The story

4 Principal Weaknesses of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s

Protesters gather in Berlin, 1923

The short-lived Weimar Republic is the historical name for Germany’s representative democracy in the years of 1919 to 1933. It succeeded Imperial Germany and ended when the Nazi Party came to power.

The Republic experienced notable achievements of national policy, such as a progressive tax and currency reform. The constitution also enshrined equal opportunities for women in a variety of spheres.

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Weimar Society was quite forward thinking for the day, with education, cultural activities and liberal attitudes flourishing.

On the other hand, weaknesses such as socio-political strife, economic hardship and resulting moral decay plagued Germany during these years. Nowhere was this more evident than in the capital, Berlin.

1. Political discord

From the beginnings, political support in the Weimar Republic was fragmented and marked by conflict. Following the German Revolution of 1918 to 1919, which occurred at the end of the First World War and brought about an end to the Empire, it was the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) which came to power.

The Social Democrats had set up a parliamentary system, which clashed with the more pure socialist ambitions of revolutionary leftist groups, like the Communist Party (KPD) and more radical social democrats. Right wing nationalist and monarchist groups were also against the Republic, preferring an authoritarian system or a return to the days of the Empire.

Both sides were causes for concern for the stability of the weak state of the early Weimar period. Communist and leftist worker uprisings as well as right-wing actions like the failed Kapp-Luttwitz coup attempt and the Beer Hall Putsch highlighted discontent with the current government from across the political spectrum.

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Street violence in the capital and other cities was another sign of discord. The Communist Roter Frontkämpferbund paramilitary group often clashed with the right wing Freikorps, made up of disgruntled former soldiers and later making up the ranks of the early SA or Brownshirts.

To their discredit, the Social Democrats cooperated with the Freikorps in the suppression of the Spartacus League, notably arresting and killing Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

Within 4 years the violent far right paramilitaries had thrown their support behind Adolf Hitler, who was relatively mollycoddled by the Weimar government, only serving 8 months in prison for trying to seize power in the Beer Hall Putsch.

Freikorps at the Kapp-Luttwitz Putsch, 1923.

2. Constitutional weakness

Many see the Weimar Constitution as flawed due its system of proportional representation, as well as the fallout of the 1933 elections. They blame it for generally weak coalition governments, although this could also be attributed to extreme ideological cleavages and interests within the political spectrum.

Furthermore, the president, military and state governments wielded strong powers. Article 48 gave the president power to issue decrees in ‘emergencies’, something Hitler used to pass new laws without consulting the Reichstag.

3. Economic hardship

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Reparations agreed to in the Treaty of Versailles took their toll on state coffers. In response, Germany defaulted on some payments, prompting France and Belgium to send troops in to occupy industrial mining operations in the Ruhr region in January 1923. Workers responded with 8 months of strikes.

Soon growing inflation became hyperinflation and Germany’s middle classes suffered greatly until economic expansion, aided by American loans and the introduction of the Rentenmark, resumed mid-decade.

In 1923 at the height of hyperinflation the price of a loaf of bread was 100 billion marks, compared to 1 mark just 4 years prior.

Hyperinflation: A five-million mark note.

4. Sociocultural weakness

While liberal or conservative social behaviours cannot be absolutely or arbitrarily qualified as ‘weaknesses’, the economic hardships of the Weimar years did contribute to some extreme and desperate behaviour. Increasing amounts of women, as well as men and youths, turned to activities like prostitution, which became partially sanctioned by the state.

Though social and economic attitudes liberalised partly due to necessity, they were not without their victims. Besides prostitution, an illegal trade in hard drugs also flourished, especially in Berlin, and with it organised crime and violence.

The extreme permissiveness of urban society shocked many conservatives, deepening political and social cleavages in Germany.


Fear and hatred ruled the day in Germany at the end of the First World War. Gun battles, assassinations, riots, massacres and civil unrest denied Germans the stability in which a new democratic order could flourish. Yet somebody had to take over the reins of government after the Kaiser&rsquos abdication and the collapse of the Reich created by Bismarck. The Social Democrats stepped into the breach. A group of leading figures in the labour movement emerged in the confusion of early November 1918 to form a revolutionary Council of People&rsquos Delegates. Uniting, for a brief period at least, the two wings of the Social Democratic movement (the Majority, who had supported the war, and the Independents, who had opposed it), the Council was led by Friedrich Ebert, a long-time Social Democratic Party functionary. Born in 1871, the son of a tailor, he became a saddler and entered politics through his trade union activities. He worked on the editorial staff of the Social Democratic newspaper in Bremen, then in 1893 opened a pub in the city, which like so many such institutions functioned as a centre for local labour organizations. By 1900 he was active in Bremen&rsquos municipal politics, and as leader of the local Social Democrats he did much to improve the party&rsquos effectiveness. In 1905 he was elected secretary to the national party&rsquos central committee in Berlin, and in 1912 he entered the Reichstag.

Ebert won the respect of his party not as a great orator or charismatic leader, but as a calm, patient and subtle negotiator who always seemed to bring the different factions of the labour movement together. He was a typical pragmatist of the second generation of Social Democratic leaders, accepting the party&rsquos Marxist ideology but concentrating his efforts on the day-to-day improvement of working-class life through his expertise in areas such as labour law and social insurance. It was his hard work that was mainly responsible for the remodelling and improved efficiency of the party&rsquos administration and electoral machine before the war, and he took a great deal of the credit for the party&rsquos famous victory in the Reichstag elections of 1912. On the death of the party&rsquos long-term leader August Bebel in 1913, Ebert was elected joint leader of the party alongside the more radical Hugo Haase. Like many Social Democratic organizers, Ebert put loyalty to the party above almost everything else, and his outrage at the refusal of Haase and other opponents of the war to follow majority decisions in the party was a major factor in persuading him to bring about their expulsion. Led by Haase, the dissidents formed the Independent Social Democrats in 1917 and worked from a variety of points of view to bring about an end to the war. Ebert believed in discipline and order, compromise and reform, and worked hard to bring about a co-operation with the Centre Party and the left-liberals during the war, in order to push the Kaiser&rsquos administration towards an acceptance of parliamentarism. His main aim in 1918-19 was formulated by the characteristic concern of the sober administrator: to keep essential services going, to stop the economy from collapsing and to restore law and order. He was converted to the view that the Kaiser should abdicate only by the realization that a social revolution would break out if he did not, and, he added in conversation with the Kaiser&rsquos last Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, &lsquoI don&rsquot want that, indeed I hate it like sin.&rsquo 1

Instead of revolution, Ebert wanted parliamentary democracy. In collaboration with the Centre Party and the left-wing liberals, now renamed the Democrats, Ebert and his associates in the Council of People&rsquos Delegates organized nationwide elections to a Constituent Assembly early in 1919, against the opposition of more radical elements who looked to the workers&rsquo and soldiers&rsquo councils to form the basis of some kind of Soviet-style administration. Many ordinary electors in Germany, whatever their private political views, saw voting for the three democratic parties as the best way to prevent the creation of a German Soviet and ward off the threat of a Bolshevik revolution. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Social Democrats, the left-liberal Democrats and the Centre Party gained an overall majority in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. This met early in 1919 in the central German town of Weimar, long associated with the life and work of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German poet, novelist and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 2 The constitution which it approved on 3 1 July 1919 was essentially a modified version of the constitution established by Bismarck for his new Reich nearly half a century before. 3 In place of the Kaiser there was a Reich President who was to be elected, like the President of the United States, by popular vote. Not only did this give him independent legitimacy in his dealings with the legislature, it also encouraged his use of the extensive emergency powers which he was granted under the constitution&rsquos Article 48. In times of trouble, he could rule by decree and use the army to restore law and order in any federated state if he thought they were under threat.

The power to rule by decree was only intended for exceptional emergencies. But Ebert, as the Republic&rsquos first President, made very extensive use of this power, employing it on no fewer than 136 separate occasions. He deposed legitimately elected governments in Saxony and Thuringia when they threatened, in his view, to foment disorder. Even more dangerously, during the 1920 civil war in the Ruhr he issued a backdated decree applying the death penalty to public-order offences and retrospectively legitimizing many of the summary executions that had already been carried out on members of the Red Army by units of the Free Corps and the regular army. 4 It was significant that on both occasions these powers were used to suppress perceived threats to the Republic from the left, whereas they went virtually unused against what many saw as the far greater threat to it posed by the right. There were virtually no effective safeguards against an abuse of Article 48, since the President could threaten to use the power given him by Article 25 to dissolve the Reichstag should it reject a Presidential decree. Moreover, decrees could in any case be used to create a fait accompli or to bring about a situation in which the Reichstag had little option but to approve them (for example, though this was never intended, they could be used to intimidate and suppress opposition to the government in power). In some circumstances, no doubt, there was probably little alternative to some kind of rule by decree. But Article 48 included no proper provisions for the ultimate reassertion of power by the legislature in such an eventuality and Ebert used it not just for emergencies but also in non-emergency situations where steering legislation through the Reichstag would have been too difficult. In the end, Ebert&rsquos excessive use, and occasional misuse, of the Article widened its application to a point where it became a potential threat to democratic institutions. 5

