The Weimar Republic (German: Weimarer Republik, IPA: [ˈvaɪ̯marər repuˈbliːk]) is the common name for the republic that governed Germany from 1919 to 1933. This period of German history is often known as the Weimar period. The republic was named after the city of Weimar, where a national assembly convened to produce a new constitution after the German Empire was abolished following the nation's defeat in World War I.
Despite its political form, the new Republic still called itself "Deutsches Reich," the same name used by the German monarchy before 1919. The phrase Weimar Republic is an invention of historians, and was not used officially during its existence. Deutsches Reich was usually translated to "The German Reich" in English-speaking countries during this era, with "Reich" no longer being translated as "Empire."
This first attempt to establish a liberal democracy in Germany happened during a time of civil conflict, and failed with the ascent of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933. Although technically the 1919 constitution was not invalidated until after World War II, the legal measures taken by the Nazi government in 1933 (commonly known as Gleichschaltung) destroyed the mechanisms of a typical democratic system, so 1933 is cited as the end of the Weimar Republic. Rampant inflation, unpopular reparations to the victors of World War I and the impact of the Great Depression undermined public enthusiasm for this Republic, itself hastily constructed following the end of the Monarchy. It can be argued that democracy had not had time, or the opportunity, to mature or to establish deep roots before the rise of the Third Reich. It could be argued that the Prussian tradition of autocratic leadership lived on and that enough people were willing to give Hitler a chance, whose charismatic claim to power was more attractive than the failed Republic.
Controlled revolution: The establishment of the Republic (1918–1919)
From 1916 onwards, the 1871 German Empire had effectively been governed by the military, led by the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, Supreme Army Command) with the Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg. When it became apparent that World War I was lost, the OHL demanded that a civil government be installed in order to meet a key peace talk condition from United States President Woodrow Wilson. Any attempt to continue the war after Bulgaria had left the Central Powers would have only caused German territories to be militarily occupied by the victors. The new Reichskanzler Prince Max von Baden thus offered a cease-fire to U.S. President Wilson on October 3, 1918. On October 28, 1918, the 1871 constitution was finally amended to make the Reich a parliamentary democracy, which the government had refused for half a century: The Chancellor was henceforth responsible to Parliament, the Reichstag, and no longer to the Kaiser.
The plan to transform Germany into a constitutional monarchy similar to Britain quickly became obsolete as the country slid into a state of near-total chaos. Germany was flooded with soldiers returning from the front, many of whom were wounded physically and psychologically. Violence was rampant, as the forces of the political right and left fought not only each other, but among themselves.
Rebellion broke out when on October 29, the military command, without consultation with the government, ordered the German High Seas Fleet to sortie. This was not only entirely hopeless from a military standpoint, but was also certain to bring the peace negotiations to a halt. The crews of two ships in Wilhelmshaven mutinied. When the military arrested about 1,000 seamen and had them transported to Kiel, the Wilhelmshaven mutiny turned into a general rebellion that quickly swept over most of Germany. Other seamen, soldiers and workers, in solidarity with the arrested, began electing worker and soldier councils modeled after the soviets of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and seized military and civil powers in many cities. On November 7, the revolution had reached Munich, causing King Ludwig III of Bavaria to flee.
In contrast to Russia one year earlier, the councils were not controlled by a communist party. Still, with the emergence of the Soviet Union, the rebellion caused great fear in the establishment down to the middle classes. The country seemed to be on the verge of a communist revolution.
At the time, the political representation of the working class was divided: a faction had separated from the Social Democratic Party, the traditional working-class party, calling themselves "Independent Social Democrats" (USPD) and leaning towards a socialist system. In order not to lose their influence, the remaining "Majority Social Democrats" (MSPD, who supported a parliamentary system) decided to put themselves at the front of the movement, and on November 7, demanded that Emperor Wilhelm II abdicate. When he refused, Prince Max of Baden simply announced that he had done so and frantically attempted to establish a regency under another member of the House of Hohenzollern. On November 9, 1918, the Republic was proclaimed by Philipp Scheidemann at the Reichstag building in Berlin, to the fury of the Reichskanzler, who still hoped to preserve the monarchy. Two hours later a Soviet republic was proclaimed around the corner at the Berliner Stadtschloss by a left wing radical named Karl Liebknecht.
On November 9, in a legally questionable act, Reichskanzler Prince Max of Baden transferred his powers to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the MSPD, who, shattered by the monarchy's fall, reluctantly accepted. It was apparent, however, that this act would not be sufficient to satisfy Liebknecht and his followers, so a day later, a coalition government called "Council of People's Commissioners" (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) was established, consisting of three MSPD and three USPD members, led by Ebert for the MSPD and Hugo Haase for the USPD. Although the new government was confirmed by the Berlin worker and soldier council, it was opposed by the Spartacist League led by communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Ebert called for a National Congress of Councils, which took place from December 16 to 20, 1918, and in which the MSPD had the majority. Ebert thus managed to enforce quick elections for a National Assembly to produce a constitution for a parliamentary system, marginalizing the movement that called for a socialist republic.
