Explain the collapse of the Weimar Republic in the period up to 1933 The collapse of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent takeover by Adolf Hitler in 1933 was influenced by a wide range of factors. Although the revolution of 1918 resulted in a drastic shift within the German political system, the same could not be said for the social structure, culture and old institutes of Germany.
Famously acknowledged as a “republic born with a hole in its heart” the overturn of the Hohenzollern monarchy in replacement for the Republic, was fraught with difficulties from its onset, including the failure of the conservative elites to support democracy, the perceived injustice of the Treaty of Versailles, economic and political instability, and the rise to power of the Nazis. A catalyst for the collapse was the Great Depression which unleashed economic, social and political chaos in Germany in the era between 1930 and 1933.
With the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933, the Weimar Republic ceased to exist. Democracy was a foreign concept to the German people, whose authoritarian tradition had deep psychological and social roots. On 9 November 1918, when the Kaiser’s abdication was announced, and Friedrich Ebert the leader of the Social Democratic Party was entrusted with the German Empire, “The old and rotten – the monarchy – has broken down. Long live the new! Long live the German Republic! was shouted towards the public. However, familiarity of authoritarian rule and therefore the traditional expectation for the government to take control, make strong decisive decisions and stand as a unified front, was not a feature replicated in the new republican government. One of the problems lay in the new republican constitution of 1919, which guaranteed the basic rights of the German people but also contained weaknesses that undermined its functionality as a democratic constitution.
The voting system based on proportional representation was one such weakness. With a system based on small political parties, this ensured that no party ever gained a majority of seats and all 21 Weimer governments were forced to become coalition with conflicting interests. Small parties also encouraged the creation new governments which resulted in instability and frequent elections. In fact, upon birth only two parties within the Weimar supported the concept of a Republic, being the SPD and Centre.
The constitution also gave great power and influence to the president in Article 48, which proved dangerous and was vulnerable to corruption. Between 1919 and 1923 President Ebert resorted to Article 48 on 135 occasions, allowing him to rule by decree. After 1930 President von Hindenburg employed the article continuously up until the appointment of Hitler as chancellor, and as a result it became one of the methods used to overthrow democracy. This instability and lack of cohesion failed to inspire support for democracy and the German Republic on which it was based.
Parliamentary government with its deadlocks, bickering and frequent elections disgusted the German people whose traditions were those of authority and discipline. During the 1920s a great number of Putsches and political assassinations, highlighted the instability of the German Republic. The Kapp Putsch in 1920 and Munich Putsch in 1923 were rightwing attacks, which not only demonstrated the rising power of the army but the fragility of the democratic nation.
The Red Rising Putsch demonstrated similar weakness in parliament and finalized the political instability through the growth of extremist mass parties. The growing distrust of the effectiveness of Republican rule, was not only a weakness which Hitler ultimately exploited, but continually emphasized the growing suggestion which painted democracy as an alien “system” foisted on an unwilling German population by the so-called “November criminals”. The failure to quell the powerful opponents within the old institutes of Germany, aided the downfall of the Weimar Republic to fascism and the rise of Hitler.
Their right wing interests strove to return the Republic to its traditional authoritarian state with the conservative elites at its head, naively employing Hitler as an instrument to achieve these goals. These key opponents were found in the agencies of the state, including the: civil service, the judiciary, the education system, junkers, industrialists and the army, who were all privileged elites with preserved status and power in the German Republic which they opposed. Education administrators and teachers who were hostile to democracy were permitted to remain in their positions.
Many used this freedom to indoctrinate students with nationalist, authoritarian and anti-republican principles. Meanwhile the judiciary with its conservative and nationalistic outlook, were permitted to remain intact and as a result dolled lenient sentences to right wing enemies of the Republic (e. g. Hitler and Ludendorff in 1923), while left wing offenders were harshly treated. The great industrialists, who remained sympathetic of Imperial Germany, were attracted to the Nazi image of discipline and order nd through distrust and fear of the socialists and communists. Many began to support the Nazi movement in 1932 with the fall of Papen which the German industry had supported and appointment of General von Schleicher as chancellor, whom there was an intense distrust. The civil service, which was the instrument for implementing government policy, similarly retained a high proportion of its personnel. Members were in a position to guide policy making or obstruct ones which they did not agree. Perhaps most significant was the position of the army.
As Weimar leaders were forced to call upon the army to sustain the Republic against attack, as a result government were forced to introduce policies with which the army approved. Additionally, the existence of these military bands and private armies, particularly the Freikorps, was a danger to peaceful political development. They contained violent men whose political objectives were alien to a democratic republican regime. The failure of democratic governments to take firm action to suppress these bands permitted the electorate to be intimidated and contributed to the destruction of democracy.