Ebert&rsquos achievement in steering the Weimar Republic into being was undeniable. Yet he made many hasty compromises that were to return to haunt the Republic in different ways later on. His concern for a smooth transition from war to peace led him to collaborate closely with the army without demanding any changes in its fiercely monarchist and ultra-conservative officer corps, which he was certainly in a position to do in 1918-19. Yet Ebert&rsquos willingness to compromise with the old order did not do anything to endear him to those who regretted its passing. Throughout the years of his Presidency, he was subjected to a remorseless campaign of vilification in the right-wing press. For those who thought that the head of state should possess a remote, Olympian dignity far from the ordinariness of everyday life, a widely publicized newspaper photograph of the squat, podgy figure of the Reich President on a seaside holiday with a couple of friends, dressed only in bathing-trunks, exposed him to ridicule and contempt. Other opponents in the muck-raking right-wing press attempted to smear him through associating him with financial scandals. Ebert, perhaps foolishly, responded by firing off no fewer than 173 libel suits at those responsible, without ever once gaining satisfaction. 6 In a criminal trial held in 1924, in which the accused was charged with calling Ebert a traitor to his country, the court fined the man the token sum of 10 marks because, as it concluded, Ebert had indeed shown himself to be a traitor by maintaining contacts with striking munitions workers in Berlin in the last year of the war (although he had in fact done so in order to bring the strike to a rapid, negotiated end). 7 The unending wave of hatred poured over Ebert by the extreme right had its effect, not merely in undermining his position but also in wearing him down personally, both mentally and physically. Obsessed with trying to clear his name from all these smears, Ebert neglected a ruptured appendix that could have been dealt with quite easily by the medical science of the time, and he died, aged 54, on 28 February 1925. 8

The elections to the post of President that followed were a disaster for the democratic prospects of the Weimar Republic. The baleful influence of Weimar&rsquos political fragmentation and lack of legitimacy made itself felt here, since in the first round, none of the candidates looked like winning, so the right drafted in the reluctant figure of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg as a rallying-point for their divided supporters. In the subsequent run-off, if either the Communists or the autonomous Bavarian wing of the Centre Party had voted for Hindenburg&rsquos best-supported opponent, the Catholic politician Wilhelm Marx, the Field Marshal might have been defeated. But, thanks to the egotism above all of the Bavarians, he was elected by a clear majority. A symbol par excellence of the old military and Imperial order, Hindenburg was a bulky, physically imposing man whose statuesque appearance, military uniform, war service medals and legendary reputation - mostly undeserved - for winning the great Battle of Tannenberg and for guiding Germany&rsquos military destiny thereafter, made him into a much-revered figurehead, above all for the right. Hindenburg&rsquos election was greeted by the forces of the right as a symbol of restoration. &lsquoOn 12/5,&rsquo reported the conservative academic Victor Klemperer (an alarmed and unsympathetic observer) in his diary, &lsquoas Hindenburg was sworn in, there were black-white-red flags everywhere. The Reich flag only on official buildings.&rsquo Eight out of ten Imperial flags Klemperer observed on this occasion were, he said, the small ones of the kind used by children. 9 For many, Hindenburg&rsquos election was a big step away from Weimar democracy in the direction of a restoration of the old monarchical order. A rumour duly did the rounds that Hindenburg had felt it necessary to ask the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm, now in exile in Holland, for permission before he took up the post of President. It was untrue, but it said a great deal for Hindenburg&rsquos reputation that it gained currency. 10

Once in office, and influenced by his strong sense of duty, Hindenburg, to the surprise of many, stuck to the letter of the constitution but, as his seven-year term of office wore on, and he moved into his eighties, he became ever more impatient with the complexities of political events and ever more susceptible to the influence of his inner circle of advisers, all of whom shared his instinctive belief that the monarchy was the only legitimate sovereign power in the German Reich. Persuaded of the correctness of the use of Presidential emergency powers by the example of his predecessor, Hindenburg began to feel that a conservative dictatorship exercised in his name was the only way out of the crisis into which the Republic fell at the beginning of the 1930S. Whatever influence Hindenburg&rsquos election might therefore have had in reconciling opponents of the Republic to its existence in the short run, in the long run it was an unmitigated disaster for Weimar democracy. By 1930 at the latest, it had become clear that the Presidential power was in the hands of a man who had no faith in democratic institutions and no intention of defending them from their enemies. 11

Besides the office of Reich President, Weimar&rsquos constitution provided for a national legislature, named, as before, the Reichstag, but now elected by all adult women as well as all adult men, and by a more direct form of proportional representation than had been used before 1918. In effect, the electors voted for the party of their choice, and each party was allotted a number of seats in the Reichstag precisely corresponding to the proportion of votes it received in the election. Thus, a party that received 30 per cent of the vote would be allotted 30 per cent of the seats, and, more worryingly, a party that received I per cent of the vote would be allotted I per cent of the seats. It has often been said that such a system favoured small parties and fringe groups, and this was no doubt true. Yet the fringe parties never achieved a combined vote of more than 15 per cent, so it was in practice seldom necessary for the larger parties to take them into account when forming a government. Where proportional representation did have an effect, it was in evening out the chances of the larger parties in the competition for votes, so that, if a first-past-the-post electoral system had been in operation, the bigger parties would have done better, and more stable coalition governments with a smaller number of coalition partners might have been possible, thus perhaps persuading a greater number of people of the virtues of parliamentarism. 12

As it was, changes of government in the Weimar Republic were very frequent. Between 13 February 1919 and 30 January 1933 there were no fewer than twenty different cabinets, each lasting on average 239 days, or somewhat less than eight months. Coalition government, it was sometimes said, made for unstable government, as the different parties were constantly squabbling over personalities and policies. It also made for weak government, since all they could settle on was the lowest common denominator and the line of least resistance. However, coalition government in Weimar was not just the product of proportional representation. It also arose out of long-standing and deep fissures within the German political system. The parties that had dominated the Imperial scene all survived into the Weimar Republic. The Nationalists were formed by the amalgamation of the old Conservative Party with other, smaller groups. The liberals failed to overcome their differences and remained divided into left (Democrats) and right (People&rsquos Party). The Centre Party remained more or less unchanged, though its Bavarian wing split off to form the Bavarian People&rsquos Party. On the left, the Social Democrats had to face a new rival in the form of the Communist Party. But none of this was solely or even principally the product of proportional representation. The political milieux out of which these various parties emerged had been in existence since the early days of the Bismarckian Empire. 13

These milieux, with their party newspapers, clubs and societies, were unusually rigid and homogeneous. Already before 1914 this had resulted in a politicization of whole areas of life that in other societies were much freer from ideological identifications. Thus, if an ordinary German wanted to join a male voice choir, for instance, he had to choose in some areas between a Catholic and a Protestant choir, in others between a socialist and a nationalist choir the same went for gymnastics clubs, cycling clubs, football clubs and the rest. A member of the Social Democratic Party before the war could have virtually his entire life encompassed by the party and its organizations: he could read a Social Democratic newspaper, go to a Social Democratic pub or bar, belong to a Social Democratic trade union, borrow books from the Social Democratic library, go to Social Democratic festivals and plays, marry a woman who belonged to the Social Democratic women&rsquos organization, enrol his children in the Social Democratic youth movement and be buried with the aid of a Social Democratic burial fund. 14 Similar things could be said of the Centre Party (which could rely on the mass organization of supporters in the People&rsquos Association for a Catholic Germany, the Catholic Trade Union movement, and Catholic leisure clubs and societies of all kinds) but also to a certain extent of other parties too. 15 These sharply defined political-cultural milieux did not disappear with the advent of the Weimar Republic. 16 But the emergence of commercialized mass leisure, the &lsquoboulevard press&rsquo, based on sensation and scandal, the cinema, cheap novels, dance-halls and leisure activities of all kinds began in the 1920s to provide alternative sources of identification for the young, who were thus less tightly bound to political parties than their elders were. 17 The older generation of political activists were too closely tied to their particular political ideology to find compromise and co-operation with other politicians and their parties very easy. In contrast to the situation after 1945, there was no merger of major political parties into larger and more effective units. 18 As in a number of other respects, therefore, the political instability of the 1920S and early 1930S owed more to structural continuities with the politics of the Bismarckian and Wilhelmine eras than to the novel provisions of the Weimar constitution. 19

Proportional representation did not, as some have claimed, encourage political anarchy and thereby facilitate the rise of the extreme right. An electoral system based on a first-past-the-post system, where the candidate who won the most votes in each constituency automatically won the seat, might well have given the Nazi Party even more seats than it eventually obtained in the last elections of the Weimar Republic, though since the parties&rsquo electoral tactics would have been different under such a system, and its arguably beneficial effects in the earlier phases of the Republic&rsquos existence might have reduced the overall Nazi vote later on, it is impossible to tell for sure. 20 Similarly, the destabilizing effect of the constitution&rsquos provision for referendums or plebiscites has often been exaggerated other political systems have existed perfectly happily with such a provision, and in any case the actual number of plebiscites that actually took place was very small. The campaigning they involved certainly helped keep the overheated political atmosphere of the Republic at boiling point. But national plebiscites had little direct political effect, despite the fact that one provincial plebiscite did succeed in overthrowing a democratic government in Oldenburg in 1932. 21

Map 4. The Weimar Republic

In any case, the governmental instability of Weimar has itself often been overdrawn, for the frequent changes of government concealed long-term continuities in particular ministries. Some posts, notably the Ministry of Justice, were used as bargaining counters in inter-party coalition negotiations and so saw a succession of many different ministers, no doubt putting more power than usual into the hands of the senior civil servants, who stayed there all through, though their freedom of action was curtailed by the devolution of many functions of judicial administration to the federated states. But others became the virtual perquisite of a particular politician through all the vagaries of coalition-building, thus making it easier to formulate and implement strong and decisive policies. Gustav Stresemann, the leading figure in the People&rsquos Party, for instance, was Foreign Minister in nine successive administrations and remained in office for an unbroken period of over six years. Heinrich Brauns, a Centre Party deputy, was Minister of Labour in twelve successive cabinets, from June 1920 up to June 1928. Otto Gessler, a Democrat, was Army Minister in thirteen successive governments, from March 1920 to January 1928. Such ministers were able to develop and implement long-term policies irrespective of the frequent turnover of leadership experienced by the governments they served in. Other ministries were also occupied by the same politicians through two, three or four different governments. 22 Not by chance, it was in such areas that the Republic was able to develop its strongest and most consistent policies, above all in the fields of foreign affairs, labour and welfare.

