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Weimar Republic

The German Kaiser abdicated at the close of World War I, to be succeeded by a democratic republic known as the Weimar Republic. It was representatives of the Weimar Republic who signed the Versailles Treaty. The postwar Weimar Republic (1919-33) was established as a broadly democratic state, but the government was severely handicapped and eventually doomed by economic problems and the rise of the political extremes. The dozens of political parties represented in the federal parliament never allowed stable government formation, creating political chaos. (This lesson led to the decision by the creators of the FRG to limit parliamentary representation to parties that garner at least 5% of the vote.) The hyperinflation of 1923, the world depression that began in 1929, and the social unrest stemming from resentment toward the conditions of the Versailles Treaty worked to destroy the Weimar government.

The city of Weimar is associated with the best traditions of the old Germany. In the golden age of German letters Weimar was the Florence of Germany and its Duke Charles August, Goethe's patron, a Teutonic Lorenzo de Medici. In the modern era the traditions nurtured by Goethe and Schiller were fulfilled in the world of statecraft by the Weimar Constitution, the law of the German Republic. Yet Weimar is not one of those terribly "historical" cities, offensive and showy, ready to boast of its background like some upstart noble in a king's court. Weimar is a quiet, typically German town, full of a peaceful and easy charm. The spirit of Weimar, symbolically located as it is in the heart of Germany, was the finest and most advanced spirit of liberality; the free community of ideas; the brotherhood of talent that knows no race, no sects, no nations, only the man. With this cultural history, it is not at all surprising that Weimar was chosen to give birth to the German Constitution of 1919. Between the months of February and August of that year the Constitution- commonly called the Weimar Constitution-was debated, written, rewritten and finally drawn up in conclusive form.

The Weimar Republic was the first attempt to establish constitutional liberal democratic government in Germany. The republic's name symbolically evoked memories of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had spent a number of years at the court of Weimar, and of the nation's humanistic cultural traditions. Goethe's Weimar was contrasted with the Prussian Germany of authoritarianism, military swagger, and imperialism. Many Germans, however, remained attached to the old order and lacked a genuine commitment to republican ideals. Both the Social Democrats and those who harkened back to the Prussian past were opposed by the radical opposition, whose program included revolutionary tactics. German culture under the republic reflected the ideological diversity of a politically fragmented society.

The Weimar Republic, proclaimed on November 9, 1918, was born in the throes of military defeat and social revolution (see fig. 5). On November 3, mutiny had broken out among naval squadrons stationed at Kiel. Workers had joined the revolt, which had quickly spread to other ports and to cities in northern, central, and southern Germany, finally reaching Berlin on November 9. Largely as a result of the November Revolution, Prince Max von Baden, the German chancellor, announced the abdication of the emperor. Following the abdication, the Social Democrats in the Reichstag gained control of the government; they proclaimed the republic, formed a provisional cabinet, and organized the National Assembly.

A revolt instigated in Berlin by the Spartacus League, a group of left-wing extremists, was crushed by the army in January 1919. In February the National Assembly elected Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert to the presidency and drafted a constitution. By the end of the winter the coalition government of Majority Socialists, Catholics, and Democrats found it increasingly difficult to maintain order in Germany. The danger of national starvation was imminent, the industrial life had collapsed, wild strikes and widespread agitation created economic unrest, the National Assembly failed to bring order out of chaos, and the reports from Paris indicated that the final terms of peace would be almost unbearable. The Spartacists determined therefore to strike once more for the dictatorship of the proletariat, and to avenge the murder of their former leaders. Aided by the Bolshevist agents and by Russian gold, they planned a revolution for the first week of March 1919. As a result of the demobilization of the German army and the break-up of discipline, the Berlin proletariat was better armed than the^populace of any European capital in previous revolutionary uprisings. Minister of National Defense Gustave Noske's military proclamation of March 9 declared: "Every person who is found fighting with arms in his hands against government troops will be executed at once." The Guard Cavalry Rifle Division, the Free Corps Huelsen, and the German Rifle Division were the forces which by 14 March 1919 were able to bring the armed resistance of the Spartacans to an end. Over one thousand two hundred persons had been killed during the fighting.

