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9.4: The Weimar Republic

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  • One place in Europe during the interwar period stands out as a microcosm of the political and cultural struggles occurring elsewhere: Weimar Germany. Named after the resort town in which its constitution was written in early 1919, the Weimar Republic represented a triumphant culmination of liberalism. Its constitution guaranteed universal suffrage for men and women, fundamental human rights, and the complete rejection of the remnants of monarchism. Unfortunately, the government of the new republic was deeply unpopular among many groups, including right-wing army veterans like a young Adolf Hitler.

    One great lie that poisoned the political climate of the Weimar Republic was, as mentioned above, the “stab-in-the-back” myth. Toward the end of World War I, Germany was losing. Its own General Staff informed the Kaiser of this fact; with American troops and munitions flooding in, it was simply a matter of time before the Allies were able to march in force on Germany. As defeat loomed, however, the military leaders Hindenburg and Ludendorff, along with the Kaiser himself, concocted the idea that Germany could had kept fighting, and won, but instead public commitment to the war wavered because of agitators on the home front and saboteurs who crippled military supply lines. Usually, according to the conspiracy theory, those responsible were some combination of Jews and communists (and, of course, Jewish communists). This was an outright lie, but it was a convenient lie that the political right in Germany could cling to, blaming “Jewish saboteurs” and “Bolshevik agents” for Germany’s loss.

    The Versailles Treaty had also required Germany to disarm - the German army went from millions of men to a mere 100,000 soldiers. It was forbidden from building heavy military equipment or having a fleet of more than a handful of warships. Given the social prestige and power associated with the German military before the war, this was an enormous blow to German pride. While the nations of Europe pledged to pursue peaceful resolutions to their problems in the future, many Germans were still left with a sense of vulnerability, particularly as the Bolsheviks cemented their control by the end of the 1920s in Russia.

    Neither did the Weimar government itself inspire much confidence. Its parliament, the Reichstag, was trapped in an almost perpetual state of political deadlock. Its constitution stipulated that voting was proportional, with the popular vote translated into a corresponding number of seats for the various political parties. Unfortunately, given the vast range of political allegiances present in German society, there were fully thirty-two different parties, representing not just elements of the left - right political spectrum, but regional and religious identities as well. The most powerful parties were those of the far left, the communists, and the far right, initially monarchists and conservative Catholics, with the Nazis rising to prominence at the end of the 1920s. Thus, it was nearly impossible for the Reichstag to govern, with the various parties undermining one another’s goals and coalition governments crumbling as swiftly as they formed.

    Chart of the electoral fortunes of the ten major political parties in Weimar Germany.
    Figure 9.4.1: Diagram of electoral results over the course of the Weimar Republic. Note the lack of a governing party, as well as the rise of the Nazis (the NSDAP, marked in dark maroon at the top of the diagram) to prominence in the last years of the Republic.

    Simultaneously, the Weimar Republic faced ongoing economic issues, which fed into the resentment of most Germans toward the terms of the Versailles Treaty and its reparation payments (set to 132 billion gold marks annually, although that amount was renegotiated and lowered over the course of the decade). The actual economic impact of those payments is still debated by historians; what is not debated is that Germans regarding them as utterly unjust, since they felt that all of the countries of Europe were responsible for World War I, not just Germany. Especially in moments of economic crisis, many otherwise “ordinary” Germans looked to political extremists for possible solutions; to cite the most important example, the electoral fortunes of the Nazi party rose and fell in an inverse relationship to the health of the German economy.

    The economy of Germany underwent a severe crisis less than five years after the end of the war. In 1923, unable to make its payments, the Weimar government requested new negotiations. The French responded by seizing the mineral-rich Ruhr Valley. In order to pay striking workers, the government simply printed more money, thereby undermining its value. This, in turn, led to hyperinflation: the German Mark simply collapsed as a currency, with one American dollar being worth nearly 10,000,000,000 marks by the end of the year. Workers were paid in wheelbarrows full of cash at the start of their lunch break so they had time to buy a few groceries before inflation made forced shopkeepers to raise prices by the afternoon.

    A stack of million-mark notes being written on as note paper.
    Figure 9.4.2: Million-mark notes used as scratch paper during hyperinflation.

    In the course of a year, Germans who had spent their lives carefully building up savings saw those savings rendered worthless. This inspired anger and resentment among common people who might otherwise not be attracted to extremist solutions. The situation stabilized in 1924 after emergency negotiations overseen by American banks resulted in a new stabilized currency, but for many people in Germany their experience of democracy thus far had been disastrous. It was in this context of economic instability and political dysfunction that an extreme right-wing fringe group from the southern German state of Bavaria, the National Socialist German Workers Party, began to attract attention.

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