Countless historians have sought to understand and explain the failure of the Weimar Republic. The only certainty is that the answer is complex and many factors were involved. Weimar Germany was at the mercy of so many different ideas and forces – political and economic, internal and external, structural and short-term – that it is difficult to isolate one or two as being chiefly responsible for the demise of the republic. To the average observer, Adolf Hitler and Nazism appear the main architects of the downfall of Weimar democracy – but it required a ‘perfect storm’ of economic conditions before Hitler and the Nazis could emerge from the margins of German politics to become a national force. Some historians believe the Weimar Republic was brought undone by post-war conditions; others believe that longer term factors, such as Germany’s inexperience with democratic government, were just as significant. This page summarises some of the main factors that contributed to the failure and fall of the Weimar state.
Responses to the Treaty of Versailles. The post-war peace settlement signed at Versailles, France in June 1919 imposed extremely harsh terms on Germany. The severity of these terms generated intense political debate and division within Germany. While the vast majority of Germans opposed the treaty, they were sharply divided about how to respond to it. Right-wing nationalist groups, like the NSDAP (Nazis), demanded the government repudiate the treaty and refuse to comply with its terms. The moderates and pragmatists of the Weimar republic rejected this approach, believing it would provoke retaliation, economic strangulation, even war or invasion. Later, under the ministership of Gustav Stresemann, the government’s approach was to restore foreign relations, to work for a re-negotiation of the Versailles treaty and a relaxation of its punitive terms. Among the German people there was a consensus that Germany had been treated unfairly by the Treaty of Versailles – and that the Weimar government had meekly obeyed the will of foreign powers.
Germany’s reparations burden. Also stemming from Versailles was the issue of reparations: financial payments imposed on Germany for its role in World War I. Historians have formed different conclusions about whether the final reparations figure was justified – or whether Germany was capable of meeting this obligation. The general consensus is that the final amount was excessive. The burden of large reparations obligations hampered Germany’s post-war economic recovery – and thus undermined its political stability. By 1922 Germany was unable to fulfil its quarterly reparations installments, triggering the occupation of the Ruhr region by French and Belgian troops, the hyperinflation crisis of 1923 and the collapse of two Weimar government coalitions. Reparations remained a divisive issue for the duration of the Weimar Republic.
The impact of conspiracy theories. The fertile political scene in post-war Germany allowed several conspiracy theories to circulate and flourish. The most prolific and poisonous of these was the Dolchstosselegende or ‘stab in the back’ theory. According to this fallacious theory, Germany’s November 1918 surrender was engineered by socialists, liberals and Jews in Germany’s civilian government; it was not the result of military defeat or exhaustion. The Dolchstosse myth had two significant effects. Firstly, it undermined public trust in the post-war civilian government – and particularly the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was painted by nationalists as treacherous and unpatriotic. Secondly, the Dolchstosslegende protected the prestige and position of the German military and its commanders. Despite their failures in 1918, military commanders like Hindenburg and Ludendorff managed to retain their status and influence in the new republic. Evidence of this can be seen in the election of Hindenburg, who publicly supported the Dolchstosslegende, as president of the republic.
The Weimar Constitution. Germany’s post-war constitution has shouldered much of the blame for the political instability of the 1920s. The men who drafted the constitution in 1919 attempted to construct a political system not unlike that of the United States, incorporating democracy, federalism, checks and balances and protection of individual rights. Tellingly, they created an executive presidency who had considerable emergency powers, allowing him to bypass or override the elected Reichstag. Some historians suggest the Weimar president – with his seven year term and these hefty emergency powers – was not far removed from the former kaiser. Stalemates in the Reichstag meant the president’s emergency powers were frequently called into action, which only enhanced and worsened political divisions.
Weimar’s electoral system. The proportional voting system used in Weimar Germany was inherently democratic, in that it allocated seats in the Reichstag based on the share of votes each party received. The problem with proportional voting was that it prevented any realistic chance of a majority government, where one party could form government in its own right. Proportional voting filled the Reichstag with a number of smaller parties, many with membership and policies that were wholly sectional or regional. The scattered composition of the Reichstag meant that coalitions were required, and these coalitions were often fractious and fragile. The presence of so many parties and interests hindered debate in the chamber and made passing legislation difficult.