The Weimar Constitution of 1919 established a federal republic consisting of nineteen states (Länder). The republic was headed by a president who was to be elected by popular direct ballot for a seven-year term and who could be reelected . The president appointed the chancellor and, based on the chancellor's nominations, also appointed the cabinet ministers. He retained authority to dismiss the cabinet, dissolve the Reichstag, and veto legislation. The legislative powers of the Reichstag were further weakened by the provision for presidential recourse to popular plebiscite. Article 48, the so-called emergency clause, accorded the president dictatorial rights to intervene in the territorial states for the purpose of enforcing constitutional and federal laws and/or to restore public order.

The constitution provided for the Reichstag and the Reichsrat (council of German states' representatives). The Reichstag, elected by popular suffrage, voted on legislation introduced by the chancellor. By a vote of no confidence, it could call for the dismissal of both chancellor and cabinet ministers. The Reichsrat replaced the Bundesrat. Established to guarantee state government supervision of national legislation, it was nevertheless subordinated to national control in that members of the Reichstag cabinet convened and presided over Reichsrat sessions. The Reichstag was empowered to override Reichsrat opposition with a two-thirds majority vote.

The powers accorded to the president reflected the nineteenth century's conservative and liberal predilection for monarchical rule. But democratization of suffrage strengthened the Reichstag, and in theory both the military and the bureaucracy were subordinated to cabinet control. Thus the constitution established a republic based on a combination of conservative and democratic elements. It guaranteed civil liberties, but provisions for social legislation, including land reform and limited nationalization, were never implemented. The constitution adopted the colors black, red, and gold -- the colors of the Holy Roman Empire -- to replace the black, white, and red of Imperial Germany. The colors adopted by the constitution symbolized the idea of a "greater Germany," which was to include Austria; but the incorporation of Austria into the republic was opposed by the Allies, and Austria remained a separate state.

The Weimar Republic represented a compromise: German conservatives and industrialists had transferred power to the Social Democrats to avert a possible Bolshevik-style takeover; the Social Democrats, in turn, had allied with demobilized officers of the Imperial Army to suppress the revolution. The January 1919 National Assembly elections produced the Weimar coalition, which included the SPD, the German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei--DDP), and the Center Party. The percentage of the vote gained by the coalition (76.2 percent; 38 percent for the SPD) suggested broad popular support for the republic. The anti-republican, conservative German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei--DNVP) and the German People's Party (Deutsche Volkspartei--DVP) combined received 10.3 percent of the vote. The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, which had split from the SPD during the war, won 8 percent of the vote. But the lifespan of the Weimar coalition was brief, and the Weimar political system, which was achieving gains for both extreme left and extreme right, soon became radicalized.

The future of the Weimar Republic was shaped during the critical year separating the National Assembly elections and the June 1920 Reichstag elections. German public opinion was influenced by three major developments. First, the Treaty of Versailles shocked German nationalists and seriously damaged the republic's prestige. The treaty's provisions for Allied occupation of the Rhineland and reparations were considered unduly harsh. Second, German workers were disappointed by the failure to achieve social reform. Third, the Kapp Putsch of March 1920 was an attempted coup staged by disaffected right-wing army officers led by the rightist Wolfgang Kapp (formerly a close political associate of Tirpitz). When Germany's rump army refused to fight the putschists and declared itself "neutral," the working-class parties proclaimed a general strike which brought down the Kapp government within a few days, even though the war hero Ludendorff joined it. This provided impetus for the political radicalization of rightist and leftist elements. In the aftermath of Kapp's failure radical rightists resorted to terrorism. The murder of Kurt Eisner had set a bloody precedent, and Matthias Erzberger (former Minister of Finance and Center Party leader) and Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau were killed by rightist terrorists in 1921 and 1922.

In the June 1920 elections, the Weimar coalition lost its majority. An increase in votes (28.9 percent) for the DNVP and the DVP reflected German middle-class disillusionment with democracy. SPD strength fell to 21.7 percent as the German working class defected to the extreme left. The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany split as most members joined the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands -- KPD), formed in December 1918, and the remainder reunited with the SPD.

The Weimar coalition never regained its majority. After 1920 the era of unpopular minority cabinets began. Postwar inflation and Allied demands for reparations contributed to political instability. In January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the highly industrialized Ruhr district as a protest against German defaults in reparations payment. The Weimar government responded by calling upon the Ruhr population to stop all industrial activity. Hyperinflation wiped out all middle-class savings and had catastrophic social effects.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:44 ZULU