Weimar and Nazi Germany 1918-1939

Weimar and Nazi Germany 1918-1939 revision cards for the Edexcel GCSE (9-1) course. 

N.B. WIP - will receive updates soon

First World War

The First World War was a global conflict which Germany had fought in alongside her ally Austria-Hungary. Germany had faced the allied powers which included Great Britain, The United States, France, Italy and Russia. Despite defeating Russia in 1917, Germany ultimately lost the war. The war drained and exhausted Germany not just financially but also in terms of population too.

The war had cost Germany around 2 million soldiers, and more than double that injured. In addition to these losses, the people of Germany were equally war weary. In the later years of the war, the British had blockaded Europe ensuring that food supplies were cut off. This forced many in Germany into starvation. Germany lost the war of attrition at home and then subsequently lost the war in the trenches.

The war was causing significant problems for the German Government as unrest spread across the countries with strikes and rebellions taking hold.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II

The Kaiser was the King or Emperor of Germany. He was the grandchild of Queen Victoria. He ruled Germany from 1888 to 1918.

Wilhelm was a power-hungry leader who longed for Germany to have a great Empire similar to that of Britain or France. His ambitions regularly brought him into conflict with Britain and France such as the Agadir Crisis. This ambition led to an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire which would ultimately plunge the world into the First World War after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Throughout the First World War, Wilhelm proved ineffective as a leader and left much of the decision making to his top generals. When it became quickly apparent that the war was lost, Wilhelm abdicated the throne and fled to the Netherlands. Wilhelm became the last Emperor of Germany.

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Creating the Republic

The Kaiser abdicated on November 9th, 1918 after it became clear that he could no longer command any authority in Germany. Many politicians in Germany realised that in order to keep order and prevent any revolutions a new government would have to be formed quickly.

As the largest party in the Reichstag, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) set about forming a government. The leader of the SPD Friedrich Ebert became the leader of Germany and the following day he agreed with the army to work together to keep communists from taking power. To create change quickly, Ebert suspended the Reichstag and created a Council of People’s Representatives. It was this council that would govern until the new country was up and running. The council was filled with people who were seen as being in the middle, and who did hold extreme political ideas such as the communists.

Another early act of the new government was to sign the Armistice with the Allied Powers to end the fighting of the First World War. Whilst for Germany this was the right thing to do, it quickly became clear that the peace treaty would prove problematic for Germany and encourage bad feeling to spread among the German people.

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Creating the Republic

The Council and Ebert could not set up the new country on their own so required help to do so. Ebert made sure that many of the parts of the German state were kept together. Civil servants were encouraged to stay in post and work to build a new Germany. Ebert realised the importance of these people as they ensured that public services operated and that crucially taxes continued to be collected.

Ebert won the support of the Army, who would in return for no reforms, ensure that the government was protected and that revolutions and rebellions were suppressed. Together with the reassurances to industry, this brought some control and stability to Germany after the abdication of the Kaiser.

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The National Assembly

The National Assembly was a more permanent solution to governing Germany and setting up the new constitution. The National Assembly replaced the Council of People’s Representatives. The Assembly’s primary mission was to draft and agree on the new Constitution for the German Republic.

Ebert scheduled elections for the Assembly in January 1919. In the results of the election, those parties who were seen as more moderate won the majority of seats. The Social Democratic Party and the Centre Party won a combined 60% of the seats. The first election was also a huge achievement for Ebert as 82% of the German electorate voted for the National Assembly.

The National Assembly met in Weimar rather than Berlin. Berlin was too dangerous to meet due to the violence. Weimar was a town in Germany and ultimately how the Republic gets its name. The Assembly met in the town in February 1919.

Drafting the new constitution was a long process that took 6 months. However, in July 1919 with a majority of 187, the constitution was agreed.

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The Weimar Constitution

When setting out to create the Weimar Republic, the National assembly wanted to create a system which was one of the most democratic in the world. Elements of the Constitution were borrowed from other countries such as the United States.

