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Why did the Weimar Republic Fail?

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Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Politics

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‘The Weimar Republic failed because the Germans lacked sufficient experience of democracy.’

Throughout the Weimar Republic’s short yet incredibly eventful lifespan, it has been described by many Germans as having ‘signally failed [the Reich] in its hour of need.’[1] With such strong words, it highlights the fragile nature of Germany’s first liberal democracy, stemming from its chaotic and tumultuous foundations in 1918, where it began life ‘in the most unfavourable conditions that could be imagined.’[2] The political instability of the Weimar Republic is illustrated by the electoral performance of anti-Weimar political parties throughout much of this period – particularly from 1929 onwards. Despite historians highlighting the ineffectiveness of establishing a parliamentary democracy ‘in a nation accustomed to authoritarian[ism]’[3], the Republic’s failure cannot simply be put down to German people lacking a sufficient and knowledge of democracy.’[4] There are in fact many explanations as to why the Weimar Republic failed, with several referring to the Germans lacking sufficient democratic experience. These include the fundamental flaws of Weimar democracy and its Constitution, a perceived ‘lack of legitimacy’ as well as the impact of the Great Depression. A further explanation must be the failure of the Weimar political parties to unite against the colossal threat of Nazism in the 1930s. There are undoubtedly widely conflicting accounts from across the historical spectrum as to why Weimar Germany failed.

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Arguably one of the most significant contributors as to why the Weimar Republic failed must be the economic and political consequences of the Great Depression. These repercussions would ultimately prove to be disastrous for the already strained German democracy. The decline in the German economy led to a radicalised mass electorate, as illustrated by the Reichstag electoral statistics from 1930 onwards. For example The SPD, viewed by many as the party that established Weimar democracy, saw their vote decline, from 29.8% in 1928, to merely 21.6% by July 1932.[5] In addition, despite only achieving 4% annual economic growth during the supposed ‘Golden Years’ of the Weimar Republic, these statics plummeted to a mere 0.1% throughout the Great Depression. This would ultimately contribute to the rise in unemployment rates, increasing from 8.5% in 1929 to a staggering 29.9% by 1932. These unemployment statistics wholly contradict the Constitution’s belief in ‘attaining humane [economic] conditions of existence for all.’[6] With the nation now crippled from the economic crisis, it is no surprise as to why there was a growth of political disdain amongst the German people. Even throughout the ‘Golden Years’, Weimar democracy never popular amongst the vast majority of the German public. Despite being unpopular, historians have argued that the Germans would ‘eventually have learned to tolerate the Republic if it had ever provided economic stability.’[7]15 Committed republicans were already a minority in 1929, and the Depression ensured that the ‘disenchantment with the parliamentary form of government’ became prevalent. Although the German economy of 1924-29 may have been stable, it was never and affluent economy, with it being dependent on foreign short-term credits.[8] With the Weimar Republic being so unstable, it ‘required only a relatively small push to bring down the whole structure.’[9] As the severity of the Depression set in, it coincided with the vast majority of the German population losing faith in the Weimar Republic. It was this absolute correlation between the economic turmoil of the Republic and the effectiveness of its political capabilities, which arguably hastened the collapse of Weimar.

