Establishment of the Weimar Republic
Germany’s new democratic government, formed under the shadow of the humiliating Versailles capitulation, inherited a host of daunting problems. In January 1919, as the German people seethed with resent-ment over the postwar settlement, a radical communist group, the Spartacists, staged a futile coup in Berlin, inspired by the Bolsheviks in Russia.
The leaders of the Spartacist movement, Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) and Karl Liebknecht, had split from the SPD when the socialist party’s leader, Friedrich Ebert, chose to support the war effort at the outbreak of World War I. Outraged by this apparent repudiation of Marxist doctrine regarding the unity of the world’s working classes, these former SPD members founded a new, radical party known as the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) that sought to bring communism to Germany in 1919 through violent revolution.
Desperate to restore order, the ﬂ edgling provisional government turned to the army to put down the rebellion, and the military responded with a brutal crackdown. The right-wing paramilitary units known as the Freikorps rounded up and summarily executed commu-nist leaders and activists, and the movement’s most prominent leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered while in police custody.
Luxemburg’s lifeless body was found months later in Berlin’s Landwehr Canal. On the heels of these tumultuous events, general elec-tions proceeded in Germany, with the moderate socialists of the SPD taking the majority of seats in the Reichstag, the national assembly that would draft Germany’s new constitution.
A host of competing parties, including the more radical socialists of the USPD, the Catholic Center Party, as well as several militant conservative and nationalist factions, also won seats, presaging the fractious political situation that would afﬂ ict interwar Germany.
As violence raged in the streets of Berlin, these newly elected del-egates retreated to Weimar to hammer out a new German constitution. As they shaped the government that would come to be known as the Weimar Republic, Germany tore itself apart. Communist uprisings ﬂ ared in Munich and Berlin, and communists battled in the streets with the Freikorps.
Meanwhile, the French attempted to establish a separat-ist republic in the Rhineland. Amid the growing chaos, the Weimar delegates elected the SPD statesman, Friedrich Ebert, as Germany’s new president. Ebert, leading a defeated and disunited Germany, isolated and impoverished by the war, was forced to accept the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles. On July 7, 1919, the treaty was ratiﬁ ed.
The Weimar constitution, ratiﬁ ed soon afterward, was a remark-ably progressive document that guaranteed democratic participation for all. The president would be elected to a seven-year term, Reichstag delegates to four-year terms, with seats in the assembly allocated to each party according to the percentage of votes they won in national elections.
The republic’s president would appoint a chancellor from the majority party, and the chancellor would in turn form a cabinet to help him govern. While this liberal constitution provided the German people with true representative government, for many Germans the fragile Weimar Republic, having signed the hated Versailles Treaty, would forever be associated with the stigma of humiliation and defeat.
Moreover, the Weimar constitution contained an emergency provision, Article 48. According to Article 48, in a crisis, Germany’s president could temporarily suspend the constitution and rule without consult-ing the Reichstag. The sweeping powers granted by this emergency provision, a provision born amid the unrest of 1919, would ultimately doom the Weimar Republic.
The Weimar Republic was plagued by instability from the very start, and during the early 1920s, the ﬂ edgling government endured attacks from radicals from the right and the left of the political spec-trum. Right-wing extremists castigated the Weimar government for the “betrayal” of the Versailles Treaty and launched a series of dangerous uprisings.
In March 1920, an ardent nationalist named Wolfgang Kapp (1868–1922) marched on Berlin at the head of a brigade of Freikorps soldiers and occupied the city, hoping to overthrow the republic. Ominously, the conservative German military stood silent during the attempted coup, which was only thwarted by a massive general strike, which brought the city to a halt and aroused public outrage against the Kapp Putsch’s leaders. In Bavaria, right-wing extremism was more successful, and Munich soon became a hotbed of radical nationalism.
Despite his socialist background, Ebert’s government also came under ﬁ re from communists intent on fomenting a Bolshevik-style revolu-tion within Germany. In the Ruhr, Marxist agitators sparked a workers’ rebellion that was only suppressed with the aid of the German mili-tary, suppression that in turn invited French military intervention in the volatile region. French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 enﬂ amed German patriotism and encountered widespread passive resistance, but the unrest also hindered Germany’s economic recovery.
Germany suffered from serious economic problems during the early 1920s, exacerbating the political instability that plagued the country in the early years of the decade. Desperate deﬁ cit spending during the First World War and devastating reparations payments in its aftermath had caused a dangerous devaluation of the nation’s currency. As runaway hyperinﬂ ation erased the life savings of millions of German citizens, it exacerbated the anxiety afﬂ icting the country.
