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Section: How did the Nazis gain power?

The aftermath of the First World War in Germany

Troops supporting Hitler arrive in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch of 9 November 1923
Troops supporting Hitler arrive in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch of 9 November 1923 © 2011 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The First World War, which began in the Summer of 1914 and ended in November 1918, claimed around twenty million lives. The war ended empires and disrupted political systems and economies across the world.

In April 1917, the United States of America joined the war against Germany. Arriving on the battlefields in 1918, the American army was well trained and equipped, while the Germany army was exhausted. The British navy blockaded German ports, starving German industry of raw materials and the people of food. Between April and August 1918, the German army decided to make one last, determined effort to win the war. They had early successes, but were quickly overwhelmed. By the autumn of 1918, the Germans were losing and senior generals could see that defeat was inevitable. Peace negotiations began and an armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. After four years and millions of lives lost, the guns fell silent.

In Germany, impending defeat triggered a revolution and brought down the German Emperor, the Kaiser. In this section you will find out about the circumstances in which the new democratic German state, The Weimar Republic, came into existence after the First World War.

Unrest on the streets

Marines join forces with protesting German workers in Berlin during the revolution of November 1918.
Marines join forces with protesting German workers in Berlin during the revolution of November 1918.

As the war came to an end, the German nation was in a state of collapse. On 29th October 1918, sailors at the German naval base at Kiel refused to obey an order to attack British ships. The German sailors set up councils in order to defy their superiors. Only a year earlier, councils like these, set up by workers in Russia, had led to a communist revolution. Many people feared Germany would end up like Russia, with a communist dictatorship and civil war. By 6th November, the revolution had spread to many German cities and even to soldiers fighting on the Western Front.

The Kaiser abdicates

Supporters of the Kaiser and the Imperial government
Supporters of the Kaiser and the Imperial government

Kaiser Wilhelm was the Emperor of Germany and Commander-in-Chief of the German armed forces.  On 9 November 1918, with defeat certain and a revolution underway, Wilhelm was forced to abdicate his throne and flee Germany.

Without the Emperor, the Germans had no strong leader in charge of the country. There were different groups who thought now was the time to make changes to the way the country was governed. Some of them believed that Germany should become a democracy, but others believed that strong, military leadership was the only way to keep society safe. Some thought that communism, where everyone was equal, but controlled by a strong state, was a fairer way of living.

Eventually, power was handed to the leader of the moderate left-wing Social Democratic Party, Friedrich Ebert. This did not stop the food shortages or the civil unrest and street battles between rival political groups.

Revolution suppressed in Germany, 1919

In late 1918 and early 1919 revolutions spread throughout Germany. In the region of Bavaria, in the south, a communist state was established in the capital Munich. In January 1919 revolution threatened Berlin itself. Chancellor  Ebert saw that democratic rule was under threat, so he called in the German army and the Freikorps (ex-soldiers who banded together to form small private armies).

They crushed the revolution in Munich and executed the leaders. Although Chancellor Ebert used the army and the Freikorps to crush the Bavarian communists, there were still revolutionaries in other German cities, and fear of revolution still threatened peace in Germany.

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Was the German army stabbed in the back?

An antisemitic cartoon suggesting that the German army was stabbed in the back
An antisemitic cartoon suggesting that the German army was stabbed in the back Image: Wikimedia Commons public domain.

On 11 November 1918 Germany found itself without a monarch. It had serious economic and social problems, and there was open political fighting for control.

Two army generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, led the military which had controlled Germany during the war. They asked the politicians to start peace negotiations with the allies. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were keen to avoid being blamed for losing the war.

All the political parties blamed each other. The generals pointed to the fact that at the start of their last big push to win the war, they had been successful.

This argument was used to persuade people that the German army had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by politicians just as they were about to defeat the Allies.

The very soldiers who had felt victory was close now came home to Germany unsure as to how defeat had come so suddenly, further supporting the “stab in the back” myth.

DID YOU KNOW...

Patriotic

Germany was trying to build a new government and many of the new political leaders who came to power were of Jewish birth. This meant that Germans believing in the Dolchloss Legende often blamed Jews for Germany’s defeat.

In reality, in 1914, the Jewish population of Germany was under 1 per cent. During the First World War 100,000 Jews served in the German army, and were very patriotic.

Patriotic

‘Germany remember!’

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The Kaiser abdicates

The Kaiser abdicates

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