Weimar: Destined for Failure by a Weak Constitution and Poor Popular Support? A thread that runs throughout many analyses of the legacy of theWeimar Republic contains the idea that the fledgling German democracy was somehow doomed from the start.
With a constitution that contained items such as Article 48 – a constitutional provision that permitted the Weimar President to rule by decree without the consent of the Reichstag – and a clause that allowed the Reichskanzler to assume office in the event of the death of the President, there were certainly structural inadequacies that, in hindsight, may not have been the wisest choices by the framers of the Weimar Constitution.
Craig took aim at the consttutional inclusion of proportional representation (Verhaltniswahlrecht) in elections to the Reichstag, arguing that the resultant plethora of German political parties “made for an inherent instability that manifested itself in what appeared to the bemused spectator to be a continuous game of musical chairs” in the near-constant shuffling of Weimar coalitions and ministries.
Eyck described the enormous number of political parties under proportional representation as “these many cooks [who] brought forth a broth which was neither consistent nor clear. ” Mommsen, however, disagreed that proportional representation was a root cause of Weimar political instability, calling Verhaltniswahlrecht “at most a symptom” of the problems, and adding that the “reluctance to assume political responsibility” by Weimar political parties was the source of instability.
Left: Weimar President Friedrich Ebert Other historians have pointed to the seeming lack of enthusiasm many Germans felt for the new government as contributing to a “doomed” Weimar. Erdmann argued that Germans faced a difficult dilemma in 1918-1919, faced with the choices of “social revolution in alliance with the forces pressing for a proletarian dictatorship,” or “a parliamentary republic in alliance with conservative elements such as the old officer corps. McKenzie, while acknowledging that the new Republic did not have broad support, nonetheless maintained that the motivations of most Germans remained simply “the restoration of law and order and return to peacetime conditions. ”
Fritzsche, arguing against the idea that Germans were anti-democratic, argued that “the hostile defamations of the president of the republic were as indicative of democratization as the presidency of the good-willed Fritz Ebert himself. Brecht disputed the notion that Germans, as a people, have somehow always been totalitarian, and cautioned against such the creation of such simplistic stereotypes to exlain the failure of Weimar democracy: …nothing can be more devious than the opinion that the Germans have always been totalitaran and that the democratic regime served only as a camouflage to conceal this fundamental fact. The overwhelming majority of the people at the end of the imperial period and during the democratic regime were distinctly anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist in both their ideas and principles.
The rise of a culture of political violence in Weimar Germany should certainly be considered as a contributory factor in the Republic’s political instability. Beginning with the emergence of the Freikorps units immediately after the declaration of the Republic, this tendency toward violence became entrenched in Weimar politics after the 1919 assassinations of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Evans argued that “gun battles, assassinations, riots, massacres, and civil unrest” prevented Germans from possessing the “stability in which a new democratic order could flourish.
Moreover, noted Evans, all major political parties employed groups of armed loyalists whose purposes were to protect their political compatriots and to contribute to the waging of low-grade civil war: Before long, political parties associated themselves with armed and uniformed squads, paramilitary troops whose task it was to provide guards at meetings, impress the public by marching in military parades, and to intimidate, beat up, and on occasion kill members of the paramilitary units associated with other political parties.
Thus, the rise of militant extremists such as the NSDAP should viewed within the context of the Weimar history of political paramilitary forces as a “normal” phenomenon. Groups such as the Stahlhelm, the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, and the Rotfrontkampferbund had memberships much higher than did the Ordnertruppen in the early to mid-1920s, and the rise of the Sturmabteilung as the muscle behind the NSDAP reflects the recognition by the Nazis of the unwritten rules of politics in Weimar Germany.
Weimar Culture and Challenges to Tradition The personal freedoms often associated with Weimar culture – whether seen as an inevitable, pendulum-like reaction after decades of Wilhelmine authoritarianism, or as a flowering of postwar expression – led to a period of unparalleled vibrancy in literature, the arts, architecture, and philosophy. Kolb described the period as “the eruption of a new vitality, the liberation of creative forces in a short decade of unbounded intellectual and artistic freedom.
Moreover, the Weimar period witnessed significant leaps forward in the emancipation of women, and it is not without considerable merit that many pundits have described Weimar Germany as the first modern culture. Left: Image of cabaret production of the Haller Revue in Berlin Yet these sudden cultural changes were far from being universally accepted by the average German, and groups on the right as well as the left decried what was perceived by many as the power of destructive internal forces.
Leftists tended to focus on the bourgeois infatuation with base materialism, while many conservatives believed that republican Germany was becoming a morally decrepit nation. Hitler himself played off such sentiments in his speeches, using widespread perceptions of decadence and disaffection with modernity as springboards for his anti-Marxist and anti-Semitic philosophies. In his first public speech after accepting the post of Reichskanzler, Hitler blasted those whom he believed to have quickly led Germany to moral decay: Communism with its method of madness is making a powerful and insidious attack upon our dismayed and shattered nation.
