The (Weimarer Republik) Weimar Republic is the name given by historians to the federal republic and parliamentary representative democracy established in 1919 in Germany to replace the imperial form of government.
|Schiller Haus – Weimar 1920|
In 1919, a national assembly was convened in Weimar, where a new constitution for the German Reich was written, then adopted on 11 August of that same year.
|Charles Gates Dawes|
|Signing the Young Plan|
In its 14 years the Weimar Republic faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremists (with paramilitaries – both left and right wing), and hostility from the victors of World War I, who tried twice to restructure Germany’s reparations payments through the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan, however, it overcame many of the requirements of the Treaty of Versailles (Germany eventually repaid a reduced amount of the reparations required of the treaty, with the last payment being made on 3 October 2010), reformed the currency, and unified tax politics and the railway system, as well as having a unique cultural impact with its art, music and cinema.
Germany continued to lead the world in science and technology during this period.
Despite its political form, the new republic was still known as Deutsches Reich in German. This phrase was commonly translated into English as German Empire, although the German word Reich has a broader range of connotations than the English “empire”, so the name is most often translated to the German Reich in English.
The English word “realm” captures broadly the same meaning.
The common short form in English remained Germany.
The Weimar Republic was named for the location where the assembly met.
The assembly met in Weimar, Germany from February 6, 1919 to August 11, 1919.
The November Revolution
|Berlin – November Revolution|
In October 1918, the constitution of the German Empire was reformed to introduce a parliamentary system similar to the British, but this soon became obsolete.
|Ludwig III von Bayern|
On 12 November 1918, Prime Minister Dandl went to Schloss Anif, near Salzburg, to see the King and obtain what is known as the ‘Anifer Erklärung’ (Anif declaration) in which the King released all government officials, soldiers and civil officers from their oath to him, but made no declaration of abdication. The newly-formed republican government of Kurt Eisner interpreted this as an abdication. The declaration was published by the Eisner government when Dandl returned to Munich the next day, interpreting it, somewhat ambiguously, as the end to Wittelsbacher rule.
|Kaiser Wilhelm II|
To keep their influence, the remaining Majority Social Democrats (MSPD), who supported the war efforts and a parliamentary system, decided to make use of their support at grass roots and put themselves at the front of the movement, and on 7 November, demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicate.
Wilhelm II or William II (German: Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert; English: Frederick William Victor Albert) (27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941) was the last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 15 June 1888 to 9 November 1918. He was a grandson of the British Queen Victoria and related to many monarchs and princes of Europe. Crowned in 1888, he dismissed the Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in 1890 and launched Germany on a bellicose “New Course” in foreign affairs that culminated in his support for Austria-Hungary in the crisis of July 1914 that led to World War I. Bombastic and impetuous, he sometimes made tactless pronouncements on sensitive topics without consulting his ministers, culminating in a disastrous Daily Telegraph interview that cost him most of his power in 1908. His generals dictated policy during World War I with little regard for the civilian government. An ineffective war leader, he lost the support of the army, abdicated in November 1918, and fled to exile in the Netherlands.
Two hours later, a “Free Socialist Republic” was proclaimed, 2 km (1.2 mi) away, at the Berliner Stadtschloss.
Karl Liebknecht (13 August 1871, Leipzig, Saxony, Germany – 15 January 1919, Berlin, Germany) was a German Jewish socialist and a co-founder with Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League and the Communist Party of Germany.
He is best known for his opposition to World War I in the Reichstag and his role in the Spartacist uprising of 1919. The uprising was crushed by the social democrat government and the Freikorps (paramilitary units formed of World War I veterans) and Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered.
Rosa Luxemburg (5 March 1871, Zamość, Vistula Land, Russia – 15 January 1919, Berlin, Germany) was a Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist of Polish Jewish descent who became a naturalized German citizen. She was successively a member of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
In 1915, after the SPD supported German involvement in World War I, she and Karl Liebknecht co-founded the anti-war Spartakusbund (Spartacist League) which eventually became the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). During the German Revolution she founded the Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), the central organ of the Spartacist movement.
Prinz Max von Baden
On 9 November, in a legally questionable act, Reichskanzler Prinz Max von Baden transferred his powers to Friedrich Ebert, who, shattered by the monarchy’s fall, reluctantly accepted.
In view of the mass support for more radical reforms among the workers’s councils a coalition government called Rat der Volksbeauftragten (Council of People’s Commissioners) was established, consisting of three MSPD and three USPD members.
