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The Weimar Republic

STUDY THIS – WE WILL BE COMPARING IT TO THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION MOVES – YOU WILL SEE THE SIMILARITY

The Weimar Republic is the name given by historians to the parliamentary republic established in 1919 in Germany to replace the imperial form of government. It was named after Weimar, the city where the constitutional assembly took place. Its official name was Deutsches Reich (sometimes translated as German Empire, but Reich can also mean realm or federal level of government), however, and it was usually known in English simply as Germany. Following World War I, the republic emerged from the German Revolution in November 1918. In 1919, a national assembly convened in Weimar, where a new constitution for the German Reich was written. It was adopted on 11 August. Germany’s period of liberal democracy lapsed in the early 1930s, leading to the ascent of the NSDAP and Adolf Hitler in 1933. Although the constitution of 1919 was never officially repealed, the legal measures taken by the Nazi government in February and March 1933, commonly known as Gleichschaltung (“coordination”) meant that the government could legislate contrary to the constitution. The constitution became irrelevant; thus, 1933 is usually seen as the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of Hitler’s Third Reich.
In its 14 years, the Weimar Republic was faced with numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremists on the left and the right and their paramilitaries, and hostility from the victors of World War I. However, it overcame many discriminatory regulations of the Treaty of Versailles, reformed the currency, unified tax politics and the railway system
November Revolution
In October 1918, the constitution of the German Empire was reformed to introduce a parliamentary system similar to the British, but this soon became obsolete. On 29 October, rebellion broke out in Kiel among sailors. There, sailors, soldiers and workers began electing worker and soldier councils (Arbeiter- und Soldatenräte) modeled after the soviets of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The revolution spread throughout Germany, and participants seized military and civil powers in individual cities. In contrast to Russia one year earlier, the councils were controlled by social democrats, not communists. Nevertheless, the rebellion caused great fear in the establishment and in the middle classes because of the Soviet Russia connotation of the councils. The country seemed to be on the verge of a communist revolution. On 7 November, the revolution had reached Munich, causing King Ludwig III of Bavaria to flee.
At the time, the traditional political representation of the working class, the Social Democratic Party was divided: a faction that called for immediate peace negotiations and leaned towards a socialist system had founded the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) in 1917. In order not to lose their influence, the remaining Majority Social Democrats (MSPD), who supported the war efforts and a parliamentary system, decided to put themselves at the front of the movement, and on 7 November, demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicate. When he refused, Prince Max of Baden simply announced that he had done so and frantically attempted to establish a regency under another member of the House of Hohenzollern. On 9 November 1918, the German Republic was proclaimed by MSPD member Philipp Scheidemann at the Reichstag building in Berlin, to the fury of Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the MSPD, who thought that the question of monarchy or republic should be answered by a national assembly. Two hours later a Free Socialist Republic was proclaimed, two kilometres away, at the Berliner Stadtschloss. The proclamation was issued by Karl Liebknecht, co-leader (with Rosa Luxemburg) of the communist Spartakusbund, which had allied itself with the USPD in 1917.
On 9 November, in a legally questionable act, Reichskanzler Prince Max of Baden transferred his powers to Friedrich Ebert, who, shattered by the monarchy’s fall, reluctantly accepted. It was apparent, however, that this act would not satisfy Liebknecht and his followers, so a day later, a coalition government called “Council of People’s Commissioners” (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) was established, consisting of three MSPD and three USPD members. Led by Ebert for the MSPD and Hugo Haase for the USPD it sought to act as collective head of state. Although the new government was confirmed by the Berlin worker and soldier council, it was opposed by the Spartacist League. Ebert called for a National Congress of Councils, which took place from 16 December to 20 December 1918, and in which the MSPD had the majority. Thus Ebert managed to enforce quick elections for a National Assembly to produce a constitution for a parliamentary system, marginalizing the movement that called for a socialist republic (see below).
On 11 November, an armistice was signed at Compiègne by German representatives. It effectively ended military operations between the Allies and Germany. It amounted to German demilitarization, without any concessions by the Allies; the naval blockade would continue until complete peace terms were agreed.
From November 1918-January 1919, Germany was governed by the Council of People’s Commissioners. It issued a large number of decrees which were confined to certain spheres: the eight-hour workday, domestic labour reform, agricultural labour reform, right of civil-service associations, local municipality social welfare relief (split between Reich and States) and important national health insurance, re-instatement of demobilised workers, protection from arbitrary dismissal with appeal as a right, regulated wage agreement, and universal suffrage from 20 years of age in all types of elections—local and national.
To ensure that his fledgling government was able to maintain control over the country, Ebert made an agreement with the OHL (supreme army command), now led by Ludendorff’s successor General Wilhelm Groener. The ‘Ebert-Groener pact’ stipulated that the government would not attempt to reform the army so long as the army swore to protect the state. On the one hand, this agreement symbolised the acceptance of the new government by the military, assuaging concern among the middle classes; on the other hand, it was thought contrary to working-class interests by left wing social democrats and communists, and was also opposed by the far right who believed democracy would make Germany weaker. The new Reichswehr armed forces, limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 100,000 army soldiers and 15,000 sailors, remained fully under the control of the German officer class despite its nominal re-organisation.
As in other countries, it came to the permanent split in the social democratic movement, into the democratic SPD and the Communists.[citation needed] There was no revolution because the rightwing of the socialist movement, led by Ebert and Scheideman, supported the republic which they had brought into being. Combined action on the part of the socialists was not possible without action from the millions of workers who stood midway between the parliamentarians and the revolutionaries who supported the workers’ councils. The likelihood of the conservative army and the extreme left fighting a civil war was made acute by widespread confusion.