With regards to the Great Depression, it is fair to suggest that Germany’s lack of sufficient experience of democracy is critical for the explanation as to why the Weimar republic failed. The severity of the Great Depression hugely affected several major Western democratic states. The difference with these Western states however, is that their democratic models were strong and stable, unlike the Weimar state. Britain and the United States, two long-term democratic states, also suffered from mass unemployment in this period (22.1% and 24.9% by 1932).[10] Additionally, the loss of national income by 1932, compared to 1929, was virtually identical in Germany and the United States (39% and 40%).[11] Despite both Britain and the US struggling economically as a result of the Depression, there was still ‘no serious challenge to the democratic state[s].’[12] For Kershaw, Weimar’s ‘roots of democracy were far shallower [than Britain and the USA]’, thus the Germans looked to change an unloved system which ‘they felt, less and less upheld their interests.’[13] Economic crisis in Germany was central to the disintegration of Weimar’s political culture. Having suffered three years of crippling depression, it had made Germany a far more intolerable society.  The principles and humane morals in which the Republic had been based upon were essentially totally eradicated by economic catastrophe. This can be seen via the reintroduction of the death penalty in the 1930s.’[14] Due to lacking a ‘sufficient experience’, the Germans longed for the democratic system to be completely swept away – a system, which from the outset, was ‘discredited in the eyes of a great majority of the population.’[15] For Evans, Germany’s new democratic order seemed doomed from its outset –  yet the Depression simply ‘pushed it beyond the point of no return.’[16]

It must be noted that throughout Weimar’s short but turbulent lifespan, there was a universal lack of faith in its democratic state. This ‘lack of legitimacy’ can be seen through the Weimar Republic’s three leading political parties – the SPD, the DDP and the Centre Party. Combined, these parties collectively obtained 76.1% of the vote in January 1919, but sharply dropping to 43.6% in June 1920, 39.6% in May 1924 and 40.1% by September 1930.[17]30 it can therefore be concluded that from 1920 onwards, those in support of democracy in the Reichstag were in a permanent minority – ‘outnumbered by deputies whose allegiance lay with the Republic’s enemies to the right and to the left.’[18]31 The Reichstag results in May 1924 enunciates that, the Republic was not even supported by the majority of the German electorate in its ‘Golden Years.’ Although the Weimar state was able to survive a number of coups and general unrest during its early years of 1918-1923, its perceived ‘lack of legitimacy’ endured. German citizens had the widespread opinion ‘that [the] Allied claims [to reparations] were completely unjust.’[19]32 For many Germans, ‘democracy’ soon became associated with national humiliation, betrayal and, increasingly economic ruin.[20] Hitler, who expressed his opinion with the ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth in Mein Kampf, only goes to emphasise the belief  of political betrayal being linked to the foundations of democracy: ‘Did all this happen only so a gang of wretched criminals could lay hands on the Fatherland […] Miserable and degenerate criminals!’[21]From this, it suggests that it was not the Germans lacking a sufficient experience of democracy that led to the Republic’s failure. It was instead the perception that the Weimar state continuously suffered, from its untraditional foundations, a ‘lack of legitimacy’. This ‘lack of legitimacy’ would arguably cause the German people to ‘all too readily look at other political solutions for Germany’s ills.’[22]

Despite being widely unpopular amongst German citizens, it was the flawed aspects of Weimar democracy, stemming from its Constitution, which heavily contributed to the eventual collapse of the Weimar Republic. It was not the Germans having ‘lacking a sufficient experience of democracy’ – but the Constitution’s form of democracy being ineffectual in ensuring the Republic’s survival. Article 22 stated that members of the Reichstag were to be elected according to ‘the principle of proportional representation.’[23] Proportional representation ensured that Weimar-supporting parties from 1920 onwards were in a permanent minority. It can therefore be said the huge number of parties produced by this system was ‘the main reason for […] governmental instability.’[24] Interestingly, Hitler’s cabinet in January 1933 was the twenty-first cabinet since Philipp Scheidemann’s fourteen years earlier – emphasising the fragility and impracticality of the Weimar system. Despite Evans asserting that ‘proportional representation did not […] facilitate the rise of the extreme right’48, it certainly meant that no landslide majorities could be formed in the Reichstag.[25] A Central Party politician, Eugen Bolz, criticised the German parliament’s ineffectuality in 1930; ‘Parliament cannot solve severe domestic political problems. If a dictator […] were a possibility – I would want it.’[26] Hanson goes on to highlight that the Great Depression alone did not cause the deterioration of the Republic, but the economic crisis interacted with the ‘political landscape generated by the Weimar multi-party stalemate’, thus causing disastrous repercussions for democracy in the Weimar Republic.[27]Furthermore, Article 118, guaranteeing every German ‘the right to express his opinion freely by word’, was crucially exploited by democracy’s enemies, the KPD and NSDAP, for their own ends to devastating effect by the 1930s. These two politically extreme parties were able to strike attacks on the political and social foundations of the Weimar democracy. These attacks proved to be a crucial factor in the anti-Weimar parties increasing vote share in the 1930s –‘We [the NSDAP] will overcome democracy.’[28]The Nazis knew that the Republic faced the impossible dilemma of either ‘yielding to [their threat] or violating their own principles.’[29]  Joseph Goebbels retrospectively ridiculed Weimar’s impractical political culture: ‘[this] will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes […] it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed.’[30]

