Are all democracies doomed to fail

Weimar Republic

Thomas Raithel

To person

Prof. Dr. Thomas Raithel, Institute for Contemporary History Munich / Berlin, his research interests are the comparative history of Germany and France in the 20th century, the history of the European Union, the history of parliamentarism and the history of sports.

Weimar = crisis ?! Even contemporaries often saw the young republic as crisis-ridden. History has finally continued the narrative of the crisis-ridden republic. But what were the crisis conditions of the Weimar Republic? An inventory.

A master baker counted his daily earnings during the great inflation in 1923. During the inflation crisis, the prices of food and other goods soared. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)


In a nutshell

  • Crises were omnipresent during the Weimar Republic and also shaped the perception of contemporaries.
  • The various crises were often fed by political and economic structural problems, but were also caused by socio-political tensions between representatives of "old" orders and traditions and advocates of democratic modernization.
  • However: The instability and crisis-prone nature of Weimar democracy was not a special case, but rather a certain European normality of the interwar period.

The Weimar Republic in times of crisis

The history of the Weimar Republic is usually associated with the term crisis. This is justified insofar as there were massive political, economic and social problems that repeatedly came to a head - for example in the "crisis year" of 1923, when hyperinflation, the war in the Ruhr, government and parliamentary crises and a National Socialist attempted coup accumulated. The various difficulties put a heavy burden on the first parliamentary democracy in Germany, and they created the prerequisites for the rise and takeover of National Socialism. The image of a deeply crisis-ridden republic always had the characteristics of a construct that had a specific function. This already began with the contemporary judgments, in which the crisis diagnosis was often tied to a specific location: an opponent of the parliamentary form of government perceived certain aspects of political life more critically than an advocate. In general, however, it can be stated that the tendency to perceive crises and the associated feeling of insecurity was widespread among contemporaries of the Weimar Republic.

The crisis paradigm then gained fundamental importance for West German self-perception. For decades, "Weimar" served as a negative film from which one's own circumstances could be positively contrasted: "Bonn is not Weimar". Although the historiography now paints a differentiated and less gloomy picture of Weimar, "Weimar" has now returned as a negative contrast in current debates. The following deals in a double sense with the crisis conditions of the Weimar Republic. On the one hand, the most important challenges and areas of conflict are outlined, and on the other, the structures of the political system that was involved in overcoming the problem. Since these internal political structures often became a problem themselves, the focus of the presentation will be here. The critical aspects, which are the focus of this article, must not, of course, be made absolute. The Weimar Republic was not doomed to failure from the outset, and its developments cannot be assessed in terms of 1933 alone. The Weimar period was also an era of diverse potential, promising new beginnings and great achievements - not only in the cultural field. And right up to the end there were always situations in which a different path could have been taken.

It must also be taken into account that between the world wars, more or less serious crises occurred in other parts of Europe and the world. The classification of the Weimar Republic in this larger scenario of the European and global "inter-war period" is a difficult task that history is increasingly facing.

Economic problems and socio-political limits

The economy of the Weimar Republic was characterized by serious structural problems. On the one hand, this concerned the often outdated agriculture. Although it had been surpassed by industry in terms of overall economic importance before 1914, it still represented an important sector of economic life. Farmers, who were under global competitive pressure and faced with falling prices for agricultural products, expected help from the state, which was difficult in view of the difficulties Financial position could hardly afford. At the end of the 1920s, even before the start of the Great Depression, the agricultural crisis led to violent peasant protests in some regions and to a radicalization of the electorate. In the final phase of the republic, the economic crisis of the East Elbe landowners was also politically explosive.

