Did The Weimar Republic Collapse Or Was It Destroyed?
The failure of a young democracy in the inter-war period was not an uncommon event: authoritarian governments in varying forms had been spreading across Europe for many years before 1939, and Germany was only one of the places where this happened. However, the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany has been studied far more than any of the authoritarian revolutions of the 1920s and 1930s. The main reason for this is of course the system which replaced the Weimar Republic - the Third Reich, with all the terrible consequences this was to have for the world. Nazism was so dreadful, so far removed from normal political activity in a country so advanced and modern as twentieth century Germany, that all aspects of its history have always inspired a great fascination, albeit sometimes a morbid one. There is however a more important aspect of the study of the end of the Weimar Republic. The Weimar constitution was a very modern one, perhaps even more so than its contemporary counterparts in Britain and France. It is also very similar to modern day systems, not least to the currant system of Democracy in Germany. Therefore, the reasons why it was replaced by a totalitarian fascist regime are very important for democracy today, so mistakes made in the Weimar period may not be repeated.
There have been many different explanations for why democracy in Germany ended in the early 1930s. Some have claimed that the Nazi influence was pivotal in destroying democracy and that they usurped power on their own initiative. Other arguments stress the economic chaos that had done so much damage to the German government that the people lost confidence in democracy itself, leaving the path open to the Nazis to seize control. Blame can also be apportioned to groups win the German state opposed to democracy, who conspired to bring about an authoritarian regime and so helped the Nazis to power. Obviously the real reasons for the Nazi seizure of power must be a mixture of a these possibilities.
One of the most widely acknowledged reasons for the failure of the Weimar system was the economic crisis known as the Great Depression, which gripped the world economy from the start of the 1930s. The economy of the Weimar Republic had never been very strong, even in the period of ‘stabilisation’ in the late 1920s. Unemployment had remained high throughout the 1920s, never recovering fully from the war, but the catastrophic increase in unemployment from 1929 was to have devastating effects on the credibility of German democracy. The total of the unemployed reached a peak of 6 million, a third of the total workforce. Industry was very hard hit, with a fall in production of 39% and the bankruptcy of many industrial and agricultural concerns. What this meant was a general crisis of confidence in democracy. Business blamed the Republican system for the crisis and the huge unemployment meant the Trade Unions and Socialist parties, groups which usually supported the Republic, were considerably weakened. Class conflict increased and so support for the Communists, a very anti-democratic group, grew rapidly. The young were especially badly hit by the depression - about 20% of the unemployed were school leavers. This fact was to damage democracy in Germany as well - the youth of the country made up many of the most enthusiastic and active members of the anti-democratic movements in Weimar Germany.
The reasons for the general weakness of the Weimar economy must be linked to the debts and reparations left from the war which she had to cope with, but the governments of the time must bear some responsibility for poor handling of the economic situation. Post war governments allowed inflation to increase because this reduced the real value of reparations and artificially inflated the economy, increasing their constantly marginal authority and popularity. However, the failure to stabilise the currency by using more harsh but sensible economic policy meant the economy remained fragile and had no basis on which to rest during the Great Depression. The ‘hyperinflation’ of 1923 wiped out savings and investments in Germany, meaning she had to rely on foreign loans to support investment, again a factor in the severity of the economic crisis from 1929. Inflation not only weakened democracy in Germany by damaging the economy, it also hit the middle classes hard because this group had the most of their wealth in savings accounts. This group should have been the most loyal to the Republic, but many blamed it for the inflation, and indeed once the Nazi Party gained mass support from 1930 the middle class were amongst its main supporters.
The Weimar Republic also had flaws from its very inception which would act against it in a crisis. It had enemies from the time of the first government - the Communists were an ever-present force, and the powerful DNVP was pro-monarchist. Crucially, many personnel in the civil service, armed forces and industry remained from the wartime and Imperial periods, and such people were to cause great problems to the Republic, as they had no loyalty to it. For example, the army refused to attack the right-wing Kapp Putsch soon after the start of the Republic, and the uprising was only defeated by a General Strike.
The army was however more than willing to defend the country against revolts from the left, defeating the Sparticist uprising at about the same time. Therefore a combination of the organised working class and the army meant the Republic survived the turbulent times of the early 1920s. Later on however this was not to be the case. In the 1930s both groups were considerably less likely to fight for the Republic. The influence of the army in government increased under the Presidential regimes and ideas of authoritarian government began to dominate. The working class were weakened both by divisions between the Communist KPD and Socialist SPD and also by the unemployment which considerably decreased their influence through the trade unions. Also, by the 1930s the SPD had become used to working within the system, having been the largest party for many years. It was then not willing to take up arms against the government, backed by the army, and risk a civil war when the government began to act undemocratically from 1930. However, although it would work against the government, it was also reluctant to work within it - the SPD preferred to stay in opposition as it usually suffered blame for the failings of Weimar when in power.
