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Weimar Republic Political Parties

With great rapidity the old monarchical parties reorganized themselves, abandoned their old platforms, adopted new party names, and advocated democratic measures for preserving the state from anarchy. The old Conservative Party of Prussia and Germany became the German National People's Party. The Conservatives, the Pan-Germans (the Fatherland group), and the majority of the Junker class joined this party. The old slogan of the defense of throne and altar had, however, become obsolete. The throne had been swept away; the king was in exile; and the altar had taken care of itself even in a socialistic republic. The German Nationalists, who united in one party the former Conservatives, Free Conservatives, and Christian Socialists, adopted a program which was almost revolutionary in character. It championed a strong state, with authority based upon the free will of the people, which should improve the national weal and social welfare. Specifically the party advocated: parliamentary government; freedom of speech, person, and conscience; equal suffrage; security of private property; liquidation of the war societies; a solution of the housing problem; the repopulation of arid districts; the protection of officials, teachers, soldiers, employees, and the war-wounded; the simplification of the national administration and taxation; and the cooperation of women in public life. Upon the issue of socialization the party declared for the adequate protection of employees and workers and for the rational socialization of the means of production.

As the champion of liberalism in the new state, the right wing of the old National Liberal Party formed the German People's Party. It attacked radicalism, ultramontanism and internationalism, and advocated a political union with Austria as well as cultural relations with the Germans beyond the seas. The Center Party had been freed from the menace of disintegration by the anti-clerical policies of the revolutionary Prussian government. During the revolution a witty Liberal proposed that the Center should erect a monument in honor of the Independent Minister of Public Worship, Adolf Hoffmann, for preserving the unity of the Catholic Party.

The party now assumed the name of Christian People's Party, and, under the influence of the Cologne leaders, sought to gain non-Catholic support. While leaving to one side the question of monarchy or republic, the party denounced the attacks on private property and the nationalizing of the means of production, and advocated housing reform, the improvement of working conditions for laborers and peasants, religious freedom, and religious instruction in the schools.

As the new party of democracy, the left wing of the old National Liberal and the Progressive People's Parties united to form the German Democratic Party. Various minor groups entered the political arena, not without distinct local success. Of all the parties, the Social Democrats and Independents alone retained their old party names and platforms. The Spartacans were the only party which refused to take part in the election campaign.

The German National People's Party (Deutsch-Nationale Volkspartei - DNVP), representing the conservative monarchist camp, campaigned against the democratic system and the international order established by the Treaty of Versailles. The DNVP defended the economic and social interests of the large landowners in the area to the east of the River Elbe as well as the interests of the industrial magnates.

The party of the extreme Right, the National People's Party (all parties must have a democratic name, of course), was in the control of the old Junker crowd with its unabashed monarchical and agrarian political rhetoric. Its members were bombastic sentimentalists, none of whom were able to realize the extent to which conditions in the country had changed. They were conscious, however, of two political assets which they industriously nourish; the traditional affection for a divinely appointed ruler, and among the unthinking the unbridled passion of resentment against the victor.

On the crest of the wave of nationalism which swept the country at the elections in 1920 they managed to secure 65 seats. Their immediate program was purely negative. They wanted to prove the impotence of the government, hoping that a general confusion will make necessary a reinstatement of their former "efficiency." They speak rhetorically of a return of the old emperor; but if, as they suspect, the Hohenzollern House had permanently lost its cause, they would as readily welcome the rule of a Wittelsbach to bring them and their system back to power.

Since their end is, according to their claim, divinely inspired, they resort to any means whatever, even to plotting in conjunction with the extreme Communists. Individually they were a sad lot. If they had money, they used its power to evade the laws and to organize revels, at which they try to console themselves for the loss of the extravagant court functions. If they had no money, they wept and grieved and exhausted their starved bodies with feasts of hating. Their blindness made them ridiculously futile.

After initially engaging in limited cooperation, the party became more radical under the chairmanship of Alfred Hugenberg, who cultivated its anti-republican and anti-Semitic tendencies and, through cooperation with the NSDAP in the Harzburg Front, made Hitler acceptable to the bourgeois Right. The coalition government of the DNVP and NSDAP that took office in January 1933 under the chancellorship of Adolf Hitler marked the end of multi-party democracy and the beginning of National Socialist tyranny.

