Weimar Republic politicians

This who’s who contains biographical summaries of significant Weimar Republic politicians active between 1918 and 1933. These profiles have been written by Alpha History authors.

Heinrich Bruning (1885-1970) was the longest-serving chancellor (1930-32) of the Weimar Republic – somewhat ironically, given that his time in office coincided with the worst of the Great Depression. Bruning was raised Catholic and attended university, before enlisting and serving in World War I. He joined the Centre Party in 1924 and served in both the Reichstag and the Prussian Landtag (state parliament). Bruning’s reputation, deserved or not, was as an astute economic manager. His policies were generally austere, aimed at limiting government spending and preventing inflation. It was for this reason that Hindenburg appointed him chancellor in 1930, as Germany was plunging into depression. Bruning had little support in the Reichstag and most of his policies were implemented by decree from Hindenburg. When the president withdrew his support in 1932, Bruning was forced to resign. He remained in the Reichstag as a vocal critic of the Nazi movement before fleeing Germany in 1934.

Wilhelm Cuno (1876-1933) was chancellor of Germany from November 1922 to August 1923. Born in Thuringia, Cuno was trained as a lawyer before entering the civil service. He later entered private industry, working closely with shipping companies in the United States. Cuno’s business experience saw him headhunted by the Weimar government; he was offered the role of foreign minister but refused. In 1922, Friedrich Ebert invited Cuno – who was not a sitting Reichstag member and had no party affiliation – to become chancellor and form a government. French troops occupied the Ruhr shortly after Cuno took office. Cuno’s response was one of passive resistance: supporting striking workers while maintaining their salaries through increased print runs of banknotes. For this reason, many historians consider Cuno to be the architect of the hyperinflation disaster of late 1923. Cuno’s government fell in August of that year, and Cuno himself returned to working in the private sector.

Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925) was the first president of the Weimar Republic. Born to a working-class family, Ebert’s youth was spent as a journeyman labourer, during which he developed an affinity for the trade union movement. He joined the SPD and, in 1912, was elected as a member of the Reichstag. Ebert proved himself a social democrat rather than a socialist. In November 1918 Ebert inherited the presidency of the new republic, following the abdication of the Kaiser and the resignation of chancellor Maximillian of Baden. Though Ebert conducted himself well and was widely respected, his presidency divided opinion. He was hated by right-wing nationalists, who thought him weak, as well as many in his own party, who thought him a class traitor. Ebert’s reliance on the army and the Freikorps to protect his own government were especially controversial. These criticisms took a toll on Ebert’s own health and contributed to his premature death in 1925, aged 54.

Matthias Erzberger (1875-1921) was a Centre Party politician, a signer of the 1918 armistice and the Weimar finance minister in 1919-20. Born into a Catholic working-class family in southern Germany, Erzberger was elected to the Reichstag in 1903. While in the Reichstag he voted in favour of Germany’s military buildup and later supported the war effort. By mid-1917, Erzberger had changed his views on the war and was calling for a negotiated peace – and, controversially, questioning the ability of the German military to achieve victory. In November 1918 Erzberger was dispatched to northern France to negotiate an armistice with the Allies. He became a minister in the first Weimar cabinet, later serving as vice chancellor and finance minister under Gustav Bauer. As the struggling republic’s finance chief, a critic of the military and the architect of the armistice, Erzberger was a prime target for ultra-nationalists. In August 1921 two members of the Freikorps and Organisation Consul shot him to death in the Black Forest.

Wilhelm Groener (1867-1939) was a high-ranking military officer and notable minister in several Weimar governments. Born in southern Germany to a military family, Groener enlisted in the army and received officer training. He rose through the ranks, serving in the Prussian war minister; in the final days of World War I, Groener replaced Ludendorff as Hindenburg’s deputy. Groener retired from the military but during the 1920s was recruited by several Weimar chancellors, serving as minister for the interior, transport and defence. In 1931 Groener, as minister of the interior, banned the NSDAP’s paramilitary branch, the Sturmabteilung (SA) – which made him a target of Nazi vitriol and propaganda. In 1932 Groener was ambushed on the floor of the Reichstag by Hermann Goering and other Nazi hecklers; this incident led to his resignation from the ministry and politics in general.

Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) is best remembered as the man who appointed Adolf Hitler as German chancellor. Born to an aristocratic Prussian family, Hindenburg was a career military officer who saw service in mid-19th-century wars against Austria and France. He retired from active service in 1911 but was recalled on the outbreak of World War I. In 1916 Hindenburg replaced von Falkenhayn as chief of staff. Though his military achievements were mixed, Hindenburg enjoyed enormous public popularity. He retired from the army in 1919 but six years later was cajoled into running for the presidency. Hindenburg won comfortably, to nobody’s surprise. Though he was doubtful about Weimar democracy and surrounded himself with a coterie determined to see it fail, Hindenburg pledged to uphold the constitution as best he could. Through his presidency, he craved a chancellor who could lead and unite the nation – but the quagmire of Weimar factionalism made this an impossible task.

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was the NSDAP (Nazi Party) leader whose elevation to the chancellorship in January 1933 spelled doom for the Weimar Republic. Hitler was born in Austria and spent his teenage years traipsing around Vienna, trying to gain entry into the art academy while scratching a living selling postcards. In 1914 he crossed the border and enlisted in the German army, serving much of the war on the Western Front, where he was twice decorated for bravery. In 1919 the army sent Hitler to spy on a right-wing political group, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP) or German Workers’ Party. Instead of reporting on their activities, Hitler became fascinated by the group’s radical politics and rousing meetings. He also discovered a talent for passionate and emotive public speaking, soon becoming the DAP’s most influential orator. In 1920 Hitler became the party’s leader and oversaw its re-formation as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). Like Hitler himself, the party was ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic and bitterly opposed to the Republic and the men who ran it. In November 1923 Hitler and his followers attempted a putsch (coup) against the provincial government in Bavaria. The coup failed and Hitler was arrested and jailed, however, the incident brought him national press coverage. Hitler’s rise to power began with the Great Depression in 1929. Preaching nationalism, conspiracy theories and hatred to hungry and disillusioned Germans, Hitler and the NSDAP began to gain popular support. In 1932 the Nazis won 230 seats in the Reichstag, the largest return of any single party during the Weimar era, while Hitler also polled well during his unsuccessful tilt for the presidency. Though Hitler was despised by Hindenburg and other members of the establishment, the voting power of the NSDAP made him a contender for the chancellorship in 1932. Hitler was eventually appointed to this office in January 1933, following weeks of backroom conniving and dealing.

Alfred Hugenberg (1865-1951) was a wealthy press baron and nationalist political leader. The son of a Prussian royal official, Hugenberg studied law and economics before joining the civil service. He became involved in politics at an early age, founding two nationalist groups in the 1890s. By the outbreak of World War I Hugenberg had become a director of Krupp Steel, Germany’s largest industrial company. After the war he left Krupp and started his own publishing company, buying up small newspapers and becoming Germany’s dominant press magnate. Hugenberg also joined the German National People’s Party (DNVP) and was elected to the Reichstag in 1920. Under Hugenberg’s influence the DNVP became more radical, calling for the abolition of the Weimar Republic, the restoration of the monarchy, the revival of militarism and the recapture of Germany’s colonial possessions. By 1929 Hugenberg, unable to gain the support of the working classes, had thrown his financial and media weight behind Adolf Hitler. In 1931 Hugenberg’s DNVP aligned itself with the NSDAP, though beneath the surface Hugenberg and Hitler had little genuine trust or admiration for each other. Hugenberg served briefly as a minister in Hitler’s government, before being forced out in mid-1933. Hugenberg’s newspapers were later taken over by the Nazi propaganda corps, while Hugenberg himself was allowed to remain as a member of the Reichstag.

Franz von Papen (1879-1969) was chancellor of Germany briefly, though he is best remembered for his role in bringing Adolf Hitler to power. Von Papen was a Catholic of privileged birth. He received the military training typical of a young Prussian, after which he travelled widely as a diplomatic. In 1915 von Papen was expelled from the United States after being exposed as a spymaster; he later saw active service on the Western Front and in the Middle East. After the war he joined the Centre Party and entered Prussian state politics. In June 1932 von Papen was appointed German chancellor by Hindenburg, despite having a mediocre political record and almost no support in the Reichstag. Von Papen courted the popular NSDAP and attempted to govern forcefully – but his chancellorship was a disaster and he was forced to resign after just five months. He then undermined his successor, von Schleicher, and advised Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor.