The ability of the Reich government to act firmly and decisively, however, was always compromised by another provision of the constitution, namely its decision to continue the federal structure which Bismarck had imposed on the Reich in 1871 in an effort to sugar the pill of unification for German princes such as the King of Bavaria and the Grand Duke of Baden. The princes had been unceremoniously thrown out in the Revolution of 1918, but their states remained. They were equipped now with democratic, parliamentary institutions, but still retained a good deal of autonomy in key areas of domestic policy. The fact that some of the states, like Bavaria, had a history and an identity going back many centuries, encouraged them to obstruct the policies of the Reich government if they did not like them. On the other hand, direct taxation was now in the hands of the Reich government, and many of the smaller states were dependent on handouts from Berlin when they got into financial difficulties. Attempts at secession from the Reich might seem threatening, especially in the Republic&rsquos troubled early years, but in reality they were never strong enough to be taken seriously. 23 Worse problems could be caused by tensions between Prussia and the Reich, since the Prussian state was bigger than all the rest combined but through the 1920s and early 1930s Prussia was led by moderate, pro-republican governments which constituted an important counterweight to the extremism and instability of states such as Bavaria. When all these factors are taken into account, therefore, it does not seem that the federal system, for all its unresolved tensions between the Reich and the states, was a major factor in undermining the stability and legitimacy of the Weimar Republic. 24

All in all, Weimar Germany&rsquos constitution was no worse than the constitutions of most other countries in the 1920s, and a good deal more democratic than many. Its more problematical provisions might not have mattered so much had circumstances been different. But the fatal lack of legitimacy from which the Republic suffered magnified the constitution&rsquos faults many times over. Three political parties were identified with the new political system - the Social Democrats, the liberal German Democratic Party, and the Centre Party. After gaining a clear majority of 76.2 per cent of the vote in January 1919, these three parties combined won just 48 per cent of the vote in June 1920, 43 per cent of the vote in May 1924, 49.6 per cent in December 1924, 49.9 per cent in 1928 and 43 per cent in September 1930. From 1920 onwards they were thus in a permanent minority in the Reichstag, outnumbered by deputies whose allegiance lay with the Republic&rsquos enemies to the right and to the left. And the support of these parties of the &lsquoWeimar coalition&rsquo for the Republic was, at best, often more rhetorical than practical, and, at worst, equivocal, compromised or of no political use at all. 25

The Social Democrats were considered by many to be the party that had created the Republic, and often said so themselves. Yet they were never very happy as a party of government, took part in only eight out of the twenty Weimar cabinets and only filled the office of Reich Chancellor in four of them. 26 They remained locked in the Marxist ideological mould of the prewar years, still expecting capitalism to be overthrown and the bourgeoisie to be replaced as the ruling class by the proletariat. Whatever else it was, Germany in the 1920s was undeniably a capitalist society, and playing a leading role in government seemed to many Social Democrats to sit rather uneasily alongside the verbal radicalism of their ideology. Unused to the experience of government, excluded from political participation for two generations before the war, they found the experience of collaborating with &lsquobourgeois&rsquo politicians a painful one. They could not rid themselves of their Marxist ideology without losing a large part of their electoral support in the working class yet on the other hand a more radical policy, for example of forming a Red Army militia from workers instead of relying on the Free Corps, would surely have made their participation in bourgeois coalition governments impossible and called down upon their heads the wrath of the army.

The main strength of the Social Democrats lay in Prussia, the state that covered over half the territory of the Weimar Republic and contained 57 per cent of its population. Here, in a mainly Protestant area with great cities such as Berlin and industrial areas like the Ruhr, they dominated the government. Their policy was to make Prussia a bastion of Weimar democracy, and, although they did not pursue reforms with any great vigour or consistency, removing them from power in Germany&rsquos biggest state became a major objective of Weimar democracy&rsquos enemies by the early 1930s. 27 In the Reich, however, their position was far less dominant. Their strength at the beginning of the Republic owed a good deal to the support of middle-class voters who considered that a strong Social Democratic Party would offer the best defence against Bolshevism by effecting a quick transition to parliamentary democracy. As the threat receded, so their representation in the Reichstag went down, from 163 seats in 1919 to 102 in 1920. Despite a substantial recovery later on&mdash153 seats in 1928, and 143 in 1930&mdashthe Social Democrats permanently lost nearly two and a half million votes, and, after receiving 38 per cent of the votes in 1919, they hovered around 25 per cent for the rest of the 1920s and early 1930s. Nevertheless, they remained an enormously powerful and well-organized political movement that claimed the allegiance and devotion of millions of industrial workers across the land. If any one party deserved to be called the bulwark of democracy in the Weimar Republic, it was the Social Democrats.

The second arm of the &lsquoWeimar coalition&rsquo, the German Democratic Party, was a somewhat more enthusiastic participant in government, serving in virtually all the cabinets of the 1920s. It had, after all, been a Democrat, Hugo Preuss, who had been the principal author of the much-maligned Weimar constitution. But although they won 75 seats in the election of January 1919, they lost 36 of them in the next election, in June 1920, and were down to 28 seats in the election of May 1924. Victims of the rightward drift of middle-class voters, they never recovered. 28 Their response to their losses after the elections of 1928 was disastrous. Led by Erich Koch-Weser, leading figures in the party joined in July 1930 with a paramilitary offshoot of the youth movement known as the Young German Order and some individual politicians from other middle-class parties, to transform the Democrats into the State Party. The idea was to create a strong centrist bloc that would stem the flow of bourgeois voters to the Nazis. But the merger had been precipitate, and closed off the possibility of joining together with other, larger political groups in the middle. Some, mostly left-wing Democrats, objected to the move and resigned. On the right, the Young German Order&rsquos move lost it support among many of its own members. The electoral fortunes of the new party did not improve, and only 14 deputies represented it in the Reichstag after the elections of September 1930. In practice the merger meant a sharp shift to the right. The Young German Order shared the scepticism of much of the youth movement about the parliamentary system, and its ideology was more than tinged with antisemitism. The new State Party continued to keep the Social Democratic coalition in Prussia afloat until the state elections of April 1932, but its aim, announced by the historian Friedrich Meinecke, was now to achieve a shift in the balance of political power away from the Reichstag and the states and towards a strong, unitary Reich government. Here too, therefore, a steady erosion of support pushed the party to the right but the only effect of this was to wipe out whatever distinguished it from other, more effective political organizations that were arguing for the same kind of thing. The State Party&rsquos convoluted constitutional schemes not only signalled its lack of political realism, but also its weakening commitment to Weimar democracy. 29

Of the three parties of the. &lsquoWeimar coalition&rsquo, only the Centre Party maintained its support throughout, at around 5 million votes, or 85 to 90 seats in the Reichstag, including those of the Bavarian People&rsquos Party. The Centre Party was also a key part of every coalition government from June 1919 to the very end, and with its strong interest in social legislation probably had as strong a claim to have been the driving force behind the creation of Weimar&rsquos welfare state as the Social Democrats did. Socially conservative, it devoted much of its time to fighting pornography, contraception and other evils of the modern world, and to defending Catholic interests in the schools system. Its Achilles heel was the influence inevitably wielded over it by the Papacy in Rome. As head of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XI was increasingly worried by the advance of atheistic communists and socialists during the 1920s. Together with his Nuncio in Germany, Eugenio Pacelli, who subsequently became Pope Pius XII, he profoundly distrusted the political liberalism of many Catholic politicians and saw a turn to a more authoritarian form of politics as the safest way to preserve the Church&rsquos interests from the looming threat of the godless left. This led to his conclusion of a Concordat with Mussolini&rsquos Fascist regime in Italy in 1929 and later on to the Church&rsquos support for the &lsquoclerico-fascist&rsquo dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuss in the Austrian civil war of 1934, and the Nationalists under General Franco in the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936. 30

With such signals emanating from the Vatican even in the 1920s, the prospects for political Catholicism in Germany were not good. They became markedly worse in December 1928, when a close associate of Papal Nuncio Pacelli, Prelate Ludwig Kaas, a priest who was also a deputy in the German Reichstag, succeeded in being elected leader of the Centre Party as a compromise candidate during a struggle between factions of the right and left over the succession to the retiring chairman, Wilhelm Marx. Under Pacelli&rsquos influence, however, Kaas veered increasingly towards the right, pulling many Catholic politicians with him. As increasing disorder and instability began to grip the Reich in 1930 and 1931, Kaas, now a frequent visitor to the Vatican, began to work together with Pacelli for a Concordat, along the lines of the agreement recently concluded with Mussolini. Securing the future existence of the Church was paramount in such a situation. Like many other leading Catholic politicians, Kaas considered that this was only really possible in an authoritarian state where police repression stamped out the threat from the left. &lsquoNever&rsquo, declared Kaas in 1929, &lsquohas the call for leadership on the grand scale echoed more vividly and impatiently through the soul of the German people as in the days when the Fatherland and its culture have been in such peril that the soul of all of us has been oppressed.&rsquo 31 Kaas demanded among other things much greater independence for the executive from the legislature in Germany. Another leading Centre Party politician, Eugen Bolz, Minister-President of Württemberg, put it more bluntly when he told his wife early in 1930: &lsquoI have long been of the opinion that the Parliament cannot solve severe domestic political problems. If a dictator for ten years were a possibility - I would want it.&rsquo 32 Long before 30 January 1933, the Centre Party had ceased to be the bulwark of Weimar democracy that it had once been. 33

