From Weimar to Hitler: The Rise and Fall of the first German Democracy


Dr E.J. Feuchtwanger

new perspective. Volume 1. Number 1. September 1995

Summary: Weimar democracy, which arose from defeat and which replaced a semi-authoritarian imperialist regime, never had very wide support. Despite opposition from right and left the Weimar Republic survived to years of greater internal peace from the mid- 1920s, when the fundamental political problems were masked, until exposure by the economic and political crises of 1929 Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor in 1933 was arguably the most important event of the twentieth century. Within six years it led to the vast destruction and profound, world-wide changes of the Second World War. It is therefore crucial for historians to explain how so violent, barbaric and destructive a movement came to control an advanced and civilised country. The most direct causes for the collapse of the first German democracy must be sought in the years between the end of the First World War and the establishment of the Third Reich. This period can be divided into three sections: 1918-1924, when the Weimar Republic was set up and survived a series of severe crises; 1924-1929, when the republic was relatively stable and prosperous; and 1929-1933, when renewed instability eventually put an end to democracy with the appointment of Hitler as Reich Chancellor on 30 January 1933.

1918-1924: Defeat and New Order Survival

The defeat of 1918 hit the German public with brutal suddenness. To the very end they had been told that victory was within their grasp. In the spring of 1918 the German High Command still staked all on an offensive to achieve the breakthrough on the Western Front which had eluded them since 1914. An all-out victory would perpetuate the semi-authoritarian imperial regime and the privileges of its dominant classes. In fact German resources were by 1918 hopelessly over-stretched and morale at home and in the army had become fragile. At the end of September 1918 the High Command had to acknowledge defeat by asking for an armistice. This precipitated the revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy.

The parliamentary democracy which was established in Germany in 1918/19 was therefore the consequence of defeat and revolution and not the deliberate choice of a majority of the population. They hoped, however, that the removal of the Kaiser and the adoption of parliamentary democracy would make the Allies grant Germany a lenient peace. When the terms of the treaty Versailles became public in May 1919 many who had briefly supported democracy turned against it. Others, mostly the middle classes previously loyal to the Empire, had never wanted democracy and deeply resented the overthrow of the monarchy. They persuaded themselves that the German army had never been defeated on the battlefield, but had been undermined by subversion on the home front. The men swept to power in the revolution of November 1918 were held responsible for the collapse of civilian morale and accused of betraying the Fatherland for their own ends. This was the notorious 'stab-in-the-back myth'. Democracy and the Weimar Republic were therefore never universally accepted and suffered from a lack of legitimacy. In fair weather a majority might go along with it, but in a time of hardship, as in the Great Depression after 1929, they would desert it.

Why Weimar's Failure was Not Inevitable

Weimar's failure was, however, not inevitable, for the republic survived a period of severe political and economic crisis in its early years. The first threat came from the left, disappointed with the results of the revolution. They wanted a thorough-going transformation of society, as in Russia, based on the workers' and soldiers' councils which had spontaneously sprung up during the German revolution. Such a system had little chance of being realised in an advanced industrial country like Germany, where, unlike Russia, the workers had long had the vote. The first elections after the fall of the monarchy did not produce a socialist majority and the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) had to govern in coalition with middle-class parties. Some historians have blamed the Social Democrats led by Friedrich Ebert for being too obsessed with the threat from the left and too reliant on the old imperial officials, particularly the officer corps and the general staff. Without their help, however, Ebert and his colleagues could not have fed the population, maintained law and order and safeguarded the unity of the Reich in 1918/19.

The Treaty of Versailles was regarded in Germany as humiliating and incapable of fulfilment. People lost sight of the fact that it left the unified Germany created in 1870 basically intact and in the long run in a strategically strong position, with weak neighbours on its east. Following Versailles, disillusionment with democracy led, in March 1920, to the first attempt by right-wing nationalists to overthrow the republic, the Kapp Putsch. At this point pro-republican forces, the parties of the centre and the left, were still strong enough to frustrate the coup. A general strike played a key role in defeating the plotters.