The Constitution sets out different parts of the government and how they interact with each other. At the top of the Republic was the President. They were in charge of the country and were elected directly by the people every seven years. However, they did not really have any political power other than choosing who should be the chancellor.

The Chancellor was the head of government and did much of the day to day politics of governing. The Chancellor was a similar position to the UK Prime Minister. In order to carry out their policies, they must have the support of the Reichstag. The Chancellor also chairs the Cabinet. The cabinet is made up of the senior ministers who assist the Chancellor in making decisions.

One of the key parts of the Constitution was the Reichstag. Reichstag has two meanings in German politics. One meaning is for the German Parliament building and is used to describe the Parliament as a whole. The other meaning of the term Reichstag is the lower house of the Parliament. It represented the people were elected directly by them. It was by far the most powerful part of the Weimar Government, as if the Chancellor did not have the support of the Reichstag then the government would fall.

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The Weimar Constitution

In addition to the Reichstag, there was the Reichsrat, which was also elected and represented the German states. It had less power than the Reichstag, but it would also get a say on the laws that the Reichstag.

Underpinning all of the Weimar Constitution was the electorate. Anyone over the age of 21 was allowed to vote. This was a major step forward for women’s and suffrage rights. Voters used proportional representation which was designed to be fair and to properly represent the wishes of the German people.

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Strengths of the Constitution

The Weimar Republic was designed to be one of the most democratic systems in the world and this was seen as a major strength in the Constitution. Democracy was ensured through several different methods. Firstly, there was universal suffrage, meaning anyone who was over the age of 21 could vote. When German citizens went to go an vote they did so under a system of proportional representation. Proportional representation was a system designed to fairly represent the wishes of the German people when they voted in elections. If a party received at least 60,000 votes then they would receive one member or deputy in the Reichstag.

The entire system was created to spread power between all the different parts of the government and make sure that no one part had too much power. The system during its design borrowed from the system used in the United States which had a system of Checks and Balances.

The President chose the Chancellor based on the elections to the Reichstag. The President could also call elections to the Reichstag and he too was elected for seven-year terms. The Reichstag was powerful as it controlled money in the Weimar Republic, but the Reichsrat also voted on laws which meant that if they did not agree then they could slow down the passage of laws.

This was a basic form of checks and balances that existed and was a good example of people attempting to create a democratic system which would thrive after the abdication of the Kaiser.

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Weaknesses of the Constitution

Despite being one of the strengths proportional representation was also one of the largest weaknesses of the system. Proportional representation resulted in the formation of coalition governments often made up of a number of parties. This meant that there were often differing ideas about how Germany should be governed. When parties disagreed it often meant that the government collapsed and they needed to have fresh elections.

This problem of governing was often made worse through the frequent use of the emergency powers. Emergency powers were established in the constitution under Article 48. Article 48 resulted in the President being able to rule by decree rather than consulting the Reichstag. This meant that the Chancellor would present laws to the President who would then simply issue them. This power was often used in a time of crisis when a swift and decisive government was needed. However, in practice, it was often used simply when the Reichstag couldn’t agree.

Linked to the idea of emergency rule were revolts and rebellions. There were many rebellions and revolts against the government, including some supported by the political parties represented in the Reichstag such as the National Socialists. When in a time of crisis, the government of the Republic had used the armed forces and independent militias such as the Freikorps to suppress rebellion, which had caused bad feeling to spread among those opposed to the Republic.

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Political Parties of the Weimar Republic

There were a huge number of political parties in the Weimar Republic. They represented all aspects of German society in the new republic. In addition to this, the republic’s electoral system ensured that there were significant numbers of parties. This was due to proportional representation. For every 60,000 votes a party got, they would get a seat in the Reichstag. This encouraged smaller parties to fight for seats to represent different parts of German society. Below are the key parties from the left, centre and the right.

