UNIT 1: THE PROBLEMS OF THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC,
THE BEGINNING OF THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC
The end of the First World War
By November 1918 Germany was losing the First World War. Her armies were
retreating and her sailors had mutinied. The German people were starving because
food supplies had been cut off by the British navy’s blockade of the ports. The
German government asked for peace but the Allies (Britain, France and USA) refused
to make peace with the Kaiser (emperor) because he did not believe in democracy.
So Kaiser Wilhelm II agreed to abdicate and fled to Holland. Germany was now a
republic and an armistice was signed between Germany and the Allies on 11th
November, 1918. The fighting in the First World War had ended.
The establishment of the Weimar Republic 1919
The German politicians who signed the armistice were determined to make Germany
a democracy now that the Kaiser had fled. So elections were held for a new
government. At first, the new government could not meet in Berlin because there was
so much violence there due to the Spartacist Uprising (see p.3). Instead it met in the
town of Weimar and that is why it is known as the ‘Weimar government’ or the
‘Weimar Republic’. Its first job was to draw up a new constitution which said how
the country would be governed:
1. All adult Germans could vote in elections for the Reichstag (Parliament).
2. The voting system chosen for the elections was called proportional
representation. This meant that each political party gained a number of seats in
the Reichstag in proportion to its total vote eg. a party with 5% of the votes would
get 5% of the seats in the Reichstag.
3. The political party (or parties) with a majority in the Reichstag formed the
government and the head of the government was called the Chancellor.
4. The head of state was the President. He was elected by the people every seven
5. The President had a lot of power. In an emergency he could pass laws without the
agreement of the Reichstag. This was called ‘rule by decree’.
THE TREATY OF VERSAILLES 1919
While Germany had been making its new constitution, the Allies had been meeting at
Versailles (Paris) where they drew up a treaty to end the war. They blamed Germany
for starting the war and agreed to punish her.
1. Germany lost huge areas of land to France, Belgium, Denmark and Poland.
2. The German army was reduced to 100,000 men. The navy was reduced to six
battleships and Germany was not allowed to have an airforce.
3. The Rhineland (the area next to France) was to be occupied by the Allies for 15
years and no German troops were allowed in the area.
4. Germany had to accept the blame for starting the war and pay reparations
(compensation for the damage caused by the war) to France and Belgium.
The German government thought the treaty was unfair but the politicians were forced
to sign it because the Allies threatened to invade Germany.
The German public were outraged by the terms of the treaty. They regarded it as
completely unfair, and many nationalists blamed the Weimar government for
accepting it. Some of them blamed the politicians who had signed the armistice.
They called them the ‘November criminals’. Others accused the government of
stabbing the army in the back. In other words, they claimed that the German army
would have won the war if the armistice had not been signed. This was not true but
many Germans came to believe the nationalist’s ‘stab in the back’ theory.
THE PROBLEMS FACED BY POLITICIANS IN THE WEIMAR REPUBLIC
1. Although proportional representation was a very fair system of voting, it led to
lots of political parties being formed and made it impossible for one party to win a
majority of seats in the Reichstag. As a result, Weimar governments were made
up of more than one political party. These were called coalition governments.
They worked quite well most of the time, but if there was a crisis they tended to
become divided over what action to take. They often took a long time to reach
decisions and appeared to be weak.
2. In the 1920s, the Weimar governments were coalitions of the Social Democratic
Party, (Socialists), the Centre Party (Catholic Party) and other moderate parties
that believed in democracy. They were opposed by two parties that did not
believe in democracy – the Communists and the Nationalists. Supporters of
these parties tried to overthrow the Weimar governments by armed revolt. In
Germany these revolts were called putsches. They showed that democracy was
not popular with some of the people.
3. The Weimar politicians also faced grave economic problems. In 1921, the Allies
announced that Germany would have to pay £6.6 billion in reparations. This was
to be paid in instalments of £100 million a year. But Germany was still recovering
from the war and would find it difficult to pay such a large sum.
ATTEMPTS TO OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT
Some groups in Germany did not believe in democratic government and tried to
overthrow the government and take control of the country by armed revolts. The first
two uprisings were staged by left-wing communist groups. Next came two attempts
by groups of right-wing nationalists.
