Why the Weimar Republic Failed
Why the Weimar Republic Failed
What led to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich continues to be an important question for students of history and politics. In this research project I will discuss how Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were able to take power in Germany and replace the Weimar Republic. Much of the scholarship on the fall of Weimar Republic highlights the flaws with the German democratic government. I examine voting patterns and changing voter demographics and campaign strategies of the Nazi Party. I examine how a series of events led to the weakness of the Weimar Government and bolstered the appeal of the Nazi Party to the German people. I demonstrate that the political strategy employed by the Nazi Party was the decisive factor in the Nazis winning elections and eventually obtaining power.
What led to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich continues to be an important question for students of history and politics. In this research project I will discuss how Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were able to take power in Germany and replace the Weimar Republic. Much of the scholarship on the fall of Weimar Republic highlights the flaws with the German democratic government. I examine how a series of events led to the weakness of the Weimar Government and bolstered the appeal of the Nazi Party to the German people. I examine voting patterns and changing voter demographics and campaign strategies of the Nazi Party. I demonstrate that the political strategy employed by the Nazi Party was the decisive factor in the Nazis winning elections and eventually obtaining power.
Associationalism and participation in civil society is viewed as a strong foundation for a democratic society but scholars like Berman argue that increase in civil society organization in Weimar Germany had the opposite effect: it led to the downfall of the democratic Weimar Republic. In the absence of a strong national government and well-functioning political parties, the increase in civil society organization led weakening of democratic forces. Germany, associational life grew rapidly, but this caused widened divisions in society between all the classes. In addition, the Great Depression led to amplified demands for state aid and revealed the short comings of the Weimar government. In response to increasingly negative public opinion of the Weimar government, citizens turned to local government as an outlet for both political expression and results (Berman, 1997). During this time political participation was at an all-time low.
Parties within were extremely polarized and failed to reach consensus. Citizens began to see a rise in political violence against innocent civilians the weaknesses of the political parties led to desire by different groups to organize and participate in their own associations. These associations met regularly, whether it was for economic interest or for mere belonging. In the early 1930s, the domino effect of the economic depression spread across Europe. With the economic hardships came the rise of radicalism that appealed to many Germans. In response, the established parties attempted to reshape the relationship between national political life and civil society, but their efforts ended in failure (Berman, 1997). Though out the late 19th century, Germany was steadily marching toward fragmented Associationalism.
This was initially due to a loose central government, and later enhanced by the increasing socio-economic hardships. However, fragmented Associationalism is hardly the sole factor that caused Germany’s plunge into Nazism. In essence the Nazis cunning and deceitful strategy enabled them to take advantage of fragmented Associationalism (Berman, 1997). The Nazi Party realized it could use the populace’s fragmentation and the widespread dissatisfaction to its advantage. They therefore set out to infiltrate the multitude of organizations across the country. The Nazis focus in the early 1920s had been on the urban and working class.
By 1926, their outlook had shifted to the middle class, nonvoters, and the rural populous. This shift in focus, coupled with the Weimar government’s weak response to the Great Depression set up the perfect stage for the Nazis rise to power (Berman, 1997). In an ironic twist to the widely accepted Tocquevillian idea that strong civil associations are essential element of democratic society, Sheri Berman points out that, “without the opportunity to exploit Weimar’s rich associational network, in short, the Nazis would not have been able to capture important sectors of the German electorate so quickly and efficiently” (Berman, 1997).
An important aspect of the Nazis rise to power was their ability to tailor their message to the various constituencies in various regions of Germany. The Nazi Party was able to focus their message to those in different parts of Germany more effectively than other major parties at the time. Established parties like the Social-Democrats had a unified message targeted to their usual constituencies. However, the Nazi message changed depending on who they were targeting (O’Loughlin et al, 1994). In general, the Nazis focused their efforts in southern Bavaria, western Germany in the Ruhr Valley, and the north east. The reason for this was that people in those areas were most affected by the economic hardships and the results of World War. They also had the largest concentrations of “patriotic-nationalism” in Germany. In these areas they focused on workers in the trade and transportation sector in order to isolate them from big business and unions.
However, due to the lack of election and census data, making a definitive analysis is difficult (O’Loughlin et al, 1994). O’Loughlin points out that there are generally five approaches to the question of why the Nazis came to Power. The first approach views the rejection of mainstream political parties by the middle class as a key factor in the rise of Nazism. This argues that each social class developed its own democratic and extremist forms of political express and that the middle class was the most important group that broke away from traditional parties (O’Loughlin et al, 1994). The second approach focused on the theory of mass society. Basically, because of the alienation of individuals from society and the combination of the breakdown of traditional political and social ties individuals flocked to the extremist groups like the NSDAP (O’Loughlin et al, 1994). The third theory focuses on the roles of institutions and traditional voting loyalties.
While the NSDAP could not attract large numbers of votes by appealing directly to large corporations or religious bases, they could infiltrate smaller organizations with ties to the larger entities and sway the vote into their favor from there (O’Loughlin et al, 1994). The fourth approach states that the NSDAP’s rise was partially due to their appeal across the political spectrum. As stated earlier they were able to adjust their message to the targeted audience, this allowed them to appeal to the masses and bring them into their fold (O’Loughlin et al, 1994). The fifth and final approach states that the support for the NSDAP came from economic self-interest.
People only voted for them because they said they had a plan to bring Germany to economic prosperity and save the people (O’Loughlin et al, 1994). In the 1930 Reichstag Election people felt betrayed by the leftist parties after the defeat in WWI (O’Loughlin et al, 1994). Because of this, the right gained support, the left maintained, and the center eroded. Also, because of Hitler’s new strategy of reorganizing the party and focusing on achieving power though the electoral process that the Nazi party gained strength and momentum. These efforts caused the “grand coalition” to fail, the Reichstag to be dissolved, and new elections held, which allowed for a surge in NSDAP representation (O’Loughlin et al, 1994).