The Communist Party (KPD)

The Communist Party was a political party on the extreme left of the political spectrum. They were classed as an extremist party. The party drew its support mainly from the workers. They had based their ideas on a communist revolution where the workers rise up against the ruling classes. They wanted to achieve something similar to what had happened in Russia to create the Soviet Union. As a result of this, the Communist Party detested the Weimar Republic and would have wanted to see the end of the Republic.

The Social Democrats (SPD)

The Social Democrats were the party of Ebert and can claim a lot of credit for creating the Republic in the first place. They were a party on the left, but not as left wing as the Communist Party. The party drew its support from the workers mainly and the middle classes. The Social Democrats supported the Republic that they had helped to create.

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Political Parties of the Weimar Republic

The Centre Party (ZP)

The Centre Party was a moderate party which sat in the centre of the political spectrum. As with the Social Democrats, they supported the Republic. The party itself was supported by conservatives and had arisen from the Catholic Church.

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP)

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party or Nazi Party were on the extreme right of German politics. They hated the Weimar Republic, despised those who had signed the Treaty of Versailles and wanted to avenge Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Originally called the German Worker’s Party the name was changed when Adolf Hitler took over. They were supported by workers but their support grew across the middle classes too.

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Challenges from the Left

Those parties on the extreme left did not support the Weimar Republic at all and as such were keen to challenge the new Republic. The extreme left did this both inside the Reichstag and on the streets. The main party which symbolised all of this was the Communist Party (KPD) who wanted to get rid of capitalism and create a Communist State for the benefit of the workers.

Inside the Reichstag, the extreme left managed to obtain around 20% of the seats. This was a similar figure to the extreme right. With around 40% of the seats between them, they could cause significant problems for the governing moderate parties who often struggled to create coalitions in the Reichstag due to a large number of small parties.

Outside of the Reichstag the Communists also challenged the Republic through the use of private armies to protect the party but also through rebellion such as the Spartacist Revolt.

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Challenges from the Right

The Republic faced challenges from the right wing of German politics. This did not simply mean the Nazis but also parties such as the National Party. Many of these right-wing groups hated the Weimar Republic and wanted to bring back the Kaiser. They were strong believers in the nation over a person and were enthusiastic backers of law and order, capitalism and traditional ‘family’ values.

Inside the Reichstag, the extreme right managed to achieve around 20% of the seats, similar numbers to the extreme left. This meant that the extreme right and extreme left could frustrate the moderate parties who were hoping to form a government. This is something that the Nazi party did well in the later years of the Weimar Republic.

Outside of the Reichstag, there were significant challenges from the right of the political spectrum with the Kapp Putsch in 1920 and then the Munich Putsch in 1923.

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The Spartacist Revolt

The Spartacist Revolt was an uprising of the extreme left designed to establish a communist state in Germany and destroy the Weimar Republic. It was led by the Spartacist League which was a group within the German Communist Party. The Spartacist League was led by committed communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Both hoped to bring about the end of the Weimar Republic and establish a Soviet state similar to what had happened in Russia during the First World War. Indeed, the Soviet Union was a large supporter of the German Communist Party.

Early in January 1919, Friedrich Ebert sacked the popular head of the police Emil Eichhorn. Eichhorn was popular among many in Berlin and as a result of his sacking, workers protested in the streets. Upon seeing this action, the Spartacist League took the opportunity to rebel and bring down the government. Following on from the protest over the sacking of Eichhorn, a general strike was declared on January 6th, 1919. Over 100,000 workers were involved in the action and rebellion. During the strike, the Spartacists seized key government buildings including the telegraph offices.

The Weimar government found the revolt difficult to deal with and had to call in the Freikorps. The Freikorps put down the rebellion, with most workers and rebels being cleared by January 13th, 1919. The ringleaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested and killed by the Freikorp.

