Problems for the Weimar Republic, 1919-23

A New Republic Is Born

A new state is born against the background of defeat and national humiliation at Versailles. The Treaty made sure to include an especially damaging clause, Article 231, which forced Germany to accept blame for the war. 

Threats to the republic came from revolutionary activity and economic crisis. Its legitimacy was regularly questioned by many, including the judiciary and the army. It is also challenged by political extremists - communists, monarchists and ex-soldiers, the Freikorps. 

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Threats from Left and Right

New Chancellor Ebert must ensure political stability. On 25th November 1918 a conference of representatives agree to elections for a National Constituent Assembly. Parties in Ebert's gov are divided on how to proceed.

The USPD are more revolutionary and challenge the idea of democratic elections. They would rather have a workers' seizure of power. 

The more moderate 'majority SPD' want democracy. They do not want revolution. There is much working class hostility to revolution - in December 1918, the First Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Councils in Berlin refuse to admit Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

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The Spartacists

In December 1918, a group led by Luxemburg and Liebknecht break away from the USPD, forming the Spartacists. 

They hope to provoke a revolution, similar to that in Russia, 1917. They wish to forge an alliance with Soviet leader, Lenin. They want to cancel the election and have power transferred to workers' and soldiers' councils. They promise to nationalise and seize all large scalle industries and large-medium farms as property of the state. They would also disarm the police and the army, instead creating workers militias. 

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Ebert-Groener Agreement

Opposition to the existence of the Republic also came from the military, judiciary and civil service. Their position was no longer guaranteed due to the Kaiser's abdication.

In November 1918, Ebert makes a deal with General Groener, promising the army supplies and protection of status against the armed militias, if the army would put down revolutionary activity in return. He uses the army so that moderate socialism can defeat a more radical communism (USPD, KPD, Spartacists).

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The Spartacist Revolt

On 1st January 1919, Spartacist Union held their first congress in Berlin. They formally create the German Communist Party (KPD). A revolutionary uprising begins on 5th January. 

Newspaper offices are seixed and revolutionary committees formed, but the uprising was poorly planned and crushed by troops from the army and Freikorps troops led by General Walther von Lüttwitz. On 15th January, members of the Horse Guards Division murdered Liebknecht and Luxemburg. 

The Republic was safe but were now tied to the fact that they had used anti-democratic forces to restore order. 

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Red Bavaria, 1919

In February, Kurt Eisner (USPD) was assassinated by a right wing student, triggering revolution in Bavaria. On 6th April, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was declared, led by Eugene Levine, who began a series of radical reforms including seizing the property of the wealthy. He raised a 'Red Army' of workers who executed right-wighters such as Prince von Thurn und Taxis. 

In May, the Army and Freikorps send 30,000 troops in, claiming the lives of 1,000 'Red Army' members in the fighting. The Freikorps then rounded up 800 known communists, inc Levine, executing them. 

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Chancellors of the Weimar Republic, 1919-23

NOV 1918 - FEB 1919 - Friedrich Ebert (SPD)

FEB 1919 - JUN 1919 - Phillip Scheidemann (SPD)

JUN 1919 - MAR 1920 - Gustav Bauer (SPD)

MAR 1920 - JUN 1920 - Hemann Müller (SPD)

JUN 1920 - MAY 1921 - Konstantin Fehrenbach (Centre)

MAY 1921 - NOV 1922 - Joseph Wirth (Centre)

NOV 1922 - AUG 1923 - Wilhelm Cuno (non-aligned)

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Weimar Parties - Communists and Socialists

Social Democratic Party (SPD) - Founded in 1863. Working class support. Main strength in Prussia, including Berlin and the Ruhr. Divided in attitude - some strongly support parliamentary democracy, whilst others see the Republic as a 'bourgeois democracy'. They were committed to ending the class struggle, supported social reform and extension of unemployment benefit. They supported the policy of fulfilment.

Independent Socialists (USPD) - Broke away from the SPD in 1917. Supported by disillusioned industrial workers. Wanted to replace parliamentary democracy with workers' soviets, and supported the idea of revolution. However, there was division as how to proceed. Eventually the party split (Oct 1920) into the KPD [left] and rejoining the SPD [right]. Followed the foreign policy dictated by Comintern. 