Another important aspect to observe is how the Nazis spread their influence in the rural areas of Germany. The Nazis discovered that the greater the individuals participation in the church, the lower their support for the war (WWI). Also the rural areas showed the largest support for the war. The main reason the Nazis did so well in these areas was because the rural middle-class suffered the most from the economic insecurity and loss of social solidarity.
Those who felt left out by the large scale political, religious and social structures were most likely to become strong Nazi supporters. This was mainly caused by their feelings of insecurity, frustration, and longing for the “good ole days” (Loomis & Beegle, 1946). Using this information the Nazis were able to target their message using the war as both a positive and negative to the problems of the people (Loomis & Beegle, 1946).
While the Nazi Party originated in the cities, they were forced to the rural areas because of firm support for the Social Democratic and Communist Party in the more urbanized sections of Germany. In the rural areas the Nazis were able to garner support from Protestants, who were often at odds with Catholics. Soon, virtually the entire rural area voted a straight Nazi ticket.
Also the Protestant farming areas in the north voted strongly for the Nazi Party. In particular the regions of Geest, Lueneburger-Heide, Schleswig-Holstein, and Hannover brought the largest Nazi support. The economic insecurity was the largest contributing factor in the growth of the Nazi vote in these areas. The Nazis were able to utilize this support by infiltrating urban organizations that had bases of operations in the rural lands and in turn, spread their influence back into the cities (Loomis & Beegle, 1946). It is generally believed that support for the NSDAP came mostly from the rural middle and lower class. In fact, the Nazis actually received a lot of support from large firms (Ferguson & Voth, 2008).
It is reported that over half of the firms listed on the Berlin Stock Exchange enjoyed close ties to the Nazi movement. There was good reason for firms to support the Nazis. The firms that supported the Nazis were considerably more profitable and showed signs of increased growth. Also after the Nazis took power these firms saw considerable benefits and favoritism, for a short while anyway. However, the firms did not contribute financially to the Nazi party, sure a few prominent business leaders made substantial donations, but largely the party was self-financed (Ferguson & Voth, 2008).
It is largely believed that enthusiasm for the Nazis economic policies and rearmament was responsible for the economic turnaround in early 1933. However, there are two problems with this belief. The first being that the rising stock prices happened before Hitler’s accession to office became a serious possibility. The second was that stock prices around the world were on a slow but steady rise. The stock prices in Germany also rose relative to those in the other major European countries and the United States at the same time (Ferguson & Voth, 2008).
The economic crisis of the 1930s had a tremendous affect on the vote for the Nazi party. The economic conditions played a vital role in the Nazis rise to power. The dissolution of former protective institutions in society caused the public to punish the governing parties for their poor performance by electing the opposition party; meaning that people voted more against established parties than for the Nazi party (Falter & Zintl, 1988).
Neither the Nazi party nor the other major parties became less socially distinct over time. Even though the social basis of the other parties changed very little from the late 20s to the early 30s, the Nazis shifted from white-collar support to more self-employed support (Falter & Zintl, 1988). That the change in social structure greatly benefited the Nazi party. The base of support came from the Protestant middle-class, but in general non-Catholics supported the Nazis more than any other major party. Also middle-class voters threw their support behind the Nazis more than the blue-collar workers did (Falter & Zintl, 1988).
Experts have long sought to find a correlation between the economic recovery and its effect on the popularity of the government. They used two basic models for comparison; the Downs Model and the Kirchgassner Model (Riel & Schram, 1993). In the Downs Model, rational choice is the basic framework. Individuals are assumed to try to make the best of any situation using the instruments available to them. Their actions are assumed to be governed by the principles of economic theory, such as scarcity and utility maximization.
Democratically elected governments are assumed to be responsible to the voters, particularly in matters of economic development (Riel & Schram, 1993). In this theory voters cast their ballots for results. But when they do not see results they vote the incumbents out. (Riel & Schram, 1993). The Kirchgassner Model focuses more on the individual and their relationship to government policy (Riel & Schram, 1993). The argument is that voters give more weight to policies then to immediate results, so their vote in the current election is based on their vote in the previous election (Riel & Schram, 1993).
The Weimar Republic was an improvised result of the chaos that followed World War I (Riel & Schram, 1993). Throughout its existence there was a power struggle between the new order and the Prussian power elites of the old regime. Because of this, the Reichstag could not exercise any effective influence on politics or economics; mainly, because the Prussian elites dominated the Bundesrat (Riel & Schram, 1993). The Weimar system only appealed to the liberal left, like the SPD and bourgeois Catholics. This left those on the right feeling left out and disgruntled. This led to extreme political polarization within Germany. In 1920 there was the Kapp-Putsch which was an attempt by the right at a coup d’état and overthrow the government. In response to the Kapp-Putsch the government took less drastic measures in fear of further losing popular public support (Riel & Schram, 1993).
In response to the economic crisis the Weimar government attempted some reforms. They attempted to establish the modern welfare state and a central wage. While moderately successful it was still met by opposition (Riel & Schram, 1993). When the depression hit Germany, it was the beginning of the end for the Weimar. The growing economic problems and ever-declining levels of coalition popularity was more than it could handle. Political polarization, loss of faith in major parties, and political gridlock doomed the government. The right wing extremist Nazis were able to capitalize on the situation and take power in Germany (Riel & Schram, 1993).
The short comings of the Weimar government led to rise of the NSDAP. However, the Nazis staying power was achieved through their economic recovery plan which was a combination of calculated strategy and luck (Riel & Schram, 1993). While their programs showed some promise, it was financed though money the state did not have and was made possible by the elimination of long established rights, such as the restrictions on imports and the elimination of trade unions (Riel & Schram, 1993). The worldwide economic turn benefited the Nazis and through the use of propaganda, they were able to say that their programs saved Germany (Riel & Schram, 1993).
