History of Germany

The Weimar Republic, 1918-33

The Weimar Constitution

The Weimar Republic, proclaimed on November 9, 1918, was born in the throes of military defeat and social revolution. In January 1919, a National Assembly was elected to draft a constitution. The government, composed of members from the assembly, came to be called the Weimar coalition and included the SPD; the German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei--DDP), a descendant of the Progressive Party of the prewar period; and the Center Party. The percentage of the vote gained by this coalition of parties in favor of the republic (76.2 percent, with 38 percent for the SPD alone) suggested broad popular support for the republic. The antirepublican, conservative German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei--DNVP) and the German People's Party (Deutsche Volkspartei--DVP) received a combined total of 10.3 percent of the vote. The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, which had split from the SPD during the war, won 8 percent of the vote. In February the assembly elected Friedrich Ebert as the republic's first president.

In mid-1919 the assembly ratified the constitution of the new Weimar Republic, so named because its constitution was drafted in the small city where the poets Goethe and Schiller had lived. The constitution established a federal republic consisting of nineteen states (Länder ; sing., Land ). The republic's government was a mixed strong president and parliamentary system, with the president seen by many as a sort of substitute kaiser. The president was elected by popular direct ballot to a seven-year term and could be reelected. He appointed the chancellor and, pursuant to the chancellor's nominations, also appointed the cabinet ministers. However, the cabinet had to reflect the party composition of the Reichstag and was also responsible to this body. Election to the Reichstag was by secret ballot and popular vote. Suffrage was universal. Thus, Germany had a truly democratic parliamentary system. However, the president had the right to dismiss the cabinet, dissolve the Reichstag, and veto legislation. The legislative powers of the Reichstag were further weakened by the provision for presidential recourse to popular plebiscite. Article 48, the so-called emergency clause, accorded the president the right to allow the cabinet to govern without the consent of parliament whenever it was deemed essential to maintaining public order.

Problems of Parliamentary Politics

The Weimar Republic was beset with serious problems from the outset that led many Germans either to withhold support from the new parliamentary democracy or to seek actively to destroy it. The extreme left and much of the right provided the republic's most vitriolic opponents. Its supporters included the bulk of the left, represented by the SPD, and the moderate right, made up of the Center Party and the DDP. However, at key times these supporters failed to behave responsibly because of political inexperience, narrow self-interest, or unrealistic party programs.

The most serious obstacle the new republic faced was the refusal of many Germans to accept its legitimacy. The extreme left regarded it as an instrument of the propertied to prevent revolution, recalling Ebert's agreement with the military in November 1918 that resulted in the army's bloody suppression of the left-wing revolts of late 1918 and early 1919. In the face of this SPD-military alliance, elements of the left considered the SPD as great a barrier to their goals as the conservatives. Represented by the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands--KPD), the extreme left felt such an enduring hostility to the Weimar Republic that at times it cooperated with the extreme right in efforts to destroy the republic.

The right posed a graver threat to the Weimar Republic than did the extreme left because it enjoyed the support of most of Germany's establishment: the military, the financial elites, the state bureaucracy, the educational system, and much of the press. Unlike political parties in well-established democracies, the right-wing parties in the Reichstag could not be considered a loyal opposition because their ultimate aim was to abolish the new system of government. The right opposed democracy and desired to establish a conservative authoritarian regime. The right styled those who were party to the armistice and to the Treaty of Versailles as "November criminals" because of Germany's loss of territory and sovereignty and the burden of enormous war reparations. The increasing acceptance by many of the "stab in the back" legend, which attributed Germany's defeat in World War I to the treachery of the SPD and others on the left rather than to the military might of the Allies, intensified the hatred many rightists felt toward the republic. Like some on the extreme left, many on the right used violence, either petty and random or large-scale and concerted, to attain their ends. Throughout the short life of the Weimar Republic, various political groups maintained gangs of youths organized into paramilitary forces.

In addition to venomous political opposition, the republic had to contend with a weak economy plagued by high rates of inflation and unemployment. Inflation was fueled partly by the enormous wartime debts the imperial government had contracted rather than raise taxes to finance the war. Even more inflationary were the enormous war reparations demanded by the Allies, which made economic recovery seem impossible to many objective expert observers. Inflation ruined many middle-class Germans, who saw their savings and pensions wiped out. Unemployment also remained epidemic throughout the 1920s, hurting millions of wage earners and their families. Their economic misery made these groups susceptible to the claims of extremist political parties.

The pervasive social and political discontent growing out of Germans' grievances, justified or not, soon had consequences. A right-wing coup d'état in March 1920, the Kapp Putsch--named for its leader, Wolfgang Kapp--failed only because of a general strike.The military had refused to intervene, although it did brutally suppress some Communist-inspired uprisings shortly thereafter. The establishment's tacit support of unlawful right-wing actions such as the Kapp Putsch and violent repression of the left endured to the end of the Weimar Republic. This support could also be seen in the sentences meted out by the courts to perpetrators of political violence. Right-wing terrorists usually received mild or negligible sentences, while those on the left were dealt with severely, even though left-wing violence was but a fraction of that committed by the right.