The difficulties of minority government. For the duration of the Weimar Republic, no single political party ever held an absolute majority of Reichstag seats – which meant that no party was able to form a government on its own. To form government and push through legislation, parties had to group together into coalitions to form a majority. But the political divisions of the 1920s meant that these coalitions were fragile and unstable. Some parties, especially those on the radical fringes, refused to participate in Reichstag coalitions, or they entered them reluctantly or insincerely. Right-wing parties, for instance, were reluctant to participate in coalitions with the large Social Democratic Party (SPD). When a coalition was formed, a contentious bill or measure could put it at risk of fracturing and collapsing. The fragility of these coalitions made the task of the chancellor and his cabinet enormously difficult.
Lingering militarism, nationalism and authoritarian political values. Germany’s defeat in World War I should have killed off or critically weakened German militarism, nationalism and faith in authoritarianism. But these powerful ideas refused to die; they survived in the post-war period and helped undermine Weimar democracy. The main repositories for these ideas were military organisations – including the Reichswehr, the Freikorps and the various ex-soldiers’ leagues – as well as political parties on the far right, such as the NSDAP (Nazis). Military leaders like Paul von Hindenburg, who should have been disgraced into retirement by the defeat of 1918, remained as heroes and important political players in the new society. The ‘old days of empire’ under Bismarck and authoritarian monarchy had ended in a disastrous war, yet they were often romanticised and recalled as better times.
Hostility to democracy and parliamentarian government. Several political parties gave little or no support to the Weimar political system, instead choosing to undermine, attack or sabotage it. Parties like the Communist Party (KPD), the Nazis (NSDAP) and the German Nationalist People’s Party (DNVP) had anti-democratic platforms that sought the destruction of parliamentary democracy. These groups stood candidates in elections, not to participate in the Reichstag but to damage and destroy it from within. In the early 1930s the NSDAP used its growing representation in the Reichstag as a platform for anti-democratic rhetoric and propaganda. Other radical parties were similarly intransigent and destructive in their approach. These attacks on Weimar democracy also contributed to the loss of public trust in the Weimar political system.
The impact of the Great Depression. The economic collapse of 1929 had dire effects on Germany. By 1932 two-fifths of the German workforce, or some six million people, were without a job. This resulted in many German voters abandoning their support for mainstream and moderate parties, instead voting for radical groups. It is unclear how much of this was genuine support for these parties and how much was a protest vote – but whatever the reasons, the NSDAP recorded significant increases in Reichstag seats in 1930 and July 1932. This propelled Adolf Hitler into the public eye, first as a presidential nominee and then as a potential chancellor. Without the miserable conditions created by the Great Depression, Hitler and the NSDAP would likely have remained a powerless entity on the margins of Weimar politics.
Rising support for Hitler and the Nazis. While Hitler and the NSDAP could not have seized power without the Great Depression, they were well placed to do so when the time came. Between 1924 and 1932, Hitler and his agents busied themselves with reforming and expanding the Nazi movement. They re-badged the NSDAP as a legitimate contender for Reichstag seats; they toned down their anti-Semitic and anti-republican rhetoric; they recruited members to increase party membership; and they expanded the NSDAP from a Bavarian group into a national political party. Hitler also chased support from powerful interest groups: German industrialists, wealthy capitalists, press barons like Alfred Hugenberg and the upper echelons of the Reichswehr. Without these tactical changes, Hitler and the NSDAP would not have been in a position to claim power in the early 1930s.
Political intriguing in 1932. The January 1933 appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor was the dagger through the heart of Weimar democracy. Yet just a few months before Hitler’s appointment seemed unlikely. The man whose approval was required for Hitler to become chancellor, president Paul von Hindenburg, had a low regard for the NSDAP leader and no desire to appoint him as head of government. It took weeks of intriguing, rumour-mongering and lobbying before Hindenburg, by then showing signs of senility, changed his mind. The actions of those around Hindenburg, men like former chancellor Franz von Papen, were critical factor in persuading the president that a Hitler cabinet could succeed, yet could be controlled.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Why the Weimar Republic failed?”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/why-the-weimar-republic-failed/.
