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. Chapter five returns to the spectre of economic collapse that had haunted the Republic from the beginning, and which was discussed in chapter two. This chapter looks at the Great Depression, and how it foreshadowed the collapse of the Republic and the rise of a Nazi dictatorship.
Weimar Republic 101 is divided into six chapters:
Weimar Republic 101: The Great Depression 1929-1933
Weimar Republic 101: The collapse of a democracy
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 sent the world into a dire economic crisis: the Great Depression. Germany experienced an accentuated pain from this global economic crisis. One of the most profound reasons for this was its reliance on foreign economic aid after the disaster of inflation from 1919-1923. The majority of this financial support was American in origin, where the economic crisis began.
The Great Depression is often held responsible for the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933. Severe unemployment and the polarisation of politics resulting from the economic crisis are seen as the most reasonable causes for the collapse of Weimar democracy.
But already in 1930, before Hitler’s rise to power, there were signs that democracy was failing, when chancellor Heinrich Brüning decided to rule by decree. Here it is discussed how the Great Depression triggered the collapse of Weimar democracy and aided the rise of a Nazi dictatorship.
Unemployment was a major issue for Germany during the Great Depression, in fact, it was the worst affected country in Europe during the crisis (Winkler 2015, p. 412). The situation was so dire that during the years 1929-1932, unemployment rose to 6.1 million Germans (Storer 2013, p. 178). In comparison, in 1929, unemployment in the United States was at 3.2%; in Germany, it was at 9.3% (Winkler 2015, p. 413).
Why did Germany suffer such a severe reaction to the Great Depression?
The answer can be found in the economic legacy left from the inflation crisis 1919-1923. Financial aid plans such as the Young Plan were reliant on foreign loans, which came mostly from America (Winkler 2015, p. 413). Inflation also meant that the German banks had lost their investments and were required to draw on foreign capital (Winkler 2015, p. 413). Because of Germany’s reliance on foreign economic aid, and particularly the one coming from America where the crisis originated, the effects of the Great Depression were accentuated for Germany, particularly the desperate situation of rising unemployment.
It has been extensively argued that unemployment as a consequence of the Great Depression led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Indeed, this is the opinion put forth by Stögbauer (2001, p. 270), who evocatively explains unemployment as the “death blow” to Weimar democracy. To be clearer, it was the effect of unemployment on voter patterns during the late 1920s and early 1930s that led to the collapse of democracy in Germany and the rise of a dictatorship.
As is common when analyzing the Weimar Republic, many historians endeavour to determine whether it was internal or external factors that led to the collapse of democracy. Lehmann (2010, p. 88) arrives at the conclusion that it was external factors, such as unemployment and the broader economic consequences of the Great Depression, that led to the collapse of democracy. It, therefore, warrants further investigation to look at how the Great Depression influenced the polarization of politics in Germany.
Winkler (2015, p. 415) fittingly describes Germany’s experience of the Great Depression as not “purely social” as it was for America but held a “radical political dimension" to it. Indeed, one of the greatest effects of the Great Depression on German society was the danger of polarised politics.
Stögbauer (2001, p. 255) explains that the economic crisis and rising unemployment led voters to “defect from government parties” and support the parties on the extreme left and right of the political spectrum: the German Communist Party (KPD) and the National Socialist Party (NSDAP) respectively. It was these parties that were seen as being focused on offering solutions to the German people at the time of crisis. The coalition governments of Weimar on the other hand were perceived as unstable and weak.
For the extreme left of the political spectrum, the Great Depression meant the KPD could argue how “the very foundations of capitalism were crumbling” (Storer 2013, p. 178). The Communist vote rose from 10.6% to 19.9% in the years 1929-1932 (Storer 2013, p. 178). On the extreme right of the political spectrum, the NSDAP presented a radical nationalism that promised to restore Germany to greatness. As with the Communist vote, the Nazi vote similarly rose from 2.6% to 18.3% in 1930 (Storer 2013, p. 176). The rising votes for parties on the extreme left and right of the political spectrum are illustrative of how the Great Depression affected voter patterns that eventually led to the collapse of democracy and the rise of a dictatorship.
It is important to discuss whether votes for these radical parties were in support of them, or ‘protest votes’ in opposition to the Weimar democratic system. Stögbauer (2001, p. 258) illustrates that voter patterns at the end of the Weimar Republic represent the “responsibility hypothesis”, which dictates that “voters punish the government for economic decline and this, in turn, benefits the opposition”. It is clear that the “responsibility hypothesis” is activated in Weimar Germany during the Great Depression, where voters fell away from the middle and supported parties with radical agendas.
The Social Democratic Party resigned from the government in 1930, which led to the fall of the Grand Coalition (Stögbauer 2001, p. 258). In its place, Chancellor Heinrich Brüning led a “bourgeois minority cabinet” (Winkler 2015, p., 415).
