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The Weimar Republic: Germany's Unstable Democracy
In Germany, nationalism played a key role in people’s identities and in national politics since the state’s unification in 1871, and even well before. Germans increasingly found themselves making comparisons between Germans and French, Germans and Slavs, and between Germans and Jews, with the Germans, of course, always higher in the racial/ethnic hierarchy. With its loss in WWI, German nationalism took a radical turn. Germany, unlike the other countries we have been discussing, emerged from the Paris Peace negotiations a shrunken country. It had lost chunks of territory to Poland and France as well as additional slivers to Belgium and Denmark. It was cut into two pieces by the Polish Corridor. It lost all of its colonial possessions. Key resource-rich areas had been lopped off. Its army and navy were limited by the terms of the peace. While throughout Central Europe countries armed and attacked one another, Germany was systematically demilitarized and weakened. The victors in Paris refused to negotiate with the old imperial regime and demanded a democratic order in Germany. The result was perhaps predictable. While some Germans supported the new democratic order, many more rejected the new government and the terms of the peace. German nationalism increasingly became the rallying cry for the right wing. Standing for Germany meant standing against Paris, Poland, democracy, communism and Bolshevism, and Jews. Such nationalism would feed into notions that the German army during WWI had not been defeated at the front but had been "stabbed in the back" by defeatists at home. Worse, so the theory went, these defeatists (socialists, communists, democrats, Jews) were now in power in the newly elected government.The new Central Europe was comprised of ethnically defined and territorially insecure states. These states’ nationalism, reinforced by Wilson’s Fourteen Points, justified both outward hostility toward neighbors and inward oppression of ethnic minorities. The growing field of ethnic and racial science and eugenics threw fuel on the fire.
In the context of this heightened nationalism and competition between nations, democratic governing structures were difficult to maintain. Germany provides a good example of the radicalization of European politics in the 1920s. Germany lost the First World War on the battlefield, but never experienced foreign armies or fighting on its territory. As a result, the population was not psychologically prepared to accept unconditional surrender and the eventual terms of the peace imposed on it by the allies. These terms included Germany assuming full responsibility for starting the war (War Guilt Clause), huge reparation payments to the allies (primarily France) and countries like Belgium, major territorial loses, limitations to both its army and navy, and the demilitarization of borders. What’s more, the responsibility for signing the Versailles Treaty fell to a new democratic German government, the Weimar Republic, not to the military establishment or the former imperial regime. Added to this were many hardships. The German currency declined in value, wiping out billions of dollars of wealth. Vast agricultural destruction throughout Europe caused massive food shortages, especially among the defeated countries. A great influenza pandemic spread through Europe (Spanish Flu), taking millions of lives, especially of people already malnourished or weakened in some way by the war. Hundreds of thousands of German men returned home from war crippled, shell-shocked, unemployed, and/or still armed and loyal to their military units. It was in this highly unfavorable context that the Weimar Republic, Germany’s new democratic government, tried to take root and grow.
The Weimar Republic survived until 1933 for two principle reasons, both of which were also weaknesses. First, it was able to cut deals with conservative elites in the government administration and the military. Weimar politicians placated the right wing by giving the judiciary freedom to punish those on the left (communists and socialists) while allowing right wing criminals to escape judgment. We see this quite clearly in the government's reaction to the para-military coup in 1920, the so-called Kapp Putsch. The putsch failed when it encountered massive labor opposition (general strikes), but most of the leaders and major participants in the coup against Weimar democracy were let off without (or with minor) punishment. We can contrast this with the state's reaction to leftist rebellions (Spartacist Uprising, Red Ruhr Uprising) was forceful and brutal, and depended on the participation of the conservative military establishment (or paramilitary Freikorps).
During the Weimar Republic, the military was permitted to establish itself as a force beyond government control and in the hands of old military elites from the war. This freedom convinced the military not to move to topple the government, but it also meant that the government would not (and could not) limit the force of the military in domestic life. Full civilian control of the military, a fundamental principle of modern democracies, was absent in Weimar Germany.
The second survival mechanism/weakness was the Weimar government's ability to establish a fluctuating coalition of center-left to center-right parties that were willing (at least for a time) to work within the structures of constitutional framework. At first, these parties sought to distance themselves from the extreme positions on either side and to build coalitions that could govern. When times improved after the crushing inflation of the early 1920s, it seemed like this centrist politics might win out over the politics of the extremes, though it should be said that the spectrum, in general, was shifting to the right even as, by the mid-1920s, Germany was witnessing swift economic recovery.
And yet, below the level of electoral politics opposition was brewing on both the right and left. The communist party (on the left) and the nationalist parties (on the right) were growing increasingly more hostile to the government. On the left, the main complaints were that the government was acting as a shield for right-wing interests, that these interests were co-opting the state and using it to oppress the workers. On the right, the arguments were many: the state had become a pawn of the Jews; the state was in danger of undergoing a communist revolution; the state had sold out Germany to the allies; the state was doing nothing to prevent German humiliations either in the economic or the military sector. What’s more, the right wing saw traditional values under threat: families were changing (women working); cities were growing and becoming the home of foreigners and Jews; crime was on the rise; traditional German family businesses were being pushed out by Americanized industries and an international marketplace stacked in favor of other countries. German folk culture and values were seen as under siege by the French, Jews, Americans, Slavs, and Bolsheviks, in other words by the principle enemies of the German right. Throughout the 1920s, however, this movement remained relatively small. Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, during which the Nazis tried to seize power in Munich, failed miserably. Hitler was arrested and jailed. The Nazi movement appeared weak. It is important to remember that there were two different types of right-wing movements at work in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. The first was the more traditional right-wing, what we might call the imperial Wilhelmine right or conservative right. Here, we find old military, bureaucratic, and economic elites, those remaining from the Wilhelmine era and the war. In addition, we see the rise of what could be termed a "modern" right, a revolutionary nationalism that sought to mobilize the masses in new ways, through economic reforms, technological innovation, propaganda, racial fears, and visions of future nationalist glory.
What caused the governing coalition in the Weimar Republic to crumble? Why did Germany, experiencing steady recovery by 1926, fall to (or embrace) Nazism seven years later? Why did Germans overwhelmingly support this new type of radical racial nationalism? These are questions historians and critics have tried to answer since 1933, key questions for understanding the complicated interaction between culture and politics and the inherent fragility of all democratic political orders, including those of today. To keep things concise, I will emphasize two aspects, though one will be discussed more thoroughly in a subsequent chapter. The first was the global economic depression that began in 1929 and crippled the world economy, hitting Germany especially hard. The second aspect is more complicated and has to do with German culture and politics in the 1920s. During the late 1920s, Weimar Germany witnessed an erosion of the political center by the left and right wing fringes, but especially by forces on the right.
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 amounts of money and military and political leaders indulged their wildly idealized visions of world economic and political domination. This view caused a good 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 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 the 20th century. 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 a 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 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 after year the room in the center of German political shrank. Fridge 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 both the industrial towns and cities, and especially in 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. Hitler’s first act was to purge them.