Left: 1919 image of the Weimar National Assembly
The fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933 is often depicted as some sort of inevitable series of events, or as if the simultaneous rise of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP - commonly known as the Nazi Party) was a simple matter of cause-and-effect. Yet both of these scenarios reflect a multiplicity of influences, and furthermore the failure of German democracy and the ascension to power by the Nazis were by no means consequential or directly causative occurrences.
This essay is particularly focused on historiographical explanations for the collapse of democracy in the Weimar Republic. The author’s goal is to produce a brief overview of some of the major interpretations of the movement away from a democratic republic toward the totalitarian dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. While this essay is by no means an exhaustive summary of the literature on the Weimar Germany, readers will gain a greater appreciation for the wide variety of opinions on the failure of democracy to thrive in post-World War I Germany. For those readers seeking a comprehensive overview of the Weimar period, an excellent start is Richard Evans’s impressive The Coming of the Third Reich, while works by Eberhard Kolb and Ruth B. Henig contain historiographical essays for those seeking greater depth in the historiography of Weimar Germany. Readers interested in the cultural history of Weimar would be well advised to start with Walter Lacqueur’s Weimar: A Cultural History, 1918-1933 and Alex de Jonge’s Weimar Chronicle: Prelude to Hitler.
In one sense the Nazis themselves served as the first interpreters of the legacy of Weimar Germany, as marked by the fascist propaganda efforts during the elections of the 1930s and in the years following Hitler’s ascension to the positions of Reichskanzler and Führer. The Weimar Republic, declared the Nazis, was an alien “system” foisted on an unwilling German population by the so-called "November criminals.” The NSDAP made significant use of the Dolchstoßlegende, or “stab-in-the-back legend,” which was based upon the myth that Jews and Marxists instigated strikes among workers in key industries that deprived German soldiers of necessary supplies, and which supposedly caused Germany to lose the First World War via this internal decay. Moreover, Nazi propaganda created a mythology that these same Jews and “cultural Bolsheviks” ruled over Germany during the country’s “time of struggle” (i.e., Weimar), and that only National Socialism could save Germany from destruction by its purported foes. Thus, historians after the Second World War faced a daunting task of both separating propaganda from fact and overcoming biases honed by the relentless Nazi propaganda machine.
Historians of the Weimar Republic have approached the topic from a variety of perspectives, and one of the few consistent trends that has emerged since the Second World War has been a movement away from single-cause theories of the fall of Weimar democracy toward the approach used by this author of a multiplicity of causative factors. This essay is thus grouped into sections related to political, cultural, and economic contributors to the fall of the Weimar Republic.
Weimar: Destined for Failure by a Weak Constitution and Poor Popular Support?
A thread that runs throughout many analyses of the legacy of theWeimar Republic contains the idea that the fledgling German democracy was somehow doomed from the start. With a constitution that contained items such as Article 48 – a constitutional provision that permitted the Weimar President to rule by decree without the consent of the Reichstag – and a clause that allowed the Reichskanzler to assume office in the event of the death of the President, there were certainly structural inadequacies that, in hindsight, may not have been the wisest choices by the framers of the Weimar Constitution. Craig took aim at the consttutional inclusion of proportional representation (Verhältniswahlrecht) in elections to the Reichstag, arguing that the resultant plethora of German political parties “made for an inherent instability that manifested itself in what appeared to the bemused spectator to be a continuous game of musical chairs” in the near-constant shuffling of Weimar coalitions and ministries. Eyck described the enormous number of political parties under proportional representation as “these many cooks [who] brought forth a broth which was neither consistent nor clear.” Mommsen, however, disagreed that proportional representation was a root cause of Weimar political instability, calling Verhältniswahlrecht “at most a symptom” of the problems, and adding that the “reluctance to assume political responsibility” by Weimar political parties was the source of instability.