German Communist Party (KPD) - Founded by the Spartacists in December 1918. Mainly working class communist revolutionaries. Committed to overthrowing the Republic in revolution. Violently opposed the SPD. Followed the foreign policy dictated by Comintern. 

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Weimar Parties - Liberals and Moderates

German Democratic Party (DDP) - Created in November 1918 from the left wing of the National Liberals. Supported business interests, the middle classes and intellectuals. Fully supportive of the Republic initially but become less supportive after joining with the Young German Order to become the State Party. Supported constitutional reform, democracy, some social reform, and civil liberties. Supported fulfilment. 

German People's Party (DVP) - Formed from the right wing of the National Liberals. Supported business interests, industrialists and white-collar workers. Recognised the Republic but would prefer autocracy. Stood as anti-union and anti-labour. Supported fulfilment but detested the TofV.

Centre Party - Formed in 1870, representing Germany's Catholics. Supportive of the Republic as a barrier against revolution, but less supportive of democracy. Supported social reform but was also fairly conservative. Agreed with the policy of fulfilment. 

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Weimar Parties - Conservatives

German National People's Party (DNVP) - Founded 1918. Supported by conservatives, nationalists, landowners and upper middle class. Hostile to the believed illegitimate Republic, wanted a return to autocracy. Anti-socialist and anti-Semitic. Wished for union with Austria, rejected TofV.

National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP) - Founded 1919 under different name. Mostly supported by ex-servicemen and radical anti-Semites. Hostile to the Republic, and wished for the restructing of society on racial grounds. Sought end of TofV, destruction of Communism and Lebensraum (German expansion). 

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The National Assembly (Jan 1919)

Elections are held on 19th January 1919, with 85% of the electorate voting. 76% voted for the SPD, Centre Party and DDP. The first Reich President was SPD leader, Friedrich Ebert, and first coalition cabinet is led by Philipp Schiedemann, with ministers from the three most successful parties.

SPD receives 37.9% of the vote overall, USPD gets 7.6%. Strength of the middle ground - CP has 19.7%, DDP gets 18.5%. Overwhelming support of the liberal middle classes for democracy and the Republic. Nationalist DNVP opposes the Republic, receives 10.3% of the vote.

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The Treaty of Versailles

The transition to a democracy gave hope to the germans that they might be treated more leniently in the subsequent peace settlement - Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. However, the terms of the November 1918 armistice were aggressive, and public opinion in the Allied countries is that Germany should be harshly punished. Germany was in no position to continue fighting or negotiate, and their representatives had not been invited to Versailles to deliberate.

Most influential leaders at Versailles are Georges Clemenceau (France), David Lloyd George (UK), Vittorio Orlando (Italy), and Woodrow Wilson (USA) - the Council of Four. Wilson's priority was establishing the League of Nations and aimed to establish peace through compromise. Clemenceau wished for security through a damaging Carthaginian peace, ensuring that France would never be vulnerable and weakening Germany's military. There was discussion of extending Poland to create a strong barrier between the West and the unpredictable Soviet Union. DLG wished to contain the SU and limit German militarism but argued against French harshness. However, he was under significant pressure to support France by his home country. Orlando's desires were unrelated to the German question - he wanted to reclaim irredentist land from Austria.

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The Versailles Settlement

In May 1919, the terms are presented to the German delegation, led by Foreign Minister Count Brockdorff-Rantzau, who suggests open refusal - he says that the terms would be impossible to fulfil and cause great resentment.

'What hand would not wither that binds itself and us in these fetters?' - Chancellor Schiedemann, 12th May

Schiedemann's gov resigns on 20th June. German sailors scuttle their fleet in the Orkneys the next day in an act of protest. The new gov is led by Gustav Bauer (SPD) and vice Matthias Erzeberger (CP). They felt they had no choice but to sign. On 28th June, Foreign Minister Herman Müller (SPD) and Minister of Communications Johanne Bell (CP) sign.

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Territorial Provision

Germany lost territory of economic importance - 15% of agricultural resources, and 20% of coal production - as well as territory of symbolic importance such as Prussia. They were denied admittance to the League of Nations. Many German felt the treaty was hypocritical - asserting self-determination for all but Germans.