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The Freikorps

The Freikorps were a group of former soldiers who had fought in the First World War but due to the military restrictions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles were out of work. When they had been disbanded from the army when the war ended, many had simply held onto their weapons.

Many of these former soldiers were still loyal to the Kaiser and supported right-wing parties, meaning that they hated the communists. When the Spartacist Revolt broke out, they were organised by Ebert and told to suppress the uprising. After the Spartacist revolt, there were about 250,000 Freikorp members.

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The Kapp Putsch

The Freikorps grew in strength after the Spartacist Revolt in 1919, however, in March 1920, the government of the republic attempted to disband the Freikorps. It was at this point that the Ebert government lost control of the Freikorps which they had previously controlled. The former soldiers who made up the Freikorps did not want to become unemployed again as they had after the First World War. It was during March 1920 that the Freikorps turned against the government.

When the Freikorps turned up in Berlin, Ebert initially ordered the German army to stop the rebellion, however, the army refused to do anything as they did not wish to go against former soldiers. In face of this lack of opposition, the Freikorps managed to take over Berlin and declare a new government. The new government was headed up by Wolfgang Kapp who invited the Kaiser to return from the Netherlands to retake his post as Emperor of Germany.

The Weimar government had fled Berlin and in an attempt to stop the putsch, encouraged the workers of Berlin to go on strike. This strike brought Berlin to a standstill and meant that it was very difficult for the new government to do anything as all essential services were stopped. This resulted in the collapse of the putsch after only four days. Wolfgang Kapp was caught and arrested and the Weimar government returned.

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Political Violence 1919-1923

Throughout the period 1919-1923 there was significant political unrest in Weimar society, be that in the form of assassination, judicial bias and the creation of private armies all caused political unrest in the Republic.

To counter the unrest that existed, political parties created private armies which would help defend their meetings and protect their leaders and members should they need help. These private armies were made up of former soldiers. These groups often caused as much violence as they prevented. This is because those groups who defended would also cause damage to those people who they saw as opponents. It was not uncommon for right-wing paramilitary men to beat up communists and vice versa.

In addition to this street violence, there was also a significant number of political assassinations of high profile Weimar politicians. Walther Rathenau as foreign minister was assassinated in 1922, as well as members of the Council of People’s Representatives. In total, during the period there was 376 assassinations and murders of mainly moderate or centrist politicians. When it came to trying those guilty of carrying out the murders, left-wing assassins were almost always convicted, whilst those on the right tended to get away with it. This judicial bias existed in the courts as many of the judges were right-wing themselves.

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The Treaty of Versailles

The Treaty of Versailles was the treaty which settled the terms of peace after the First World War. Germany was not present at the Paris Peace Conference where the victorious allied powers decided these terms.

The Treaty ended up punishing Germany for the war and finding Germany guilty of starting the war. As well as war guilt, Germany was forced to pay £6.6 billion in reparations to the allies and had their army reduced to 100,000 soldiers. In addition to this, Germany was not allowed any tanks, submarines nor aeroplanes. The size of the navy was restricted further to ensure Germany could not start another war.

If this wasn’t enough, Germany lost all her overseas colonies and had land taken off her in continental Europe. Alsace-Lorraine was given to Germany, the Polish corridor was created and the German city of Danzig was made a free city. The total percentage of land lost was 13% which equated to 12.5% of their population. Further punishments were included in the Treaty such as the demilitarisation of the Rhineland which bordered France and the prohibition of union with Austria.

Germany saw the Treaty of a dictated peace and gave it the name ‘diktat’. Many Germans blamed the Weimar Republic for betraying Germany with their agreement to such harsh terms.

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Occupation of the Ruhr 1923

The Ruhr was an industrial region of Germany close to the border with France. The Ruhr was also home to a number a coalfields, vital to Germany’s industrial capacity. Germany relied on this industrial capacity to help it pay reparations.

