The Weimar Republic was born out of German defeat in World War I and lasted until 1933 with the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s becoming dictator. Throughout this time the Federal Republic was plagued by persistent attempts of revolution, three years of hyperinflation, all the while having to make extortionate reparations to the Allied victors. Yet while the Communist uprisings of 1919 had gone so far as to declare Bavaria a Socialist Republic, these threats were more or less quashed with the execution of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
Indeed once the Rentenmark had been introduced the Weimar Republic enjoyed some stability in the Goldene Zwanziger (Golden Twenties), until the Wall Street Crash of 1929 inevitable brought the government to its end. Yet insofar as the Republic being “fatally flawed” one must say this was not entirely the case. This essay will expand on these various interlinking points and come to the conclusion that, despite various hereditary shackles, the Weimar Republic was not a terminal government.
Despite the Proportional Representation laid down in the constitution that led to a fractured Reichstag, it was the Great Depression that culled German democracy into submission. From its outset the wounds of war were still very much open and could well have been a fatal flaw to the Weimar government. Historians have recognised the significant achievements of the Republic, in particular the period of stability and recovery under Gustav Stresemann, as proof that Weimar was by no means doomed. Yet such were the problems of the Weimar Republic in its early years that on several occasions it appeared that it could not possibly survive.
Indeed most notably the German Revolution, which broke in October 1918 when soldiers in Wilhelmshaven refused to put out to sea for fear of being sent on suicide missions. This mutiny quickly spread to Kiel and as the old political order crumbled in the face of defeat on the Western Front, disorder became nationwide. A key movement came with the establishment under Kurt Eisner of a Socialist Republic in Bavaria. This situation brought home to the Chancellor Prince Max how serious the situation had become; it was against this background of upheaval and street disorder that the Kaiser was forced to abdicate.
Yet the reality of this Revolution was not to be compared to that of Petrograd in 1917. The Marxist Clara Zetkin, could see the lack of coordination, even within the Left wing itself, claiming that what the Left appeared to want was “revolution without revolution. ” Although the new Chancellor Friedrich Ebert called for elections to a National Assembly at Weimar these were boycotted by the new German Communist Party (KPD). Instead, the Spartacist faction of the Communist movement led an armed uprising in Berlin.
Significantly, Ebert had to rely on the Freikorps, a collection of ex-soldiers and right-wingers, to crush the Spartacists. The brutal murder of leaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht highlighted the fact that democracy had relied on brute force to protect itself. Moreover the death of these high status figures removed any chance for this particular Revolution to be deepened, the far Left now lacking a strong personality to unite behind; compounded all the more by the murder of Kurt Eisner and the overthrow of the Bavarian Republic.
Having survived the threat from the extreme Left, the Republic was then challenged by the Right. In March 1920, Freikorps officers launched a pro-monarchist coup d’etat in Berlin in an attempt to install Wolfgang Kapp as Chancellor, a coup that was graced by the presence of no less than Eric Ludendorff to add all the more legitimacy to its cause. Although troops refused to take action against the Freikorps the working class who organised a general strike in Berlin frustrated the success of the Putsch.
Indeed the lack of willingness to cede to this coup shows the preference towards democracy that was still held by the German people at this time. That, despite such a high status war hero as Ludendorff giving his support to this uprising, even the civil servants and bankers, in other words men of the establishment, refused to recognise Kapp’s government. This is by no means the capability of a fatally flawed system that lacks the legs to sustain itself. Although the regime had also survived this threat, evidence that extremism still existed was provided by the assassination of Walther Rathenau and other high-ranking officials.
Indeed this fear to the lives of politicians is a key example of Weimar instability in its infant years, and thus the decline of such treasonous acts after 1923. Despite Rathenau’s death being seen as a major blow to the stability of the Weimar Republic it led to a general revulsion against these tactics, leading to 700,000 demonstrating against his assassination and forcing his killers, the Organisation Consul to disband. Nonetheless the problems of the Weimar Republic reached a peak in 1923. In January, with Germany in default of her reparations payments, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr in order to seize coal deposits.
The protracted dispute that followed badly disrupted this key economic region, and played a part in the hyperinflation that thereafter devastated the German economy in 1923. The trauma of defeat in the First World War was echoed in the humiliation of the French occupation. Nowhere was the sense of discontent and rage at the government’s impotence more strongly felt than in Munich. Despite this, the ensuing Beer-Hall Putsch that Hitler had rallied was a political mistake. He had at this time and for all intensive purpose, lost the chance of holding real political power by getting himself thrown in prison.
Germany would enter a period of economic stability thanks to the new currency, the Rentenmark, replacing the worthless Reichsbank marks on November 1923 by simply cutting 12 zeros from the price of goods. Indeed when Hitler emerged from prison in December 1924 he was to find that the favourable climate in which he had launched his putsch no longer existed. The Weimar Republic had grown from crisis into stability, greatly thanks to such figures as Gustav Stresemann and as William Carr said, “by the time of the great coalition collapse in November 1923, the Republic was well on the way to recovery. One can clearly see at this point that the Weimar Republic does not hold much in the way of being called a doomed government; nor indeed right up to the 1928 elections where the Nazi party gained only 2. 6% of the vote, if one need further proof. But does this mean to say that the Weimar Republic was without a fatal flaw, for the very Proportional Representation the constitution had been founded upon would lead to its undoing. It seems likely that Hitler would have remained on the margins of German politics forever had it not been for the catastrophic events of 1929.
The death of Gustav Stresemann in October of that year coincided with the onset of the most severe economic depression in modern history. Again to quote William Carr, as he puts it, “…it is inconceivably that Hitler could ever have come to power had not the Weimar Republic been subjected to the unprecedented strain of a world economic crisis. ” Memories of 1923 returned as the country was plunged into a crisis that was to be more prolonged and more severe than its drastic predecessor.
In the winter of 1929-30, Germany felt the full force of a bitter depression. Unemployment soared from 1. 5million in October 1929 to 4. 3million in December 1930. The extent to which Germany had come to rely on foreign assistance was underlined when these loans were rapidly withdrawn in the winter of 1929. In the urban areas food shortages, poor housing, strikes and demonstrations created severe problems. In the countryside, rapidly accumulating debts, overseas competition and high taxation made the lives of the farming community more desperate than ever.
The political repercussions were just as acute. Indeed six months after the Wall Street Crash and three years before Hitler came to power, parliamentary democracy was suspended and replaced by an authoritarian system, which rested largely on the powers invested in the ageing President von Hindenburg. The Chancellor’s during this time relied increasingly more on Article 48 of the constitution to push through emergency legislation.
These capabilities available to the Chancellor would lead to the association in the minds of many German people of democracy with disorder. The inherent flaw in the constitution would bring about its demise when an external crisis shook Germany to its knees. To conclude with a quote from Adam Fergusson from his book When Money Dies, “…Democracy and Republicanism had become so associated with financial, social and political disorder as to render any alternatives preferable when disorder threatened again. This threat many people felt at the time would emerge from a Communists uprising. Indeed if one was to say the Weimar Republic was doomed from its very inception they would be wrong, but the system of democracy within their constitution would build the Nazis strength as the threat of Communism grew in the public mind. It was a flaw that would eventually be fatal to the Weimar Republic and usher in the Third Reich.