Lesson 3: The Decline of the Weimar Republic and the Rise of the Nazi Party
When you can accomplish the learning objectives for this lesson, you should begin work on the lesson essay described below. You may use any assigned readings, your notes, and other course-related materials to complete this assignment. Be sure to reread the essay grading criteria on the Grades and Assessments page.
This essay should be about 750 words long, typed double space with one-inch margins on each side. It is worth 100 points and should aIDress the following:
What does General Ludendorff’s notion of a “stab-in-the-back” refer to? Discuss the political implications of this theory for the newly founded Weimar Republic in 1919. You should take into account both the relationship between civil government and the military command and the public’s perception of the republic and the lost war.
After completing this lesson, you should be able to do the following:
Define crucial terms and events such as the stab-in-the-back legend, Kapp-Putsch, NSDAP, SA, SS, Night of the Long Knives, andErmächtigungsgesetz.
Provide a brief summary of the Treaty of Versailles.
Summarize the various reasons the Weimar Republic was an emergency solution disliked by large segments of the German population.
Broadly discuss the genesis of the NSDAP and its development until 1933.
Enumerate the major political goals of Hitler and the NSDAP.
Provide an account of how Hitler established a totalitarian regime within the first six months of his being voted chancellor.
The First World War
We have already briefly touched upon the multiple factors that led to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Chief among them was the widespread imperialist ambitions of the major European nations at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Since Germany developed its industrial power relatively late, it felt left behind in comparison with the other powers, notably France and Britain, which had already built huge imperialist empires in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. Demanding its own “place under the sun,” as the German Emperor Wilhelm II put it, Germany rapidly increased its military and economic presence in other parts of the world and established colonies in southwest Africa, China, and the Pacific islands, among others. Compared with the strong sense of competition among European powers around 1914, the assassination of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Serbia, generally considered the “actual” cause of the war, was merely the final straw that unleashed the storm that had been building for decades.
The war itself was enthusiastically embraced by most peoples in Europe, with only a few critical voices in the beginning. This changed later on, particularly after it had become clear in 1916 that the war could not be won as easily as each nation had hoped. The central powers (comprising Germany and Austria together with Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) made quick advances against Russia and the Serbs in the east. Most importantly, Germany succeeded in smuggling the great revolutionary Lenin into czarist Russia in 1916, and thus helped unleash the Bolshevik October Revolution in Russia in 1917. After the revolution, Germany secured a gain of territory (including Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, and some regions in the Caucasus) by signing the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.
In the west, however, things looked completely different. Germany had violated Belgian neutrality when it followed the so-calledSchliefenplan (worked out by General Schliefen). The basic idea had been to attack France from the north in order to avoid the strong French fortifications along Germany’s western border. To do so, however, required German troops to march through neutral Belgium, and this, in turn, caused Great Britain to join the war against the central powers. In 1917, Germany would again commit a similar error by declaring unrestricted submarine warfare. This policy was directly responsible for the destruction of the American luxury linerLusitania, causing the Americans to join the war on the Allied side as well.
After some initial advances into France, the Germans were stopped in eastern France and bogged down in trench warfare that led to a complete stalemate lasting almost three years. At home, the pressure on the German High Military Command (Oberste Heeresleitung) consisting of the two leading generals, Ludendorff and von Hindenburg, grew stronger, particularly after the bad harvest in 1916 and 1917 led to a famine in many parts of Germany. The social democrats in particular were pushing for peace initiatives, yet von Hindenburg and Ludendorff successfully ruled over both the emperor and the German parliament. Insisting on continuing the fight, Ludendorff and von Hindenburg also helped block an initiative from the Pope to end the war. The only hope was to force a decision prior to arrival of American troops in 1918. Hence, Ludendorff ordered another huge offensive against French and British troops in March of 1918. The Germans reached the Marne River, yet lost half a million soldiers before they were pushed back by an Allied counterattack in the summer. In September of 1918, von Hindenburg finally admitted that the war was lost. Austria collapsed as well. The German emperor abdicated and fled the country, living the remainder of his life in Holland. The military ceded control back to the civil government, and a socialist revolution was proclaimed in various parts of Germany (Kiel, Munich, and Berlin) in November of 1918.