Led by Ebert for the MSPD and Hugo Haase for the USPD it sought to act as a provisional cabinet of ministers, but the power question was unanswered.
Although the new government was confirmed by the Berlin worker and soldier council, it was opposed by the Spartacist League.
Ebert called for a National Congress of Councils, which took place from 16 to 20 December 1918, and in which the MSPD had the majority.
Thus, Ebert was able to institute elections for a provisional National Assembly that would be given the task of writing a democratic constitution for parliamentary government, marginalizing the movement that called for a socialist republic (see below).
On 11 November, an armistice was signed at Compiègne by German representatives. It effectively ended military operations between the Allies and Germany.
It amounted to German capitulation, without any concessions by the Allies; the naval blockade would continue until complete peace terms were agreed.
From November 1918 to January 1919, Germany was governed by the Council of People’s Commissioners, under the leadership of Ebert and Haase.
It issued a large number of decrees that radically shifted German policies.
It introduced the eight-hour workday, domestic labour reform, works councils, agricultural labour reform, right of civil-service associations, local municipality social welfare relief (split between Reich and States) and important national health insurance, re-instatement of demobilised workers, protection from arbitrary dismissal with appeal as a right, regulated wage agreement, and universal suffrage from 20 years of age in all types of elections—local and national.
To ensure his fledgling government maintained control over the country, Ebert made an agreement with the OHL (supreme army command), now led by Ludendorff’s successor General Wilhelm Groener.
The ‘Ebert–Groener pact’ stipulated that the government would not attempt to reform the army so long as the army swore to protect the state.
On the one hand, this agreement symbolised the acceptance of the new government by the military, assuaging concern among the middle classes; on the other hand, it was thought contrary to working-class interests by left wing social democrats and communists, and was also opposed by the far right who believed democracy would make Germany weaker.
The new Reichswehr armed forces, limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 100,000 army soldiers and 15,000 sailors, remained fully under the control of the German Officer Class despite its nominal re-organisation.
As in other countries, it came to the permanent split in the social democratic movement, into the democratic SPD and the Communists.
There was no revolution because the right wing of the socialist movement, led by Ebert and Scheideman, supported the republic they had brought into being.
Combined action on the part of the socialists was not possible without action from the millions of workers who stood midway between the parliamentarians and the revolutionaries wanted to strengthen the powers of the workers’ councils.
The rift between the two socialist parties became final after Ebert called upon the OHL for troops to put down another Berlin army mutiny on 23 November 1918, in which soldiers had captured the city’s garrison commander and closed off the Reichskanzlei where the Council of People’s Commissioners was situated.
The ensuing street fighting left several dead and injured on both sides.
The USPD leaders were outraged by what they believed was treachery by the MSPD, which, in their view, had joined with the anti-communist military to suppress the revolution, thus the USPD left the Council of People’s Commissioners after only seven weeks.
|Communist Party of Germany (KPD)|
In December, the split deepened when the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was formed out of a number of radical left-wing groups, including the left wing of the USPD and the “Spartacist League” group.
In January, the Spartacist League and others in the streets of Berlin made more armed attempts to establish communism, known as the Spartacist uprising.
Those attempts were put down by paramilitary Freikorps units consisting of volunteer soldiers.
Bloody street fights culminated in the beating and shooting deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht after their arrests on 15 January.
With the affirmation of Ebert, those responsible were not tried before a court martial, leading to lenient sentences, which made Ebert unpopular among radical leftists.
|Munich Soviet Republic|
A Soviet republic was declared in Munich, but was quickly put down by Freikorps and remnants of the regular army.
The growing postwar economic crisis was a result of lost pre-war industrial exports, the loss of supplies in raw materials and foodstuffs from Alsace-Lorraine, Polish districts and the colonies, along with worsening debt balances, but above all, the result of an exorbitant issue of promissory notes raising money to pay for the war.
Military-industrial activity had almost ceased, although controlled demobilisation kept unemployment at around one million.
The fact that the Allies continued to blockade Germany until after the Treaty of Versailles did not help matters, either.
The allies permitted only low import levels of goods that most Germans could not afford.
After four years of war and famine, many German workers were exhausted, physically impaired and discouraged.
Millions were disenchanted with capitalism and hoping for a new era. Meanwhile, the currency depreciated.
The currency would continue to depreciate following the French invasion of the Ruhr.
