The Weimar Republic would be dealt a poor hand, but they would make it worse.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode the Third Reich Part 4 - The Republic. It is impossible to discuss the creation of the Third Reich without discussing the political and economic situation within the government that preceded it. During the 1920s and 1930s Germany would be a republic, founded in the aftermath of the First World War and led at the time by the Weimar coalition of centrist political parties who were able to found a new government with a new constitution. As was the case with many democratic governments created in the wake of the First World War the Weimar government would face problems which in many cases seemed almost impossible to solve. We will discuss some of those problems today. The first would be societal, with the new republic trying to find a way to sit on top of a society which had just experienced an incredibly stressful period during the war. This stress would be good for the Weimar coalition in the short term, ensuring wide ranging support for any government that promised stability, but it would be problematic in the long term as there were many groups within Germany that did not support the move of the nation to a democratically elected government. The second set of problems would be the economy. The First World War had wrecked the Germany economy, and this economic devastation would extend into the early 1920s. There would be some success in addressing these problems, just in time for the Great Depression to hit which undid all of that progress. The Weimar legacy is one of failure, but it is difficult to see how the German leaders would have addressed all of these issues within the nation without drastic changes to how the nation was structured and to German society. Changes of that magnitude would have required a revolution of some kind, either from the left or the right, which hardly would have been in keeping with the original purpose of the Weimar government which was to provide stability. Before we start diving into the problems faced by the Weimar government lets first discuss its creation and its structure.
The Weimar Republic was structured with a Reich president, who served for 7 years, as its head of state and a national legislature, the Reichstag, which held most of the power. The Reichstag was elected by all adult men and women in a system which used proportional representation. This meant that each voter voted for party, and then each party was given the number of seats which aligned with their percentage of the vote. This system was very common in nations within Europe during this period, and very closely resembled the system in France and other nations. It also had some of the same features, or defects you might call them, of those other nations. One of these was that the cabinets that led the government cycled very frequently. Between February 1919 and January 1933 there would be 20 different cabinets, which lasted for an average of just 239 days. As with the French government, this does not really tell the entire story though, because while each cabinet was technically a distinct entity there was often a strong continuity of service from one cabinet to the next. One of the best examples of this was Gustav Stresemann who would be the Foreign Minister for nine consecutive cabinets, which meant he stayed in position for 6 years, and probably would have continued in that position even longer if he would not have died while in office. I point this fact out because it is easy to say that the Weimar system was flawed, but for the most part the government looked and behaved a lot like other European governments at this time, and followed what many considered to be the best practices for a democratically elected government. In some ways it was even more democratic than other nations, with full suffrage for men and women which was somewhat exceptional within the European political landscape during this period.
At the very center of the Weimar government was the Weimar Coalition, and the largest member of that coalition was the Social Democratic party. The party had played an important role in providing stability to Germany in the years after the war, an accomplishment they would of course amplify in the years that followed. It was true that the huge support given to the party in 1919 was critical to the creation of the republic and of putting in place the system of government that it would use for the next 14 years. However, there were problems that the party would experience almost immediately. Large part of the support for the Social Democrats came from middle class voters, and one of the primary reasons that they supported the party was because it offered a moderate alternative to Communism. For the most part the Social Democrats were a very moderate party, they existed within a capitalist society which they did not attack directly, even if some of their members were strong believers in socialism. This meant that they seemed to be a reasonable alternative for those middle class voters who greatly valued stability at a time when a Communist, or Bolshevik, revolution seemed liked a distinct possibility. However, after the foundation of the Republic the Social Democrats would see two parts of their previous support dissipate. On one side would be those centrist voters from the middle class. As the threat of a revolution from the left diminished in the early 1920s they would turn their support to other parties more closely aligned with changes they hoped to see in the nation. On other other side would be those who believed that the party was not pursuing more radical socialist policies, and these members would turn to parties on the left. This meant that the high water mark for the German Social Democratic Party would be the 38% of the vote that they received in 1919, which would recede down to about 25% for most of the 1920s. The other key piece of the Weimar coalition was the Centre party, or the Zentrum. As their name suggested the Centre Party was firmly centrist in nature, they backed socially