Weimar Republic

Flag of Weimar Republic
Flag of Weimar Republic
The term most commonly used for the government of Germany from 1919 until 1933, named after the town in central Germany where its constitution was drafted, the Weimar Republic was Germany's first experiment with a liberal democratic government.

Throughout its existence the Weimar Republic faced almost constant attacks from the radical left and radical right and had to deal with unstable governments and severe economic crises. It ended in 1933 when Adolf Hitler assumed dictatorial power and effectively revoked the republic's constitution.

The origins of the republic can be traced to the final months of World War I. As it became increasingly clear that Germany was going to lose the war, its generals set in motion plans to negotiate an armistice with the Allied powers. In order to gain favor with the Allies as well as avoid associating the military with the defeat, the generals permitted the creation of a liberal civilian cabinet to carry out the talks.

What began as an experiment in constitutional monarchy quickly collapsed as soldiers and workers rose up against the imperial government in November 1918. On November 9 Emperor William II was forced to abdicate. A republic was soon proclaimed.

Friedrich Ebert of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) became chancellor and immediately set in motion the election of a constituent assembly. However, before the assembly could meet to draft a new constitution, Ebert was forced to put down the large number of socialist revolutions erupting throughout Germany.

As the parliament convened at Weimar to draft a new constitution, the Allies presented Germany with the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The signing of the treaty dealt a severe blow to the new republic's legitimacy. Even moderate Germans considered the loss of territory, reparations, and the war guilt clause as unjust and unnecessarily punitive.

With the German army apparently undefeated on the battlefield, many Germans, especially on the political right, came to believe the so-called Stab in the Back Legend, which blamed Germany's defeat and humiliation on the liberal civil government, socialists, and Jews.

German states during the Weimar Republic period.
German states during the Weimar Republic period.

The constitution of the Weimar Republic guaranteed civil liberties, granted universal suffrage, and strengthened the German parliament, the Reichstag. However, the political upheavals led those drafting the constitution to seek a strong executive authority.

The office of the president was thus given the right to dissolve the Reichstag and, under the provisions of article 48, the ability to issue emergency decrees. The constitution also allowed for proportional representation, giving smaller parties representation in the Reichstag. The constitution was adopted on August 14, 1919, with Friedrich Ebert as first president.

Upon ratification of the constitution, the republic's most pressing challenge was paying the reparations instituted by the Versailles Treaty. As a consequence of the German Empire's deficit spending during World War I and mismanagement of the economy after the war, the mark rapidly decreased in value to the point that it was effectively worthless by 1923.

Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles

French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr Valley to force reparations payments. Mass political violence was common throughout German cities, as rightand left-wing paramilitary units clashed in the streets and attempted to seize power.

On November 9, 1923, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party made a failed attempt to overthrow the government of Bavaria in the Beer Hall Putsch. At the same time the mark had sunk to 4.2 trillion marks per dollar.

A new government under Gustav Stresemann of the German People's Party (DVP) helped stabilize the situation with the creation of a new currency, called the Rentenmark. By 1924 the German currency and economy had stabilized. However, the shock to many Germans caused by the hyperinflation was severe and would not be forgotten when Germany faced another economic crisis in 1929.

Stable Period

Between 1924 and 1929 the Weimar Republic was relatively stable. However, it continued to face weak administrations, as a substantial number of Reichstag deputies were from parties that sought to either undermine or overthrow it. To the parties of the right, the republic was a weak, vacillating, treasonous government dominated by Jews and socialists.

The most radical of these parties, Hitler's Nazis, was steeped in a racist, anti-Semitic ideology. It sought a right-wing anticommunist revolution that would end the republic and create a new authoritarian regime that would purge Germany of socialist and Jewish influence and redress the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty.

To the radical left the parliamentary democracy was an unacceptable compromise with capitalism that inhibited the proletarian revolution sought by the German communists. In 1925 Friedrich Ebert died, robbing the republic of a strong supporter in the president's office. To replace him German voters elected the old general Paul von Hindenburg.

The republic was not without its supporters, however, and the period between 1924 and 1929 was one of consolidation and many diplomatic victories. The SPD, the German Democratic Party (DDP), and the Catholic Center Party remained the only parties consistently supportive of the republic, and they formed what was known as the Weimar Coalition.

These parties, along with the right-of-center DVP, formed most of Weimar's governing cabinets. However, even the SPD, the republic's chief supporters, chose to serve as an opposition party during much of Weimar's existence.

In foreign affairs the republic achieved several diplomatic successes under the leadership of Stresemann, who served as foreign minister in all of Weimar's cabinets until his death in 1929.

Stresemann pursued a policy of fulfillment, by which he publicly declared Germany's willingness to adhere to the Versailles Treaty while at the same time working to gradually revise most of its provisions. In 1925 Germany signed the Locarno agreements and the Treaty of Berlin, and in 1926 the country was admitted to the League of Nations.

The worldwide Great Depression, which erupted as a consequence of the New York stock market crash, caused irreparable damage to the republic's stability and legitimacy. Whatever gains it had made since 1924 were reversed as German voters, recalling the hyperinflation and facing an even worse crisis, became disillusioned with the current governing parties.

The depression hit Germany particularly hard. Unemployment in many regions reached over 33 percent. A center-right coalition was assembled under Heinrich Brüning, whose orthodox economic policies failed to combat the depression. Lacking both economic imagination and a majority in parliament, Brüning relied on emergency decrees through the office of President Hindenburg.

Brüning's support in parliament suffered a critical blow during the elections of 1930, which saw a marked increase in votes for antidemocratic parties. The Nazis, who before the depression had held just 12 seats in the Reichstag, saw their numbers rise to 107. In 1932 Adolf Hitler ran for the presidency but was defeated by Hindenburg; Hitler won 37 percent of the vote.

Nazi Plurality

In 1932 Brüning resigned and was replaced by the aristocratic, reactionary Franz von Papen. Von Papen was even less capable of maintaining support from the Reichstag than Brüning had been, and Hindenburg called for elections in July, which produced a stunning Nazi plurality of 37 percent.

When Hindenburg offered Hitler a position in the government, Hitler declined, insisting that as leader of the Reichstag's largest party he should be chancellor. Still unable to effectively govern without enlisting the aid of the SPD, Hindenburg and von Papen called for yet another round of elections in November. Von Papen fell from office and was replaced by Reichswehr minister Kurt von Schleicher.

Hindenburg agreed to appoint Hitler chancellor
Hindenburg agreed to appoint Hitler chancellor

The decline in votes for the Nazis to 33 percent led to concerns within the ranks of the Nazi Party about sustaining their popularity, and Hitler became amenable to some type of deal with Hindenburg. On January 30, 1933, Hindenburg agreed to appoint Hitler chancellor and von Papen vice-chancellor. Intending to box Hitler in with a majority of non-Nazi ministers, von Papen hoped to be able to control the government.

However, the Nazis controlled several important posts, such as the Reich and Prussian ministries of the interior. Following the Reichstag building fire in February 1933, Hitler pressed the Reichstag to pass an Enabling Law, granting him full dictatorial powers.

This act was followed by the dissolution of civil liberties, the banning of political parties, Nazi control of the press, and incarceration of political opponents in concentration camps. In August 1934, upon the death of President Hindenburg, Hitler combined the office of president and chancellor and became Führer. Although the republic had been effectively dead for over a year, this act finalized its dissolution.

Hitler combined the office of president and chancellor and became Führer
Hitler combined the office of president and chancellor and became Führer