Therefore, the Weimar Republic faced a desperate economic situation in 1929 which was made worse by a fragile economic base and which cut away the very heart of support for democracy in Germany. Those who voted in Nazis and Communists in such unprecedented numbers in the 1930 election did not do so because of, for example, anti-Semitism or a respect for the Stalinist revolution in Russia, but rather they voted against the Weimar Republic because of its economic failure.
In addition to this, democracy had to contend with many within who did not want a democratic system. Some, especially Communist historians, have seen the take-over of fascism as an inevitable outcome of Capitalism. According to this theory industry turns to fascism as the only way of avoiding a working class revolution while still cutting wages to maintain profitability despite overproduction in the economy. However, this interpretation does not hold up to examination. Business in Germany did give the Nazis and other very right wing groups some support. However, this support came mainly from the traditional ‘heavy’ industries who preferred the protectionist policies and attacks on trade unions which they saw an authoritarian government as being in favour of. Yet much of Germany’s industry was export-based and so feared the loss of international standing an extremist government could produce, therefore preferring Conservatives to the Nazis. Industry also became wary of the Nazis because they feared it could bring social disorder, indicated by the street-fighting activities of the SA.
More serious for the Weimar Republic were the officials within it who were willing to assist revolutionaries. When Hitler’s attempt at revolution failed in his 1924 trial was more of a propaganda coup for the Nazis than a humiliation. The judges showed they thought more of the failed revolutionaries than the lawful constitution they were supposed to uphold. Not only was Hitler allowed to forcefully spell out his ideas in the trial and portray himself as a hero, but this was nationally reported for the whole of the trial in newspapers. He was given the lowest possible sentence, 5 years imprisonment, which was intended from the start to be cut short by a pardon. His prison conditions were also far better than more left-wing revolutionaries.Many have criticised the founders of the Republic for not going further in the revolution, removing such men from their positions of influence. However, they were constrained by the need for experienced administrators, and by a need to keep the support of the ‘elites’ to help prevent a left-wing revolution.
It was not only its armed forces and judicial system that the Weimar Republic had reason to doubt the loyalty of - there were also enemies of democracy in the ranks of its leading politicians, and this was in the 1930s to prove crucial. The Weimar Republic was able to use the people to defend against right wing revolution, and was able to use legal means to gag the Nazi party in the years after their failed revolt, but by 1930 there were politicians at the highest ranks of government who had little reason to try to save democracy in the economic depression, themselves favouring a very different regime, though perhaps not one involving the Nazi Party. The election of Hindenburg in particular had been a disaster for German democracy. He may have felt bound by his oath but was not adverse to over-using his presidential powers, and in the confusion and division of the Great Depression from 1930 he was able to do this very easily.Importantly, he was greatly influenced by his advisers, who tended to be from the aristocracy or the army, neither of whom had any love for the Republic. He used his power to keep the Socialists from government, despite their popularity, and maintain Chancellors who had neither support from the electorate nor the Parliament.
The most notable Chancellor maintained by Hindenburg in this way was Brüning. He was Chancellor from 1930-32 and so had to cope with the economic crisis as it began. Many saw him as a last chance for democracy as he tried to keep the currency stable, avoid inflation, and maintain Germany’s international position. He pursued orthodox economic policies and helped negotiate what became the effective end of reparations. He had no majority in the Reichstag, but as the Nazis and KPD had so many seats this would have been almost impossible anyway. However, more recent research, especially of his memoirs, has revealed very different aims than those formerly attributed to him. It appears he wanted some form of a restoration of the monarchy, with a government removed from the control of parties and Parliament. To achieve this he was prepared to use the support of anti-democratic parties and bypass the constitution. Later another chancellor, von Schleicher, was planning to utilise Nazi support to hold up a more authoritarian right wing government. To encourage the Nazis to support the plan, he ended the ban on the SA imposed by Brüning (leading to an explosion of political violence) and used Presidential decree to dissolve the Prussian Parliament. This was a democratic institution which had managed to hold together a Socialist coalition for many years. The move against it was totally unjustified, a blatant attack on democracy by the leaders of the Republic, and something the Nazis and Communists were greatly in favour of, although the Nazis were still unwilling to co-operate. With leaders such as von Schleicher, Hindenburg and von Papen, who were willing to work against the interests of democracy to pursue their own plans, the Republic had little chance to survive the crisis and enemies of the 1930s.