As part of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to pay reparations to the allied powers. In order to do this, Germany would sometimes pay reparations in kind, in the form of coal and goods, however at times, Germany could not pay the reparations. During December 1922, Germany stopped paying. As retaliation, the French invaded the Ruhr region and started to seize goods and factories to make up for the lack of payment.

Germany could not respond with force as they were too weak and had a military that was severely restricted by the Treaty of Versailles. In response to the occupation by the French, the German government ordered workers to resist the occupation. This was known as passive resistance. As part of the resistance, the workers in the Ruhr went on strike and refused to assist the French occupiers. The French did not take kindly to the strikes and proceeded to arrest anyone who was unhelpful to the occupation and ultimately the French brought in workers from France to assist.

Overall the occupation of the Ruhr caused huge problems for Germany. Much of the country’s raw materials were located there and now this was in the control of the French. One of the central consequences of the occupation was a rise in prices due to the lack of goods and raw materials. This rise in prices is known as inflation. Another consequence of this was that the government collected less tax money. This was due to the unemployment in Germany as unemployed people cannot pay tax. To tackle this shortage, the government decided to print money.

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Hyperinflation

The Occupation of the Ruhr, lead to significant shortages for goods and food. In order to ration the shortage of goods, it meant that prices rose. A general rise in prices is referred to as inflation. As a result of this, it meant that people had to spend more of their pay packets on essentials.

The Weimar Republic was struggling with the reparations repayments after the First World War and was receiving far less money from taxes than it had initially done due to the rise in unemployment. If people are unemployed it means that they are not earning and therefore not paying taxes. In order to resolve the problem, the government decided that printing the money it needed would be the best solution.

The printing of money created further problems for the government. As more money was printed, it meant prices rose quickly, This situation of rapidly increasing prices is known as hyperinflation. For example, the price of bread increased from 1 mark per loaf in 1919 to 200,000 billion marks in 1923.

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Effects of Hyperinflation

As with any economic situation, there were winners and losers. Under hyperinflation, whilst there were some winners there were on the whole more losers from the economic situation in the Weimar Republic.

Firstly, the shortages experienced during the occupation of the Ruhr became worse. The more money that the government printed the more the money became worthless. This meant that when other countries exchanged their money to Reichsmarks it wasn’t worth anything, as a result, imports to Germany fell and the shortages became worse. Germany could not import the goods they needed for survival.

Second, daily life became difficult for many in Germany, hyperinflation created a situation in Germany whereby prices rose almost hour by hour. People were paid twice in a day and often had to take piles of money to the shops in wheelbarrows. Shopping stopped becoming about paying for goods with money but started to develop into an exchange economy whereby goods were swapped for each other, e.g. food for toiletries.

As the money became worthless, people with savings suddenly found that their savings were now worthless. For example, if you had saved 500 marks prior to hyperinflation, this amount did not increase as prices did. The value of these savings stayed at 500 marks.

There were winners, however, anyone with debts sound that they were easily repayable as the value of these debts did not increase either.

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The Dawes Plan 1924

The Dawes Plan 1924 was an agreement signed between the Allies and Germany. It was devised by a banker from the United States called Charles G. Dawes. The need for such a plan came about as the Allies were fed up with Germany not paying the reparations.

The basic idea behind the plan was to make it easier for Germany to pay the reparations. In order to do this, there were two strands to the plan.

  1. Reparations reduced in the short term to 50 million pounds per year

  2. The United States would give loans to Germany to be used on their industrial capacity. The loans totalled $25 billion.

As a result of the signing of the deal, the reparations payments were resumed, and the occupation of the Ruhr came to an end.

These measures took steps to improve the German economy. As a result of US loans Germany industry thrived and employment increased. The government also saw tax revenues increase as a result of the increased employment.

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The Young Plan 1929

The Young Plan was another plan agreed between Germany and the Allies. Similarly to the Dawes Plan, it was named after the US Banker who oversaw the plan. Owen Young was appointed by the Allies to draw up the new plan.

