Constitutional republic in Germany from 1919 to 1933, which was crippled by the election of antidemocratic parties to the Reichstag (parliament), and then subverted by the Nazi leader Hitler after his appointment as chancellor in 1933. It took its name from the city where in February 1919 a constituent assembly met to draw up a democratic constitution.
The establishment of the Weimar Republic Following the German collapse in World War I and Germany's acceptance of the Allies' armistice terms in November 1918, a newly elected national assembly met in Weimar in February 1919. The assembly was unable to meet in Berlin because of a socialist uprising in the capital. A provisional constitution was adopted, marking the beginning of the Weimar Republic, that was to last until Hitler came to power in 1933. The moderate socialist Friedrich Ebert was elected president, while the Social Democrat Philip Scheidemann formed a coalition cabinet.
The Treaty of Versailles As the defeated power in World War I the Germans were forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which included the ‘War Guilt Clause’ (Clause 231), placing the entire blame for the war on Germany. The Germans lost large areas to Poland in the east, and France and Belgium in the west and the Rhineland was to be occupied by Allied troops. Germany's armed forces were severely restricted, and the government had to accept the burden of reparations to the victorious allies.
The politicians of the first Weimar government had no choice but to sign the treaty, but they faced widespread criticism and vilification for doing so. Many Germans never accepted defeat in World War I, and the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles became known as the November Criminals. A right-wing counter-revolution, known as the Kapp Putsch, began in March 1920. The government fled to Stuttgart, but within a week the revolt was suppressed. Those involved in the Kapp Putsch went unpunished, or lightly punished, as many German judges supported their aims and opposed the new Weimar Republic.
The burden of reparations A new coalition government was formed on 20 June 1920, with Konstantin Fehrenbach of the Catholic Centre Party as chancellor. The main work of this ministry was concerned with reparations. Germany received the estimated Allied demands at the conference at Spa in July, which amounted to a total of 132 billion gold marks (£6.6 billion). For the next ten years the question of reparation payments dominated the foreign policy of Germany.
In May 1920 the ‘London ultimatum’ with respect to reparations was presented to Germany, and Joseph Wirth (on the liberal wing of the Catholic Centre Party) succeeded Fehrenbach as chancellor of a government prepared to accept the ultimatum. The effort to meet reparation requirements resulted in hyperinflation in Germany, and this in turn made it increasingly difficult for Germany to cover its obligations.
The occupation of the Ruhr In 1923 Germany unilaterally suspended the payment of reparations, and French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region, the German industrial heartland. The German policy of passive resistance to the occupation of the Ruhr was initiated by Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno, who had succeeded Wirth in November 1922. With the failure of the German policy in the Ruhr to secure anything except impoverishment of the country, Cuno left office, and Gustav Stresemann of the liberal right-wing German People's Party came forward and formed a cabinet in August 1923.
The problems that confronted Stresemann were to settle the Ruhr problem, to restore internal order, and to stabilize the mark. The order for passive resistance was withdrawn on 27 September, and this step was only opposed by Bavaria where a separatist movement was aiming at the restoration of the Bavarian monarchy and the overthrow of the German republic. In Saxony there was a communist revolt against the republic, and a ‘republican proletarian’ government was set up. Stresemann issued an ultimatum, ordering this government to resign, and appointed a military commissioner with dictatorial powers.
Economic stabilization was helped by the introduction of the Dawes Plan (see Dawes, Charles Gates) in September 1924, which secured the evacuation of the Ruhr in the following year, contributed to the relative prosperity of the German economy for the remainder of the decade, and enabled Germany to resume payment of reparations.
Locarno and European security The London Conference of 1924, at which the Dawes Plan was adopted, paved the way for the Locarno treaties the following year (see Locarno, Pact of), and for Germany's entry into the League of Nations in September 1926.
During this period of transition towards more stable conditions, President Ebert died (in February 1925) and was succeeded by the right-wing Paul Hindenburg, who had been chief of staff of the German army in World War I. Hans Luther was now chancellor, and Stresemann, who was foreign minister, concluded the Locarno treaties with France, Belgium, Great Britain, and Italy. The Locarno treaties contributed much towards European security, guaranteeing, among other things, Germany's existing frontiers with France and Belgium. They also provided for the Rhineland to become a demilitarized zone, in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles. Germany signed a similar treaty with the USSR in April 1926, but giving assurances that Germany's treaties with the Western powers were not directed against the USSR. With the full acceptance of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, implied in both the Locarno treaties and the Dawes Plan, Germany was accepted as a full member of the League of Nations in 1926. It was even given a permanent seat on the council of the League. Between 1926 and 1929 Germany entered the so-called ‘golden years’ of the Weimar Republic. Unemployment fell and the economy seemed to be heading for a full recovery after the disastrous years of 1918–25.