  • West Prussia and Posen (and Upper Silesia in 1922) -> Poland
  • Alsace-Lorraine -> France
  • Memel -> Lithuania
  • Eupen and Malmedy -> Belgium
  • Danzig -> Free Port for LoN
  • North Schleswig (in 1920) -> Denmark

Rhineland was demilitarised, occupied by Allies for 15 years. The Saar was under control of the LoN, its coalfields controlled by France. Kiel canal opened to warships and merchant ships. Anschluss forbidden (Article 80). All colonies to be given to the Allies.

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Military Terms

Army limited to 100,000 men. Navy only permitted six battleships, six cruisers and twelve destroyers. No submarines or military aircraft.

Aim to completely eradicate the German army such that it could not sustain a future attack.

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War Guilt and Reparations

UK, France and Germany wanted Germany to pay for the war as all had borrowed considerably from the USA - in 1923, estimated that French owed $4000 million. Wilson disagrees, believing reparations should only be paid where international law had been broken, ie. civillian property damage. Public opinion sought heavy reparations. Wilson eventually agrees as he does not want to see DLG or Clemenceau voted out of office.

Allies first have to assert German liability, hence creation of Article 231. Reparations were not set until 1921.

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A Compromise Treaty

Due to differences between the leaders and other considerations, the TofV is a compromise. Leaders needed to contain Bolshevik Russia which made the splitting of Germany unrealistic. A large Poland is created to deal with this.

The TofV left Germany humiliated but also potentially strong. The terms did not prevent it from being reborn as a powerful diplomacy in Europe. There was disillusion about being barred from the LoN, but potential to regain status, with the Treaty leaving Germany as the most likely power to dominate Central and Eastern Europe.

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'Stab in the Back'

Psychological damage on national consciousness is the greatest effect of the Treaty. There was little public support for further more and the army, including Field Marshall Hindenburg advised the government to sign. However, when he gave evidence to the Investigation Committee he called the Treaty a humiliating 'Diktat' and a shameful peace, 'Schmachfrieden'. He referred to the left-wing politicians as unpatriotic and branded them 'November Criminals'. He blamed them for the 'stab in the back' that led to military collapse.

These statements were useful to the anti-Republic right and absolved the military from their own failings. They served to reduce support for the Republic.

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The Weimar Constitution

On 15th November, Liberal Hugo Preuss is appointed Secretary of State in the new Ministry of the Interior and had to draw up a new constitution. In January 1919 a group begins to consider the affairs.

The new state had been born out of defeat and crisis, and democracy represented a real change. It was debated where the powerbase should lie, and whether there should be an executive. And moreover, the constitution must give the state stability against the threat of revolution.

The Weimar Constitution was adopted on 31st July 1919.

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Main Features

All men and women over the age of 20 could vote, and elections were contested on proportional representation - this was agreed as the fairest way by the SPD, and the right-wingers who hoped it would prevent a socialist majority. Every party recieved one seat per 60,000 votes. Voters voted for a list of candidates rather than a specific person.

The new Reich was made up of 18 regional states, or Länder. Each Land has its own parliament. The Reichstag was the lower house, elected by the public vote. The Reich Chancellor and Cabinet headed this. The Reichsrat was the upper house, elected by Land representatives. The President is the executive, elected by the public for a seven year term. Under Article 48 he had emergency powers to suspend individual rights and take any necessary measures to restore order. 

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Proportional Representation

Many suggest that this was a source of weakness for the Republic:

For - The constitution is not widely accepted. It was drawn up by the most successful parties in the January 1919 election, but in no subsequent election did these parties poll as high. It can be suggested therefore that the constitution's basis was narrow and unrepresentative.

Against - The system reflected a broader spectrum of political opinion, and might have helped create some stability. The issue was not its design but the misuse of its design by political opponents.

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Significance of Proportional Representation

System led to coalition governments who failed to establish themselves. A majority system may have been more effective in ensuring stability and combatting attacks from the left and right.

However, the system was widely accepted by all areas of the spectrum. Proportional representation allowed the continuation of sectional interest parties. The coalitions failed due to the leading political parties' failure not to operate effectively.

