The Weimar Republic was established in Germany after World War I, following the end of the German Empire. This republic was faced with enormous challenges, such as political instability, hyperinflation, and a deep socio-economic crisis. In many ways, this instability allowed for the rise of both fascism and communism and paved the way for the Nazi regime. Discover how Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was inadvertently made possible by Germany’s first republic.
How Did the Weimar Republic Begin?
The Weimar Republic was formed during the last days of World War I. On the 9th of November (Germany’s famous Day of Destiny, or Schicksalstag) 1918, Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated the throne and fled to the Netherlands. On that day, the independent chancellor Maximillian, Prince of Baden, also abdicated and was succeeded by Friedrich Ebert. Ebert had been the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the largest party in Germany at the time, since 1913. Although Ebert was looking to establish a constitutional monarchy in Germany, his colleague Phillipp Scheidemann proclaimed democracy from the stairs of the Reichstag. Scheidemann did this without authorization from his superiors or Ebert in response to the growing strength of the communist movement.
The communist movement in Germany grew significantly over the war period, partly because of the war itself. Within the SPD, there was a faction that disagreed with the war, seeing it as an imperialist enterprise. This faction also believed, contrarily to the SPD, in the need for revolutionary methods to achieve better living conditions. This led to a split between this faction and the SPD, from which the Spartacus League resulted.
It was under these circumstances that, on the 9th of November in Berlin, Karl Liebknecht, co-leader of the Spartacus League, proclaimed a communist republic, which was directly opposed to Scheidemann’s and Ebert’s government. However, because they quickly sided with the army, Ebert and the SPD had the upper hand in this conflict and, in the following winter of 1918-1919, crushed the communist revolution. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, leaders of the newly formed KPD (Communist Party of Germany), were murdered by a paramilitary militia, the Freikorps, in January 1919.
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The violent repression of the communist movement led to a very early and stark division between the main left-wing parties, the SPD and the KPD. This significant fragmentation on the left may have helped the rise of fascism and right-wing extremism. After 1919, the KPD became increasingly extremist, going beyond what Liebknecht and Luxembourg had envisioned. The left was, then, significantly fragmented and weakened, as well as incapable of coming together to stop the rise of fascism, as happened in other European countries.
In February 1919, the national assembly met in Weimar, and Ebert was elected president of the newly formed republic. It wasn’t until August that the republic properly began, after the promulgation of the Weimar Constitution. This constitution conferred the president considerable power, a factor that would later play a role in Hitler’s rise to power.
The Treaty of Versailles & Its Consequences For the Weimar Republic
World War I ended after Germany requested the armistice, and it was signed by both sides of the war on the 11th of November 1918. However, it wasn’t until June 28 of the following year that the Treaty of Versailles was signed, establishing the demands of Germany’s surrender. In this treaty, Germany was formally and fully accused of having caused the war, being recognized as the sole responsible for this devastating event. The Allied powers demanded that Germany pay extremely heavy financial reparations, which overwhelmed its already destroyed economy. Germany also lost significant territory on the border with France and former eastern Prussia, as well as its overseas colonies. Lastly, and very importantly, Germany was forced to fully dismantle its army and was forbidden to enter the recently created League of Nations.
The Treaty of Versailles not only imposed extremely heavy penalties for Germany, but it also meant a total humiliation of the defeated country. After going into the war to prove itself as a European superpower, it left humiliated and devastated. This treaty was regarded as unfair and overly punishing in Germany and would later be used in Nazi propaganda. Adolf Hitler and his party perpetuated the infamous “Stab-in-the-back-myth,” according to which the Weimar Republic, namely the left-wing parties, was at fault for having accepted the treaty’s conditions. According to this narrative, the Weimar government had betrayed its people by accepting the humiliating conditions proposed in this treaty.
Economic Crisis & Hyperinflation (1919-1923)
The first years following the end of World War I in Germany were particularly tempestuous. During the war, Germany had suspended the convertibility of the Mark into gold and borrowed extensively to fund the war. Now, it was due to pay extremely heavy financial reparations over the following years. These factors played a significant role in an economic phenomenon known as hyperinflation, to which Germany quickly fell victim.
Stefan Zweig, a prominent Austrian writer who died in 1942, describes hyperinflation thus:
“[…] A pair of shoelaces cost more than a shoe had once cost; no, more than a fashionable shoe store with two thousand pairs of shoes had cost before; to repair a broken window cost more than the whole house had formerly cost, a book more than the printer’s shop with a hundred presses.”
(Stefan Zweig on the 1923 hyperinflation, via Alpha History)
Many Germans who had worked their entire life saw their life savings quickly disappear and become worthless as the value of the Mark deteriorated without any control. The salary one received was worthless by the end of the week.
These years also brought increasing political instability. The SPD no longer comfortably held a majority, being closely followed by the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party), another left-wing party, and the DNVP (German National People’s Party), the predecessor of the Nazi Party. In 1923, communists attempted a revolution in Hamburg, which became known as the Hamburg Uprising, and was quickly put to an end by the government.