The Founding of the Weimar Republic
The time immediately after the war was characterized by socio-political chaos throughout Germany, which slowly dissipated with the creation of the Weimar Republic. Elections were held on January 19, 1919, and the socialists emerged as the biggest party amidst a plethora of smaller ones. The socialist Friedrich Ebert was declared president of the Reich (Reichspräsident) and hence had to represent Germany on the international scene. The Treaty of Versailles, which Germany was not invited to draft but had to sign in totoin June of 1919, led to a significant reduction of Germany’s territory and the demilitarization of the Rhineland. Allied troops were to occupy many areas. Since Germany was considered solely responsible for the war, it had to pay enormous war reparations to the winning parties (thirty-three billion dollars in war reparations and indemnities over a period of seventy years). The treaty was enormously unpopular in Germany, in no small part because it impinged extensively on internal German sovereignty. Moreover, it was drafted and signed in the same Hall of Mirrors in Versailles (France) where several decades earlier the Second German Reich had been pronounced after the successful war against France in 1871. This symbolic humiliation of Germany remained a considerable burden of the newly founded republic throughout its short existence (until 1933), particularly because the military, having been solely responsible for losing the war, was quick to blame the republic for what they called Germany’s “dishonor.”
In his famous “stab-in-the-back” theory (Dolchstosslegende), General Ludendorff claimed that the German army had been defeated not by the enemy but by the revolutionary forces inside Germany who crept up and killed them from behind. (One must not forget that at the time of Germany’s surrender, its troops were still stationed in Belgium and France; none of the fighting had taken place on German soil.) Although this was a complete fabrication, it proved to be an enormously powerful myth that allowed Germans to maintain their illusions of grandeur by blaming the disliked republic for all that had gone wrong with the war and its aftermath.
Because the Weimar Republic was born out of chaos, it remained an emergency solution rather than a desired political development. It represented an impossible compromise between reactionary and revolutionary forces in Germany, between those who criticized private ownership and those who defended it, between detractors and advocates of the church, between forces who argued for a strong central government and those who supported the federalist tradition of Germany. There simply had not been enough time to work out a compromise and to allow the population to identify with the democratic principles of the new republic. Rather, Germany remained steeped in undemocratic traditions and structures in the areas of administration, economy, and education.
Given this constellation of forces, it was hardly surprising to see the Weimar Republic attacked from all sides. When the communist Spartacus movement rose up again in Berlin in January of 1919, President Ebert did not hesitate to crush the revolt with the help of the official German army, a policy he repeated again later in April of that year against the proclamation of a communist government in Bavaria. One year later, Ebert had to defend the republic again, this time against forces from the right during the so-called Kapp-Putsch in March 1920. The East Prussian landowner Wolfgang Kapp, founder of the Vaterlandspartei (Homeland-Party), and his associates Hermann Ehrhardt, leader of the powerful Ehrhard Freicorps (“marine brigade”—a quasi-private, para-military group), and General Ludendorff, who had returned from his Swedish exile, marched together into Berlin, demanding new elections and resistance against the Versailles Treaty. The putsch ultimately failed because of the refusal of the Reichswehr to cooperate and because of a general labor strike called by German trade unions and the government.
Things continued to deteriorate in the early years of the republic. Several members of the government were murdered by reactionary forces (Erzberger in 1921 and Rathenau in 1922), and although Germany had been able to stop paying reparations to Russia after signing the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922, it could not keep up its payments to France and Great Britain. In January of 1923, French forces occupied the Ruhrgebiet (the mineral-rich western area of Germany) in an effort to control production and increase payments. Although the French did not succeed because of the passive resistance and non-cooperation policy of German workers, they remained in the Rhineland until July of 1925. Due to reparations, the devaluation of German currency started in 1922 and increased drastically until a new currency was introduced in November of 1923.
The years between 1924 and 1929, by contrast, inaugurated a time of economic and political recovery and led to what has become known as the period of “the roaring twenties.” This period was marked by a cultural blossoming in literature and the arts along with the advance of American culture, above all in the areas of music (jazz) and sports. Economically, this stabilization was made possible by the Dawes Plan brokered by the American finance expert Charles Dawes. The plan both lowered German payments and provided significant credits so that Germany could pay its war reparations. The Treaty of Locarno, in 1925, secured the western borders of Germany, and the gradual process of reintegrating Germany into the world community led to the withdrawal of the international occupation forces in the Rhine area and to Germany’s admission into the newly founded League of Nations (the equivalent of today’s United Nations) in 1926. However, this time of relative stability did not last long. It ended abruptly with the stock-market crash of 1929 and the increasing internal destabilization of Germany until Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933.
