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Weimar Republic - Collapse 1929-1933

The crash of the New York stock market in September 1929 led to a worldwide depression, with dramatic effects on Germany. Stresemann died of a heart attack (at age 51) just as the crisis started. Unemployment rose sharply in the end of the year, and reached unprecedented heights in the following years. The preservation of unemployment insurance became a serious problem. But the Young Plan, the most recent agreement about the payment of reparations (1930), made deficit spending and inflationary policies to fight the depression nearly impossible. Employers and the bourgeois parties wanted to cut state support for the jobless; the SPD and the trade unions opposed this at a time when more and more workers were becoming dependent upon state support. This dispute ended with the breakup of the grand coalition in March 1930. The Center Party, along with the other non-socialist coalition members and Hindenburg's advisors, pushed the SPD out of government. The Center Party politician Heinrich Brüning hoped to restore a more authoritarian constitution limiting parliamentary rights and keeping the socialists and trade unions out of the state.

The breakup of the grand coalition and the start of presidential government in 1930 marked a decisive step on the road from democracy to dictatorship. Brüning and many of his associates declared themselves monarchists and ultimately hoped for monarchic restoration, to recreate the political system of the Wilhelmine Empire: an alliance of iron and rye holding a monopoly on political power at the top, while excluding the workers.

Hindenburg agreed to appoint Brüning chancellor and to sign presidential emergency decrees (under Article 48 of the Constitution) when the government faced opposition in the Reichstag. In July 1930, the Budget was passed by decree under Article 48. It contained drastic cuts in Federal expenditures, imposes an extraordinary income tax on Federal employes, and lays upon the German populace a new surtax upon incomes of more than $2,000, also a bachelor tax and a spinster tax. Immediately after the decree had been issued Dr. Rudolf Breitscheid, Socialist Leader, stormily addressed the Reichstag. He denounced Chancellor Briining's action as "frivolous and outrageous," accused President von Hindenburg of creating a "veiled dictatorship." From 1930, no government was supported by a Reichstag majority until the Nazis passed enabling acts following manipulated elections in March 1933. Under Brüning's chancellorship the government no longer functioned democratically. Brüning relied on the president's emergency powers for legislation.

Hindenburg dissolved the Reichstag in the summer of 1930 and again in the middle of 1932. Both times the extremist parties, profiting from the economic crisis, made enormous gains, particularly the Nazis. Until 1930 the DNVP, not the NSDAP, had been the leading right-wing opposition to the Weimar Republic. The DNVP assumed a more radical course in 1928, and from 1929-1933 the party split again (the moderates left it) and became a junior partner of the NSDAP. The Nazis gained support as they projected an image of determined order and reconstruction at a time when traditional economic and social structures seemed to be breaking down. But disputes within the NSDAP and between the SA and the party suggested that the Nazi movement might break up if it was held in opposition much longer.

In the autumn of 1931, the NSDAP, the DNVP and nationalist paramilitary associations joined forces in the Harzburg Front in order to step up the fight against parliamentary democracy. The destabilisation policies pursued by the NSDAP and the KPD led to a rapid succession of governments without parliamentary majorities that could only rule with the aid of presidential decrees and to the recurrence of general elections at brief intervals.

Brüning failed to secure Hindenburg's reappointment without an election in the spring of 1932, which would have equired a two-thirds majority vote in the Reichstag. The Nazis, the DNVP, and the KPD thwarted Brüning's efforts. Presidential elections followed in March and April 1932. Hindenburg polled nearly 50% of the vote, while Hitler received 30% and Communist leader Ernst Thälmann 13%. In the second ballot Hindenburg beat Hitler, winning 53% as to 37% for Hitler and 10% for Thälmann. Brüning was dismissed in the end of May 1932.

Franz von Papen and General Schleicher, Brüning's successors, had hardly any parliamentary support. The Nazis' electoral rise had been stopped at the Reichstag elections in November 1932, but Hitler was the leader of the strongest party in parliament. Finally, the National Socialists had consolidated their position of power to such an extent that President Paul von Hindenburg, partly under pressure from right-wing Conservative circles and in spite of a decline in the NSDAP vote in the last democratic election to the Reichstag. So on 30 January 1933 Hindenburg appointed a new cabinet with Hitler as chancellor of a coalition government of NSDAP and DNVP, thereby dealing the death blow to the sorely beleaguered parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic.

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