1. The Spartacist Uprising 1919
The Spartacists were groups of communists led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl
Liebknecht. They took their name from the Roman slave Spartacus who had led a
slave revolt against the government in ancient Rome. The Spartacists wanted to make
Germany into a communist country where the wealth would be shared fairly between
all the people, rather than a few people being very rich while others were extremely
poor. Two years before, in Russia, a small group of communists had overthrown the
government and set up the first communist state in Europe. The Spartacists tried to do
the same thing in Germany. In January 1919 they tried to start a communist
revolution in Berlin. After several weeks of fighting the communists were defeated
by the Freikorps. These were armed groups of ex-soldiers. Many of the communists
were killed, including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
2. The Bavarian Uprising 1919
In April 1919, another group of communists overthrew the government of Bavaria,
the second largest state in Germany. Once again, the Weimar government used the
Freikorps to end the revolt.
3. The Kapp Putsch 1920
The Freikorps had helped the government put down these uprisings because the exsoldiers hated communism. They also hated the government because it had signed the
humiliating Treaty of Versailles. Many of the members of the Freikorps were
extreme nationalists who hated democracy. In March 1920, a group of Freikorps, led
by Dr Kapp, tried to overthrow the government. They were angry because the
government had ordered all Freikorps units to be disbanded. They took control of
Berlin and the government fled. The army refused to fight the ex-soldiers so the
government called on the workers in Berlin to go on strike. A general strike of the
workers brought the uprising to an end.
4. The Munich Putsch 1923
In the south of Germany a new political party had emerged in the years after the First
World War. This was the Nazi Party led by Adolf Hitler. Hitler was an ex-soldier
who had won the iron cross for bravery during the war. He was a passionate
nationalist and thought that the army had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by the politicians
who he called the ‘November criminals’ because they had signed the armistice. After
the war Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party because he liked its ideas. These
ideas were partly socialist (sharing the wealth of the country more fairly), partly
nationalist (making Germany a great country again by destroying the Treaty of
Versailles) and partly anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish). The German Workers’ Party blamed
the Jews for everything that had gone wrong for Germany eg the armistice, the Treaty
Within two years Hitler had become the leader of the party and on his suggestion its
name was changed to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Since this
was rather a mouthful, the party was generally known by its initials ‘NS’. In German
these letters are pronounced ‘NAA-TSEE’, and written Nazi. Hitler set about
attracting more people to the party. A distinctive sign was devised. This was the
black swastika in a white circle on a red background. He organised parades and
marches. He was convinced that people would join the Nazi Party if it appeared to be
strong in dealing with its opponents. So in 1921, he set up the SA (Sturm Abteilung)
or storm-troopers. They dressed in brown uniforms with a swastika armband and
became known as the Brownshirts. They were involved in lots of street fights with
other political parties and they broke up their political meetings.
In 1923 Hitler thought that the time was right for the Nazis to seize power. While the
Weimar government was busy dealing with inflation and the French occupation of the
Ruhr, (see p.5) Hitler used his storm-troopers to attack Munich, the capital of Bavaria.
This was the first stage of his plan to overthrow the Weimar government and take
over the country. But the Munich Putsch failed. The police killed 16 Nazis and Hitler
was arrested. The consequences of the Putsch were:
1. Hitler was tried for treason and sentenced to five years imprisonment. (He was
released after just nine months.)
2. Hitler’s trial gave the Nazi Party a great deal of publicity throughout the country.
3. Whilst in the Landsberg prison Hitler had time to think about the future and
organise his ideas. He wrote these down in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ (‘My
4. Hitler had tried to seize power by force but had failed. He learned from his
mistake and worked out a new way to achieve power. In future the Nazis would
try to win power by legal means. They would win votes rather than use violence.
REPARATIONS AND HYPER-INFLATION 1923
In 1921 the Allies announced that Germany would have to pay £6.6 billion in
reparations. Germany was still recovering from the war and after paying one
instalment fell behind with reparation payments to France and Belgium. In 1923 the
French and Belgians decided to take what the Germans owed them by sending troops
into the Ruhr (the most industrialised part of Germany) and forcing the Germans to
work for them. The Weimar government could not use force to oppose the French
and Belgians because the army was too small. Instead it used passive resistance.