In the next few years instability was aggravated by accelerating inflation. The German currency had already lost much of its value during the war and Weimar governments were too weak to bring inflation under control. The reparations which Germany was obliged to pay under the peace settlement, and which were the subject of international negotiations from 1920 onwards, gave the Reich governments no incentive to put their finances in order. Moreover, by letting inflation continue, the Germans managed for a time to avoid the post-war slump that hit the other major industrial countries, Britain and America. The French Government under Poincar‚ felt that Germany was deliberately evading reparations and in January 1923 occupied the Ruhr as a 'productive pledge'. In France the Versailles Treaty was regarded as having insufficiently safeguarded her security against German aggression and reparations provided a lever through which the French hoped to retain some control over Germany. The economic separation of the Ruhr from the Reich knocked the bottom out of the German currency. By the summer of 1923 there was hyper-inflation; wages had to be paid with washing-baskets full of banknotes and the value of the mark fell hourly. Economic life was in chaos. It looked as if Germany was about to experience the disintegration she had avoided in 1918. In Central Germany there was an attempted Communist uprising; in Bavaria right-wing extremists, led by Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist party, tried to seize power.

The Nazis were one of many extreme right-wing groups whose hallmark was strident nationalism, based on the belief that Germans were an Aryan race, superior particularly to the Slav peoples of Eastern Europe. Most such groups were strongly anti-Semitic, believing that Jews were an alien race within, conspiring against the German people through ideologies such as liberalism and socialism, while as promoters of international capitalism they were undermining the economy of the country. In the social crisis of the post-war period sections of the lower middle class, squeezed between big business and labour and stripped of their savings by inflation, were attracted by National Socialism, simultaneously nationalist, anti-capitalist and anti-Bolshevik. There were similar fascist movements in other European countries, built around a leader who would impose order and authority. Hitler's movement obtained local prominence in Bavaria through his ability to give violent expression to the resentments and hatreds of people whose security had been shattered by defeat and revolution. In Bavaria the authorities dealt leniently with right-wing violence, for groups such as the Nazis might be needed against another uprising from the extreme left. Thus, Hitler and his movement grew, especially in the turmoil of 1923. He was, however, not important enough to control events and in November 1923 the Beer Hall Putsch failed ignominiously.

1924-1929: More Stability, Peace and Prosperity but Fundamental Weaknesses Remain

At this point the situation in Germany was changing radically for the better. Not only had all attempts to overthrow the republic from left or right failed, the introduction of a stable currency began the process of economic recovery. A settlement of the reparations problem, the Dawes Plan, was negotiated in 1924. The French occupation of the Ruhr was ended in 1925 and the Locarno Treaty created a greater sense of security in Europe. Germany's western borders were declared final, while her eastern borders could only be changed by agreement, not force. The German representative in these negotiations was Gustav Stresemann, Chancellor for three crucial months in 1923 and then foreign minister until his death in October 1929, but he was always under virulent attack from the nationalist opposition.

The middle 1920s have often been called the golden years of Weimar. Germany regained something like her pre-war standard of living. The arts flourished, with names that are still famous today, Brecht, Kurt Weill, the Threepenny Opera, the Bauhaus. The real strength of the German recovery is, however, still a matter of debate, for political and economic weaknesses continued. It was difficult under the Weimar political system to produce stable government. This is often attributed to the large number of political parties and the need to form coalitions which proved short-lived. The blame for this is put on the electoral system of strict proportional representation, which allowed even small parties to get a few members elected and immediately reflected, without any barrier, the rise and fall of parties. It would not, however, have been possible to introduce in Germany a first-past-the-post electoral system leading to a two-party system along British lines. Five or six major parties had survived from the imperial period and coalition government was unavoidable. Part of the problem was that the parties found it difficult to co-operate. This in turn was aggravated by the existence of extremist parties on the right and the left. It was difficult for the SPD, usually the largest party, to enterinto coalition with the middle-class parties, for its working-class voters might then defect to the Communist party, which always had at least a quarter of the left-wing vote. The irreconcilable division of the left was one of the reasons why the Nazis eventually took over with such ease.

The strength of the German economy in the mid-1920s is also still in dispute. It was very dependent on the in-flow of foreign, mainly American capital. The republic tried to meet aspirations for social welfare, for example through the introduction of comprehensive unemployment insurance in 1927. The employers complained that industry was in consequence burdened by heavy social costs and rendered uncompetitive. People who had lost their savings in the great inflation could not be effectively compensated and remained resentful. By 1927 agricultural prices started to fall internationally and German farmers were hard-pressed. Nevertheless, the democratic regime seemed firmly established by 1928. In the Reichstag elections of that year the SPD, the party most closely linked with Weimar, polled nearly 30 per cent of the vote. In contrast the Nazi party, for the first time contesting a national election on its own, obtained only 2.6 percent and 12 seats out of 491. There was, however, a fragmentation of parties in the centre ground of politics and this facilitated the Nazi breakthrough when crisis struck again.