There is one factor often understated in discussions on the end of the Weimar Republic - the Nazi Party. As a party of profession revolutionaries, working for the overthrow of the Republic they had a great role in its decline. Their support, growing in the Reichstag had the effect of poisoning the stability of the Weimar Republic, and they used some very shrewd techniques to acquire popularity remove support from democracy. Hitler had used the time of relative stability in Weimar in the late 1920s to build an effective political machine which was to take the party to power. In this period the Nazis received very few votes. However, they did have advantages, as their membership was far younger than many of the other parties, and was apparently classless. It was also not associated with either the Republic or the Monarchy, both of which were discredited, or with a foreign government, as the Communists were once they joined the 3rd International.
In 1930, they broke through their electoral barriers, winning support from all over the country and becoming at a stroke the second biggest party in the Reichstag. This is usually attributed to the economic crisis, but the Nazis also went into the election with a new programme which concentrated on winning the support of the farming community and the middle classes, groups who were especially hard hit by the depression. The Nazis told the farmers what they wanted to hear - that they were a valuable group which should be protected from the rigours of the market, and similarly told the middle classes that they would protect small businesses. The crisis had obviously still helped them - many new voters turned out to support their radical policies, finally disillusioned with Weimar. Later, in the 1932 Presidential Election, the Nazis ran an excellent campaign, transporting many of their supporters around the country for demonstrations and marches, organising rallies and speeches. None of their opponents could match this kind of organisation and Hitler captured an amazing 13 million votes, putting him in second place and forcing the election to a second ballot.
Once Hitler was in the position of chancellor, he exploited his position expertly. Initially greatly outnumbered in the cabinet he persuaded his colleagues to call an election, then appointed Göring as Minister of the Interior in Prussia. Göring appointed 50,000 "auxiliary police" (mostly SA) to control the election and ensure a massive vote. Hitler then used a fire at the Reichstag to declare a state of emergency and suspend civil rights. Therefore, the Nazis manufactured a good deal of their success themselves - Hitler may have been helped to power by the leaders of the Weimar Republic but once he became Chancellor he very carefully established the dictatorial regime which was within months to destroy all of his competitors, as well as democracy, in Germany. That he was able to do this was however more a matter of luck for the Nazis than skill. The election of 1930 had ended the possibility of democratic government in Germany and so power defaulted to President Hindenburg and those he favoured. People in business, the military and the bureaucracy held the balance of power in Germany and these groups were marked by a lack of support for democratic government.
Obviously the Weimar Republic had been greatly weakened by the economic crisis and the instability that this created. However, it had experienced similar crises in the 1920s and yet democracy had endured. By surviving attempts at revolution it had shown itself to be a stronger system than, for example, Italy in the early 1920s. This showed that it was possible for the Weimar Republic to maintain itself through economic and political instability, and so it did not follow inevitably that the Great Depression from 1929 would end democracy. After all, the Depression was a world-wide phenomenon and did not cause totalitarian regimes to come to power in other countries. Therefore, a key factor in the 1930s tipping this balance in favour of authoritarianism must have been the Nazi party. They were very unified and were the first anti-democratic group to win support on this scale. However, though they did much to end democracy, they could not have done this without the help of the traditional elites of Germany. Nazi support had started to decline months before they came to power, and the economic crisis that had caused so much of their support was ending. This was perhaps the greatest fear of the elites - they wanted an authoritarian government and they feared Nazi support would drain away to the Weimar parties or the KPD, ending the possibility of reducing democracy. The Nazis were also the only group who could provide politicians such as von Schleicher with the mass support a new regime needed. Though they had no wish to allow a Nazi regime and turned to them in desperation, through a lack of alternatives, they felt they could control the Nazis and harness their popular backing. Therefore the Weimar Republic was destroyed by its leaders, but these were unable to control the Nazis, who quickly seized power and established their own dictatorship.
Richard Bessel, "Why Did The Weimar Republic Collapse?" Debates in Modern History - Weimar: Why did German Democracy Fail? Edited by Ian Kershaw
E. Kolb, The Weimar Republic, Unwin Hyman, 1988.
Martyn Housden, ‘The Subversion of Weimar’, Modern History Review, February 1993.
Ian Kershaw (ed.), Debates in Modern History - Weimar: Why did German Democracy Fail? Weidenfeld and Nicolson,1990
A. J. Nicholls, Weimar and the Rise of Hitler, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1977