The Inevitable Failure of the Weimar Republic
With the close of fighting in World War I, Germany was poised for drastic change. On November 9, 1918, the Weimar Republic was proclaimed by the Social Democrats. Designed as a working democratic republic, Weimar Germany stood as the most advanced republic of any in the world, at least on paper, offering universal suffrage and political equality. The creation of the Weimar Republic produced the most forward-looking and progressive government in the world for the time, and set up Berlin as the center of artistic life for Europe. However, the extreme conditions in which the republic was spawned, the lack of planning and preparation, and the failure to break significantly with the past created a foregone condition of failure. Upon a closer inspection of the politics, artistic life, and economics of the time, it becomes evident that the grand experiment of the Weimar Republic was plagued, and ultimately devastated, by an atmosphere of uncertainty and was hampered by the sense that nothing was definite and anything was possible.
The Weimar Republic has been written on extensively; however, usually only by focusing on one central aspect of Germany and its republic. In an article entitled “Did Weimar Fail?,” Peter Fritzsche asks the question of failure concerning Weimar, contending that while it did fail, it was for a significant purpose. Fritzsche outlines how the novelty of the republic encouraged experimentation, but ultimately weakened democracy in the nation. He concludes that for this reason, the Weimar Republic was indeed a failure, but succeeded in cultivating an energetic and inquisitive nation despite “being burdened by archaic political traditions and intense social conflicts.”
While Fritzsche focused mostly on the political aspects of the Weimar Republic, Sheri Berman explores the effects of the civil society as a catalyst for the failure of the republic. Berman, in her article “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” presents the case that “a robust civil society actually helped scuttle the twentieth century’s most critical democratic experiment, Weimar Germany.” Berman claims that during the 1920s, middle-class Germans hurled themselves into highly active community lives, which effectively created a highly organized civil society charged in opposition to weak political institutions. Further weakening of political institutions and parties would create the eventual collapse. It is interesting to note that both Fritzsche and Berman rely almost exclusively on politics and the civil society of Germany to argue their conclusions. While politics and culture are exceedingly important, it is only with the inclusion of economic aspects and the artistic realm that a comprehensive understanding of the collapse of the Weimar Republic is attained.
The political upheaval that was to mark November 1918 and the creation of the Weimar Republic in Germany was not a true revolution to mark “a clear break with the past.” The revolution that transformed Germany “threw power into the laps of the socialists.” The Majority Socialists represented the moderate majority in the country who came to rule with the revolution. Their opposition, the Independent Socialists of a radical minority, were promptly pushed out of government by the Majority Socialists. The Majority had allied themselves with the military high command, which forced an obligation “to preserve the rights which these functionaries had possessed under the empire.” The perpetuation of the old ways of governmental actions did not coincide with the prevailing attitude of a revolution to enact change.
The lack of a fundamental change started the republic off on “a note of pessimism and disillusionment.” Universal suffrage provided individuals with power they had never known before and they were overwhelmed. Direct elections spawned a freedom that the German population did not know how to absorb and integrate. The new German electorate did not know how to “appreciate the limitations upon politics in a defeated and impoverished country” leading inevitably to “unrealistic popular expectations” on the weak and vulnerable Weimar Republic. The result of this turmoil was a “flight from political responsibility” evident in the disappointing inaugural years of the republic and the ensuing development of a multitude of political parties.
The freedom of elections gave rise to many political parties, the most popular being the Majority Socialists, soon to be the Socialist Democrats, and the German Workers’ Party. The Social Democrats, already in power, had no real direction in their leaders. They were “progressive but not too much so, in favor of reform but afraid of going too far and too fast.” In essence, the Social Democrats focused on the path of least resistance, which served only to reinforce the previous elite power structures that the republic was meant to combat. The foundation of the German Workers’ Party was built upon an anti-Weimar policy. This conservative sentiment was particularly useful in the beginning of the 1920s as higher levels of discontent were evident amongst the people. Combined with the other elements of a destabilized economy and hectic artistic culture, the German Workers’ Party gained momentum and developed as a significant opposition party to the Socialist Democrats. The increased popularity of the party was a reflection of the divergent politics of the land. The workers that this party was meant to represent felt isolated amongst themselves against the extreme opportunistic atmosphere of the era, and found solace in turning to the more conservative German Workers’ Party to “escape the uncertain temper of the times.” Towards the beginning of the 1930s, the resurgence of a political conservatism had swept the nation.
Throughout the 1920s, the Socialist Democrats were slowly losing popularity as the German Workers’ Party experienced the crucial addition of one particular personality. Adolf Hitler joined the party and quickly rose to a leadership role, changing the name of the party to the National Socialist German Workers’ party, or the National Socialists. Hitler wished to capitalize on two very popular sentiments abound in Germany at the time. A nationalistic fervor had been ignited in Germany with the end of the war, and the ideals of socialism were appealing to people hoping for a renewal of the society and economy of Germany. The aim was to “reawaken that spirit and sense of commitment” from the people. Hitler sought a revitalization of political processes and thereby the entire population. Political parties were characterized as being “tied to rules, platforms and agendas.” To avoid this distinction and to solidify a positive association in people’s minds, Hitler made his party about “perpetual motion, vitalism, revolt.” Before the population could comprehend the consequences of an anti-Weimar political party, they were aligning themselves with the group by sheer agreeably superficial appearances. Accordingly, the final years of the Weimar Republic “saw the complete erosion of the republic’s parliamentary structure and the gradual substitution of Hitler’s dictatorship.” The idea of the uncertainty of the times as a fabulous opportunity for a democratic experiment yielded to the desire of the people to “break with older collective associations” and cement a national identity. The politics were utterly divisive and in the end, unable to react to a nation terrified of the future.
The political realm perpetuated the dire uncertainty yet equally opportunistic tone of the republic and forced an insecure population to seek refuge and expression in the arts. An atmosphere of activity that often found manifestation and acceptance in the arts surrounded the nation. However, the intense levels of opportunity and development cultivated a fickle environment where nothing created experienced much permanence. From the beginning of the republic to 1924, expressionism dominated the minds of artists as much as the minds of politicians. Just as politics was to fail, so too were the arts; however, not before experiencing an influential presence. As one art patron observed, “life would not leave art alone,” nor would it provide something solid from which art could develop to capture an entire era.
The artistic community met many obstacles created by the general population. In terms of music, “Germany was the country of the leading conductors, the finest orchestras and soloists; its schools provided the most progressive musical educations, and the general level of music appreciation was of the very highest.” However, people were not prepared for the direction that certain minds would take their treasured music. The “emancipation of music,” its evolution beyond tonality, was the work of Arnold Schoenberg. He knew that his work was a radical departure from the accepted and enjoyed standard of music; however, Schoenberg believed in the statement his music made on the status of the era. The German people were not so appreciative of Schoenberg’s artistic declaration of progress. The extreme potential for change and progress was too much, too quickly, and the people recoiled from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. The radical character of the music was too much for the ears and sensibilities of the people as it seemed to represent “the end of harmony, [the end] of traditional music as it had been practiced and enjoyed for centuries.” This musical crisis was rooted in a “larger cultural upheaval,” that demanded a return to conservative or traditional expressions, and as a result, produced a tremendous resistance to any subsequent musical revolutions. The era was ripe for change, but the sentiment of the people was against radical departures from the appreciated models.
The glorification of Berlin subjected the art world to yet another massive movement back towards the traditional. This movement was perpetrated at the expense of the many previously influential provinces. In this era, “other major cities like Munich, Frankfurt, or Hamburg struggled to…cultivate continued high quality in their theatres and liveliness in their Bohemian quarters…[while] Berlin was a magnet.” The centralization of the arts was a severely damaging aspect of the radically changing atmosphere. While Berlin was bustling with all aspects of life, every new artistic technique or novel adjustment was subject to a restricted geographical area. Berlin was glorious and large, but the centralization of all new forms of expression made the environment very competitive and constituted an ephemeral quality to the movements.