Map 5. The Religious Divide

Thus, even the major political props of democracy in the Weimar Republic were crumbling by the end of the 1920s. Beyond them, the democratic landscape was even more desolate. No other parties offered serious support to the Republic and its institutions. On the left, the Republic was confronted with the mass phenomenon of the Communists. In the revolutionary period from 1918 to 1921 they were a tightly knit, elite group with little electoral support, but when the Independent Social Democrats, deprived of the unifying factor of opposition to the First World War, fell apart in 1922, a large number of them joined the Communists, who thus became a mass party. Already in 1920 the combined forces of the Independent Social Democrats and the Communists won 88 seats in the Reichstag. In May 1924 the Communists won 62 seats, and, after a small drop later in the year, they were back to 54 in 1928 and 77 in 1930. Three and a quarter million people cast their votes for the party in May 1924 and over four and a half million in September 1930. These were all votes for the destruction of the Weimar Republic.

Through all the twists and turns of its policies during the 1920s, the Communist Party of Germany never deviated from its belief that the Republic was a bourgeois state whose primary purposes were the protection of the capitalist economic order and the exploitation of the working class. Capitalism, they hoped, would inevitably collapse and the &lsquobourgeois&rsquo republic would be replaced by a Soviet state along Russian lines. It was the duty of the Communist Party to bring this about as soon as possible. In the early years of the Republic this meant preparing for an &lsquoOctober revolution&rsquo in Germany by means of an armed revolt. But, after the failure of the January uprising in 1919 and the even more catastrophic collapse of plans for an uprising in 1923, this idea was put on hold. Steered increasingly from Moscow, where the Soviet regime, under the growing influence of Stalin, tightened its financial and ideological grip on Communist parties everywhere in the second half of the 1920s, the German Communist Party had little option but to swing to a more moderate course in the mid-1920s, only to return to a radical, &lsquoleftist&rsquo position at the end of the decade. This meant not only refusing to join with the Social Democrats in the defence of the Republic, but even actively collaborating with the Republic&rsquos enemies in order to bring it down. 34 Indeed, the party&rsquos hostility to the Republic and its institutions even caused it to oppose reforms that might lead the Republic to become more popular among the working class. 35

This implacable opposition to the Republic from the left was more than balanced by rabid animosity from the right. The largest and most significant right-wing challenge to Weimar was mounted by the Nationalists, who gained 44 Reichstag seats in January 1919,71 in June 1920, 95 in May 1924 and 103 in December 1924. This made them larger than any other party with the exception of the Social Democrats. In both elections of 1924 they won around 20 per cent of the vote. One in five people who cast their ballot in these elections thus did so for a party that made it clear from the outset that it regarded the Weimar Republic as utterly illegitimate and called for a restoration of the Bismarckian Reich and the return of the Kaiser. This was expressed in many different ways, from the Nationalists&rsquo championing of the old Imperial flag, black, white and red, in place of the new Republican colours of black, red and gold, to their tacit and sometimes explicit condoning of the assassination of key Republican politicians by armed conspiratorial groups allied to the Free Corps. The propaganda and policies of the Nationalists did much to spread radical right-wing ideas across the electorate in the 1920s and prepare the way for Nazism.

During the 1920s, the Nationalists were a partner in two coalition governments, but the experience was not a happy one. They resigned from one government after ten months, and when they came into another cabinet half-way through its term of office, they were forced to make compromises that left many party members deeply dissatisfied. Severe losses in the elections of October 1928, when the Nationalists&rsquo representation in the Reichstag fell from 103 seats to 73, convinced the right wing of the party that it was time for a more uncompromising line. The traditionalist party chairman Count Westarp was ousted and replaced by the press baron, industrialist and radical nationalist Alfred Hugenberg, who had been a leading light of the Pan-German movement since its inception in the 1890s. The Nationalist Party programme of 1931, drafted under Hugenberg&rsquos influence, was distinctly more right wing than its predecessors. It demanded among other things the restoration of the Hohenzollern monarchy, compulsory military service, a strong foreign policy directed at the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, the return of the lost overseas colonies and the strengthening of ties with Germans living in other parts of Europe, especially Austria. The Reichstag was to retain only a supervisory role and a &lsquocritical voice&rsquo in legislation, and to be joined by &rsquoa representational body structured according to professional rankings in the economic and cultural spheres&rsquo along the lines of the corporate state being created at the time in Fascist Italy. And, the programme went on, &lsquowe resist the subversive, un-German spirit in all forms, whether it stems from Jewish or other circles. We are emphatically opposed to the prevalence of Jewdom in the government and in public life, a prevalence that has emerged ever more continuously since the revolution.&rsquo 36

Under Hugenberg, the Nationalists also moved away from internal party democracy and closer to the &lsquoleadership principle&rsquo. The party&rsquos new leader made strenuous efforts to make party policy on his own and direct the party&rsquos Reichstag delegation in its votes. A number of Reichstag deputies opposed this, and a dozen of them split off from the party in December 1929 and more in June 1930, joining fringe groups of the right in protest. Hugenberg allied the party with the extreme right, in an attempt to get a popular referendum to vote against the Young Plan, an internationally agreed scheme, brokered by the Americans, for the rescheduling of reparations payments, in 1929. The failure of the bitterly fought campaign only convinced Hugenberg of the need for even more extreme opposition to Weimar and its replacement by an authoritarian, nationalist state harking back to the glorious days of the Bismarckian Empire. None of this worked. The Nationalists&rsquo snobbery and elitism prevented them from winning a real mass following and rendered their supporters vulnerable to the blandishments of the truly populist demagoguery practised by the Nazis. 37

Less extreme, but only marginally less vehemently opposed to the Republic, was the smaller People&rsquos Party, the heir of the old pro-Bismarckian National Liberals. It won 65 seats in the 1920 election and stayed around 45 to 50 for the rest of the decade, attracting about 2.7 to 3 million votes. The party&rsquos hostility to the Republic was partly masked by the decision of its leading figure, Gustav Stresemann, to recognize political realities for the moment and accept the legitimacy of the Republic, more out of necessity than conviction. Although he was never fully . trusted by his party, Stresemann&rsquos powers of persuasion were considerable. Not least thanks to his consummate negotiating skills, the People&rsquos Party took part in most of the Republic&rsquos cabinets, unlike the Nationalists, who stayed in opposition for the greater part of the 1920s. Yet this meant that the majority of governments formed after the initial phase of the Republic&rsquos existence contained at least some ministers who were dubious, to say the least, about its right to exist. Moreover, Stresemann, already in difficulties with his party, fell ill and died in October 1929, thus removing the principal moderating influence from the party&rsquos leadership. 38 From this point on it, too, gravitated rapidly towards the far right.

Even in the mid-1920S, therefore, the political system was looking extremely fragile. In other circumstances it might have survived. In retrospect, indeed, the period 1924-8 has been described by many as &lsquoWeimar&rsquos Golden Years&rsquo. But the idea that democracy was on the way to establishing itself in Germany at this time is an illusion created by hindsight. There was in reality no sign that it was becoming more secure on the contrary, the fact that the two major bourgeois parties, the Centre Party and the Nationalists, soon fell into the hands of avowed enemies of democracy boded ill for the future, even without the shocks to come. That the allegiance of the People&rsquos Party to the Republic, such as it was, owed everything to the persistence and intelligent leadership of one man, Gustav Stresemann, was another sign of fragility. Not even in the relatively favourable circumstances of 1928 had the parties of the &lsquoWeimar Coalition&rsquo succeeded in gaining a majority in the Reichstag. The widespread feeling after 1923 that the threat of a Bolshevik revolution had receded meant that the bourgeois parties were no longer so willing to compromise with the Social Democrats in the interests of preserving the Republic as a bulwark against Communism. 39 And more ominously still, paramilitary organizations such as the Steel Helmets were beginning to extend their struggle from the streets to the hustings in an attempt to win more influence for their anti-Republican views. Meanwhile, political violence, though it fell short of the open civil war that characterized much of the Republic&rsquos opening phase, still continued at an alarmingly high level throughout the mid-1920s. 40 The brutal fact was that, even in 1928, the, Republic was as far away from achieving stability and legitimacy as ever.

The Weimar Republic was also weakened by its failure to win the whole-hearted support of the army and the civil service, both of which found it extremely difficult to adjust to the transition from the authoritarian Reich to the democratic Republic in 1918. For the army leadership in particular, defeat in 1918 posed an alarming threat. Led by one of its most intelligent and perceptive officers, General Wilhelm Groener, the General Staff agreed with the Majority Social Democrats under Friedrich Ebert that the threat of the revolutionary workers&rsquo and soldiers&rsquo council would best be warded off if they worked in tandem to secure a stable parliamentary democracy. From Groener&rsquos point of view this was an act of expediency, not of faith. It secured the preservation of the old officer corps in the reduced circumstances of the German army after the Treaty of Versailles. The army&rsquos numbers were restricted to 100,000, it was banned from using modern technology such as tanks, and a mass conscript military force had to give way to a small professional one. Groener ran into fierce opposition from army diehards for compromising with the Social Democrats, just as his opposite number, the Social Democrats&rsquo military specialist Gustav Noske, ran into fierce criticism from his party comrades for allowing the officer corps to remain intact instead of replacing it with a more democratic structure and personnel. 41 But in the desperate circumstances of 1918-19, their line won through in the end.