Hugo Preuss or Preuß (1860-1925) was a Jewish-German lawyer, liberal politician and the chief architect of the Weimar constitution. Born in Berlin, the son of a successful printer, Preuss studied law and humanities at university, later entering academia himself. Preuss became involved in local politics and stood unsuccessfully as a Reichstag candidate in 1912. In late 1918 Preuss published several essays on German politics, arguing for liberal reforms and a popularly supported republic. These writings were admired by new president Friedrich Ebert, who appointed Preuss as his first minister for home affairs. Preuss also became a foundation member of the German Democratic Party (DDP), the third largest party in the newly elected National Assembly, and in February 1919 was tasked with overseeing the drafting and development of a new republican constitution. In July 1919 Preuss presented his draft constitution to the Assembly, which made some significant changes and adopted it the following month. Preuss, by now out of the ministry, became involved in Prussian state politics and continued to write on political matters. He died in 1925.

Walther Rathenau (1867-1922) was the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister during the first half of 1922. Rathenau was born in Berlin, the son of a successful Jewish businessman. After attending university he became an engineer and played an important role in improving industrial production during the war. A political liberal, Rathenau became a founding member of the German Democratic Party (DDP). In 1921 the German chancellor Joseph Wirth appointed Rathenau minister of reconstruction. The following year Rathenau was elevated to the foreign ministry, where he negotiated the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. This act alone made Rathenau a target for radical nationalist groups like the NSDAP, who condemned him as a Jewish-communist conspirator. In June 1922 Rathenau was shot to death while driving to work in Berlin. His assassins were members of the Freikorps, Organisation Consul (a right-wing terrorist group) and the Protection and Defiance Federation (an anti-Semitic group). Rathenau’s murder was condemned by almost all political parties and for a time served to marginalise nationalist groups like the NSDAP.

Philipp Schiedemann (1865-1939) was an SPD politician, best known for declaring the formation of the Weimar Republic. Born into a working-class family in central Germany, Schiedemann trained as a printer, became involved in labour groups and joined the SPD. By his 30s Schiedemann had moved into journalism, editing several left-wing newspapers. He entered the Reichstag in 1903 and remained there until the end of World War I, serving for a time as vice president and acting chairman of the assembly. Schiedemann was a moderate socialist who calmly opposed the war, calling for a negotiated peace. In October 1918 Schiedemann was appointed to the new cabinet of Prince Max von Baden, making him the first SPD politician to serve as a government minister. On November 9th he angered his fellow politician Friedrich Ebert by delivering a spontaneous speech in Berlin, declaring the birth of a new German republic. In February 1919 Ebert appointed Schiedemann as his first chancellor, however in June Schiedemann resigned rather than oversee the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. He remained in the Reichstag until the rise of Hitler in 1933, after which Schiedemann fled Germany and spent his final years in Denmark.

Kurt von Schleicher (1882-1934) was the German chancellor who was replaced to make way for Adolf Hitler. Born in Prussia, von Schleicher followed in the footsteps of his father, joining the army as an officer cadet. Von Schleicher served on the Eastern Front during World War I, where he was decorated for bravery but also showed a tendency to be unpredictable. Towards the end of the war, he was assigned to staff positions, where von Schleicher’s organisation and understanding of politics proved invaluable. A skilled intriguer (his surname translates as ‘the sneaker’) von Schleicher’s career was assisted at various times by Paul von Hindenburg, Wilhelm Groener and Hans von Seekt. During the 1920s he filled several important, if behind-the-scenes positions in the Reichswehr and the government, often serving as the link between the two. He served as an aid to defence minister Groener (1930-32) then as defence minister under von Papen (1932).

Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929) was a Weimar politician, Reichstag deputy, German chancellor and foreign minister. Born to a middle-class Berlin family, Stresemann was well educated and became interested in politics from a young age. Though his views were initially liberal, during World War I Stresemann became more nationalist and conservative; he supported the monarchy and the war effort, and back calls for unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite his association with the right-wing, Stresemann was a pragmatist who was prepared to work with his political opposites for the benefit of the country. His short stint as chancellor (1923) was doomed by hyperinflation and the dissolving coalition government, however, it was as foreign minister (1923-29) that Stresemann would make his name. Recognising that Germany could not recover without international support, he worked to restore and rebuild diplomatic ties, renegotiate the reparations debt and secure foreign loans. Stresemann’s premature death in 1929, at age 51, robbed Weimar Germany of its most effective statesman, at a time when he was needed most.

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