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Weimar Germany 1919-1933

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Weimar Germany was the name given to the period of German history from 1919 until 1933. It got its name from the fact that the constitution for the post war republic was drawn up at the town of Weimar in South Eastern Germany. The town was chosen for the constituent assembly because it was peaceful compared to revolution torn Berlin and as a signal to the Allied peacemakers in Paris. The hope was that the Allies would treat more leniently a new peaceful German Republic rather than the militaristic empire that had led Germany into war.

The History of the Republic can be divided into three main areas:

1. The Years of Turmoil, 1919-1923
2. The Stresemann Era, 1924-1929
3. The Collapse of Weimar, 1930-1933

1. The Years of Turmoil, 1919-1923

The Republic

As the First World War drew to a close, morale in the army and at home collapsed. A series of defeats led to strikes throughout Germany. The Sailors at the Kiel naval base mutinied rather than sail to for a final showdown with the British fleet. Soldiers, sailors and workers formed councils or soviets with echoes of events in Communist Russia.

The Kaiser, William II abdicated and went into exile in Holland. A republic was proclaimed with the SPD leader Frederich Ebert as Chancellor (Prime Minster). The first act of the new government was to sign the armistice with the Allies. Many including Adolf Hitler saw this as an act of treason and the men who agreed to surrender became known as the “November Criminals.”

The new republic faced a host of problems. These included:

The Spartacus Revolt

Even before the constitution had been drawn up there was a serious challenge from the left. Many hoped to see a Russian style revolution in Germany. The left wing Spartacus movement led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg began a revolt in Berlin in January 1919. They seized building throughout the city. The government fled the city.

Many feared the “red plague” and the defence minister Gustav Noske used the army and the Freikorps to crush the revolt. The Freikorps was a volunteer militia made up of ex army men set up to defend the borders of Germany. It was strongly anti-communist and took brutal steps to restore order with summary executions becoming common place. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were shot and the revolt was crushed. In Bavaria another Communist revolt was defeated with Freikorps help in May. Political violence had marred the foundation of the new state.

The New Constitution

Despite the Spartacus revolt, the majority of Germans voted for parties in January 1919 that favoured the new democratic republic. These parties were the SPD, the liberal DDP and the Catholic Centre party. The constituent assembly met at Weimar in February 1919 and Ebert was chosen as president.

The new constitution was very democratic. Germany was to be a Federal state with the states or Lander retaining considerable control over their own affairs. The parliament (Reichstag) was to be elected every four years with a system of proportional representation that meant it was impossible for one party to get an overall majority.

All people over the age of twenty could vote. The Reichstag dealt with issues such as tax, trade, defence and foreign affairs. As there were a large number of political parties, there were many coalition governments. During the fourteen years of the Weimar Republic, there were twenty separate coalitions. The longest government lasted two years. This political chaos caused many to lose faith in the new democratic system.

The head of state was to be the president who was elected every seven years. The president was the commander of the armed forces and was designed to a largely figurehead position. He did have the power to dissolve the Reichstag and to nominate the Chancellor who was to enjoy the support of the Reichstag. Crucially under Article 48, the president could declare a state of emergency and rule by decree. He could also veto laws passed by the Reichstag that he did not like.

The Main Political Parties

The parties of the Republic

The opposition of the left

The opposition of the right

The Treaty of Versailles

The news of the treaty came as a complete shock to the new government and to the German people. Virtually all sections of German opinion denounced the treaty. It was known as the Diktat as Germany had been forced to sign the treaty. On the day it was signed, Germany’s Protestant churches declared a day of national mourning.

Germans were outraged at the loss of her colonies and her territory and population to France, Belgium and Poland. She also resented the limitations placed on the size of her army and navy, the ban on an air force and tanks and the demilitarisation of the Rhineland.

She felt that the principle of self-determination had been ignored in the case of the Germans of Austria and the Sudetenland. She believed that the War Guilt Clause and the reparations payments were unjust. One effect of the Treaty was an immediate lack of confidence in the politicians that had signed it. This was reflected in the poor performance of the parties that supported the republic in the elections of 1920.

The Kapp Putsch

Right wing dissatisfaction with the new government was worsened when the government moved to disband Freikorps units. A nationalist politician, Wofgang Kapp led a revolt in Berlin backed by the Freikorps and the military commander of Berlin. The regular army refused to crush the revolt and the government fled to Stuttgart. Its call for a general strike was carried out by the trade unions in the city and the putsch collapsed. At the same time a communist revolt was crushed in the Ruhr, the industrial heartland of Germany, with over a thousand dead.

Right wing assassinations were to plague the early years of the new republic with leading politicians such as Matthias Erzberger and Walther Rathenau assassinated. Many of the murderers were treated with great leniency by the courts but the murders did have the effect of strengthening support for the institutions of the republic.