From November 1918 through January 1919, Germany was governed dictatorially by the Council of People's Commissioners. In those three months, the government was extraordinarily active, and issued a large number of decrees. At the same time, its main activities were confined to certain spheres: the eight-hour workday, domestic labor reform, agricultural labor reform, right of civil-service associations, local municipality social welfare relief (split between Reich and States) and important national health insurance, re-instatement of demobilized workers, protection from arbitrary dismissal with appeal as a right, regulated wage agreement, and Universal suffrage from 20 years of age in all classes of elections—local and national. Occasionally the name "Die Deutsche Sozialdemokratische Republik" (The German Social-Democratic Republic) appeared in leaflets and on posters from this era, although this was never the official name of the country.
The Reichswehr and the Revolution
To ensure that his fledgling government was able to maintain control over the country, Ebert made an uneasy pact with the OHL, now led by Ludendorff's successor General Wilhelm Groener. This Ebert-Groener pact stipulated that the government would not attempt to reform the Army so long as the army swore to protect the state. On the one hand, this agreement symbolized the acceptance of the new government by the military, assuaging concern among the middle classes; on the other hand, it was considered a betrayal of worker interests by the radical left wing. The new model Reichswehr armed forces, limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 100,000 army soldiers and 15,000 seamen, remained fully under the control of the German officer class despite its nominal reorganization. As an independent and conservative group in Weimar, it wielded a large amount of influence over the fate of the republic.
This pact also marked one of several steps that caused the permanent split in the working class' political representation into the SPD and Communists. The eventual fate of the Weimar Republic derived significantly from the general political incapacity of the German labor movement. The several strands within the central mass of the socialist movement adhered more to sentimental loyalty to alliances arising from chance than to any recognition of political necessity. Combined action on the part of the socialists was impossible without action from the millions of workers who stood midway between the parliamentarians and the ultra-leftists who supported the workers councils. Confusion through Weimar as a whole made acute the danger of extreme right and extreme left engaging in virulent conflict.
The split became final after Ebert called upon the OHL for troops to put down another Berlin army mutiny on November 23, 1918, in which soldiers had captured the city's garrison commander and closed off the Reichskanzlei where the Council of People's Commissioners was situated. The ensuing street fighting was brutal with several dead and injured on both sides. This caused the left wing to call for a split with the MSPD which, in their view, had joined with the Anti-Communist military to suppress the Revolution. The USPD thus left the Council of People's Commissioners after only seven weeks. In December, the split deepened when the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD) was formed out of a number of radical left-wing groups, including the radical left wing of the USPD and the Spartacist League group.
In January, more armed attempts at establishing communism, known as the Spartacist uprising, by the Spartacist League and others in the streets of Berlin were put down by paramilitary Freikorps units consisting of volunteer soldiers. Bloody street fights culminated in the beating and shooting deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht after their arrests on January 15. With the affirmation of Ebert, the murderers were not tried before a court martial, leading to very lenient sentences, which did not exactly lead to more acceptance for Ebert from the radical left.
The National Assembly elections took place January 19, 1919. In this time, the radical left-wing parties, including the USPD and KPD, were barely able to get themselves organized, leading to a solid majority of seats for the MSPD moderate forces. To avoid the ongoing fights in Berlin, the National Assembly convened in the city of Weimar, giving the future Republic its unofficial name. The Weimar Constitution created a republic under a semi-presidential system with the Reichstag elected by proportional representation. The Socialist and (Non-Socialist) Democratic parties obtained a solid 80 per cent of the vote.
During the debates in Weimar, fighting continued. A Soviet republic was declared in Munich, but was quickly put down by Freikorps and remnants of the regular army. The fall of the Munich Soviet Republic to these units, many of which were situated on the extreme right, resulted in the growth of far-right movements and organizations in Bavaria, including the Nazis, Organisation Consul, and societies of exiled Russian Monarchists. Sporadic fighting continued to flare up around the country. In eastern provinces, forces loyal to Germany's fallen Monarchy fought the republic, while militias of Polish nationalists fought for independence: Great Poland Uprising in Provinz Posen and three Silesian Uprisings in Upper Silesia.
The carefully thought-out social and political legislation introduced during the revolution was generally unappreciated by the German working-class. The two goals sought by the government, democratization and social protection of the working class, were never achieved. This has been attributed to a lack of pre-war political experience on the part of the Social Democrats. The government had little success in confronting the twin economic crises following the war.
The permanent economic crisis was a result of lost pre-war industrial exports, the loss of supplies in raw materials and food stuffs from Alsace-Lorraine, Polish districts and the colonies along with worsening debt balances and reparations payments. Military-industrial activity had almost ceased, although controlled demobilization kept unemployment at around one million. The fact that the Allies continued to blockade Germany until after the Treaty of Versailles did not help matters, either.