The split in the social democratic movement became final after Ebert called upon the OHL for troops to put down another Berlin army mutiny on 23 November 1918, in which soldiers had captured the city’s garrison commander and closed off the Reichskanzlei where the Council of People’s Commissioners was situated. The ensuing street fighting was brutal with several dead and injured on both sides. This caused the left wing to call for a split with the MSPD which, in their view, had joined with the anti-communist military to suppress the revolution. Thus, the USPD left the Council of People’s Commissioners after only seven weeks. In December, the split deepened when the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was formed out of a number of radical left-wing groups, including the left wing of the USPD and the Spartacist League group.
In January, the Spartacist League and others in the streets of Berlin made more armed attempts to establish communism, known as the Spartacist uprising. Those attempts were put down by paramilitary Freikorps units consisting of volunteer soldiers. Bloody street fights culminated in the beating and shooting deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht after their arrests on 15 January. With the affirmation of Ebert, those responsible were not tried before a court martial, leading to lenient sentences, which made Ebert unpopular among radical leftists.
The National Assembly elections took place on 19 January 1919. In this time, the radical left-wing parties, including the USPD and KPD, were barely able to get themselves organized, leading to a solid majority of seats for the MSPD moderate forces. To avoid the ongoing fights in Berlin, the National Assembly convened in the city of Weimar, giving the future Republic its unofficial name. The Weimar Constitution created a republic under a parliamentary republic system with the Reichstag elected by proportional representation. The democratic parties obtained a solid 80% of the vote.
During the debates in Weimar, fighting continued. A Soviet republic was declared in Munich, but was quickly put down by Freikorps and remnants of the regular army. The fall of the Munich Soviet Republic to these units, many of which were situated on the extreme right, resulted in the growth of far-right movements and organizations in Bavaria, including Organisation Consul, the NSDAP, and societies of exiled Russian Monarchists. Sporadic fighting continued to flare up around the country. In eastern provinces, forces loyal to Germany’s fallen Monarchy fought the republic, while militias of Polish nationalists fought for independence: Great Poland Uprising in Provinz Posen and three Silesian Uprisings in Upper Silesia.
Treaty of Versailles
he permanent economic crisis was a result of lost pre-war industrial exports, the loss of supplies in raw materials and foodstuffs from Alsace-Lorraine, Polish districts and the colonies, along with worsening debt balances and reparations payments. Military-industrial activity had almost ceased, although controlled demobilisation kept unemployment at around one million. The fact that the Allies continued to blockade Germany until after the Treaty of Versailles did not help matters, either.
The allies permitted only low import levels of goods that most Germans could not afford. After four years of war and famine, many German workers were exhausted, physically impaired and discouraged. Millions were disenchanted with capitalism and hoping for a new era. Meanwhile the currency depreciated.
The German peace delegation in France signed the Treaty of Versailles accepting mass reductions of the German military, substantial war reparations payments, and the controversial “War Guilt Clause”. Adolf Hitler later blamed the republic and its democracy for the oppressive terms of this treaty. The Republic’s first Reichspräsident (“Reich President”), Friedrich Ebert of the SPD, signed the new German constitution into law on 11 August 1919. It is important to note that Hitler used the shame that pervaded the German conscious regarding this treaty, and specifically the “War Guilt” clause, to catapult Germany into World War II.
The new post-World War I Germany, stripped of all colonies, became 13.3% smaller in its European territory than its imperial predecessor.
Years of crisis (1919–1923)
The Republic was soon under attack from both left- and right-wing sources. The radical left accused the ruling Social Democrats of having betrayed the ideals of the workers’ movement by preventing a communist revolution. Various right-wing sources opposed any democratic system, preferring an authoritarian state like the 1871 Empire. To further undermine the Republic’s credibility, some right-wingers (especially certain members of the former officer corps) also blamed an alleged conspiracy of Socialists and Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I.
For the next five years, Germany’s large cities suffered political violence between left-wing and right-wing groups, both of which committed violence and murder against innocent civilians and against each other, resulting in many deaths. The worst of the violence was between right-wing paramilitaries called the Freikorps and pro-Communist militias called the Red Guards, both of which admitted ex-soldiers into their ranks.
The first challenge to the Weimar Republic came when a group of communists and anarchists took over the Bavarian government in Munich and declared the creation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. The communist rebel state was put down one month later when Freikorps units were brought in to fight the leftist rebels.
The Kapp Putsch took place on 13 March 1920: a group of 5000 Freikorps troops gained control of Berlin and installed Wolfgang Kapp (a right-wing journalist) as chancellor. The national government fled to Stuttgart and called for a general strike. While Kapp’s vacillating nature did not help matters, the strike crippled Germany’s ravaged economy and the Kapp government collapsed after only four days on 17 March.
Inspired by the general strikes, a communist uprising began in the Ruhr region when 50,000 people formed a “Red Army” and took control of the province. The regular army and the Freikorps ended the uprising on their own authority. Other communist rebellions were put down in March 1921 in Saxony and Hamburg.
In 1922, Germany signed the secret Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union, which allowed Germany to train military personnel in exchange for giving Russia military technology. This was against the Treaty of Versailles, which limited Germany to 100,000 soldiers and no conscription, naval forces of 15,000 men, twelve destroyers, six battleships, and six cruisers, no submarines or aircraft. But Russia had pulled out of World War I against the Germans as a result of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and was looked down upon by the League of Nations. Thus Germany seized the chance to make an ally. Walther Rathenau, the Jewish Foreign Minister who signed the treaty, was assassinated two months later by two ultra-nationalist army officers.
