Introduction. Germany prior to World War I
Henig Ruth in his book the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933 writes about Germany as “a dynamic, but deeply divided society” (1). Indeed, if we think about German Empire before engaging in the First World War, it was the Europe’s most dynamic and fast growing industrial power. The author states that “Coal production had increased since 1871 by 800 percent and the output of 277 million tons in 1914 almost rivaled the British volume of output, far eclipsing France’s 40 million tons and Russia’s 36 million. More electricity was generated than in Britain, Italy and France combined. German electrical and chemical industries led the world in their inventiveness and in the quality of their products” (1). As the war was continued, 13 million men in total were called up to serve in the German army, apparently nearly 20 percent of Germany’s 1914 population. By the end of 1918, there were large numbers of casualties, around 2 million killed and nearly 5 million wounded. The great German army was starting to experience significant problems of recruiting soldiers to combat.
German leaders with the confident expectations that victory would enable them to pass on their debts to their enemies resorted to heavy borrowing. In 1915, the prices went up in one single year by more than they had over forty-five years. By the end of 1918, the German mark had lost its value. People had really hard times for living. The author writes that “By the end of the war, with real earnings having declined, up to third of the inhabitants of many major cities were surviving only by means of family support payments from the government, and food shortages experienced particularly during the winter of 1917-18 drove millions to the edge of starvation” (Henig 6). In January 1918, more than a million of workers went on strike across the country, due to the Russian revolutions of 1917, which sent strong waves through the industrial centers of Germany. The response of military authorities who were now running the war was to redouble efforts to win an outright victory. But with the United States now in war, victory seems impossible and beyond Germany’s capabilities. Henig Ruth writes that “instead of driving on to a glorious triumph, military leaders Hindenburg and Ludendorff found themselves facing a humiliating defeat. Surely, Germany could continue fighting to the bitter end, risking invasion and significant territorial losses, or she could sue for the best peace terms available” (Henig 7).
According to Ruth Henig, Germany was not doing so well during First World War, but in order to keep people encourages the government had to lie people that everything is going great on the war frontiers. German military commanders made two crucial decisions which had fateful consequences for their political successors. First they decided that the most acceptable peace settlement was likely to be gained from United States President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points speech of January 1918, which was previously rejected as a front for imperialistic conquest in the guise of peace. Second major decision, was that “civilian-based government would have more chance of securing a relatively lenient peace that a military one” (7). This decision was the first step towards establishment of democratic republic ruled by people. In July 1917, the Reichstag leaders of those parties who supported a peace resolution were suddenly transformed from national traitors to responsible ministers commanded by authorities to take over the reins of government under the chancellorship of Prince Max of Baden and to sue for peace on the basis of Wilson’s Fourteen Points.
Ludendorff proved himself to be far more politically astute than politician in handling over the responsibility to the political parties. He skillfully shifted the blame for defeat onto their shoulders, when he explained to his military staff: “I have advised His Majesty to bring those groups into the government whom we have in the main to thank for the fact that matters have reached this pass… Let them now conclude the peace that has to be negotiated. Let them eat the broth they have prepared for us” (Henig 8).
Germany should not have declared and engaged in the First World War for the reason that it made the whole country weak in the later process and lead to the end of the semi-authoritarian imperialistic regime, and the establishment unstable, unprepared democratic government.
Later during the German revolution of 1918-19 violently agitated revolutionary activity was witnessed all around the country; fierce struggles between socialists and nationalists, and those seeking far-reaching constitutional changes. People wanted to reform the monarchy and make it more accountable to Parliament and in October 1918, the constitution of the German Empire was changed to introduce a parliamentary system resembling to the British one. The reluctance of the Kaiser to accept any changes and an attempt by the admiralty to order a last-ditch naval challenge by the High Seas Fleet to the British navy triggered a rebellion in Kiel among the sailors. The reason for the rebellion was that the authorities were intent on prolonging the war. Germany was on the verge of a communist revolution. Socialists saw in the ending of the war their chance to overthrow the forces of capitalism and establish a workers’ state. In Berlin, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg worked to fan the flames of revolution and to gain the support of the masses for the proclamation of a Marxist state. Having established a left –wing splinter group, the Spartacus League, they renamed themselves to the German Communist Part in December 1918.
