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The Weimar Republic

A map of the Weimar Republic from 1918-1933.
A map of the Weimar Republic from 1918-1933.

Courtesy of The Wiener Library.

The Weimar Republic was the new system of democratic government established in Germany following the collapse of the Second Reich.

The first elections for the new Republic were held on the 19 January 1919. They used a voting system called Proportional Representation.

The Social Democratic Party won 38% of the vote and 163 seats, the Catholic Centre Party won 20% of the vote and 91 seats and the Democratic Party won 19% of the vote and 75 seats. The rest of the seats were divided up between the smaller parties.

Whilst the Social Democratic Party had won the most votes, they did not win a majority (over 50%). Therefore, the Social Democratic Party joined a coalition with the Catholic Centre Party and the Democratic Party to make up a majority. This coalition then had the task of drawing up a constitution for the new republic.

As Berlin was still in the grips of revolution, the market town of Weimar was chosen as the meeting place. This venue gave the new nation the name the ‘Weimar Republic’.

The Weimar Constitution

The Reichstag was the lower house of the new Weimar Republic’s parliament. The Reichstag met in the building pictured here, also named the Reichstag, in Berlin.
The Reichstag was the lower house of the new Weimar Republic’s parliament. The Reichstag met in the building pictured here, also named the Reichstag, in Berlin.

Courtesy of The Wiener Library.

The Weimar Republic adopted a new constitution, different to that of the previous monarchy. Under the new republic, all adults over the age of twenty could vote.

Instead of a monarch, there was a president elected every seven years. The president’s power was limited by the Reichstag. However, in the state of an emergency, Article 48 of the new constitution gave the president ultimate authority to rule by decree.

There were two parliamentary houses in the Republic, the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The chancellor was the leader of the Reichstag. The chancellor held similar position to the British Prime Minister, and was appointed by the President. Typically, the chancellor would be the leader of the largest party, although this was not always the case.

The Weimar Republic was a federal system. It was split into eighteen different states called Länder, each of which had their own local government. The Länder could send representatives from their local government to the Reichsrat.

Despite these changes, there were also many aspects of the government that continued as before. To maintain stability in government, many of the old civil servants and military leaders stayed in similar positions of power, and therefore still had enormous influence.

Political instability in the Weimar Republic

The new Proportional Representation system of voting in the Weimar Republic caused political instability.

Whilst the new system intended to reduce political conflicts, it in fact resulted in many different parties gaining a small amount of seats in the Reichstag. This meant that no one party had overall an overall majority, and parties joined together to rule in coalitions.

In these coalitions, each party had different aims which often led to disagreements on policy. These disagreements made it difficult for the Reichstag to govern. In the early 1920s there were many changes of government, which made managing Germany’s political and economic problems very difficult.

In addition to this difficulty, the unpopular reparations payments, which Germany were forced to pay through the Treaty of Versailles, put a huge amount of economic pressure on the government.

These tough economic and political circumstances made people susceptible to extreme political views. In order to keep control and peace in the early 1920s, Friedrich Ebert relied heavily on the traditionally right-wing army and Freikorps.

Hyperinflation and the invasion of the Ruhr

Throughout the war, the value of the German currency, the Reichsmark, fell considerably. In 1914, one British pound was equal to twenty German marks. In 1919, one British pound was equal to 250 marks. To try and meet the requirements of government spending and alleviate the post-war situation, the government had little choice but to print more money. This in fact made the inflationary situation worse and again reduced the value of the Reichsmark.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this economic crisis, Germany continued to attempt to pay the reparations as dictated by the Treaty of Versailles. The reparations had to be paid in gold marks, which maintained its value, whilst the German currency declined. This made it more and more expensive to pay.

In 1922, Germany requested permission to suspend their payments whilst their economy recovered. This was refused by the Allies. By 1923, Germany reached breaking point as inflation started to run out of control. They were unable to continue paying reparations.

On the 9 January 1923, in response to the lack of payment of reparations, France and Belgium invaded the Ruhr. The Ruhr was a region of Germany which contained resources such as factories. The French and Belgians intended to use these resources to make up for the unpaid reparations.

German factory workers refused to co-operate with the occupying French and Belgian armies. With the German governments support, the workers went on strike. The French sent in their own workers, and arrested the leaders of the German strikers and the German police. This led to violence on both sides.

With the French and Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, goods in Germany became even more difficult to obtain, and therefore very expensive. To fix this problem and pay the striking Ruhr workers, the government again printed more money. This led to hyperinflation.

