start the German economy. This injection of capital allowed German industrial and manufacturing sectors to quickly recover, leading to rapid improvements in employment, wages and standards of living.
The Great Depression
But the Golden Age of Weimar was a temporary and artificial prosperity – something that Germans themselves seem to understand. In 1929, the nation was ravaged by the Great Depression, which drained Germany of foreign money and capital.
Threatened with unemployment and starvation for the second time in a decade, German voters lost faith in the government and abandoned mainstream political parties. Instead, they turned to fringe groups who were committed to dismantling and destroying democracy.
One of these groups, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party or NSDAP, had been small and insignificant during the 1920s. As conditions in Germany deteriorated, however, the NSDAP’s electoral fortunes improved and the ranting speeches of its leader, Adolf Hitler, began to strike a chord with the German people.
By 1932, the path to a Hitler-led government – and to the death of Weimar republicanism – was being cleared.
A historian’s view:
“Weimar Germany still speaks to us. Paintings by George Grosz and Max Beckmann are much in demand… Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill are periodically revived in theatres around the world… Kitchen designs invoke the styles of the 1920s and the creative work of the Bauhaus… What film buff has not seen The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Metropolis? Weimar Germany speaks to us in other ways as well, most often as a warning sign. This was a society battered by economic crisis and unrelenting political conflict. Weimar Germany conjures up fears of what can happen when there is simply no societal consensus on how to move forward, and every difference becomes a cause of existential political battles. It is a warning sign because we all know how it ended.
Eric D. Weitz