The Weimar Republic

  • After Germany lost the First World War, the German Emperor Kaiser fled and a new democratic government of Germany was declared in February 1919 at the small town of Weimar.
  • It was too dangerous to make a declaration in Berlin where there had just been a revolt by a Communist group called the Spartacists so it was made in Weimar.
  • The Weimar Republic was a genuine attempt to create a perfect democratic country.

The following features of the Republic served to ensure democracy:

  • A Bill of Rights guaranteed every German citizen freedom of speech and religion, and equality under the law.
  • All men and women over the age of 20 were given the vote. This was even better than Britain where only women over 30 could vote.
  • There was an elected president and an elected Reichstag (parliament).
  • The Reichstag made the laws and appointed the government, which had to do what the Reichstag wanted.


(1) It began with serious disadvantages

  • It was related to Versailles treaty:
    • It had accepted the humiliating and unpopular Versailles Treaty therefore always associated with defeat and dishonour.
  • Lack of respect for democracy:
    • There was a traditional lack of respect for democratic government and a great admiration for the army and the ‘officer class’ as the rightful leaders of Germany.
  • Weakness in new Weimar constitution:
    • Proportional representation :
      • The parliamentary system introduced in the new Weimar constitution had weaknesses, the most serious of which was that it was based on a system of proportional representation, so that all political groups would be fairly represented.
      • It was a disaster it resulted in dozens of tiny parties, with no party strong enough to get a majority, and, therefore, no government to get its laws passed in the Reichstag.
      • A succession of coalition governments was inevitable which led to political instability and indecisiveness.
    • Article 48 :
      • This said that, in an emergency, the president did not need the agreement of the Reichstag, but could issue decrees.
      • The problem with this was that it did not say what an emergency was, and in the end, it turned out to be a back door that Hitler used to take power legally.
    • Lack of experience of political parties :
      • The political parties had very little experience of how to operate a democratic parliamentary system, because before 1919 the Reichstag had not controlled policy; the Chancellor had the final authority and was the one who really ruled the country.
      • Under the Weimar constitution it was the other way round – the Chancellor was responsible to the Reichstag, which had the final say.
      • However, the Reichstag usually failed to give a clear lead because the parties had not learned the art of compromise.
      • The communists and nationalists did not believe in democracy anyway, and refused to support the Social Democrats.
    • Disagreements became so bitter that some of the parties organized their own private armies, for self-defence to begin with, but this increased the threat of civil war.
    • The combination of these weaknesses led to more outbreaks of violence and attempts to overthrow the republic.

(2) Economic problems

  • Probably the crucial cause of the failure of the republic was the economic problems which plagued it constantly and which it proved incapable of solving permanently.
  • In 1919 Germany was close to bankruptcy because of the enormous expense of the war, which had lasted much longer than most people expected.
  • Attempts to pay reparations installments made matters worse.
    • In August 1921, after paying the £50 million due, Germany requested permission to suspend payments until her economy recovered.
    • France refused, and in 1922 the Germans claimed they were unable to make the full annual payment.
    • In January 1923 French troops occupied the Ruhr (an important German industrial area) in an attempt to seize goods from factories and mines.
    • The German government ordered the workers to follow a policy of passive resistance, and German industry in the Ruhr was paralysed.
    • The French had failed in their aim, but the effect on the German economy was catastrophic – galloping inflation and the collapse of the mark (currency of Germany).
    • It was only when the new Chancellor, Gustav Stresemann, introduced a new currency known as the Rentenmark, in 1924, that the financial situation finally stabilized.
  • This financial disaster had profound effects on German society:
    • The working classes were badly hit- wages failed to keep pace with inflation and trade union funds were wiped out.
    • Worst affected were the middle classes and small capitalists, who lost their savings; many began to look towards the Nazis for improvement.
  • The economic situation improved dramatically in the years after 1924:
    • It was largely due to the Dawes Plan in 1924, which provided an immediate loan from the USA equivalent to £40 million, relaxed the fixed reparations payments and in effect allowed the Germans to pay what they could afford.
    • French troops withdrew from the Ruhr.
    • The currency was stabilized, there was a boom in such industries as iron, steel, coal, chemicals and electrical, and wealthy landowners and industrialists were happy to tolerate the republic, since they were doing well out of it.
    • During these relatively prosperous years, Gustav Stresemann was the dominant political figure. Although he was Chancellor only from August until November 1923, he remained as foreign minister Until his death in October 1929, thus providing vital continuity and a steadying hand.
    • The work of the Dawes Plan was carried a stage further by the Young Plan
      • This reduced the reparations total from £6600 million to £2000 million
  • Depression of 1929:
    • There were other successes for the republic in foreign affairs, thanks to the work of Stresemann, and it seemed stable and well established. But behind this success there remained some fatal weaknesses which were soon to bring disaster.
    • The prosperity was much more dependent on the American loans than most people realized.
    • If the USA were to find itself in financial difficulties so that it was forced to stop the loans, or worse still, demand that they be paid back quickly, the German economy would be shaken again. Unfortunately this is exactly what happened in 1929.
      • Following the Wall Street Crash (October 1929), a world economic crisis developed.
      • The USA stopped any further loans and began to call in many of the short-term loans already made to Germany.
      • This caused a crisis of confidence in the currency and led to a run on the banks, many of which had to close.
      • Factories had to close, and by the middle of 1931 unemployment was approaching 4 million.

(3) The alternative – Hitler and the Nazis

  • Hitler and the Nazi Party offered what seemed to be an attractive alternative just when the republic was at its most ineffective.
  • The fortunes of the Nazi Party were linked closely to the economic situation: the more unstable the economy, the more seats the Nazis won in the Reichstag.
    • In the election of July 1932, with unemployment standing at over 6 million, the Nazis became the largest single party, winning 230 seats out of 608.
  • The rise of Hitler and the Nazis, fostered by the economic crisis, was one of the most important causes of the downfall of the republic.
  • They offered national unity, prosperity and full employment
  • They promised to overthrow the Versailles settlement,
  • The Nazi private army, the SA (Sturmabteilung – Storm Troopers):
    • It was attractive to young people out of work;
    • It gave them a small wage and a uniform.
  • Fear of communism:
    • Wealthy landowners and industrialists encouraged the Nazis because they feared a communist revolution and they approved of the Nazi policy of hostility to communists.
  • Hitler himself had extraordinary political abilities:
    • He possessed tremendous energy and willpower and a remarkable gift for public speaking, which enabled him to put forward his ideas with great emotional force.
    • He used the latest modern communication techniques – mass rallies, parades, radio and film; he travelled all over Germany by air.
  • The striking contrast between the governments of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Party impressed people:
    • The former were respectable, dull and unable to maintain law and order; the latter promised strong, decisive government and the restoration of national pride.
  • Economic crisis:
    • Without the economic crisis, however, it is doubtful whether Hitler would have had much chance of attaining power.
    • It was the widespread unemployment and social misery, together with the fear of communism and socialism, that gained the Nazis mass support, not only among the working class, but also among the lower middle classes – office-workers, shopkeepers, civil servants, teachers and small-scale farmers.
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