In order to settle down the outbreak on disturbances, the new Chancellor, Max of Baden, started negotiations with Woodrow Wilson for a peace, but the President insisted that Kaiser, responsible for the war, resigns and negotiations would be conducted by new civilian leaders. Prince Max tried to persuade Kaiser to agree to abdicate, in order to reach a constitutional reforms and disorder spread. On November 9, Kaiser finally agreed to leave Germany to Holland. The same day, Prince Max of Baden handed over his powers to the leader of Social Democratic Party (SPD), Frederick Ebert. An hour later, the SPD proclaimed the establishment of a new democratic republic, but not far away, in the same city of Berlin, Karl Liebknecht was about to proclaim a new socialist republic. The goal of Ebert was to stabilize the political situation to enable elections to take place for a National Assembly, who would be entrusted with the task of drawing up a constitution for the new Weimar republic. The name Weimar derived from the town where the new government had to meet, because the capital city Berlin was under the control of Communists.
Chancellor Ebert had the full support of the government officials, industrialists and army high command who had witnessed the onset of revolution with growing horror. General Groener deduced that Ebert was very anxious just as the army authorities to defeat the Bolshevik challenge which threatened to spread revolution through major centers of Germany and that Frederick Ebert required some military assistance to restore order. On the November 11, the Armistice was signed between Germany and allied representatives, and the First World War was officially ended.
While Ebert was concerned with easing the transition from war to peace for millions of returning soldiers and try to alleviate some the economic hardship and food shortages facing large sections of population, Marxists were planning street demonstrations and revolutionary uprisings. On January 1919, in Berlin the so called Spartacus League was crushed by the army with the help of Friekorps troops, later both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were taken prisoner and executed in custody. Thus, the Marxist revolution was prevented and many left-wing leaders were murdered. Some say this action split the left and made the Weimar more vulnerable to rightwing forces, while the supporters argued that Ebert’s actions saved the Republic occupation of Germany by French, Americans and created coalitions between moderate socialists and pro-republican members of the middle class. The author however states that “German did not succumb to the forces of communism, much to disappointment of the Bolshevik regime in Russia. On the contrary, the forces of reaction and of strident nationalism made a swift recovery and emerged by 1920 as the most potent enemies of the new republic” (Henig 13).
Hans Mommsen in his book states that “the military occupation of Berlin triggered off a frantic hunt for the ‘Spartacist’ ringleaders and ended with the violent suppression of any sign of opposition. The savage murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht by members of Pabst’s mounted rifle guard on 15 January bore dramatic testimony to the intolerance, hatred, and glorification of violence that was dominating the German political scene under motto of getting even with the Spartacists” (37).
According to Feuchtwanger “Weimar’s failure was, however, not inevitable, for the republic survived a period of severe political and economic crisis in its early years. The first threat came from the left, disappointed with the results of the revolution. They wanted a thorough-going transformation of society, as in Russia, based on the workers’ and soldiers’ councils which had spontaneously sprung up during the German revolution. Such a system had little chance of being realised in an advanced industrial country like Germany, where, unlike Russia, the workers had long had the vote.” (Feuchtwanger)
Gerwarth states that “the working class lacked consensus about the past, present and future of political community…This lack of consensus and the ‘inner rejection of the peace’ by sectors of the German population prevented the easing of political tension after the revolution. It created a political climate in which the most determined enemies of the Republic would stop at nothing, not even at assassinating political opponents.” (63).
It is obvious that Germany was not ready for democracy. This can be viewed again through authors who set forth their perspectives about political parties and the inner chaos among those parties. For instance, Left-wing opposition so fiercely wanted to “establish dictatorship of the proletariat by mass action, gathered followers among the workingmen” (Spartacus party) or Right-wing terrorists, who want to bring back authoritarian regime.