There were various factors that contributed to the failure of the Weimar Republic of Germany and the ascent of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party into power on January 30, 1933. Various conflicting problems were concurrent with the result of a Republic that, from the outset, its first governing body the socialist party (SPD) was forced to contend with. These included the aspect of German imperialism, the unresolved defeat of 1918, financial collapse and the forced struggle against the activities of the National party as well as inflation. Other factors that influenced the failure of Weimar were the structural weaknesses induced by the constitution and the basic lack of support for the Republic among the German people particularly amongst the elite. All in all, these aspects were the major causes that doomed the Weimar republic to ultimate failure and the eventual ascent of Hitler’s nationalist party to power.
The new socialist government of Weimar (SPD), whose constitution was adopted on July 30, 1919, entered a situation they by no means created. The period during which they were appointed to rule was associated with defeat and misery, and when disorder was nationwide. The situation then, was that of revolution. However, rather than to make it a revolution of there own, they co-operated with the liberals and with the catholic centre party to lead Germany in a reformed version of her old self. In June 1919, they voted to comply with the treaty of Versailles. However, the signing of the Treaty served to promote protest and unrest amongst the soldiers, sailors and the German people generally, and democracy thus resulted in becoming an alien device. The imperial army, for instance, never got over the humiliation of surrender, which they felt, was a ‘stab in the back’ by their own countrymen. The sailors at Kiel mutinied in a last desperate effort on October 28 and on November 9 1919, the streets were filled with crowds marching to demonstrate at the center of Berlin.
Furthermore, compliance with the Treaty of Versailles meant that Germany would have to make reparation payments it could scarcely afford. This fact placed a heavy strain on the already suffering economy of Germany which was bankrupted by four years of war thus ensuing in the ascend of inflation and the occasioning of the respite of payments by Germany in 1922. The French reacted by occupying the Ruhr, a major industrial area of Germany, in January 1923. This was felt a grave humiliation by the German people and eventuated in widespread discontent. Germany’s currency was already fragile, and in face of the occurring circumstances consequent to the Ruhr invasion and the overprinting of currency, the Mark fell to chronic levels, eventually reaching the value of four billion against the US dollar, which therefore generated massive hyperinflation. The economic instability, on top of the disillusionment and resent caused by the humiliating peace settlement, resulted in vast sections of German society feeling alienated by the Republic. They responded by attacking the democracy and as a consequence it became impossible to control the hostility and discontent.
The deteriorating economic and social situation also managed to wreak havoc on the political atmosphere of the time and the Republic wound up having no positive friends and too many enemies. The Republic faced opposition from the extreme left by Spartacists who resorted to force in efforts to overturn the Republic. In March 1920, the Freikorps who in Berlin launched a pro-Monarchist putsch in an attempt to install Wolfgang Kapp as Chancellor also challenged the Republic from the right. During this incident troops both refused to defend the Republic or take action against Freikorps. In protest the working classes then responded by organizing a general strike in Berlin, which had the effect of frustrating this putsch. The present regime was able to survive despite the numerous threats.
Extremism remained to pollute the atmosphere, the evidence being represented in the alarming amount of political assassinations that continued occurring. In evidence, according to an estimate of the Minister of Justice, rightists committed 354 murders between 1919 and 1923. During this time, when the Republic was suffering most and was being threatened, practically from all sides, Hitler had been making affective attempts to capitalize on the resultant circumstances. He exploited the economic collapse by blaming it on all those he wished to portray as enemies. These were the same enemies he declared as the ‘November criminals’ who had brought about Germany’s defeat in 1918. Hitler’s plan was to seize power in Munich, and, with Bavaria as his base, to launch a march on Berlin not unlike Mussolini’s march on Rome of a year earlier, but without first being invited to take power, as Mussolini had been. Hitler, however, continued to fail until 1933 when he finally seized power.
