Weimar Republic

Weimar Republic

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The Weimar Republic was Germany’s government from 1919 to 1933, the period after World War I until the rise of Nazi Germany. It was named after the town of Weimar where Germany’s new government was formed by a national assembly after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. From its uncertain beginnings to a brief season of success and then a devastating depression, the Weimar Republic experienced enough chaos to position Germany for the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Germany After World War I

Germany didn’t fare well after World War I, as it was thrown into troubling economic and social disorder. After a series of mutinies by German sailors and soldiers, Kaiser Wilhelm II lost the support of his military and the German people, and he was forced to abdicate on November 9, 1918.

The following day, a provisional government was announced made up of members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USDP), shifting power from the military.

In December 1918, elections were held for a National Assembly tasked with creating a new parliamentary constitution. On February 6, 1919, the National Assembly met in the town of Weimar and formed the Weimar Coalition. They also elected SDP leader Friedrich Ebert as President of the Weimar Republic.

On June 28, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, which ordered Germany to reduce its military, take responsibility for the World War I, relinquish some of its territory and pay exorbitant reparations to the Allies. It also prevented Germany from joining the League of Nations at that time.


Weimar Constitution

On August 11, 1919, the Weimar Constitution was signed into law by President Ebert. The law faced venomous opposition from the military and the radical left. The Constitution contained 181 articles and covered everything from the structure of the German state (Reich) and the rights of the German people to religious freedom and how laws should be enacted.

The Weimar Constitution included these highlights:

  • The German Reich is a Republic.
  • The government is made of a president, a chancellor and a parliament (Reichstag).
  • Representatives of the people must be elected equally every four years by all men and women over age 20.
  • The term of the President is seven years.
  • All orders of the President must be endorsed by the Chancellor or a Reich Minister.
  • Article 48 allows the President to suspend civil rights and operate independently in an emergency.
  • Two legislative bodies (the Reichstag and the Reichsrat) were formed to represent the German people.
  • All Germans are equal and have the same civil rights and responsibilities.
  • All Germans have the right to freedom of expression.
  • All Germans have the right to peaceful assembly.
  • All Germans have the right to freedom of religion; there is no state church.
  • State-run, public education is free and mandatory for children.
  • All Germans have the right of private property.
  • All Germans have the right to equal opportunity and earnings in the workplace.

Hyperinflation and the Fallout

Despite its new constitution, the Weimar Republic faced one of Germany’s greatest economic challenges: hyperinflation. Thanks to the Treaty of Versailles, Germany’s ability to produce revenue-generating coal and iron ore decreased. As war debts and reparations drained its coffers, the German government was unable to pay its debts.

Some of the former World War I Allies didn’t buy Germany’s claim that it couldn’t afford to pay. In a blatant League of Nations breach, French and Belgian troops occupied Germany’s main industrial area, the Ruhr, determined to get their reparation payments.

The Weimar government ordered German workers to passively resist the occupation and go on strike, shutting down the coal mines and iron factories. As a result, Germany’s economy quickly tanked.

In response, the Weimar government simply printed more money. The effort backfired, however, and further devalued the German Mark—and inflation increased at an astounding level. The cost of living rose rapidly and many people lost all they had.

According to Paper Money, written by George J. W. Goodman under the pseudonym Adam Smith, “the law-abiding country crumbled into petty thievery.” An underground bartering economy was established to help people meet their basic needs.

Dawes Plan

Germany elected Gustav Stresemann as their new chancellor in 1923. He ordered Ruhr workers back to the factories and replaced the Mark with a new currency, the American-backed Retenmark.

In late 1923, the League of Nations asked U.S. banker and Director of the Budget, Charles Dawes, to help tackle Germany’s reparations and hyperinflation issues. He submitted the “Dawes Plan” which outlined a plan for Germany to pay more reasonable reparations on a sliding scale. Dawes was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

The Dawes Plan and Stresemann’s leadership helped stabilize the Weimar Republic and energize its economy. In addition, Germany repaired relations with France and Belgium and was finally allowed into the League of Nations, which opened the door for international trade. In general, life improved in the Weimar Republic.

Great Depression

Much of the Weimar Republic’s recovery was due to a steady flow of American dollars into its economy. But unbeknownst to Germany, America had positioned itself for an economic disaster of its own as it struggled with increased unemployment, low wages, declining stock values and massive, unliquidated bank loans.

On October 29, 1929, the U.S. stock market crashed, sending America into a devastating economic meltdown and ushering in the Great Depression.

The stock market crash had a global ripple effect. It was especially devastating for the newly recovered Weimar Republic. As the flow of American money dried up, Germany could no longer meet their financial responsibilities. Businesses failed, unemployment rates rose and Germany faced another devastating economic crisis.

Article 48

During hyperinflation, the German middle class bore the brunt of the economic chaos. When another financial crisis hit, they grew weary and distrustful of their government leaders. Searching for new leadership and fearing a Communist takeover, many people turned to extremist parties such as the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler, despite his unpopular and failed attempt to start a national revolution in 1923.

In 1932, the Nazi Party became the largest political party in Parliament. After a brief struggle for power, Hitler was named Chancellor in January 1933. Within weeks, he invoked Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to quash many civil rights and suppress members of the Communist party.

In March 1933, Hitler introduced the Enabling Act to allow him to pass laws without the approval of Germany’s Parliament or President. To make sure the Enabling Act was passed, Hitler forcibly prevented Communist Parliament members from voting. Once it became law, Hitler was free to legislate as he saw fit and establish his dictatorship without any checks and balances.