Establishment of Weimar Republic
Now that there was no oppression from left-wing activists, the new constitution tried carefully balance the political forces and thus contained a number of compromises. The new republic was claimed to be a parliamentary democracy, with ministers chosen from elected representatives to form a government based on party strength. The Bill of Rights assured every citizen freedom of speech, religion and equality under the law. Men and women over the age of 20 were qualified to vote. Germany became the first country in Europe to allow women to vote. The country was divided into thirty-five huge electoral areas resulting in proportional representation. This meant that “each party now allocated seats in Reichstag exactly reflecting the number of people who had voted for it. This sounds fair, but in practice it was a disaster” (“BBC”). Whenever there was a vote, to pass a new law, no single political party had enough of Parliament Members to push a law on its own. Instead of having too many political parties representing relatively small sections of the population, what the Weimar Republic required was a fewer parties with widespread appeal so that one could get enough support to form a strong government that could pass laws and make changes to the benefit of the German people. One of the probable solutions to this issue could be that political parties could make coalitions and share power, but some of the coalitions made were temporary and they found it difficult to agree. Dozens of tiny parties, with no party strong enough to get a majority, and therefore, no government to get its laws passed in the Reichstag. This was a major weakness of the Republic.
Henig mentions in his book that the President of the Republic “could temporarily suspend constitutional guarantees and intervene if he deemed it necessary to restore public safety and order” (14). Hans Mommsen writes in his book that “the special presidential powers did not weaken the Reichstag or the parties represented in it as much as they did the national government. The justification for the creation of these powers was rooted in the traditional distrust of political parties, which were accused of pursuing their own particular interests at the expense of the true will of the people” (Mommsen 58).
Henig states that “the welfare of the population was placed at the top of the new political agenda” (14), which give a positive vibe about the new constitution of the Weimar Republic from author’s perspective. Unfortunately the author does not elaborate or provide details on this topic further, while Mommsen’s does. He writes that “whenever the fundamental rights exceeded the civil rights that were already guaranteed by existing law – as, for example, in this case of equal rights ‘in principle’ for men and women… they were generally struck down by decisions in the Weimar court system… As a result, the basic social rights that found their way into the Weimar Constitution, including the right to employment, were robbed on any real legal substance.” (Mommsen 59) Author also states the failed to affirm the constitution’s commitment to the social responsibility of ownership.
There are some statements that Henig and Mommsen express with same point of view, while in some cases it is possible to catch author’s dislike about particular thing, for instance Mommsen’s dislike towards Constitution, in the previous paragraph.
Versailles Treaty and Right-wing opposition
“Not only did the Weimar Republic face an uphill battle in establishing its political legitimacy, but it also had to contend with the economic legacy of the war” (Henig 15). In this sentence Henig Ruth is trying to point out the result of peace negotiation such as Versailles treaty, which Germany had to sign. “Political antagonisms were certain to be reinforced by bitter economic and social conflicts over the division of a much smaller national cake. There could not have been a worse time for the inauguration of a new democratic republic” (15). First of all, after four long years of fighting, which resulted in loss of life and not only, Britain, France and Italy were in no position to contemplate a lenient peace. Even President Wilson “the most disinterested of the peace negotiators, firmly believed that Germany should have to pay the price for the Kaiser’s irresponsibility in helping to bring about the war and for the manner in which Germany military authorities had conducted it” (17).
Many people felt that Germany had received a very harsh deal of Versailles and they resented the government for signing it and agreeing to its conditions. German troops returned home feeling angry, they felt there was no need to call an end to the war. They were bitter because they could not fight on and knew it had all been for nothing and they had not gained anything. The German people found the treaty very unfair and unjust, because they were forced to redefine their western borders and give over a lot of lands, pay for damages accounting to $33 billion dollars and accept full responsibility for the war. “Germany was deprived about 13 per cent of her economic productivity and just over 10 per cent of her population. The most serious loss was 74 per cent of her iron ore, 41 per cent of her pig iron suppliers and a quarter of her coal mines, which Germany had to donate to France as compensation for destroying theirs. Yet she remained formidable strong economic power, despite the crippling cost of financing the war” (Henig 21). Weimar was blamed for surrendering in 1918, for the economic situation they are now and signing the Treaty of Versailles. It became scapegoat of Germany. Germany pledged to pay all the reparation costs, but with the current economic situation they could not keep up with payments because the treasury was empty and the currency was losing value. Indeed, the treaty was very hard on Germans and the Weimar government was forced to accept it. Many Germans hated the loss of territory, the reparation and the burden of the war starters for which they had to take responsibility. Germany’s army was to be reduced to little more than the size of a police force, 100,000 men, to serve on a voluntary basis. German honor was further impugned by a clause demanding that the Germans hand over a number of “war criminals” for trial by allied courts-martial. This proposal caused outrage of nationalists and monarchists in Germany, and left-wing republicans were incensed.