The workers in the Ruhr were instructed to go on strike as a protest against the
invasion. Violence soon erupted between the strikers and the occupying troops. A
number of strikers were shot by the French troops and soldiers were killed in
The rest of Germany united behind the workers of the Ruhr. The government backed
the strikers by printing money to pay their wages. This increased inflation. The
strike meant that fewer goods were being produced in Germany and this increased
prices even more. Inflation shot out of control. A loaf of bread which had cost less
than a mark in 1918, went up to 250 marks in January 1923, and by September had
rocketed to an unbelievable 1.5 million marks. Workers had to be paid twice a day
and they brought wheelbarrows and suitcases so that they could carry their wages
home. German money was almost worthless.
Germans were affected by the hyper-inflation in different ways:
1. Old people living on fixed pensions suffered terribly.
2. People with savings found that these were now worthless.
3. Workers did not suffer too much because their wages rose with inflation.
4. Those who had debts, or had taken out loans, actually benefited. They could pay
the money back at a fraction of the real cost.
5. The rich who owned land or factories did not suffer so badly from the inflation.
6. Many rich businessmen were able to take advantage of the situation by taking over
smaller companies which were going bankrupt.
7. The real losers were the middle classes who saw their savings and businesses
THE STRESEMAN YEARS 1923-1929
In 1923 Germany had suffered invasion by foreign troops, her economy had been
destroyed by hyper-inflation and a right-wing takeover had been attempted by the
Nazi Party. The government appeared to be in desperate trouble. One of the reasons
why Weimar was able to overcome its problems was the very able leadership of
Gustav Streseman, who was Chancellor for a short period in 1923 and Foreign
Minister from 1923-1929.
1. Economic recovery
Under his leadership several steps were taken to end both the hyper-inflation and the
occupation of the Ruhr:
a) A new currency, the Rentenmark, was introduced to replace the old worthless
b) Strikers in the Ruhr were ordered back to work and the German government
agreed to start paying reparations again.
c) The USA loaned Germany 800 million marks to help the payment of reparations
and to rebuild German industry. This was called the Dawes Plan and started in
These measures were successful in ending the economic crisis. People had faith in the
new currency and once reparation payments started again French and Belgian troops
left the Ruhr. The economy started to recover and prosperity returned to Germany.
By 1928 German industry was once more producing as many goods as it had before
the First World War. BUT the prosperity relied to a large extent on the American
loans and although German industry was booming, agriculture was not prospering.
Farm incomes were very low.
2. Political problems
Throughout the Streseman Years most Germans voted for the political parties that
supported democracy. Yet the parties that opposed democracy still had a big
following. In 1925 General Hindenburg was elected as President. He had been one of
Germany’s war leaders under the Kaiser and was an outspoken critic of the Weimar
governments. His election showed how weak support for democracy was in
Germany. There were no further attempts to overthrow the government but the
Communist and Nazi Parties made no secret of their wish to destroy the Weimar
3. Better foreign relations
Under Streseman Germany’s relations with its old enemies started to improve.
In 1925 Germany signed the Locarno Treaties with Britain, France and Italy. In
these treaties Germany agreed never to try and change its border with France and
In 1926 Germany was allowed to join the League of Nations and was given a seat
on the League’s Council alongside Britain and France. This meant that Germany
was recognised as a great power again rather than a defeated and humiliated
In 1928 Germany signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact with over 60 other countries.
This said that these countries would never go to war against one another.
In 1929 the Young Plan allowed Germany to reduce the amount it paid each year
in reparations. The Allied troops occupying the Rhineland were withdrawn five
years earlier than the Treaty of Versailles had stipulated.
When Steseman died in 1929 Germany appeared to have fully recovered from the
disaster of the First World War. Other countries treated her as an equal once more
and the Allies had modified the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in Germany’s favour.
The Wall Street Crash 1929
In October 1929, the American stock market on Wall Street crashed. This created
serious problems for Germany. Germany’s economic boom had been based on loans
from American banks. Because of the crisis in the USA, American banks needed
their money and so demanded that Germany repay the loans. The recall of the US
loans plunged Germany into economic crisis again. The ‘golden years’ of the
Streseman period were over.