The German Weimar Republic was the product of the incomplete political and social revolution that swept away the Hohenzollern monarchy in 1918. For some Germans, its founding realized the democratic goals of the revolution of 1848; for others, it embodied Germany's humiliating defeat at the end of World War I. For still others, it was the betrayal of the socialist revolution. The new republic certainly was an important step in the democratization of German political life, but it did not break thoroughly with Germany's authoritarian past. On the contrary, it left much of the imperial political, social, and economic order unscathed, a condition that left the republic vulnerable to its enemies.
In January 1919 the Socialist Provisional Government organized the election of a constitutional convention (National Assembly). Fearing unrest in Berlin, the convention convened one month later in Weimar, a provincial city known for its cultural heritage. Dominated by the socialist and moderate liberal parties (the Weimar Coalition), the assembly created a parliamentary republic in which all Germans enjoyed the full range of basic civil rights and some social benefits. While concentrating legislative authority in the Reichstag, the assembly also called for a popularly elected president, who would appoint the chancellor (prime minister), head the military, and wield sweeping emergency powers. This latter authority would play a key role in the republic's undoing.
The Constitution did little to change Germany's Prussian-dominated federal structure or its system of political parties. Ranging from conservative to Marxist, the parties were now elected on the basis of proportional representation, although they continued to court the same interest groups as they had under the empire. Only late in the Weimar period would the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party) form a true people's party by attracting crossclass support.
The new parliamentary order also did not challenge the status of Germany's conservative aristocratic and industrial elites, who continued to dominate the economy and hold key political offices. Fearing violent opposition, Weimar leaders failed to purge the monarchists from the officer corps, the judiciary, and other state institutions. As a result these institutions were unreliable, a problem that intensified as the republic encountered repeated challenges to its legitimacy.
The Weimar Coalition's decision to sign the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 angered many who refused to accept Germany's defeat, its sole responsibility for the war, the requirement that it pay massive reparations, and the loss of its colonies, border territories, and military power. Others turned against the new democracy as successive governments failed to resolve repeated economic crises fueled primarily by wartime financing policies and the problems of demobilization, reconstruction, and reparations payments. The misuse of deficit spending to finance postwar costs, including the passive resistance against the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, fueled the onset of hyperinflation, which peaked in November of that year as the value of the German mark fell to approximately 4.2 trillion to the U.S. dollar.
Inflation bankrupted the middle class, undercut the unions, and enriched a small elite circle who manipulated the credit system. It also increased the strength of the radical nationalist and communist parties and led to popular unrest in several states. The government's use of emergency powers and foreign loans, the rescheduling of debts, and the introduction of a new currency (the rentenmark) stabilized the economy between 1924 and 1928. Although these steps eased political tensions, lingering high unemployment and government instability did little to raise public confidence. To many Germans, the republic had forfeited its legitimacy.
The Great Depression precipitated the republic's terminal crisis. Rising mass unemployment and poverty, escalating political violence, and the state's failure to ease the plight of the people led to the electoral collapse of most of the middle-class parties and to the rapid growth of the Nazi Party and the Communist Party. Between 1930 and 1932 these diametrically opposed parties collectively secured a majority of seats in the Reichstag and undermined its work. With the parliament paralyzed, Reich president Paul von Hindenburg appointed a succession of antirepublican chancellors who invoked emergency powers to rule by decree.
In July 1932 the Nazis became Germany's largest political party with 37 percent of the vote. The party won broad support across Germany by blaming Marxism, democracy capitalist plutocrats, and Jews for the nation's misery as well as demanding the abrogation of the Versailles Treaty, the restoration of German national power, and the creation of a People's Community (Volksgemeinschaff) based on race. Reactionary elites around von Hindenburg now hoped to use the Nazis' strength in the Reichstag to dismantle the republican constitution. Thinking that the Nazis' charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler, could be controlled, von Hindenburg's advisers convinced him to appoint Hitler chancellor in January 1933. As it turns out, however, Hitler quickly outmaneuvered them. Using the pretext of a national emergency, within a few months Hitler eliminated his rivals and became a de facto dictator.
The political and economic weakness that characterized the republic's short life contrasted sharply with its many cultural achievements. In literature, film, art, music, architecture, and science, Germans took advantage of their freedom to challenge traditional norms and provide fresh perspectives. Writers such as the brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann, filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, and architects such as Walter Gropius won worldwide acclaim, and their ideas remain influential to this day. But the creators of this Weimar culture did not have sole control of the field. Their ideas met strong opposition from conservative writers such as Ernst Jünger and Oswald Spenger, whose works rejected, among other things, the pacifist, rationalist, and cosmopolitan tendencies circulating in postwar Germany. Their popularity demonstrated widespread discomfort with many of the modern elements of Weimar culture, an attitude that sections of the political Right successfully exploited.
The Weimar Republic represented a partial and temporary victory of those forces in Germany that had long sought to democratize the political and social order. That it proved ephemeral reflected the unfavorable national and international context in which the republic was born as well as the strength of Germany's conservative forces. The republic's fall was not inevitable, but its likelihood increased as a variety of circumstances, many outside of Germany's control, undermined social consensus and paved the way for the popular acceptance of the radical solutions proposed by democracy's enemies.Bibliography
- From Weimar to Hitler: Germany, 1918-1933. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1995.
- Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. New York and London: Harper and Row, 1970. .
- The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1994. , , and , eds.
- The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy. Translated by Elborg Forster and Larry Eugene Jones. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. .
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