The Rise of the Nazi Party
Adolf Hitler experienced the end of World War I as a common soldier in a hospital recovering from his wounds. Although a decorated war veteran, he was not able to join the reestablished German army after the war, whose size had been limited by the Treaty of Versailles to only 100,000 soldiers. Instead, he worked as an undercover informant for the army in Munich. There, he began his political career as a gifted speaker in the various beer halls and, with six other members, formed the German Workers’ Party (or DAP, Deutsche Arbeiter Partei) in 1920. At the time, the DAP was only one of many right-wing groups in Weimar that promoted a voelkisch, national-socialist agenda. Hitler was the propaganda chairman of the party due to his considerable skill as a public speaker. During the inaugural meeting of the DAP, Hitler was able to attract and excite several thousand people with a twenty-five point program that lashed out against capitalism, democracy, and the Jews in particular. The name of the party was later changed to NSDAP (National-Socialist German Workers’ Party) to emphasize both its national and socialist program.
Repeatedly threatening to withdraw from the party, Hitler was able to reorganize the program and establish himself as the party’s leader in 1921. That same year, the NSDAP also formed the SA (Sturmabteilung or Storm Troops). Originally conceived as a sports group of the party, the SA was soon increasingly used as a quasi-military gang charged with providing security during the party’s meetings and Hitler’s speeches. One must aID that other parties (notably the communists, but also the more liberal or centrist parties) likewise featured their own private corps, a result of the limited size of the official German army and the lack of civil jobs and other forms of employment in the post-war years. Nonetheless, the SA soon emerged as one of the most brutal and powerful military forces in the Weimar Republic. Already in 1923, it included 15,000 members; by 1929, it had a strength of 100,000 men and was thus as big as the official German army; in 1932, it had grown to 400,000 members. Membership in the NSDAP grew just as quickly, from 2,000 in 1920 to 55,000 in 1923, 180,000 in 1929, and 450,000 in 1932, making the NSDAP the strongest party in the election of July 1932.
The social make-up of the NSDAP during the early 1920s, including the SA, was mixed. In spite of its reference to the socialist working members, only about thirty-six percent of the party included workers, which were thus underrepresented, because workers represented more than forty percent of the total German population. By contrast, the upper class with twelve percent membership was overrepresented in comparison with the three percent it constituted nationwide. Likewise overrepresented was the lower miIDle class at fifty-two percent (consisting of small businessmen, small-town and rural merchants, craftsmen, office clerks, and lower civil servants and civil employees), who comprised forty-three percent of the population nationwide. The latter group in particular was attracted by the party’s anti-Semitism, because they blamed the Jews for their own private business problems and the economic woes of Germany at large.
The Beer-Hall-Putsch and Mein Kampf
By 1923, Hitler had become head of the “fight group” (Kampfbund), an organization for right-wing military groups such as the SA. From then on, he sought to rally support for an overthrow of the republic, and when conflicts escalated between the social-democratic government in Berlin and the local Bavarian right-wing government in Munich in November of 1923, he thought the time had come to declare a state of emergency in a beer hall in Munich. The so-called “Beer-Hall-Putsch,” however, was short-lived, mainly because the Bavarian leaders and the Bavarian military ultimately decided against supporting the coup. Thus, Hitler was left to march through Munich with only Ludendorff and a few other supporters. When they encountered Bavarian police, Hitler fled, but he was later arrested, tried, and sentenced to five years in prison. He served less than a year of that sentence.
During his time in prison (1924–1925), Hitler wrote his infamous book Mein Kampf, a copy of which would later, during the Nazi reign, be given to almost every German at any possible occasion (birth, weIDing, burial, etc.). In this book, Hitler drew the political and propagandistic conclusions from the failed Beer-Hall-Putsch. Among others, he recognized that he needed the support of the army if he were to seize power in Germany. Since there were still many Jews in high military position, this meant that he had to tone down his anti-Semitic and anti-capitalist rhetoric and instead appear more neutral—at least in his public speeches. He also concluded that he needed to proceed legally within the framework of the Weimar political system. On the other hand, the book also spelled out Hitler’s ideology very clearly to his followers. On many pages, he developed his anti-bolshevist, anti-Semitic, nationalist, social-Darwinist theories coupled with the necessity to gain more Lebensraum (habitable space) for the superior Aryan race, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia.