The continued disruption caused by his attacks on the Republic, notably his Munich putsch, in addition to the economic crises as well as the resurfacing of the previously unresolved issues promulgated the grounds for an increased anti-republican sentiment which reached a climax in 1923 when the Republic was on its knees due to hyperinflation. It was against this traumatic background that the leadership of the republic was passed to the hands of Gustav Stresemann in August 1923. His determination and ambition to rectify circumstances in Germany were realized in November 1923 when he introduced a new currency. Valued at one billion old Marks the introduction of the Rentenmark at the end of 1923 was a main reason for the currency stabalization. Further stability came with the Dawes plan of April 1924, which provided a modified settlement of the reparation issues. In addition, French troops were then confirmed to leave the Ruhr, and disputes between the two countries then went too independent ruling. In September, Stresemann called off passive resistance unconditionally. These headed many positive changes in Germany, whose effects were felt universally in almost every facet of German life.
By 1929, the German economy revived. The changes Stresemann managed to bring about still had the effect of deviating opposition by both the extremist groups on the right as well as the left. However, while it seemed that politics might have settled down, the circumstances that were to follow in the coming years proved that Stresemann perhaps merely postponed internal problems rather than eradicated them. The relative stability achieved through the late 1920s by Gustav Stresemann was, for instance, heavily reliant upon foreign investment, loans and economic prosperity, not only in Germany but also in the United States from whence much of Germany’s foreign investments originated. Consequently, as the American economy boomed the attractiveness of investment in Germany became overshadowed and the German economy thus, again proceeded to decline in 1928. Additionally, during October 1929, two crises befell the Republic – Gustav Stresemann, the architect of Germany’s stability, died and later that month the collapse of share prices began on the New York stock exchange. Had Germany’s prosperity and economic stability been self-reliant events and circumstances on the New York stock exchange may have had a somewhat subtle effect in Germany. However, as said earlier, Germany’s prosperity was merely financed by international loans and was excessively dependant on foreign investment. Germany was thus forced to remain in a very vulnerable position, the results leading to the onset of depression and the virtual crumbling of the Republic’s very foundations in recourse to the Wall Street crash during the end of 1929.
The depression that hit Germany in 1929, is said to have been the most severe economic depression in modern world history. It devastated the lives of the urban population as well as those living in the country districts that in recourse to the economic circumstances struggled desperately. The unemployment figures for Germany show the rapid deterioration of the economic climate. In September 1929 1.3 million employable workers were unemployed, for September 1930 the figures rose to 3 million, in September 1931 the figure was 4.35 million and by 1932 unemployment reportedly escalated to 6 million. These conditions, in addition to the loss of confidence generated overseas which resulted in the rapid withdrawal of the foreign loans Germany relied on extensively placed additional strain on the republic. The political repercussions were just as acute. Unresolved issues and old determinations to destroy the Republic again resurfaced. These resulted in the renewed attacks by the extremes of the left and the right who proceeded to take advantage of the situation and manipulate it to suit their own ends. Strikes, violence and constant bloodshed in street battles against communists suggested to be deliberately provoked by the ‘brown shirted toughs of the NSDAP’, soon replaced political dialogue and debate, and while the Republic had no Republican army to deal with the synchronous persistence of violence, the power of Weimar to instill democracy became largely disabled. Moreover, the continued unrest further exacerbated a general feeling of a loss of faith in the Republic and support for it therefore deteriorated.
The Republic had also been suffering from structural weaknesses, which also played a major role in crippling its progress. For example, the constitution of the new Republic emerged finally from the National Assembly in July 1919. It was considered to be one of the most liberal documents written up of its kind in the twentieth century on. In practice though, it left much to be desired. One of its weaknesses was the elaborate system of proportional representation, which was devised to allow for minority parties to have a share in the system of government. Unfortunately, this system also made it virtually impossible for a single party to hold a majority in the Reichstag and therefore coalition governments were inevitable.