The German peace delegation in France signed the Treaty of Versailles, accepting mass reductions of the German military, the prospect of substantial war reparations payments to the victorious allies, and the controversial “War Guilt Clause”.
Adolf Hitler later blamed the republic and its democracy for the oppressive terms of this treaty.
The Republic’s first Reichspräsident (“Reich President”), Friedrich Ebert of the SPD, signed the new German constitution into law on 11 August 1919.
The new post-World War I Germany, stripped of all colonies, became 13.3% smaller in its European territory than its imperial predecessor.
Of these losses, a large proportion consisted of provinces that were originally Polish and Alsace-Lorraine, seized by Germany in 1870, where Germans constituted only part or a minority of local populations despite nationalist outrage at the fragmentation of Germany.
The Republic was soon under attack from both left- and right-wing sources.
The radical left accused the ruling Social Democrats of having betrayed the ideals of the workers’ movement by preventing a communist revolution.
Various right-wing sources opposed any democratic system, preferring an authoritarian state like the 1871 Empire.
To further undermine the Republic’s credibility, some right-wingers (especially certain members of the former officer corps) also blamed an alleged conspiracy of Socialists and Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I.
In the next five years, the central government, assured of the support of the Reichswehr dealt severely with the occasional outbreaks of violence in Germany’s large cities.
The left claimed that the Social Democrats had betrayed the ideals of the revolution, while the army and the government-financed Freikorps committed hundreds of acts of gratuitous violence against striking workers.
The first challenge to the Weimar Republic came when a group of communists and anarchists took over the Bavarian government in Munich and declared the creation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic.
|Kapp-Putsch Freikorps Roßbach|
The uprising was brutally attacked by Freikorps, which consisted mainly of ex-soldiers dismissed from the army and who were well-paid to kill the most active supporters of a democratic Germany.
The Freikorps was an army outside the control of the government, but they were in close contact with their allies in the Reichswehr.
The Kapp-Luttwitz Putsch took place on 13 March 1920: 5000 Freikorps soldiers occupied Berlin and installed Wolfgang Kapp (a right-wing journalist) as chancellor.
The national government fled to Stuttgart and called for a general strike against the putsch. The strike meant that no “official” pronouncements could be published, and with the civil service out on strike, the Kapp government collapsed after only four days on 17 March.
Inspired by the general strikes, a workers’ uprising began in the Ruhr region when 50,000 people formed a “Red Army” and took control of the province.
The regular army and the Freikorps ended the uprising on their own authority.
The rebels were campaigning for an extension of the plans to nationalise major industries and supported the national government, but the S.P.D. leaders did not want to lend support to the growing USPD, who favoured the establishment of a socialist regime.
The repression of an uprising of S.P.D. supporters by the reactionary forces in the Freikorps on the instructions of the S.P.D. ministers was to become a major source of conflict within the socialist movement and thus contributed to the weakening of the only movement that could have withstood the National Socialist movement.
Other rebellions were put down in March 1921 in Saxony and Hamburg.
|Treaty of Rapallo|
In 1922, Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union, which allowed Germany to train military personnel in exchange for giving Russia military technology.
This was against the Treaty of Versailles, which limited Germany to 100,000 soldiers and no conscription, naval forces of 15,000 men, twelve destroyers, six battleships, and six cruisers, no submarines or aircraft, however, Russia had pulled out of World War I against the Germans as a result of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and was excluded from the League of Nations, thus Germany seized the chance to make an ally.
Walther Rathenau, the Jewish Foreign Minister who signed the treaty, was assassinated two months later by two ultra-nationalist army officers.
Stinnes’ empire collapsed when the government-sponsored inflation was stopped in November 1923.
Further pressure from the right came in 1923 with the Beer Hall Putsch, also called the Munich Putsch, staged by the NSDAP under Adolf Hitler in Munich.
In 1920, the German Workers’ Party had become the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), and would become a driving force in the collapse of Weimar.
Hitler named himself chairman of the party in July 1921.
On 8 November 1923, the Kampfbund, in a pact with Erich Ludendorff, took over a meeting by Bavarian prime minister Gustav von Kahr at a beer hall in Munich.
|Adolf Hitler in Landsberg|
Ludendorff and Hitler declared that the Weimar government was deposed and that they were planning to take control of Munich the following day.
The 3,000 rebels were thwarted by the Bavarian authorities.
Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for high treason, a minimum sentence for the charge.