The Young Plan was simple, it cut the total reparation payments down from £6.6billion to £2 billion. As well as the reduction in the total reparations from the war, the Young Plan also gave another 59 years to pay the reparations to the Allies. This meant that Germany would be paying reparations until 1988.

Whilst this agreement made it easier for Germany to repay the war reparations, the deal did not please everyone in Germany especially those who resented the Treaty of Versailles such as the National Socialists. Despite this opposition, most ordinary German people saw the plan as a success. When the Republic held a referendum on the Plan 85% of the electorate voted in favour of the plan.

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The Kellogg-Briand Pact

The Kellogg-Briand Pact was an international agreement between 62 countries. This also included Germany as an equal partner. The overall aim of the agreement was for countries to agree not to use war as a method of ending international disputes. Crucially the agreement included the United States, who were not members of the League of Nations. The view in the United States was that even though they were not in the League of Nations they could help with peace.

For Germany, the Kellogg-Briand Pact could be seen as significant. Firstly, Germany was included as an equal partner to the other 61 countries, unlike the Treaty of Versailles.

Secondly, it showed that Germany was viewed as a serious power that could be respected and trusted. Finally, as with the Locarno Pact and League of Nations membership, it was supported by moderate Germans but despised by extremist parties. Those who hated the Pact detested it because it did not reverse any of the sanctions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.

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Stresemann and Domestic Politics

Stresemann had sought to make Germany a respected country both by its own people but also by those foreign countries who at won the First World War. In order to do this, Stresemann needed a strategy that would win respect for Germany abroad but not remove support from home and allow extremist parties into power.  

The Dawes Plan, Young Plan, Locarno Pact, League of Nations and Kellogg-Briand Pact meant that moderate Germans had boosted confidence in the country and her leaders. It was clear in elections that this confidence existed as support for extremist parties such as the National Socialists fell away and moderate parties such as the Social Democrats and Centre Party made gains. These gains ensured that when crisis struck in 1925 after the death of President Friedrich Ebert. Ebert was replaced by Hindenburg who was led the Army during the First World War. He was a strong figurehead and ensured that Stresemann’s and Ebert’s work was continued.

However, this rise in confidence did not last. Stresemann had a heart attack in October 1929. This loss to Germany combined with the global economic crisis that came after the heart attack ensured the erosion of moderate support and the increasing support for extremist parties such as the Nazis.

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Living Standards in the Weimar Republic

Living standards refer to the quality of life which people have in a country. Living standards can get worse when the economic circumstances are poor such as high unemployment. They can, however, get better when economic circumstances are good when wages rise for example.

In the Weimar Republic, after the First World War, living standards were poor due to the economic difficulties which the country faced such as hyperinflation. After 1924, living standards started to improve as a result of actions carried out by the Weimar Republic. You can tie many of the actions of Stresemann to the increasing living standards.

Unemployment:

Unemployment stood at 4% in 1924, however from this point onwards unemployment began to fall. Before the economic difficulties set in during the global depression, unemployment stood at 1.3 million. In addition to the fall in unemployment, there was an increase in help for those who became unemployment. The government passed the Unemployment Insurance Act which took 3% of worker’s wages and provided a form of unemployment benefit to those who were out of work.

Employment & Pay

As well as employment increasing, standards of employment and pay did improve also. The total number of hours in a working week fell and despite the fall, wages increased by 25% throughout 1925 to 1928.

Housing

After the war and the early post-war years, the housing stock in Germany was of poor quality but also was in short supply. In order to improve this, the government announced that rent would have a tax placed upon it totalling 15% which would fund house building. Housing Associations build the majority of new houses. Sixty-four thousand new homes were built this way and half as much again were built by companies. Significant progress was made by those building houses, however, in 1928 there was still a shortage of houses.

Significant improvements were also made in the treatment of war veterans and in the provision of education.

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