Some scholars see the Weimar constitution as a major factor in the Weimar Republics failure; mainly citing Hitler’s appointment to the Chancellorship rather than being elected (Frey & Weck, 1983). Under the new constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany, it is stated that the chancellor is to be elected rather than appointed by the President. Yet others believe that disgruntled socio-economic and religious groups are the reason why the republic failed. Because the Nazi party was strongly supported by the agrarian population and bourgeois middle class which funneled their support through these groups.
First time voters turned out in big numbers for the National Socialists during the elections of 1930 to 1933 (Frey & Weck, 1983). It was discovered that the shorter the period that someone was able to vote, the more likely it was that they would vote for Hitler and the Nazis (Frey & Weck, 1983). This was largely attributed to the fact that these voters had no clear party identification or loyalty and were easily swayed by the platform of the National Socialist (Fry & Weck, 1983). However, despite these two theories, the economic crisis was most widely considered and acknowledged to be the most important factor in the rise of Nazism (Frey & Weck, 1983).
During the 1930s the Nazis were accused of election fraud. While there is some truth behind it, they did not participate outright in these practices (Frey & Weck, 1983). They did use their troops (SA) to terrorize the population and intimidate their political opponents with arrests (“protective custody”) and psychological pressure (Frey & Weck, 1983).
Fascism and Nazism are often compared in the context of theory and through out history. There are some interesting observations of the extreme right wing movement. Both Fascism and Nazism maintain strong support from their followers. They care enormously that they should win, and win it because they so greatly care for victory and their cause. Fascism and Nazism owe their success to the emotional forces that they create. Fascism and Nazism have at critical moments been able to gain the support of big business; but once they out live their usefulness as mercenaries, they are cast them off. The Nazis used these businesses mainly for their monetary support and influence into the respective industries. The Nazis would use these connections to get Nazi influence in various industries to gain political support.
Once the Nazis were sufficiently imbedded, the individual businesses were slowly excommunicated from the party (Collingwood, 1940). Nazism came into power during the age of propaganda. Propaganda was a useful weapon, but not an indispensable one. The Nazis were successful because they had the power of arousing emotion in their supporters (Collingwood, 1940). They could annihilate even the most widespread liberal-democratic opposition because those who believed in them thought with their hearts and cared intensely in their beliefs. They could therefore overwhelm the liberalism or democracy because so much of the rhetoric that was being expressed by the main stream parties was based on unemotional thinking (Collingwood, 1940).
Adolf Hitler gave the German people what they needed. In the eyes of the German people he stood for what was the best in them, and stood as a strong leader who demanded the best out of the people. He was charismatic, confidant, and unequivocally a proud and patriotic German. It is widely believed that if there was no Hitler, then there would be no Nazi Germany. When we look into Hitler’s persona and his actions it becomes clear how he became a larger than life figure that attracted the admiration of millions (Kershaw, 2004). With his leadership and charisma he was able to lead the Nazi party into the position of absolute power and control over Germany. This power was derived from the belief in the Fuhrer cult and in Hitler’s character (Kershaw, 2004).
The Fuhrer cult was the indispensable basis, the irreplaceable essence and dynamic motor of the Nazi regime (Kershaw, 2004). The Fuhrer myth was the platform for the massive expansion of Hitler’s own power, once the style of leadership in the party had been transferred to the running of the state. It served to integrate the party, determine the guidelines for the action in the movement, to maintain the focus on the ideological goals, to drive on the radicalization, to maintain the ideological momentum, and to legitimatize the work of others in the party towards the Fuhrer’s ultimate goal (Kershaw, 2004).
Hitler’s character was extraordinary. He was able to create a form of leadership which embodied a dynamic persona who adeptly used the instruments and mechanisms of the most advanced state in Europe to achieve his objectives. Both the broad acceptance of the message of national salvation, seen as personified in Hitler, and the ideological goals of a new, modern power-elite, operating alongside weakened old elites through bureaucratic means of a modern state, were necessary prerequisites for the rise and dominance of the Third Reich (Kershaw, 2004).
In the early days of the Nazi movement Hitler was the leader and Ernst Rohm was his second in command. Hitler created the message and drove the party’s ideological force. Rohm was in charge of the brute force which the Nazi party had at its beckoning call; the SA. The initial strategy of the Nazi part was to take power through a showing of violent revolution or a Putsch (Jablonsky, 1988). Other previous movements and groups had tried such an action, but failed. They did not have the base of support or the military power that the Nazis not possessed. After World War I, Ernst Rohm was in charge of putting down armed revolution in Germany while the new government was being established.
He was confidant that if his men could put down a revolution back then, then today they would be able to create one the likes the world has never seen (Jablonsky, 1988). Hitler was equally as confidant given the support he had seen at recent rallies and the effectiveness of Rohm’s SA in putting down Communists demonstrations in Munich. However, their Putsch failed, both men were found guilty of treason, but Rohm was instantly paroled and Hitler had to serve six months in prison (Jablonsky, 1988).
During the time of Hitler’s incarceration Rohm took control of the party. Rohm’s leadership was the same as that of Hitler before the revolution. Hitler though had a changing view of the party and its effort. He saw the path to power not through violence but through political means. Hitler felt that the best way to take control of Germany was to acquire power from within (Jablonsky, 1988). When Hitler was released from prison he did not like what Rohm had done with the party. Hitler retook control and dismissed Rohm, who left Germany for Bolivia to aid in training their army. While Hitler’s plan showed promise and was gaining ground he soon realized that he needed Rohm and the SA for the final push to victory (Jablonsky, 1988).
Hitler called Rohm back to Germany and put him in charge of the SA. He did not want violent action, but thought intimidation could be used as an instrument to overwhelm the opposition (Jablonsky, 1988). While the efforts of Rohm and the SA proved to be vital success, their usefulness to Hitler and the Nazis soon ran out. The tipping point was that Rohm wanted the SA to be the official army of Germany once the Nazi takeover was complete. Hitler disagreed and wanted to keep the Ruhrmacht as the army. On July 1st, 1934 Hitler authorized the SS to eliminate Ernst Rohm and the leadership of the SA (Jablonsky, 1988). In America, we often take democracy for granted. For most of us, it is the only form of government that we have ever known. We assume that it will always be here. President John Adams once said that “Democracy… while it lasts, is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long.