The allies permitted only low import levels of goods that most Germans could not afford. After four years of war and famine, many German workers were exhausted, physically impaired, and discouraged. Millions were disenchanted with capitalism and hoping for a new era. Meanwhile the currency devalued.
The German peace delegation in France signed the Treaty of Versailles accepting mass reductions of the German military, unrealistically heavy war reparations payments, and the controversial "War Guilt Clause." Adolf Hitler later blamed the republic and its democracy for the oppressive terms of this treaty.
The Republic's first Reichspräsident ("Reich President"), Friedrich Ebert of the SPD, signed the new German constitution into law on August 11, 1919.
The early years: Internal conflict (1919–1923)
The Republic was under great pressure from both left and right-wing extremists. The radical left accused the ruling Social Democrats of having betrayed the ideals of the workers' movement by preventing a communist revolution. Right-wing extremists were opposed to any democratic system, preferring an authoritarian state like the 1871 Empire. To further undermine the Republic's credibility the extremists of the right (especially certain members of the former officer corps) also blamed an alleged conspiracy of Socialists and Jews for Germany's defeat in World War I.
For the next five years, Germany's large cities suffered political violence between left-wing and right-wing groups, both of which committed violence and murder against innocent civilians and against each other, resulting in many deaths. The worst of the violence was between right-wing paramilitaries called the Freikorps and pro-Communist militias called the Red Guards, both of which admitted ex-soldiers into their ranks.
The Kapp Putsch took place on March 13, 1920, involving a group of Freikorps troops who gained control of Berlin and installed Wolfgang Kapp (a right wing journalist) as chancellor. The national government fled to Stuttgart and called for a general strike. While Kapp's vacillating nature did not help matters, the strike crippled Germany's ravaged economy and the Kapp government collapsed after only four days on March 17.
Inspired by the general strikes, a communist uprising began in the Ruhr region when 50,000 people formed a "Red Army" and took control of the province. The regular army and the Freikorps ended the uprising on their own authority. Other communist rebellions were put down in March 1921, in Saxony and Hamburg.
By 1923, the Republic claimed it could no longer afford the reparations payments required by the Versailles treaty, and the government defaulted on some payments. In response, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region, Germany's most productive industrial region at the time, taking control of most mining and manufacturing companies in January of 1923. Strikes were called, and passive resistance was encouraged. These strikes lasted eight months, further damaging the economy and raising expensive imports. The strike meant no goods were being produced and this made the French so furious that they began to kill and exile protesters in the region.
Since striking workers were paid benefits by the state, much additional currency was printed, fueling a period of hyperinflation. Hyperinflation started when Germany had no goods to trade with. Printing money was the solution sought at that time, though there are other better solutions to it, for example, borrowing money from the U.S. (President Gustav Stresseman did this and Germany earned a precarious economic boom). This allowed Germany to pay war loans and reparations with worthless marks and helped ex-great industrialists to pay loans as well. This also lead to pay rise of workers, as well as businessmen whom wanted a profit out of it. Circulation of money rocketed and soon, the Germans discovered their money was worthless. The value of the Papiermark had declined from 4.2 per U.S. dollar at the outbreak of World War I to 1 million per dollar by August 1923. On November 15, 1923, a new currency, the Rentenmark, was introduced at the rate of 1 trillion (1,000,000,000,000) Papiermark for 1 Rentenmark. At that time, 1 U.S. dollar was equal to 4.2 Rentenmark. Reparation payments resumed, and the Ruhr was returned to Germany.
Further pressure from the right came in 1923 with the Beer Hall Putsch, staged by Adolf Hitler in Munich. In 1920, the German Workers' Party had become the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), nicknamed the Nazi Party, and would become a driving force in the collapse of Weimar. Hitler was named chairman of the party in July 1921. The Storm Division (Sturmabteilung or SA) was established in November 1921 and acted as Hitler's personal army. On November 8, 1923, the Kampfbund, in a pact with Erich Ludendorff, took over a meeting by Bavarian prime minister Gustav von Kahr at a beer hall in Munich. Ludendorff and Hitler declared a new government, planning to take control of Munich the following day. The 3,000 rebels were thwarted by 100 policemen. Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, a minimum sentence for the charge and he served less than eight months before his release. Following the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch, his imprisonment and subsequent release, Hitler focused on legal methods of gaining power.
Stresemann's Golden Era (1923–1929)
Gustav Stresemann was Reichskanzler for a brief period in 1923, and served as Foreign Minister from 1923-1929, a period of relative stability for the Weimar Republic when there were fewer uprisings and seemingly the beginnings of an economic recovery.
Stresemann's first move was to issue a new currency, the Rentenmark, to halt the extreme hyperinflation crippling German society and the economy. It was successful because Stresemann repeatedly refused to issue more currency, the cause of the inflationary spiral. To further stabilize the economy, he reduced spending and bureaucracy while increasing taxes. He signed the Locarno Treaties with the Allied countries in 1925 as a means of restoring Germany's diplomatic status in Europe.
During this period, the Dawes Plan was also created, tying reparations payments to Germany's ability to pay. Germany was admitted into the League of Nations, made agreements over its western border, signed a neutrality pact- the Kellogg-Briand pact- with Russia, and disarmament was brought to a halt. However, this progress was funded by overseas loans, increasing the nation's debts, while overall trade decreased and unemployment rose. Stresemann's reforms did not relieve the underlying weaknesses of Weimar but merely gave the appearance of a stable democracy.
Despite the progress made during these years, Stresemann was criticized by his opponents for his policy of "fulfillment," or compliance with the terms of the Versailles Treaty, and by the German people after the invasion of the Ruhr, in which he agreed to pay the reparations set by the treaty in order for the French troops to evacuate.
In 1929, Stresemann's death marked the end of the "Golden Era" of the Weimar Republic. He died at the age of 51, four months after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Republic crumbles and Hitler's support rises (1930–1932)
Loss of credibility for the Republic
The last years of the Weimar republic were stamped by even more political instability than in the previous years and the administrations of Chancellors Brüning, Papen, Schleicher and Hitler (from January 30 to March 3, 1933) were all Presidentially appointed dictatorships. On March 29, 1930, the finance expert Heinrich Brüning had been appointed the successor of Chancellor Müller by Paul von Hindenburg after months of political lobbying by General Kurt von Schleicher on behalf of the military. The new government was expected to lead a political shift towards conservatism, based on the emergency powers granted to the Reichspräsident by the constitution, since it had no majority support in the Reichstag.
After an unpopular bill to reform the Reich's finances was left unsupported by the Reichstag, Hindenburg established the bill as an emergency decree based on Article 48 of the constitution. On July 18, 1930, the bill was again invalidated by a slim majority in the Reichstag with the support of the SPD, KPD, the (then small) NSDAP and DNVP. Immediately afterward, Brüning submitted to the Reichstag the president's decree that it would be dissolved.
The Reichstag general elections on September 14, 1930, resulted in an enormous political shift: 18.3 percent of the vote went to the Nazis, five times the percentage compared to 1928. This had devastating consequences for the Republic. There was no longer a majority in the Reichstag even for a Great Coalition of moderate parties, and it encouraged the supporters of the Nazis to bring out their claim to power with increasing violence and terror. After 1930, the Republic slid more and more into a state of potential civil war.
From 1930 to 1932, Brüning attempted to reform the devastated state without a majority in Parliament, governing with the help of the President's emergency decrees. During that time, the Great Depression reached its lowpoint. In line with liberal economic theory that less public spending would spur economic growth, Brüning drastically cut state expenditures, including in the social sector. He expected and accepted that the economic crisis would, for a while, deteriorate before things would improve. Among others, the Reich completely halted all public grants to the obligatory unemployment insurance (which had been introduced only in 1927), which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and fewer benefits for the unemployed. This was understandably an unpopular move on his part.
The economic downturn lasted until the second half of 1932, when there were first indications of a rebound. By this time though, the Weimar Republic had lost all credibility with the majority of Germans. While scholars greatly disagree about how Brüning's policy should be evaluated, it can safely be said that it contributed to the decline of the Republic. Whether there were alternatives at the time remains the subject of much debate.
The bulk of German capitalists and land-owners originally gave support to the conservative experiment: not from any personal liking for Brüning, but believing the conservatives would best serve their interests. As, however, the mass of the working class and also of the middle classes turned against Brüning, more of the great capitalists and landowners declared themselves in favour of his opponents—Hitler and Hugenberg. By late 1931 conservatism as a movement was dead, and the time was coming when Hindenburg and the Reichswehr would drop Brüning and come to terms with Hugenberg and Hitler. Hindenburg himself was no less a supporter of an anti-democratic counter-revolution represented by Hugenberg and Hitler.
On May 30, 1932, Brüning resigned after no longer having Hindenburg's support. Five weeks earlier, Hindenburg had been re-elected Reichspräsident with Brüning's active support, running against Hitler (the president was directly elected by the people while the Reichskanzler was not).
Franz von Papen calls for elections
Hindenburg then appointed Franz von Papen as new Reichskanzler. Von Papen lifted the ban on the SA, imposed after the street riots, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the backing of Hitler.
Papen was closely associated with the industrialist and land-owning classes and pursued an extreme Conservative policy along Hindenburg's lines. He appointed as Reichswehr Minister Kurt von Schleicher and all of the members of the new cabinet were of the same political opinion as Hindenberg. This government was to be expected to assure itself of the co-operation of Hitler. Since the Republicans and Socialists were not yet ready to take action and the Conservatives had shot their political bolt, Hitler and Hindenberg were certain to achieve power.