When Wilhelm Marx became chancellor in January 1927 Stresemann was again foreign minister, and the Locarno Pact and the League of Nations continued to receive German support as a means of securing equality of treatment. In February the Inter-Allied Military Commission of Control was withdrawn, and the chief obstacle was thus removed from the hitherto secret reconstruction of the German army.
The emergence of the Nazis With the fall of the government in 1928 the socialists gained in the ensuing elections, rising from 131 to 153 seats, and Stresemann became foreign minister once more, this time in a government with the Social Democrat Hermann Müller as chancellor. In these elections the far-right National Socialist German Workers' (or Nazi) Party (see Nazism), led by Adolf Hitler, won 12 seats with a total of over 800,000 votes. However this was a decline from their 32 seats of May 1924, and with only 12 seats, the Nazis were still a minor party in the Reichstag. The German Communist Party (KPD) won 54 seats (see German communism), and the Social Democrats won 154. The conditions for Nazi domination of Germany were not yet favourable – the economy was going well and unemployment stood at less than 1 million. In 1929 German reparation payments were rescheduled by the Young Plan (devised by US financier Owen D Young), superseding the Dawes Plan, and the Allies agreed to evacuate the Rhineland by June 1930.
The ability of Germany to pay the reparations, even over the six decades of the Young Plan, was dependent on the ability of the USA to lend it money. When the USA entered financial crisis after the Wall Street Crash 1929 the German economy began to collapse. The German Nationalist Party strongly denounced the Young Plan. Alfred Hugenberg, the leader of the Nationalists, became allied with Hitler in their joint opposition to the plan, and as a result the financial power of the industrialists and also the propaganda machine of the Nationalists helped to build up the Nazi Party. The socialist influence waned, and in December 1929 Müller was succeeded by Heinrich Brüning, leader of the Catholic Centre Party. Brüning did not have a majority in the Reichstag (parliament), and governed mainly by decree during the two years he remained in office.
Nazi electoral successes In 1930 the Reichstag was dissolved, and the elections were a triumph for the Nazi Party, which gained 107 seats as against their previous 12, with a total vote of nearly 6.5 million. Unemployment in Germany in 1930 had reached 3 million, a rise of 2 million since 1928. The mounting economic crisis and its effects on ordinary German people were exactly what Hitler needed to gain support. The Nazis were able to present the Weimar Republic as incapable of looking after the interests of its people. Hitler now sought to consolidate his victory by directing national socialist propaganda against the Jews and Marxists (see anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda), the alleged injustices of the Versailles Treaty, and the republican–democratic system of government. The worsening of the world economic depression of the early 1930s resulted in Hitler acquiring a broader basis of support from the hard-hit lower middle classes, and in the succeeding elections Hitler's following grew even larger; when he stood unsuccessfully against Hindenburg in the presidential elections in 1932, he secured over 13 million votes.
The economic crisis of the early 1930s was the second economic disaster that the Weimar Republic had presided over during its short life. Hitler was able to claim that the democratic system had failed the German people, and that the Nazis were their only hope. His charismatic personality and the conditions in Germany made it relatively easy for him to increase Nazi strength and power. With millions of workers unemployed and the middle classes losing their wealth and security for a second time, the Weimar Republic was unable to sustain itself.
In the Reichstag elections of June 1932 the Nazis increased their seats to 230, becoming the largest single party but short of the 350 seats required for a majority. Hitler demanded to be appointed chancellor as the leader of the largest party, but Hindenburg did not trust Hitler to uphold democracy or to obey the law. Franz von Papen was reappointed chancellor even though his German National People's Party (DNVP) had less than a sixth of the seats held by the Nazis. Von Papen tried to bring Hitler into his government by offering to make him vice chancellor, but Hitler refused this as an insult. With the Nazis and the German Communist Party (KDP) disrupting the Reichstag it was impossible for Von Papen to govern Germany, and new elections had to be called for November 1932. Support for the Nazis actually fell in these elections – they won only 196 seats – but they still remained the largest single party in the Reichstag. Support for the communists rose and they returned with 100 seats, up from 89 in July 1932. Hindenburg refused once more to appoint Hitler as chancellor, choosing instead to appoint the former minister of defence Kurt von Schleicher. Attempts were again made to bring the Nazis into the government, this time by trying to bypass Hitler and appoint another leading Nazi, Gregor Strasser as vice chancellor. However, the Nazis stood firm, Strasser refused the offer, and the Schleicher government proved as weak as von Papen's. Subsequently the reactionary group around Hindenburg persuaded him to make Hitler chancellor over a mixed cabinet of Nazis and nationalists, in January 1933. They hoped Hitler would prove no more than a compliant figurehead, amenable to the wishes of the non-Nazi Nationalist Party.
Hitler assumes absolute power Almost immediately the Reichstag was burned down, in circumstances that have still not been explained, although it was possibly the work of the Nazis themselves. Hitler's first act was to place responsibility for the fire on the communists. Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, was arrested for the crime and later executed, and the KPD was accused of plotting to overthrow the government. By this means Hitler was able to restrict the activities of both communists and socialists at the subsequent elections, for many Germans sincerely believed that he had saved Germany from a threatened communist uprising.
In the elections called by Hitler for March 1933, the Social Democrats and KPD suffered intense intimidation from the Nazi's own supporters including the paramilitary SA (Sturmabteilung, ‘storm troops’). They also faced arrest by police acting under instructions from the government. The Nationalists often supported this as they feared the left-wing parties as agents of revolution. The results of the March 1933 election saw the Nazis gain 288 seats, once again the largest party, but still short of the 324 seats needed for a sole majority. Communist members of the Reichstag were reduced to 81, although this was a major achievement in the atmosphere of the 1933 election. With both continuing support for the Social Democrats and the KPD, and the lack of a Nazi majority, Hitler had to seek other methods to destroy the Weimar democracy.
It was clear by 1933 that the democratic system of the Weimar was finished. In the December 1924 elections for the Reichstag, the extremist antidemocratic parties of the right and left, the Nazis and Communists (KDP), gained just 59 of the 493 seats (11.9% of those available). The Reichstag at this time was, therefore, dominated by parties committed to some form of democratic government. By the election of September 1930 the gains of the extremist Nazis and KPD had risen to 184 seats out of 577 (31.9%). The German electorate was abandoning the centre ground that was essential to the maintenance of democracy. In the elections of November 1932, the last that could be considered fair and relatively free, the Nazis and KDP combined won 296 of the 584 seats (50.6%). A majority of the deputies in the Reichstag were now committed to ending democracy in Germany. After the March 1933 elections that figure rose to 369 of the 647 deputies (57%). The survival of democracy in Germany was virtually impossible.
With Hitler in place as chancellor, the Nazis set about the final destruction of the Weimar Republic. The KPD was declared illegal, and communists stripped of their right to sit in the Reichstag. This and further intimidation of all non-Nazi deputies gave Hitler the majority he needed. On 24 March 1933 the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler total power as dictator; the Third Reich (‘third empire’), as it was named by the Nazis, had begun.
The Enabling Bill allowed Hitler to rule without the Reichstag for four years, and banned all other political parties. There was now no check on Hitler's power; submission was compelled by means of the paramilitary SA and SS (Schutzstaffel), and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, ‘secret police’). The 83-year-old Hindenburg remained as president, but was powerless to stop the Nazis. Hitler suppressed all opposition parties, including the Nationalists who had helped him to power, having naively believed that Hitler would be their tool. Hitler had not, however, disposed of all opposition, and those within the Nazi Party who still offered resistance or potential rivalry were murdered. On the Night of the Long Knives, 30 June 1934, the socialist or radical-wing leaders of the Nazi party were arrested and summarily executed (including Ernst Röhm, chief of the SA, the man to whom Hitler was largely indebted for his triumph); a number of non-Nazis were also executed at the same time. This swift and total destruction of his enemies, a tactic known as Blitzkrieg, confirmed Hitler's ability to be totally powerful within Germany.
In August 1934 Hindenburg died, and Hitler became both president and chancellor. He later adopted the title of Führer (leader), and replaced the state governors with Nazi-appointed Reich commissioners (Gauleiters), who had dictatorial powers at the local level.
Nazis' rise to power
Crisis of Weimar Republic
Doomed from the Start – How Accurate is this Statement Regarding the Weimar Republic?
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