By the autumn of 1923 a loaf of bread cost 200,000,000,000 marks. Workers paid by the hour found their wages were worthless, because prices had risen since they began their shifts. The situation was critical.

Stresemann and the Dawes Plan

It was at this moment of crisis that Gustav Stresemann was elected as chancellor in September 1923. Stresemann was a politician of the DVP, the German People’s Party. In 1923 he formed a coalition of the DVP, SPD, DDP and Centre Party and became chancellor.

To try and tackle the crisis gripping Germany, Stresemann followed a policy of ‘fulfillment’ whereby he aimed to improve international relations by attempting to fulfil the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. These improved relationships would then in turn help him to secure a reasonable revision to the treaty.

Following this policy, Stresemann made the unpopular decision to start repaying the reparations and order the striking workers of the Ruhr to return to work.

Stresemann also appointed Hjalmar Schacht, a banker, to tackle the issue of hyperinflation. In November 1923, Schacht introduced a new German currency, the Rentenmark, based on land values and foreign loans. One Rentenmark was worth 10,000,000,000,000 of the old currency.

In April 1924, Stresemann’s policy of fulfillment paid off. An American economist named Charles Dawes was recruited to help to set a new, realistic, target for Germany’s reparations payments. This was called the Dawes Plan.

Under this plan, the reparations were reduced to 50 million marks a year for the next five years, and then 125 million marks a year following that. The plan also recommended that the German National Bank was reorganised, and that Germany receive an international loan. This loan was for 800 million gold marks, financed primarily by America.

These measures eased the economic pressure on Germany, and relations with other countries began to improve and then stabilise.

This economic improvement, as well as improvements in foreign relations, led to the years between 1924 and 1929 becoming known as the ‘Golden Years’.

The Golden Years

A family enjoying a beach holiday in Norderney, North Germany, in 1927.
A family enjoying a beach holiday in Norderney, North Germany, in 1927.

Courtesy of The Wiener Library.

The years 1924 to 1929 became known as the ‘Golden Years’, as foreign relations improved and the economy prospered.

Stresemann worked to improve Germany’s international relations. In the Locarno Pact of 1925, France, Belgium and Germany agreed to respect each other’s borders. In 1926, Germany was accepted into the League of Nations.

The Dawes Plan, alongside a sudden injection of foreign loans, helped the German economy to stabilise and prosper. This situation allowed the German government to invest in new public facilities, such as hospitals and schools. Those in work saw real improvements in working conditions as wages increased and working hours decreased.

Culture in Germany also flourished, as previously established thoughts and beliefs were thrown aside for new ideas. The German art school Bauhaus is a key example of this, promoting experimental modernist art and architecture.

However, not all of Germany’s problems had been fixed.

Unemployment was still very high with two million people unemployed in 1926. 1.3 million were still unemployed in 1928.

The farming industry was also slow to recover from the wartime pressures, and agricultural and rural wages were much lower than those in big towns and cities.

Furthermore, the sudden injection of foreign loans had left Germany dependent on income that they could not control.

Despite this, Germany had made significant steps on the road to recovery between 1924-29. Unfortunately, this would come to an abrupt end with the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

ADVANCED CONTENT

The Young Plan

A portrait of Owen D. Young. Young was a former member of the Dawes Plan Committee of 1924. He came up with the ‘Young Plan’ of 1929, which intended to be the final plan for Germany’s reparations payments from the First World War.
A portrait of Owen D. Young. Young was a former member of the Dawes Plan Committee of 1924. He came up with the ‘Young Plan’ of 1929, which intended to be the final plan for Germany’s reparations payments from the First World War.

By unknown author via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain].

The Dawes Plan for reparations payments ended in 1928. A new, final, plan was created to cover the rest of the debt. This was called the Young Plan, named after its creator Owen D. Young.

The new plan had two key features. It gave an end date for the reparations payments, and it gave Germany a set amount to pay each year.

The end date of the payments was set for 1988, 59 years away in 1929 when the plan was being formulated. The average annual payment would be two billion marks.

The Young Plan aimed to continue the stablisation of the German economy, whilst still fulfilling the reparations payments from the First World War.

The plan faced some extreme opposition in the press and the Reichstag. This opposition was primarily from right-wing nationalists in the NSDAP, DNVP, and Pan German League. They claimed the plan represented acceptance for the war, and therefore made German liable to having to pay reparations. The nationalists wanted an end to the payments and the Treaty of Versailles.