It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide” (Strategic, 2010). It is important to study what has happened in Germany, not only to understand how fragile democracy is, but how to protect it, and to ensure that what happened in Germany never happens again. What we have seen is how the voting patterns, the voter demographics, and the campaign strategies of the Nazi Party were vital to their takeover of Germany. In the years following the end of World War I a series of events unfolded that led to the weakness of the Weimar Government and enhanced the appeal of the Nazi Party to the German people. The appeal of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis can be summed up in two basic criteria, personality and tactics. Adolf Hitler was charismatic, confident, and nationalistic. He was the embodiment of what the German people wanted and needed in a leader after the defeat in World War One and the ensuing economic crisis.
The Nazi Party was more advanced politically than any of its rival political organizations. The Nazis employed superior use of voter identification, fundraising, canvassing, voter suppression, and propaganda. The Nazis were especially good at how they targeted German voters. The Nazis message would be altered to most appeal to their targeted audience. This left other parties at a disadvantage because they would only use a single universal message for the entire country. In the end the research shows that the political strategy employed by the Nazi Party was the decisive factor in the Nazis winning elections and eventually obtaining power. What follows is a chronological telling of the events that took place that led to the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany. On November 11th, 1918, the German Empire signed an armistice with the allied powers, officially ending World War I. The armistice had seven key ultimatums: first, the termination of military hostilities within six hours after signature.
Second, the immediate removal of all German troops from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Alsace-Lorraine. Third, the removal of all German troops from territory on the west side of the Rhine plus 30 km radius bridgeheads of the right side of the Rhine at the cities of Mainz, Koblenz, and Cologne with ensuing occupation by Allied and US troops. Fourth, the removal of all German troops at the eastern front to German territory as it was on 1 August 1914. Fifth, the renouncement of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia and of the Treaty of Bucharest with Romania. Sixth, the internment of the German fleet. Finally, seventh, the surrender of materiel: 5,000 cannons, 25,000 machine guns, 3,000 mortars, 1,700 airplanes, 5,000 locomotive engines, and 150,000 railcars (Harkins, 2009).
The war had taken a serious toll on Germany, not only in lives lost, but also on the home front. The war debt war was becoming unsustainable, vital resources were becoming scarce, and the economy was in a down turn. The German leadership saw the armistice as a way out the war and to save face with the German people. At the signing, the German’s expected fair treatment from the allies. However, the allies did not share the same sentiment. The Kaiser would be forced to leave Germany in exile and the once great German Empire would be reorganized into a Republic (Harkins, 2009) . The armistice came as a shock to most Germans. The war-time propaganda had led them to believe that Germany was actually winning the war. The people felt betrayed by their leaders, especially those who had signed the armistice. This would soon be a sign of things to come. It was never the intentions of the allies to merely give Germany a slap on the wrist and welcome them back with open arms. They wanted revenge and punishment on Germany, who they full heartedly blamed for the war.
The Treaty of Versailles would be their avenue for vengeance and the leaders, who the German people held a great deal of resentment and anger towards would soon be the leaders in the new republic (Harkins, 2009). The Treaty of Versailles was the tool of destruction for the German Empire and the rocky foundation that the Weimar Republic would be built upon. The key aspects of the Treat of Versailles can be summed up in the acronym L.A.M.B., which stands for Land, Army, Money, and Blame (Harkins, 2009). The first aspect of the treaty was that Germany would lose its overseas empire. All of Germany’s colonies around the world would be divided up amongst the allied powers. The second aspect pertains to Germany’s military force. The allies blamed Germany for the war and attributed its ability to do so on its powerful military that was developed under Otto Von Bismarck. The treaty forced Germany to reduce its military to only one hundred thousand men and six battleships. The most damaging condition came third in the form of monetary punishment.
The allies demanded that Germany pay war reparations to all allied nations to cover their costs in the war. It was determined that Germany would have to pay a total amount of £13 billion pounds or $64 billion dollars, which would be divided among the allied nations. Finally, Germany was forced accept the guilt for starting the war. This clause infuriated the German people and was a key aspect for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party (Harkins, 2009). After the fall of the German Empire, Germany was forced to restructure its government into a republic in order to maintain the peace. The Weimar Republic was established soon after the signing of the armistice. The new republic would be structured into four key branches; the President, Reichstag, Reichsrat, and regional governments. Under the new constitution the people would directly elect the President who would serve a term of seven years.
The key responsibilities of the President included head of the armed forces, the responsibility to choose and dismiss the Chancellor, call elections, and the ability to dismiss the government. The next major part was the German Parliament. The Parliament was separated into two separate bodies. The upper body was the Reichsrat and the lower body was the Reichstag. The Reichstag was the main legislative body under the constitution. Its members were elected using a system of proportional representation based. The basis of the elections was that Germany was divided into electoral regions. Within each of these regions a political party would put forward a number of candidates. The number of these who became deputies within the Reichstag was based on the total number of votes the party received within that electoral region. One member could be sent for every 60,000 votes cast for the party. These elected deputies then sat in the Reichstag.
Then the leader of the majority party would usually then be appointed Chancellor by the President. The Chancellor would then choose his own Cabinet from the elected deputies. The Chancellor and the Cabinet answered to the Reichstag, so they were reliant upon the continued support of the majority. Should they lose the support of the majority a vote of no confidence was sufficient for the President to dismiss the Chancellor and either call new elections or appoint an alternative Chancellor. It was the Reichstag that debated issues and voted on proposed legislation. Once passed by the Reichstag the legislation would then be debated in the Reichsrat, the second German house of Parliament where it would be either ratified or rejected. The Reichsrat was the upper body of the German Parliament.
