The Weimar Republic – doomed to failure

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Last updated: November 9, 2019

The Weimar republic, set up in 1919 by the major superpowers of the world was meant to be a model government. It was designed to bring stability and prosperity to Germany, and close the door behind its turbulent, autocratic past.

So how did it all go so wrong, and was the Weimar Republic doomed to failure right from its conception? What was the deciding factor that finally spelled the end for Europe’s first ever republic? To understand these questions better, and to put them into context, here is a brief summary of how the Weimar Republic came into being.At the end of the First World War, the ‘big three’ powers in the world (Britain, France and the USA) met and deliberated over what to do with the defeated Germany. One thing was clear; the current government would have to go. Kaiser Wilhelm II (the ruler at the time,) was all in favour of the war, and the big three knew that there would be no assurance that he would not start up World War Two. Therefore, Woodrow Wilson (the American President) insisted that he would have to go. After the Kaiser fled, the next heir to the throne, Prince Max of Baden became Germany’s ruler.However Max knew that the old autocratic regime was over, and he was fully aware that he was merely an interim caretaker to oversee Germany while a new system of government was developed. Soon, Fredrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democrat Party (SPD) came forward and was handed control by Prince Max, under the condition that Ebert would do his utmost to prevent Germany falling to the communists.

Ebert set to work trying to construct a constitutional monarchy (like the system we have in the UK. He believed that this was the best option for Germany, as it would keep the German right wing moderately happy (it would preserve the monarchy, which they wanted) as well as making Germany more democratic.While this was going on, a group calling themselves the Spartacists (after the famous Roman slave) were pressing for a German Communist state, following the template of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the Spartacists (later to become the Communist party or KPD) were gaining support for their Reterrepublik (Soviet Republic. It was at a KPD rally that the direction of Germany’s government was swung in a totally different direction. The KPD rally was held very close to an SPD gathering, so the crowd who turned up to hear the Spartacists soon turned their attention to the SPD as well. After Ebert had left, one of his juniors (Phillip Schneidmann), in an effort to try and appease the communists, declared, “Long live the German republic! ” Once this phrase had been uttered, there was no turning back.

Germany would was to become the First Republic in Europe. Ebert then established a provisional Government.This became known as the Weimar Republic, as the representatives from the different political factions decided to meet in a small town called Weimar, as it was deemed that Berlin was too dangerous. On the 11th November 1918, the armistice was signed and the fighting ended.

However, the blockades around the coast remained, causing mass hardship and suffering among the German people. The Spartacists thought that this was the perfect time to revolt, and overthrow the government, as the people would want change. Also, with the elections due to be held soon, they felt that it would be best to get in before the situation was stabilised.So on the 6th of January 1919they stormed Berlin. However, Liebknecht and Luxembourg had seriously misjudged the mood of the German people, as well as the reaction of the provisional government. There was not, as had been assumed, mass support amongst the proletariat for a communist revolution; most workers favoured the moderate socialist approach followed by the SPD.

Also Ebert had enlisted the support of the Freicorps. These were units of soldiers returning from the war, who became a sort of right wing army touring Germany and destroying any Left Wing uprisings.Although Ebert was a socialist (and therefore was against what the Freicorps believed,) he also wanted the communists eradicated and therefore supported them in their crusade against the Spartacists. Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht were shot by a Freicorps commander, symbolising the end of the only serious communist uprising Germany was to face for the next 26 years. On the 19th of January, elections were held, and with 3 out of 4 voters wanting a Republic, the Weimar Republic met for the first time on the 6th of February 1919.One of the First jobs of the new government was to organise a delegation to travel to the Paris peace conference. This conference was set up by the main superpowers and had the objective of deciding what to do with Germany. However, despite the new government’s willingness to partake in the discussions, Germany was virtually excluded from talks, still seen by everyone as the guilty party.

Germany was also used as a scapegoat by other nations who were also responsible for starting the war, as it was easy to attach blame to the losing side.So, the Weimar Republic was formed under very unenviable circumstances. At the time, Germany was in a terrible state. When the new government came into office, the country had just been through the biggest and bloodiest war ever, the people were suffering from food shortages due to the Allied blockades, the economy was at a virtual standstill, and to rub salt into the wound, a flu epidemic was killing millions of people all around Europe. The people were looking for something to blame all their problems on.

Finding no material object they could point their fingers at, they looked towards the new government. Therefore, as soon as the Weimar Republic was formed, the most democratic government in Europe was already the most unpopular. Things didn’t get better. The army, whose top Generals and commanders were all from the old aristocracy, were set against the idea of a German Republic.

They preferred the old system, where they had a lot more influence over the decisions taken by the government. So to discredit the new regime, they encouraged the spreading of the ‘stab in the back’ myth.This was an idea that if left to its own devices, the army could have continued the war, and led Germany to victory if they hadn’t been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the Weimar Republic. This was grossly untrue, and most intelligent people could see this, but for the majority of Germans, looking for somewhere to pin their problems, this seemed like a plausible theory.

