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The Culture of Decline in Weimar Germany
The culture of 1920s Germany was shaped by the experiences of WWI and its aftermath, including the peace negotiations, influenza, and hyper-inflation. These experiences, however, were processed very differently depending on one's political, social, and cultural point of view.
With millions of Germans killed and wounded, evidence of the war’s destruction and its pointlessness seemed everywhere to people on the political left. Increasingly, socialists and communists saw the war as an enormous scam instituted by the elite class against common German citizens. The “people” suffered, socialists and communists argued, while industrialists made huge profits and military and political leaders indulged their wildly idealized visions of world economic and political domination. This view caused a significant part of the Germany population to reject the status quo. Those who had been against the war from the beginning, namely the communist party, all of a sudden seemed like the most trustworthy advocates for the rights of the common man. The German Communist Party rejected the new democratic order and sharply criticized socialists who worked within it. A potential left wing challenge to the Weimar government was always present. Such challenges had been made in the first days of the republic’s life. In Berlin, communists organized around the Spartacus League attempted to establish an independent socialist polity. The socialist-led Weimar government, as discussed previously in the context of Rosa Luxemburg, turned to units of disbanded military under the command of former generals to violently put down the communist threat. These Freikorps soldiers would later play a key role in the toppling of the republic.
The threat to the governing “center” of the Weimar Republic would not have been cause for much concern had the German people, primarily the German middle and working classes, remained loyal to the government. That they didn’t is one of the most discussed historical issues of twentieth century history. Why didn’t the German middle classes choose democracy over authoritarianism? For what reasons did they choose war over international cooperation and peace? Why did they eventually sacrifice everything to wage a brutal and total war against their neighbors and the world?
The first part of the answer is economic. The hyperinflation of the early 1920s wiped out the savings of most of the German middle class. Economic security, normally a restraint against radicalism, vanished in the aftermath of the war. Second, the war and the resulting peace caused deep national humiliation. The middle and working classes had most identified with the German war effort. Loss on the battlefield was a sever blow to the collective German identity. Third, the Weimar government itself was running into major problems, first and foremost living up to its social promises. Though the German economy was growing, it was not growing quickly enough to make good on government promises. Both the right and the left felt like the government was increasingly distant from its goals. Gradually, more people drifted from the political center. Finally, there was a sense in Germany that, in general, the world was in crisis, that things were not going well, that the long years of German progress were coming to an end, or had already ended. Modernity, according to this German view, with its assembly lines and cities and American culture, with its French notions of civilization and its "Jewish" world finance, was ruining what had made the “West” great. This view, that western civilization had reached its zenith and had now begun a long and slow (but basically irreversible) decline, was famously advanced by the historian Oswald Spengler.
Spengler, a world historian, advanced this provocative and (for Germans) terrifying thesis of Western decline in two volumes, one published in 1918 and the next in 1922, both during the heart of German travails. Spengler became an instant hit in Germany, the book selling over 100,000 copies by mid-decade. Modern civilization based on capitalism and democracy, he argued, was in decline. Democracy, according to Spengler, was a weak and corrupt form of government. Capitalism was the opposite of all that was vital amount the people, especially since it divided a people into a social class and stoked class-based antagonism.Others took up Spengler's diagnosis of society and looked for a path toward rejuvenation. Young Adolf Hitler gravitated immediately to Spengler’s pessimistic notions, and Hitler posed a national-socialist-authoritarian answer to the dilemma of civilization’s decline. This response to the issue of Western or German or civilizational or cultural decline became the core appeal of Nazism. On the other side of the political spectrum, communists looked east to the Bolsheviks for a model of how to pull Germany (and the rest of the industrial world) out of the mire.
Germans on the right become increasingly nationalist, racist, and militant. Germans on the left became increasingly Bolshevized, meaning that they were ready to support a minority, vanguard party in an overthrow of the state. Increasingly, these became the two main ways for Germans to imagine a way out of the cultural, political, and economic morass. Gradually, year by year, the room in the center of the German political landscape got smaller. Fringe parties garnered larger percentages of the vote and seats in parliament. The nature of coalition politics in the German Reichstag meant that the centrist parties could no longer govern without support from the fringe.
By 1929, however, the fate of the Weimar Republic was not yet sealed. True, it had lost the support of large fractions to the right and left. True, it did not have control over the German military, which was increasingly hostile to the republic by the late 1920s. True, a huge reservoir of popular anxiety existed in the industrial towns and cities and throughout the increasingly strained agricultural sector. True, Bolshevik politics in Russia were creating hope among German communists and incredible fear among the German elite and rural and middle classes. True, anti-Semitism was increasing in massive proportions. True, the German economy was very fragile. And yet, had it not been for the Great Crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression, it is unclear whether the Nazi Party would have succeeded in channeling these different fears and insecurities into a single movement. What we can say for sure is that the polarizing politics of the 1920s left the playing field virtually empty of a serious competitor from the center, one that could have offered a convincing and viable alternative in the atmosphere of the Great Depression. Only the communists were able to put up resistance to the rise of the radical right to power in 1933. Hitler’s first act was to purge them.