The association of the Weimar Republic with military defeat and the international humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, created a long term legacy of bitterness. This squashed attempts to establish the new Weimar as a positive amendment as it became a symbol of insult to the German honor and the shame which had resulted from the terms of the treaty. The armistice of 1918 came as a genuine shock to the Germans who had expected the peace settlement to be based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Instead they were met with a diktat shaped by French determination for revenge, and a fifteen days deadline in order to respond.
Despite the anger and emotion outbursts that greeted the news of the treaty, the reality was that the German government had very little choice other than to accept its terms. Under the terms of the Treaty, Germany lost about 13% of its territory, 12% of its population, 48% of its iron ore and 16% of its coal resources. Perhaps the most significant blows of the terms was Clause 231, which stipulated German war guilt and the final reparation figure of 132 000 million gold marks. There was born a general belief that “it was better to die honorably than accept such a disgraceful peace”.
Nevertheless, two days later, the Reichstag reluctantly voted to accept, and on 28th June 1919, the Treaty was signed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. In perspective, while the German condemnation of the Treaty was understandable and genuine, when compared to other armistice including the Russian, Germany was still the largest nation on the continent and potentially the most powerful, despite the restrictions of the Treaty. However, nationalists and the political forces of the extreme left and right used the emotionalism of the Treaty to persistently and effectively attack the Republic and Democracy.
From this was born the ‘stab in back’ and ‘November criminals’ myths, in an attempt of the army to preserve dignity and disassociate itself with the defeat of the war. ‘November criminals’ were identified as socialist politicians who had signed the armistice, while the ‘stab in the back theory’ or Dolchstosslegende argued that Jews and Communists were behind military defeat. Scapegoats of the war could be found in: socialists, pacificists, war profiteers and Jews and although the German High Command himself had argued an armistice the legend became a convenient and genuinely held belief.
Subsequently, German reluctance to accept defeat and thus the Treaty of Versailles, forever tarnished the nation story of the new Weimar Republic, and henceforth become a primary agent in its downfall. In 1921 when the government was given the final reparation figure of 132 billion gold marks, Germany’s economic capacity to meet annual installments while attempting to stabilize a new Republic, resulted in political crisis, the fall of the government and hyperinflation. A new coalition government between the Socialists (SPD), the German Democratic Party (DDP) and the Centre Party was formed.
Joseph Wirth of the Centre Party was a firm believer in a policy of fulfillment. Together with Rathenau a foreign minister, they designed the policy based on the belief that Germany’s efforts to meet its obligations, would create a situation where renegotiation and modifications of the terms in the settlement would become possible. The theory was birthed from the Clause 234, which stated the treaty’s ability for review based on Germany’s capacity to meet economic installments.
However, despite these optimistic efforts key industrial resources had been lost in the treaty and Germany had little export trade. With pressure on the government to carry through necessary economic reforms to not only meet the growing costs of reparations but also of wages and war pensions, more money was printed. The value of the German currency began to steadily decline and by September 1923 one US dollar was worth 10 million marks. although eventually treaties such as the
Dawes and Young Plan aided in restoring a degree of relative economic stability in 1924 and 1929, the devastation of the Depression would soon unravel these progresses, and plunge Germany into a state of economic and political turmoil. The Depression more than any other event acted as a catalyst towards the loss of confidence in the parliamentary system and the rise of Hitler. By far the worst affected nation, the chaos the Depression created become an agent Hitler employed to turn the populace against the Republic.
The economic prosperity Germany had enjoyed after 1924 was largely due to the benefits of foreign loans. 23 million marks on the basis of 90 day loans came from the United States in the period between 1924 and 1929 alone. Additionally, throughout the 1920s, the Reichsbank deliberately kept interest rates high in order to attract foreign investment and the money gathered from all these endeavors was placed in the finance of the industrial boom. The basic weakness of this structure of economy was the countries reliance on short term loans in order to fund long term projects.
When in October 1929 the New York stock market collapsed and the United States began to slide into economic depression, short term loans to Germany were recalled. Hence, the German economy began to experience the full impact of economic collapse and soon unemployment, severe social hardship and political instability was prominent. The abruptness of the situation left Germany spiraling towards turmoil with the government left with very few available options to deal with the crisis.
A deflationary policy was adopted to deal with the crisis but since this required cuts in welfare and increase of tax, the supposed cure did little more than further the impact felt by the German people. By 1932 the number of unemployed people had soared to over six million, living standards had collapsed, and business and industry were at a standstill. Had the depression not been so severe or prolonged it may have been possible for the Republic to survive, however the Depression acted as a trigger for a revitalization of extreme movements and was a major factor that carried the Nazis to power.
During these instances Hitler had steadily increased his party and through propaganda and powerful speeches to the German populace, projected an image of strength, discipline and authority which the Republic lacked. By 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor and the Weimar lay in ruins. Through the foreignism of democracy, the opposition of powerful institutes, social and political instability, the people had turned towards a more traditional symbol of imperial Germany, with whom they believed would led their nation back to prosperity at its head. This miscalculation may be argued by historians as one of the most fatal in the 20th century.