The Nazis’ Rise to Power
When Hitler was released in 1925, the NSDAP was in shambles, and he had to spend considerable effort to rebuild the party and establish himself once again as its leader. In 1926, a special sub-group was formed within the SA, called the SS (Schutz-Staffel or Protection Squad). This organization would become increasingly important throughout the 1920s and remained a major source of power for Hitler after the NSDAP seized power in 1933. Using the new SS together with the SA, the Nazis developed an urban plan to win the masses in the cities away from the socialists and the communists. This led to an increase in street fighting among the various parties.
This was only one of the many reasons the Weimar Republic became increasingly unstable toward the end of the 1920s. In 1925, Friedrich Ebert, the socialist president, had died, and the former Field Marshall von Hindenburg had been confirmed as the new president of the Republic. This was the source of many problems, because von Hindenburg made no secret of his profound dislike for the republic. It represented everything he—an aristocrat and firm believer in monarchic principles—despised about the plebeian, democratic spirit of the modern world, and he used his powerful position to further undermine the already weak republic. Since he had been directly elected by the people for seven years, he had considerable powers at his disposal: according to the Weimar constitution, the president was the commander in chief of the armed forces. Under Article 48, he could suspend the fundamental rights otherwise guaranteed by the constitution and rule by emergency degrees. He could not only invoke a public referendum against particular decisions of the Reichstag, he could also dissolve the Reichstag and then rule in the interim period until a new government had been formed (usually through new elections). Von Hindenburg made frequent use of these powers, particularly after the crash of the stock market, in October 1929, and the tumultuous times that followed.
In March of 1930, von Hindenburg charged the young Heinrich Brüning with building a new government. Yet Brüning could not find sufficient votes in the Reichstag to support his policies, and von Hindenburg decided once again to dissolve the Reichstag and call for new elections in September. In the meantime, Hitler and the Nazis had begun to collaborate with other conservative and nationalist forces to increase their strength. In particular, they secured the support of Alfred Hugenberg, a wealthy industrialist, who was a strong opponent of Brüning’s efforts to save the republic. In the September elections, the Nazis increased their mandates in the German parliament (the Reichstag) from 12 to 107 and thus represented the second largest faction behind the socialists. Although Brüning remained chancellor, he was still unable to form a strong majority and was soon thereafter INSERTd, first by von Papen (June 1932), then by von Schleicher (November 1932), and finally, in January 1933, by Adolf Hitler, whose NSDAP had grown to become the largest party in Germany at the time.
It must be emphasized at this point that the Nazis did not really “seize power” in a revolutionary manner, as their propaganda continued to imply. Rather, they were voted into power by the German people, confirmed by the German President von Hindenburg, and supported by a loose coalition of conservative and nationalist forces who fatally underestimated Hitler, hoping to instrumentalize his popularity to achieve their own goals. In fact, however, Hitler used them for his own purposes.
Once chancellor, Hitler did not waste any time in erecting his absolutist rule. He asked von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag and call for new elections in March of 1933. Although the Nazis won only 288 seats (43.9 percent) and thus not an absolute majority, Hitler’s dictatorship had already begun by that time. He had legalized the SA and SS, both of which had been banned for almost a year before he took office. Although Hitler’s government featured only three Nazi ministers, Hitler used his SA and SS effectively to suppress opposition both within and outside of the Reichstag. Ruling by presidential decree with the help of the totally clueless von Hindenburg, Hitler first curtailed the freedom of the press and then put pressure on the civil administration to support his policies. He also took charge of the official police force in Prussia and began to disseminate mass propaganda through the use of radio, posters, and other print media. When, on February 27, 1933, the German Reichstag suIDenly stood in flames—the mentally disturbed Dutch Marinus van der Lubbe was later tried and sentenced for arson—Hitler immediately used the ensuing crisis to harass other parties (particularly the communists) under the pretext of trying to establish peace and security.
After the elections in March, Hitler, with the help of most liberal-centrist parties (yet against the will of the socialists) passed the Enabling Act on March 23 (Ermächtigungsgesetz), which stated that a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag sufficed to change the constitution and grant the government aIDitional emergency powers. Hitler argued that he needed this power to issue laws quickly and effectively without the cumbersome deliberation process of the Reichstag, and he promised to limit the duration of this law to only four years—the period necessary, he argued, to clear up the current mess and strengthen the country. By supporting this law and the aIDitional powers it granted Hitler, the German Reichstag effectively voted itself out of power.