By 1923, the Republic claimed it could no longer afford the reparations payments required by the Versailles Treaty, and the government defaulted on some payments. In response, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region, Germany’s most productive industrial region at the time, taking control of most mining and manufacturing companies in January 1923. Strikes were called, and passive resistance was encouraged. These strikes lasted eight months, further damaging the economy and increasing the expense of imports. The strike prevented goods from being produced. This infuriated the French, who began to kill and exile protestors in the region.
Since striking workers were paid benefits by the state, much additional currency was printed, fueling a period of hyperinflation. The 1920s German inflation started when Germany had no goods with which to trade. The government printed money to deal with the crisis; this allowed Germany to pay war loans and reparations with worthless marks, and helped formerly great industrialists to pay back their own loans. This also led to pay raises for workers and for businessmen who wanted to profit from it. Circulation of money rocketed, and soon the Germans discovered their money was worthless. The value of the Papiermark had declined from 4.2 per US dollar at the outbreak of World War I to 1 million per dollar by August 1923. This led to further criticism of the Republic. On 15 November 1923, a new currency, the Rentenmark, was introduced at the rate of 1 trillion (1,000,000,000,000) Papiermark for one Rentenmark, an action known as a monetary reset. At that time, one U.S. dollar was equal to 4.2 Rentenmark. Reparation payments resumed, and the Ruhr was returned to Germany under the Locarno Pact, which defined a border between Germany, France and Belgium.
Further pressure from the right came in 1923 with the Beer Hall Putsch, also called the Munich Putsch, staged by Adolf Hitler in Munich. In 1920, the German Workers’ Party had become the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), nicknamed the Nazi Party, and would become a driving force in the collapse of Weimar. Hitler was named chairman of the party in July 1921. On 8 November 1923, the Kampfbund, in a pact with Erich Ludendorff, took over a meeting by Bavarian prime minister Gustav von Kahr at a beer hall in Munich. Ludendorff and Hitler declared a new government, planning to take control of Munich the following day. The 3,000 rebels were thwarted by 100 policemen. Hitler was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for high treason, a minimum sentence for the charge. In the event, he served less than eight months in a comfortable cell before his release on the 20th of December 1924. While in jail, Hitler wrote Mein Kampf which laid out his ideas and future policies. Hitler now decided to focus on legal methods of gaining power.
Golden Era (1923–1929)

Gustav Stresemann was Reichskanzler for 100 days in 1923, and served as foreign minister from 1923–1929, a period of relative stability for the Weimar Republic, known in Germany as Goldene Zwanziger (“Golden Twenties”). Prominent features of this period were a decrease in civil unrest and improved economic conditions.
During his time as Chancellor, Streseman worked to restore order in Germany by using the Freikorps, made up of former soldiers, to quell various rebellions that had sprung up, particularly the Spartacist uprising. Once civil stability had been restored, Streseman could set about stabilising the German currency, which would promote confidence in the German economy and help the recovery that was so ardently needed for the German nation to keep up with their reparation repayments, while at the same time feeding and supplying the nation.
Stresemann’s first move as foreign minister was to issue a new currency, the Rentenmark, to halt the extreme hyperinflation crippling German society and the economy. It was successful because Stresemann refused to issue more currency, the cause of the inflationary spiral. Furthermore, the currency was based on land, and restored confidence in the economy. Once the economy as stabilised, Streeseman could set about putting a permanent courrency in place, called the ‘Reichmark’ (1924) which again contributed to the growing level of international confidence in the German economy.
In order to help Germany keep up with her reparation repayments, the Dawes Plan (1924) was created. This was an agreement between American banks and the German government in which the American banks lent money to Germany to help it pay reparations. Other foreign achievements were the evacuation of the Ruhr in 1925 and the 1925 Treaty of Berlin, which reinforced the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922 and improved relations between the USSR and Germany. In 1926, Germany was admitted to the League of Nations as a permanent member, improving her international standing and giving her the ability to veto League of Nations legislation. Germany’s western borders were stabilized in international agreements. However, this progress was funded by overseas loans, increasing the nation’s debts, while overall trade decreased and unemployment rose. Stresemann’s reforms did not relieve the underlying weaknesses of Weimar but gave the appearance of a stable democracy.The growing dependence on American finance proved dangerous as Germany was one of the worst hit nations in the Wall Street Crash (1929).

The 1920s saw a massive cultural revival in Germany. Innovative street theatre brought plays to the public, the cabaret scene and jazz band became very popular. According to the cliché, modern young women were americanised, wearing makeup, short hair, smoking and breaking with traditional mores. A new type of architecture taught at ‘Bauhaus’ schools, and Art reflected the new ideas of the time, with artists such as George Grosz being fined for defaming the military and for blasphemy. ot everyone, however, was happy with the changes taking place in Weimar culture. Many of the older generations felt that Germany was losing her traditional values by adopting popular styles from abroad, particularly the USA. Hollywood popularised American film, while New York became the global capital of fashion. Germany was more susceptible to Americanisation, because of the close economic links brought about by the Dawes plan.
In 1929, four years after receiving the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize, Stresemann died of a heart attack at the age of 51. This event marked the end of the “Golden Era” of the Weimar Republic.
Decline (1930–1933)
Loss of credibility
The last years of the Weimar Republic were stamped by even more political instability than in the previous years. The administrations of Chancellors Brüning, Papen, Schleicher and Hitler (from 30 January-23 March 1933) governed through presidential decree, rather than through consultation with the Reichstag (the German parliament).
