Before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Germany experienced its ‘roaring 20s’ through a parliamentary democratic system—the Weimar Republic. Weimar Republic 101 article series aims to introduce some of the key themes and debates in the historiography of the Weimar Republic, from its inception in 1918 to its death in 1933.
Weimar Republic 101 is divided into six chapters:
Weimar Republic 101: Germany before and after World War I
Weimar Republic 101: The Great Inflation 1923
Weimar Republic 101: DADA Art and Weimar Culture
Weimar Republic 101: The ‘New Woman’ in Post-War Germany
Weimar Republic 101: The Great Depression 1929-1933
Weimar Republic 101: The collapse of a democracy
For the fifteen years of its existence, the Weimar Republic would fight for Germany’s survival in the aftermath of World War I. The armistice, signed on November 11, 1918, meant the war was over. However, for Germany, a new battle would begin. The armistice terms, the Treaty of Versailles, was resented by the German people, perceived as the reason for Germany’s precarious economic and social position in the 1920s. To understand how and why the Weimar Republic came into being, it is important to understand two things: Germany’s political constitution before World War I, and the impact of World War I on German society, particularly how the Treaty of Versailles shaped the German public’s opinion on the new democracy.
The Weimar Republic is important to study because of its potent political symbolism. As Storer (2013, p. 1) recognises, Germany’s fledgling democracy in the interwar years has become a “byword for instability”. The Weimar image is significant today as it is representative of an age of social and economic uncertainty, as well as pronounced political polarisation (Storer 2013, p. 1). Important questions to consider when studying the Weimar Republic are to what extent the new government itself was responsible for Germany’s instability, or whether it was the case of any new political system being imposed on a fragile economic and social order struggling with the aftermath of war. As well as being representative of uncertainty and upheaval, the Weimar image is also invoked to represent a “postwar identity structure” (Simon 2004, p. 302). This explains the prominence of Weimar era cinema in the 1990s and 2000s, following the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. The Wall had separated East and West Germany throughout the Cold War. The collapse of the wall, foreshadowing the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, signified a new, unified Germany. To parallel the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was on November 9 1918 the Weimar Republic was proclaimed.
The Weimar Republic is so named because the constitution for the new parliamentary democracy was drafted in the southern German town of Weimar—Berlin was considered too dangerous amid the Revolution to hold the Assembly. Many historians credit the creation of the Weimar Republic to the fact that German military generals thought a civilian, democratic government would attract better armistice terms from the Allies. When it became clear, Germany was losing the war. The German High Command alerted the Kaiser that the war was lost in September 1918 (Storer 2013, p. 31). In October, Germany became a constitutional monarchy, and on November 9, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated the throne, and Germany was declared a Republic (Epstein 2015, p. 10). The chancellor and government would be accountable to the Reichstag, the German parliament (Storer 2013, p. 32). To understand the significance of the Weimar Republic to the repertoire of Germany’s political constitutions, it is important to understand Germany’s political organisation before World War I.
Germany, as we recognise it today, was a young country in World War I, having only unified under the Imperial Constitution in 1871 (Storer 2013, p. 14). The constitution consisted of four kingdoms, six grand duchies, five duchies, seven principalities, three free cities, and the Rhineland (Storer 2013, p. 15). An Imperial Chancellor was appointed by the Emperor, who was also the King of Prussia, the largest of the kingdoms (Storer 2013, p. 14). Prussia had a three-class voting system, where citizens were divided according to their tax brackets (Wegner 2020, p. 340). It is easy to recognise that Germany’s political constitution before World War I was sensitive to the needs of the wealthy elite, not the average citizen. Perhaps it is this detail that led Henig (1998, p. 2) to recognise Germany after 1871 as a façade of unification, the reality holding deep divisions between the different regions and class groups. The wealthy elites were eager to protect their economic and social status, however, a growing working class created a great challenge for the German Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century (Henig 1998, p. 3). Germany’s changing economic and social structure required a new political system, but would the Weimar Republic be the right one? It is important to consider Germany’s political constitution before World War I, and the impact of an emerging working class, when assessing how the Weimar Republic was received by the German people.