Left: Weimar President Friedrich Ebert
Other historians have pointed to the seeming lack of enthusiasm many Germans felt for the new government as contributing to a “doomed” Weimar. Erdmann argued that Germans faced a difficult dilemma in 1918-1919, faced with the choices of “social revolution in alliance with the forces pressing for a proletarian dictatorship,” or “a parliamentary republic in alliance with conservative elements such as the old officer corps.” McKenzie, while acknowledging that the new Republic did not have broad support, nonetheless maintained that the motivations of most Germans remained simply “the restoration of law and order and return to peacetime conditions.” Fritzsche, arguing against the idea that Germans were anti-democratic, argued that “the hostile defamations of the president of the republic were as indicative of democratization as the presidency of the good-willed Fritz Ebert himself.” Brecht disputed the notion that Germans, as a people, have somehow always been totalitarian, and cautioned against such the creation of such simplistic stereotypes to exlain the failure of Weimar democracy:
…nothing can be more devious than the opinion that the Germans have always been totalitaran and that the democratic regime served only as a camouflage to conceal this fundamental fact. The overwhelming majority of the people at the end of the imperial period and during the democratic regime were distinctly anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist in both their ideas and principles.The rise of a culture of political violence in Weimar Germany should certainly be considered as a contributory factor in the Republic’s political instability. Beginning with the emergence of the Freikorps units immediately after the declaration of the Republic, this tendency toward violence became entrenched in Weimar politics after the 1919 assassinations of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Evans argued that “gun battles, assassinations, riots, massacres, and civil unrest” prevented Germans from possessing the “stability in which a new democratic order could flourish.” Moreover, noted Evans, all major political parties employed groups of armed loyalists whose purposes were to protect their political compatriots and to contribute to the waging of low-grade civil war:
Before long, political parties associated themselves with armed and uniformed squads, paramilitary troops whose task it was to provide guards at meetings, impress the public by marching in military parades, and to intimidate, beat up, and on occasion kill members of the paramilitary units associated with other political parties.Thus, the rise of militant extremists such as the NSDAP should viewed within the context of the Weimar history of political paramilitary forces as a “normal” phenomenon. Groups such as the Stahlhelm, the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, and the Rotfrontkämpferbund had memberships much higher than did the Ordnertruppen in the early to mid-1920s, and the rise of the Sturmabteilung as the muscle behind the NSDAP reflects the recognition by the Nazis of the unwritten rules of politics in Weimar Germany.
Weimar Culture and Challenges to Tradition
The personal freedoms often associated with Weimar culture – whether seen as an inevitable, pendulum-like reaction after decades of Wilhelmine authoritarianism, or as a flowering of postwar expression – led to a period of unparalleled vibrancy in literature, the arts, architecture, and philosophy. Kolb described the period as “the eruption of a new vitality, the liberation of creative forces in a short decade of unbounded intellectual and artistic freedom.” Moreover, the Weimar period witnessed significant leaps forward in the emancipation of women, and it is not without considerable merit that many pundits have described Weimar Germany as the first modern culture.