On the 28th of June 1919 the Treaty of Versailles (the product of the Paris Peace conference) was signed. Germany, who had been shown a draft copy 1 month before was strongly opposed to the treaty.This was also the opinion held by nearly all Germans.

However, despite the Navy sinking their ships in protest, and the republic very nearly restarting the war, Germany eventually capitulated, and reluctantly signed the treaty. This outraged the German people, who felt the republic had betrayed them all. The memory of what happened with the Treaty of Versailles was to remain with Ebert and his government for the rest of their days. The Republic’s problems continued into the early 20’s. In March 1920, General Kapp, a right wing ex – army serviceman stormed Berlin.He wanted the Kaiser restored to power, the dissolving of the Weimar Republic, and ultimately the dismissal of all demands made by the Treaty of Versailles. He was supported by the Freicorps and the police, but did not have the support of the people. They held a general strike, and after only 4 days in control, General Kapp was forced to flee.

The Kapp Putsch (as it became known) was a clear example of the volatile state Germany was in. In addition to the other clauses laid out by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to accept guilt for causing the War, and therefore had to pay reparation payments to all affected nations.The total bill was fixed at £6,600 million, payable in annual instalments. Although this was only about 3% of Germany’s total GDP, in the highly complicated world of economics, it was impossible to afford without increasing taxes.

However, this would be political suicide, as the government could not afford to antagonise the German people any further. Therefore as expected, after paying the first instalment in 1921, by 1922 no cash had materialised. This was too much for France who had been counting on this money to help settle their debt with America, as well as pay for the rebuilding of their country.So, in January 1923, they invaded the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany.

Obviously, the German government was furious, as were the German people. Here was a country barely able stand up, and here was France kicking it in the shins. The international community, who condemned France’s actions, also shared this view. However there was nothing the Germans could do. To respond militarily would be impossible; it would spark up another war that Germany could never hope to win. The only avenue open to the Germans was passive resistance (refusing to work etc. ) However, the French soon fixed this by bringing in their own workers.This crisis was used by the Republic’s opponents to show it up as a weak, powerless government, yet again intensifying the bad feeling towards it.

This halt in German industrial production (it all effectively belonged to the French,) caused yet another crisis for Germany to deal with. In Britain, When we have a five pound note in our pockets, it means that the British government has sufficient assets to be able to give me five pounds of goods or services should I want them. If there is no actual substance behind that money, it is known as inflation. This is what happened in Germany.With no real economic activity going on, money became worth less and less. Consequently, you needed more money to buy anything. The situation got so bad that workers took wheelbarrows to work, to carry their wages home! This hyperinflation also made imports and exports impossible, further sliding Germany into oblivion.

The worsening situation in Germany also brought about a renewed interest in extremist politics. Generally, when times are hard, people turn towards a political party that offers a firm, solid ideology. Consequently, the Communists and the Right-wingers surged in popularity.

In 1923, Adolf Hitler led the Munich Putsch, a revolution in Bavaria that was soon put down, but showed the world that Germany could slide back into Anarchy very easily. The events up to 1923 had done serious damage to the Weimar Republic. Although it was probably not irrevocable, the hardship suffered by millions of Germans would stay in the minds of many for years to come.

One of theses people was the little man who was then sitting in a rather comfortable prison; Adolf Hitler. However, Germany pulled through. In August 1923, Gustav Stresseman was appointed as chancellor for Germany.He persuaded the French to leave the Ruhr area, and therefore restarted the German economy. He also abolished the old currency and replaced it with a new one, to remove the legacy of hyperinflation (stopping people using 1 billion mark notes when the currency had been stabilised. ) Working with America, he also restructured the reparations payments (under the Dawes plan, as well as taking out vast loans from American banks to help with the repair of the German economy. Germany now entered what has been called the Golden Era.

Between 1924 and 1929, Stresseman managed to bring Germany back to some kind of normality.The restructured reparations payments meant that Germany had more money to spend on rebuilding its war damaged cities, improving hospitals and education as well as many other projects. These changes brought about improved living conditions among German people, and consequently the arts flourished. With the restrictions on imports and exports lifted, Germany could also begin trading with other nations again, allowing it to build on its slowly recovering economy. Stresseman was a far more charismatic and skilful politician than Ebert, important qualities if you want your people to like you.Stresseman managed to bring the German people on side, distancing himself from the memories of hyperinflation and mass unemployment as far as possible. Again, extremist politics was abandoned in favour of the more liberal and tolerant government of the Weimar Republic.

Further more, in 1929 just before his death, Stresseman negotiated the Young plan with the Americans. This restructured the reparations payments again (so they were smaller each year,) as well as finally removing the troops stationed in Alsace Lorraine.This was extremely important as it showed that the government was slowly eroding the restrictions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. Therefore, on the surface, everything was fine. However, if we look below the facade it is clear that Germany was not as stable as it looked. The German economy was working off borrowed money instead of German investment.