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Article 48

The President was elected directly by the people and had the power to disband the Reichstag and dismiss the gov to avoid any 'elected parliamentary dictatorship'. Article 48 was meant to ensure strength of the Republic - Ebert had only used to preserve it, but Hindenburg's overuse had many questioning such powers. Ebert uses in 1923 to put down the Munich Putsch, but Hindenburg uses extensively from 1930 onwards.

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A Federal State

The authors of the constitution aimed to prevent any one group or region dominating the Republic. Länder were given regional authority, for example, over police, and were represented at higher level in the Reichsrat. However, it very often reflected the pre-1914 practice however, but this was beneficial - it was crucial that it was recognised as legitimate by the general population.

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Causes of the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch

The reduction of the armed forces was outrageous to Nationalists who rejected the terms of the TofV and wished to overthrow the Weimar state. The figurehead of the movement is national hero, General Ludendorff. The leaders are Wolfgang Kapp of the Patriotic Party and General con Lüttwitz of the Freikorps.

In March 1920, Defence Minister Gustav Noske orders disbanding of the Ehrhardt and Baltikum Brigades of the Freikorps as a part of the descaling (due to terms of the TofV, only allowing 100,000 men). A group of officers led by Lüttwitz refuse and instead demand the resignation of Ebert and new elections.

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Events of the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch

Night 12th March and morning 13th, Lüttwitz leads the Freikorps into Berlin and they seized the gov district. Noske orders the army to act. Commander-in-Chief, General Reinhardt is prepared to act, but Head of the General Staff, General von Seeckt orders troops to remain in their barracks. He states that 'Reichswehr does not fire on the Reichswehr'.

Kapp is declared Chancellor by Lüttwitz. The gov flees to Dresden but appeals for workers to strike in defence of the Republic. The strike paralyses the capital, and Kapp fails to win the support of the civil service and institutions such as the Reichsbank. After four days the regime collapses and Kapp and Lüttwitz flee to Sweden.

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Impact of the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch

Incident highlighted the army's reluctance to support the Republic. Noske is forced to resign as Defence Minister but only one army officer is imprisoned. In Bavaria, sympathetic army officers force the elected left-wign Land gov to resign, replacing it with a right-wing one. Most importantly, it is clear that the WR relies on unreliable forces to maintain order.

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The Ruhr Revolution, 1920

Workers in the Ruhr form a workers' militia, the 'Red Army'. On 15th March, they seized power and establish a gov in Essen, aiming to create a Soviet state. The army sends in the Freikorps and the army to crush the revolution - ironic as they had just shown themselves to be of dubious loyalty.

No prisoners are taken. Anyone suspected of being a revolutionary is shot dead. The 'Red Army' is defeated on 7th April.

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The Left Threat

The fear of Communism is considerable, especially after street violence in Kiel (Nov 1918) and Bavaria (Apr 1919). Revolution in Germany was a central element of Lenin's foreign policy. The Russian-Polish war (Apr-Oct 1920) heightens fears. The Poles manage to push the Russians back however.

The revolutionary left is divided and weakened by lack of support. The split of the USPD in October 1920 leads to increased membership for the KPD, due to its membership of Comintern and alliance with the Soviet Union. But the revolutionary attitude alienates large sections of the working classes.

The most significant threat is the anti-Republicanism of the right-wingers. Gustav Bauer's gov collapses, replaced by Herman Müller (also SPD), who aim to call first election of the Reichstag to replace the National Assembly. This happens in June 1920, and results show distinct polarisation. Upsurge in support for more radical parties - DVP, DNVP, USPD. The 'Weimar Coalition' received just 44.6% of the vote. Majority of the Reichstag is unsympathetic or hostile to the Republic. SPD are reluctant to work with such parties.

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Political Violence

Disbanding of many Freikorps brigades does not stop ex-members from agitating. Many join the Consul organisation - right wing political intimidation group. Of  murders between 1920 and 1922, 354 of the 376 are carried out by members of right-wing organisations.

1921 and 1922 see an escalation in political violence. Murders of Karl Gareis (USPD) and Matthias Erzeberger (CP) are telling - they advocated the signing of the TofV. Erzeberger in particular was seen as the epitome of the Republic, and murdered by the Consul organisation in the Black Forest on 26th August 1921. On 24th June 1922, Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau is shot by the same group.

'The enemy is on the right' - Chancellor Wirth

Law to Defend the Republic is introduced in response to Rathenau's death. However, the leniency of the judiciary benefitted the right.