1929-1933: Reduced Support for Centre Parties

The onset of the final crisis of the Weimar Republic is often linked to the Wall Street crash of October 1929, marking the beginning of a world-wide slump of unprecedented severity. In fact the German economy had already shown signs of sluggishness earlier in 1929. Political repercussions in Germany arose in the first place because higher levels of unemployment made the recently established national insurance scheme insolvent. The parties could not agree how to meet the deficit, the right refusing to sanction higher taxes, the left unwilling to see the burden on the workers and the unemployed rise. In March 1930 the broad coalition headed by the SPD fell apart. The new Chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, was given the right to use the President's emergency powers, under article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, to issue decrees. The Reichstag was thus by-passed and was only left with the option of voting Brüning's decrees down. When it did so in July 1930, the President, Hindenburg, sanctioned the dissolution of the Reichstag. Elections had therefore to be held in September 1930, when the Nazi party received eight times as many votes as previously. It became the second-largest party, with 18.3 per cent of the vote and 107 out of 577 deputies.

A great deal of research has gone into explaining the electoral upsurge of the Nazi movement, which by the summer of 1932 had reached a peak of 37.3 percent of the vote and 230 out of 608 Reichstag deputies, making it much the largest party. In the past historians have emphasised the irrational nature of this explosion, stressing the ruthlessness of Nazi propaganda, the appeal of Hitler's mass meetings, all signs of profound social-psychological disturbance. Recent electoral analyses have shown that the Nazis made their biggest gains among the Protestant middle class. Roman Catholic voters normally attached to the two Catholic parties retained their previous loyalties. The working-class voters of the two left-wing parties, the Social Democrats and the Communists, also proved relatively immune to the Nazi appeal. From this it can be argued that the various middle-class parties, already fragmented in 1928, were no longer seen as capable of protecting the interests of their voters. The Nazis, on the other hand, appealed effectively to the most diverse groups, including a large number of working-class voters not living in big industrial cities and not normally attached to the two left-wing parties. The Nazis claimed to be a movement, not a party, capable of ending the divisiveness of party and class. Before the incompatibility of their offers to different sections became obvious they had acquired total power.

Economic Crisis: Political Misjudgement

The steep decline of the German economy after 1929 was an essential pre-condition for the success of the Nazis, though not in itself a sufficient explanation. Historians still debate whether the German governments of the time, particularly that of Brüning, could have pursued different policies to mitigate the slump. The policies pursued were deflationary, namely the government itself was constantly cutting expenditure to balance its declining revenue, thus adding to the downward pressures in the economy. The alternative would have been to pump money into the economy, the policies that came later to be associated with the British economist John Maynard Keynes. Credit creation would in practice have been difficult. Till the summer of 1931 the slump did not seem to be of exceptional severity. Nobody wanted to slide back into the devastating inflation experienced only a few years earlier and largely caused by the unrestrained printing of money. The reflationary measures hesitatingly adopted in 1932 did not become effective until Hitler was in power and then benefited him.

In the final stages of the crisis the key decisions lay with the president Hindenburg, aged 85, and his advisers. Among them the most important was General Kurt von Schleicher, who represented the army. Confronted with the apparently irresistibly rising Nazi tide these men felt that Hitler would have to be brought into government, but without handing him the unlimited power he was demanding. Important interest groups, such as the major industrialists and the big landowners, wanted a stable government, which could not be established without the Nazis. Hitler was, however, not merely the puppet of big business, a Marxist argument not now generally accepted. In May 1932 Hindenburg dropped Brüning and was persuaded by Schleicher to appoint Papen as chancellor. The latter had virtually no support, was unable to strike a deal with Hitler and only survived by repeated dissolutions of the Reichstag. In the second of the resulting elections, in November 1932, the Nazis suffered a severe electoral setback, their vote dropping by over two million or 4 per cent. This lends weight to the argument that Hitler could have been kept out of power. Schleicher himself took office as chancellor in December 1932, but, with the Nazis still the largest party, could not find a stable basis for his government. Papen, originally his creature, felt aggrieved at being displaced, and by late January 1933 had persuaded Hindenburg that he could make the deal with Hitler that would at last bring the Nazi leader 'tamed' into the government. The Hitler cabinet formed on 30 January 1933 contained only two Nazis besides Hitler and it looked as if Papen, supported by other conservative non-Nazis, was the dominant figure. This swiftly proved an illusion. With the levers of power in his hands, and with a massive popular, and in part revolutionary, movement behind him, Hitler quickly demolished all restraints on his total control. He had achieved a revolution under a cloak of legality.