With the disillusionment of the Grand Coalition, it is possible to locate Brüning's appointment in 1930 as representative of the collapse of democracy in Weimar Germany, before Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Brüning was able to use the economic crisis created by the Great Depression to rule by emergency decree. Lehmann (2010, p. 82) identifies Brüning’s decision to rule by decree as the “final phase of the republic’s life”. Stögbauer (2001, p. 251) explains that in the Weimar constitution, emergency decrees were originally intended to allow the president to “restore public safety and order in times of crisis without direct parliamentary control”.
During the Great Depression, Brüning was able to consistently declare a state of emergency and therefore act without direct support from the parliament. Furthermore, Storer (2013, p. 177) identifies more ways of how Brüning’s rule signified the end of democracy: Article 48, the emergency powers article, passed from being used five times in 1930 to sixty times in 1932. Reichstag sittings also dropped from ninety-four in 1930 to only thirteen in 1932 (Storer 2013, p. 177). It is clear that before the beginnings of Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933, Weimar democracy was dissolving from within.
Lehmann has identified Brüning’s rule as the “final phase” of the republic’s life. Winkler (2015, p. 432) furthers Lehmann’s argument by saying that Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 was the “second phase” in the death of Weimar democracy.
Looking at Hitler's rise to power from today’s perspective, knowing the consequences it would carry, it can be hard to think why people would have voted for Hitler. But, in the time of crisis, Hitler had an appeal by promising the people a return to greatness. The question that needs to be addressed here is:
What appeal did Hitler hold for the German people in this time of crisis, that attracted so many to vote for the NSDAP? In particular, what did he offer the German people that a democracy could not?
Storer (2013, pp. 178-179) explains that Nazi votes were a sign of “deeper-seated dissatisfaction with the democratic system” in how it handled the economic crisis. This experience was particularly pronounced in middle-class families who had lost much of their savings in the inflation from almost a decade earlier. It has also been revealed that Nazi votes came from young people: in 1933, 61% of Nazi votes were people aged 20-30 (Storer 2013, p. 183).
Storer (2013, p. 183) explains that young people were “disillusioned” by Weimar politics and despaired at the lack of job prospects during the depression. They were eager to support more radical solutions. Indeed, Winkler (2015, p. 418) concludes that the Nazi Party answered a “national need for a sense of community” by projecting an “extreme nationalism…pillorying…the hated Weimar Republic”. It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that Nazi votes were ‘protest votes’ against Weimar democracy: a government that could not seem to support its people in a time of dire economic crisis.
Germany’s suffering during the Great Depression ultimately led to the collapse of the democratic system experienced during the Weimar Republic. The Great Depression has been seen to affect the collapse of the Weimar Republic by influencing voter behavior to protest the government they held responsible for their plight by supporting parties on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. The result was a Nazi dictatorship from 1933 when Hitler came to power as chancellor.
Of course, nothing has one single point of fault, and it is always a collaboration of forces that contribute to the rise and fall of regimes. In the next article, we will explore the moral consequences that destroyed people's self-worth and led to a social crisis that contributed to the downfall of the Weimar Republic.
A cartoon showing Brüning propped up by the Weimar constitution’s emergency powers. (2019, September 9). [Illustration, caricature]. Alpha History. https://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/great-depression/.
Anne Frank Stichting. (n.d.). Adolf Hitler’s followers greet him at a party conference in Neurenberg (1929). This and other pictures came with packets of cigarettes and were collected in special albums. This picture is from the series Deutschland erwacht [Germany awakes]. [Photograph]. Anne Frank House. https://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/go-in-depth/germany-1933-democracy-dictatorship/.
Getty. (2019, July 5). A bank in Berlin damaged during violent clashes between police and demonstrators in June 1931[Photograph]. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/62f52cda-759a-11e9-b0ec-7dff87b9a4a2.
Unemployed men queue in Berlin during the Great Depression. (2019, September 9). [Photograph]. Alpha History. https://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/great-depression/.
Lehmann, S. H. (2009). Chaotic shop-talk or efficient parliament? The Reichstag, the parties, and the problem of governmental instability in the Weimar Republic. Public Choice, 144(1–2), 83–104. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-009-9505-0.
Stogbauer, C. (2001). The radicalisation of the German electorate: Swinging to the Right and the Left in the twilight of the Weimar Republic. European Review of Economic History, 5(2), 251–280. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1361491601000107.
Storer, C. (2013). A Short History of the Weimar Republic (I.B.Tauris Short Histories) [E-book]. I.B.Tauris.
Winkler, H. A., & Spencer, S. (2015). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 [E-book]. Yale University Press.