The finance expert Heinrich Brüning was appointed as successor of Chancellor Müller by Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg on 29 March 1930, after months of political lobbying by General Kurt von Schleicher on behalf of the military. The new government was expected to lead a political shift towards conservatism, based on the emergency powers granted to the Reichspräsident by the constitution, since it had no majority support in the Reichstag.
After a bill to reform the Reich’s finances was opposed by the Reichstag, Hindenburg established the bill as an emergency decree based on Article 48 of the constitution. On 18 July, the bill was again invalidated by a slim majority in the Reichstag with the support of the SPD, KPD, the (then small) NSDAP and DNVP. Immediately afterwards, Brüning submitted to the Reichstag the president’s decree that it would be dissolved.
The Reichstag general elections on 14 September resulted in an enormous political shift: 18.3% of the vote went to the Nazis, five times the percentage compared to 1928. It was no longer possible to form a pro-republican majority in the Reichstag, not even a Grand Coalition of all major parties except the KPD, NSDAP and DNVP. This encouraged the supporters of the Nazis to force their claim to power by increasing organization of public demonstrations and paramilitary violence against rival paramilitary groups.
From 1930-1932, Brüning tried to reform the devastated state without a majority in Parliament, governing with the help of the President’s emergency decrees. During that time, the Great Depression reached its low point. In line with conservative economic theory that less government spending would spur economic growth, Brüning drastically cut state expenditures, including in the social sector. He expected and accepted that the economic crisis would, for a while, deteriorate before things would improve. Among others, the Reich completely halted all public grants to the obligatory unemployment insurance (which had been introduced only in 1927), which resulted in higher contributions by the workers and fewer benefits for the unemployed.
The bulk of German capitalists and land-owners originally supported the conservative experiment: not from any personal liking for Brüning, but believing the conservatives would best serve their interests. But as the mass of the working class and middle classes turned against Brüning, more of the great capitalists and landowners declared themselves in favour of his opponents — Hitler and Hugenberg. By late 1931, conservatism as a movement was dead, and the time was coming when Hindenburg and the Reichswehr would drop Brüning and come to terms with Hugenberg and Hitler. Although Hindenburg disliked Hugenberg and despised Hitler, he was no less a supporter of the sort of anti-democratic counter-revolution represented by the DNVP and NSDAP.
On 30 May 1932, Brüning resigned after no longer having Hindenburg’s support. Five weeks earlier, Hindenburg had been re-elected Reichspräsident with Brüning’s active support, running against Hitler (the president was directly elected by the people while the Reichskanzler was not).
The Von Papen deal
Hindenburg then appointed Franz von Papen as new Reichskanzler. Von Papen lifted the ban on the NSDAP’s SA paramilitary, imposed after the street riots, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the backing of Hitler.
Von Papen was closely associated with the industrialist and land-owning classes, and pursued an extreme Conservative policy along Hindenburg’s lines. He appointed as Reichswehr Minister Kurt von Schleicher, and all the members of the new cabinet were of the same political opinion as Hindenburg. This government was to be expected to assure itself of the co-operation of Hitler. Since the Republicans were not yet ready to take action, the Communists did not want to support the republic, and the Conservatives had shot their political bolt, Hitler and Hugenberg were certain to achieve power.
Elections of July 1932
Because most parties opposed the new government, von Papen had the Reichstag dissolved and called for new elections. The general elections on 31 July 1932 yielded major gains for the KPD and the NSDAP (the Nazis), who won 37.2% of the vote, supplanting the Social Democrats as the largest party in the Reichstag.
The new question was what part the now immense Nazi Party would play in the Government of the country. The Nazi party owed its huge increase to an influx of workers, unemployed, despairing peasants, and middle-class people. The millions of radical adherents at first forced the Party towards the Left. They wanted a renewed Germany and a new organisation of German society. The left of the Nazi party strove desperately against any drift into the train of such capitalist and feudal reactionaries. Therefore Hitler refused ministry under Papen, and demanded the chancellorship for himself, but was rejected by Hindenburg on 13 August 1932. There was still no majority in the Reichstag for any government; as a result, the Reichstag was dissolved and elections took place once more in the hope that a stable majority would result.
Cabinet Schleicher
The 6 November 1932 elections yielded 33.1% for the Nazis,[4] two million voters less than in the previous election. Franz von Papen stepped down and was succeeded by General Kurt von Schleicher as Reichskanzler on 3 December. Schleicher, a political army officer, had developed in an atmosphere of semi-obscurity and intrigue that encompassed the Republican military policy. He had for years been in the camp of those supporting the Conservative counter-revolution. Schleicher’s bold and unsuccessful plan was to build a majority in the Reichstag by uniting the trade unionist left wings in the various parties, including that of the Nazis led by Gregor Strasser. This did not prove successful either.
In this brief Presidential Dictatorship entr’acte, Schleicher took the role of ‘Socialist General’, and entered into relations with the Christian Trade Unions, the Left Nazis and even with the Social Democrats. Schleicher planned for a sort of labour government under his Generalship. But the Reichswehr officers were not prepared for this, the working class had a natural distrust of their future allies, and great capitalists and landowners did not like the plans. The SPD and KPD could have achieved success building on a Berlin transport strike.
Hitler learned from von Papen that the general had no authority to abolish the Reichstag parliament, whereas any majority of seats did. The cabinet (under a previous interpretation of Article 48) ruled without a sitting Reichstag, which could vote only for its own dissolution. Hitler also learned that all past crippling Nazi debts were to be relieved by German big business.
On 22 January, Hitler’s efforts to persuade Oskar von Hindenburg (the President’s son) included threats to bring criminal charges over estate taxation irregularities at the President’s Neudeck estate (although 5,000 acres (20 km2) extra were soon allotted to Hindenburg’s property). Out-maneuvered by von Papen and Hitler on plans for the new cabinet, and having lost Hindenburg’s confidence, Schleicher asked for new elections. On 28 January, von Papen described Hitler to Paul von Hindenburg as only a minority part of an alternative, von Papen-arranged government. The four great political movements, the SPD, KPD, Centre, and the Nazis were in opposition.
On 29 January, Hitler and von Papen thwarted a last-minute threat of an officially sanctioned Reichswehr takeover, and on 30 January 1933 Hindenburg accepted the new Papen-Nationalist-Hitler coalition with the Nazis holding only three of 11 Cabinet seats. Later that day, the first cabinet meeting was attended by only two political parties, representing a minority in the Reichstag: The Nazis and the DNVP led by Alfred Hugenberg (196 + 52 seats). Eyeing the Catholic Centre Party’s 70 (+ 20 BVP) seats, Hitler refused their leader’s demands for constitutional “concessions” (amounting to protection) and planned for dissolution of the Reichstag.
Hindenburg, despite his misgivings about the Nazis’ goals and about Hitler as a person, reluctantly agreed to Papen’s theory that, with Nazi popular support on the wane, Hitler could now be controlled as chancellor. This date, dubbed Machtergreifung (seizure of power) by Nazi propaganda, is commonly seen as the beginning of Nazi Germany.
Hitler’s chancellorship (1933)
Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor on the morning of 30 January 1933 in what some observers later described as a brief and indifferent ceremony. By early February, a mere week after Hitler’s assumption of the chancellorship, the government had begun to clamp down on the opposition. Meetings of the left-wing parties were banned and even some of the moderate parties found their members threatened and assaulted. Measures with an appearance of legality suppressed the Communist Party in mid-February and included the plainly illegal arrests of Reichstag deputies.
The Reichstag Fire on 27 February was blamed by Hitler’s government on the Communists. Hitler used the ensuing state of emergency to obtain the assent of President von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree the following day. The decree invoked Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution and “indefinitely suspended” a number of constitutional protections of civil liberties, allowing the Nazi government to take swift action against political meetings, arresting and killing the Communists.
Hitler and the Nazis exploited the German state’s broadcasting and aviation facilities in a massive attempt to sway the electorate, but this election yielded a scant majority of 16 seats for the coalition. At the Reichstag elections, which took place on 5 March, the NSDAP obtained 17 million votes. The Communist, Social Democrat and Catholic Centre votes stood firm. This was the last multi-party election until the end of the Third Reich 12 years later and the last all-German election for 57 years.
Hitler addressed disparate interest groups, stressing the necessity for a definitive solution to the perpetual instability of the Weimar Republic. He now blamed Germany’s problems on the Communists, even threatening their lives on 3 March. Former Chancellor Heinrich Brüning proclaimed that his Centre Party would resist any constitutional change and appealed to the President for an investigation of the Reichstag fire. Hitler’s successful plan was to induce what remained of the now Communist-depleted Reichstag to grant him, and the Government, the authority to issue decrees with the force of law. The hitherto Presidential Dictatorship hereby was to give itself a new legal form.
On 15 March, the first cabinet meeting was attended by the two coalition parties, representing a minority in the Reichstag: The Nazis and the DNVP led by Alfred Hugenberg (196 + 52 seats). According to the Nuremberg Trials, this cabinet meeting’s first order of business was how at last to achieve the complete counter-revolution by means of the constitutionally allowed Enabling Act, requiring ⅔ parliamentary majority. This Act would, and did, lead Hitler and the NSDAP toward his goal of unfettered dictatorial powers.
[edit] Hitler cabinet meeting in mid-March
At the meeting of the new cabinet on 15 March, Hitler introduced the Enabling Act, which would have authorised the cabinet to enact legislation without the approval of the Reichstag. Meanwhile, the only remaining question for the Nazis was whether the Catholic Centre Party (Zentrum) would support the Enabling Act in the Reichstag, thereby providing the ⅔ majority required to ratify a law that amended the constitution. Hitler expressed his confidence to win over the Centre’s votes. Hitler is recorded at the Nuremberg Trials as being sure of eventual Centre Party Germany capitulation and thus rejecting of the DNVP’s suggestions to “balance” the majority through further arrests, this time of Social Democrats. Hitler however assured his coalition partners that arrests would resume after the elections and, in fact, some 26 SPD Social Democrats were physically removed. After meeting with Centre leader Monsignor Ludwig Kaas and other Centre Trade Union leaders daily and denying them a substantial participation in the government, negotiation succeeded in respect of guarantees towards Catholic civil-servants and education issues.
At the last internal Centre meeting prior to the debate on the Enabling Act, Kaas expressed no preference or suggestion on the vote, but as a way of mollifying opposition by Centre members to the granting of further powers to Hitler, Kaas somehow arranged for a letter of constitutional guarantee from Hitler himself prior to his voting with the centre en bloc in favor of the Enabling Act. This guarantee was not ultimately given. Kaas, the party’s chairman since 1928, had strong connections to the Vatican Secretary of State, later Pope Pius XII. In return for pledging his support for the act, Kaas would use his connections with the Vatican to set in train and draft the Holy See’s long desired Reichskonkordat with Germany (only possible with the co-operation of the Nazis).