In the event, he served less than eight months in a comfortable cell in Festung Lansberg, receiving a daily stream of visitors before his release on 20 December 1924.
While in jail, Hitler dictated Mein Kampf, which laid out his ideas and future policies. Hitler now decided to focus on legal methods of gaining power.
Das goldene Zeitalter (1924–1929)
Gustav Stresemann was Reichskanzler for 100 days in 1923, and served as foreign minister from 1923–1929, a period of relative stability for the Weimar Republic, known in Germany as Goldene Zwanziger (“Golden Twenties”).
(click on the link above for more information about Wiemar Culture)
Influenced by the brief cultural explosion in the Soviet Union, German literature, cinema, theatre and music worlds entered a phase of great creativity.
n 1929, the onset of the depression in the United States of America produced a severe shock wave in Germany.
The economy was supported by the granting of loans through the Dawes Plan (1924) and the Young Plan (1929).
When American banks withdrew their loans to German companies the onset of severe unemployment could not be stopped by conventional economic measures.
Unemployment grew rapidly and in September 1930 a political earthquake shook the republic to its foundations.
The NSDAP entered the Reichstag with 19% of the popular vote and made the fragile coalition system by which every chancellor had governed, unworkable.
The last years of the Weimar Republic were stamped by even more political instability than in the previous years.
The administrations of Chancellors Brüning, Papen, Schleicher and Hitler (from 30 January to 23 March 1933) governed through presidential decree, rather than through consultation with the Reichstag (the German parliament).
The finance expert Heinrich Brüning was appointed as successor of Chancellor Müller by Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg on 29 March 1930, after months of political lobbying by General Kurt von Schleicher on behalf of the military.
The new government was expected to lead a political shift towards conservatism, based on the emergency powers granted to the Reichspräsident by the constitution, since it had no majority support in the Reichstag.
After a bill to reform the Reich’s finances was opposed by the Reichstag, Hindenburg established the bill as an emergency decree based on Article 48 of the constitution.
On 18 July, the bill was again invalidated by a slim majority in the Reichstag with the support of the SPD, KPD, the (then small) NSDAP and DNVP.
Immediately afterwards, Brüning submitted to the Reichstag the president’s decree that it would be dissolved.
The Reichstag general elections on 14 September resulted in an enormous political shift: 18.3% of the vote went to the NSDAP, five times the percentage compared to 1928.
It was no longer possible to form a pro-republican majority in the Reichstag, not even a Grand Coalition of all major parties except the KPD, NSDAP and DNVP.
This encouraged the supporters of the Nazis to force their claim to power by increasing organization of public demonstrations and paramilitary violence against rival paramilitary groups.
From 1930–1932, Brüning tried to reform the devastated state without a majority in Parliament, governing with the help of the President’s emergency decrees.
During that time, the Great Depression reached its low point. In line with conservative economic theory that less government spending would spur economic growth, Brüning drastically cut state expenditures, including in the social sector.
He expected and accepted that the economic crisis would, for a while, deteriorate before things would improve.
Among others, the Reich completely halted all public grants to the obligatory unemployment insurance (which had been introduced only in 1927), which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and fewer benefits for the unemployed.
The bulk of German capitalists and land-owners originally supported the conservative experiment: not from any personal liking for Brüning, but believing the conservatives would best serve their interests.
But as the mass of the working class and middle classes turned against Brüning, more of the great capitalists and landowners declared themselves in favour of his opponents—Hitler and Hugenberg.
By late 1931, conservatism as a movement was dead, and the time was coming when Hindenburg and the Reichswehr would drop Brüning and come to terms with Hugenberg and Hitler.
Although Hindenburg disliked Hugenberg and despised Hitler, he was no less a supporter of the sort of anti-democratic counter-revolution represented by the DNVP and NSDAP.
On 30 May 1932, Brüning resigned after no longer having Hindenburg’s support.
Five weeks earlier, Hindenburg had been re-elected Reichspräsident with Brüning’s active support, running against Hitler (the president was directly elected by the people while the Reichskanzler was not).
The Von Papen Deal
|Reichskanzler Franz von Papen|
Elections of July 1932
Harzburger Front of 1931, a coalition of nationalist conservatives and the extreme right
Because most parties opposed the new government, von Papen had the Reichstag dissolved and called for new elections.
The general elections on 31 July 1932 yielded major gains for the KPD and the NSDAP, who won 37.2% of the vote, supplanting the Social Democrats as the largest party in the Reichstag.