Furthermore, a key factor that contributed to the downfall of the Weimar Germany must be its own ‘inflammatory’ response to the Great Depression. This can be emphasised further by Kershaw who highlights this issue as ‘the first unnecessary step on the suicidal road of the Weimar Republic.’[31]With Germany struggling to maintain its reparation requirements, from 1930 onwards, Heinrich Brüning was willing to ‘contemplate years of mass unemployment and the impoverishment of large sections of the population’ via his harsh and brutal economic strategy.[32] The Brüning administration, which took office in March 1930, hugely underestimated the reaction that an administration of this magnitude would create. Unsurprisingly, this administration caused huge unrest amongst the electorate, whom were now subject to these measures. These policies included decreasing government expenditure on public works by 60% in 1932, and a 10-12% decrease in unemployment compensation.[33] These changes in policies inevitably drove voters further away from the mainstream parties to the extremes of both left and right. This is demonstrated above by the increased share of the vote for antiWeimar parties – particularly the KPD and NSDAP from the 1930 election onwards. Historians conclude that Weimar Germany failed because too many Germans had become alienated from its apparatus at this stage. Scholars such as Borchardt argue that a Keynesian policy of ‘pump priming’, rather than Brüning’s deflationary course, ‘might have helped to win greater social support for the Weimar Republic’ – thus possibly save it.[34] Due to Brüning’s ‘overreliance’ on Article 48, Reibnitz cites German parliamentarianism as having been succeeded by an ‘authoritarian democracy’ by this stage. [35]Brüning became the symbolic hate-figure of Weimar, with his chancellorship deeply alienating the German public. This in turn contributed to further decay and ultimate failure of democracy. Rather than the Germans lacking a ‘sufficient experience of democracy’, it is fair to suggest that Brüning’s actions, in undermining parliamentary democracy and ideologically pursuing unpopular measures, as central to the Republic failing.

Interestingly, a significant proportion of historiography highlight the broad application, overuse and manipulation of Article 48 – the ‘dictatorship paragraph’ – as key to the failure of the Weimar Republic. It ‘fatefully left [out] intended safeguards’ to prevent the abuse of its power.[36]63 Article 48 broadly stated that should ‘public order and security [be] seriously disturbed or endangered’, the Reichspräsident may ‘take [any] measures necessary for their restoration.’[37] When Friedrich Ebert repeatedly invoked Article 48 to deal with hyperinflation (1923) and the Ruhr Crisis (1923-25), he used it exactly how it was intended to be used – ‘to defend the republic and the German people.’[38]On the other hand, President Hindenburg, who had mixed attitudes towards democracy, exercised Article 48 to ‘circumvent the Reichstag and revive the political culture of the imperial elite.’[39] 66 Bypassing parliamentary democracy began, with Brüning’s government from 1930 onwards, but by the time of Franz von Papen’s Chancellorship, the ‘authoritarian democracy’ had evolved into ‘the authoritarian presidential government.’67 Presidential decrees numbered 5 in 1930, 44 in 1931 and 66 by 1932. Laws passed by the Reichstag decreased from 98 (1930) to 5 (1932).From this aspect, Weimar democracy did not fail due to the Germans ‘lacking a sufficient experience’ of it. The political authority of the Republic at this stage was not even ‘emanat[ing] from the people’, but from a ‘small cabal of politicians […] surrounding Hindenburg’, whom successfully undermined Weimar democracy, and convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor in January 1933.[40] Due to the broadness of Article 48, the Nazis were later able to violate the very spirit of the Constitution with the Enabling Act (1933). Historiography is therefore justified in citing several laws in the well-intentioned Constitution, as ‘facilitating the subsequent collapse of [Weimar] democracy.’[41]

In addition, a crucial short-term factor for the Weimar Republic’s failure must be the inability of intensely ideological political parties to work coercively together, thus electorally blocking the NSDAP. This can be seen via the the SPD and the KPD, who between them collectively gained 37.3% of the electoral vote in November 1932  – compared to only 33.1% for the NSDAP.[42] Despite Centre Party chairman Ludwig Kaas stating in the same month that ‘the left could unify at any time’ and form the next government.[43] Yet unsurprisingly, due to political differences this never materialised into the next government. Moreover, the SPD continued to compete aggressively with the KPD, whilst the KPD ‘never forgave moderate Social Democrats for their use of [repressive] force’ during the Spartacist Uprising (1919).[44] The political left therefore ‘had a role in the destruction of the Republic’, due to their blunt refusal to collaborate with each other, especially the KPD, who ‘welcomed [the Republic’s] going.’ Additionally, had the SPD, KPD, DDP, Centre and DVP formed a coalition after July 1932, they would have had 310 seats over the NSDAP and DNVP’s 247.[45] It should be noted however that the Weimar parties, throughout the Republic’s lifetime, relied on narrow sectional interests for support – on class, religion and region. Political, cultural and social fragmentations amongst the parties made it virtually impossible for any strong, non-Nazi coalition government to be formed in the Reichstag.

 Overall, the Germans ‘lacking a sufficient experience of democracy’ is relevant from several aspects in explaining why the Weimar Republic failed. However this should not be viewed as a primary factor as to why the Weimar eventually collapsed. The fatal issue with the argument is that like the Sonderweg thesis, it recklessly places all German mentalities throughout the Republic’s lifespan into one single unit – without taking into consideration any concurrent factors. The Weimar Republic failed due to its inherent economic and political fragilities being exposed by the Great Depression, and the Constitution’s fundamental weaknesses – specifically Article 48. This is due to several intricate factors. The Depression acted as a catalyst in tearing through the political and economic fabric of Weimar Germany – the onset of the crisis demonstrated to the German electorate the government’s inability to effectively deal with economic instability. This instability, which hit Germany particularly hard due to its susceptibility to short-term foreign loans, evidently caused the popular decline of Republic-supporting political parties – and the rise of extremism. The majority of the German electorate, as justified above, cited democracy by 1932 as having signally failed them. Subsequently and intricately, the broad application of Article 48, despite its noble intentions, enabled the essence of the Weimar Republic – parliamentary democracy – to be transcended permanently by an antidemocratic ‘conservative elite’ by 1931. This argument therefore demonstrates a clear case that Weimar’s inherently flawed political/ economic structure and the broad application of Article 48 were the pivotal, intricate factors for why Germany’s liberal democracy failed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources:

  • Goebbels, J. Der Angriff: Aufsätze aus der Kampfzeit, (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP, 1936).
  • Hitler, A. Mein Kampf, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998).
  • Kaes, A. Jay, M. Dimendberg, E, (eds.). The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, (Berkley, CA: University of
  • Miller, M. Eugen Bolz (Stuttgart: Schwabenverlag, 1951).
  • Noakes, J. Pridham, G, (eds.). Nazism, 1919-1945: The Rise to Power 1919-1934, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1983).