Left: Image of cabaret production of the Haller Revue in Berlin
Yet these sudden cultural changes were far from being universally accepted by the average German, and groups on the right as well as the left decried what was perceived by many as the power of destructive internal forces. Leftists tended to focus on the bourgeois infatuation with base materialism, while many conservatives believed that republican Germany was becoming a morally decrepit nation. Hitler himself played off such sentiments in his speeches, using widespread perceptions of decadence and disaffection with modernity as springboards for his anti-Marxist and anti-Semitic philosophies. In his first public speech after accepting the post of Reichskanzler, Hitler blasted those whom he believed to have quickly led Germany to moral decay:
Communism with its method of madness is making a powerful and insidious attack upon our dismayed and shattered nation. It seeks to poison and disrupt in order to hurl us into an epoch of chaos.... This negative, destroying spirit spared nothing of all that is highest and most valuable. Beginning with the family, it has undermined the very foundations of morality and faith and scoffs at culture and business, nation and Fatherland, justice and honor. Fourteen years of Marxism have ruined Germany; one year of bolshevism would destroy her.Chief among the evidence for the supposed moral decline cited by contemprary critics of Weimar culture was the open sexual freedom proclaimed by many younger Germans, especially in the larger cities. Berlin, in particular, became something of an international destination for people seeking its wide variety of sexual subcultures. Henig argued that the “bright lights and avant-garde cultural attraction of Berlin incurred the hostility of traditional communities in rural areas.” The Weimar era, maintained Mommsen, was a period “that was characterized by the tension between extreme modernity in a few cultural centers and the relatve backwardness of life in the provinces.” Kolb noted that “confrontation in cultural matters still further exacerbated the basic political discord among Germans in the Weimar period.” Lacqueur observed that many German artists were seemingly clueless of just how far removed their work was from the sensibilities of the average German citizen:
Strange as it may appear in retrospect, they were genuinely unaware of the fact that the distance between the avant-garde and popular taste had grown immeasurably and that the dctrines preached by the right were much more in line with popular taste.Those who emphasize the cultural decadence of Weimar Germany, of course, run the risk of sounding prudish, or even worse, as apologists for the fascist regime that followed the demise of the Weimar Republic. Still, it is important to note that the perception of moral decay by many comtemporary Germans – on both the political right and left – was a contributing factor in the moving away from mainstream political parties by German voters and toward extremist factions such as the NSDAP and KDP. Combined with political instability and – most importantly – deleterious economic conditions, the concerns of many Germans about moral decline and social decay began to be expressed in the electoral results of 1930-32 and the eventual collapse of the republic-supporting Weimar Coalition.
Hyperinflation, Depression, and Politcial Opportunity
One of the consistent themes that underscores the period of Weimar Germany is that of economic instability, and the economic calamities that occurred throughout the history of the Republic mirror periods of political upheaval. The Weimar government, at various times, faced food shortages, hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and an unprecedented economic depression, and any analysis of the failures of democracy in Weimar Germany needs to take into account these inherently disruptive economic phenomena. Craig succinctly summed up the economic problems facing the new republic with this comment: “Its normal state was crisis.”
Left: German children playing with worthless banknotes in 1923
The debts incurred by the German government during the war and the economic downturn that followed the transition away from a wartime economy weighed down the fledgling Weimar Republic. Industrial production in 1919, noted Evans, was only 42 percent of what it had been in 1913, and grain production had fallen by over 50 percent from prewar figures. These economic factors, however, paled in comparison with the effects of the reparations demanded and received by the Allies in the Versailles negotiations. In addition, Germany suffered significant territorial losses as a result of Versailles, including Alsace-Lorraine, West Prussia, Posen, Upper Silesia, and the Saar. The terms of the Treaty called for the new German government to make an initial payment of 20 billion gold marks to the Allies by May, 1921, and the Reparations Commission eventually settled on a total reparations bill to Germany of 132 billion gold marks. John Maynard Keynes – a participant in the Versailles negotiations – accurately predicted that the onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles were far beyond the means of the new republic:
The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable,—abhorrent and detestable, even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe.The initial German economic losses due to the Treaty of Versailles were staggering. Germany lost about 13.5 percent of its territory, approximately 13 percent of its industrial productivity, and slightly more than 10 percent of its population. In addition, the loss of important mining areas such as the Saar and Upper Silesia resulted in a loss of 74 percent of German iron ore, 41 percent of the country’s pig iron supplies, and approximately 25 percent of its coal reserves.
Historians and economists have long debated the actual effects of the Treaty of Versailles on economic conditions in Weimar Germany. Fraser argued that the Treaty “was in no sense the unjust and cynical imposition that the propagandists alleged it to have been.” Eyck held that many Germans believed “that they had been duped by the armistice,” and that the effect of the heavy reparations served mostly to reinforce the Dolchstoßlegende. Craig argued that the economic conditions that followed the burden of the reparations bills resulted in ordinary Germans suffering “deprivations that shattered their faith in the democratic process and left them cynical and alienated.” Kolb noted that most of the reparations that were paid ultimately were sent by the debtor nations of Britain and France to the United States, which in turn reinvested this capital in the German economy. Webb called into question the very process of analyzing post-Treaty German economics, arguing that the effects of inflation in the early 1920s make calculations especially difficult, as inflation “altered the real value of all financial flows and confounded their measurement.”