The Enabling Act officially ended the parliamentary system in Germany and spelled out the death of the Weimar Republic. It was immediately followed by the Gleichschaltung in the spring and summer of 1933, which included the establishment of a single-party regime; the elimination or nazification of the major social and political institutions all over Germany, including the trade unions; the concomitant purging from the courts, universities, and other administrative bodies of communists, Jews, and anti-Nazi personnel; the crushing of the trade unions after May 1; and the outlawing of the socialists in June, followed by the prohibition of other parties soon thereafter. Neither President von Hindenburg nor the official German army resisted Hitler’s policies in any way. Quite the contrary, they seemed content to witness the demise of the republic and supported Hitler’s promise of a resurrected Germany.
One of the few problems remaining for Hitler was his SA, which posed a considerable threat for the official German army in terms of its size and political orientation. Moreover, while the leaders of the army were nationalist-conservative, the SA consisted largely of the socialist component of the NSDAP and hence pushed for large-scale economic and political reforms in Germany. Von Hindenburg strongly resisted the INSERTment of the army by the SA (which numbered 2.5 million soldiers at the time), and Hitler, who needed the support of the wealthy industrialists and the conservatives in order to strengthen Germany’s economic and military power, became increasingly hostile to the revolutionary rhetoric of the SA and its leader Ernst Röhm. On June 30, 1934, Hitler used the SS under the command of Heinrich Himmler to execute the entire SA leadership during their annual meeting in Bad Wiessee in Bavaria. The so-called “Night of Long Knives” was followed by the death of von Hindenburg on August 2, which allowed Hitler to assume the role of president as well. Calling himself the Führer of the German Reich and People, he had the German army swear obedience to him personally as their supreme leader.
To test your knowledge, answer the following study questions and click on the “Show Answer(s)” link to check your answers.
Why was the Weimar Republic so much disliked by the German population?
The civil government of the Weimar Republic had to pick up the pieces left behind by the Second Reich and its militarist leadership. They had to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which took away large territories from Germany and assigned it the sole responsibility of the war. The treaty also demanded huge payments of war reparations and was specifically designed to symbolize the defeat of Germany. By signing the treaty, Ebert and his fellow politicians became associated with the German “shame,” particularly since the aristocratic-nationalist circles refused to accept any responsibility for the lost war and blamed the republic instead. Moreover, there had been no democratic tradition in Germany to build on, and the population was not ready to engage in the long process of political compromise necessary to sustain a democracy. Finally, the economic and political turmoil during much of its fourteen years of existence branded the republic as an unstable form of government that left many people in dire straits.
What does the acronym NSDAP stand for?
It stands for National-Sozialistische-Deutsche-Arbeiter-Partei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). The emphasis is on both the socialist (i.e., worker oriented) and the German-nationalist orientation. It was originally founded as the DAP (Deutsche Arbeiter Partei—German Workers’ Party) in 1920 and later changed its name to NSDAP.
What made the Weimar Republic so unstable, apart from the lack of support by the German population?
First, the Allied victors of World War I did not provide enough economic, political, or educational support for the new republic, but instead undermined it by insisting on their extremely high demands for reparations and acceptance of “guilt.” Second, the Weimar constitution had severe flaws, such as admitting too many parties into the political process or giving the Reichs-President too many powers—particularly in light of the fact that this position was later occupied by an explicit opponent of the republic (i.e., von Hindenburg).
How was Hitler able to establish his dictatorship in less than six months after being elected chancellor?
First, he used the Enabling Act (Ermaechtigungsgesetz) to grant himself vast emergency powers. Second, he relied on the SS and SA to spread terror and to intimidate his opponents. Finally, during the so-called Gleichschaltung in spring and summer of 1933, he effectively established a single-party regime; crushed the trade unions; purged the courts, universities, and other administrative bodies from communists, Jews, and anti-Nazi personnel; outlawed the socialists; and developed an effective and huge propaganda machine through the use of print-media, radio, film, and gigantic mass spectacles.
Bibliography and Further Reading
There is an abundance of literature on the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Party, and it would be impossible to provide even a limited overview. At this point I can only mention a few titles:
Evans, David, and Jane Jenkins. Years of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. London: HoIDer Arnold, 1999.
Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power, 1933–1939. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Peukert, Detlev J. K. The Weimar Republic. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.
Shirer, William L. Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990