Demonstration by Berlin metal workers against the Brüning government's austerity program during the economic crisis. (& copy picture-alliance, akg-images)

On the other hand, structural problems also prevailed in industry, which was characterized by a lack of capital, overcapacity and overall weak growth. Global economic factors, especially a high level of protectionism, played an important role. The research controversially judged the already contemporary assumption that too strong a socio-political commitment by the state - with consequences for the tax burden and the credit system - as well as too high wages were partly responsible for the economic difficulties. In the Weimar Republic, these conflict issues led to an increasing confrontation between employers' associations and trade unions, after the initial cooperation had soon broken down. As a result of the system of compulsory state arbitration of collective bargaining disputes, criticism of the Weimar state also grew on the business side.

The efforts to modernize industry, which were also characteristic of the Weimar period, remained ambivalent: on the one hand, the rationalization boom of the 1920s represented a necessary global economic adjustment; on the other hand, it was a burden for a labor market in which, as a result of the general economic weakness, there was considerable basic unemployment even before 1929 prevailed. The two major economic crisis complexes of the interwar period - post-war inflation and the global economic crisis - each hit Germany hard. After the inflation that had already set in during the First World War had also brought economic advantages at the beginning of the republic, the development turned into an economically and socially fatal hyperinflation since the end of 1922, under the influence of the worsening reparations question and the war in the Ruhr, which the trust of many citizens in the State badly damaged. The currency stabilization that began in autumn 1923 was then undoubtedly a financial success; A certain economic recovery was now able to take place temporarily, mainly due to short-term loans from the USA.

A German unemployed person looking for work during the Great Depression, around 1930 (& copy Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-N0904-318)
The rapid spread of the global economic crisis emanating from the United States to Germany in the autumn of 1929, the rise in mass unemployment and the rapid overburdening of the unemployment insurance introduced in 1927 finally brought about a breakthrough in broad economic awareness of the crisis. The rigid austerity policy under Chancellor Brüning, the assessment of which is still controversial within research, accelerated the loss of confidence in this situation and the rise of political extremes (KPD and NSDAP). Overall, the economic weaknesses narrowed the possibilities of the initially ambitious and in some ways pioneering Weimar welfare state. This in turn diminished the young republic's capacity for social integration.

Socio-cultural tensions and contradictions

From a socio-cultural point of view, there were major differences in the Weimar Republic between the "classical modernism", which was gaining in breadth, and the still strong forces of tradition. This applied not only to high culture - think of the conflicts over modern painting and modern architecture, for example - but also to people's everyday lives. The contradictions between old and new female role models - between "new women" and the traditional mother ideal - are just one example among many. However, a one-sided picture must not be drawn: There were not only contradictions and conflicts between tradition and modernity, but also some overlaps and syntheses. The architecture in particular offers numerous examples of this: for example, the first Munich high-rise, the Technical Town Hall, completed in 1929, incorporated elements of the local architectural history.

The transnational dimension of a modernity was clearly pronounced, arousing enthusiasm on the one hand, but also uncertainty and culturally pessimistic resistance on the other. The United States became both a model and a horror and the term "America" ​​became a cipher for the new, which was developing especially in the big cities. In addition, with the growing number of employees in the service industry - in addition to the industrial workers established in the German Empire - another new urban population group emerged. The province, on the other hand, remained mostly traditional, and the culturally pessimistic and often anti-Semitic hostility to big cities, which had already developed in the late Empire, intensified.

During the Weimar period, there were also socio-cultural tensions that cannot be assigned to the dichotomy of tradition and modernity: Examples include denominational conflicts, the persistence of socio-moral milieus that hindered political cooperation, and the problems of young people. As a result of high birth rates in the late German Empire, this young population group, which had increasing self-confidence, had grown significantly; However, the labor market and society often offered her few opportunities.

A working class family in Berlin shares a meager meal in times of crisis. (& copy picture-alliance, Mary Evans Picture Library, WEIMA)

Foreign and military policy in the shadow of the First World War

Foreign and military policy issues were an important aspect of the pressures with which the Weimar Republic was confronted. The initial situation of the war defeat was formative. For many who had long dreamed of a brilliant "victory peace", the German Reich was defeated surprisingly and barely comprehensibly. It had to submit to peace conditions that were felt to be very harsh across almost the entire political spectrum. The state's constant efforts to undermine the military restrictions of the Versailles Treaty promoted the militarization of the extreme right and gave rise to serious internal political conflicts. The simmering reparations question finally became a permanent problem - partly also instrumentalized internally - that supplied the right-wing opponents of the republic with propaganda material, for example in the agitation against the Young Plan in 1929, which stipulated that the reparation debt should be paid until 1988.

Again, we should warn against a one-sided picture: Weimar's foreign policy achieved successes with the reintegration of Germany into the state system and efforts to come to an understanding with the Western powers, which were also recognized internally. The long-time Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, who died in 1929 at the age of only 51, was one of the most controversial, but also one of the most popular politicians in the republic. The Weimar state was also able to record certain successes in the field of military policy: the integration of the Reichswehr into the republican state, which had barely made progress for a long time, made progress towards the end of the Weimar period. Unlike before, the entire arms policy has now been coordinated with the government. However, this also gave the military leadership new opportunities to intervene in domestic political developments.

Structures of the political system

The structural problems of the Weimar Republic began with its foundation. The transformation of the German Reich from a constitutional monarchy to a parliamentary democracy and a republic was never really accepted in large parts of the political spectrum. There were antipathies for contradicting motives: while the right mourned the empire and the system change associated with the defeat was perceived as externally determined, the revolutionary upheaval of 1918/19 of the radical left did not go far enough.

The well-known catchphrase of "democracy without democrats" is, however, too general: It hides the fact that in the parties of the Weimar coalition (SPD, DDP and Zentrum) important forces were at work who were committed to the development of democracy and that it was there were also integrative successes of the republic. The latter was evident in its early phase, when the right-wing liberal DVP, chaired by Stresemann, was factually included in the republic-loyal camp and, as large parts of the left-wing pacifist Independent Social Democracy (USPD) split off in 1917, rejoined the (majority) SPD. In spite of many adversities, an integrative basic feature of parliamentary culture was also able to develop in the Reichstag by the end of the 1920s. For a while, the conservative DNVP even came closer to the camp of the political parties. The legislative achievements of the Reichstag - such as the major Reich financial reform of 1919/20 - were also quite impressive outside of the acute crisis phases from 1923 to 1924 and 1930 to 1933.

It was not inevitable that the results of the Reichstag elections, with their increasing party fragmentation and the strengthening of the enemies of the republic, would significantly weaken the forces that support the system in the long term. Rather, this development also resulted from causes that only developed in the course of the Weimar period: In the first few years, the harsh crackdown on left-wing extremist demonstrations and uprisings was a factor that contributed to the distancing and radicalization of sections of the working class. In addition to the economic crises, in the long run the parliamentary functional problems, which were also rooted in the weakness of the democratic camp, led to a further loss of confidence in the democratic parties.

Serious crises repeatedly occurred in the formation of parliamentary majorities and thus also in the formation and support of governments. The average lifespan of the 20 Weimar governments remained correspondingly low (approx. Eight months). Cabinet formation has often become a complicated affair. Compared to the stability that was inherent in the governments of the imperial era, it is not surprising that the new conditions were perceived as crisis-ridden. It was not uncommon for difficulties in understanding a modern parliamentary system to emerge - for example, when the influence of the Reichstag parliamentary groups on cabinet formation was criticized at the time.