Nonetheless, the war had also “weakened both France and Britain, and the real architect of victory, the United States of America, soon abandoned her role as the arbiter of Europe, repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, and retreated back to the new World” (Henig 21). Many people in Britain and in United Stated believed that the peace was thoroughly bad and Germany had been harshly treated. Britain had a very good trading system with Germany and she wanted to reestablish it again for its own good. In addition, Germany always attracted visitors from almost every section of British society.
The Treaty of Versailles according to the Henig became a unifying bracket that clamped German politics together. “Instead, in the new democratic political structure, parties vied with each other to attack the settlement, and to blame all Germany’s political and economic problems on the shameful peace” (Henig 22). The author also states that the treaty provided great ammunition for a series of sustained attacks by nationalists and militarists on the new republic, and became an important factor in contributing to the recovery of right-wing political forces. As it appears to be, between 1918 and 1922, right wing organizations were responsible for 354 politically motivated murders. It is interesting according to Ruth Henig that the sentence for committing a murder by a left-wingers was on the average fifteen years, but it was four month for those on the right. This is probably to the reason that most of the high rank positions were occupied by the right-wingers. Another contrast between left and right wings according to the author was “a communist was sentenced to four weeks’ imprisonment for denouncing Weimar as ‘a robber’s republic’. However, when the right wing nationalist called it a ‘Jew’s republic’, he was merely fined 70 marks. Such contrasts in what was and was not considered a serious attack on the regime clearly illustrate the enormous attack facing liberal and democratic politicians in their attempts to win support for the republic from the electorate. They were hopelessly trapped between the militant socialists demands of the extreme left and the intransigent nationalism and conservatism of the right” (25). Such harsh contrast between left and right oppositions was possible due to the fact that right-wing opposition was composed from the old Monarchy, which had strong rural support especially in Protestant areas. We can understand from this that government was mostly under control of right wing groups, which hated republic for signing the Versailles Treaty, which later resulted in the Kapp Putsch in March 1920. A Friekorps brigade led by Dr. Wolfgang Kapp rebelled. Kapp and Friekorps that supported him wanted bring back Kaiser. They assumed that dictatorship was a better way ruling the country rather than democracy. Kapp, himself was a right wing journalist who opposed all that the chancellor, Friedrich Ebert, believed in, especially after humiliation of signing Versailles Treaty. The cabinet understood that they had no choice but to flee the republic, but before leaving the capital city Berlin, it called on the workers to go on the general strike. “A proclamation was issued, exhorting that ‘No factory must work while military dictatorship of Ludendorff and Co. rules. Therefore, down tools! Come out on strike! Deprive the military clique of oxygen! Fight with all means for the Republic!’” (26) This event led to collapse of Kapp Putsch, as he and his conspirators were not capable to establish themselves as an effective government. Kapp understood that he would not be able to control and govern the Republic unless people supported him so he later fled to Sweden and the rest of his supporters just vanished from the view. A couple of days later the general strike was called off, but having overcome such an event of an attempt to overthrow the government from right-wingers, now was faced with another serious challenge from the left. The suppression from the left-wing was done with help again Friekorps forces, which had been so deeply implicated in the Kapp putsch.
“No other historical reference point was used more often in public debate to criticize the 1919 Constitution, the Versailles Treaty, and the Republic’s supposed lack of historical legitimacy. The Weimar right may have been deeply divided, but adoration for the ‘glorious days’ of the Iron Chancellor and the exemplary character of Bismarck’s charismatic leadership was shared by all right-ring parties and movements… Under charismatic, ‘Bismarckian’ type of leader, on the other hand, the pettiness of political disunity would come to an end” (Gerwarth 52).
In my opinion, Ruth Henig was a neutral type of author who expounded the historical timeline of Weimar Republic, while Gerwarth makes a clear point, just like many other authors do, about Weimar right, their intentions of bringing back a strong, charismatic leader and semi-authoritarian imperialist regime that would make Germany powerful once again.