Each of the Regional governments would appoint members to this body. The number of members sent to the Reichsrat by a state was roughly in proportion to the size of that state. However, no one state could have more than two fifths of the representatives in the Reichsrat. This was to prevent larger states from dominating the proceedings. Also, the Reichsrat had limited authority. It could not propose any legislation or amend it. Its primary function was to offer advice to either the President or the Reichstag and it had the right to reject legislation that was approved by the Reichstag. Each of the states that made up Germany also retained their own State Parliaments. These governments controlled such things as education, the local police force, the Judiciary, and also managed local affairs. However, under the new constitution several powers that had previously been held by the States were moved to the central government’s control, the most notable being the control over the armed forces. The Weimar’s government structure was, in theory, one of the best democracies to be established.
There were some flaws that would later be exploited. The first was proportional representation. The problem arises when the number of seats a party wins is in relation to the number of votes it receives. This makes it almost impossible for one party to gain control of the Reichstag. Since no one party was able to secure enough seats, coalition governments had to be formed. These were made up of the two or even three parties with the most seats. However, these parties usually had very different ideologies and viewpoints. As a result, the government had a great deal of difficulty passing laws or even getting alone for that matter. The second flaw came in Article 48 of the constitution. Article 48 gave the President emergency powers to abandon democratic rule and dissolve the Reichstag. In effect, this gave the President the right to throw out democracy and create a dictatorship. Adolf Hitler would use this when he assumed power as Chancellor to permanently destroy the Weimar Republic and give way to the rise of the Third Reich.
It did not take long for the short comings of the Weimar government coupled with the effects of the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles to lead to a backlash in Germany. In 1919 and 1920 two major attempts at a revolution took place. The first was left wing attempt known as the Spartacists Uprising and the second was a right wing coup de grace known as the Kapp Putsch. The Spartacist’s were a group with extreme left wing political views. They split from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in frustration at the SPD’s role within the Weimar government. The leaders of the German Communist Party were Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht. On January 1st, 1919, members of the Spartacists made an attempted revolution. Initially, the revolution was opposed by both Liebnecht and Luxemburg, the leaders of the movement.
However, once the revolution had begun they fully supported it. The Weimar Government reacted promptly, and brutally. The army was ordered to bring the revolution to an end. In addition, the army was aided by a paramilitary group of former World War I soldiers known as the Freikorps. On January 13th the revolution was put down and order was restored in Germany. In the end both Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht were apprehended, but were killed while in police custody before either could be brought to trail. The second attempt to overthrow the Weimar government came the following year in 1920 (Eyck, 1962, p. 48). The Kapp Putsch took place in March of 1920 and was led by a right-wing journalist named Wolfgang Kapp. Kapp opposed everything that the current Weimar President Friedrich Ebert stood, particularly the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. Kapp was assisted by General Luttwitz, who was the leader of a group of Freikorps soldiers. On March 13th, Luttwitz seized Berlin and proclaimed that a new nationalist government was being established with Kapp as the new Chancellor.
President Ebert had no immediate response to the Putsch and instead chose to flee Berlin. This move proved to be detrimental as it was seen to undermine his status and to emphasize his weak position in Germany. The government was forced to leave Berlin and re-establish itself in Dresden. To put down the uprising President Ebert chose to call for a general strike in order to paralyze the movement. Ebert could not be seen as being anti-military. Even though Kapp received support from one of Germany’s foremost military officers, General Erich Luderndorff, the military leadership of the German Army failed to follow Luderndorff’s lead. In the end the strike called for by Ebert ensured that those who supported Kapp could not move around. This paralysis doomed the putsch to failure and Kapp and Luttwitz were forced to flee Berlin on March 17th (Eyck, 1962, p. 147-160. These two revolutions brought some very important facts to light about the Weimar Republic. The government was weakened by the ensuing events and they lost the support of the army.
The German populace was also rapidly losing confidence in the government’s ability to maintain order and address vital issues. Finally, it showed that the government could not maintain control on its own. They needed the Freikorps to put down the Spartacists and they need the trade union to bring an end to the Kapp Putsch (Harkins, 2009). It is important to point out that both sides of the political spectrum were upset with the Weimar government. The Spartacists were left-wing Communists and the Kapp’s were right-wing military. The Spartacists were upset with the governmental operations, but they lacked vital support and were badly prepared for such a revolution. They were put down quickly, but they showed the weakness of the Weimar leadership when the government was forced to turn control over to the army and the Freikorps to bring back order. The Kapp’s were mostly upset over the Treaty of Versailles. Even though they were rather successful in comparison to the Spartacists, the power of the trade unions in Germany was brought to light. In addition, the Kapp’s further the divide and mistrust between the army and the government (Harkins, 2009). Three years later in 1923 the country faced further misfortune. Germany began to fall behind in its reparation payments to the allies.
The United States and England felt that the amount of reparations imposed on Germany had always been too high, and were in favor of lessening the amount owed. However, France and Belgium, the two nations most affected during the war felt that this was an act of defiance by Germany. In early 1923 France and Belgium invaded the Ruhr Valley of Germany. The Ruhr was vital to Germany as it was its major steel industrial center. With the loss of the Ruhr Germany would lose one of its most vital economic assets. In response, Germany opted for passive resistance since they had now army to fight off the French and Belgium invaders. With passive resistance German workers and civil servants were encouraged to refuse orders and instructions given by French and Belgium occupiers. While initially successful the German workers were soon forced out and replaced by workers from France and Belgium. Even with this occupation the reparation payments were still demanded by the allies. Germany was forced to print extra money in order to make the necessary payments. But with the loss of most of their production means, with foreign occupation in the Ruhr, and the sudden influx of printed money, Germany was hit hard with hyperinflation.
The value of the German currency began to fall rapidly. Those who were hit the hardest were those in Germany’s middle class, who lost virtually all their savings (Harkins, 2009). On August 13th, 1923 a new Chancellor was appointed in the Reichstag, Gustav Stresemann. Stresemann was a member of the left-wing German People’s Party (DVP). As Chancellor, Stresemann went a long way towards resolving the ensuing crisis. The first thing that he did was bring an end to the passive resistance in the Ruhr. His decision to end the passive resistance was motivated by his belief that by making a good faith effort to fulfill the terms of the Treaty of Versailles would be the only way to win relief from its harsher provisions. Stresemann also knew that the hyperinflation would destroy Germany’s economy. He then scrapped the old currency and a new stable currency called the Rentenmark.