Yet it would be naïve to dismiss the idea that reparations payments were a heavy burden on the new Weimar government. With a sputtering economy, high unemployment, and weak tax revenues, the government of Ebert found itself trying to balance the needs of German citizens with the additional debt load from the reparations bills. Moreover, to a German population that was experiencing widespread poverty and food shortages – not to mention the wartime sacrifices – reparations that were being sent to recent wartime enemies came as a shock.
The period of hyperinflation that hit the Weimar Republic in 1922-23 was on a scale seemingly without historical parallel. The mark traded at 4.2:1 to the dollar prior to the outbreak of hostilities in July 1914, and at the end of the First World War was trading at a rate of 8.9:1. By July 1921 the ratio had risen to 76.7:1, and prices more than doubled again by January 1922, as the ration of marks to the dollar climbed to 191.8:1. By the time that the Weimar government introduced the Rentenmark in November 1923, the exchange rate had risen to 4.2 trillion marks to the dollar. It comes as no surprise, then, that Hitler’s unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch of 8-9 November 1923 came at the height of hyperinflation; in the midst of such a staggering economic crisis, the NSDAP likely hoped that Weimar economic instability would be a launching pad for the attempted coup d’etat.
Assessing the causes and effects of the Weimar hyperinflation has been the subject of innumerable historical, sociological, and economic analyses, and there is far from a consensus among researchers on the short-term and long-term consequences of the astronomical price increases in 1923. One of the few areas of agreement among historians and economists is the recognition that the period of hyperinflation was part of a longer trend dating back to the start of the First World War. There has also been a shift away from the interpretation that the French invasion of the Ruhr on 11 January 1923 was the primary cause of hyperinflation; while this act certainly accelerated the the catastrophic decline in the value of the mark, the period of hyperinflation dates back at least to the fall of 1922, several months before French soldiers even set foot in Duisberg, Essen, and the other major industrial cities of the Ruhr. Eyck argued that an earlier event – the 24 June 1922 murder of foreign minister Walther Rathenau – could also be considered to be the “launching point” of Weimar hyperinflation:
But as great as was the impact of Rathenau’s death upon German domestic politics, it left an even greater mark upon the economic scene. Now the tumble of the mark could not be stopped. The dollar, still under 350 on the day of the murder, climbed to 670 by the end of July, to 2000 in August, and to 4500 by the end of October.
Left: Murdered German foreign minister Walter Rathenau
Diehard Anglophile Fraser was among those who early on suggested that the German government deliberately induced the period of hyperinflation, arguing that German finance officials “may perhaps have thought [emphasis in original] that this [inflation] was just a spectacular means of demonstrating to the Allies the impossibility of paying reparations.” While agreeing that the period of hyperinflation was “at least partly of their own making,” Evans dismissed the idea that there was a conscious effort to undermine the mark as a means of avoiding reparations payments. Craig was among those historians who understood the period of hyperinflation to owe its source to a variety of factors:
The troubles in which the country was involved were the result of the lost war and the treaty that was its price, and, if they were complicated by mistakes made by the republican governments, that contribution was insignificamt in comparison with the self-interest and irresponsibility of German business, which was known for its anti-republican posture.
