Why did the the Weimar Republic Collapse?


Stacks of bank notes during the era of hyperinflation in Weimar Republic

The Weimar Republic was Germany’s first experiment in democracy. It was founded after the aftermath of the German defeat in World War I. The Republic faced many challenges during its short life. It was undermined by right and left wing extremists and the military. Many have seen the fall of the Weimar Republic as inevitable, however, it could have succeeded but for the economic calamity of the ‘Great Depression’.

Background

After the failure of the last great German offensive in the western front in 1918, it was clear that Germany would lose the war. Because of the war and the Allied blockade many Germans were on the verge of starvation. There were waves of strikes and communists and socialists were actively demonstrating against the government. The German Field Marshal Ludendorf, who had effectively been the military dictator of Germany was dismissed and the Imperial government sought to make peace with the allies. As the government was negotiating peace terms with the Allies, a revolution broke out in German. Workers went on strike and established committees that seized control of many urban centres. In response, the Social Democrat leader Erbert demanded to become Chancellor of Germany. He and others declared the Weimar Republic in November 1918. Soon after elections were held and the Social Democrats formed the first government. The Constitution of the Weimar Republic established it as a ‘presidential republic’.[1]

The Weimar Republic had to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles with the victorious allied and implement its perceived harsh conditions, such as the payment of war reparations to France and other countries, loss of territories and colonies and the limits sets on Germany’s army.[2] These negotiations made the government extremely unpopular with many in the traditional elite and the army. The first government of the Weimar Republic was effectively coerced into signing the Treaty of Versailles. One of the chief goals of successive Weimar governments was to renegotiate or to alleviate the terms of what many Germans saw as an ‘unjust and infamous treaty’.[3]

Challenges for the Weimar Republic

Communist Party leader Ernst Talmann marching in Berlin in 1927

Despite the Revolution in 1918, there were many on the left who believed that it did not go far enough. The radical left wanted a communist system in Germany. Revolutionaries established a Communist Republic in Bavaria and later seized control the Ruhr. These were both defeated by the German army and right wing-militias the Freirkorps. In 1919, Communists led by Rosa Luxembourg tried to stage a revolution in Berlin. This was also defeated by the army with great brutality. It was not only the left that was a threat to the Weimar Republic. The far right also sought to overthrow the Republic. They blamed the Weimar Republic for the predicament of Germany and the ‘infamous’ Treaty of Versailles. There was an attempted right wing coup in Berlin in 1919, the Kapp Putsch. In 1922, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s tried to seize control in Munich but was quickly defeated by German troops.[4]

The Weimar Republic was able to resist the extremists’ attempts to seize power.[5] However, the Republic because of its poor economic decisions and the effect of reparations resulted in hyperinflation. Inflation rose and the price of essential goods rose dramatically. This caused bankruptcies, strikes and great poverty. Many Germans starved at this time. Yet the Weimar Republic was resilient and survived the challenges. In part because many Germans feared that it would be replaced by something worse such as Communism.[6]

Despite the hyperinflation and extremist violence, the Weimar Republic survived and democratically elected governments were able to make significant changes to the German economy and society. Able politicians like Gustave Streseman were able to secure changes to the financial clauses of the Versailles Treaty and this helped the economy to improve. He was also able to secure loans from the United States to help Germany recover from the war and hyperinflation. The Weimar Republic was also able to improve relations with other countries such as France. German culture also flourished at this time and Berlin became a famous artistic centre at this time. By 1928, it appeared that the Weimar Republic was a success and would provide Germany with a stable and democratic form of government for many years to come. The left and right wing extremists during these years had been marginalised but they still had significant popular support.[7]

Great Depression

President Paul von Hindenburg meets Chancellor Adolf Hitler in 1933 at the new Reichstag

In 1929 the Great Depression was triggered by a massive US stock market crashed. It was exacerbated by counterproductive and damaging economic policies. Financial panics and bank failures slow crept around the world. The repercussions were felt around the globe and especially in Germany. The United States could no longer provide the loans that the Weimar Republic needed. Furthermore, global trade almost came to a standstill and many Germans became unemployed. One in three Germans were unemployed at the height of the economic crisis and poverty and hunger were widespread. The Republic was in the grip of an economic and social crisis. In 1930 the conservatives won the election. Chancellor Brunning embarked on a series of disastrous economic and political policies. His economic policies involved devaluing the German currency but this had only the effect of causing hyperinflation that compounded Germany’s economic problems. Furthermore, Brunning discarded the Constitution and ruled by Presidential decree to manage the socio-economic conditions in the country. The Great Recession and the response of Brunning led many people to become disillusioned with the Republic and even democracy. [8]

As the effects of the Great Depression continued there was a revival in the extremist parties in Germany. The Communist party received approximately one quarter of the popular vote and its supports controlled many working class neighbourhoods in urban centres. The right wing National Socialist Party (NAZI) also won support and in the 1932 election they received almost one third of the vote.[9] The mainstream political parties seemed unable to manage the socio-economic crisis. Many conservatives were worried about the specter of a Communist revolution.[10] They withdrew their support for the Republic and looked for ways to ensure that the Communists did not take control. President Hindenburg and his allies offered the Chancellorship to Adolf Hitler as part of a strategy to keep the Communists out of power. Hitler began to assume more and more power and suspended the Constitution of the Weimar Republic and it was effectively dead. Under the 1934 ‘Enabling Act’, Hitler was made the undisputed leader of the German people and nation.[11]

Conclusion

The Weimar Republic was born out of war and revolution. The Republic faced many internal threats from Communists and right-wing extremists. It also had to manage an unprecedented economic crisis and a war ravaged society. It was also left with the task of signing the unpopular Versailles Treaty. However, it was able to negotiate these and was even capable of bringing stability and some limited prosperity to Germany. The Great Depression was to prove fatal for the Republic. The Weimar political parties were unable to deal with the socio-political crisis caused by the Depression and this led people to seek their salvation in Communism and Nazism and this led to the death of the Republic, after only a 15-year existence.

References

  1. Weitz, Eric D. (2007). Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.17.
  2. Weitz, Weimar Germany p. 19.
  3. Nicholls, Anthony James (2000). Weimar And The Rise Of Hitler. New York: St. Martin's Press, p. 111.
  4. Chris Harman (1982). The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918–1923. Bookmarks. p. 89.
  5. Harman, p. 119.
  6. Chris Harman (1982). The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918–1923. Bookmarks. p. 89.
  7. Harman, p. 8.
  8. Nicholls, Anthony James (2000). Weimar And The Rise Of Hitler. New York: St. Martin's Press, p. 117.
  9. Kershaw, Ian (1998). Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris. London: Allen Lane, p. 345.
  10. Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936, p.356.
  11. Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris, p. 347.

Contributors

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