The German People's Party (Deutsche Volkspartei - DVP), which was formed from the right wing of the National Liberals and parts of the Progressive People's Party, was indifferent to hostile in its attitude to the new state. As the party of heavy industry, it primarily represented the interests of the upper and merchant classes. Its politics were still strongly rooted in authoritarianism, and it advocated the establishment of a strong central government. In the field of foreign policy, it sought a revision of the Treaty of Versailles.

The German People's Party was practically the creation of Hugo Stinnes, the supreme industrial magnate of new Germany. Germany was full of stories of the plots and machinations of Hugo Stinnes. It seemed that his strangle hold upon a large part of German industry was gained by the shrewd exploitation of the contract he made with the government during the war to rob the factories of Belgium and Northern France. He managed to arrange these operations so that none of the restitutions demanded by the treaty result in a personal loss to him. He was really the uncrowned ruler of the economic institutions which the old system had carefully developed for its own purpose and for the recasting of which the new government has enunciated radical principles, though it has not been able to apply any of them to an appreciable extent.

Stinnes was a man interested in the power of his purse rather than in the welfare of his country. His entry into politics, at the time of the national elections in 1920, was an attempt to find an efficient substitute for the old deposed monarchy to act as guardian of his treasury. He bought control wherever it was on sale. Forty percent of the German press was said to belong to him, and his precautions went even to the extent of acquiring an interest in some of the highly professional critical journals.

Before the 1920 national elections the German People's Party was a rather insignificant remnant of the nationalistic, semiliberal parties of the old regime. By clever organization and vigorous propaganda Stinnes secured 61 seats for it in the Reichstag. Its program was squarely conservative along old capitalistic lines. Its appeal was its promise of a quick return to prosperity and of protection against attacks upon capital by the Socialists. It took no definite stand on the question of monarchy, though it offered a safe retreat to all those who were sentimentally attached to the old rulers but had not the courage to denounce the new constitution openly. Consequently the German People's Party became the refuge of most of the small capitalists of the country, of a large part of the petty bureaucrats of the old regime, and of most of the Protestant teachers and preachers. From among the last group the rhetoricians of the party are recruited, but the control and command rests solely with Stinnes and the lieutenants of big industry.

Under the chairmanship of Gustav Stresemann, the DVP came to terms with the democratic system and switched to a policy of accommodation with the victorious powers. The rise of anti-parliamentary forces within the party after Stresemann's death and its convergence with the right-wing nationalist opposition could do nothing to prevent a steady decline in the electoral appeal of the DVP from 10% of the vote in the Reichstag election of 1920 to about one per cent in the 1930s.

The German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei - DDP), was the product of a merger between the Progressive People's Party (Fortschrittliche Volkspartei - FVP) and the left wing of the National Liberals. The DDP upheld the democratic order and played a very influential part in the formulation of the Weimar Constitution. The Democratic Party was a party of compromise. In the Constituent Assembly it was very numerous. At that time it had received the votes of all who wished to confess democratic leanings, either because they were sincere or simply in order to mollify the Entente while it was preparing the treaty.

Both of the conservative parties and the Center banned Jews from their ranks, so that all Jewish voters were forced to join one of the Socialist parties or the Democrats. As a result all conservatives of Jewish extraction allied themselves to the latter party, whatever the shade of their conservatism; and thus make impossible a clear party program. On the other hand, the best idealistic liberals and many of the foremost intellectual leaders of the country were members of the Democratic party, and' win a great national respect for it because of their enlightened liberalism. The most respected element of the daily press was in the control of its members. And yet its influence was strangely weak, owing partly to its false composition and partly to the tragic circumstance that in Germany, as everywhere in the crisis, the best idealists lacked the power of translating their principles into practical action.

The party, which drew much of its support from middleclass intellectuals and small traders, called for the strict separation of church and state, the restriction of government regulation of the economy and the abolition of economic monopolies and sought a fair balance between the interests of capital and labour. The DDP supported the creation of a League of Nations. In the National Assembly of 1919/20 it was part of the Weimar Coalition with the SPD and the Centre Party and participated in almost every government until 1932. The willingness of the DDP to make unpopular compromises cost it dearly. After winning almost a fifth of the vote (17.3%) in 1919, it rapidly lost support. At the next election it secured only 45 seats, and its members were not necessarily honest democrats.Despite joining ranks with the Young Teutonic Order (Jungdeutscher Orden) to form the German State Party, it saw its vote dwindle to the level of an insignificant splinter party at about one per cent by the 1930s.