Hitler did not seize power, but was given it by a back-stairs intrigue. If so many German voters had not supported him he would never have been in the running. Even then it was not inevitable that he should become Chancellor, but few fully realised how catastrophic this would prove.

Words and concepts to note

Reich: the union of German states (Under). The first Reich was the Holy Roman Empire, which ended in 1806. The second Reich was the united Germany established in 1871. Hitler called his regime the Third Reich.

Reich Chancellor: title of the Prime Minister of the unified Germany from 1871.

councils; in German Räte. These were set up spontaneously in many German towns and cities (workers' councils) and in the army (soldiers' councils) during the Revolution of 1918. The Left wanted to make them, rather than a parliament elected by universal suffrage, the basis of the new society to be created by the revolution. They were influenced by the role played by soviets in the Russian Revolution.

repartions: the payments in money and in kind Germany was obliged to make to her former enemies to compensate for the damage done to them and their citizens in the war. These payments were later regulated by two international agreements, the Dawes Plan of 1924 and the Young Plan of 1929. The Great Depression brought them to an end in 1932.

inflation: too much money chasing too few goods - prices rise. The extreme inflation experienced in Germany in 1922/23 is usually called hyper-inflation.

Deflation: the opposite - too little money chasing too many goods, hence, although prices fall, there is not enough purchasing power to keep the economy running at capacity. This was the situation experienced in Germany from 1929.

Reflation is the attempt, by creating credit or simply by printing money, to overcome the slump associated with deflation.

Protestant. in Germany the Protestant, i.e. non-Roman Catholic, part of the population is in the majority. Most German Protestants belong to churches preaching the doctrines of Martin Luther, the German reformer of the sixteenth century, and are therefore often called Lutherans. The areas mainly inhabited by Roman Catholics are the Rhincland and most of Bavaria.

The German parties and their ideologies

Social Democracy, Communism and Marxism. In Germany the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest party before 1914, had become a party committed to reform. Its leaders were catapulted into power in 1918. The left wing of German socialists became consolidated into the Communist Party (KPD) and by the early 1920s followed the policy lines laid down from Moscow. While the SPD was the party most fully associated with the establishment and maintenance of the democratic republic, the KPD was strongly anti-republican. In the final years of Weimar the KID concentrated most of its fire on the SPI), believing that even if this helped to bring Hitler to power his rule would be brief and end in the inevitable overthrow of capitalism predicted by Marx. People on the right-wing of German poltics nevertheless tended to lump SPD and KPD together as Marxists.

National Socialism, Fascism and Conservative Nationalism. The National Socialist Workers' Party (NSDAP), Nazis for short, had many things in common with fascism in other countries. National Socialism became, however, much more important and more radical than other varieties of fascism, so that the general label 'fascist' hardly describes it adequately. It must also be distinguished from the traditional and conservative forms of German nationalism, though most German conservative nationalists tended to support Nazism and Hitler once they were in power and successful. As opposed to conservative nationalism, National Socialism was a revolutionary and totalitarian doctrine.

Questions to consider

• Why were the left and and the right, rather than the parties in the centre, relatively stronger in Germany?

• How important was the Army in the Nazi achievement of power?

• How important were policies, rather than Hitler's personality or the circumstances, for the extent of support for the Nazis, 1929-33?

Further Reading. EJ. Feuchtwanger, From Weimar to Hitler. Germany 1918-33 (2nd edn., 1995). J. Hiden, Germany and Europe 1919-1939 (2nd edn., 1993). I. Kershaw (ed.), Weimar: Why did German democracy fail? (1990). I. Kershaw, Hitler (1991). A.J. Nicholls, Weimar and the Rise of Hitler (3rd edn., 1991). J. Noakes and G. Pridham (eds.), Nazism, 1919-1945. A Documentary Reader. Vol. L The Rise to Power (1983). D.J.K. Peukert, The Weirnar Republic. The Crisis of Classical Modernity (1992).

From Weimar To Hitler: The Rise and Fall of the first German Democracy by E.J. Feuchtwanger. © new perspective 1995

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