Within a short space of time, however, the workers&rsquo and soldiers&rsquo councils had faded from the political scene, and the need for compromise with the forces of democracy seemed to many leading officers to have lost its urgency. This became dramatically clear in March 1920, when Free Corps units, protesting against their impending redundancy, marched on Berlin and overthrew the elected government in a bid to restore an authoritarian regime on the lines of the old monarchy. Led by the Pan-German former civil servant and leading light of the old Fatherland Party, Wolfgang Kapp, the insurrectionists were also supported by elements within the armed forces in a number of areas. When the chief of the army command, General Walther Reinhardt, tried to ensure the forces&rsquo loyalty to the government, he was ousted in favour of the more right-wing General Hans von Seeckt. Seeckt promptly banned all army units from opposing the plotters and turned a blind eye to those which backed them. Subsequently, he ordered the army to co-operate in the bloody suppression of the workers&rsquo armed uprising against the putsch in the Ruhr. Seeckt had indeed been hostile to the Republic from the beginning. Aloof, authoritarian and unapproachable, his upper-class credentials advertised by the monocle he wore over his left eye, he epitomized the traditions of the Prussian officer class. But he was also a political realist who saw that the possibilities of overthrowing the Republic by force were limited. He aimed therefore to keep the army united and free from parliamentary control waiting for better times. In this he had the full support of his fellow-officers. 42

Under Seeckt&rsquos leadership, the army retained in its &lsquowar flag&rsquo the old Imperial colours of black, white and red. Seeckt distinguished sharply between the German state, which incorporated the abstract ideal of the . Reich, and the Republic, which he regarded as a temporary aberration. General Wilhelm Groener, Seeckt&rsquos mentor, described the army in 1928 as the &lsquoonly power&rsquo and an &lsquoelement of power within the state that no one can disregard&rsquo. 43 Under Seeckt&rsquos leadership, the army was far from being a neutral organization, standing aloof from the party-political fray, whatever Seeckt might have claimed. 44 Seeckt did not hesitate to intervene against the elected government when he believed that it went against the Reich&rsquos interests. He even considered taking over the Chancellorship himself on one occasion, with a programme that envisaged the centralization of the Reich and the curbing of Prussian autonomy, the abolition of the trade unions and their replacement by &lsquooccupational chambers&rsquo (rather like those later created by Mussolini in Italy), and in general the &lsquosuppression of all tendencies directed against the existence of the Reich and against the legitimate authority of the Reich and the state, through the use of the means of power of the Reich&rsquo. 45 In the end, he succeeded in toppling the government, but did not manage to become Chancellor himself that was to be left to one of his successors, General Kurt von Schleicher, who belonged to Seeckt&rsquos close group of advisers in the years when he ran the army command.

A law unto itself for most of the time, the army did its best during the 1920s to circumvent the restrictions placed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles. Making common cause behind the scenes with another diminished and resentful Great Power, the Soviet Union, the army leadership arranged for clandestine training sessions in Russia for officers anxious to learn how to use tanks and aeroplanes, and willing to engage in experiments with poison gas. 46 Secret arrangements were made to train auxiliary troops, in an attempt to get round the limit of 100,000 imposed by the Treaty on the army&rsquos strength, and the army was constantly eyeing the paramilitaries as a potential military reserve. 47 These subterfuges and others, including training with make-believe tanks, made clear that the army had no intention of abiding by the terms of the 1919 Peace Settlement and would break free from it as soon as circumstances allowed. Far from being led exclusively by dyed-in-the-wool Prussian conservatives, these clandestine circumventions of the Treaty were organized above all by modern-minded technicians, impatient with the constraints of democratic politics and international agreements. 48 The disloyalty of the army, and the repeated intrigues of its leading officers against civilian governments, boded ill for the Republic&rsquos continued viability in a real crisis. 49

If Germany&rsquos first democracy could not expect much support from its military servants, then neither could it hope for much support from its civil servants, whom it likewise inherited from the old German Reich. The civil service was of huge importance because it covered a very wide area of society and included not just officials working in the central administration of the Reich but also all those state employees who had secured the tenure, status and emoluments originally designed for senior administrators. They included officials working for the federated states, for state enterprises like the railways and the postal service, and for state institutions such as universities and schools, so that university professors and high-school teachers fell into this category as well. The numbers of civil servants in this broad sense were enormous. Below this relatively exalted level there were millions more state servants living off salaries or wages paid by state institutions. The German state railway was by far the largest single employer in the Weimar Republic, for instance, with 700,000 people working for it at the end of the 1920s it was followed by the postal service with 380,000. If family members, dependants and pensioners are added on, about 3 million people relied for their support on the railways alone. 50 Altogether, by the end of the 1920s there were 1.6 million civil servants in Germany, about half of whom worked for the state proper, the other half for public utilities such as the railways. With such a large number of state employees, it was clear that the state employment sector was politically extremely diverse, with hundreds of thousands of employees belonging to socialist trade unions, liberal political parties or pressure-groups of widely varying political orientation. A million civil servants belonged to the liberal German Civil Servants&rsquo League in 1919, though 60,000 split off to form a more right-wing group in 1921 and another 350,000 seceded to form a trade union the following year. Civil servants were in no sense, therefore, uniformly hostile to the Republic at the outset, despite their training and socialization in the years of the Wilhelmine Reich. 51

As the leading figure in the transitional revolutionary administration, Friedrich Ebert appealed on 9 November 1918 for all civil servants and state employees to continue working in order to avoid anarchy. 52 The overwhelming majority stayed on. Civil servants&rsquo career structure and duties were unchanged. The Weimar constitution made them irremovable. However it might have appeared in theory, in practice this step made it virtually impossible to dismiss civil servants, given the extreme difficulty of proving in law that they had violated their oath of allegiance. 53 As an institution that derived from the authoritarian and bureaucratic states of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, long before the advent of parliaments and political parties, the higher civil service in particular had long been accustomed to regard itself as the true ruling caste, above all in Prussia. Up to 1918, for instance, all government ministers had been civil servants, appointed by the monarch, not by the Reichstag or the legislative assemblies of the federated states. In some Reich ministries, where there was a rapid turnover of ministers under the Republic, the top civil servant could wield enormous power, as with Curt Joel in the Ministry of Justice, who served virtually throughout the Republic, while no fewer than seventeen Justice Ministers came and went, before he finally became Minister himself in 1930. For such men, administrative continuity was the supreme dictate of duty, overriding all political considerations. Whatever they might have thought privately of the Kapp putschists in March 1920, senior civil servants in Berlin, including financial officials, thus carried on with their work in defiance of the putschists&rsquo orders for them to stand down. 54

The neutrality of civil servants on this occasion owed a good deal to their characteristically punctilious insistence on the duties imposed by their oath of allegiance. Later on, in 1922, the government introduced a new law designed to bind civil servants even more closely to the Republic and impose disciplinary sanctions on those who consorted with its enemies. But this measure was relatively toothless. Only in Prussia was there a serious effort, led by Carl Severing and Albert Grzesinski, successive Social Democratic Ministers of the Interior, to replace old Imperial administrators, above all in the provinces, with Social Democrats and others loyal to the Republic. 55 Nevertheless, even the Prussian efforts at creating a civil service loyal to the principles of democracy as well as imbued with a sense of duty in serving the government of the day proved insufficient in the end. Because Severing and Grzesinski thought that the parties should be represented in the higher civil service roughly in proportion to their place in the Prussian coalition cabinets, this meant that a good number of important posts were held by men from parties such as the Centre Party, the People&rsquos Party and to a degree the State Party, whose allegiance to the Republic was rapidly becoming more tenuous from the end of the 1920s onwards. In the rest of Germany, including the level of the Reich civil service, even this degree of reform was barely even attempted, let alone achieved, and the civil service was far more conservative, even in parts downright hostile to the Republic. 56

The problem, however, was not so much that the higher civil service was actively helping to undermine Weimar rather, it was that the Republic did too little to ensure that civil servants at whatever level were actively committed to the democratic political order and would resist any attempt to overthrow it. And those civil servants who were actively hostile to the Republic - probably a minority, considered overall&mdashwere able to survive with relative impunity. Thus, for instance, one senior Prussian civil servant, born in 1885, and a member of the Nationalist Party after 1918, founded a variety of fringe groups for civil servants and others, aiming explicitly to combat &lsquothe Reichstag, the red headquarters&rsquo, to frustrate the policies of the &lsquotreasonous and godless Social Democrats&rsquo, to oppose the &lsquoimperialist world power&rsquo of the Catholic Church and finally to fight against &lsquoall Jews&rsquo. His antisemitism, fairly latent before 1918, became explicit after the Revolution. Thereafter, he later recalled, &lsquowhenever a Jew was carrying on impertinently on the elevated [railway] or on the train and would not accept my scolding without further impertinence, I threatened to throw him off the moving train . if he did not shut up immediately&rsquo. On one occasion he threatened &lsquoMarxist&rsquo workers with a gun. His was an obviously extreme example of a civil servant opposed to the Republic. Yet he was not dismissed, only disciplined twice and denied promotion, despite being tried on one occasion for disturbing the peace. &lsquoI always&rsquo, he wrote, &lsquotook it to be a weakness of my political enemies in the civil service that they let me get off so easily every time.&rsquo The worst that happened to him under the Republic was a blockage of his career prospects. 57

There can be little doubt that, even in the Republican bastion of Prussia, the vast majority of civil servants had little genuine loyalty to the constitution to which they had sworn their allegiance. Should the Republic be threatened with destruction, very few of them indeed would even think of coming to its aid. Devotion to duty kept them working when the state was challenged, as in the Kapp putsch of 1920, but it would also keep them working when the state was overthrown. Here was another central institution whose loyalty was to an abstract concept of the Reich rather than to the concrete principles of democracy. In this as in other respects, Weimar was weak in political legitimacy from the start. 58 It was beset by insurmountable problems of political violence, assassination and irreconcilable conflicts about its right to exist. It was unloved and undefended by its servants in the army and bureaucracy. It was blamed by many for the national humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. And it also had to face enormous economic problems, beginning with the massive monetary inflation that made life so difficult for so many in the years when it was trying to establish itself.