Secondary Sources:

  • Bracher, K. D. Turning Points in Modern Times: Essays on German and European History, (London: Harvard University Press, 1995).
  • Braun, H. The German Economy in the Twentieth Century, (London: Routledge, 1990).
  • Evans, R. J. The Coming of the Third Reich, (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003).
  • Fulbrook, M. A History of Germany 1918-2008: The Divided Nation, (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2009).
  • Hanson, S. E. Post-Imperial Democracies: Ideology and Party Formation in Third Republic France, Weimar Germany, and Post-Soviet Russia, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
  • Hardach, K. The Political Economy of Germany in the Twentieth Century, (London: University of California Press Ltd., 1980).
  • Hobsbawm, E. Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, (London: Abacus, 1997).
  • Kershaw, I. Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, (London: Penguin Books, 1998).
  • Kershaw, I (ed.). Weimar: Why did German Democracy fail?, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990).
  • Kolb, E. The Weimar Republic, (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd., 1988).
  • Noakes, J. Pridham, G, (eds.). Nazism 1919-1945: State, Economy and Society 1933-1939, (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000).
  • Peukert, D. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classic Modernity, (New York: Will and Wang, 1993).
  • Shugart, M. S. Carey, J. M. Presidents and Assemblies: Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Stackelberg, R. Hitler’s Germany: Origins, Interpretations, Legacies, (New York: Routledge, 2009).
  • Storer, C. A Short History of the Weimar Republic, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013).

[1] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003),

[2] Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd., 1988)

[3] ibid

[4] John Hiden, The Weimar Republic (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2011)

[5] Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd., 1988)

[6] The Constitution of the German Republic’ in Kaes, Jay, Dimendberg (eds.), Sourcebook

[7] Evans, Coming

[8] Karl Hardach, The Political Economy of Germany in the Twentieth Century (London: University of California Press Ltd., 1980),

[9] Harold James, ‘Economic reasons for the collapse of the Weimar Republic’ in Ian Kershaw (ed.), Weimar: Why did German Democracy fail

[10] Ben S. Bernanke, ‘Employment, Hours, and Earnings in the Depression: An Analysis of Eight Manufacturing Industries’ in Ben S.Bernanke (ed.), Essays on the Great Depression (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000)

[11] Karl Hardach, The Political Economy of Germany in the Twentieth Century (London: University of California Press Ltd., 1980)

[12] ibid

[13] Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (London: Penguin Books, 1998),

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] ibid

[17] Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd., 1988),

[18] Evans, Coming

[19] Eric Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (London: University of Princeton Press, 2007), 

[20] ibid

[21] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998)

[22] Evans, Coming

[23] The Constitution of the German Republic’ in Kaes, Jay, Dimendberg (eds.), Sourcebook,

[24] ibid

[25] Evans, Coming

[26] Max Miller, Eugen Bolz (Stuttgart: Schwabenverlag, 1951)

[27] ibid

[28] Jeremy Noakes, Geoffrey Pridham (eds.), Nazism, 1919-1945: The Rise to Power 1919-1934 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1983),

[29] Evans, Coming

[30] Joseph Goebbels, Der Angriff: Aufsätze aus der Kampfzeit (Munich: Zentralverlag der NSDAP, 1936),

[31] Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (London: Penguin Books, 1998)

[32] ibid

[33] Kolb, Weimar

[34] Stephen E. Hanson, Post-Imperial Democracies: Ideology and Party Formation in Third Republic France, Weimar Germany, and PostSoviet Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)

[35] Ibid

[36] Karl Dietrich Bracher, Turning Points in Modern Times: Essays on German and European History (London: Harvard University Press, 1995)

[37] The Constitution of the German Republic’ in Kaes, Jay, Dimendberg (eds.), Sourcebook,

[38] ibid

[39] Colin Storer, A Short History of the Weimar Republic (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013),

[40] Evans, Coming

[41] Kolb, Weimar,

[42] Ibid

[43] Kershaw, Hubri

[44] ibid

[45] ibid

 

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