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Essay: To what extent were the problems of the Weimar Republic responsible for the rise of Nazism?

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by Nicholas Klar

‘…the German Foreign Minister and military Chief of Staff…[both stated that]…modern Germany is not the Weimar Republic, the chaotic democracy that gave way to the Nazi takeover in 1933.’

New York Times, 19th November 1992

The Weimar Republic was a chaotic and difficult transition for the German State after the Great War. Many years of traditional autocratic rule by strong nationalistic leaders made the acceptance of democracy difficult. The heady days of 1918 saw it widely embraced, but its implementation would prove to be another matter. Despite its sweeping mandate in 1919, the SPD/USPD cabinet and their successors made many mistakes which were eventually to prove the undoing of Weimar. From the outset problems such as the flight of the Kaiser had beset the new republic. Many Germans had presumed the emperor and new republic would work together. By 1920 the electoral pendulum was already swinging right.

It is argued that the new government was hardly a democracy anyway. The government was still essentially an autocratic institution, although arguably a socialist autocracy. As party members jockeyed for alliances the government continued to rule from the top down. Much was allowed to remain of the existing governmental institutions, and no attempt was made to alter the centralised federal structure. Many of the new revolutionary soldiers and workers councils deferred authority to the CPP in Berlin.[1]

Despite the popularity of the KPD, who were always able to win a fair proportion of seats, no cabinet ever contained communists. The OHL/CPP and ZAG/Labor pacts severely undermined the authority of the new government. In the new constitution the President was endowed with powers under Section 48 to rule without parliamentary approval. This article was supposedly only be invoked in emergency situations (the parliament was keeping in mind the riots of the post war years), but would eventually undermine the democracy it was envisioned to protect. As was the case with Hindenburg in his latter years, an ill-equipped president could be easily influenced by the advisors he chose.[2]

Yet in many ways the new democracy was a success. The election of 1919 saw an extremely high vote for reforming parties like the SPD. The rise of Soldiers and Workers Councils pressed the need for democracy. The rise of German industry had led to a growing proletariat who were prepared to flex their collective muscle in the strikes of 1918/19.[3] Concurrently political parties like the SPD, USPD, and later the KPD considerably expanded their membership base.

Initially the conservative parties were accepting of democracy. They reorganized their party structures and accepted the new challenge head-on. Many incorporated volkspartei into their new titles to give more appeal. It must be noted that this did not alter the anti republican and authoritarian views of many members. Attempted governmental overthrows by both the left and right extremes were unsuccessful. The electorate rejected these forces at the ballot box, favouring centrist or moderate parties. It could even be argued that democracy was too successful. As the economy worsened a profusion of single issue parties arose, splitting votes for the major parties. In some elections voters had to decide for anything up to 26 parties.[4]

The mistakes that the major parties made, particularly those on the left, proved windows of opportunity for anti-republican forces. Anti-republicans had been left in positions of power after 1918. The extreme right was allowed to flourish in a particularly undemocratic Bavaria. Haffner stated the problem as,

‘…the Republic suffered shipwreck because, from the outset, it failed to strip the German right wing of its power for good, or permanently to integrate it into the new republican state.’ [5]

The same problem was experienced with the left. Early on the USPD and KPD were still hoping for a revolution that would sweep in a new proletarian state. The 'Spartacus Week' uprising, and others that took place, made a large percentage of the population fear that a Bolshevik overthrow was near. The right were able to harness this fear, strengthening paramilitary groups such as the Stanhelm.

The politicized Friekorps became strongly 'anti', anti-communist, anti-Versailles Treaty, and anti-democracy. The right, unable to make the headway they would like, took to lobbying through extra-parliamentary groups such as the military and industrialists. They were aided by the KPD who sought most to undermine the SPD, and whom they regarded as the real fascists.[6]

As would be the problem continually, arguments amongst the coalition governments would undermine stability. Indicative of something more deep-seated, the choosing of national colors ( the revolutionary black, red and gold in preference the old imperial black, red and white) would cause deep seated divisions for the life of Weimar. Eyck contends that concern for the maintenance of Parliamentary government only prevailed over special interests through the able leadership of Stressemann before his death.[7]

As political atomization occurred, sections of parliament, (and society) became more polarized, forcing the electorate to choose between the forces of the left or right. In 1929 the DVP portrayed itself as the party of business, pitted in battle against its coalition partner the SPD, the champion of labor. Eventually when the systematic consensus broke down in 1930 so did parliamentary democracy.

Counterrevolutionary volkisch forces gained strength which all professed a similar ideology, anti-democratic, anti-semitic, anti-marxist, and anti-parliamentary. One of these groups, the NSDAP (the Nazi's), would eventually eclipse its rivals under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. These forces claimed there was a Jewish conspiracy which was responsible for the defeat of Germany in WWI, and it's subsequent revolution.[8] Suddenly conservatives had begun to recall that Germany was victorious until it was 'stabbed in the back' by the revolutionaries of 1918.

The almost continually distressed economy was a major factor in the fall of the left, and concurrent rise of the right. The left did not respond to the depressed conditions as it should have. In fact it seemed to have a total inability to deal with the consequences of the depression.[9] The middle class had been alienated through a shift of wealth after WWI. The government was accused of making the economy look bad, so as to avoid war reparations.