As the 1920s progressed, the divides between the forward thinking in the art world and the generally recognized popular preference deepened. While “the turmoil and the insecurity of these years created an excitement which was a spur to artistic experiments,” not all endeavors were enthusiastically received. The absence of any stability in the government and society fostered a deep cynicism amongst artists that was often too harsh for patrons to process. As a commentary on just how important art was to the public, “daily newspapers, in spite of the political excitement of the times” devoted large spaces of the paper specifically to art. The arts had always attracted large crowds in Germany, and the advent of revolutionary forms still attracted large audiences, but more often, the audiences were critical or disapproving of the new artistic expressions.
The variety of radical forms taken in the art world served mainly to solidify the National Socialist popularity over the Social Democrats. In the art world, the avant-garde artists had grown seriously detached from a national sentiment geared towards conservatism and tradition as they were too caught up in the intense nature of the time and the vibrant element of opportunity for any adjustment. The artists’ “break with traditional values was more radical, their desire to experiment more ardent” than the average person was prepared to experience. In Weimar Germany, “the distance between the avant-garde and popular taste had grown immeasurably and the doctrines preached by the right were much more in line with popular taste.” Consequently, the expanding National Socialist party and their conservative leanings gained more respect as the general belief held that “the Weimar regime represented a break with German tradition and was an alien element in German history” because of its support and encouragement of these numerous radical artistic ventures.
With the artistic explosion of radical, and ultimately rejected, forms, there remained only one other element required for a complete overextension of the extreme opportunity of the era, and that existed in the economic realm. The national economy had suffered to quite a significant degree with the war and with the acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty had essentially presented Germany with a blank bill wherein “neither methods of payment nor a total and final amount had been stipulated.” This burdening of the national budget was the most serious issue facing the nation as the war closed and the Weimar Republic emerged. The institution of reparation payments would critically hinder development of the republic and the recovery of the nation. The war caused a devaluation of the German mark, and “throughout the late summer of 1921 it fell steadily until, by November 8, [the day before the third anniversary of the republic], the dollar was worth over 200 marks.” The popular desire for stability was powerful, “as were the problems facing the first German republic, while the means available for their solution were extremely limited.” Under these restrictions, any element of financial instability would unavoidably be amplified.
The devaluation of the mark led to hyperinflation and left the government and the people ignorant as to a solution. With currency established with no real value, “the middle classes, usually a stabilizing social force, suffered most gravely and became embittered and increasingly radical.” The demoralizing effect of the inflation seriously injured the prestige of the current republican regime. Contributing to the demoralization of the people was the condition of the German industry and agriculture, which “after the inflation was characterized by a marked lack of operating capital.” Bank accounts and other forms of credit had disappeared. Capital was necessary not simply to carry on business, “but also to pay the taxes which the national government had to impose on an unprecedented scale … if the national budget [were to be] kept in balance.” This capital would need to be found in other lands, thus the attraction of Germany to nations seeking a quick profit. America was attracted by high interest rates, and many foreign countries held great confidence in the recovery of the German economy. Despite the dismal pessimism rampant in Germany, “people abroad considered the German economy basically sound and had a high regard for German diligence and economic efficiency.” These beliefs in the future stabilization of the economy placed a great emphasis on German recovery.
To produce a speedy stabilization, the government introduced a new currency. However, the new currency served to create new problems. The prevailing wisdom held that inflation would be “ended when the legal, but actually worthless, banknotes were officially declared invalid and withdrawn from circulation,” and “when the amount of new currency to be put into circulation was firmly set at a level which corresponded with the minimum fiscal and economic requirements of the country.” While this plan, in essence, would be effective, the elements for success were not present. The minimum fiscal and economic requirements for the country were extremely difficult to determine when the influence of foreign countries was taken into consideration. Only with the aid of United States’ banks were these economic progressions accomplished.
The stabilization of the currency through an influx of foreign money and the availability of foreign markets created a pervasive feeling of hope amongst Germans and other foreign nations concerning Germany’s future. However, with the United States’ stock market crash of 1929 would solidify the failure of the Weimar Republic and set in motion the final steps of domination by the National Socialists. The stabilized German currency faced devastation with the economic crash. The “sudden recall of short-term United States loans, coupled with a decline in stock values and a reduction in trade, rapidly swelled the German recession to disastrous proportions.” Possibly the most devastating effect was the accompaniment of grave psychological despair. A country that had finally felt a recovery from the war was plummeted once again into the abyss of disaster and hopelessness. The “self-reliance of the middle class” was shaken. The rampant “unemployment and hunger increased class antagonism between rich and poor, and even among nations, hatred between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-not’ states rose to a new pitch.” The devastating features of the economic crash created an atmosphere that doomed both the permanence of the Weimar Republic and the recovery of the German nation and people. The final blow issued by the economic crash solidified the rise of the National Socialists and Hitler’s regime.
The Weimar Republic was able to exist out of an extreme situation that called for radical change. However, that exact same element of the extreme uncertainty and opportunity contained in a grand experiment led to the ultimate failure of the democratic republic. Now, “Weimar is synonymous with what is broken, dismembered, with what resists unity, reconciliation, and assimilation to a whole.” The Weimar Republic fell victim to an age of even possibilities for either failure or success, and experienced a disastrous fate. While the impact of politics, artistic life, and economics all worked together to precipitate the failure, the Weimar Republic was essentially a casualty of the intensity of the time and the people.
Berman, Sheri. “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic.” World Politics 49, no. 3 (1997): 401-429.
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Fritzsche, Peter. “Did Weimar Fail?” The Journal of Modern History 68, no. 3 (1996): 629-656.
Gay, Peter. Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider. New York: Norton, 2001.
Gilbert, Felix, and David Clay Large. The End of the European Era, 1890 to the Present. Fifth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.
Keohane, Kieran. “Re-membering the European Citizen: The Social Construction of Collective Memory in Weimar.” Journal of Political Ideologies 4, no. 1 (1999): 39-59.
Laqueur, Walter. Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933. New York: Putnam, 1974.
Rodes, John E. The Quest for Unity: Modern Germany 1848-1970. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971.
 Peter Fritzsche, “Did Weimar Fail?,” The Journal of Modern History 68, no. 3 (1996): 635.
 Sheri Berman, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” World Politics 49, no. 3 (1997): 402.
 Berman, 419.
 John E. Rodes, The Quest for Unity: Modern Germany 1848-1970 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971), 190.
 Felix Gilbert and David Clay Large, The End of the European Era, 1890 to the Present, Fifth Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), 170.
 Gilbert and Large, 171.
 Rodes, 216.
 Richard Bessel, Germany After the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 255.
 Bessel, 274.
 Walter Lacqueur, Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 (New York: Putnam, 1974), 9.
 Erich Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic Vol. I, Trans: Harlan P. Hanson and Robert G. L. Waite (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962-63), 249.
 Rodes, 216.
 Gilbert and Large, 250.
 Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston: Mariner Books, 2000), 309.
 Eksteins, 313.
 Eksteins, 313.
 Rodes, 229.
 Fritzsche, 642.
 Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: Norton, 2001), 133.
 Laqueur, 155.
 Laqueur, 159.
 Laqueur, 159.
 Laqueur, 161.
 Gay, 128.
 Gilbert and Large, 228.
 Gay, 131.
 Laqueur, 181-2.
 Laqueur, 75
 Gilbert and Large, 229.
 Rodes, 209.
 Erich Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic Vol. 2, Trans: Harlan P. Hanson and Robert G. L. Waite (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962-3), 230.
 Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic Vol. 1, 196.
 Bessel, 284.
 Gilbert and Large, 189.
 Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic Vol. 2, 118.
 Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic Vol. 2, 118.
 Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic Vol. 2, 119.
 Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic Vol. 1, 257, 258.
 Rodes, 230.
 Rodes, 230.
 Rodes, 230.
 Kieran Keohane, “Re-membering the European Citizen: The Social Construction of Collective Memory in Weimar,” Journal of Political Ideologies 4, no. 1 (1999): 40.