This helped reassure the people that the democratic system was willing and able to solve urgent problems. Additionally, Chancellor Stresemann had the support of the army, which in Germany is one of the most important allies, given the recent uprising. However, the most important achievement of Stresemann was his acceptance of the Dawes Plan in 1924. In order to ease the growing tensions between Germany and the allies and to increase the chances of Germany resuming reparation payments, the Allied Reparations Commission came up with the Dawes Plan. The Dawes Plan had four key components: first, allied occupation troops would leave the Ruhr Valley and return control back to Germany. Second, war reparation payments would restart under the terms that in the first year the payment would be one billion marks and the increase to two and a half billion marks annually after five years. Finally, the Reichsbank would be reorganized under allied supervision to ensure stability. To help Germany’s economy recover and help with the war reparations, the United States began to loan Germany large sums of money. This, as well as the Dawes Plan allowed for the Germany economy to begin to recover and for the rebuilding of industry (Harkins, 2009).
During the mid to late 1920s Germanys entered into a time known as the “golden years”. The adoption of the Dawes Plan in 1924 allowed for the German economy to stabilize and begin growing. For the first time since the World War I German industry was growing and expanding. The progress did not end there; in 1926 Germany’s industrial production surpassed its pre World War I levels. In 1925 Germany and France entered into the Locarno Treaty which guaranteed the borders between the two nations. In 1926 Germany was invited to join the League of Nations, as a result Germany’s world standing began to dramatically increase. Finally, in 1929 it became obvious that Germany could not continue the huge annual war reparation payments for long. As a result, the Young Plan was substituted. The Young Plan kept all the provisions under the Dawes Plan except for once change. The Young Plan reduced the reparations of Germany by over 67%. Even though everything seemed to be going good for Germany, there was a danger on the horizon. Germany’s recovery was largely dependent on the loans it was receiving from the United States.
If the United States was faced with economic hardships, then they would be forced to recall the loans from Germany to help their own economy. If this was to come to form, it would send Germany into a deep depression. While the German recovery was progressing better than anyone had expected, it was too dependent on foreign currency and the strength of foreign economies. As a result, 1929 would be one of the darkest and most dire times in Germany to date (Harkins, 2009). The Wall Street Crash of October, 1929 was the start of the Great Depression in the United States. Soon after the crash, the United States economy began to come crumbling down. It did not take long for the depression to cross the Atlantic to Europe. At a time when things began to look up for Germany all that was achieved was soon to be undone.
The Depression was spreading to all corners of the globe, and as a result, virtually every European nation increased tariffs or introduced import quotas in an effort fight off the impending disaster. In a little over a month, the unemployment rate in Germany climbed almost 20%, while at the same time, output plummeted by almost 40%. As a result of the economic disaster the United States was forced to recall of their loans to Germany. This effectively ended the Young Plan which was so vital to Germany’s recovery. This drove Germany deeper into the Depression and by 1932 over six million Germans were unemployed. It became clear that the Weimar government was unable to provide relief. The coalition governments were not able to reach a consensus on the proper course of action to take or even how to help their citizens. In desperation people began to leave the mainstream political parties and begin listening to more extremist groups such as the Communist Party and eventually the National Socialist German Workers Party.
The Great Depression was a critical factor which led to the downfall of the Weimar’s democratic rule. The depression had major effects both politically and economically. Politically it showed how weak and ineffective the government really was. They made deals to help the country, but these deals relied too heavily on other nations and their economies. They were not able to react in a timely manner to civil unrests and provide aid to its citizens. Because of the Weimar’s ineffectiveness extremists groups began to rise up and strive for power. These groups promised change and a better future. As the country sank deeper into the depression the people began to listen to the extremists with the general notion that they could do no worse than the Weimar Republic. The German Workers’ Party (DAP) was a tiny group of extreme nationalists and anti-Semites who saw their role as trying to win over the German workers from the Social Democratic Party and to persuade people that Jews were primarily responsible for Germany’s defeat in the war and hard economic times.
The DAP did not really attempt to make itself public, and their meetings were often conducted in relative secrecy in the back of beer halls. Public speakers would discuss what they thought of Germany’s present state of affairs, or they would write letters to like minded societies in northern Germany. In the early years the party was a relatively small group with only around 50 members. Regardless of its size it attracted the attention of the German authorities. At a time when civil unrest was high they were suspicious of any organization that appeared to have ill intentions. By chance, Adolf Hitler, who was still a corporal in the army at the time, was sent to investigate the DAP. While attending a party meeting Hitler got involved in a heated political argument with a visitor who questioned the soundness of the speaker’s arguments. While attacking the man’s arguments he made an impression on the other party members with his oratory skills.
Hitler was invited to join, and after some deliberation, chose to accept. In 1920, the group re-named itself the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP). In addition they drafted a twenty five point Program. Some key clauses enforced their nationalistic ideals, for example, they refused to accept the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and insisted on the reunification of all Germans; they also had fierce racist and anti-Semitic views. The party soon began to gain steam and was quickly growing into one of the largest political groups outside of the major parties. As a result of this success, in 1921 Hitler was appointed as the party’s leader and lead spokesman. In these early years it was determined by party leadership that the most effective way to garner support was through the use of violence, mainly against rival factions and politicians.
The party and Hitler both knew that they needed an internal force that they could control. In 1921, the NSDAP created a private army called the Sturm Abteilung (SA). Ernst Rohm, a former Captain in the German Army during World War One, was put in charge of SA recruitment and day to day leadership, while Hermann Goering was the official leader. The chief task of the SA was to disrupt the meetings of political opponents and to protect party leaders from counter attacks. In the early 1920s, Hitler began to lecture throughout Munich with a focus on the beer halls, particularly the Hofbräuhaus, Sterneckerbräu and Bürgerbräukeller; three of the largest and most popular.