Dissatisfaction with the republic was also evident in the June 1920 elections, in which the Weimar coalition lost its majority. A combined total vote of 28.9 percent for the DNVP, a descendant of the prewar Conservatives, and the DVP, composed mainly of National Liberals, reflected German middle-class disillusionment with democracy. Both parties wished to abolish the Weimar constitution. SPD strength fell to 21.7 percent, as some workers defected to the extreme left. The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, formed during the war, effectively ceased to exist as some members joined the KPD, formed in December 1918, and the remainder reunited with the SPD.

The Weimar coalition never regained its majority. Because no party ever gained as much as 50 percent of the vote, unstable coalition governments became the rule in the 1920s, and by the end of the decade more than a dozen governments had been formed, none capable of unified action on major problems. The SPD and the Center Party often could agree on questions of foreign policy, such as compliance with the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, but split on domestic issues. Conversely, the Center Party agreed with parties to its right on domestic issues but split with them on foreign policy. Thus, minority governments were formed that often showed little internal coherence during their brief lives.

The year 1923 was one of crisis for the republic. In January French and Belgian troops occupied the highly industrialized Ruhr area because of German defaults on reparations payments. The Weimar government responded by calling upon the Ruhr population to stop all industrial activity. The government also began printing money at such a rate that it soon became virtually worthless; by the fall of 1923, wheelbarrows were needed to carry enough currency for simple purchases as inflation reached rates beyond comprehension. In 1914 US$1 had equaled 4 marks. By mid-1920, US$1 was worth 40 marks, by early 1922 about 200 marks, a year later 18,000 marks, and by November 1923 4.2 trillion marks. In addition, the country was racked by strikes, paramilitary street violence, and rumors of planned uprisings by both the left and the right. In August, in the midst of this chaos, President Ebert asked Gustav Stresemann, head of the DVP, to form a new government to resolve the crisis.

The Stresemann Era

Stresemann was a Vernunftrepublikaner , that is, someone who supported the Weimar Republic because it seemed the best course of action rather than from a firm commitment to parliamentary democracy. During the war, Stresemann had supported imperial aims and desired extensive annexation of foreign territory. After the war, he remained a monarchist and founded the DVP to oppose the republic. In early 1920, he wished for the success of the Kapp Putsch. However, shocked by the assassinations of several prominent politicians, he had gradually come to believe that the effective functioning of the Weimar Republic was the best safeguard against violent regimes of either the left or the right. He also became convinced that Germany's economic problems and differences with other countries could best be resolved through negotiated agreements.

Chancellor only from August to November 1923, Stresemann headed the "great coalition," an alliance that included the SPD, the Center Party, the DDP, and the DVP. In this brief period, he ended passive resistance in the Ruhr area and introduced measures to bring the currency situation under control. Because of the failure of several coup attempts--including one by Adolf Hitler in Munich--and a general quieting of the atmosphere after these problems had been solved, the Weimar Republic was granted a period of relative tranquillity that lasted until the end of the decade. Overriding issues were by no means settled, but, for a few years, the republic functioned more like an established democracy.

After his resignation from the chancellorship because of opposition from the right and left, Stresemann served as German foreign minister until his death in 1929. A brilliant negotiator and a shrewd diplomat, Stresemann arranged a rapprochement with the Allies. Reparations payments were made easier by the Reichstag's acceptance in mid-1924 of the Dawes Plan, which had been devised by an American banker, Charles G. Dawes, to effect significant reductions in payments until 1929. That year, only months before his death, Stresemann negotiated a further reduction as part of the Young Plan, also named for an American banker, Owen D. Young. The Dawes Plan had also provided for the withdrawal of French and Belgian troops from the Ruhr district, which was completed in 1925. In addition, beginning in the mid-1920s, loans from the United States stimulated the German economy, instigating a period of growth that lasted until 1930.

The Locarno treaties, signed in 1925 by Germany and the Allies, were the centerpiece of Stresemann's attempt at rapprochement with the West. A prerequisite to Germany's admission to the League of Nations in 1926, the treaties formalized German acceptance of the demilitarization of the Rhineland and guaranteed the western frontier as defined by the Treaty of Versailles. Both Britain and Germany preferred to leave the question of the eastern frontier open. In 1926 the German and Soviet governments signed the Treaty of Berlin, which pledged Germany and the Soviet Union to neutrality in the event of an attack on either country by foreign powers.

The Locarno treaties, the Treaty of Berlin, and Germany's membership in the League of Nations were successes that earned Stresemann world renown. Within Germany, however, these achievements were condemned by many on the right who charged that these agreements implied German recognition of the validity of the Treaty of Versailles. To them, Stresemann's diplomacy, as able as Bismarck's in the opinion of some historians, was tantamount to treachery because Germany was honor bound to take by force that which the rightists felt was owed it. Because of these opinions and continued dissatisfaction on the right with the political system established by the Weimar Constitution, the Center Party and the parties to its right became more right-wing during the latter 1920s, as did even Stresemann's own party, the DVP.

Germany History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress