Birth of the Weimar Republic :
- Germany, a powerful empire in the early years of 20th century, fought the first world war (1914-1918) alongside the Austrian empire against the Allies ( England, France and Russia.)
- Germany made initial gains by occupying France and Belgium.
- However, Allies strengthened by US entry in 1917 won, defeating Germany and the Central Powers in November 1918.
- The defeat of Imperial Germany and abdication ( failure to fulfill a duty) of the emperor gave an opportunity to parliamentary parties to recast German polity.
- A National Assembly met at Weimar and established a democratic constitution with a federal structure.
- Deputies were elected to the German parliament or Reichstag , on basis of equal and universal votes cast by all adults, including women.
- This republic, was not received well by its own people because of the terms it was forced to accept after Germany’s defeat at the end of First World war.
- The peace treaty at Versailles with the Allies was a harsh and humiliating peace.
- Germany lost its overseas colonies, 1/10th of its population, 13% of its territories, 75% of its iron and 26% of its coal to France, Poland, Denmark and Lithuania.
- Allied powers demilitarized Germany to weaken its power. The War Guilt Clause held Germany responsible for the War and damages the Allied countries suffered. Germany was forced to pay compensation amounting to 6 Billion Pounds.
- Many Germans held the new Weimar Republic responsible for not only the defeat in the war but also the disgrace at Versailles.
The effects of the War :
- War had a devastating impact on the entire continent both physically and financially.
- From a continent of creditors, Europe turned into one of debtors.
- The infant Weimar Republic was being made to pay for the sins of the old empire. It carried the burden of the war guilt and National Humiliation and was financially crippled by being forced to pay compensation.
- Supporters of the Weimar Republic, mainly socialists, catholics, and democrats became easy targets of attack in the conservative nationalist circles. They were mockingly called the ‘November Criminals’.
- First world war, had left a deep imprint on European society and polity,
- soldiers came to be placed upon civilians.
- Politicians and publicists laid great stress on the need for men to be aggressive, strong and masculine. The media glorified trench life.
- However, the truth was that soldiers lived miserable lives in the trenches, trapped with rats feeding on corpses. They faced poisonous gas and enemy shelling, and witnessed their ranks reduce rapidly.
- Aggressive war propaganda and national honour occupied center stage in public sphere, while popular support grew for conservative dictatorships.
- Democracy was a young and fragile idea, which could not survive the instabilities of at war Europe.
Political Radicalism and Economic crises :
- The birth of Weimar Republic coincided with the revolutionary uprising of Spartacist league on the pattern of Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
- The political atmosphere in Berlin was charged with demands for soviet style governance. Those opposed to this- like the socialists, Democrats, Catholics, met in Weimar to give shape to democratic republic.
- Weimar Republic crushed the uprising with the help of a war veterans organisation called Free Corps.
- The anguished Spartacists later founded the Communist Party Of Germany.
- Communists and Socialists, thus, became irreconcilable enemies and could not make common cause against Hitler. Both revolutionaries and militant nationalists craved for radical solutions.
- Political radicalisation only increased by the economic crisis in 1923.
- Germany had fought the war majorly on loans, and had to repay them in gold . This depleted gold reserves at a time when resources were scarce.
- In 1923, Germany refused to pay and then, French occupied its leading industrial area, Ruhr, to claim their coal.
- Germany retaliated with passive resistance and printed paper currency recklessly.
- With too much paper currency in circulation. Value of German mark fell.
- In April US Dollar was equal to 24,000marks, in July 35,000marks and in August 4,621,000marks and at 98,860,000marks in December, the figure had run into trillions.
- Value of mark collapsed, prices of goods soared . Image of Germans carrying cartloads of currency notes to buy a loaf of bread was widely publicized evoking worldwide sympathy.
- This crisis came to be known as hyperinflation, a situation when prices rise was extremely high.
- Eventually, Americans intervened and bailed Germany out of the crisis by introducing Dawes Plan, which reworked to ease the financial burden on Germans.
The Years of Depression :
- Years between 1924-1928 saw some stability, but this was short lived.
- German investments and industrial recovery were totally dependent on short term loans, largely from the USA. This was withdrawn when the Wall Street Exchange crashed in 1929.
- Fearing a fall in prices, people made frantic efforts to sell their shares.
- On one single day, 24 October, 13 million shares were sold. This was the start of the Great Economic Depression.
- Between 1929 and 1932, the national income of the USA fell by half.
- Factories shut down, exports fell, farmers were badly hit and speculators withdrew their money from the market.
- The effects of this recession in the US economy were felt worldwide.
Crisis in Germany :
- The German economy was the worst hit by the economic crisis.
- By 1932, industrial production was reduced to 40% of the 1929 level.
- Workers lost their jobs or were paid reduced wages.
- The number of unemployed touched an unprecedented 6 million.
- On the streets of Germany you could see men with placards around their necks saying, ‘Willing to do any work’.
- Unemployed youths played cards or simply sat at street corners, or desperately queued up at the local employment exchange.
- As jobs disappeared, the youth took to criminal activities and total despair became common.
- Crisis created deep anxieties and fears in people.
- The middle classes, especially salaried employees and pensioners, saw their s avings diminish when the currency lost its value.
- Small businessmen, the self-employed and retailers suffered as their businesses got ruined.
- These sections of society were filled with the fear of proletarianisation, an anxiety of being reduced to the ranks of the working class, or worse still, the unemployed.
- Big businesses were greatly affected too.
- The large mass of peasantry was affected by a sharp fall in agricultural prices and women, unable to fill their children’s stomachs, were filled with a sense of deep despair.
Weimar Republic was defective :
- Weimar Republic was fragile.
- The Weimar constitution had some inherent defects, which made it unstable and vulnerable to dictatorship.
1- Proportional representation :
This made achieving a majority by any one party a near impossible task, leading to a rule by coalitions.
2- Article 48 :
It gave the President the powers to impose emergency, suspend civil rights and rule by decree.
- Within its short life, the Weimar Republic saw 20 different cabinets lasting an average of 239 days, and liberal use of Article 48.
- Yet the crisis could not be managed.
- People lost confidence in the democratic parliamentary system, which seemed to offer no solutions.