Ludwig Kaas is considered along with von Papen as being one of the two most important political figures in the creation of a National Socialist dictatorship.[6]
[edit] Enabling Act negotiations
On 20 March, negotiation began between Hitler and Frick on one side and the Catholic Centre Party (Zentrum) leaders—Kaas, Stegerwald and Hackelsburger on the other. The aim was to settle on conditions under which Centre would vote in favor of the Enabling Act. Because of the Nazis’ narrow majority in the Reichstag, Centre’s support was necessary to receive the required two-thirds majority vote. On 22 March, the negotiations concluded; Hitler promised to continue the existence of the German states, agreed not to use the new grant of power to change the constitution, and promised to retain Zentrum members in the civil service. Hitler also pledged to protect the Catholic confessional schools and to respect the concordats signed between the Holy See and Bavaria (1924), Prussia (1929) and Baden (1931). Hitler also agreed to mention these promises in his speech to the Reichstag before the vote on the Enabling Act.
The ceremonial opening of the Reichstag on 21 March was held at the Garrison Church in Potsdam, a shrine of Prussianism, in the presence of many Junker landowners and representatives of the imperial military caste. This impressive and often emotional spectacle — orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels — aimed to link Hitler’s government with Germany’s imperial past and portray National Socialism as a guarantor of the nation’s future. The ceremony helped convince the “old guard” Prussian military elite of Hitler’s homage to their long tradition and, in turn, produced the relatively convincing view that Hitler’s government had the support of Germany’s traditional protector — the Army. Such support would publicly signal a return to conservatism to curb the problems affecting the Weimar Republic, and that stability might be at hand. In a cynical and politically adroit move, Hitler bowed in apparently respectful humility before President and Field Marshal von Hindenburg.
Passage of the Enabling Act
The Reichstag convened on 23 March 1933, and in the midday opening, Hitler made a historic speech, appearing outwardly calm and conciliatory. Hitler presented an appealing prospect of respect towards Christianity by paying tribute to the Christian faiths as “essential elements for safeguarding the soul of the German people”. He promised to respect their rights and declared his government’s “ambition is a peaceful accord between Church and State” and that he hoped “to improve our friendly relations with the Holy See.” This speech aimed especially at the future recognition by the named Holy See and therefore to the votes of the Centre Party addressing many concerns Kaas had voiced during the previous talks. Kaas is considered to have had a hand therefore in the drafting of the speech.[6] Kaas is also reported as voicing the Holy See’s desire for Hitler as bulwark against atheistic Russian nihilism previously as early as May 1932.
Hitler promised that the Act did not threaten the existence of either the Reichstag or the Reichsrat, that the authority of the President remained untouched and that the Länder would not be abolished. Of course, all the promises would be broken soon enough, but they served their purpose. During an adjournment, the other parties (notably the Centre) met to discuss their intentions.
In the debate prior to the vote on the Enabling Act, Hitler orchestrated the full political menace of his paramilitary forces like the storm troopers in the streets to intimidate reluctant Reichstag deputies into approving the Enabling Act. The Communists’ 81 seats had been empty since the Reichstag Fire Decree and other lesser known procedural measures, thus excluding their anticipated “No” votes from the balloting. Otto Wels, the leader of the Social Democrats, whose seats were similarly depleted from 120 to below 100, was the only speaker to defend democracy and in a futile but brave effort to deny Hitler the ⅔ majority, he made a speech critical of the abandonment of democracy to dictatorship. At this, Hitler could no longer restrain his wrath.
In his retort to Wels, Hitler abandoned earlier pretence at calm statesmanship and delivered a characteristic screaming diatribe, promising to exterminate all Communists in Germany and threatening Wels’ Social Democrats as well. He did not even want their support for the bill. “Germany will become free, but not through you,” he shouted. Meanwhile Hitler’s promised written guarantee to Monsignor Kaas was being typed up, it was asserted to Kaas, and thereby Kaas was persuaded to silently deliver the Centre bloc’s votes for the Enabling Act anyway. The Act — formally titled the “Act for the Removal of Distress from People and Reich” — was passed by a vote of 441 to 94. Only the SPD had voted against the Act. Every other member of the Reichstag, whether from the largest or the smallest party, voted in favor of the Act. It went into effect the following day, March 24.
Aftermath
Main article: Nazi Germany
The passage of the Enabling Act of 1933 is widely considered to mark the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Third Reich. It empowered the cabinet to legislate without the approval of Reichstag or the President, and to enact laws that were contrary to the constitution. Before the March 1933 elections Hitler had persuaded Hindenburg to promulgate the Reichstag Fire Decree using Article 48, which empowered the government to restrict ‘the rights of habeas corpus […] freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications’ and legalised search warrants and confiscation ‘beyond legal limits otherwise prescribed’. This was intended to forestall any action against the government by the Communists. Hitler used the provisions of the Enabling Act to pre-empt possible opposition to his dictatorship from other sources, in which he was mostly successful.
The process of bringing all major organisations into line with Nazi principles and into the service of the state was called Gleichschaltung. Gleichschaltung is usually translated as “coordination”, but sometimes as “forcible coordination”. It is a compound word, consisting of gleich meaning ‘alike’ and schaltung which means ‘switching’. The NSDAP meant to imply a particular mechanical meaning of the word: a certain means of wiring an electrical generator and electric motors, so that when the generator is made to turn at a given speed or turned to a certain angle, each motor connected to it will also turn at that speed, or to the same angle — in other words, synchronization. The NSDAP was thought of as the generator, and other civil groups as the motors which were wired to it
Hitler’s cabinet issued many decrees for the purpose of Gleichschaltung in the weeks following the passage of the Act. It removed Jews from the civil service (at Hindenburg’s request, an exception was made for Jews who had served at the front during World War I). It banned all trade unions and eventually outlawed all other political parties. After the exiled SPD published its new weekly Neuer Vorwarts in Prague, Hitler banned the party, confiscating its assets and abolishing its parliamentary representation, by decree of 22 June.
However, opposition was frequently not addressed by legislation at all. The process of Gleichschaltung was often voluntary, or in any event not mandated by a formal decree. Most other parties had dissolved before being officially banned: the NSDAP’s coalition partner, the DNVP, dissolved on 27 June, one day after Hugenberg’s resignation from the cabinet. The Staatspartei (formerly the DDP) dissolved itself on 28 June and the DVP on 29 June. On 4-5 July, the Catholic parties (the BVP and the Centre) also wound up. By the time the formal decree banned the creation of new parties, there were none left except the NSDAP.
… many organizations showed themselves only too willing to anticipate the [Gleichschaltung] process and to “coordinate” themselves in accordance with the expectations of the new era. By the autumn, the Nazi dictatorship … had been enormously strengthened. What is striking is not how much, but how little, Hitler needed to do to bring this about … Hitler took remarkably few initiatives. Kershaw p. 469.
Willing Gleichschaltung was termed Selbstgleichschaltung or “self-coordination”. There was a rush to join the NSDAP, overrunning the party’s ability to process applications: on May 1, the party announced that it was suspending the admission of new members. The party’s membership had increased to 2.5 million, from about 900,000 at the end of January. Many prominent intellectuals allied themselves with the new government: the country’s most famous philosopher, Martin Heidegger and its most prominent constitutional scholar, Carl Schmitt, spoke in favour of it, and Heidegger became the sponsor of a manifesto of German professors pledging allegiance to “Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist State.” Lists were prepared of writers whose works were unacceptable in the ‘New Order’, including Freud, Einstein and Brecht. On the evening of 10 May, under the leadership of the German Students’ Association and without substantial protest by the university faculties,[citation needed] some 20,000 volumes were burned at Berlin’s Opernplatz.
The Reichswehr had, however, remained mostly untouched by Gleichschaltung. It was not until Hindenburg’s death in August 1934 that all military personnel swore an oath of loyalty directly to Hitler, instead of to the constitution. Thereafter, the military came under gradually increasing pressure to align itself with NSDAP ideology, but it never entirely capitulated. Likewise, the holdings of industrialists and aristocratic “Junker” landowners remained for the most part untouched, whilst the administrative and judicial machinery was only very slightly tampered with. The Nazi efforts to “co-ordinate” the Christian churches (both Catholic and Protestant) were mostly unsuccessful, and were largely abandoned. However, the churches as a whole did not present any serious opposition to Hitler.
Legacy
The constitution of 1919 was never formally repealed, but the Enabling Act meant that all its other provisions were a dead letter. The Enabling Act itself was breached by Hitler on three occasions in 1934: Article 2 of the act stated that
‘Laws enacted by the government of the Reich may deviate from the constitution as long as they do not affect the institutions of the Reichstag and the Reichsrat. The rights of the President remain undisturbed.’
The powers of the Länder (states) were transferred to the central government, rendering the Reichsrat obsolete. A month later, the Reichsrat itself was dissolved. President von Hindenburg died in August, and Hitler appropriated the president’s powers for himself. The Enabling Act did not specify any recourse that could be taken if the chancellor violated Article 2, and no judicial challenge ensued. After the death of Hindenburg in 1934, the constitution was largely forgotten, with some minor exceptions. In Hitler’s 1945 political testament (written shortly before his suicide) he appointed Admiral Karl Doenitz to succeed him, but he named Doenitz as President rather than Fuehrer, thereby re-establishing a constitutional office which had lain dormant since Hindenburg’s death twelve years earlier. On the 30th of April 1945 Doenitz formed what became known as the Flensburg government, which controlled only a tiny area of Germany near the Danish border, including the town of Flensburg. It was dissolved by the Allies on 23 May. On 5 June, the Allied Berlin Declaration stated in its preamble that the Allies assumed
supreme authority with respect to Germany, including all the powers possessed by the German Government […] and any state, municipal, or local government or authority.
It also declared that there was
no central Government or authority in Germany capable of accepting responsibility for the maintenance of order, the administration of the country and compliance with the requirements of the victorious Powers.
Article 13 of the declaration read:
[T]he four Allied Governments will take such steps, including the complete disarmament and demilitarization of Germany, as they deem requisite for future peace and security. The Allied Representatives will impose on Germany additional political, administrative, economic, financial, military and other requirements arising from the complete defeat of Germany. […] All German authorities and the German people shall carry out unconditionally the requirements of the Allied Representatives, and shall fully comply with all such proclamations, orders, ordinances and instructions.
These provisions, not legally challenged by either of the subsequent German governments, meant that neither any NSDAP decree nor the 1919 constitution held any legal force over the Allies’ administration of Germany.
The 1949 Constitution of the German Democratic Republic contained many passages that were originally part of the 1919 constitution. It was intended to be the constitution of a united Germany, and was thus a compromise between liberal-democratic and Leninist ideologies. It was replaced by a new, explicitly Leninist constitution in 1968, which was substantially amended in 1974. In 1990, the GDR dissolved altogether.
The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, enacted in 1949, stated that
‘The provisions of Articles 136, 137, 138, 139 and 141 of the German Constitution of 11 August 1919 shall be an integral part of this Basic Law.’