Despite this opposition, with little other way forward, the Reichstag passed the plan and it was formally adopted in 1930.

ADVANCED CONTENT

Weimar Culture

Across 1920s Europe, cultural tradition was challenged and social values were relaxed.

Berlin became a hub of avant-garde experimentation. Whilst not as experimental, the villages, towns and other cities across Germany also underwent a new phase of culture.

When the Weimar Republic had been created, the government had declared that censorship would not take place. Whilst, somewhat inevitably, censorship did still take place, the borders of what was allowed to be published were relaxed and there was a great deal more freedom.

Despite the economic pressures of the early 1920s, public funding at a local level was widely invested in culture and the arts.

The music hall and the theatre became less popular as the cinema exploded onto the screen. By the end of the 1920s more than 5000 cinemas operated in Germany, and in 1928, approximately 353 million cinema tickets were sold, in comparison to approximately twelve million theatre tickets in 1926-27.

Music also became more experimental, with the controversial rise of Jazz music and clubs.

Whilst welcomed by many, the new age of Weimar culture also had critics. The cultural experimentation was seen as a dramatic break with the tradition of Germany, influenced by Western culture. This feeling resonated with many conservatives outside of Berlin, who found the new experimental culture alienating.

Some groups, on the far right of the political spectrum, felt so alienated from this new culture that they called for a ‘Third Reich’ that would reassert the traditional gender structure, art and music of Germany.

The Wall Street Crash and the Depression

A crowd gathered outside Wall Street in New York City on the 25 October 1929 as the stock market crashed.
A crowd gathered outside Wall Street in New York City on the 25 October 1929 as the stock market crashed.

By unknown author via Wikimedia Commons [Public domain].

The Wall Street Crash was a stock market crash that took place from the 24 October to 29 October 1929. Following the optimism of the 1920s, people were keen to invest in stocks and shares, where they believed they could make a fortune.

This burst of investment pushed companies stock market value higher than their real value.

On the 3 September 1929 stock prices reached an all-time high.

However, shortly after this, prices started to drop. This led to mass panic selling. By October 1929, the value of the market halved.

As the world economies were linked through international business, the Wall Street Crash resulted in an international depression. As a result of this international depression, and the need for money at home, the USA called in their international loans.

Germany was reliant on international loans and investment. They had used these, as explored above, to rebuild their economy after the war and hyperinflation crisis, and invest in new schools, businesses and hospitals. As the USA removed this investment, Germany fell into another economic crisis.

Strength and weaknesses of the Weimar Republic

When created, the Weimar Republic was hailed as one of the most democratic governments in Europe. Despite this, it lasted just fifteen years.

The strengths and weaknesses of the republic are discussed below.

Strengths

The republic had many democratic strengths. It allowed individual freedoms for everyone. This granted the right to free speech, the right to equality and the right to religion to every German citizen.

All adults over the age of twenty could vote. The voting system used was Proportional Representation, a fair system in which parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.

This system was used to elect the president and the Reichstag.

From 1924 onwards the republic also had a new currency, and following the implementation Dawes Plan, experienced a period of relative economic stability.

Weaknesses

Despite the above, the republic had four weaknesses.

Proportional Representation was a very democratic electoral system, but it allowed lots of parties to be elected to the Reichstag. No one party was ever elected with a majority. This meant that parties had to form coalitions to rule. Coalitions often disagreed on laws and policies due to their differing views, which made it extremely difficult to govern decisively.

In addition to the above, Article 48 of the constitution gave the president authority to rule by decree in the state of an emergency, bypassing the elected Reichstag. It did not, however, give a definition as to what constituted a ‘state of emergency’. This article was repeatedly misused by Hindenburg and eventually allowed Hitler to ‘legally’ take total control of Germany.

The reliance on foreign loans following the Dawes Plan led to a severe economic depression following the Wall Street Crash. This ultimately led to further political instability, and eventually, contributed to the end of democratic government.

Finally, many of the old conservative elite who had held key positions of power under the monarchy had continued in similar roles in the Weimar Republic. Whilst this was an attempt to maintain stability in government as the new republic settled, it in fact meant that these civil servants and military leaders still had enormous influence and power. The power and influence of the conservative elite would later be crucial in appointing Hitler as chancellor.

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Political instability in the Weimar Republic

Political instability in the Weimar Republic

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