Last time we considered how the carnage of the Great War fractured European culture. After the war little of old Europe seemed worth keeping, and a general sense of hopelessness spread. Today, we want to look at how the problems of the immediate post-war period affected Germany. Although Germany had lost some territory to the Versailles treaty and was now a republic, it was still Europe’s most economically powerful state. A marginalized and unstable Germany was, therefore, a political problem for everyone.
When talking about Germany between World War I and World War II we are referring, of course, to Weimar. Weimar enters the scene, because after the Kaiser’s fall and the declaration of the German Republic, it was decided that Germany needed to break with its imperial past by writing a new constitution outside of Berlin. (At least that was the official position; the brute fact was that the delegates would not have been safe.) In February 1919, delegates retreated from Berlin to write a new republican constitution in Weimar, a small town in southeastern Germany that once boasted the likes of Goethe, Schiller, and Herder, and that had served as the epicenter of Germany’s literary self-discovery in the eighteenth century. Writing a constitution in Weimar was, however, a huge blunder. Although Germany was still a new state, its capital had definitely become Berlin, which was one of the world’s great metropolises and also harbored most of Germany’s political symbols, such as the Reichstag and the famous victory column that Bismarck built to memorialize Prussia’s victory over France in 1871. In defining itself through Weimar, the new government gave up the most powerful symbols it had at its disposal, which meant that these were left for others to appropriate. Thus, when Germany faced economic and political unrest during the 1920s, the government in Weimar appeared to be no more than a collection of inveterate talkers without legitimacy. Those who best appropriated Germany’s national symbols were the Nazis, and it is no accident that they quickly rid themselves of the Weimar constitution after having seized power.
The story of Weimar is, thus, a story of failure, and we are going to trace the nature and scope of that failure here. Put another way, we are going to consider just how many things had to go wrong before Adolf Hitler could come to power. I have divided this lecture into three parts. The first part will cover the period 1919 to 1923. The second part will run from 1924 to 1928. The last part will follow Weimar’s final collapse between 1929 and 1933.
In many ways, the first period was Weimar’s most difficult, as it confronted a series of crises, any one of which could have brought it down. The Weimar Republic came to power in the wake of Imperial Germany’s fall, and event that was a great blow to many Germans, since the Empire was the first institution to unify most Germans in a single state. The sense of disappointment among many was great. Weimar also had other problems, however. The Great War had cost Germany tremendously in people and material, leaving the economy exhausted. In addition, the Versailles Treaty, which was signed in 1919, was punitive and harsh. Given Woodrow Wilson’s talk of peace without victory and peace among equals, its strictures came as quite a shock to many Germans.
Weimar’s obvious weakness and the general instability of the post-war period invited multiple Putsch attempts. In 1919, an extreme left group known as the Spartacists rose up to declare that Germany had become a communist republic and was put down brutally. In 1920, a former military officer named Wolfgang Kapp led a right-wing revolt in Berlin that was stopped only by a general strike. Finally, in 1923, Adolf Hitler made his famous bid for power in Munich, leading the so-called “Beer Hall Putsch.” This Putsch was also put down and the chief organizers were jailed, though they served ridiculously short sentences. That the Weimar Republic survived this period at all was due to the rise of great politicians, such as Friedrich Ebert, a pragmatic socialist and Germany’s first president, and Gustav Stresemann, a pragmatic entrepreneur and Weimar’s most important Foreign Minister. These two men, among many others, put Weimar on as secure a footing as was possible under the obviously difficult circumstances.
Weimar’s biggest problem during its early ears was, however, the great post-war inflation. Before World War I there had been hardly any inflation in Europe, as money supplies remained relatively constant. But the war changed things, especially in Germany. The Imperial German government had followed a reckless economic policy, paying the costs of the war by printing money, rather than increasing taxes or taking out debt. The British were in a slightly better position after the war, since they had raised taxes and borrowed hug sums both from their own people and the United States. Nonetheless, at the war’s end, a lot of worthless money was coursing through Germany. The Versailles treaty made this situation even worse, because it robbed Germany of key industrial areas in order to pay reparations to the French and the British. The German Saarland, a coal producing region, was given to the French for 20 years, so that payments could be extracted. In the end, the Weimar government was forced to print more money, which led to political disaster because inflation hit exactly those people who should have been Weimar’s strongest supporters, the middle class. During the late nineteenth century a rentier class had developed across Europe. This class of people lived on the interest they earned on fixed sum of capital. If inflation was low, the rentiers could live a very comfortable, worry free life. Unfortunately, these people were destroyed by the great inflation, which did not leave them well disposed toward the new regime.
Let us consider the inflation problem more closely. Between 1914 and 1918 the Reichsmark lost half its value. This was no worse than in other European countries; the British pound also lost 50% and the Franc and Lira lost 83%. From 1919 on, however, things got serious. In January of 1919 the Reichsmark was 8.57 to one US Dollar. By December 1919 that ratio was 48.3 to 1. In November of 1921 the ratio was 245 to 1. A year later it was 7,350 to 1. By November 1923, the ratio had hit 72.5 billion to 1. In this environment political stability was almost impossible to achieve and popular resentment increased. The middle- and lower middle classes were wiped out by the inflation, as small businesses across Germany were destroyed. Large debtors and especially large corporations, however, did quite well. This bred resentment among the smaller operators, who believed that the wealthy were profiting at their expense. A good deal of sympathy for right-wing causes among the German population was one unfortunate result.
Weimar’s political weakness was particularly apparent in the rise of political murders. Between 1919 and 1922 there were over 400 killings of political figures. In 1922, for example, the German foreign minister Walter Rathenau was assassinated while leaving home to go to work. These murders had a pronounced political tone, as most of them stemmed from disgruntled partisans of the old regime. For example, between 1919 and 1922 there were 22 murders of political conservatives by left-wing extremists. In that same period, however, there were 354 murders of liberal politicians by right-wing extremists. Perhaps even more startling is the different ways that the German government reacted to these murders. Of the 22 left-wing murders, the police gained 0 confessions, but the courts convicted 22 times. In the case of 354 right-wing murders, the police gained 50 confessions and the courts convicted 24 times. What we can see here is that many in Germany’s bureaucracy were still loyal to the old imperial system and showed clear sympathies with right-wing violence against the new government.
The Weimar government then confronted its biggest crisis with the French invasion of the Ruhr in 1923. The German government had ceased paying reparations in early 1923, claiming that it could not afford to pay them. The French promptly invaded the Ruhr, which was Germany’s most important industrial zone, and began shipping back to France whatever the regional economy was producing. The German government responded by calling for passive resistance. Germans in the Ruhr were encouraged to go on strike, and the government promised them an income. Unfortunately, the government did not have the money to pay for passive resistance and it was forced to print more money in order to support the strikers. This only exacerbated Weimar Germany’s already fragile economic situation. Germany only averted a complete collapse by calling off the campaign in late 1923.
Luckily for Weimar, however, the German economy recovered just as things looked bleak. The period 1924 to 1928 is considered to be Weimar’s golden age, and the economic turnaround was rooted in two factors. The first was a necessary currency reform that was based on a novel legal fiction. Hjalmar Schacht, director of Germany’s Reichsbank dealt with the inflation by issuing a new currency, the Rentenmark. The central problem for the new currency was, however, that Germany had no gold to back it up with. The war and the German reparations bill had depleted Germany’s gold reserves, and since money was then backed by gold, Germany had nothing to inspire confidence in the new bills. Schacht came to the rescue with a neat fiction, holding that the Rentenmark was backed by all the land in Germany. This seemed to work as Germans accepted the currency and began doing business again.
The second factor in Weimar’s rise was Gustav Stresemann’s brilliant diplomacy. Stresemann was an old imperial man. He had made money in business before entering the government, and remained loyal to the Kaiser. Stresemann changed his mind, however, after the war, deciding that the Empire was gone. All that was left was to make the best of the new situation. One way of making the best of things was to gain revisions in the Versailles treaty. Rather than simply opposing all reparations, Stresemann approached the problem through negotiation. These efforts bore fruit in 1924, as the Dawes Plan was negotiated, which lowered the total reparations bill and extended the payment schedule. Stresemann also negotiated a French withdrawal from the Ruhr, and in 1925 signed the Treaty of Locarno, which (supposedly) forever set Germany’s western boundaries. Stresemann and the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand (1862-1932) shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in negotiating the treaty. In 1926, Germany also gained admission to the League of Nations, which was the final signal that the new Germany had been accepted diplomatically by the world’s states. Finally, in 1929, there was another revision of the reparations bill in the Young Plan, which not only lowered the bill, but also injected foreign (especially American) capital into the German economy.
Weimar Germany still had deep problems, however, as much of its elite culture was reviled by the average German. This is one of Weimar’s great ironies. Although we moderns revere the cultural explosion that occurred there in the 1920s, most Germans were deeply uneasy about the changes, and this had political implications. Let us take, first, a broad overview of the cultural scene. Germany’s cultural flowering happened across Germany, but its center was Berlin. Berlin was both a large and a “new city.” First, it had witnessed a period of explosive population growth. In 1850, there were 419,000 people. By 1910, the population had reached 3.7 million. Second, for the first time since the 15th century, Berlin existed without the Hohenzollern. There was, thus, no imperial impediment to cultural change anymore, and Berlin rapidly became the most socially permissive city in the world, where everything was possible.
No matter the field, Berlin became the world’s leading center for the arts. Modern movie making, for instance, began in Berlin, as directors such as Fritz Lang set up shop in Babelsberg, a town just outside the city. The German movie industry was so new and vibrant that people flocked there to study the art of movie making, including two famous Americans, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. In painting, literature, theater, and music, Berlin led the way. The Expressionist painter George Grosz, for example, emerged from the Dada movement in Berlin to become a leading light in the development of Neue Sachlichkeit, or “New Realism,” a movement that blended art with social criticism. The writer Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929 for his book the Magic Mountain. Mann’s transformation was remarkable, as he started out as an imperial supporter, but rapidly became a social and political critic. Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright, came to Berlin in 1924 to work with that city’s leading directors and musicians. He changed modern theater through his theory of “epic theater,” which meant for him that the audience should not be brought into the story, as others had believed before, but should be encouraged to view it with critical detachment. This was a break with old Aristotelian notions of theater that had held that people must identify with the heroes. For Brecht, however, such direct identification pushed social criticism to the margins, which he as a Marxist could not allow. In music, Kurt Weill and Arnold Schoenberg expanded artistic frontiers, Weill with his collaboration with playwrights such as Brecht, and Schoenberg with his new 12-tone system of music.