conservative policies and were strong supporters of the Catholic Church. However, they were pragmatic enough that they would work with just about every other centrist party and this meant that they were a fixture of the Weimar government for almost its entire lifespan. Much like the Social Democrats, the Zentrum would see their support decay over the course of the 1920s as voters abandoned the more centrist policies of the Zentrum, mostly for more radical parties on the right. The early Weimar governments would enjoy the support of the vast majority of the electorate, and during this period some of the features of Weimar society would emerge. For example it would become a haven for a wide variety of various subcultures that were often discriminated against in other nations at this time. This manifested in many ways, for example at this time cities like Berlin had thriving homosexual scenes, at a time when many nations forced such activities underground. There was also a strong feminist movement, which more women entering the workplace and asserting their rights through their ability to vote. both of these would cause a negative reaction from some groups in society, and as problems mounted for the Weimar government many would blame their tolerant attitude towards some groups as the cause. There were also groups that blamed the erosion of the traditional role of women as the cause of the decline of the German family and of the declining German birthrate. This was a common point of discussion among nationalist parties in Germany at this time. They blamed feminist groups for poisoning the mind of many women, and encouraging them to look for life outside of the traditional family roles. Oddly enough these same feminist groups were having problems retaining their membership during the 1920s due to a disconnect between the policies of the feminist groups and the younger generations of women. The groups would push for conservative policies, like voicing concerns about the growing population of dance clubs in Germany, which pushed many younger women away. The changes to the role of women in society was one with a long history in Germany, and one that predated the First WorldWar, in fact the overall German birthrate had been in rapid decline since the turn of the century, but the Weimar government, and its support for the republic and more liberal social policies, was far easier to blame.
The government being easy to blame is maybe the strongest theme throughout the 1920s, with every problem being blamed on the national government, every failure squarely on their shoulders regardless of where the true fault lay. There were however some failures that were either caused by the government or which were baked into how it was created: the failure of the Republic to get full support from the German states, the failure to bring the civil service, including the army, onside, and the failure to ensure the support of the judiciary. The first revolved around the unique makeup of the German state after unification. At this point in history, and really for the entire history of Germany before Hitler came to power, states like Bavaria and Saxony had strong independent histories and identities. Bavaria even had its own army during the First World War. This feeling of independence was not really curtailed after the end of the war and through the creation of the Republic and this caused there to be constant political clashes between the governments within those states and the national government in Berlin. The second failure was to gain the full support of the pre-existing German civil service and the army. The Weimar Republic functioned almost like an outgrowth of the German government that existed during the war, just with a different structure on top. This meant that there was a pretty strong continuity of service within the civil server, the people who actually put government policies in place and which served as the administrative nerve center for the government. This allowed the republic to smoothly transition out of the war, but it also meant that there were a lot of individuals who did not fully support the new government that they were supposed to be helping to run. Nowhere was this problem more apparent than in the army. The Reichswehr would be made up of officers and men who had served in the wartime army, and even if the Reichswehr leaders would support the Weimar government, that support did not extend throughout the ranks. The Reichswehr would never revolt, or anything like such a drastic action, it would however try to remain officially apolitical. This was, in theory, good, but such an apolitical stance, while the official policy of the army, did not extend throughout the entire service, and even if the service itself remained officially outside of politics it would become very clear where the support of the men within the army lay. The third failure was the failure to properly address the judiciary throughout Germany. Much like the civil servants most of the judges throughout Germany were in place from before the war. They were very conservative as a group, and their viewpoints would become very apparent during the 1920s. The German judges had spent literal decades overseeing cases of Social Democrats who were considered to be disloyal to the Kaiser. Now that the Kaiser was gone, the judiciary did not suddenly forget its prewar allegiances or shift its prewar views of the political left. They would officially support the Weimar government, and the Republic, but often their personal support for nationalistic and monarchist ideas was very clear. This resulted in very lenient sentences to those who clearly supported a return of Germany to its previous authoritarian principles, and very harsh sentences to any individuals how clearly supported ideas originating from the left, even if they were in line with official Weimar policies. This would be one of the reasons that men like Adolf Hitler, who clearly and openly tried to overthrow the government in Munich in 1923 would spend only a few months in prison for what amounted to high treason.