The Center Party (Zentrumspartei or Zentrum) regarded itself as the political voice of the Catholic population. The Catholic Center was very much the same in size and program that it was before the war. It is a well-organized, highly disciplined party, held together by church authority and frankly admitting and following a policy of political opportunism. Besides its defence of the rights of the Catholic Church and its support for the preservation of the federal states (Lnder), the Centre was characterised by a widely diverse political platform. While its left wing favored the development of the welfare state and international understanding, its right wing advocated a patriarchal corporative system of government at home and a revisionist foreign policy with emphasis on the defence of national interests.

Under the leadership of Matthias Erzberger, the Centre professed allegiance to the republican constitution and worked with the SPD and DDP in the Weimar Coalition to establish parliamentary democracy. Matthias Erzberger, was often described as the best hated man in Germany, under constant persecution from reactionary zealots and was finally murdered on August 26th, 1921. Erzberger was a strong liberal and until the elections of 1920 held his party sternly to the support of the Majority Socialists in spite of violent internal opposition from South German members. Because these elections, however, expressed a decided popular turn to the Right, he had to relinquish his leadership to the conservative wing in accordance with the established discipline of his party. But when, in the spring of 1921, Stinnes refused to let his party approve of the reparation agreement and the Majority Socialists again were forced to enter the government bloc, thus giving it a more radical complexion, Erzberger resumed control. Though his lieutenant, Dr. Wirth, acted as Chancellor, Erzberger was really the dominant force in the government. Fear of what he might do probably maddened reactionary fanatics into killing him.

The Center invariably obtained about 15% of the vote, provided a total of five Chancellors of the Reich and participated in every national government until 1932. In 1930, the appointment of Heinrich Brning of the Centre Party as Chancellor of a minority government which could only perform its duties with the support of the President marked the end of government accountability to Parliament and the beginning of a phase of quasi-parliamentary presidential government.

The Bavarian People's Party (Bayerische Volkspartei - BVP) had split from the Centre in a dispute over the party's attitude to the parliamentary system and established itself as a conservative clerical party with a regional voter base but a national mission. This particularist party was the dominant po-litical force in Bavaria. Nationally, it aspired to participation in Centre-Right coalitions which would keep the SPD out of government. From 1930 onwards the BVP supported National Socialist participation in government.

The National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei - NSDAP) was founded in 1919 and initially drew support from the lower middle classes in Munich, who had suffered an erosion of their social status. Especially after the party chairmanship, invested with dictatorial powers, was conferred on Adolf Hitler in 1921, the NSDAP sought, through chauvinistic nationalist and anti-Semitic demonstrations and acts of violence intended as protests against the Treaty of Versailles and the 'politics of surrender' of the Weimar Republic (the 'stab-in-the-back legend'), to stir up the widespread hostility to the new political order that simmered in nationalist circles and to undermine the democratic system.

Following the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 9 November 1923, Hitler's arrest and imprisonment and a temporary ban on the party, the right-wing extremist NSDAP, which had tasted little electoral success before 1930, polling between 2.6% and 6.5% of the vote, switched to a pseudo-legal approach. The insecurity and social deprivation experi-enced by broad sections of the population offered considerable scope for the National Socialists' anti-Semitic and anti-capitalist agitation.

In 1930 the NSDAP scored a resounding electoral success as its share of the vote rocketed to 18.3%. Now the second-largest parliamentary group in the Reichstag with 102 seats, the party was able not only to extend its subversive influence on the work of Parlia-ment but also to enhance its own reputation among the middle classes on the right of the political spec-trum. The NSDAP was perceived by more and more former supporters of the Conservative and Lib-eral parties, as well as by many young people and non-voters, as a fresh force which, with its racist, nationalist and collectivist ideology and its aggressive stance in the field of foreign policy, seemed capable of finding solutions to Germany's economic and political problems.

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. 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, appointed Hitler to serve 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.

The three remaining parties were socialistic labor parties grading from mere progressives to extreme Communists. This general group polled forty-four per cent of the 26,000,000 votes at the national elections in 1920. If it were united, it could easily sway the policy of the country; but its three parties fight with each other more dogmatically even than with the parties to their right.

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands - SPD), in spite of its bitter internal conflicts at the time of the revolution, was committed to upholding the system of government. It pressed for early elections to the National Assembly and, as the strongest political force in Parliament, with 39.9% of the vote, entered government as part of the Weimar Coalition under the premiership of Philipp Scheidemann.

