The Weimar Republic
In its 14 years of existence, the Weimar Republic faced many problems, including hyperinflation, political extremism, and controversial relations with the victors of World War I, which led to its collapse during the rise of Adolf Hitler.
The Weimar Republic is an unofficial historical designation for a German state between 1919 and 1933. The name derives from the city of Weimar, where its constitutional assembly first took place. The official name of the state was still Deutsches Reich; It remained unchanged from 1871.
In English the country was commonly known as Germany. A national assembly was convened in Weimar, where a new constitution for the Deutsche Reich was written and adopted on August 11, 1919. In its 14 years, the Weimar Republic faced many problems, including hyperinflation, political extremism (with paramilitary forces – both left- and right-wing); and controversial relations with the winners of the First World War.
The Germans blamed the Weimar Republic, rather than their wartime leaders, for the country’s defeat and the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. However, the government of the Weimar Republic successfully reformed the currency, integrated tax policies, and organized the railway system.
Weimar Germany abolished most of the requirements of the Treaty of Versailles; It never fully met its disarmament requirements and eventually paid for only a small portion of the war reparations (by restructuring its debt twice through the DOS Plan and the Youth Plan).
Under the Locarno Treaties, Germany accepted the republic’s western borders, but continued to dispute the eastern border.
From 1930 onwards, President Hindenburg used emergency powers to back Chancellor Heinrich Brüning, Franz von Papen and General Kurt von Schleicher. The Great Depression, due to Bruning’s deflationary policy, caused an increase in unemployment.
In 1933, Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor as part of a coalition government with the Nazi Party. Of the remaining 10 cabinet seats, two were held by the Nazis. Von Papen, as Vice Chancellor, intended to work behind the scenes to keep Hitler under control, using his close personal ties with Hindenburg.
Within months the Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act of 1933 brought a state of emergency: it eroded constitutional rule and civil liberties. Hitler’s seizure of power (Machtergrafung) ended the republic. As democracy collapsed, the one-party state ushered in the Nazi era.
Challenges And Reasons For Failure
The causes of the collapse of the Weimar Republic are a matter of constant debate. It may have been doomed from the start because even moderates disliked it and extremists on both the left and right side abhor it, a position referred to by some historians, such as Igor Primoratz, “democracy without democracy.” Germany had limited democratic traditions, and Weimar democracy was widely seen as anarchic.
Weimar politicians were blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I through a widely believed theory called the “stab-in-the-back myth”, which argued Germany’s surrender in World War I. There was unnecessary act of traitors, and thus the popular legitimacy of the government was on shaky ground.
As normal parliamentary law and order broke down and was replaced by a series of emergency decrees around 1930, the government’s dwindling popular legitimacy pushed voters to extremist parties.
In its early years the republic was already under attack from both left and right wing sources. Radical leftists accused the ruling Social Democrats of betraying the ideals of the labor movement by halting the communist revolution and sought to overthrow the republic and do so themselves.
Various right-wing sources opposed any democratic system, preferring an authoritarian, autocratic state like the 1871 Empire. To further undermine the credibility of the republic, some right-wingers (particularly some members of the former officer corps) also blamed an alleged conspiracy by Socialists and Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I.
The Weimar Republic had some of the most serious economic problems experienced by any Western democracy in history. Large-scale hyper-inflation, widespread unemployment and a sharp fall in the standard of living were the primary factors.
In the first half of 1922, the mark stabilized at around 320 marks to the dollar. In the fall of 1922, Germany found itself unable to pay for the repairs as the price of gold was now far beyond what it could afford.
Furthermore, the mark was practically worthless anymore, making it impossible for Germany to buy currency or gold with paper marks. Instead, repairs would be paid for in goods like coal.
In January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial region in the Ruhr Valley, to secure payment for repairs. Inflation was exacerbated when the Ruhr workers went on a general strike and the German government printed more money to continue to pay for their passive resistance.
In November 1923, the US dollar was worth 4.2 trillion German marks. In 1919, a loaf of bread cost 1 mark; in 1923, the same loaf of bread cost 100 billion marks.
From 1923 to 1929, there was a brief period of economic recovery, but the Great Depression of the 1930s led to a global recession. Germany was particularly hard hit because it relied heavily on American loans.
In 1926, around 2 million Germans were unemployed, which increased to around 6 million in 1932. Many blamed the Weimar Republic. That became clear when left and right political parties that wanted to completely dissolve the Republic made any democratic majority in Parliament impossible.
Reparations harmed Germany’s economy by discouraging market loans, which forced the Weimar government to finance its deficit by printing more currency, leading to massive hyperinflation. Furthermore, the rapid disintegration of Germany by the withdrawal of a disillusioned army in 1919, the rapid change from a possible victory in 1918 to defeat in 1919, and political chaos may have created a psychological impression on the Germans that gave rise to extreme nationalism. It was later symbolized and exploited by Hitler.
It is also widely believed that the 1919 constitution had several weaknesses, which eventually made possible the establishment of a dictatorship, but it is unknown whether a separate constitution could have prevented the rise of the Nazi Party.