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The Judiciary

Drawn from a pre-war caste, Article 54 of the Weimar constitution maintained the judiciary's independence. Many judges showed bias against the Republic and were lenient to right-wingers who sought to destroy it. Ex:

In early 1920, DNVP leader Karl Helfferich accuses Matthias Erzeberger of fraud and corruption, and he in turn accuses the other of libel. The judiciary found against Erzeberger causing his resignation. This was a real blow to the Weimar political scene.

The Law for the Protection of the Republic is passed in July 1922. The judiciary failed to use it to the full and when they did, it was usually against the forces of the left. In Bavaria, the law was completely ignored. Ex:

In October 1922, Felix Fechenbach, secretary to Eisner (leader of the left-wing revolutionaries in Bavaria) is given eleven years for violating the Press Law, but Adolf Hitler is given only five years for high treason in the Munich putsch, and his co-conspirators are acquitted.

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The Army

The army sought to protect its own interest and felt it owed no allegiance to the state.

The attempt of the KPD to unleash a German 'October Revolution' in Saxony and Thuringia in 1923 failed due to prompt deployment of willing units of the Reichswehr.

A month later in the Munich Putsch, General von Seeckt initially refused to send in the troops. Local Reichswehr leader, General von Lossow had made it clear that he would refuse to obey the orders of the WR. Intervention of the Bavarian police ends the putsch, and Ebert transfers all power of the Reich to Seeckt on 8th November 1923. To prevent a split in the army, Seeckt orders the disbanding and banning of the NSDAP.

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Between 1919 and 1921, 23 conferences are held to discuss levels of reparations.

July 1920 - Spa Conference agrees the following proportions of reparations payouts: 52% France, 22% UK, 10% Italy, 8% Belgium, rest to smaller powers.

January 1921 - Paris Conference decides a figure of 226 milliard gold marks. German gov rejects this demand as excessive.

February-May 1921 - London Conference set a new figure of 132 milliard gold marks to be paid in annual instalments of 2000 million gold marks plus 26% exports. 1000 million gold marks to be paid by the end of August. Failure to agree would result in the invasion of the Ruhr by French forces.

Konstantin Fehrenbach's gov resigns in protest. New gov formed under Julian Wirth. On 11th May 1921, gov accepted terms and raised a loan in London to pay the first instalment.

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Growing Financial Crisis

The greatest threat to the Republic come as consequences of the currency collapse in 1923. In 1919, the national debt stood at 144 milliard marks, increasing to 469 milliard marks by late 1922. On the course for hyperinflation. In July 1922, the gov asks for permission to suspend reparation payments. French Prime Minister Poincaré refuses - unless 60% of the capital of the dyestuff industry on the Rhine as well as the state mines of the Ruhr make 'productive guarantees'. 

Rather than fire state emplotees or try to reform the country - which may have led to further instability, the German gov prints more money to cover its debts. In November 1922, the new gov (led by Wilhelm Cuno) was faced with financial disaster having failed to deliver promised coal and timber to the Allies.

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Ruhr Crisis

German ceasing of reparation payments led to the Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923 with 60,000 troops. Cuno's gov encourages passive resistance from the workers. Troops respond by arresting mine owners and taking over the mines and railways.

Passive resistance led to a reduction in the amount of coal delivered to France and Belgium. The gov also had to pay millions to those who had lost revnue as a result. The lack of tax income meant that the gov printed even more money. By August 1923, 663 billion marks are in circulation and the German currency collapsed into hyperinflation.

German economy also collapsed - only 29.3% of trade union members were walking full time. Middle class see their savings destroyed, working class see their income drop.

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Stabilising the Currency

In August 1923, a new gov under Gustav Stresemann takes measures to stabilise the situation. In September, payments are resumed and the French agree to establish a comission to study the problem of the German economy.

In November 1923, a temporary currency, the Rentenmark (becomes Reichsmark in 1924), is introduced by Finance Minister Hans Luther. Mortgage bonds on industrial and agricultural assets cover this and its printing is limited strictly. Luther also sacks over 700,000 state employees to balance the budget.

A Rentenbank - soon to become the Reichsbank - is established this same month. Hjalmar Schacht is appointed as Currency Commissioner.

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