These articles of the Weimar constitution (which dealt with the state’s relationship to various Christian churches) remain part of the German Basic Law.
Reasons for failure
The reasons for the Weimar Republic’s collapse are the subject of continuing debate. It may have been doomed from the beginning since even moderates disliked it and extremists on both the left and right loathed it. Germany had limited democratic traditions and Weimar democracy was widely seen as chaotic. And since Weimar politicians had been blamed for the ‘Dolchstosslegende — a then widely believed theory that Germany’s surrender in World War I had been the unnecessary act of traitors — the popular legitimacy of the government was on shaky ground.
No single reason can explain the failure of the Weimar Republic. The most commonly asserted causes can be grouped into three categories: economic problems, institutional problems and the roles of specific individuals.
Economic problems
The Weimar Republic had some of the most serious economic problems ever experienced by any Western democracy in history. Rampant hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and a large drop in living standards were primary factors. From 1923–1929, there was a short period of economic recovery, but the Great Depression of the 1930s led to a worldwide recession. Germany was particularly affected because it depended heavily on American loans. In 1926, about 2 million Germans were unemployed — this rose to around 6 million in 1932. Many blamed the Weimar Republic. This was made apparent when political parties on both right and left wanting to disband the Republic altogether made any democratic majority in Parliament impossible.
The Weimar Republic was severely affected by the Great Depression. The economic stagnation led to increased demands on Germany to repay the debts owed to the United States. As the Weimar Republic was very fragile in all of its existence, the depression proved to be devastating, and played a major role in the NSDAP’s takeover.
The Treaty of Versailles was considered by most Germans to be a punishing and degrading document because it forced them to surrender resource-rich areas and pay massive amounts of compensation. These punitive reparations caused consternation and resentment, although the actual economic damage resulting from the Treaty of Versailles is difficult to determine. While the official reparations were considerable, Germany ended up paying only a fraction of them. However, the reparations did damage Germany’s economy by discouraging market loans, which forced the Weimar government to finance its deficit by printing more money, causing rampant hyperinflation. In addition, the rapid disintegration of Germany in 1919, due to the return of a disillusioned army, the rapid change from possible victory in 1918 to defeat in 1919, and the political chaos may have caused a psychological imprint on Germans that could lead to extreme nationalism, later epitomized and exploited by Hitler.
Most historians agree that many industrial leaders identified the Weimar Republic with labour unions and with the Social Democrats, who had established the Versailles concessions of 1918/1919. Although some did see Hitler as a means to abolish the latter, the Republic was already unstable before any industry leaders were supporting Hitler. Even those who supported Hitler’s appointment often did not support Nazism in its entirety and considered Hitler a temporary solution in their efforts to abolish the Republic. Industry support alone cannot explain Hitler’s enthusiastic support by large segments of the population, including many workers who had turned away from the left.
Institutional problems
It is widely believed that the 1919 constitution had several weaknesses, making the eventual establishment of a dictatorship likely but it is unknown whether a different constitution could have prevented the Third Reich. However, the 1949 West German constitution (the Grundgesetz) is generally viewed as a strong response to these flaws.
• The institution of the Reichspräsident was frequently considered as an Ersatzkaiser (“substitute emperor”), an attempt to replace the Kaiser with a similarly strong institution meant to diminish party politics. Article 48 of the constitution gave the President power to “take all necessary steps” if “public order and security are seriously disturbed or endangered”. Although this was intended as an emergency clause, it was often used before 1933 to issue decrees without the support of Parliament (see above) and also made Gleichschaltung easier.
• During the Weimar Republic, it was accepted that a law did not have to conform to the constitution as long as it had the support of two thirds of parliament, the same majority needed to change the constitution (verfassungsdurchbrechende Gesetze). This was a precedent for the Enabling Act of 1933. The Basic Law of 1949 requires an explicit change of the wording, and it prohibits abolishing the basic rights or the federal structure of the republic.
• The use of proportional representation meant any party with a small amount of support could gain entry into the Reichstag. This led to many small parties, some extremist, building political bases within the system. Yet, it has to be noted that the Reichstag of the monarchy was fractioned to a similar degree although being elected by majority vote (under a two-round system). The republic did not fall due to the small parties, but to the strength of the communists, conservatives and national socialists.
• The Reichstag could remove the Reichskanzler from office even if it was unable to agree on a successor. This “Motion of No Confidence” meant, since 1932, that a government could not be held in office when the parliament came together. As a result, the 1949 Grundgesetz stipulates that a chancellor may only be voted down by Parliament if a successor is elected at the same time (see Constructive Vote of No Confidence).
• The political parties started to have a role in creating a government only in October 1918. They had no time to get used to that, under the old system.
Role of individuals
Brüning’s economic policy from 1930–1932 has been the subject of much debate. It caused many Germans to identify the Republic with cuts in social spending and extremely liberal economics. Whether there were alternatives to this policy during the Great Depression is an open question.
Paul von Hindenburg became Reichspräsident in 1925. He represented the old authoritarian 1871 Empire, and it is hard to label him as a democrat in support of the 1919 Republic, but he was never a Nazi. During his later years (at well over 80 years old), he was also senile. A president with solid democratic beliefs may not have allowed the Reichstag to be circumvented with the use of Article 48 decrees and might have avoided signing the Reichstag Fire Decree. Hindenburg waited one and a half days before he appointed Hitler as Reichskanzler on 30 January 1933, which indicates some hesitance. Some claim Nazism would have lost much public support if Hitler had not been named chancellor.

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