Another point that I would like to elaborate more is the reparation amount that Germany had to pay according to the Versailles Treaty. Ruth Henig writes that Germany’s reparations had not been specified “largely because of allied disagreements over how much it would be possible to extract, and in what form” (Henig 33). According to the author Ruth Henig, Germany offered to pay 100,000 million gold marks in annual investments over 50-60 years, free of interest, but was rejected by the Reparation Commission. Commission wanted much higher sum of money and it had time until 1st of May, 1921 to fix the amount of reparations for which Germany should be liable. It should also be taken into consideration that in the beginning of 1921, three Rhineland ports, such as Duisburg, Düsseldorf and Rührort were actually occupied by allied troops. Plus, the Reparation Commission was threatening the Republic to take sanctions if Germany did not agree to the proposed amount, which was declared on the 27th of April in the amount of 132,000 million gold marks. Germany had to pay 2,000 million marks annually and 26 per cent of value from exported products; otherwise it would face the occupation of Ruhr.
On the 9th of January, 1923 the Reparation Commission did not believe that Germany was unable to pay reparation costs due to its weak economy and declared failure of fulfilling the arranged coal deliveries. French and Belgian seventy thousand troops occupied the Ruhr area. The primary purpose of which was intended to use the Germany’s industrial city as payment for reparations. Henig Ruth consolidated in his book “The Weimar Republic, 1919-1933” that French Government wanted Germany “to acknowledge defeat and to carry out the peace terms, specifically the payment of reparations” (35). The author mentions that “If the invasion triggered off an economic crisis or fanned the flames of separatism in the Rhineland or in Bavaria, so much the better. Anything that weakened Germany and thereby contributed to French Security in the future was seen as a positive outcome” (35). The Republic’s counter reaction was to call a general strike, which caused French troops to react very brutally, shooting at people, taking hostages, and aggressive house searches. “Credit was extended to industrialists to keep their factories and mines solvent, as production ceased. But the loss of tax revenues and of export earnings added to the already enormous pressures on the government’s finances” (35). And within six months, the value of German mark collapsed completely due to the fact that government financed its activities through printing more money to give out to workers and thus to pay off the reparation. The period of time in history is remembered as a period of Germany’s hyper inflation.
Ruth Henig states in his book that “in the recovery of such desperate situation, it has been argued that three men saved the republic: the leader of the German People’s Party, Stresemann, the commander of the Reichswehr, von Seekt, and a little later, the Commissioner for Currency and architect of financial recovery, Schacht.“ Gustav Stresemann, in the dark days of 1923, was perceived as a strong politician and leader ready to make decisions for rescuing Germany from its aleatory state.
Stresemann and the Golden Years
Stresemann as a new appointed chancellor was the first to unite all the political parties in 1920’s called the Great Coalition, which was seen as the only way for Germany to recover her status as a great nation as fast as possible. Germany at last had a government which could pass laws.
Stresemann’s primary goal was to figure out how to deal with the financial crisis. Under his guidance the government called off the ‘passive resistance’ campaign, general strike in the Ruhr area and convinced French, and Belgium troops to leave German territory by promising to start paying reparations. Thus the occupation of the Ruhr area was over and after which the Locarno treaty was signed. Later, Germany was accepted as a member into the League of Nations.
In the year of 1923 the United States budget director Charles Dawes was sent to Europe to help Germany with economic crisis. Dawes advised to reform German Reichsbank, thus getting rid of old money and later Stresemann worthless currency was replaced with a new unit, called Rentenmark, thus ending the hyper inflation. “Dawes also arranged the Dawes Plan with Stresemann, which gave Germany longer to pay reparations” (“BBC”). “Under Dawes plan about 16,000 million Reichsmarks flowed into Germany, largely from United States of America. In same period, of the mid to late 1920s, German governments paid out 7,000 million Reichsmarks in reparations. Such a favorable balance of credit enabled German industry both to recover its prewar levels of output and to undergo significant modernization of its factories and manufacturing processes” (Henig 41). This was the major event that reactivated Germany’s economy. And “in a surprisingly short space of time, confidence was re-established… By the beginning of 1924, it was clear that French designs on German unity had been thwarted and that the republic had survived” (37). As the author later writes “The stabilisation of the currency was carried through at considerable economic cost. It turned Germany into a country of high prices and low wages. Unemployment shot up, and farmers also suffered as agricultural produce flooded into markets. Stabilisation was followed by revaluation of debts, which caused more anguish, bitter disputes and social conflict. Eventually, economic recovery did take place. Political and social tensions subsided, and life returned to some sort of normality” (38).