As the left failed people in desperation turned to the right, seeking some form of stability and harking back to 'old ways'. The 'crisis strata' of German society, ‘…who had not been volkisch or nazi-orientated before but were so vulnerable to economic crisis…panicked at the thought of another great inflation.’[10]

With the death of Stressemen and the subsequent stalling of the peace process, political leaders like Hugenberg and Bruning threw political moderation to the wind and moved sharply right. The old conservative right, previously resentful of the new right forces, now turned to embrace them in partnership. It was considered to be a 'marriage of convenience', where the conservatives could harness the power and popularity of groups like the Nazi's. Power would supposedly be returned to the conservatives with the Nazi's as the junior partner. Unfortunately the old right found too late out that they were in fact the tail, and not the dog.

Hitler was able to exploit the weaknesses of the left and the moderates. The 'new society' that he offered was an amalgam of the old and the new. He appeared as the strong leader, in the ilk of Bismarck, Bulow, and Wilhelm. Others who did not show strong, almost autocratic, leadership qualities had quickly failed. Hitler was a good communicator of traditional values and fatherland nationalism, and could quickly perceive the mood of a crowd. Speeches were meticulously prepared in advance, making sure local issues would be incorporated.

The Nazis promised to overcome the divisions that the republic had brought and create a genuine 'national community'.[11] Hitler was able to seize on issues and divisions and use them to further the cause of the Nazi's. They were able to utilize,

‘…the paralysis of the parliamentary system, the government's seeming unwillingness to deal with the depression, the rising strength of the Communist Party, and the attempt by the New Conservatives to use the situation for their own purposes…’ [12]

Hitler promised much, sometimes contradicting himself to different interest groups within a small space of time. He equated the 'October traitors' with an unfair Treaty of Versailles. He exploited the differences between the KDP and SDP. The KDP, who by late in the republic were viewed as the only other 'strong' leaders, usually supported the Nazi's until Hitler outlawed them. Like Hugenberg, Hitler had used the fear of Marxism '_ predicting that either Bolshevism or nationalism would triumph in Germany.'[13]

Despite the perceived decline of the German state why was its populace willing to accept the excesses of the NSDAP? Allen claims that in the town of Northeim,

‘…Northeimers were willing to tolerate approaches that would have left them indignant or indifferent under other circumstances…in the face of the senseless round of political squabbling and fecklessness, the Nazi's presented the appearance of a unified, purposeful, and vigorous alternative…The problem of Nazism was primarily a problem of perception…Each group saw one or the other side of Nazism, but none saw it in its full hideousness.’ [14]

Orlow stated that one of the reasons for Hitler's rise to power was the factor of German history itself. He claims,

‘The Nazi's did not burst upon the German political scene without warning. They were the inheritors and beneficiaries of deep and ill-hidden strains of anti-Semitism, anti-modernism, and anti -parliamentarianism in German society.’ [15]

Germany had been fertile soil for the volkisch movements since the 1890's. The loss of WWI and the disappointing experience with Weimar provided ample opportunity for further growth.[16]

Any reference to Hitler and the 'demonization' of power cannot explain the German phenomenon nor answer questions about the failure of the Weimar Republic. Two reasons can be set forth. Hitler and National Socialism were in the long standing tradition of German political thought. Also, the mixture of Prusso-authoritarianism and Austro-volkisch expansionist politics found their radical outlet in Hitlerism. Behind this was the development of the German sense of special destiny in the 19th century. As put by Bracher,

'Hitler and National Socialism - they were not unfortunate accidents, nor incomprehensible derailments in the path of German history; they were, as Konrad Heiden said, a "German condition".'[17]



[1] Orlow 'Modern Germany' pp. 132 -135

[2] Ibid pp.134,184

[3] Ibid p.146

[4] Ibid p.169

[5] Haffner 'Meaning of Hitler' p.63

[6] Orlow 'Modern Germany' pp. 156,183,185

[7] Eyck 'Weimar Republic' pp228,229

[8] Orlow 'Modern Germany' p.155

[9] Allen 'Nazi Seizure' p.297, also Orlow 'Modern Germany' p.164

[10] Broszat 'National Socialism' pp.3,4

[11] Orlow 'Modern Germany' p.185

[12] Ibid p.193

[13] Halperin 'Democracy' p.467

[14] Allen 'Nazi Seizure' p.298

[15] Orlow 'Modern Germany' p.192

[16] Ibid

[17] Bracher 'Dictatorship' p.247


William Sheridan Allen 'The Nazi Seizure of Power' NY 1984

Karl Dietrich Bracher 'The German Dictatorship' NY 1970

Martin Broszat'German National Socialism1919-1945' Stuttgart 1960

Erich Eyck 'A History of the Weimar Republic' NY 1970

Sebastian Haffner 'The Meaning of Hitler' NY 1979

S. William Halperin 'Germany Tried Democracy' NY 1983

'New York Times' 19th November 1992

Dietrich Orlow 'History of Modern Germany' New Jersey 1987

©1992-2007, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1992, "To what extent were the problems of the Weimar Republic responsible for the rise of Nazism?" - + date accessed

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