Elections of July 1932
Since most parties opposed the new government, von Papen had the Reichstag dissolved and called for new elections. The general elections on July 31, 1932 yielded major gains for the KPD and the Nazis, who won 37.2 percent of the vote, supplanting the Social Democrats as the largest party in the Reichstag.
July 1932 resulted in the question as to now what part the immense Nazi Party would play in the Government of the country. The Nazi party owed its huge increase to an influx of workers, unemployed, despairing peasants, and middle-class people. The millions of radical adherents at first forced the Party towards the Left. They wanted a renewed Germany and a new organisation of German society. The left of the Nazi party strove desperately against any drift into the train of such capitalist and feudal reactionaries. Therefore Hitler refused ministry under Papen, and demanded the chancellorship for himself, but was rejected by Hindenburg on August 13, 1932. There was still no majority in the Reichstag for any government; as a result, the Reichstag was dissolved and elections took place once more in the hope that a stable majority would result.
November and "Socialist General" Schleicher
The November 6, 1932 elections yielded 33.0 percent for the Nazis: It dropped 2 million voters. Franz von Papen stepped down, and was succeeded by General von Schleicher as Reichskanzler on December 3. The political army officer Schleicher, had developed in atmosphere of semi-obscurity and intrigue that encompassed the Republican military policy. He had for years been in the camp of those supporting the Conservative counter-revolution. Schleicher's bold and unsuccessful plan was to build a majority in the Reichstag by uniting the Trade Unionist left wings in the various parties, including that of the Nazis led by Gregor Strasser. This did not prove successful either.
In this brief Presidential Dictatatorship entr'acte, Schleicher took the role of "Socialist General," and entered into relations with the Christian Trade Unions, the Left Nazis, and even with the Social Democrats. Schleicher's plan was for a sort of Labour Government under his Generalship. It was an utterly un-workable idea as the Reichswehr officers were hardly prepared to follow Schleicher on this path, and the working class had a natural distrust of their future allies. Equally, Schleicher aroused hatred amongst the great capitalists and landowners by these plans. The SPD and KPD could have achieved success building on a Berlin transport strike.
Hitler learned from von Papen that the general had no authority to abolish the Reichstag parliament, whereas any majority of seats did. The cabinet (under a previous interpretation of Article 48) ruled without a sitting Reichstag, which could vote only for its own dissolution. Hitler also learned that all past crippling Nazi debts were to be relieved by German big business.
On January 22, Hitler's efforts to persuade Oskar von Hindenburg (the President's son) included threats to bring criminal charges over estate taxation irregularities at the President's Neudeck estate (although 5000 extra acres were soon allotted to Hindenburg's property). Out maneuvered by von Papen and Hitler on plans for the new cabinet, and having lost Hindenburg's confidence, Schleicher asked for new elections. On January 28, von Papen described Hitler to Paul von Hindenburg as only a minority part of an alternative, von Papen-arranged government. The four great political movements, the SPD, KPD, Centre, and the Nazis were in opposition. If this continued there was real danger that the Centre and Nazi parties would radicalize further, and that in the end a vast united national Bolshevist front would be formed against the ruling system.
On January 29, Hitler and von Papen thwarted a last-minute threat of an officially-sanctioned Reichswehr takeover, and on January 30, 1933, Hindenburg accepted the new Papen-Nationalist-Hitler coalition with the Nazis holding only three of eleven Cabinet seats. Later that day, the first cabinet meeting was attended by only two political parties, representing a minority in the Reichstag: The Nazis and the DNVP led by Alfred Hugenberg (196 + 52 seats). Eyeing the Catholic Centre Party's 70 (+ 20 BVP) seats, Hitler refused their leader's demands for constitutional "concessions" (amounting to protection) and planned for dissolution of the Reichstag.
Hindenburg, despite his misgivings about the Nazis' goals and about Hitler as a person, reluctantly agreed to Papen's theory that, with Nazi popular support on the wane, Hitler could now be controlled as chancellor. The date dubbed Machtergreifung (seizure of power) by the Nazi propaganda is commonly seen as the beginning of Nazi Germany.
Hitler's chancellorship and the death of the Weimar Republic (1933)
Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor on the morning of January 30, 1933 in what some observers later described as a brief and indifferent ceremony. By early February, a mere week after Hitler's assumption of the chancellorship, the government had begun to clamp down on the opposition. Meetings of the left-wing parties were banned, and even some of the moderate parties found their members threatened and assaulted. Measures with an appearance of legality suppressed the Communist Party in mid-February and included the plainly illegal arrests of Reichstag deputies.
The Reichstag Fire on February 27 was blamed by Hitler's government on the Communists, and Hitler used the emergency to obtain President von Hindenburg's assent to the Reichstag Fire Decree the following day. The decree invoked Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution and suspended a number of constitutional protections of civil liberties, allowing the Nazi government to take swift and harsh action against political meetings, arresting or in some cases murdering members of the Communist party.