Years between 1924 and 1928 are considered to be the golden years during which stability had finally returned to Germany. The Republic’s economy was unquestionably growing thanks to the foreign capital investment. Cities were expanding, in fast making Berlin the world’s third biggest city after London and New York. “It boasted 120 newspapers and 40 theatres, and it offered its residents not just the latest flowering of Weimar culture in drama, music and opera but up-to-the minute American entertainment” (Henig 49). “The arts flourished, with names that are still famous today, Brecht, Kurt Weill, the Threepenny Opera, the Bauhaus. The real strength of the German recovery is, however, still a matter of debate, for political and economic weaknesses continued. It was difficult under the Weimar political system to produce stable government. This is often attributed to the large number of political parties and the need to form coalitions which proved short-lived. The blame for this is put on the electoral system of strict proportional representation, which allowed even small parties to get a few members elected and immediately reflected, without any barrier, the rise and fall of parties.” (Feuchtwanger)
As you can understand now, there are many different reasons why democracy failed in the Weimar Republic. Each author has his own view and perspective how the things had happened and reasons for failure of democracy.
Hans Mommsen provides very good details not only about Weimar Constitution, but also the overall history of the Republic. It is easy to understand what the flaws in the Constitution are and that the author does not like the way Constitution was written and the points that it had neglected, especially for the welfare of German population. Whereas Ruth Henig just elaborates on the topic providing surface information on what was the Constitution about.
As one might already understood, there were many different reasons why the democracy of the Weimar republic failed. It might be the weaknesses and flaws of constitutional laws, proportional representation, violence from and between left and right wing oppositions, which committed violence against each other and innocent people that resulted in many deaths. In the end, it is everything stated in the previous sentence that had contributed to the failure of democracy. But most of all, the key role it was the Great Depression of 1929. Indeed, Weimar’s Democracy was far too weak to survive and withstand the consequences that were inflicted by the world wide economic depression. This gave a kick start to the Nazi Party with Adolf Hitler in charge. Again, Germany always had strong leaders and now they were prepared to support Nazis even though they knew that it meant an end to democracy. There is a question “Did Republic really mean that much to Germans after World War I? There is considerable evidence that it did not. In the first place, politicians and other voters repeatedly averred that the crucial questions facing Germany did not turn on a formal choice between republicanism or monarchism but rather on the quality of social relations that made up the nation” (Fritzsche 630). “Gerald Feldman argues that the Republic was, from the beginning, a ‘gamble which stood virtually no chance of success’ ” (632). “Weimar was burdened by the archaic political traditions and intense social conflicts of Wilhelmine period forms the foundation of Mommsen’s history of Weimar as much it does Winkler’s” (635). Still “By the end of the nineteenth century, Germany seemed the quintessential product of manufacture: railroads, factories, retail goods, and sprawling cities had literally created a second nature more extensive and more complete than elsewhere in Europe. War, revolution, and economic collapse appeared to confirm the impermanence of the material world” (655).
“From Weimar to Hitler: The Rise & Fall of the first German Democracy.” Vol. 1, No. 1 (Sep., 1995), Web. 21 Apr. 2011.
Fritzsche, Peter. “Did Weimar Fail?” The Journal of Modern History Vol. 68, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 629-656 Published by: The University of Chicago Press. 1996. Print.
Gerwarth, Robert. The Bismarck Myth: Weimar Germany and the Legacy of the Iron Chancellor. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005. Print.
Henig, Ruth. The Weimar Republic 1919-1933. London: Routledge, 1998. Print.
Mommsen, Hans and Elborg Eugene. The rise and fall of Weimar Democracy. UNC Press Books, 1998. Print.
“Spartacus party”, print.factmonster.com. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, © 1994, 2000-2006, on Fact Monster., © 2000–2007 Pearson Education, publishing as Fact Monster. 25 April. 2011