However, the party lacked national support. The NSDAP was virtually isolated in Bavaria. In order to expand to the rest of Germany they needed more support. They found that support from General Erich Luderndorff. Luderndorff was still a very well know and popular figure throughout Germany, despite his involvement in the Kapp Putsch some years ago. The party felt that with Luderndorff’s support and involvement they would have the necessary support to stage a putsch on the regional government in Munich and take control.
On 8th November, 1923, the Bavarian government held a meeting of about 3,000 officials. While Gustav von Kahr, the prime minister of Bavaria was making a speech, Adolf Hitler and armed storm troopers entering the building. Hitler jumped onto a table, fired two shots in the air and told the audience that the Munich Putsch was taking place and the National Revolution had began. Leaving Hermann Goering and the SA to guard the 3,000 officials, Hitler took Gustav von Kahr, Otto von Lossow, the commander of the Bavarian Army and Hans von Lossow, the commandant of the Bavarian State Police into an adjoining room. Hitler told the men that he was to be the new leader of Germany and offered them posts in his new government. Aware that this would be an act of high treason, the three men were initially reluctant to agree to this offer. Adolf Hitler was furious and threatened to shoot them and then commit suicide; after this the three men agreed. Soon afterwards Eric Ludendorff arrived. Ludendorff had been leader of the German Army at the end of the First World War.
He had therefore found Hitler’s claim that the war had not been lost by the army but by Jews, Socialists, Communists and the German government, attractive, and was a strong supporter of the Nazi Party. Ludendorff agreed to become head of the German Army in Hitler’s government. While Adolf Hitler had been appointing government ministers, Ernst Rohm, leading a group of storm troopers, had seized the War Ministry and Rudolf Hess was arranging the arrest of Jews and left-wing political leaders in Bavaria. Adolf Hitler now planned to march on Berlin and remove the national government. Surprisingly, Hitler had not arranged for the storm troopers to take control of the radio stations and the telegraph offices. This meant that the national government in Berlin soon heard about Hitler’s putsch and gave orders for it to be crushed. The next day Adolf Hitler, Eric Ludendorff, Hermann Goering and 3,000 armed supporters of the Nazi Party marched through Munich in an attempt to join up with Rohm’s forces at the War Ministry. At Odensplatz they found the road blocked by the Munich police. As they refused to stop, the police fired into the ground in front of the marchers.
The storm troopers returned the fire and during the next few minutes 21 people were killed and another hundred were wounded, included Goering. When the firing started Adolf Hitler threw himself to the ground dislocating his shoulder. Hitler lost his nerve and ran to a nearby car. Although the police were outnumbered, the Nazis followed their leader’s example and ran away. Only Eric Ludendorff and his adjutant continued walking towards the police. Later Nazi historians were to claim that the reason Hitler left the scene so quickly was because he had to rush an injured young boy to the local hospital. After hiding in a friend’s house for several days, Adolf Hitler was arrested and put on trial for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch. If he was found guilty, Hitler would face the death penalty. While in prison Hitler suffered from depression and talked of committing suicide. However, it soon became clear that the Nazi sympathizers in the Bavarian government were going to make sure that Hitler would not be punished severely. At his trial, Adolf Hitler was allowed to turn the proceedings into a political rally.
Nazi sympathizers in the Bavarian government ensured that Hitler received only the minimum sentence of only five years of which he only served one year. Other members of the Nazi Party were also given light sentences, and Eric Ludendorff was acquitted. While he was in prison he wrote his memoir Mein Kampf. The book enhanced the party’s base of propaganda and racist attitudes. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote about a change in strategy for the Nazi Party. He expressed the importance of toning down the violent actions as a means to gain political support. He felt that in order to achieve ultimate victory, they would need to rely heavily on propaganda and go through the current political system. The 1925 Presidential election was between two famous war heroes; Eric Ludendorff and Paul Von Hindenburg. The Nazi Party supported Ludendorff, even though they knew he stood no chance against Hindenburg. Ludendorff was defeated quite badly; he only received about 286,000 votes.
It is possible that Ludendorff’s ties to the Beer Hall Putsch damaged his reputation and popularity among German voters. However, his loss could most likely be attributed to the fact that he did very little campaigning and relied more on his image as a war hero to carry him to victory. Unfortunately, this was also a trait that Hindenburg possessed. Hindenburg actively campaigned and was held in higher regard among the German populace. During this election cycle the Nazis were only able to win three seats in the Reichstag. Hitler felt the failure to win the Presidency, and win significant seats in the Reichstag was due to the party’s lack of strong leadership. He immediately reorganized the party so that the party would be run by one man; himself. In 1929 Hitler went on a sort of public relations campaign for himself and the party.
It quickly became clear that Hitler’s ability to amaze crowds of people with his speeches was one of the most persuasive things that widened the Nazi Party’s popularity. He was responsible for creating a far stronger identity for the party, including creating an established newspaper. In 1925 the party had around 27,000 members, but by 1928 it had reached over 108,000. The economic downturn caused by the Wall Street Crash in 1929 caused despair, especially for Germany. Germans were desperate for change. The political maneuvering of leaders further increased the unreliable image of the Weimar government. It did not take long for the Nazi’s organization and reformation plans to suddenly appeal to the masses. In the election of 1930, the appeal of the Nazi Party began to take hold. The Nazis were able to win 107 seats; this made the Nazis the second largest party in the Reichstag. In 1932, Hitler official earned his German citizenship and immediately choose to run for President.
In the election, Hindenburg defeated Hitler 49% to 30%. Since Hindenburg did not receive a majority of the vote, a run off election was held. The second election, between the top three candidates from the previous election, resulted again in Hindenburg defeating Hitler, 53% to 36% percent. As a result, Hindenburg was re-elected to the Presidency. Even though Hitler did not win, the vast majority of the right wing parties now began to support the National Socialist. President Hindenburg soon found himself in a tough situation. The influence of the National Socialist was gaining and beginning to disrupt the operations of the government. The Nazis were paralyzing proceedings and causing votes of no confidence in the Reichstag.