For many of the problems faced by the Weimar government that we have discussed up to this point, there may have been solutions, maybe not easy solutions or even ones that could have been implemented easily, but maybe solutions. It is difficult to see a solution to Germany’s most pervasive problem in the post war years, the economy. Germany had dumped everything from its economy into winning the war, and it had lost, and with that loss came large reparation agreements which had to be paid to the winning nations. These reparations were very problematic from a political perspective to the Weimar government. They had been forced to accept them at Versailles, and they did not at the time see any viable alternative to that acceptance. However, they would be a constant political cudgel used by political parties on the left and the right to put into question the legitimacy of the government. This put the Weimar leaders in a position where they could not raise taxes at all, even for budget items that had wide ranging support within society. For example, there were hundreds of thousands of disabled soldiers who had been injured during the war, there were over 350,000 war widows, and 900,000 fatherless children. The goal was to provide some kind of social welfare for these individuals, but any time the Weimar government tried to raise taxes to provide the funds to do so they would instantly come under attack from political opponents that they were raising taxes to pay reparations. The difficulty of raising sufficient government funds was not even the most important problem during the early 1920s, that was instead inflation. Germany was far from the only nation to experience rapid inflation in the postwar years. In almost all nations it would cause serious problems, if you remember back a few episodes the fear of another round of inflation would cause nations to rejoin the gold standard, which would prevent some nations from reacting to the great depression appropriately. In Germany inflation would have catastrophic consequences on some groups within society. It would not be just normal inflation of a few extra percentage points, but instead it would eventually be hyper inflation. In August 1922 the German mark would start off with an exchange rate of 1,000 marks per US dollar, and by August 1923 it would be a million to one, and within Germany the mark would experience a similar drastic reduction in real purchasing power, eventually prices in Germany would reach a billion their prewar levels. There is some evidence that the Weimar government itself either caused some of this inflation or at the very least did not do enough to prevent it, this was done as a way of reducing the burden of reparations and also in an attempt to hurt the French who were in the middle of an occupation of the Rhineland. If this was the case, it was an incredible political miscalculation. Inflation on the magnitude experienced by Germany would have drastic effects on society, which can be grouped broadly into two categories: economic and political. On the economic side, it wiped out the life savings of vast swaths of Germans. The lower and middle classes essentially lost everything, and the wages that they were paid had no hope of keeping up with the constantly increasing inflation rates. At the height of inflation almost everything earned by wage earners had to be spent immediately on food, if it was not the money might be almost worthless a few days later. Not everyone within the middle class was effected equally, and this caused those who had previously been in the middle to fragment both in terms of their economic situation and their political views. Instead of being a largely homogenous block in terms of their political support, the former middle class would play a key role in the fragmentation of the German political landscape. This leads into the fact that one of the most important consequences of the period of rapid inflation was the destruction in the faith of the people in the government and in the continued functioning of society. The Weimar government, being put in place after the turbulent war years, needed stability and it needed to be able to prove that they were able to provide the ability that the German people believed was essential to the future of the nation. So much of the initial support for the Republic was rooted in the believe that it was able to keep Germany away from the revolutions that were spreading throughout Europe at this time. The government was initially successful at this task, however the period of hyperinflation caused many to question whether or not the republic could continue to provide appropriate leadership. For many those whose life savings were destroyed, and who could barely afford to feed their families, they began to question whether stability was even the best path forward. And this questioning of the status quo meant they began to search for alternatives in larger and larger numbers. This was not a critical problem in the relatively economically prosperous years of the late 1920s, but it would be an important mindset when that prosperity abruptly ended.