This money would eventually have to be paid back; meaning if the economy did not grow enough, Germany would be back where it started. An example of the economy’s problems during the golden era is the rise in unemployment.This indicates a shrinking economy; further proof that Germany may well have collapsed had the American loans been withdrawn at this time.

The Golden Era ended abruptly on October 19th 1929. This was the day of the Wall St Crash. The wall street crash, put briefly was the almost complete devaluation of the American economy. The stock market, backbone of American business, became worthless.

This in turn ruined the American banks, which were forced to demand all the loans they had made to be repaid immediately in full.European countries, many of which had borrowed vast amounts of money to pay for the war, were in deep trouble. Worst affected however, was Germany because of its almost complete dependence on American loans. With a worldwide depression looming, Germany had nobody else to turn to for help and the country was back in deep trouble. Business after business collapsed and the Weimar Republic had to deal with over 6 million unemployed. This was too much for the German welfare state to handle, and the issue was hotly debated in parliament.The SDP and the Peoples party (VP) were unable to agree on how much the government should contribute to the unemployment fund.

Eventually, the democratic process broke down, and President Hindenburg declared a state of emergency (under the German constitution,) giving himself absolute power over Germany. Hindenburg’s chosen chancellor, Brening, although well intentioned, was unable to counteract the effects of the Worldwide depression, and the situation in Germany got worse and worse. As I have said before, extreme times bring out extreme politicians, and this crisis was no exception.Both the communists and Hitler’s Nazi party gained massive levels of popularity. Chancellor Brening called elections in September 1930, as he wanted to be sure the German people supported him.

This was a big mistake, as it allowed the Nazi party to enter the political process. Hitler’s simplistic scapegoating of the Jews, accusing them of being responsible for all of Germany’s problems was extremely attractive to a vast cross section of the German people. By contrast, the communists found it hard to obtain any sympathy beyond the working classes. This was not enough for them to take control.The following year, another round of elections were called, and Germany’s situation had got even worse.

The Nazis and communists were in the majority. This was very bad news for the Weimar Republic, as the two parties who were committed to destroying it dominated it. Hitler’s aspiration was to become Chancellor. In this position, he could really take control. However, seeing the danger he posed, President Hindenburg selected a different Chancellor, Franz Von Papen. Von Papen did not improve matters, and in July he called yet more elections. Yet again, the communists and the Nazi’s increased their share.

Finally, desperately trying to claw back support, the chancellor called elections again in November that year. Surprisingly, the results of this election showed a fall in support for the Nazi’s and a dramatic gain for the Communists. This was a dangerous situation in Hindenburg and Von Papen’s eyes, as they were just as opposed to communism as they were to Nazism, if not more so. Wanting to stop the communists at all costs, as well as try and keep a watchful eye over the far right, the President declared Hitler chancellor of Germany on the 19th January 1933.Hitler was now in control, as the head of a democratic republic he despised.

However, the Right did not have enough seats in the Reichstag to destroy it. The only way he could succeed would be to call more elections. This campaign was to become one of the bloodiest and most violent campaigns Germany had ever witnessed. The Nazis campaigned very hard. In addition to Hitler’s rallies, where he would obtain standing ovations and rapturous applause, the Nazi’s used groups of ‘Storm Troopers’ to go around beating up the opposition and threatening people.The burning down of the German parliament also helped the Nazi’s. This gave them an excuse to arrest many of their political enemies, whom they blamed for having started the fire.

Taking all these factors into account, it was not surprising when the Nazis and their allies the DVNP obtained a majority in the Reichstag. On the first meeting of the new government, Hitler moved to pass the enabling act, basically a law that would make him dictator. The Enabling act was passed, and the Weimar Republic, the embodiment of all the hopes and dreams for a democratic Germany were destroyed.Having looked at the historical evidence, I feel that the Weimar Republic was not doomed to failure.

If we look at Germany’s golden era, we can see that the public was largely in favour of the government, with the Nazis and the communists obtaining pitiful results in elections. This shows that the German public were happy with the situation at this time despite having despised the government for signing the Treaty of Versailles just a few years previously.However we can see that the Golden Era was made possible only because of the vast loans from America.

So would a Germany that was built on borrowed money, also be living on borrowed time? In my opinion, Germany would have been able to sustain its situation in the Mid 20’s if the Wall St Crash had not intervened. I am basing this opinion on the fact that Germany was a large nation with much natural and human recourse available to it. Looking at Germany today, you would never believe it had been totally devastated twice by war.Therefore I feel that Germany would have been able to increase its GDP (economic output) over a few more years to such a level that it would have been able to repay most of the American debt.

However, this was not to be, as the Wall St Crash destroyed the German economy and brought extremist politics back to the forefront. It was consequently, an external factor beyond The Weimar Republics control that caused its dramatic downfall. Also, when times became hard again, memories of the treaty of Versailles and hyperinflation came flooding back, causing yet more resentment.

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