On the 9th of November 1923, Adolf Hitler attempted his first rise to power, which became known as Hitlerputsch, or Beer Hall Putsch. Over the 8th and 9th of November, Hitler and the Nazi Party, then a small, far-right group, began marching from the Beer Hall in Munich to Berlin in order to overthrow the Republic. The law enforcement authorities in Munich quickly put an end to this march and arrested Hitler. The case never made it to the Supreme Reich Court, as it should have, but was tried in the People’s Court. Hitler received a small sentence of five years, of which he only completed nine months. During this time, Hitler wrote most of Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), which would later become the Bible of the Nazi Party. The outcome of the failed revolution convinced Hitler to gain power by legal means instead of revolution.
The Roaring Twenties In Germany (1924-1928)
Despite its turbulence, the Weimar Republic also went through relatively stable periods. In late 1923, hyperinflation was controlled by introducing a new currency, the Rentenmark, which circulated in very limited quantities. From 1924 to 1928, Germany was governed by coalitions around the three center parties. Nevertheless, these years saw an increase in the votes of both the NSPAD (Nazi Party) and the KPD.
During these years, Germany experienced its own “Roaring Twenties,” a period of urban life and cultural change. Berlin became a city known for its vibrant nightlife and artistic production. Germany’s most famous expressionist cinema was produced during the Weimar Republic, including masterpieces like Metropolis and Nosferatu.
The Great Depression
The years of relative stability in Germany were quickly over because of the Great Depression. Germany was largely dependent on foreign help from the Dawes Plan. Now that the USA could no longer financially aid the Weimar Republic, inflation, unemployment, and poverty skyrocketed. Again, people lost their life savings and jobs. The government, a coalition led by Herman Müller of the SPD, resigned due to internal differences.
Heinrich Brüning of the Center Party led the government that followed, who quickly evoked his president’s emergency powers to pass a budget and avoid parliamentary debate. The use of the president’s emergency powers to overrule the parliament was controversial but an attempt to accelerate the response to the economic crisis. These powers would also be evoked by Hitler only four years later and used to dissolve the parliament.
The 1930 election had disastrous results for the Republic’s future. The NSDAP, led by Adolf Hitler, rose from only 2.6% to 18.3%, gaining 95 new parliamentary seats. The KPD also grew in popularity, receiving 23 new parliamentary seats. Because of the KPD’s strong disagreement and unwillingness to cooperate with the SPD, the left was unable to unite to stop the rise of fascism in Germany. Brüning of the Center Party was only kept in power by a coalition with the SPD, which allowed him to hold a meager margin.
The economic, social, and political instability plaguing the Weimar Republic only increased over the following few years. In 1931, unemployment affected 4.3 million Germans; in 1932, that number had reached 6 million, around ¼ of the adult population. Communist riots and Nazi brownshirts, later called SA, terrorized entire cities and tried to influence the elections.
Adolf Hitler’s Machtergreifung
In 1932, federal elections were again held, and, for the first time, the Nazi Party was victorious, jumping from 18.3% to 37.3%. After some internal dispute regarding how to constitute a new government, Hitler became chancellor on the 30th of January 1933. He governed in a coalition with the Center Party. The path was set for Hitler’s rise from chancellor to dictator.
As chancellor, Hitler asked the president to dissolve the parliament and hold new parliamentary elections. Hindenburg, the 84-year-old president, obliged, and new elections were held for the 5th of March 1933. Six days before the election, the infamous Reichstagsbrand, or Reichstag fire, took place. This incident played a large role in Hitler’s rise to power.
Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were extremely quick to pin the blame for the fire on the communists. Advised by Hitler, president Hindenburg passed the Reichstag Fire Decree, which allowed for the arrest of over 10,000 communists, namely the party leaders. Elections were still held on the 5th of March.
Voters were terrorized by the armed Nazi militias, the SS and the SA, and the NSPAD received a total of 43.9% of the votes. After arresting all communist deputies and siding with other right-wing parties, the Nazis passed the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act, passed on the 23rd of March 1933, marked the beginning of the Third Reich. This act allowed the chancellor to enact and enforce laws without the parliament or the president. Hitler’s dictatorship began, and all political enemies were arrested and sent to the first concentration camps.
The Weimar Republic: The Perfect Storm
The Weimar Republic was faced with the difficult task of warding off fascism and extremism, which was on the rise in Europe during the post-war period. Because of the constant crisis of both economic and political nature, Germany’s first democracy was never adequately established. It was subject to internal turbulence and conflict, which inadvertently gave way to Hitler’s infamous rise to power.
Several political, social, and economic weaknesses of the Weimar Republic gave way to Hitler’s rise to power. Right at the beginning of the Republic, the first was the distancing between the SPD and the KPD after the assassination of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht. Without the communists, the socialists were unable to keep their majority and ward off the Nazis.
The Weimar Constitution also presented certain weaknesses. The article that played the most significant role in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power was the presidential power to rule by presidential decrees. This allowed the Reichstag Fire Decree to be passed and inspired the Enabling Act.
The Treaty of Versailles was also a central weak point in the Weimar Republic. It put an already destroyed Germany in extreme financial strain and heightened both the 1923 and the 1929 crises. Its humiliating conditions also fueled Nazi propaganda and German revolt against the SPD.
Lastly, the German discontentment and disillusion in their first democratic government made many, understandably, wish for something better. Hitler promised to end the crisis and drastically reduce unemployment, as well as to turn Germany into a European superpower. The German wish to lead a life without poverty, combined with the desire for revenge against the Allied powers, also played an essential role in democratically electing Hitler.