1929: A Turning Point During the Weimar Republic. Facing History and Ourselves.
Charles G. Dawes: Biographical.
The Enabling Act. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia.
The Weimar Republic. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia.
The Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. Wesleyan University.
Volume 6. Weimar Germany, 1918/19–1933 The Constitution of the German Empire of August 11, 1919 (Weimar Constitution). German History in Documents and Images.
Weimar Republic. New World Encyclopedia.
Commanding Heights: The German Hyperinflation, 1923.
War I Aftermath. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Holocaust Encyclopedia.

Berlin's Most Illustrious Decade: A Brief History of Weimar Culture

People often talk nostalgically about the ‘roaring 20s’ in Paris and New York, but the truth is, there was no place in the world like Berlin during that time.

The Weimar Republic is the unofficial name given to Germany in the interwar period from 1919 to 1933, between the defeat of Germany in the Great War in 1918 and Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. During that time, Berlin became the intellectual and creative centre of Europe, doing pioneering work in the modern movements of literature, theatre and the arts, and also in the fields of psychoanalysis, sociology and science. Germany’s economy and political affairs were suffering at the time, but cultural and intellectual life was flourishing. This period in German history is often referred to as the ‘Weimar Renaissance’ or the country’s ‘Golden Years’.

Dubbed the ‘Babylon of the 20s,’ the city centre flourished with youthful activity and explosive sexual freedom. Provocative cabaret shows, excessive drug use, nights of hedonistic partying, open and same-sex relationships all took centre stage in Berlin. There were many strong women in the movement, with performers such as Marlene Dietrich and Anita Berber becoming icons of the time in their lifestyle, art and relationships. It was also the decade of Brecht, the Isherwoods and the Bauhaus movement in art and design.

In the documentary entitled Metropolis of Vice, Legendary Sin Cities, which offer a snapshot of the times, we hear that, ‘Berlin was what sexual daydreams wanted to be. You could find almost anything there, and maybe everything.’ This kind of creative freedom of thought and expression was a revelation, and an offence to the austere and conservative extreme right wing that was on the rise, namely Hitler and his Nazis.

Here’s a short clip of what life looked like in Berlin in the 20s.

Jewish History

German bankers carrying sacks of money, 1923. Photo by Georg Pahl. Published with permission from the German Federal Archive.

March 5, 1933 was the date of the election that gave the Nazis control of the Reichstag. Because of that, I’d like to discuss Hitler’s rise to power, which is one of the most dramatic and yet unbelievable stories in the history of man.

Hitler is a terrible example of how all of civilization can be irrevocably changed by the presence of one individual. The question is: How could Hitler have done what he did and why did the world let it happen? A study of history shows that the ground was prepared for him. He did not appear in a vacuum.

The German government after the First World War was called the Weimar Republic, controlled basically by two centrist parties, the Social Democratic Party and the Catholic Alliance. Because of the vengefulness of France and England after the war, Germany was required to pay tremendous war reparations. But the armistice allowed the reparations to be paid off in German currency, so in order to meet the payments, the Weimar Republic purposely debased their currency.

In other words, let’s say the German government had to pay a billion marks. A billion marks could, at one time, have been worth a billion dollars, but when you print a billion marks and just throw them out there, then a billion marks is worth ten cents. The Weimar Republic began printing money in denominations of billions and trillions.

That policy effectively knocked the reparations down, but it also destroyed the German middle class. People who had pensions or who lived on fixed incomes were left with nothing. People had to go grocery shopping with wheelbarrows full of money. It has become history’s classic case of hyperinflation. And most of all, it created a large class of dissatisfied people who hated the Weimar Republic.

Nazi propaganda poster that reads, "No one shall go hungry! No one shall go cold!" From the German Propaganda Archive, collected by Professor Randall Bytwerk of Calvin College.

In the midst of this turmoil, arose two extremes, each of whom wanted to topple the Weimar Republic. On the left were the Communists, and on the right were the “volkishe” parties, of which the Nazi party was only one. This was the fissure that cracked open German society. There were violent strikes in the streets, back and forth fighting, rioting, the red flag waving. People were killed. And the people of Germany, who feared Communism and abhor chaos, sided with the “volkishe” parties, who promised to establish law and order. Better to have law and order and break a few heads than to live with that chaos. In fact, part of the Nazis’ early success was that they mobilized most of the leftist street forces and brought them in under their banner. They performed just as well for Hitler as they would have for the Communists. There’s a certain identity of purpose and style with totalitarian dictators.

Hitler still may not have made it. The Nazi party was not a major force in German politics in the 1920’s. But then, destiny intervened with the stock market crash of 1929. The Great Depression wreaked havoc in Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people were unemployed. People were starving. And the Weimar Republic was incapable of dealing with it.

People want instantaneous, easy, solutions. They want a savior. They also want a scapegoat. Hitler provided both. He was the savior, and the Jews were the scapegoat. And that lethal message brought more death and destruction than was seen in all human civilization.

For more on the dramatic yet tragic 20th century, please check out our documentary film series, Faith and Fate.

Sex and the Weimar Republic: German Homosexual Emancipation and the Rise of the Nazis

Liberated, licentious, or merely liberal, the sexual freedoms of Germany's Weimar Republic have become legendary. The home of the world's first gay rights movement, the republic embodied a progressive, secular vision of sexual liberation. Immortalized - however misleadingly - in Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories and the musical Cabaret, Weimar's freedoms have become a touchstone for the politics of sexual emancipation.

Yet, as Laurie Marhoefer shows in Sex and Weimar Republic, those sexual freedoms were only obtained at the expense of a minority who were deemed sexually disordered. In Weimar Germany, the citizen's right to sexual freedom came with a duty to keep sexuality private, non-commercial, and respectable.

Sex and the Weimar Republic examines the rise of sexual tolerance through the debates which surrounded "immoral" sexuality: obscenity, male homosexuality, lesbianism, transgender identity, heterosexual promiscuity, and prostitution. It follows the sexual politics of a swath of Weimar society ranging from sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld to Nazi stormtrooper Ernst R ö hm. Tracing the connections between toleration and regulation, Marhoefer's observations remain relevant to the politics of sexuality today.

The Weimar Republic was formed in 1919 after the Weimar Constitution and Treaty of Versailles were signed. The first President of the Weimar Republic was Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). He became the first President mainly because the SPD was the biggest party in Germany at the time, and he was the only person the German Elite (army generals) saw fit to run the country.

In order to keep the new Republic secure, Ebert got together with the army and signed the Ebert-Groener Pact, a document which promised Ebert that he would be protected by the German army, as long as he allowed the army generals to have full control of what it did and he stayed out of its business.

During the early 1920s, the Republic went through a hyper inflation. This was caused by the struggle of Germany faced trying to pay off their huge Reperations, which were finally totalled at £6,600,000,000 (£6.6 billion). The Germans were forced to pay the Allies in pounds due to the fact it was a stable currency, unlike the German Reichmark which was not. This meant that Germany could not simply print the money they wanted. However, they did this, and it led to hyperinflation, in which the worth of the Reichsmark grew up to as high as a loaf of bread costing 3 billion marks. To solve this, the Weimar Republic balanced its budget, by increasing taxes and reducing costs, created a new currency, the Rentenmark, and got loans from the United States of America in what was known as the Dawes Plan in 1924.

Friedrich Ebert died on February 28, 1925, and was replaced as president by Paul von Hindenburg until 1933 when the Nazi Party came into power and removed the Republic from existence.

Historian Says Weimar Republic Holds Potent Lessons for Today

Seventy-five years ago, Hitler came to power, ending the Weimar Republic. Did Germany's experiment with democracy between 1919 and 1933 ever stand a real chance? Eric Weitz, a US historian and author, has the answers.

The Nazis' rise to power in 1933 ended the 14-year-old Weimar democracy

On Jan. 30, 1933, Hitler was named German chancellor, spelling the end to the Weimar Republic -- Germany's convulsive experiment with democracy between 1919 and 1933. The period was dubbed the "Weimar Republic" by historians in honor of the city of Weimar, where a national assembly convened to write and adopt a new constitution for the German Reich following the nation's defeat in World War I. The Weimar Republic was marked on the one hand by hyperinflation, mass unemployment and political instability on the other, by dazzling creativity in the arts and sciences and a legendary nightlife in Berlin.

Eric Weitz, chairman of the history department at the University of Minnesota in the United States, last year published an acclaimed book on the period: "Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy." DW-WORLD.DE spoke with him about the spirit of the time, the factors leading to the Nazi seizure of power and the lessons to be drawn from the Weimar Republic.

DW-WORLD.DE: One of the premises of your book is that the Weimar Republic should not be seen simply as a prelude to Nazi dictatorship but as an era in its own right.

Weitz argues that the Weimar Republic should be valued in its own right

Eric Weitz: It certainly should be seen as an era in its own right. The Weimar Republic was a wonderfully creative period. We should not constantly look back from the 12 years of the Third Reich to the 14 years of the Weimar Republic because the republic was a period of very important political, cultural and social innovation. We need to remember and value it in its own right. Every issue about the Weimar Republic, about life in Germany in the 1920s was intensely debated -- both at the high intellectual and artistic level as well at the level of politics and society.

How do you explain the cultural and artistic blossoming in Germany, and particularly in Berlin, in the 1920s? After all, this was a nation battered by war, with millions of dead, and plagued by hyperinflation and instability.

The intense innovation of Weimar is related precisely to these factors. Many people focus exclusively on the despair that came out of World War I. There was despair in abundance to be sure. Two million Germans died in World War I, 4 million were wounded, and men who came back were often severely wounded, both physically and psychologically. Women at the home front during the war, experienced four years of intense privation. And afterwards there came the post-war crisis -- readjustment and hyperinflation.

Otto Dix, who created this work in 1920, was one of the prominent German artists of the Weimar Republic

But to a certain extent, that intense instability of economy, society and politics fuelled this deep intellectual engagement with the problems of living in the modern age, of what should be Germany's political configuration. But beyond that, the revolution of 1918/19 was crucial to this cultural efflorescence as well. The revolution threw out the Kaiser and established a democratic system -- the most democratic system the Germans had lived under to that point. The spirit of revolution created a sense that the future was open, it was one of unbounded possibilities that it could be shaped in a more humanitarian way. It could not last forever, but it's that sense that underpins much of the cultural innovation of the republic.

Yet there were people in Germany who hated the Weimar Republic. Who were they? And why did they want it to fail if it was so promising and attractive?

Everything about the Weimar Republic was contested. The kinds of artists, thinkers, architects whom I focus on in the book -- much or all of their work was intensely challenged from the right. By that I mean the establishment right -- the old-line aristocrats, high government officials, army officers, businessmen, bankers, people from the church who by and large were not only anti-socialist and anti-communist but anti-democratic as well. The revolution in 1918/19 left their powers intact by and large. It established a political democracy but did not undermine at all the social situation and powers of this old-line conservative elite.

That conservative elite, after the initial flurry of revolution, challenged the republic every step of the way. Many of the focal points of conflict were not just in the political sphere but in the cultural and social sphere as well. There was, for example, the so-called "Zehlendorf Roof Wars" in which conservatives, architects, and critics -- Nazis as well -- claimed that the flat roofs of modern architectural style was distinctly un-German and true German architecture had pitched roofs. These critics would charge that flat roofs were a form of Jewish architecture. The emancipation of women in the 1920s and very active talk of erotic fulfillment was another focal point of intense conflict.

Would you say the Weimar Republic was an early victim of globalization? Do you think it would have survived if the Great Depression of 1929 hadn't occurred?

The Great Depression was the final blow. If we look at the economy and the election of 1928 just prior to the onset of the Great Depression, we can see a move back to the center politically and signs of serious economic progress. This is the last year of the so-called fabled golden years of the republic. Without the Depression, the republic would at least have had a chance. It had managed to survive the hyperinflation of 1923, as disruptive and disorienting as that event was. But it was the depression that came from the United States to Germany very fast and very strongly that certainly unleashed the final blow.

Hyperinflation in 1923 made German currency worthless and sparked an economic crisis

At the same time we should not forget that few democracies have been founded in such difficult circumstances as the Weimar Republic. The republic needed a long breathing space, it needed a more expansive and forgiving attitude on the part of the Western allies, it needed economic stability and progress -- all of that was in precious short supply in the post-World War I years.

What led finally to the demise of democracy in the Weimar Republic? After all, in the 1928 general election, the Nazis won just 2.6 percent of the vote five years later Hitler was in power.

It's true, in 1928, the Nazi party was a marginal, unimportant political group which had very little resonance beyond some very distinctive places that were already in depression before the Great Depression -- agricultural areas in particular. But in many ways, the republic was seriously undermined and the political system paralyzed prior to the Nazi seizure of power. In a depression especially, people look for solutions and the republic was not offering any to the economic crisis. From 1930 onwards, Germany was governed under a presidential dictatorship because the political system was so fragmented that the Reichstag could not assemble or function in parliamentary majority. So the chancellor from spring of 1930 onwards, Heinrich Brüning and his successors, governed largely through emergency powers proclaimed by the president, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg.

The Nazis never received a majority vote

But I do want to underscore the fact that the Nazis never received a majority vote in a popular, freely contested election. In the summer of 1932, they received 37.4 percent of the vote -- the highest they would ever receive. It's a significant jump to be sure but that's not a majority and the popular phrase that one hears so often in the United States, "the German people elected Hitler to power or elected the Nazis to power" -- that's wrong, it's inaccurate, it's untrue. The Nazis were never elected to power. In the next election, in the fall of 1932, they already lost a significant percentage of the support they had gained in the summer. The Nazi party was in disarray. At the very end, they came to power because the establishment conservative elite, a coterie of powerful men around President Hindenburg, handed power over to the Nazis. That alliance is what ultimately killed the republic.

What lessons can be drawn from the Weimar Republic? Implied throughout your book is the question of whether it is possible for contemporary democracies to succumb to neo-fascist forces in the same way that the Weimar Republic fell to the Nazis.

Present day Germany is a well-established democratic system. It gives me no worries whatsoever. To be sure there are some extreme right-wing groups that can be dangerous and the reaction against them is still a little slow sometimes. But these groups are marginal and Berlin is not Weimar.

My worries are more about my own country, the US, in the sense that the threats to democracy don't always come from abroad. The most dangerous threat may come from within. That was certainly the case in Weimar, especially in its last years. What worries me is when certain people or institutions mouth talk of democracy but in reality undermine the very practices of democracy. Of course the Nazis were never committed to democracy but they used the populist rhetoric that resonated with people. When that kind of populist rhetoric masks undemocratic practices, that's where I think we truly need to be concerned.

The analogy that does worry me greatly is when establishment conservatives make radical conservatives salonfähig or in colloquial English "acceptable in polite society." I think to a certain extent that indeed has occurred in the United States. When establishment conservatives go beyond the bounds of legitimate democratic discourse and constitutional provisions and make the program, the individuals and ideas of radical conservatives acceptable -- that's when we're in trouble.

In recent months, there seems to be a revival of interest in the Weimar Republic in the United States, whether it's in fashion, art or music. How do you explain that?

A 1922 work by George Grosz

It's been most curious. And it's true especially in New York. I think it has to do with the sense of fragility that comes out of the Sept. 11 attacks. What people adopt is the Weimar Republic as portrayed in the American production of "Cabaret" for example -- there's a vision of Weimar as degenerate, as crisis-ridden all of which is true in part. There was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum on Weimar portraiture featuring Otto Dix und George Grosz. Of course, if that's all you know, you think of Weimar as a period of only mutilated bodies and distorted features. But what that interpretation misses of course is the democratic promise, the cultural innovation. But it is that sense of fragility that has given Weimar this glow in downtown as well as uptown New York culture.

DW recommends

17 Reasons Why Germany’s Weimar Republic Was a Party-Lovers Paradise

In the 1920s, the streets of Berlin were filled with prostitutes of all ages. Pinterest.

2. Prostitution was deregulated and tens of thousands of women sold their bodies during the heady days of the Weimar Republic

The end of the First World War left many Germans financially ruined. Many flocked to the big cities in order to try and make a living. From 1920 onwards, the size of Berlin grew by a factor of 13. Almost overnight, it became a teeming metropolis and a party place for the relative few who could afford it. Of course, there was a darker side to the decadence. Lots of those who moved to Berlin and other big cities in search of work struggled to find it. Inevitably, many women felt they had no choice but to sell their bodies in order to survive. Prostitution boomed.

Towards the end of the war, the German government had moved to legalize prostitution. Since many soldiers had been returning to the front after a few days&rsquo leave in the city suffering the effects of sexually transmitted diseases, the authorities set up legal and approved brothels. What&rsquos more, soldiers were even given coupons to use in these establishments in the hope that they would at least remain disease-free. Once the war was over, huge numbers of young men moved back to the big cities. Many of them were frustrated and traumatized, and most no longer saw anything wrong with using the services of a prostitute.

In Berlin, many prostitutes worked on the streets. Moreover, as the famous journalist Hans Ostwald remarked at the time, &ldquomost dance halls are nothing but markets for prostitution.&rdquo Many of the dancing girls in the cabaret bars and dance halls could be taken home &ndash or just into a back room &ndash for the right price. Of course, once the effects of the Wall Street Crash hit the Weimar Republic, the ‘right price&rsquo plummeted almost overnight. The newspapers of the time reported that street prostitutes ended up turning tricks in exchange for food rather than worthless paper money. There were even instances of ‘mother and daughter teams&rsquo working together in order to survive. Almost overnight, prostitution once again became seedy and disreputable.

Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler (1918-1937)

By Harry Kessler

Last book up is Harry Kessler’s Berlin in Lights. Who was he and what does his book tell us about life in the Weimar Republic?

These are the diaries of, I would argue, one of the most interesting characters in Weimar Germany. There are lots of interesting characters in the Weimar Republic, but he stands out, not just for biographical reasons, but because he is one of the main chroniclers of what is going on in those years.

The diaries cover the years 1918 to 1937. Kessler himself was born in Paris in 1868. He was the son of a wealthy Hamburg banker and an Anglo-Irish noblewoman, who was famous at the time for being one of the most beautiful women of her era. She was pursued by many powerful men including, allegedly, Kaiser Wilhelm I himself. In any case, he grew up in an extremely privileged setting and enjoyed an elite education in various countries. He studied law and became a very multicultural, multilingual, cosmopolitan figure, who embarked, as a young man, on journeys around the world from Japan to China, India, Egypt and elsewhere.

His father died in the mid-1890s, leaving Kessler an enormous amount of money, so he was in the fortunate position of never having to work too hard to finance his fairly extravagant lifestyle. He spent his days as a dandy figure and collector of art. He met many artists as well, from Rodin to Maillol. Edvard Munch painted his portrait in 1906. In the context of Weimar, from 1918, he chronicled not just political events, but also his meetings with lots of interesting characters. He became friends with people like Igor Stravinsky, George Grosz, John Heartfield, had Einstein over for supper and met up with leading politicians such as Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau.

“He became friends with people like Igor Stravinsky, George Grosz, John Heartfield, had Einstein over for supper and met up with leading politicians such as Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau”

He was an interesting intellectual. He had a very brief stint as a diplomat, as ambassador to Warsaw in the winter of 1918, and remained involved in liberal politics. He was also very involved in the arts both before the Great War and after. In 1902 he temporarily moved to Weimar which was, of course, the spiritual home of Goethe and Schiller, but also a symbolically important city after 1918 because the German National Assembly met there in the spring of 1919 to draft Germany’s new constitution. Subsequently, it also become very closely connected with the Bauhaus and also has an important fine arts museum, which Kessler helped to put on the international map through his vast connections to the art scene in Paris, and elsewhere.

So he’s really interesting as a curator, as a patron of the arts, but also as a socialite and political observer who engages with lots of different figures.

The diaries go up to 1937. What happened to him after 1933? Presumably his interest in modern art and his service to the Weimar Republic did not make him popular with the Nazis.

No, they did not. He travelled to Paris in March 1933 and never returned. Because of the speed of the Nazi takeover, he left quite a lot of his artwork and fortune behind, so he actually died with little money left. But it’s interesting that he captured the four years after the Nazi seizure of power as well, because he shared the fate of lots of Germans who were either forced to leave the country in 1933 or, like Kessler, left voluntarily.

Having said that, the fate of these people differed quite profoundly. There were people like Albert Einstein, who immediately found employment in the United States because he was already a famous Nobel laureate. Thomas Mann also found it quite easy to transition to life in the United States because, in his case, he was already a celebrated author. But for others, who didn’t have the language skills, or were not quite as famous, which is the majority of people who went into exile, it was much harder to adjust to their new lives.

Kessler briefly lived in Majorca because of his declining health, but left again in 1936 because of the start of the Spanish Civil War, and then moved to France. He died there, in Lyon, in 1937.

Does he reflect in the book on the causes of the collapse of the Weimar Republic?

He does a little bit, and had previously warned against the Nazis. But he is also unsure what the future holds for him personally and that dominates his immediate reaction. Up until March 1933, he was busy negotiating the advance for his memoirs, then he left Germany with an uncertain future. Shortly after the burning of the Reichstag building, he realises that this is the essence of Nazi rule. But, of course, he is unsure about what exactly the future is going to hold. On the night that Hitler seized power in Berlin and the torch-lit SA parades through the Brandenburg Gate are taking place, Kessler drowns his sorrows in a pub nearby with a friend and two blond prostitutes. In a way, I think it shows the defeatism of many republicans in 1933. There was a realisation that the situation in January 1933 was fundamentally different from that in 1920, when the Communists and the Social Democrats briefly joined hands in a general strike to frustrate the Kapp Putsch.

But in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, it was quite unclear whether people would adhere to such a call, whether there wouldn’t be hundreds of thousands of strike breakers, much more concerned about their own livelihood than about working-class solidarity. But also there was, at this point, a very deep schism between the Social Democrats and the Communists. The Comintern, in Moscow, essentially dictated the policy line that the Social Democrats were just as bad as the Nazis and that the Communists should not collaborate with them. So there wasn’t an opportunity for a united front against the Nazis at this point, even though the majority of the electorate voted against Hitler in November 1932. He was leader of the largest political party in parliament but, nonetheless, not voted in by the overall majority of the population. Instead he was appointed as Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg.

Lessons of the Weimar Republic

Social and political revolutions often follow defeat on the battlefield, and so was the case with Germany in the wake of World War I. By the summer of 1918, it was apparent that Germany had lost the war. Even the absurdly optimistic reports from the High Command could not hide the fact that the German Army would not prevail on the field of battle. Five years of warfare in which soldiers from both sides were sacrificed in meat-grinder-like assaults on entrenched positions had nearly wiped out an entire generation of German men. Since arriving in France in 1917, American troops had tilted the balance of power in favor of the Allies, and it was only a matter of time before the Yanks would turn the tide.

Choked by an Allied blockade that threatened starvation at home, and battling a loss of confidence in Kaiser Wilhelm II, the army readied itself for defeat. In order to deflect responsibility for defeat, army leaders handed over power to a civilian government under Prince Max von Baden in October 1918. The beginning of the end came when the German naval command, as part of a last-ditch effort, ordered the fleet at Wilhelmshaven to engage the British fleet — a ludicrous command that compelled the majority of sailors to mutiny. Demonstrations at Kiel, Germany, on November 3, 1918, ignited a larger mutiny and soon soldiers, sailors, and workers from all over Germany were organizing local “soviets” in order to take control of local governments. Senior Prussian officers no longer controlled the army, but in what became a characteristic of the “1918 revolution,” mutineers and erstwhile revolutionaries generally maintained order in their ranks. In many cases, junior and non-commissioned officers were elected to lead defeated or mutinous units back home. It was, in the end, perhaps the most ordered military collapse in the history of warfare. Carl Zuckmayer, a young German officer commenting on the scene, wrote, “Starving, beaten, but with our weapons, we marched back home.”

Horrific losses in France’s Argonne Forest region put the final nail in the coffin, and on November 9, 1918, a cease-fire was announced, and General Wilhelm Groener ordered what remained of the army to withdraw from the front lines. The kaiser’s abdication followed quickly and Prince Max von Baden, who had been acting as chancellor since October, handed power over to Social Democrat leader Friedrich Ebert.

A republic was quickly declared, but its form was completely unknown at the time. In any case, the new “republic” had to quickly deal with a host of problems including signing an armistice, demobilizing an army, and gaining control of a growing revolution. The kaiser’s abdication forced other German crowned heads to do the same. But unlike the Russian Revolution, where the communists spilled the blood of royalty, and delightfully shot Tsarist army officers, this German revolution maintained the strange sense of decorum that characterized the unit mutinies a month earlier. They would not repeat the brutality that the Bolsheviks had visited upon the Tsar and his family. These revolutionaries displayed their anger by merely cutting off officer rank insignia rather than resorting to lynching, as was the fashion in Russia. Unnerved by an orderly crowd, an old Berliner was heard to remark, “I don’t like these peaceful revolutions at all. We shall have to pay for it some day.”

Soldiers wearing red arm bands signifying them as socialists or “reds” began to stream into German towns, and as the German army returned home it was demobilized in short order. Workers’ and soldiers’ councils sprouted up initially in Hamburg, Cologne, and Wilhelmshaven, and they soon spread throughout the country. A few of these groups were considerably radical, but many were born of a desire to end the war and protect local communities from a capricious transitional government. Still, there was no doubt among the citizenry that a revolution had taken place.

Between October 1918 and March 1919, Germans endured revolutionary activity across the country as Marxists, socialists, and nationalists each vied for power and influence. Taking advantage of the situation, Marxists sought to overthrow capitalism and establish a proletarian state. They had earlier broken with the Social Democrats (SPD) and they now looked to appropriate the revolutionary movement.

Even before the armistice was signed on November 11, SPD party leader Kurt Eisner and his followers seized control of Munich and declared it a Bavarian Republic. Just as Friedrich Ebert of the “moderate” Social Democrat Party was declaring a new democratic republic on November 9, 1918, Karl Liebknecht of the Independent Socialists (USPD) was poised to declare the establishment of a new socialist republic with support from the revolutionary masses. Ebert knew that he needed the support of at least a small number of Independent Socialists in order to head off Liebknecht’s push for a socialist republic. He got the support he needed with the formation of a Council of People’s Commissars consisting of three USPD leaders and three from the SPD. Liebknecht had been stymied.

Later that day, Ebert received a call from General Groener at army headquarters in Spa. It was then that Groener told Ebert that the kaiser had left Germany for Holland, and that he wished that the new government would lend support to the officer corps, and the Prussian military tradition, as it maintained order in the ranks. Groener also offered Ebert the support of the army if Ebert would help resist Bolshevism by quelling the activities of some of the more radical soldiers’ and workers’ councils. Ebert hated Bolshevism as much as Groener he preferred a constitutional monarchy, and in the end he pledged the new government’s support in exchange for the army’s assistance in combating the Bolshevik challenge.

On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed between German and Allied representatives. The war was finally over and a new fledgling government was in place.

The period between the armistice and the elections for the National Assembly in January 1919 was marked by tension between the SPD and the USPD, the latter being constantly influenced by hard-left Marxist elements within the group. Ebert spent most of his time governing the transition from a war-time economy and finding ways to alleviate the economic hardships of the average German. Meanwhile, Marxist agitators spent their time marching in the streets and planning uprisings. During December 1918, Ebert’s SPD clashed with Liebknecht’s newly formed Spartakusbund, leaving 16 dead in the streets. In January 1919, the Spartacists attempted to overthrow the government but were crushed by the army and Freikorps troops — volunteers raised by individual army commanders. The failed uprising ended with the murders of Liebknecht and his close ally, Rosa Luxemburg.