Weaknesses of the Weimar Constitution

The Weimar Constitution had several weaknesses that would eventually contribute to problems faced by the leaders of the Weimar Republic.

Proportional representation can be argued as a significant weakness of the Constitution. It resulted in the formation of coalition governments often comprising many parties. This meant that there were often differing ideas about how Germany should be governed. When parties disagreed it often meant that the government collapsed, and they needed to have fresh elections.

Another weakness was the increasingly frequent use of the emergency powers, established in the Constitution under Article 48. This enabled the President to rule by decree rather than consulting the Reichstag - the Chancellor would present laws to the President who would simply issue them. This power was often used in a time of crisis when swift and decisive government was needed. However, in practice, it was also used when the Reichstag couldn’t agree.

Linked to the idea of emergency rule was revolts and rebellions. There were many rebellions and revolts against the government, including some supported by the political parties represented in the Reichstag such as the National Socialists. In a time of crisis, the Government used the armed forces and independent militias such as the Freikorps to suppress rebellion, which caused bad feeling to spread among those opposed to the Republic.

2: The Weimar Republic. In its 14 years in existence, the Weimar Republic faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremism, and contentious relationships with the victors of the First World War, leading to its collapse during the rise of Adolf Hitler.


Why the Weimar Republic failed

The Weimar Republic lasted less than 15 years before falling to the oncoming storm of Nazism. Countless historians have sought to understand and explain why the Weimar Republic failed. The only certainty is that the answer is complex and many factors were involved.

A myriad of problems

The Weimar Republic failed because it was at the mercy of many different ideas and forces – political and economic, internal and external, structural and short-term. It is difficult to isolate one or two of these forces or problems as being chiefly responsible for the demise of the Republic.

To the everyday observer, Adolf Hitler and Nazism appear the main architects of the downfall of Weimar democracy – but this required a collapse in the economic order, allowing Hitler and the National Socialists (NSDAP) to emerge from the margins of German politics and become a national force.

Some historians believe the Weimar Republic failed mainly by post-war conditions in Germany. Others suggest longer-term factors, such as Germany’s inexperience with democratic forms of government, were significant. Others still point to failings in the international order, such as Germany’s brutal post-war treatment and isolation by the Allies.

This page summarises some of the main factors that contributed to the failure and fall of the Weimar state.

The Treaty of Versailles

The post-war peace settlement signed at Versailles, France in June 1919 imposed very harsh terms on the new German republic. The severity of these terms generated intense debate and political division within Germany.

While Germans overwhelmingly opposed the treaty, they were sharply divided about how to respond to it. Nationalist groups, like the NSDAP demanded the government repudiate the treaty and refuse to comply with its terms.

The moderates and pragmatists of the Weimar Republic, while also despising the treaty in principle, rejected calls for non-compliance, believing it would provoke retaliation, economic strangulation, even a resumption of the war or an Allied invasion.

Later, under the ministership of Gustav Stresemann, the Weimar government’s approach was to restore and improve foreign relations. By doing this, the government hoped 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 problem of reparations: the financial payments imposed on Germany for its role in initiating World War I.

Historians have formed different conclusions about reparations, whether the final reparations figure was justified and whether Germany was capable of meeting this obligation. Most agree that the reparations burden on Germany was excessive. These obligations hampered Germany’s post-war economic recovery and as a consequence undermined its political stability.

By 1922, Germany was unable to fulfil its quarterly reparations instalments, 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.

Conspiracy theories

Many believe the Weimar Germany failed in part because conspiracy theories were allowed to circulate and flourish. The most prolific and poisonous was the Dolchstosselegende or ‘stab in the back’ myth. According to this fallacious theory, Germany’s surrender in November 1918 was engineered by socialists, liberals and Jews in Germany’s civilian government – it was not brought about by military defeat.

The Dolchstosselegende had three significant effects. Firstly, it undermined public trust in the civilian government and particularly the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was painted as treacherous and unpatriotic by right-wing nationalists.

Secondly, the Dolchstosslegende perpetuated a belief that Germany could still have won the war. It implied that the German military was still strong enough to launch a counter-offensive and advance to victory. This theory is contradicted by almost all evidence on the state of the German military in late 1918.

Thirdly, the stab-in-the-back myth allowed military commanders to retain their prestige and position in German society. Despite their failures in 1918, figures like Paul von Hindenburg were able 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 and the political system it created must shoulder at least some of the blame for the instability of the 1920s.

The politicians who drafted the Weimar constitution attempted to construct a political system similar to that of the United States. The Weimar constitution, passed in August 1919, incorporated elements of democracy, federalism, checks and balances and protection of individual rights.

Tellingly, the constitution created an executive presidency with considerable emergency powers. The constitution allowed the president to bypass or override the elected Reichstag. Some historians suggest the Weimar president – with a seven-year term and hefty emergency powers – was not far removed from the former Kaiser.

Regular stalemates in the Reichstag meant the president’s emergency powers were frequently called into action, which only widened political divisions.

Weimar’s electoral system

The Weimar Republic’s proportional voting system was inherently democratic because it allocated Reichstag seats based on the share of votes each party received. The problem with proportional voting was that it filled the Reichstag with a large number of parties.

The first Reichstag elections in 1920 returned five parties with at least 50 seats each. There were also a host of smaller parties holding fewer than five seats and representing regional or special interests. Among these ‘micro-parties’ were the Bavarian Peasants’ League, the Agricultural League, the German Farmers Party, the Economic Party of the Middle Classes, the Reich Party for Civil Rights and the Christian Social People’s Service.

This myriad of parties and the scattered composition of the Reichstag made forming a government, passing legislation and debating issues extremely difficult.

The problems of minority government

For those reasons outlined above, no single party ever held an absolute majority of Reichstag seats during the Weimar period. This meant that no party was able to form a government on its own.

To form a government and push through legislation, parties had to group together to form a voting majority. There were several of these coalitions, or voting blocs, during the life of the Weimar Republic. The political turmoil of the 1920s meant they were fragile and unstable. A contentious bill or measure could put the coalition at risk of fracture and collapse. The fragility of these coalitions made the task of the chancellor enormously difficult.

Some parties, particularly those on the radical fringes, either refused to participate in Reichstag coalitions or entered them reluctantly or insincerely. Right-wing parties, for example, were reluctant to participate in coalitions with the large Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Militarism, nationalism and authoritarianism

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 the authoritarian monarchy had ended in a disastrous war – yet they were often romanticised and recalled as better times.

Hostility to democracy and parliamentarianism

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

Arguably the most significant reason why the Weimar Republic failed was the onset 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, choosing instead to vote 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 and becoming a significant political party.

They did this by presenting 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. 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 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 factors in persuading the president that a Hitler cabinet could succeed, yet could be controlled.

Citation information
Title: “Why the Weimar Republic failed”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: October 14, 2019
Date accessed: Today’s date
Copyright: The content on this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, please refer to our Terms of Use.

Failure of the Weimar Republic

To what extent is it true to say that "The failure of the Weimer Republic was due to external factors beyond its control and the rise of a German messiah"?

In 1933, the Weimer Republic was officially abolished by Hitler, the German 'messiah.' The Weimer Republic was replaced by his opposite, its contrast. From a democratic state to a state ruled by a 'messiah.' Was it inedible that the Weimer Republic would become a failure? Or would different conditions have changed the occurred?

There where different external factors the Weimer Republic where forced to face. The actual Republic had neither influence nor any fault to their existence. The first of these factors the Republic faced was the fact that the Republic was introduced following the defeat in the First World War. This was present in the minds of all German people. They where not able to understand how they could have lost a war where they had been told they where beating their enemies. German people where shocked, surprised. It was difficult for them to believe they had not won. Military defeat combined with social distress of the Germans for the loose of war was what gave birth to the Weimer Republic. Therefore, it started under bad conditions. A war which had been believed to be a success but became a failure.

As a result of failure in the First World War Germany was forced to sign a treaty, called the Treaty of Versaille. In this treaty, it was recognized that Germany was responsible for the start of the war. This even though not proved was recognized by Germany. The people could not believe it. They where embarrassed at what there country had recognized by signing the treaty. Even though, they had no choice but to sign.

As one of the points in the treaty, Germany had to pay a rather large number of reparations. Germany was required to make extensive financial reparations. Difficulty arose in making these reparations. The Republic did not have enough money. The Weimer.