The new question was what part the now immense National Socialist Party would play in the Government of the country.
The NSDAP owed its huge increase to growing support from middle-class people, whose traditional parties were swallowed up by the National Socialists.
The millions of radical adherents at first forced the Party towards the Left.
They wanted a renewed Germany and a new organisation of German society.
The left of the NSDAP strove desperately against any drift into the train of such capitalist and feudal reactionaries, therefore Hitler refused ministry under Papen, and demanded the chancellorship for himself, but was rejected by Hindenburg on 13 August 1932.
There was still no majority in the Reichstag for any government; as a result, the Reichstag was dissolved and elections took place once more in the hope that a stable majority would result.
General Kurt von Schleicher
The 6 November 1932 elections yielded 33.1% for the NSDAP, two million voters fewer than in the previous election.
Franz von Papen stepped down and was succeeded by General Kurt von Schleicher as Reichskanzler on 3 December.
Schleicher, a political army officer, had developed in an atmosphere of semi-obscurity and intrigue that encompassed the Republican military policy.
He had for years been in the camp of those supporting the Conservative counter-revolution.
Schleicher’s bold and unsuccessful plan was to build a majority in the Reichstag by uniting the trade unionist left wings in the various parties, including that of the National Socialists led by Gregor Strasser.
This did not prove successful either.
In this brief Presidential Dictatorship entr’acte, Schleicher took the role of ‘Socialist General’, and entered into relations with the Christian Trade Unions, the left-wing members of the NSDAP and even with the Social Democrats.
Schleicher planned for a sort of labour government under his Generalship.
But the Reichswehr officers were not prepared for this, the working class had a natural distrust of their future allies, and great capitalists and landowners did not like the plans. The SPD and KPD could have achieved success building on a Berlin transport strike.
Hitler learned from von Papen that the general had no authority to abolish the Reichstag parliament, whereas any majority of seats did.
The cabinet (under a previous interpretation of Article 48) ruled without a sitting Reichstag, which could vote only for its own dissolution.
Hitler also learned that all past crippling Nazi debts were to be relieved by German big business.
On 22 January, Hitler’s efforts to persuade Oskar von Hindenburg (the President’s son) included threats to bring criminal charges over estate taxation irregularities at the President’s Neudeck estate (although 5,000 acres (20 km2) extra were soon allotted to Hindenburg’s property).
Outmaneuvered by von Papen and Hitler on plans for the new cabinet, and having lost Hindenburg’s confidence, Schleicher asked for new elections.
On 28 January, von Papen described Hitler to Paul von Hindenburg as only a minority part of an alternative, von Papen-arranged government.
The four great political movements, the SPD, KPD, Centre, and the NSDAP were in opposition.
On 29 January, Hitler and von Papen thwarted a last-minute threat of an officially sanctioned Reichswehr takeover, and on 30 January 1933 Hindenburg accepted the new Papen-Nationalist-Hitler coalition with the Nazis holding only three of 11 Cabinet seats. Later that day, the first cabinet meeting was attended by only two political parties, representing a minority in the Reichstag: The NSDAP and the DNVP led by Alfred Hugenberg (196 + 52 seats).
Eyeing the Catholic Centre Party’s 70 (+ 20 BVP) seats, Hitler refused their leader’s demands for constitutional “concessions” (amounting to protection) and planned for dissolution of the Reichstag.
Hindenburg, despite his misgivings about the National Socialist’s goals and about Hitler as a person, reluctantly agreed to Papen’s theory that, with NSDAP popular support on the wane, Hitler could now be controlled as chancellor.
This date, dubbed by the National Socialists as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power), is commonly seen as the beginning of the Third Reich, however, the phase of German history in which the democratic principles of the constitution and personal liberty came to an end, was the appointment of Brüning as Chancellor by Hindenburg.
Reasons for the Failure of the Weimar Republic
The reasons for the Weimar Republic’s collapse are the subject of continuing debate.
It may have been doomed from the beginning since even moderates disliked it and extremists on both the left and right loathed it.
Germany had limited democratic traditions and Weimar democracy was widely seen as chaotic, and since Weimar politicians had been blamed for the Dolchstoßlegende – a then widely believed theory that Germany’s surrender in World War I had been the unnecessary act of traitors – the popular legitimacy of the government was on shaky ground.
No single reason can explain the failure of the Weimar Republic.
The most commonly asserted causes can be grouped into three categories: economic problems, institutional problems and the roles of specific individuals.