Weimar’s tremendous burst of creativity stood in stark contrast to many popular attitudes toward it. As we have seen with Grosz and Mann, the German Avant-Garde was often radically leftist, something that many Germans did not take well, especially those that were still loyal to the empire. In this context, culture became inherently political, and being against the Left’s perceived degeneracy became a way to oppose the recent political changes. Not only was Weimar incapable of bringing the political stability that had characterized the imperial regime, it also allowed these degenerates to say and do whatever they wanted.
An example of how widespread the fear of Weimar culture was among Germans was the development of the term Kulturbolschewismus. This was a catch-all word, designed to impugn all the people on the left who were critical of Germany’s social and political arrangements. Its particular resonance lies in the way that it united fear of the Avant-Garde with abhorrence of Communism and traditional Anti-Semitism. Many leading figures in the Russian Revolution had been Jewish, as were many leading German Communists. In addition, prominent members of the German art scene were also Jewish, particularly in Berlin. And it didn’t help that some of these German Jews were harsh social critics. One example is the German-Jewish writer Kurt Tucholsky, who attacked nationalism and militarism harshly. He believed that modern society was so corrupt and dehumanizing that he publicly stated that treason was acceptable. The growing sense that Jews, Communists, and artists were an alien and subversive population only exacerbated the basic tensions that were behind the general opposition to Weimar.
Confronted with these dangerous cultural currents, many Germans fled into the Völkisch Ideology. This ideology was a flight from Weimar cultural criticism in that it tried to find certainty in the German nation and, increasingly, the German race. The basic argument was that people were created by their environment. Germany was a land of forests and streams, which meant that the people who lived there were shaped by the forest. There is more than a hint of the Romanticism here, in that the emphasis on environment posited a mystical connection between blood and soil (Blut und Boden). Thus, the way to get in touch with one’s true self was to go tromping about in the forest. A classic example of this is the rise of the Wandervögel, a Boy-Scout-like organization that sent people hiking and camping in the forest. None of this is necessarily anti-Semitic, though it slowly became so, as the rise of race theories led to the explicit exclusion of Jews from Germanness. Jews originated in the land of Israel, which was a desert, and this meant that the Jews were by definition a desert people and had no place in Germany.
Weimar’s final downfall between 1929 and 1933 brought these many themes and troubles together. The basic problem was economic. The general increase in prosperity that I discussed earlier came to an abrupt end in 1929 with crash of the American stock market. This crash precipitated a world-wide crisis, as the Americans were forced to call in the loans they had made to Germany, Great Britain and France. Suddenly, there was no money in Germany, and the effect on businesses was predictable: either they laid off most of their employees or simply closed, which led to a huge spike in unemployment. Consider these statistics. In September 1928, Germany had 650,000 unemployed. One year later that number had increased to 1.32 million. In September 1930, the number had more than doubled again to 3.0 million. By January 1933, it was 6.1 million, which translated into an unemployment rate of roughly 50%.
The political consequences were harsh. In 1928, German politics looked to be settling down. The extreme Nationalist Party lost 30 seats that year going from 103 to 73 seats. The lost votes on the extremes then went to the center. The Social Democrats went from 131 to 153 seats, which when combined with the Democratic Party and the Center Party to give Germany’s moderate parties almost an absolute majority. The Nazis, a party of cranks and drunks were a marginal force, having only 12 seats. In 1930, however, the center disappeared. The Nazis increased their representation from 12 seats to 177. The Communists, who had been stronger than the Nazis also increased their levels of representation, going from 54 to 77 seats. Proportional representation was at fault for much of this rise. In a single-member district system, the Nazis would have won only 20 seats, since their votes never totaled a majority in any one district. However, Weimar’s capacious constitution encouraged political extremism by tallying votes nationally, rather than regionally. In the elections of July1932, the Nazis augmented these gains and won 230 seats, making them the largest party in the Reichstag. The Nazis lost some seats a few months later in a subsequent election, dropping to 196 seats, but they still remained Germany’s largest political force.
Thus, was the stage set for Weimar’s final collapse. With votes fleeing the political center, a majority of the Reichstag’s delegates soon opposed Weimar itself. Beleaguered by attacks from both the left and the right, Weimar succumbed to the pressure by becoming almost dictatorial itself. In 1932, the German Chancellor Heinrich Brüning convinced President Paul v. Hindenburg to invoked article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which allowed him to rule by decree, rather than having to go through the Reichstag. This set a bad precedent. After Adolf Hitler came to power on January 10, 1933, he used the same article to grant himself dictatorial powers. Weimar never recovered, and the world would bear the cost.