The French occupation of the Ruhr

In 1921 the Allied Reparations Commission presented the government with a bill for reparations of £6.6 Billion. The Germans could not pay the amount owed and over the Christmas and New Year, 1922-3, they defaulted on their payments.
Seventy thousand French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr. They intended to use the produce of Germany’s industrial heartland as payment in kind for reparations. The German government began a policy of passive resistance and called a general strike. Some began a low level terrorist campaign. The French reacted brutally with aggressive house searches, hostage taking and shooting over a hundred Germans.

The economic effects of the occupation were catastrophic. The loss of production in the Ruhr caused a fall in production elsewhere and unemployment rose from 2% to 23%.Prices rose out of control as tax revenues collapsed and the government financed its activities through the printing of money. By November prices were a billion times their pre-war levels.
The hyper inflation of this period can be seen from the following table:

Year Month Marks needed to buy
one US dollar
1919 April
1921 November
1922 July
1923 January

The rise in prices hit the middle classes and those on fixed income very hard. Many who had saved money found that their saving were worthless. (back)

2. The Stresemann Era

During the dark days of 1923, Gustav Stresemann was appointed chancellor and his policies would help to transform the fortunes of Weimar. He had been a strong supporter of Germany’s involvement in World War I and advocated unrestricted submarine warfare as the only means to defeat Britain.

At first, Stresemann felt no loyalty to the new Weimar Republic and he opposed the Treaty of Versailles. He set up his own party the German People’s Party (DVP). However his views developed and he advocated a great coalition from the SPD to the DVP to consolidate democracy against the extremes of left and right.

He became Chancellor in August 1923. His government lasted a hundred days until November 1923 but he remained as foreign minister in successive coalitions until his death in October 1929. As Chancellor he took the crucial step of ceasing financial support to the general strike in the Ruhr. He introduced a new and stable currency (the Rentenmark) that ended the hyper-inflation. He also crushed a communist revolt in Saxony and faced down the threat from Hitler in Bavaria.

The Period of Prosperity

Over the next six years, as foreign minister he sought to improve Germany’s international position, cooperate with France and Britain in order to secure a revision of some of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. This policy became known as fulfilment.

He achieved a large measure of success. Under Anglo-American pressure France withdrew from the Ruhr. Stresemann accepted the recommendations of the Dawes committee for a settlement of the reparations issue. A moderate scale of payments was fixed rising from £50 million to £125 million after 5 years and a 2-year moratorium (suspension) on reparation payments was set. A loan of $800 million was raised for Germany, mainly in America. For the next 5 years American loans poured into Germany which greatly improved the economic position.

The Locarno Pact

In 1925 he took the initiative that led to the Locarno Pact. Under this agreement Germany recognised her Western frontiers as final and agreed to use peaceful means to ensure revision of her frontiers in the east. Stresemann was a German nationalist and was not prepared to give up what he saw as legitimate demands for the return of Danzig and the northern half of the Polish Corridor.

In September 1926 Germany joined the League of Nations with a permanent seat on the Council in recognition of her status as a great power.

As part of this policy of co-operation, the first of the three Rhineland zones which had been placed under Allied military occupation by the Treaty of Versailles were evacuated in 1926. In 1927 the Inter-Allied Control Commission to supervise German disarmament was withdrawn.

The Young Plan agreed in 1929 greatly reduced German reparations to a figure of £2 billion and Repayments were to be made over a period of 59 years. Stresemann also won complete allied evacuation of the Rhineland by June 1930 (five years ahead of schedule).

It is hardly surprising that when he died of a stroke in October 1929 at the early age of fifty-one Stresemann’s reputation stood very high. He had also become a focus for hopes of European peace. Hitler is reported to have remarked that in Stresemann’s position “he could not have achieved more”.

Cultural Achievements in Weimar Germany

The Weimar Republic, however weak its economy and its political system, was one of the most fertile grounds for the modern arts and sciences in history. The republic also saw greater sexual freedom and tolerance. Berlin, in particular, became a thriving centre of many new art movements such as expressionism. Its status in the world of the arts resembled the place of New York after 1945.

The Bauhaus school near Weimar, moreover, revolutionized architecture, and the theatres in Berlin and Frankfurt led the way internationally in the types of plays that were performed. Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Bertolt Brecht were world famous writers. Philosophy also flourished.

Great film companies made German cinema one of the most notable in the world (a position it never again achieved). Fritz Lang’s work was regarded as pioneering at the time.

Leading composers of music taught and heard their works first performed in Weimar Germany. Cabaret became very popular and the singer Marlene Dietrich’s became world famous.

In the academic world, the Weimar Republic "inherited" excellent universities and science centres from the Wilhelmine period. Göttingen was the world's most famous centre for physics, and German was the international language in physics and chemistry. Albert Einstein lived and taught in Berlin.

Not everyone was happy with the new cultural freedom in Weimar. To the right, Weimar Culture confirmed the image of a hedonistic, amoral, and degenerate society. The fact that many leading artists associated with the Communist Party (which was fashionable in intellectual circles all over Europe) and the strong representation of Jews in the new artistic movements increased this hostility.