This resulted in the need for new elections to be held. Since Hindenburg won re-election, the Nazis had forced four new elections, each time they gain more and more seats. The Chancellor at the time was Heinrich Bruening. Bruening was unable to maintain popular support his government and resigned due to pressure from President Hindenburg. To deal with this growing threat Hindenburg appointed Franz Von Papen as Chancellor. He felt that given Von Papen’s conservative ideals and Catholic upbringing, he would be able to control the Nazis by appealing to the other right wing parties. Von Papen also suggested that the best method in dealing with Hitler would be to put him in a position of leadership. This would then discourage Hitler from pursuing new elections. Hindenburg suggested the position of Vice-Chancellor, a position with few powers and could easily be controlled. Hitler refused the position. The response from the Nazis was to increase their efforts to disrupt the Reichstag.
They repeatedly caused the dissolution of the governing body and forced new elections. With each election the Nazis gained seats by using the disruptions that they caused to their advantage. By the summer of 1932 the Nazis had accumulated 230; making the National Socialists the largest single party in the Reichstag. In the fall of 1932, the Nazi and Center Party members of the Reichstag, elected Herman Goering as President of the Reichstag. As President of the Reichstag, Goering was able to prevent the Chancellor Von Papen from presenting an order to dissolve the Reichstag. Then a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor and his government could be called and passed. After having forced the resignation of the new government, the Reichstag then allowed its own dissolution. Even though the Nazis lost 34 seats in the following election, they were able to retain enough power to assure that Von Papen would not be able to form a new government. Von Papen was then forced to resign. After von Papen’s resignation, Hindenburg still refused to appoint Hitler as Chancellor.
Hindenburg tried to reinstall von Papen as Chancellor, but von Papen was unable to gain the support of his own cabinet, including his Minister of Defense, Kurt von Schleicher. Hindenburg then appointed von Schleicher as Chancellor. Von Schleicher assured Hindenburg that he could gain the support of the Nazis in the Reichstag. However, Schleicher soon found out that he was unable to win the support of any of the parties in the Reichstag and was forced to resign in 1933. Finally on January 30th, 1933 President Hindenburg decided to appoint Hitler Chancellor in a coalition government with von Papen as Vice-Chancellor. On February 27th 1933, the Reichstag was destroyed by fire. A member of the Communist Party named Marinus van der Lubbe was accused of starting the fire. However, it is widely believed that the fire was actually planned by the Nazis. Because of this event, Hitler was given an excuse to have all the Communist deputies of the Reichstag arrested. He also was able to get a decree from Hindenburg that gave the Nazi government the power to arrest anyone they thought was a threat to the nation.
The Presidential decree also allowed the government to suppress the free speech of its political opponents. In the elections that spring, the National Socialists were only able to win 44% for the votes, despite all the advantages they had. The Nazis were short of an overall majority, and they needed a two-thirds majority in order to change the German Constitution. Hitler and the Nazis need a way to allow the powers of legislation to be taken away from the Reichstag and transferred to Hitler. To that end, the Enabling Act was brought before the Reichstag in March of 1933. The act required a two-thirds majority; however it passed easily with the support of the Center and Nationalist parties. The Communists and Social Democrats were unable to put up much resistance given the restrictions placed upon them under the Presidential Decree, passed earlier that year. Hitler was now legally allotted dictatorial powers. By that summer, Hitler passed a law stating that the Nazi Party was the only political party allowed in Germany. All non Nazi organizations were disbanded, including political parties and trade unions.
The individual German states were stripped of their sovereign powers and Nazi officials were installed as state governors. After the initial rise to power of the Nazis, many of the leaders, including Ernst Rohm, wanted to see more drastic changes in the power structure of Germany. Rohm wanted to take over major industries in Germany and replace the regular army with the SA. However, Hitler wanted to keep the German economy as it was and focus on reducing unemployment. He also wanted quickly rearm the Wehrmacht. Hitler saw the SA as purely a political force, not a military one. With Hindenburg slowly dying Hitler would need the support of the Army if he was to replace the aging President. In 1934, Hitler proposed to the chiefs of the Army and the Navy that he would suppress the SA and at the same time expand the Army and Navy if they would support him in his move to succeed Hindenburg. They readily agreed to Hitler’s proposal.
That summer, Hitler ordered the SA to go on leave for the entire month. However, the acts perpetrated by the SA had already escalated to a point where Hindenburg and his advisors were considering declaring a state of marshal law. These threats, coupled with rumors that Rohm’s loyalty to Hitler was fading and that an impending coup against Hitler was in the works, finally prompted Hitler to order the SS to take action against the leaders of the SA. On June 30th 1934, the SS arrested and executed the leaders of the SA, including Ernst Rohm, and many others who the Nazi leaders had deemed a threat, including former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher. On August 2nd 1934, President Hindenburg died. Hitler had already made a deal with the Cabinet that when Hindenburg died the offices of President and Chancellor would be combined.
Even though the last wishes of Hindenburg were that when he died the monarchy should be restored, Hitler managed to suppress this information and did not publish the President’s will. With the support of the Army, Hitler went a step further by making the whole of the armed forces swear an oath of loyalty to him personally. A public referendum was then held for the people to decide on whether they approved of the changes that were made; over 90% approved. With this, Hitler became Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor; the title of President was abolished. Through out the course of history no event has been studied more than that of World War II.
The basic story of Hitler coming to power and launching an unprecedented war in Europe, the likes the world has never seen, has been well told, and widely understood. Often what is over looked is how and why these events unfolded the way they did. We see that a series of events led to the Weimar Republic’s fall into fascism. That through the use of cunning strategy and manipulation the Nazi Party came to power. Finally, that it was in part the failures of the Weimar government but more it was the appeal of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists that explain the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich.
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