As we discussed in earlier episodes, the market crash in New York in 1929 and then the Great Depression that followed was an important turning point for Germany. The economic recovery of the 1920s had been largely financed by foreign loans and the participation of Germany in international trade. When both of these items were drastically reduced after 1929 serious problems for the German economy followed. The almost complete unavailability of foreign loans was a huge problem for Germany, and not just at the national level, many state and local governments had also taken out foreign loans to finance economy recovery in their areas. When no new loans were available, and repayment started to be demanded, funds evaporated. On the business side these economic problems caused layoffs and unemployment to once again begin to rise. Millions of workers would keep their jobs but only at reduced pay, which they were forced to accept through a simple lack of alternatives. In 1930 unemployment would drastically increase and for many this brought back memories of the period of the early 1920s where high unemployment and inflation caused so many issues for millions of Germans. This was compounded by the fact that due to revenue issues and austerity programs, unemployment benefits provided by the government were reduced several times because they simply did not have the resources to provide more without tax increases or deficit spending, both of which were resisted ideologically by some politicians and economists and politically by groups within society which represented business owners and those who were still employed. The lack of support from the government for unemployed individuals and others that needed help meant that faith in the Weimar system, and the Republic, slipped still further.
The erosion in belief in the system caused political groups which were already pushing for drastic change to see an increase in support, and one of these would be the German Communist party. Even before the Great Depression the German Communists had seen some support, and this support grew as their more radical socialist views, which put them at odds with the Social Democratic party, found an audience. The German Communist party would be led by Ernst Thalmann after 1925, who was a firm believer in the inevitability of and the importance of the Revolution. The party would form committees for unemployed workers, and would organize marches and demonstrations, all of which put it at odds with the more moderate politicians on the left. However, at the time of great economic distress the Communist message was powerful. Many businesses were forced to reduce their number of employees, and many businesses would choose retain older employees instead of younger ones, with these younger citizens more likely to support the Communist message. The lack of support for these newly unemployed individuals caused the revolutionary ideas of the Communists to gain support, which was indicative in a lack of faith in the republic and the capitalist system that it supported. It was a viewpoint rooted in the idea that if the government was not going to support people and their families, then perhaps it was time for a change. The rising support for the Communists and their very public demonstrations caused a increase in concern among others in Germany that there might be a revolution. The fear of a communist revolution, which might be supported by the Comintern and the Soviet Union, was a concern for many within Germany during this period. Essentially everybody who stood to lose out in such a revolutionary scenario, which was at this point the vast majority of Germans, were concerned that a revolution would occur. This fear was then used to radicalize many people, with an anti-Commmunist message being a powerful part of many political party platforms. However, with the benefit of hindsight we know that the real risk of a Communist revolution was, at least in the late 1920s and early 1930s, incredibly small. the German Communists were chronically short of funds, with most of its members already being unemployed and unable to financially contribute and they certainly were not getting support from larger businesses. The Communist Party would also have a serious member retention problem, and a pattern developed whereby individuals would join the party when they became unemployed, but then when they were able to find another job they would then move away from that support. This made it challenging for the party to build up its support overtime. On top of this the constant ideological hostility between the Communist Party and the Social Democratic party prevents any real unity of action between the two groups and caused opposite problems for both parties. For the Communist party it robbed them of just shear numbers, as the majority of people who identified as socialists were moderate socialists, not revolutionary socialists, and therefore they would choose to support the more moderate Social Democrats. For the Social Democratic party, the existence of the Communist party prevented the Social Democratic party from being able to build up a large number of fervent supporters, as the strongest supporters of socialism were often revolutionary socialists, and this prevented the Social Democrats from being able to match the vitality and street level actions of the Communists and also political groups on the right.
All of these issues within the Weimar Republic, some of which were self-inflicted, some of which were unavoidable, would have the result of robbing the nation of the ability to form a consensus. On both sides of the political spectrum parties would radicalize, and pull support from the center. As the center degraded it would eventually lose the ability to from a majority in the Reichstag and therefore a Reichstag supported government. There was also no way to form a majority using only the Reichstag members of either the right or the left. This meant that when Hermann Mueller, the last Social Democratic Chancellor resigned in March 1930 he would take with him the last cabinet which would be based on a majority in the Reichstag until 1933. The results of the elections that would be trigged by Mueller’s resignation would make it clear that Germany in the 1930s would be very different than the Germany of the 1920s, the Weimar coalition which had brought the nation out of the war was not longer strong enough to maintain any form of political stability. The slide into political chaos would be firmly in place, and it was unclear what the outcome would be. Join me next episode in which we will discuss the elections of 1930, which would completely reset the German political landscape.