The Dawes Plan (as proposed by the Dawes Committee, chaired by Charles G. Dawes) was a plan in 1924 that successfully resolved the issue of World War I reparations that Germany had to pay. The plan provided for an end to the Allied occupation, and a staggered payment plan for Germany’s payment of war reparations.

Young, the head of General Electric and a member of the Dawes committee, proposed a plan that reduced the total amount of reparations demanded of Germany to 121 billion gold marks, almost $29 billion, payable over 58 years. Another loan would be floated in foreign markets, this one totaling $300 million.

The Rapallo Treaty

One way of breaking the hostile ring with which the Germans felt themselves encircled was to make common cause with the other outcast among the European powers—the Soviet Union. This idea was attractive not only to many on the left but to some on the right, who believed that another war with France was inevitable and were looking for allies. Economic negotiations with the Soviet Union in 1921 proved successful, and support for a rapprochement between the two countries came from Gen. Hans von Seeckt, the commander in chief of the army. On April 16, 1922, a treaty of friendship was signed between Germany and the Soviet Union at Rapallo, Italy, waiving reparations claims by both sides and promising the expansion of Soviet-German trade. The French and British were surprised and furious. No counteraction was taken, but Rapallo no doubt helped to harden French opinion. The most important practical consequence was the conclusion of secret agreements between the German and Soviet armies, which allowed German officers and units to acquire experience with the Red Army. The agreement also provided opportunities for experimentation with the design of forbidden weapons, such as tanks and aircraft.

Britain and the Weimar Republic: The History of a Cultural Relationship

In March 2011, BBC Two broadcast a 90-minute adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind (1976).(1) Leaving aside its possible merits and/or shortcomings, the airing of this TV-dramatisation was indicative of an on-going fascination with Isherwood’s portrayal of the decadent, Nazi-ridden Berlin of the Weimar Republic, captured most famously in his Berlin Novels and in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret. Undoubtedly, popular perceptions of the first German Republic in the Anglophone world have been and continue to be shaped primarily by accounts given by Isherwood and his friends W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Not only has popular imagination been dominated by Isherwood & co., but also, to a great extent, previous academic research on contemporary British interaction with the Republic. Colin Storer’s well-researched, clearly organised and very readable Britain and the Weimar Republic seeks to remedy this unrepresentative picture of British intellectual attitudes towards Weimar Germany that has hitherto been presented.

As Storer outlines in his introduction, focus on the Isherwood-circle has obscured the ‘sheer number of British intellectuals who visited Germany in this period, and the diversity [. ] of these visitors’ (p. 5), who have previously been discussed rather briefly, or unjustly forgotten altogether. While one might quibble slightly with the subtitle of the book – The History of a Cultural Relationship might lead one to expect discussion of mutual perceptions or two-way cultural relations – this can be overlooked as Storer clearly sets out his purpose in his introduction: ‘to provide the first broad comparative study of the attitudes of British intellectuals towards Weimar Germany, examining the diversity of these attitudes, at the same time looking for areas of commonality in the discourse on the Weimar Republic’ (p. 10). Storer also seeks to trace degrees of change and continuity in British attitudes to Germany between the pre- and post-First World War eras, and to assess ‘what made a country that had recently been an enemy in the most destructive conflict Europe had ever known so attractive and fascinating to British intellectuals in the 1920s’ (p. 2). Having stated his aims succinctly at the start, Storer keeps to them clearly and consistently throughout his work, thereby succeeding not only in broadening the range of British commentators associated with the Weimar Republic beyond the Isherwood-Auden group, but also in challenging the dominant perception that the British fascination with Weimar Germany was almost exclusively based on two overriding aspects: its vibrant homosexual nightlife, on the one hand, and the apparently unstoppable rise of Nazism and inevitable collapse of democracy, on the other. In fact, Storer traces a wide range of ideas, issues and themes that attracted British intellectuals to the Weimar Republic – especially, but by no means only to Berlin – such as its association with crisis, instability and victimhood, as well as modernity, decadence, youth and rebelliousness.

One key aim of Storer’s study, then, and one of its greatest strengths, is to bring to light previously neglected British accounts of Germany after 1918. While Isherwood and friends are not completely disregarded, since they were certainly important if overemphasised British observers of Weimar Germany, Storer draws together an impressive number of lesser-known figures who travelled to Germany between 1918 and 1933, and who recorded their experiences and impressions either in published or unpublished forms (e.g. correspondence, diaries, articles, books). The scope of the study is established in its broad understanding of ‘intellectuals’ (2), focussing especially on ‘professional writers of one sort or another’ (p. 3). In order to the aid the reader who, quite understandably, might not be familiar with some of Storer’s chosen intellectuals, an appendix of biographical notes is included to provide orientation for the main text. 22 individuals are listed in this appendix which gives a good indication of the breadth of Storer’s investigation.(3) Reference is also made to memoirists, civil servants, military personnel and public figures, further enhancing and contextualising the wide-reaching perspectives examined. The range of examples that Storer has unearthed and analyses in his book, especially previously marginalised female accounts, therefore makes his claim to give a broader, more representative picture of British attitudes to the Weimar Republic wholly convincing and successful.

The book is organised into seven thematic chapters, each of which serves well as a stand-alone section while also fitting nicely into the bigger picture. Moreover, this thematic approach emphasises that diversity and those commonalities Storer has set out to highlight. Chapter one examines ‘British travel and tourism in Weimar Germany’ and expounds various motivations for visiting the Republic. Storer notes that at that time, Germany, and in particular Berlin, was a crossroads for European travel on both an East-West and a North-South axis. The war had temporarily interrupted British travel to Germany – which had been developing since the 18th century – but was quickly resumed after hostilities ended, albeit in considerably altered circumstances. Having distinguished between various groups of visitors to Germany, ranging from military personnel and diplomats to holiday-makers touring the western and southern regions, Storer outlines the diverse nature of British ‘intellectual travel’ to the Republic, setting the scene for the rest of the book. An unprecedented number of British intellectuals visited Germany after the war some purely for pleasure, some in search of career opportunities or in professional capacities as correspondents or in order to research for books and articles, others wanted to observe the exciting and turbulent situation in the new Germany for themselves, seeing their trips as educational and, in some cases, acts of self-discovery and rebelliousness. The number of intellectual visitors peaked in periods of crisis – 1921–4 and 1929–33 – suggesting that it was precisely the Republic’s instability, and the general feeling that history was being made in Germany, which attracted them to it. One could add other reasons for visiting Germany to those described here, for example, intellectuals who were invited by German political, social or cultural institutions or who travelled with the specific task of fostering intellectual understanding and co-operation, but since it is not Storer’s intention to give a comprehensive account – he points out that this would be impossible in one volume (p. 6) – such examples would be welcome enhancements rather than necessary additions.

Chapter two presents a skilful analysis of the manifold ways in which the First World War and the peace settlement which followed it affected British views of Germany. Storer outlines the bitter ‘war of words and images’ (pp. 34–5) waged by both sides during the war, which contrasted with a greater degree of ‘professional comradeship’ (p. 37) between opposing troops on the battlefront, and which ‘rumbled on’ (p. 35) long after the armistice was called, shaping and reflecting post-war attitudes. While some British intellectuals adopted uncompromisingly anti-German stances, others adhered to a longer standing theory of ‘Two Germanies’ which discerned between a ‘bad’ authoritarian, military, (Prussian) Germany and a ‘good’, liberal, cultural Germany.(4) This view remained influential after the war, especially with those who sympathised with an ‘untainted’ non-militarist Germany (p. 47). Strong pacifist desires to prevent future conflict after the horrors of 1914-18 led many, such as the writer and artist Wyndham Lewis, to promote understanding between Britain and Germany, almost unconditionally, whether they considered themselves to be basically ‘pro-German’ or not. Not only the experience of war but also a lack thereof affected the outlook of intellectuals who had not seen military service, while floods of war literature after 1918, including the popular reception of German war writings, fictional and non-fictional, reflected British post-war attitudes towards the former enemy. Storer demonstrates how the subsequent peace settlement aroused great curiosity amongst Britons towards the Weimar Republic. Although the atmosphere was still tense, sympathetic attitudes were widespread and diverse, and not necessarily a sign of ‘pro-Germanism’ (p. 52). This was largely due to the feeling that the Treaty of Versailles was too harsh and would be dangerous for Europe’s future. The peace and its consequences therefore generated British perceptions of German victimhood and instability, accompanied by dismay at unfair and ‘un-British’ (p. 56) treatment of Germany, so that Treaty revisionism was not only an expression of resentment in defeated Germany, but also found much support in Britain. Critics included intellectuals who had been present in Paris but felt let down by the conduct and outcome of the conference, such as Harold Nicholson, W. H. Dawson and J. M. Keynes, all of whom feature prominently in this highly instructive chapter.

Chapter three expands on this interest in the long-term effects of the war and peace settlement by examining the ‘differing and often contradictory accounts’ of British visitors to the occupied Rhineland. This chapter is particularly interesting as it provides ‘a valuable alternative perspective’ (p. 63) on British views of the Weimar Republic’ beyond more familiar accounts of Weimar Berlin. Storer explains that the Rhineland was a ‘vantage point’ from which British commentators observed developments in Germany (p. 62), not least because it was a ‘safe’ location, which was also the ‘focal point’ (p. 63) for matters arising from the peace settlement. Many early accounts were attempts to make sense of the post-war world, while others sought to raise awareness of conditions in Germany, highlighting disease and food-shortages under the Allied blockade – particularly amongst women and children – and economic turmoil. Fears of revolution and accounts of long-lasting physical and psychological burdens of the blockade and Treaty, which conveyed a sense of foreboding for the future, brought about shifts in British opinions towards Germany throughout the 1920s. Reports on the extent and nature of contact between Britons and occupied Germans varied in some cases there was little contact, others saw the Rhineland as a ‘haven for international co-operation and reconciliation’ (pp. 69–70), others still experienced hostility from their German hosts, especially after the Ruhr crisis. Additionally, some accounts compared the British occupation with the French occupation, often highlighting French deployment of colonial troops and playing on racial prejudices to reflect more positively on the British occupiers, while other accounts ignored the French aspect. Overall, the diversity of British experiences and perceptions of the situation in the Rhineland stands out in this chapter which greatly deepens our understanding of British intellectual attitudes to post-war Germany.