The specific causes of the government crises were more complex than the cliché, which has long been popular in historiography, suggests that the parties were not responsible enough. The massive differences within a polarized multi-party system reflected the conflicting interests of the fragmented German society after the lost war. They were also an expression of the tense overall political situation. An increased willingness to compromise always entailed the risk of being punished in the next elections - especially since the understanding of pluralism and compromise was poorly developed in German society. The dominant political mentalities had, as it were, lagged behind the social and political changes. And the diversity and conflictual nature of the Weimar situation reinforced counter-drafts that propagated a holistic or even totalitarian understanding of the state and society. Domestic political complications also resulted in phases in the pursuit of a grand coalition from the SPD to the DVP, which has been recognizable since 1922. This was not just based on arithmetic motives that were interested in forming a parliamentary majority. Rather, the ideal of national unity, reinforced by the World War and the post-war crises, played a role, as did the tactical efforts of the middle class to frame the SPD as broadly as possible as a government partner. When grand coalitions actually ruled under Chancellor Stresemann in 1923 and under Hermann Müller (SPD) from 1928 to 1930, they were burdened by strong internal tensions and partially paralyzed. At the same time, there was almost no system-loyal opposition in the Reichstag, which contributed to the strengthening of the extremes in the subsequent Reichstag elections.The structural problems also included the tendency to violence: radical left-wing insurrection attempts and their suppression by the military and voluntary corps as well as radical right-wing coup attempts in the initial phase of the republic, political murders and finally the confrontation of militarized party-affiliated defense associations (SA, Stahlhelm, Red Front Fighters Association and - between the extremes - Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold) with each other and with the state regulatory organs shaped the Weimar period.

The attempt to solve the domestic political difficulties by upgrading the Reich President was an option that was already laid out in the bud in the Weimar Constitution, which then unfolded over the years. The inflation crisis from 1922 to 1924 played an important role in this. For the first time, a government was formed, strongly controlled by the Reich President (Cuno's cabinet in November 1922). In addition, a de-parliamentarized form of legislation was practiced by means of the "presidential" article 48 of the constitution as well as broad parliamentary enabling laws. All of this happened under Reich President Friedrich Ebert with the best intentions of overcoming the political and economic crisis and saving the republic.

However, this also created the constitutional prerequisites for the more profound loss of parliamentary functions that had occurred since 1930 under the "presidential governments" Brüning, Papen and Schleicher. In the meantime - after Ebert's early death and the presidential elections of 1925 - Paul von Hindenburg, a representative of the old army and the old system, held the highest office of the state. For parts of the center-right spectrum, this development was combined with the hope of being able to abandon the parliamentary system in favor of an authoritarian-presidential state solution and, at the same time, to permanently push the SPD out of government responsibility.

The fact that the return to the formation of a cabinet anchored in the Reichstag since the elections in July 1932 had to mean the participation of the rapidly growing NSDAP in government created a paradoxical situation that could only have been resolved in the short term by a coup d'état. Reich President Hindenburg, who was oriented towards the national consensus, shied away from this step - and finally delivered the Weimar state to its fiercest enemies in January 1933, by orienting himself formally on the customs of the parliamentary system when forming a government.

Comparative Perspectives

The fragility and crisis-prone nature of Weimar democracy was not a special case, but to a certain extent European, even global normality of the interwar period. There is also a tendency towards authoritarian tendencies in many democratic states of this epoch, with governments gaining power over parliaments.

The historical comparison, which is now increasingly practiced, must, however, carefully observe the respective national specifics. Apparently similar phenomena often conceal phenomena that have to be assessed differently. For example, the frequent change of government in the Third French Republic was less serious than in the Weimar Republic. As a result of a weak party system and a broad republican consensus, new governments were usually formed very quickly in France. The ministerial staff often remained stable. The failure of a democracy and its replacement by an authoritarian regime were also not unusual for Germany in the interwar period. Corresponding processes took place in 12 to 15 other countries in Europe and around the world, depending on the census criteria. Young parliamentary systems in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe were particularly affected. There was also a transnational dynamic - for example in the role model effect of Italian fascism.

The failure of the Weimar Republic is a special case, however, with regard to the terrible consequences: the National Socialists' gain in power. The analysis of this process, for which neither a straightforward German special path nor mere chance is responsible, remains a central task of contemporary historiography, especially with regard to the classification and evaluation of the Weimar problems and crises. The comparison can reveal both transnational phenomena and national specifics more clearly. The need for research on this remains high.


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