Reichstag election of March 5
Hitler and the Nazis exploited the German state's broadcasting and aviation facilities in a massive attempt to sway the electorate, but this election—the last democratic election to take place until the end of the Third Reich twelve years later — yielded a scant majority of 16 seats for the coalition. At the Reichstag elections, which took place March 5, the NSDAP obtained seventeen million votes. The Communist, Socialist and Catholic Centre votes stood firm.
Hitler addressed disparate interest groups, stressing the necessity for a definitive solution to the perpetual instability of the Weimar Republic. He now blamed Germany's problems on the Communists, even threatening their lives on March 3. Former Chancellor Heinrich Bruning proclaimed that his Centre Party would resist any constitutional change and appealed to the President for an investigation of the Reichstag fire. Hitler's successful plan was to induce what remained of the now Communist-depleted Reichstag to grant him, and the Government, the authority to issue decrees with the force of law. The hitherto Presidential Dictatorship hereby was to give itself a new legal form.
On March 15, the first cabinet meeting was attended by the two coalition parties, representing a minority in the Reichstag: The Nazis and the DNVP led by Alfred Hugenberg (196 + 52 seats). According to the Nuremberg Trials this cabinet meeting's first order of business was how to at last achieve the complete counter-revolution by means of the constitutionally-allowed Enabling Act, requiring two-thirds parliamentary majority. This Act would, and did, bring Hitler and the NSDAP unfettered dictatorial powers.
Hitler cabinet meeting in mid-March
At the meeting of the new cabinet on March 15, Hitler introduced the Enabling Act, which would have authorised the cabinet to enact legislation without the approval of the Reichstag. Meanwhile, the only remaining question for the Nazis was whether the Catholic Centre Party (Zentrum) would support the Enabling Act in the Reichstag, thereby providing the two-thirds majority required to ratify a law that amended the constitution. Hitler expressed his confidence to win over the Centre's votes. Hitler is recorded at the Nuremberg Trials as being sure of eventual Centre Party Germany capitulation and thus rejecting of the DNVP's suggestions to "balance" the majority through further arrests, this time of socialists. Hitler however assured his coalition partners that arrests would resume after the elections, and in fact some 26 SDP Socialists were physically removed. After meeting with Centre leader Monsignor Ludwig Kaas and other Centre Trade Union leaders daily, and denying them a substantial participation in the government, negotiation succeeded in respect of guarantees towards Catholic civil-servants and education issues. Kaas himself negotiated a letter of constitutional guarantee in theory accepted by the Centre Party as final condition for assent to the Enabling Act, which guarantee was not finally given, before the Centre indeed assented through Kaas towards the two-thirds majority.
Ludwig Kaas, the party's chairman since 1928, had strong connection to the Vatican Secretary of State, later Pope Pius XII. At the last internal Centre meeting prior to the debate on the Enabling Act, Kaas expressed no preference or suggestion on the vote, but as a way of mollifying opposition by Centre members to the granting of further powers to Hitler, Kaas somehow arranged for a letter of constitutional guarantee from Hitler himself prior to his voting with the centre en bloc in favor of the Enabling Act.
Kaas is remembered in connection with this vote he handed, and in this connection to the Vatican for whom he thereafter set in train and drafted the Holy See's very long desired Reichskonkordat with Germany. Ludwig Kaas is named along with von Papen as being one of the two most important political figures within this achievement of Dictatorship by Adolf Hitler.
The Socialist leader Otto Wels is remembered as the sole opposing voice to the 23 March Enabling Act that marks the end of the Weimar republic.
Enabling Act negotiations
On March 20 negotiation began between Hitler and Frick on one side and the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum—the word zentrum means center in German, thus the naming of the Catholic Center Party) leaders—Kaas, Stegerwald, and Hackelsburger—on the other. The aim was to settle on conditions under which Center would vote in favor of the Enabling Act. Because of the Nazis' narrow majority in the Reichstag, Center's support was necessary to receive the required two-thirds majority vote. On March 22, the negotiations concluded; Hitler promised to continue the existence of the German states, agreed not to use the new grant of power to change the constitution, and promised to retain Zentrum members in the civil service. Hitler also pledged to protect the Catholic confessional schools and to respect the concordats signed between the Holy See and Bavaria (1924), Prussia (1929), and Baden (1931). Hitler also agreed to mention these promises in his speech to the Reichstag before the vote on the Enabling Act.