It seeks to poison and disrupt in order to hurl us into an epoch of chaos…. This negative, destroying spirit spared nothing of all that is highest and most valuable. Beginning with the family, it has undermined the very foundations of morality and faith and scoffs at culture and business, nation and Fatherland, justice and honor. Fourteen years of Marxism have ruined Germany; one year of bolshevism would destroy her. Chief among the evidence for the supposed moral decline cited by contemprary critics of Weimar culture was the open sexual freedom proclaimed by many younger Germans, especially in the larger cities.
Berlin, in particular, became something of an international destination for people seeking its wide variety of sexual subcultures. Henig argued that the “bright lights and avant-garde cultural attraction of Berlin incurred the hostility of traditional communities in rural areas. ” The Weimar era, maintained Mommsen, was a period “that was characterized by the tension between extreme modernity in a few cultural centers and the relatve backwardness of life in the provinces. ” Kolb noted that “confrontation in cultural matters still further exacerbated the basic political discord among Germans in the Weimar period.
Lacqueur observed that many German artists were seemingly clueless of just how far removed their work was from the sensibilities of the average German citizen: Strange as it may appear in retrospect, they were genuinely unaware of the fact that the distance between the avant-garde and popular taste had grown immeasurably and that the dctrines preached by the right were much more in line with popular taste. Those who emphasize the cultural decadence of Weimar Germany, of course, run the risk of sounding prudish, or even worse, as apologists for the fascist regime that followed the demise of the Weimar Republic.
Still, it is important to note that the perception of moral decay by many comtemporary Germans – on both the political right and left – was a contributing factor in the moving away from mainstream political parties by German voters and toward extremist factions such as the NSDAP and KDP. Combined with political instability and – most importantly – deleterious economic conditions, the concerns of many Germans about moral decline and social decay began to be expressed in the electoral results of 1930-32 and the eventual collapse of the republic-supporting Weimar Coalition.
Hyperinflation, Depression, and Politcial Opportunity One of the consistent themes that underscores the period of Weimar Germany is that of economic instability, and the economic calamities that occurred throughout the history of the Republic mirror periods of political upheaval. The Weimar government, at various times, faced food shortages, hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and an unprecedented economic depression, and any analysis of the failures of democracy in Weimar Germany needs to take into account these inherently disruptive economic phenomena.
Craig succinctly summed up the economic problems facing the new republic with this comment: “Its normal state was crisis. ” Left: German children playing with worthless banknotes in 1923 The debts incurred by the German government during the war and the economic downturn that followed the transition away from a wartime economy weighed down the fledgling Weimar Republic. Industrial production in 1919, noted Evans, was only 42 percent of what it had been in 1913, and grain production had fallen by over 50 percent from prewar figures.
These economic factors, however, paled in comparison with the effects of the reparations demanded and received by the Allies in the Versailles negotiations. In addition, Germany suffered significant territorial losses as a result of Versailles, including Alsace-Lorraine, West Prussia, Posen, Upper Silesia, and the Saar. The terms of the Treaty called for the new German government to make an initial payment of 20 billion gold marks to the Allies by May, 1921, and the Reparations Commission eventually settled on a total reparations bill to Germany of 132 billion gold marks.
John Maynard Keynes – a participant in the Versailles negotiations – accurately predicted that the onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles were far beyond the means of the new republic: The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable,—abhorrent and detestable, even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe.
The initial German economic losses due to the Treaty of Versailles were staggering. Germany lost about 13. 5 percent of its territory, approximately 13 percent of its industrial productivity, and slightly more than 10 percent of its population. In addition, the loss of important mining areas such as the Saar and Upper Silesia resulted in a loss of 74 percent of German iron ore, 41 percent of the country’s pig iron supplies, and approximately 25 percent of its coal reserves. Historians and economists have long debated the actual effects of the Treaty of Versailles on economic conditions in Weimar Germany.
Fraser argued that the Treaty “was in no sense the unjust and cynical imposition that the propagandists alleged it to have been. ” Eyck held that many Germans believed “that they had been duped by the armistice,” and that the effect of the heavy reparations served mostly to reinforce the Dolchsto? legende. Craig argued that the economic conditions that followed the burden of the reparations bills resulted in ordinary Germans suffering “deprivations that shattered their faith in the democratic process and left them cynical and alienated. Kolb noted that most of the reparations that were paid ultimately were sent by the debtor nations of Britain and France to the United States, which in turn reinvested this capital in the German economy. Webb called into question the very process of analyzing post-Treaty German economics, arguing that the effects of inflation in the early 1920s make calculations especially difficult, as inflation “altered the real value of all financial flows and confounded their measurement. ”
Yet it would be naive to dismiss the idea that reparations payments were a heavy burden on the new Weimar government. With a sputtering economy, high unemployment, and weak tax revenues, the government of Ebert found itself trying to balance the needs of German citizens with the additional debt load from the reparations bills. Moreover, to a German population that was experiencing widespread poverty and food shortages – not to mention the wartime sacrifices – reparations that were being sent to recent wartime enemies came as a shock.