When the Nazis came to power most of the leading figures of Weimar culture had to emigrate. A mass exodus of academics, physicists, film directors, and writers took place and many went to the United States, which inherited Weimar culture. 20 Nobel prize winners left and over 2000 people involved in the arts. (back)

3. The Collapse of Weimar, 1930-1933

The Great Depression and Germany

Stresemann’s death could not have come at a worse time for the young republic. The onset of the Great Depression was to have dramatic effects on Germany

The German economy’s recovery after the inflation of 1923 had been financed by loans from the United States. Many of these short term loans had been used to finance capital projects such as road building. State governments financed their activities with the help of these loans.

German interest rates were high, and capital flowed in. Large firms borrowed money and depended heavily on American loans. German banks took out American loans to invest in German businesses. The German economic recovery was based on shaky foundations.

The Wall Street Crash

The German economy was in decline prior to the Wall Street Crash. There was no growth in German industrial production in 1928-9 and unemployment rose to two and a half million.

On the 24th October, “Black Thursday”, there was panic selling on the New York Stock Exchange reacting to a business crisis in America. Early the following week, “Black Tuesday”, 29th of October, panic selling set in again. 16.4 million shares were sold, a record not surpassed for forty years. Share prices went into freefall. Ten billion dollars was wiped off the value of share prices in one day.

Effects on Germany

As a result American demand for imports collapsed. American banks saw their losses mount and they started calling in their short term loans with which so much of German economy had been financing itself for the past five years.

Firms began to cut back drastically. Industrial production fell quickly and by 1932 it was 40% of its 1929 level. To make matters worse in 1931 a number of Austrian and German banks went out of business. . Unemployment rose from 1.6 million in October 1929 to 6.12 million in February 1932. 33% percent of the workforce were now unemployed.

By 1932 roughly one worker in three was registered as unemployed with rates even higher in industrial areas of Germany. Matters were made worse by the fact that the drastic fall in people’s income caused a collapse in tax revenues. Many soon were not in receipt of unemployment benefits as state governments could not afford to pay it.

It was in this economic chaos that the Nazis and Communists thrived.

Crime and suicide rates rose sharply and many lost hope. People deserted the democratic parties in droves and turned to either the Communists or the Nazis. In the election of 1930, the Nazis made their electoral breakthrough winning 107 deputies while the Communists won 77. Both parties were opposed to the democratic system and used violence against their political opponents. Hitler’s Brownshirts clashed frequently on the streets with their Communist enemies.

Bruning (1930-2)

The new chancellor, the Centre politician Heinrich Bruning, followed a policy of economic austerity where government spending was cut in order to keep inflation under control and keep German exports competitive. He increased taxes, reduced salaries and reduced unemployment assistance.

While it was sound economic thinking at the time, it only worsened the situation. The banking collapse in 1931 made matters even worse. Bruning was so unpopular that when he travelled by train he had to keep the blinds down as when people caught sight of him, they threw rocks! He was nicknamed the “hunger chancellor”.

The end of Parliamentary democracy

Given the unpopularity of Bruning’s policies, he found it very difficult to get a majority in the Reichstag. He relied on Article 48 and the emergency powers of the president to get laws passed. By 1932, parliament was being largely ignored.

Some of the advisors to the President including General Kurt von Schleicher wanted to include the Nazis in government which Bruning opposed. They wanted to bypass the Reichstag completely and bring in a right wing authoritarian government.

Hindenburg lost confidence in Bruning and they quarrelled about land reform. Bruning was replaced as chancellor by the equally unpopular von Papen. His cabinet of barons had absolutely no support and this was shown in the election of July 1932.

The result was a disaster for democracy in Weimar Germany. The Nazis received 37% of the vote and 230 seats while their communist enemies got 89 seats. A majority of Germans had voted for non-democratic parties. Political violence intensified with twelve people killed on the day of the polls.

The election of November 1932 saw a decline in Nazi but they still remained the largest party in the Reichstag. Communist support continued to rise and this worried many industrialists. Von Papen was replaced as chancellor by von Schleicher.
Von Papen immediately began to plot against von Schleicher and met Hitler. They agreed that Hitler would become the chancellor of a government made up mainly of von Papen’s supporters. Hindenburg who disliked Hitler, was persuaded to appoint him chancellor on the 30th of January. The Weimar Republic was dead!

Political Parties in the Reichstag May
Communist Party (KPD)
Social Democratic Party (SDP)
Catholic Centre Party
Nationalist Party (DNVP)
Nazi Party (NSDAP)
Other Parties (esp. DDP and DVP)

Main Weaknesses

Recommended reading:

Michael Burleigh: The Third Reich: A New History.
Richard Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich.

Weimar Germany

This site gives detail about Weimar Germany from an English educational website.

This is an article from the online encyclopaedia about this tragic period of German history.

This site is a good source of primary documents on most aspects of German history including Weimar Germany.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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11 November, 2013