Ceremonial opening of the Reichstag in Potsdam on March 21
The ceremonial opening of the Reichstag on March 21 was held at the Garrison Church in Potsdam, a shrine of Prussianism, in the presence of many Junker landowners and representatives of the imperial military caste. This impressive and often emotional spectacle — orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels — aimed to link Hitler's government with Germany's imperial past and portray National Socialism as a guarantor of the nation's future. The ceremony helped convince the "old guard" Prussian military elite of Hitler's homage to their long tradition and, in turn, produced the relatively convincing view that Hitler's government had the support of Germany's traditional protector—the Army. Such support would announce to the population a return to conservatism to curb the problems affecting the Weimar Republic, and that stability might be at hand. In a politically adroit move, Hitler bowed in respectful humility before President and Field Marshal von Hindenburg.
Passage of the Enabling Act by the Reichstag on March 23
The Reichstag convened on March 23, 1933, and in the midday opening, Hitler made a historic speech, appearing outwardly calm and conciliatory. It is most noticeable for its abrupt reversal of the Nazi Party's hardline stance against Christianity and particularly Catholicism. Hitler presented an appealing prospect of respect towards Christianity by paying tribute to the Christian faiths as "essential elements for safeguarding the soul of the German people." He promised to respect their rights and declared his government's "ambition is a peaceful accord between Church and State" and that he hoped "to improve our friendly relations with the Holy See." This speech aimed especially at the future recognition by the named Holy See and therefore to the votes of the Centre Party addressing many concerns Kaas had voiced during the previous talks. Kaas is considered to have had a hand therefore in the drafting of the speech. Kaas is also reported as voicing the Holy see's desire for Hitler as bulwark against atheistic Russian nihilism previously as early as May 1932.
In the debate prior to the vote on the Enabling Act, Hitler orchestrated the full political menace of his paramilitary forces like the storm troopers in the streets to intimidate reluctant Reichstag deputies into approving the Enabling Act. The Communists' 81 seats had been empty since the Reichstag Fire Decree and other lesser known procedural measures, thus excluding their anticipated "No" votes from the balloting. Otto Wels, the leader of the Social Democrats, whose seats were similarly depleted from 120 to below 100, was the only speaker to defend democracy and in a futile but brave effort to deny Hitler the two-thirds majority, he made a speech critical of the abandonment of democracy to dictatorship. At this Hitler could no longer restrain his wrath.
In his retort to Wels, Hitler abandoned earlier pretense at calm statesmanship and delivered a characteristic screaming diatribe, promising to exterminate all Communists in Germany and threatening Wels' Social Democrats as well. Meanwhile Hitler's promised written guarantee to Monsignor Kaas was being typed up, it was asserted to Kaas, and thereby Kaas was persuaded to silently deliver the Centre bloc's votes for the Enabling Act anyway.
The passing of the Enabling Act gave Hitler and his government sweeping powers to legislate without the Reichstag's approval, and to make foreign policy decisions and deviate from the constitution where they saw fit. Hitler would use these powers to remove all opposition to the dictatorship he wished to create. The decrees issued by Hitler's cabinet within succeeding weeks rapidly stripped Germans of their rights, removed all non-Nazi members of the Civil Service, and banned all other political parties and unions, ushering in the Third Reich.
The NSDAP movement had rapidly passed the power of the majority Nationalist Ministers to control. Unchecked by the police, the S.A indulged in acts of terrorism throughout Germany. Communists, Social Democrats, and the Centre were ousted from public life everywhere. The violent persecution of Jews began, and by the summer 1933 the NSDAP felt itself so invincible that it did away with all the other parties, as well as trades unions. The Nationalist Party was among those suppressed. The NSDAP ruled alone in Germany. The Reichswehr had, however, remained completely un-touched by all these occurrences. It was still the same State within a State that it had been in the Weimar Republic. Similarly, the private property of wealthy industrialists and landowners was untouched, whilst the administrative and judicial machinery was only very slightly tampered with.
Reasons for the Weimar Republic's failure
The Weimar Republic's catastrophic collapse is the subject of continued debate. Although Hitler became Reichskanzler legally through mechanisms set forth in the constitution and the NSDAP gained a relative majority of the seats in Parliament in two 1932 elections, he was appointed chancellor at a time when support for the NSDAP was not considered sufficient to gain power. Scholars have expressed divided opinions on the reasons and historical analysis. This was complicated by the Cold War, when historians often attempted to justify ideologies. One speculation involves how the NSDAP might have fared in the 1933 elections if Hitler had not had the political and logistical advantages of being chancellor.
No single reason can explain the rise of Nazism. The most commonly asserted causes can be grouped into three categories: economic problems, institutional problems, and the roles of specific individuals.
The Weimar Republic had some of the most serious economic problems ever experienced by any Western democracy in history. Rampant hyperinflation, massive unemployment and a large drop in living standards were primary factors. In 1923-1929 there was a short period of economic recovery, but the Great Depression of the 1930s led to a worldwide recession. Germany was particularly affected because it depended heavily on American loans. In 1932, about 5 million Germans were unemployed. Many blamed the Weimar Republic. This was made apparent when political parties on both right and left wanting to disband the Republic altogether made any democratic majority in Parliament impossible.