Storer’s analysis of British attitudes to Berlin in the Weimar period in chapter four gives a much-needed nuanced account of British views and experiences of the German capital city, which have often been oversimplified in previous research. Usually associated with the homosexual encounters of Isherwood and friends, Storer agrees that Berlin did attract many ‘sex tourists’ (p. 103), but shows that even Berlin’s nightlife was multifaceted: on the one hand, it boasted modern dance, jazz and cabaret acts, a centre of ‘sexual tolerance, […] freedom and hedonism’ (p. 88), on the other hand, prostitution, drug-dealing and gambling were the ‘unsavoury professions’ (p. 90) of Berlin’s ‘criminal underworld’ (p. 91) which many Berliners turned to in order to deal with the financial hardships of the post-war period. While many British visitors were attracted by Berlin’s decadence, others were disappointed and some even appalled by it. Yet in other accounts, Berlin’s notorious nightlife did not even feature. It was above all Berlin’s modernity that drew in its visitors and the excitement and fervour it exuded in politics, the arts and lifestyle more generally. Berlin offered experimentation, innovation and was a centre for avant-garde culture: Storer includes particularly fascinating passages on Alfred Hitchcock’s formative experiences in Berlin in 1924, German influences on his films, and Weimar cinema’s inspiration for the London Film Society. Alongside its promise for the future, Berlin’s connotations as the capital of the former enemy, a place of revolution, progress and rebellion made it a ‘daring place’ (p. 104) to visit for many British intellectuals, but was also sometimes considered – especially in retrospective accounts – quite depressing, a ‘freak show’ (p. 93) and rather fragile. Given the popularity of Berlin as a destination for British intellectuals, there was a tendency to see it as ‘emblematic’ not only of the ‘zeitgeist of the 1920s’ (p. 105) but also of the entire country, which points at once to the need to treat generalisations made about the Republic based on experiences in Berlin with caution, as well as to the central importance of these views of Berlin to our understanding of attitudes to post-war Germany as a whole.

Chapter five focuses on ‘Female intellectuals and the Weimar Republic’ thereby remedying the previous male-bias in understandings of British attitudes to Germany in this period. Storer’s chosen female visitors range from more conventional, though feminist figures like Vera Brittain to the rebellious Jean Ross, and many in between, and were often drawn by similar issues as their male counterparts, such as crisis and victimhood, youth, modernity, artistic creativity and the opportunity for ‘alternative lifestyle[s]’ (p. 107). But there were also notable differences between male and female perspectives, the latter being concerned just as much with the Treaty and occupation, for example, as other so-called ‘women’s questions’ (p. 108) such as childcare, education, reproductive issues and the position and role of women in society and politics. While often engaging with topical issues like the (in)famous figure of the ‘new woman’ (p. 113) and the illegality of abortion, most British women were uninterested or unimpressed with Berlin’s nightlife, which serves as an important qualification to the previously held idea that Berlin’s decadence dominated British views of the Republic. In uncovering a range of women’s accounts, Storer shows how these ‘doubly highlight the diversity in British attitudes towards the Weimar Republic’ as they differed from one another as well as the ‘majority discourse provided by their male compatriots’ (p. 122).

Chapter six questions how far fictional accounts of the Republic went towards creating a lasting ‘Weimar stereotype’. Storer problematises the issue that Isherwood’s novels have not only dominated Anglo-American visions of the Weimar Republic, but have also often been seen ‘as works of contemporary reportage, or even history, rather than fiction’ (p. 123). Examining a wider set of fictional works set in Weimar Germany by authors such as John Buchan, Robert McAlmon and Winifried Holtby, Storer sees these representations as a ‘prism’ through which to view contemporary attitudes towards Germany and its citizens. Continuity and change is important here: pre-war representations tended to divide Germans into ‘good’, soulful intellectuals versus ‘bad’, threatening ‘Hunnish’ militarists (pp. 144–5), with the latter then dominating wartime propagandistic images of the enemy. Post-war depictions portrayed Weimar Germany as quite different to its imperial predecessor, creating a ‘complicated and multifaceted’ stereotype (p. 145) which incorporated many of the themes we have already encountered such as the Treaty and occupation, Germans as dignified victims in the face of defeat and upheaval, Berlin’s colourful social scene, and a near obsession with youth and vitality in the Republic, all of which were seen with varying degrees of sympathy and criticism. Interestingly, however, Storer notes some ‘echoes’ (p. 146) of pre-war images, with many works still containing notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Germans, and sometimes suggesting an underlying possibility that the modern dynamism, youthfulness and economic potential of the new Germany could outstrip Britain, which can be seen as ‘strikingly close’ (p. 147) to pre-war anxieties.

The final chapter examines British attitudes to Nazism in the 1920s, in order to test the validity of the common perception that the Weimar Republic was a ‘doomed democratic experiment […] whose eventual replacement by the National Socialist dictatorship was inevitable’ (p. 148). Storer demonstrates that this was not a contemporary perspective, and that opinions on Nazism ranged from out-and-out opposition, to ambivalence, to outright admiration and apology, all for varied reasons. In the early 1920s, British comment on Nazism was rare and saw the so-called ‘Fascisti’ (p. 149) as a marginal Bavarian phenomenon rather than a national political party. Interest in National Socialism increased throughout the period and often reflected the political fortunes of the Party. Storer detects a good deal of confusion in British accounts of Nazism, especially about where to place it in the political landscape, which can be largely explained by the movement’s own contradictory nature and ideology. While some saw the Nazis as ‘agents’ of renewal and traditional values, a solution to Weimar’s ills and weaknesses, others recognised that their ideas were new and ‘just as alien to the old Germany as the Republic’ (p. 163). Sympathy came from Britons who saw in Nazism a vital ‘bulwark against Bolshevism’ (p. 164) and hoped for Treaty revision, while reservation was expressed by those who found their violent tactics unsavoury. No matter what their stance on the Nazi movement itself, however, and despite a widespread perception of crisis and instability, none of Storer’s selected intellectual visitors thought that the Republic was doomed to collapse, or that a Nazi seizure of power was imminent. Moreover, whenever there was talk of a prospective Nazi government, it was expected to be within the constitutional system and moderated by coalition partners. This chapter successfully provides a differentiated picture of British views of Nazism, while also reflecting on attitudes to the Republic as a whole. Storer’s discussion of British perspectives of Weimar politics and prognoses for its democratic system might have been enriched further by considering opinions on other parties and movements where possible, although this would have entailed either the reconceptualisation of this particular chapter, or the addition of an extra one. Indeed, any questions raised about aspects or angles not covered in Storer’s study are entirely a reflection of its strength and the reader’s desire for more of the same.

Storer provides a great deal of fascinating detail which is not only useful but makes the book a compelling read. Inevitably, there are a number of unfortunate minor typographical errors, while the header of chapter one – ‘Germany wants to see you’ – is also intriguingly used to head the introduction, and there are one or two factual ambiguities: the term ‘Weimar Republic’ might not have been in English usage before 1933, but it is not strictly a ‘construct of historians’ (p. 4), as it certainly appeared, if rarely, in German discourse in the late 1920s (5), and the aggressive German wartime manifesto signed by 93 academics and intellectuals was published in October 1914, not 1917.(6) However, these slight criticisms, while worth mentioning, by no means detract from the quality of the work as a whole.

Storer successfully fulfils his stated objective to correct and broaden our understanding of British attitudes towards the Weimar Republic beyond the previous preoccupation with the Isherwood-Auden circle. Yet the fruits of this investigation can also be seen in a wider research context. Despite much general work on Anglo-German relations after 1918, cultural relations remain remarkably under-explored, which makes any contribution such as Storer’s most welcome. While this is not a work on mutual Anglo-German perceptions, it is of great interest to students of Anglo-German intellectual relations after the First World War since it offers valuable insights into the British side of this cultural relationship, while also telling us much about the Weimar Republic itself. Scholars of Weimar will appreciate Storer’s situating the Republic in an international context, something not often considered beyond formal foreign policy. Finally, Storer’s work also contributes to a recent academic trend of presenting differentiated analyses of diverse aspects of Weimar, in order to advance our understandings of the Republic beyond its longstanding dichotomous association with ‘Glitter and Doom’.(7)

Hitler's Rise to Power

A combination of political and economic dissatisfaction, some of it dating back to the founding of the Republic, helped create the conditions for Hitler's rise to power. By drawing together the fringe nationalist parties into his Nazi Party, Hitler was able to gain a sufficient number of seats in the Reichstag to make him a political player. Eventually, conservatives, hoping to control him and capitalize on his popularity brought him into the government. However, Hitler used the weaknesses written into the Weimar Constitution (like Article 48) to subvert it and assume dictatorial power.

The Weimar Republic ended with Hitler's appointment as Chancellor in 1933.

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