Measuring the longer term effects of the years of hyperinflation is equally difficult, and it is important to avoid broad generalizations when discussing groups that may have most suffered during this time. Lacqueur held that “the middle classes who had invested their funds in state loans, shares accounts and such, like the pensioners and the working classes, suffered from the steep decline in the real value of their income.” Mommsen argued that hyperinflation also had a deleterious effect on wage earners, and that “this favored a gradual shift of power within the economy to the employers.” Widdig noted that postwar rent control policies made the financial crisis especially difficult for “those who depended on rental income.” Craig noted another pair of demographics especially hard hit by the period of hyperinflation:
The persons, however, who proved most vulnerable to the effects of the inflation were the sick and the young. The mounting cost of hospital care and the increase in doctors’ fees placed adequate medical treatment beyond the capacity of millions at a time when the ballooning price and frequent shortage of essential foodstuffs were causing widespread malnutrition and the reappearance of diseases that had been common during the worst days of the Allied blockade.The analyses of those who gained or lost during the period of German hyperinflation is of critical concern to Weimar and NSDAP researchers, argued Kolb, given the events of the next decade:
It is of great importance since, in the opinion of many historians, a direct or indirect connection exists between the traumatic experience and social consequences of hyperinflation on the one hand and, on the other, the rise of National Socialism and Hitler’s victory. A direct connection, since the inflation turned part of the middle class into a proletariat, politically disoriented and susceptible to Nazism; and an indirect one, since during the world depression the German government dared not take the necessary measures to alleviate unemployment for fear of causing another inflation.It was the worldwide Great Depression, however, that brought about both extreme economic catastrophe as well as political opportunities for extremist political parties in Weimar Germany. The causes of the economic collapse are the topic of another essay altogether, but of critical relevance to Weimar history was the New York stock exchange crash in 1929; investors – predominately American – who had deposited short term funds in German stocks and bonds suddenly withdrew their money to cover debts on Wall Street. Within months German firms began to declare bankruptcy, and the numbers of unemployed German workers began to skyrocket. From a level of 1.5 million in May 1928, unemployment rose to 3.1 million in September 1930, and peaked at about 5.5 million workers by July 1932. Over 30 percent of German workers were unemployed at the height of the Great Depression; Evans remarked that out-of-work Germans, however, were but a component of the larger picture of misery:
These terrifying figures told only part of the story. To begin with, many millions more workers only stayed in their jobs at a reduced rate, since employers cut hours and introduced short-time work in an attempt to adjust to the collapse in demand. Then many trained workers or apprentices had to accept menial and unskilled jobs because the jobs they were qualified for had disappeared…The problem seemed insoluble.The collapse of the German economy created conditions ripe for those on the Weimar political extremes. The experiment in representative democracy, in the eyes of many Germans, seemed a dismal failure, and voters began to turn to groups whose presence in the Reichstag had previously been inconsequential.
There were inherent weaknesses in the political structure of the Weimar Republic that facilitated the rise to power of the NSDAP, and hindsight offers the modern observer plenty of areas in which the unintended consequences of constitutional provisions such as Article 48 came back to haunt the centrist creators of the Weimar Constitution. Yet it is important to remember that the unfortunate gambles of Franz von Papen and Paul von Hindenburg in 1933, the passage of the Reichstag Fire Decree, and the Enabling Act might never occurred had the German economy not gone into freefall as a result of the Great Depression.
From a mere 12 seats in the Reichstag in September 1928, the NSDAP’s fortunes grew with the continuing hardships of the Great Depression. The Nazi Party won 107 seats in the July 1930 elections, and climbed to 230 seats by March 1932. While it would be a logical fallacy to claim a cause-and-effect relationship between unemployment and Nazi gains in the Reichstag, it is clear that German voters had become disenchanted with the ability of the mainstream parties to address the economic woes of the nation. More importantly, while the unemployed themselves tended to be stronger supporters of the KDP, Hitler’s message clearly resonated across broad segments of the German electorate.
The Weimar Republic, created in the aftermath of the First World War with the idealistic hopes of creating a truly representative Germany after decades of authoritarian monarchy, was born in an environment of economic struggle. These economic woes continued to reappear in different forms throughout the duration of the 14-year republic, and even the so-called “Golden Years” of Gustav Stresseman seemed more like a reprieve between catastrophes. In the midst of unprecedented misery, the rantings of a certain ex-corporal that once seemed maniacal found receptive ears among many weary German voters.