The Weimar Republic was severely affected by the Great Depression triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The crash and subsequent economic stagnation led to increased demands on Germany to repay the debts owed to the U.S. As the Weimar Republic was very fragile in all of its existence, the depression proved to be devastating, and played a major role in the NSDAP's takeover.
The Versailles treaty was considered by most Germans to be a punishing and degrading document because it forced them to surrender resource-rich areas and pay massive amounts of compensation. These punitive reparations caused consternation and resentment, although the actual economic damage resulting from the Treaty of Versailles is difficult to determine. While the official reparations were considerable, Germany ended up paying only a fraction of them. However, the reparations did damage Germany's economy by discouraging market loans, which forced the Weimar government to finance its deficit by printing more money, causing rampant hyperinflation. In addition, the rapid disintegration of Germany in 1919, due to the return of a disillusioned army, the rapid change from possible victory in 1918 to defeat in 1919, and the political chaos may have caused a psychological imprint on Germans that could lead to extreme nationalism, shown by Hitler.
Most historians agree that many industrial leaders identified the Weimar Republic with labor unions and with the Social Democrats, who had established the Versailles concessions of 1918/1919. Although some did see Hitler as a means to abolish the latter, the Republic was already unstable before any industry leaders were supporting Hitler. Even those who supported Hitler's appointment often did not want Nazism in its entirety and considered Hitler a temporary solution in their efforts to abolish the Republic. Industry support alone cannot explain Hitler's enthusiastic support by large segments of the population, including many workers who had turned away from the left.
It is widely agreed that the 1919 constitution had several weaknesses, making the eventual establishment of a dictatorship likely but it is unknown whether a different constitution could have prevented the Third Reich. However, the 1949 West German constitution (the Grundgesetz) is generally viewed as a strong response to these flaws.
- The institution of the Reichspräsident was frequently considered as an Ersatzkaiser ("substitute emperor"), an attempt to replace the Kaiser (who resigned and fled in 1918) with a similarly strong institution meant to diminish party politics. Article 48 of the constitution gave the President power to "take all necessary steps" if "public order and security are seriously disturbed or endangered." Although this was intended as an emergency clause, it was often used before 1933 to issue decrees without the support of Parliament (see above) and also made Gleichschaltung easier. For example, the Reichstag Fire Decree was issued on the basis of Article 48.
- The use of almost pure proportional representation meant any party with a small amount of support could gain entry into the Reichstag. This led to many small parties, some extremist, building political bases within the system (after the war only parties with 5% or more of the total vote would be allowed to enter the Bundestag). Yet, it has to be noted that the Reichstag of the monarchy was fractioned to a similar degree although being elected by majority vote under a first-past-the-post system.
- The Reichstag could remove the Reichskanzler from office even if it was unable to agree on a successor. This "Motion of No Confidence" led to many chancellors in quick succession, adding to the Republic's instability (see Chancellor of Germany for a list). As a result, the 1949 Grundgesetz stipulates that a chancellor may only be voted down by Parliament if a successor is elected at the same time (see Constructive Vote of No Confidence).
- The constitution provided that in the event of the president's death or resignation, the Reichskanzler would assume that office (and crucially possess its powers) pending election of a new president. This allowed Hitler to easily unite the offices of Reichskanzler and Reichspräsident after Hindenburg's death in 1934. However, by this time the dictatorship was already firmly installed and this clause alone cannot be blamed for Nazism.
Some historians prefer to consider individuals and the decisions they made. This brings up the problematic question of what alternatives were available at the time and leads to speculation and hypothesis.
Brüning's economic policy from 1930-1932 has been the subject of much debate. It caused many Germans to identify the Republic with cuts in social spending and extremely liberal economics. Whether there were alternatives to this policy during Great Depression is an open question.
Paul von Hindenburg became Reichspräsident in 1925. He represented the older authoritarian 1871 Empire, and it is hard to label him as a democrat in support of the 1919 Republic, but he was never a Nazi. During his later years (at well over 80 years old), he was also senile. A president with solid democratic beliefs may not have allowed Parliament to be circumvented with the use of Article 48 decrees and might have avoided signing the Reichstag Fire Decree. Hindenburg waited one and a half days before he appointed Hitler as Reichskanzler on January 30, 1933, which indicates some hesitance. Some claim Nazism would have lost much public support if Hitler had not been named chancellor.
- Arthur Rosenberg, A History of The German Republic (NY: Russell & Russell, 1965).
- Klemens Von Klemperer, German Resistance against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad, 1938-1945 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, ISBN 978-0198219408).
- Edgar Ansel Mowrer, Triumph and Turmoil (Weybright and Talley, 1968), 209.
- William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Mjf Books, 1998, 978-1567311631).
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All links retrieved May 3, 2023.
- The Constitution of the German Reich (Weimar constitution) of 11th August 1919, in full text
- Historical documents (German)
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