In the aftermath of World War I, German politics grew increasingly polarised. The political Left was represented by Labour movements inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, the far-Right was representative of the old German elite (Storer 2013, pp. 29-30). Storer (2013, p. 27) proposes that the Weimar Republic was the result of “a reaction to events and an attempt to divert the people’s energies from a more radical course”. The ‘German Revolution’ of 1918 incited fear in the old German elite that Labour movements would encourage a Bolshevik-style revolution. For example, in January 1918, there were one million workers on strike (Henig 1998, p. 7). Rapid industrialisation and a growing working class meant that a new political structure was needed, but the cost of defeat in World War I meant that Germany in the early 1920s was not the suitable economic or political climate for a democracy to flourish (Henig 1998, p. 4). Storer (2013, p. 2) confirms that the Weimar Republic was “unloved by its people”, but why and to what extent is this statement true? To understand how the German people interpreted the new republic, it is important to understand in what economic and social climate the democracy was introduced to, and how it could be considered a continuation and disruption of existing social and political structures in Germany.
Storer (2013, p. 3) reminds us that “history…is not episodic”. Therefore, when assessing the impact of the Weimar Republic on German society, it must be considered how the new republic can be interpreted as a continuation of German political constitutions, as well as a divergence from them. Henig’s façade of German unification post-1871 appears to foreshadow the political fragmentation of Weimar politics. Where we see a change from Germany’s wealthy, authoritarian tradition in the Weimar constitution is the removal of imperial rule with the election of the Chancellor by parliament, and the election of the President by popular vote (Wegner 2020, p. 346). All men and women over twenty were eligible to vote in the 1919 National Assembly, making Germany one of the first countries to give women the vote (Henig 1998, p. 13). At the turn of the twentieth century, there was avid support for democratic and socialist parties among the German people. Conservative votes went down from 60% in the 1880s to 38% in 1912 (Henig 1998, p. 3). After the proclamation of the Republic, votes at the National Assembly in 1919 revealed that approximately 84% voted for socialist parties, with less than 15% voting for nationalist and monarchist parties (Henig 1998, p. 12). If there was such avid support for socialist parties and a democratic government at the turn of the twentieth century and into the early years of the Weimar Republic, why did support decline during the 1920s, ultimately leading to its death in 1933? One answer can be revealed in the economic devastation Germany experienced in the 1920s, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression. The Weimar Republic suffered because nationalist movements and the old German elite linked the new democracy with defeat in World War I and the economic consequences of the Treaty of Versailles (Henig 1998, p. 8).
World War I was devastating for Germany. A total war economy meant women and young men were required to fill the working roles of the men who went to fight in the war (Storer 2013, p. 29). There was a monumental cost of human life, with 19% of the male population casualties of the war (Storer 2013, p. 28). Despite a patriotic enthusiasm for the war at the beginning, the fighting spirit of the German people began to weary, and the population was angry at the cost of the war. The Treaty of Versailles was harsh on Germany and the new democratic government. Germany lost 13% of its territory, 10% of its population, and the army was reduced to 100.000 men (Epstein 2015, p. 11). Epstein (2015, p. 11) notes that the Treaty was intended to injure Germany’s economic recovery after the war, symbolised in the famous “war-guilt clause”, or Article 231. The final reparations bill, decided in 1921, came to 132 billion gold marks (Fischer 2019, p. 402). The German people resented the new republic; while the republic was not responsible for the terms in the treaty, it was their government that signed the armistice and reparations bill. Defeat in World War I and the economic plight heralded by the Treaty of Versailles led Germans to be resentful of democracy (Epstein 2015, p. 13). Evidence of the polarisation of German politics and anger towards the Treaty of Versailles is evident in the assassination of government minister Matthias Erzberger by a Nationalist death squad in 1921 (Storer 2013, p. 51). Erzberger was hated by the right of German politics for how he publicised his views on Germany’s obligations to fulfill the Treaty of Versailles (Storer 2013, p. 51). It is essential to understand how resentment towards the Treaty of Versailles shaped the German public’s negative opinion on the new democracy.
Defeat in World War I and the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles caused the German population to resent democracy and the Weimar Republic. An emerging working class resulting from Germany’s rapid industrialisation in the twentieth century meant a new political order needed to be established, but the democracy introduced with the Weimar Republic was not interpreted by the public as the answer to Germany’s tumultuous economic and social position in the 1920s.
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