Workers’ demonstrations and small-scale disturbances continued, but the army and the Freikorps ensured that the new republic would not veer sharply left. The National Assembly elections on January 19, 1919, enjoyed an 83-percent turnout that included, for the first time, women over 20 years of age. Ebert’s SPD party secured 38 percent of the vote, with the Catholic Centre Party getting almost 20 percent. Nationalist and monarchist parties secured less than 15 percent of votes cast. In February, delegates elected Ebert as the first president of the republic in the town of Weimar, from whence the new government took its name.

Nothing influenced the new Weimar Republic and the subsequent history of Germany more than the peace settlement signed at Versailles. Foreign Minister Count Brockdorff-Rantzau would lead the negotiations for Germany. Earlier, he had been one of the few who had supported a compromised peace in 1917, and he was confident that he would secure an honorable and lenient peace from the Allies. Brockdorff-Rantzau was counting on the Bolshevik threat and Wilson’s Fourteen Points to enable Germany to remain a viable European power. He knew that there would be some territorial concessions, but he was not prepared for what would ultimately transpire at Versailles.

In the wake of four years of brutal warfare that had destroyed large areas of France and Belgium and resulted in the loss of millions of lives, the Allies were in no mood to proffer lenient terms. Germany would lose huge areas of land, including Alsace-Lorraine to France, and most of West Prussia, Upper Silesia, and Pozen to the newly formed Poland. Danzig would become a “free city” under the newly created League of Nations, and Germany was to lose all of its overseas colonies. The infamous 231 “war guilt clause” shifted the blame for the war entirely to Germany, and Germany’s army was reduced to 100,000 volunteers. Its navy was to be limited, and entry into the League of Nations was forbidden. More devastating, particularly for a country emerging from a costly war, were the unspecified reparations forced upon Germany. By May 1921, Germany was required to make payment of 20 billion gold marks as an interim payment. On May 12, SPD Prime Minister Philip Scheidemann declared, “What hand must not wither which places these fetters on itself and on us?”

But for the Allies, these terms seemed just. Anti-German feeling ran very high, particularly in the European countries that had suffered at the hands of the Hun. It was time to make them pay, and that feeling dominated the political scene for years after the war, particularly among the French, who no doubt had had enough of German militarism. Sadly, had the Allies not taken this approach, and instead had looked to ways to support an evolving German political institution, Hitler might never have come to power. Defeat, coupled with the harsh reality of Versailles, was a traumatic experience for Germany. It reinforced the sense of betrayal — “the stab in the back” allegedly perpetrated by Jews and socialists that had ultimately defeated the supposedly unbeaten German army, and the reparations issue became a rallying point for nationalists.

Occupation and Hyperinflation

By 1920, political and economic questions related to the reparations issue were becoming a serious concern. How could a weak German economy address the unimaginably high level of reparations? Germany had financed the war through loans and bonds (sound familiar?). Inflation was already present when Joseph Wirth’s government pursued a policy that further fueled inflation between 1921 and 1922. Wirth’s policy was designed to show that Germany could not meet its reparations payment responsibilities. By printing more paper money, Wirth initiated a plan in which Germany would make reparations payments in increasingly worthless marks. Better to pay in cheap worthless marks, so Wirth thought.

The Allies, particularly the French, had other ideas. On January 9, 1923, the French used a shortfall in German coal deliveries as a pretext to invade and occupy the Ruhr region of Germany. Their aim was to “supervise” production of the coal that was part of the reparations deal struck at Versailles. Payment of reparations “in-kind” would now be seized at its source. In the eyes of the French, anything that weakened Germany was a benefit to France. The Weimar Republic responded to the invasion by advocating passive resistance. Industrialists were ordered not to comply with French orders or to hand over any coal stocks.

A government-backed general strike was called in the Ruhr, and was financed entirely by the printing of even more paper money. Fearing the loss of capital, credit was extended to factory owners so that they might keep their operations running during the general strike. The loss of earnings, however, exacerbated the situation and led to spiraling hyperinflation. Within six months, the currency completely collapsed. With it went all confidence in the republic. Fear and panic followed as millions of Germans found themselves in financial ruin. In August 1923, one dollar was worth 4.6 million marks. Three months later it was worth 4,000 billion marks! To keep up with the pace of inflation, 133 printing offices pumped out marks for the Reichsbank. Ordinary items like bread cost millions of marks. It was impossible to keep up with the pace of inflation but the Reichsbank tried by increasing the money supply — a move that made the situation even worse.

By October it cost the Reichsbank more to print the notes than they were worth. This completely irresponsible and cataclysmic action wiped out savings accounts, personal annuities, stocks, and pensions. While the middle class was being destroyed, industrialists and large businesses benefited from the devaluation of the currency. Those businesses that had issued stock found it easy to pay off their debts with worthless currency at a “mark equals mark” ratio. By November 1923, workers were being paid five times a week, real wages were down 25 percent, and banks were issuing notes by their weight.

Hyperinflation brought with it new, more ominous signs of social degradation. The German generation that valued thrift and fiscal responsibility now dealt with a situation in which plummeting home values destroyed the very concept of savings. Years of saving and scraping to purchase stability through home ownership went for naught and the lesson was not lost on a younger generation that now saw saving as a pointless endeavor.