Hampered by the crush-ing schedule of reparations payments owed to its neighbors, and ham-strung by factional inﬁ ghting within the Reichstag and political strife on Germany’s streets, Ebert’s government proved powerless to halt the decline of the German currency. Throughout Germany, the anxious populace was plagued by images of pensioners hauling wheelbarrows of near-worthless currency to the bakery to buy bread as the Weimar gov-ernment printed billions of new bills in a desperate attempt to keep pace with inﬂ ation.
The economic crisis and the anxiety it produced prompted radical political actions, including a communist uprising in Thuringia, a state in central Germany. Another failed coup, the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, was inspired by Mussolini’s fascist takeover of Italy the year before, and was led by an ambitious nationalist politician and mili-tary veteran named Adolf Hitler (1889–1945).
As Germany careened into chaos, Ebert’s new chancellor, the capable Gustav Stresemann (1878–1929), managed to stave off the total collapse of the German economy by issuing a new currency. As the economy slowly recovered, the political situation also became less volatile and less violent. By 1924, the Weimar Republic had entered the calm before the storm.The second half of the 1920s proved to be a period of political, economic, and cultural renewal in Germany. Under Stresemann’s able direction, Germany’s diplomatic isolation ended.
Stresemann reestablished diplomatic ties with the leading victors of World War I—Britain, France, and the United States—and even managed to persuade them to soften the sanctions against Germany. In a major triumph in 1924, the Weimar government succeeded in convincing Britain and France to accept the Dawes Plan, which reduced German reparations payments and provided Germany with American loans to help rebuild its economy.
Rejuvenated by these loans, the German economy began a rapid recovery, as production rose and drove both proﬁ ts and wages higher. The following year, Stresemann negotiated the Locarno Treaties, in which Germany promised to respect the ter-ritorial borders of France and Belgium and to submit to arbitration to resolve border disputes with Poland and Czechoslovakia.
In 1926, Germany was even welcomed to join the League of Nations and seemed to be shedding its pariah status. As the nation’s diplomatic standing improved and its economic prospects brightened, violent political unrest began to die down. Weimar culture, centered on Berlin’s glittering nightlife and artistic scene, ﬂ ourished. It appeared that good times had returned to Germany.
Even before the onset of the Great Depression, however, storm clouds were gathering over Germany. In 1925, after the death of the socialist statesman Ebert, the German people elected the aging war hero Paul von Hindenburg as president, a sign of lingering nostalgia for the strident militarism of the Kaiserreich.
Furthermore, despite Stresemann’s conciliatory policies toward the victorious allies, resent-ment of the stringent terms of the Versailles settlement was also evident within the German military. In 1922, the German government had signed the Rapallo Treaty with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, whereby the two outcast nations promised each other mutual diplomatic and economic support.
These obligations were renewed in 1926 in the Berlin Treaty, a settlement between Germany and the Soviet Union that masked ominous developments. Unbeknownst to the western powers eagerly welcoming Germany back into the inter-national order, the German military was busy training for a new war on the remote plains of Russia, in deﬁ ance of the restrictions set by the Versailles Treaty.
The fragile stability within the Weimar Republic was shattered in 1929 as the world succumbed to the economic catastrophe that would come to be known as the Great Depression. With the col-lapse of the U.S. stock market, American banks stopped issuing new loans to Germany and even called in loans they had already issued. Without this infusion of capital, the German economy faltered, and the nation’s major banks began to fail.
By early 1930, the ripple effects had devastated major sectors of the German economy: factory pro-duction ground to a halt, businesses went bankrupt, and unemploy-ment rates soared. Starved of revenue, the Weimar government was hard-pressed to offer adequate unemployment beneﬁ ts, spreading fear and anger throughout German society. Paralyzed by internal dissen-sion, President von Hindenburg and the Reichstag proved powerless to avert the looming disaster.
The spreading anxiety fostered radical politics, and in the elec-tions of September 1930, Germany’s frustrated citizens gave unprec-edented support to extremist parties. While the moderate socialists of the SPD managed to hold the largest proportion of seats, with just over 24 percent of the vote, the militant nationalists of the National Socialist, or Nazi, party won around 18 percent of the vote, fol-lowed closely by the radical communists of the KPD, which gained 13 percent.