Another weakness was the infamous Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. Under this article the President had the right to suspend civil liberties – with the Chancellor’s assent – in an emergency, thus giving him virtual dictatorial powers. Chancellor Bruening was first to make use of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution from 1930 on when he, in response to the political and social unrest incurred in Germany during that period, was provoked to rule under emergency decree. Correspondingly, politics were radicalized once more and resulted thus, in the intensifications of divisions amongst the parties in the Reichstag to an extent that parliamentary government became all but impossible. Accordingly, the Weimar constitution became unworkable as well as unwanted. Moreover, as a result of the existing atmosphere and circumstances at the time of the Republic, the Republic perhaps resulted in not being looked at as a State in which the German people desired to live or to which they were prepared to give positive encouragement. The repercussions had the effects of helping the communists who succeeded in gaining the support of an overwhelming number of the urban workforce. However, the main beneficiary was Hitler’s party, the NSDAP, who managed to increase their seats in the Reichstag from 12-107 thus concluding in their becoming the second largest political party at the time.
Thereafter, as the NSDAP continued to attract a positive response from the people, eventually seizing power in 1933, the Republic was doomed to eventual collapse and ultimate destruction. It is suggested that the eventual collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler to power was almost inevitable. As a result of the existing circumstances of economic crisis, near, if not, complete social disaster and almost universal discontent, there were ultimately only two choices left open to the German people; “a narrow, army-backed Presidential dictatorship (the Communists)” or a young, dynamic and broadly-based Nazi movement. For many, particularly the middle classes, the second choice was perhaps also perceived as the only choice available to them, especially as the prospect of Communist rule, with also the existing presence of Article 48 that allowed too much power to be vested in any one person, may have seemed too frightening a risk to undertake. In addition, very many powerful groups preferred to lend their support to the opposite extreme the NSDAP. Hitler successfully managed to jockey his party as having the dual attraction of offering radical solutions to economic problems while upholding patriotic values. He seemingly promised something to everyone and the German people, thus responded to him as he had foreshadowed.
The Nazis still did not succeed in retaining more than thirty seven per cent of the vote. In November 1932 Hitler lost an additional thirty-four seats. However, in as much as the acting president (von Hindenburg) allowed himself to be convinced by generals and right-wing politicians that only the Nazi leader could restore order in Germany, in the following year leadership was passed to him. Hindenburg felt that he was a good president, but it was old age that rendered him helpless to his advisors and the German people. Accordingly, Hitler was made Germany’s fifteenth post war Chancellor in January 1933. At this stage Germans had scarce knowledge of what the future under the rule of Hitler would mean or result in. However, Hitler lost no time in a founding a harsh totalitarian state known as the Third Reich, which he enforced within a mere month of his appointment. The results were the destruction of a modern civilized society that turned crisis into catastrophe, bringing the democracy of Weimar to its end.
When assessing the reasons for the failure of the Weimar Republic and the ascent of the NSDAP to power, one has to make various considerations for these events occurred as a result of a plurality of factors. Perhaps the most important factor was the economic crises that befell the Republic in 1923 and again in 1929. However to neglect considerations like the possibility that the revolution of 1918 failed to create institutions loyal to the new regime, that perhaps the constitution of the Republic was too idealistic and lacking in practicality, causing certain structural weaknesses and finally, that the desertion of the Republic by the masses and more powerful interests made the failure of Weimar and the rise of Hitler to power a mere matter of time would give a distorted view of the issue. Moreover, several political and social issues arose with the creation of the Republic, one of which was the influence of Imperial Germany. The Republic failed to resolve these issues and these issues created the context that made the failure of the Republic and the rise of a dictatorial leader to power possible.
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3. Gill. A., (1994), An honourable defeat, William Heinemann Ltd, London.
4. Ramm. A., (1984), Europe in the twentieth century 1905-1970, Longman Group Ltd, USA.
5. Simon. T., (1983), Germany 1918-1933 revolution, counterrevolution and the rise of Hitler, Oxford University Press, London.
6. Peukert. D., (1991), The Weimar Republic, Penguin Press, London.
Filed Under: Great Depression, History