A youthful generation set adrift from traditional moorings naturally gravitated to immorality. Marriage was no longer an economically secure arrangement. Consequently, the commercial sex industry bloomed, particularly in Berlin. Klaus Mann, son of the author Thomas Mann, later described an encounter with a Berlin prostitute. “One of them brandished a supple cane and leered at me as I passed by,” wrote Mann. The exchange ended when the prostitute offered her services for “six billion and a cigarette.” Seeking pleasure in activities that had formally been eschewed in favor of virtue became commonplace. Stefan Zwieg, a contemporary of Klaus Mann, summed up the Weimar mood thusly:

It was an epoch of high ecstasy and ugly scheming, a singular mixture of unrest and fanaticism. Every extravagant idea that was not subject to regulation reaped a golden harvest: theosophy, occultism, yogism, and Paracelcism. Anything that gave hope of newer and greater thrills, anything in the way of narcotics, morphine, cocaine, heroin found a tremendous market on the stage incest and parricide, in politics, communism and fascism constituted the most favored themes.

Passive resistance in the Ruhr was called off in September, but not before the damage had been done. The new German state was in danger of falling as extremist groups like Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) maneuvered for power. Inflation primed the pump of aggression and political extremism. A number of Marxist groups had threatened unrest in Saxony and Thuringia, and Hitler used the opportunity as a call to arms in a Munich beer hall. Hitler’s secondary aim was to attain Bavarian autonomy.

Impressed with Mussolini’s “March on Rome” in 1922, Hitler planned his own “March on Berlin.” In November 1923, Hitler seemed on the verge of success when some of his powerful supporters in Bavaria retracted their support for the former army corporal. The Nazi putsch failed after some of Hitler’s supporters were shot in front of Munich’s Feldherrnhalle. Hitler was arrested and endured a short trial in which he received some public notoriety. After conviction, he served but a few months of a five-year sentence in relative comfort at Landsberg prison. It was there that the architect of the Holocaust wrote Mein Kampf — the little book that would lay out his twisted political ideology.

Stabilization and the Fall

Eventually the German currency was stabilized, but at a great cost. Unemployment was rampant, wages dropped, and high prices dominated the market. But by 1924, it appeared that the problems of the early republic were over. Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann successfully regularized foreign relations with the Western Allies. In 1924, the Dawes Plan married American economic interests with Germany, and reparations arrangements became more manageable. In 1925, the hated French began leaving the Ruhr, and by 1927, the disarmament commission was withdrawn. By 1930, the Rhineland was to be cleared of any foreign occupation. Under Stresemann, Germany had made remarkable progress on the foreign-policy front, but there were other problems on the horizon for the new republic.

A specter of national decline sapped the strength of the republic. Fewer and fewer young people supported the Weimar system they were often more concerned with drinking and dancing. Indeed, one of the unfortunate outcomes of the First World War was that many youths of 1920s Germany grew up without fathers. The traditional ties that tethered the young to their families and communities were torn asunder by the war and the post-war upheavals. Weimar Germany was a liberating experience for young Germans, but they increasingly began to see the government as dominated by prewar political parties. The SPD and the Catholic Centre Party seemed stodgy and not capable of instituting the rapid social change that enamored Germany’s youth. By the late 1920s, most German youths were more likely to identify themselves with the Communists (KPD), or the Nazi Party. They were simply bored with what Goebbels described as an “old men’s republic.”

Constant concessions to the left by weak governments fueled nationalist fervor. The hyperinflation debacle had also sapped much of the middle-class support for the republic. As today, those people saw the value of their homes and savings decline while debtors seemed to benefit from the easy-money policies of the Weimar Republic. Leftists, too, had much to complain about. For them, the republic had betrayed its socialist roots.

Despite seeming stabilization, the social, political, and economic problems that plagued the new republic never disappeared. Much of it was self-inflicted — the devaluation of its currency in order to punish the French, costly welfare schemes included in the state constitution, ineffective coalition governments, and an ongoing yearning for the old days of Imperial Germany combined to set the stage for its failure. Finally, a worldwide depression and the rise of a charismatic leader put an end to the ill-fated republic.

Although not in exactly the same position as Weimar Germany, the United States now finds itself under the rule of its own charismatic leader and a Federal Reserve that together seem bent upon debauching our currency through inflation. By “priming the pump” in super Keynesian fashion, the Obama administration courts an economic disaster that could make Weimar Germany look fiscally sound.

‘Babylon Berlin’ and the myth of the Weimar Republic

Flapper girls and Nazi stormtroopers, prostitutes and proletarians, jazz troupes and jackboots — when the German hit series “Babylon Berlin” arrived on U.S. Netflix in January, so did all these Weimar-era stereotypes. The producers celebrate the show’s educational values, characterizing 1920s Berlin as a “metropolis in turmoil” and as a place in which “growing poverty and unemployment stand in stark contrast to the excesses and indulgence of the city’s night life and its overflowing creative energy.”

This image of a cutting-edge culture clashing with political and social crises has long dominated public memory of the Weimar Republic. But it is not just ahistoric, it is dangerous — because it keeps us from learning the right lessons from Weimar’s history: Anti-democratic forces do not always come in reactionary guise.

Uprooting this image of Weimar Germany will take some work, because it has been with us far longer than “Babylon Berlin.” It was Cold War politics that cemented this two-dimensional memory of the era. After 1945, the leaders of the two new German states used the history of Weimar’s failed democratic experiment to strengthen the legitimacy of the postwar order, particularly in West Germany. Weimar democracy, emerging in the aftermath of one world war and crushed by the start of another, had to appear as a catastrophic failure, one that had brought on the darkest chapter of the country’s history and that was thus never to be repeated. The new Germany would be different, an outcome the new political order, installed by the United States and its allies, would ensure.

Watch the video: The German Hyperinflation History (May 2022).