The old Majority Socialists contain most of the skilled laborers and all the large body of German liberals who prefered the slight Marxian dogmatism of this party to the political ineffectiveness of the Democrats. The Majority Socialists program was one of progressive social and political evolution. They still were Marxian in name and still used the vocabulary of class warfare; but all this appeared principally as party habit, developed through party traditions and propaganda. Occasionally a fleeting hope of winning back the dissenters into the fold gave new strength to the habit. But when they actually inaugurated laws for new social and political control, they rode with fair command and much careful reckoning the wave that was rolling Europe along to new organizations.

The SPD, which remained the strongest political force until 1932, always supported and defended the Republic, despite being in opposition for most of the Wei-mar period, being regarded with scepticism by the Centre-Right parties and arousing the hostility of Right and Left on account of its conciliatory approach. The constant balancing act between pragmatic compromise and statesmanship on the one hand and the pursuit of a Socialist programme on the other led to internal conflicts and eventually cost it some 40% of its voters as its share of the vote finally dipped below 20% in 1933. Another relevant factor was the failure of the SPD to extend its appeal beyond its traditional working-class constituency.

The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (Unabhngige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands - USPD) was formed in 1917 under the chairmanship of Hugo Haase from the pacifist wing of the SPD following a bitter dispute about the continued pursuit of the war. The mass strikes organised by the USPD to protest against the breakdown of the food-supply chain and the continuation of the war won the party support, particularly among Socialist members of the labour force who ac-cused the Majority Social Democratic Party of Germany (Mehrheitssozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands - MSPD) of 'betraying Socialism' by cooperating with the bourgeois parties. Although the two parties agreed in November 1918 to work together in the Council of People's Representatives, the implication of the SPD in the use of force by government troops against left-wing insurgents prompted the USPD to quit the provisional government at the end of 1918.

The Independent Socialists functioned principally as an opposition party to the Majority Socialists. They have no other program than to prove the older party poor Socialists. They accuse the older party of lack of class consciousness and claim that it abuses the authority of Marx. Marx was the Bible of all the socialistic parties in Germany, each claiming that it alone reads and interprets him aright. Because the Independent Socialists have no definite program of constructive action, they do not realize the responsibility of government, and therefore engage in extravagant propaganda of class rule, revolutionary action and full and immediate socialization of public utilities.

The Majority Socialists were popularly held responsible for the chaotic conditions of the provisional republican government. After the Spartacus League had split from the party and following its poor showing in the elections to the National Assembly, the Independent Socialists had unexpected success at the elections of 1920. The Marxist-orientated party recovered to secure 17.9% of the vote in 1920 and secured 80 seats, becoming the second-largest parliamentary group in the Reichstag.

This success, however, was little to their advantage, inasmuch as it united moderates with irreconcilable extremists. In early August of 1920, it seemed possible that the Russians might break through the Polish army into Germany in an attempt to spread the Bolshevist revolution through Europe. In spite of the cynical glee of anticipated triumph that held the party together at the time, the melodramatic gathering of whispering groups gave a sense of the ludicrous ineffectiveness of these people. The country merely smiled at their extravagant threats. At their convention in the fall of 1920 they fought each other so violently over the party attitude to Lenine's commandments of the Third Internationale that the party split and sixty per cent of the members went over to the Communists. The remaining forty per cent were moderates who would sacrifice but a shade of party convictions if they were to rejoin the original Majority Socialists; but party dogmatism and the comfort of irreponsible opposition restrained them from taking that step. The rump of the party was reunited with the MSPD in 1922.

The Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands - KPD) was founded by the Spartacus League, headed by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, on 30 December 1918. The party, which had no strong roots among the population in its early days, aspired to establish a Bolshevik dictatorship based on councils which were modelled on the Russian soviets. They rejected the parliamentary system and did not stand for election to the National Assembly. Instead, they tried, through mass strikes and demonstrations, to win over supporters and defeat the forces of democracy. Weakened by internal conflicts and secessions, the KPD polled only 2.1% of the vote in the Reichstag elections of 1920. Not until the end of that year, when some 300,000 members of the left wing of the USPD defected to the KPD, did the latter start to develop into a mass party, guided by Moscow, which was able to secure the allegiance of about 10% of the electorate. The radicalisation of the political landscape in the wake of the Great Depression enabled the party to rise to third place in the Reichstag elections of 1930 to 1933. Together with the NSDAP, it constituted an obstructive anti-parliamentary majority in the Reichstag. The propaganda campaigns launched by the KPD against democracy and the 'tyranny of finance capital' played a significant part in the demise of the democratic order.




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