The radicalization and fragmentation of the Reichstag precluded compromise, and legislative deadlock quickly ensued. The conﬂ ict on the ﬂ oor of the Reichstag was matched in the streets, as Germany’s major cities once again endured bloody street ﬁ ght-ing, this time between the Nazis and the communists, who shared a disdain for parliamentary democracy.
As the situation spiraled out of control, President von Hindenburg invoked the sweeping emer-gency powers permitted him by Article 48 of the republic’s constitu-tion, an ominous portent of the Weimar Republic’s coming demise. Germany’s troubles grew worse between 1930 and 1932, as the Weimar Republic, wracked by economic collapse, tore itself apart.
In the April 1932 presidential elections, the beloved old warhorse Hindenburg barely won the required majority, earning just over 53 percent of the vote. Ominously, the rising Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, claimed almost 37 percent of the vote, despite the violence of his henchmen and the radical ideology he espoused.
The KPD candidate, Ernst Thälmann (1866–1944), trailed his Nazi nemesis, earning just more than 10 percent of the total votes.Adolf Hitler was an obscure Austrian who had immigrated to Bavaria shortly before World War I.
A failed artist, he enlisted in the German army when the war began and found a sense of purpose in the trenches. A rabid German nationalist, Hitler had worked for the army in Bavaria after the armistice, spying on the radical parties emerg-ing in Munich in the aftermath of the war. Bitter about Germany’s defeat in World War I and humiliation in the Versailles Treaty, Hitler blamed socialists and Jews for the catastrophe.
Despite the fact that thousands of Jewish soldiers died ﬁ ghting for Germany during the war, Hitler espoused the scurrilous myth that Jews were alien traitors who had stabbed the German military in the back, sabotaging the war effort. Attracted to the radical political scene in postwar Munich, Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party in 1919, rapidly climbing to leadership within the organization.
Having changed the name of the party to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), or Nazis, Hitler enthralled growing crowds as he railed against the Weimar Republic. Jailed for nine months in the wake of the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, Hitler wrote his twisted manifesto, Mein Kampf, chronicling his paranoid delusions about the superiority of the German race and the grave threat posed by Jews and socialists to its destiny.
By 1932, Adolf Hitler had built the Nazi party into a political force, harnessing the German people’s lingering dissatisfac-tion with the Versailles settlement and growing disillusionment with the seeming ineptitude of democratic government in the face of the Great Depression. The Nazis appealed to a broad swath of the German population, attracting fervent nationalists and radical conservatives, as well as those who hated the Versailles settlement, feared the com-munists, or despised the Jews.
The growing popularity of Germany’s radical parties was reafﬁ rmed in the Reichstag elections of 1932, when the Nazis supplanted the SPD as the dominant party, winning almost 38 percent of the votes and doubling the number of seats they held. The SPD’s share of the vote had dwindled to just 21 percent, and the KPD trailed with 14 percent of the vote.
These voting trends suggest that the majority of Germany’s voters had abandoned the Weimar Republic by 1932, throwing their lot with the antidemocratic fringe parties of the radi-cal left and the extremist right. Despite the ascendancy of the Nazi Party, Hindenburg refused to appoint the dangerous radical Adolf Hitler to be chancellor.
Disregarding the Weimar constitution, von Hindenburg named the conservative former military ofﬁ cer Franz von Papen (1879–1969) chancellor instead. Von Papen’s cabinet proved unpopular with the delegates of the Reichstag, and he called for new elections in November 1932, hoping to gain a majority for his party, the conservative DNVP.
The chancellor proved unable to contain the Nazis’ growing popularity, however, and the NSDAP managed to win almost 200 seats, while the Communists won 100. Unable to bring Hitler to heel, von Papen was forced to resign and was replaced as chancellor by his old friend and cabinet appointee, the former minis-ter of defense, Kurt von Schleicher.
Jealous of Schleicher’s power, von Papen worked to arrange his former associate’s ouster, negotiating with Hitler about forming a new coalition between the DNVP and the NSDAP. Promising Hitler the chancellorship if he agreed to support the coalition, von Papen convinced President von Hindenburg to oust Schleicher.
Von Hindenburg had long resisted making Hitler chancel-lor, but the aging president reluctantly agreed, relying on von Papen’s promise that he could control the Nazis. On January 30, 1933, von Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor of Germany, with von Papen as vice chancellor. Hitler would assume the title führer, or “leader,” the following year. The ill-fated Weimar Republic, Germany’s brief experi-ment in democracy, was at an end.