Modern history





Fear and hatred ruled the day in Germany at the end of the First World War. Gun battles, assassinations, riots, massacres and civil unrest denied Germans the stability in which a new democratic order could flourish. Yet somebody had to take over the reins of government after the Kaiser’s abdication and the collapse of the Reich created by Bismarck. The Social Democrats stepped into the breach. A group of leading figures in the labour movement emerged in the confusion of early November 1918 to form a revolutionary Council of People’s Delegates. Uniting, for a brief period at least, the two wings of the Social Democratic movement (the Majority, who had supported the war, and the Independents, who had opposed it), the Council was led by Friedrich Ebert, a long-time Social Democratic Party functionary. Born in 1871, the son of a tailor, he became a saddler and entered politics through his trade union activities. He worked on the editorial staff of the Social Democratic newspaper in Bremen, then in 1893 opened a pub in the city, which like so many such institutions functioned as a centre for local labour organizations. By 1900 he was active in Bremen’s municipal politics, and as leader of the local Social Democrats he did much to improve the party’s effectiveness. In 1905 he was elected secretary to the national party’s central committee in Berlin, and in 1912 he entered the Reichstag.

Ebert won the respect of his party not as a great orator or charismatic leader, but as a calm, patient and subtle negotiator who always seemed to bring the different factions of the labour movement together. He was a typical pragmatist of the second generation of Social Democratic leaders, accepting the party’s Marxist ideology but concentrating his efforts on the day-to-day improvement of working-class life through his expertise in areas such as labour law and social insurance. It was his hard work that was mainly responsible for the remodelling and improved efficiency of the party’s administration and electoral machine before the war, and he took a great deal of the credit for the party’s famous victory in the Reichstag elections of 1912. On the death of the party’s long-term leader August Bebel in 1913, Ebert was elected joint leader of the party alongside the more radical Hugo Haase. Like many Social Democratic organizers, Ebert put loyalty to the party above almost everything else, and his outrage at the refusal of Haase and other opponents of the war to follow majority decisions in the party was a major factor in persuading him to bring about their expulsion. Led by Haase, the dissidents formed the Independent Social Democrats in 1917 and worked from a variety of points of view to bring about an end to the war. Ebert believed in discipline and order, compromise and reform, and worked hard to bring about a co-operation with the Centre Party and the left-liberals during the war, in order to push the Kaiser’s administration towards an acceptance of parliamentarism. His main aim in 1918-19 was formulated by the characteristic concern of the sober administrator: to keep essential services going, to stop the economy from collapsing and to restore law and order. He was converted to the view that the Kaiser should abdicate only by the realization that a social revolution would break out if he did not, and, he added in conversation with the Kaiser’s last Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, ‘I don’t want that, indeed I hate it like sin.’1

Instead of revolution, Ebert wanted parliamentary democracy. In collaboration with the Centre Party and the left-wing liberals, now renamed the Democrats, Ebert and his associates in the Council of People’s Delegates organized nationwide elections to a Constituent Assembly early in 1919, against the opposition of more radical elements who looked to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils to form the basis of some kind of Soviet-style administration. Many ordinary electors in Germany, whatever their private political views, saw voting for the three democratic parties as the best way to prevent the creation of a German Soviet and ward off the threat of a Bolshevik revolution. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Social Democrats, the left-liberal Democrats and the Centre Party gained an overall majority in the elections to the Constituent Assembly. This met early in 1919 in the central German town of Weimar, long associated with the life and work of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German poet, novelist and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.2 The constitution which it approved on 3 1 July 1919 was essentially a modified version of the constitution established by Bismarck for his new Reich nearly half a century before.3 In place of the Kaiser there was a Reich President who was to be elected, like the President of the United States, by popular vote. Not only did this give him independent legitimacy in his dealings with the legislature, it also encouraged his use of the extensive emergency powers which he was granted under the constitution’s Article 48. In times of trouble, he could rule by decree and use the army to restore law and order in any federated state if he thought they were under threat.

The power to rule by decree was only intended for exceptional emergencies. But Ebert, as the Republic’s first President, made very extensive use of this power, employing it on no fewer than 136 separate occasions. He deposed legitimately elected governments in Saxony and Thuringia when they threatened, in his view, to foment disorder. Even more dangerously, during the 1920 civil war in the Ruhr he issued a backdated decree applying the death penalty to public-order offences and retrospectively legitimizing many of the summary executions that had already been carried out on members of the Red Army by units of the Free Corps and the regular army.4 It was significant that on both occasions these powers were used to suppress perceived threats to the Republic from the left, whereas they went virtually unused against what many saw as the far greater threat to it posed by the right. There were virtually no effective safeguards against an abuse of Article 48, since the President could threaten to use the power given him by Article 25 to dissolve the Reichstag should it reject a Presidential decree. Moreover, decrees could in any case be used to create a fait accompli or to bring about a situation in which the Reichstag had little option but to approve them (for example, though this was never intended, they could be used to intimidate and suppress opposition to the government in power). In some circumstances, no doubt, there was probably little alternative to some kind of rule by decree. But Article 48 included no proper provisions for the ultimate reassertion of power by the legislature in such an eventuality; and Ebert used it not just for emergencies but also in non-emergency situations where steering legislation through the Reichstag would have been too difficult. In the end, Ebert’s excessive use, and occasional misuse, of the Article widened its application to a point where it became a potential threat to democratic institutions.5

Ebert’s achievement in steering the Weimar Republic into being was undeniable. Yet he made many hasty compromises that were to return to haunt the Republic in different ways later on. His concern for a smooth transition from war to peace led him to collaborate closely with the army without demanding any changes in its fiercely monarchist and ultra-conservative officer corps, which he was certainly in a position to do in 1918-19. Yet Ebert’s willingness to compromise with the old order did not do anything to endear him to those who regretted its passing. Throughout the years of his Presidency, he was subjected to a remorseless campaign of vilification in the right-wing press. For those who thought that the head of state should possess a remote, Olympian dignity far from the ordinariness of everyday life, a widely publicized newspaper photograph of the squat, podgy figure of the Reich President on a seaside holiday with a couple of friends, dressed only in bathing-trunks, exposed him to ridicule and contempt. Other opponents in the muck-raking right-wing press attempted to smear him through associating him with financial scandals. Ebert, perhaps foolishly, responded by firing off no fewer than 173 libel suits at those responsible, without ever once gaining satisfaction.6 In a criminal trial held in 1924, in which the accused was charged with calling Ebert a traitor to his country, the court fined the man the token sum of 10 marks because, as it concluded, Ebert had indeed shown himself to be a traitor by maintaining contacts with striking munitions workers in Berlin in the last year of the war (although he had in fact done so in order to bring the strike to a rapid, negotiated end).7 The unending wave of hatred poured over Ebert by the extreme right had its effect, not merely in undermining his position but also in wearing him down personally, both mentally and physically. Obsessed with trying to clear his name from all these smears, Ebert neglected a ruptured appendix that could have been dealt with quite easily by the medical science of the time, and he died, aged 54, on 28 February 1925.8

The elections to the post of President that followed were a disaster for the democratic prospects of the Weimar Republic. The baleful influence of Weimar’s political fragmentation and lack of legitimacy made itself felt here, since in the first round, none of the candidates looked like winning, so the right drafted in the reluctant figure of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg as a rallying-point for their divided supporters. In the subsequent run-off, if either the Communists or the autonomous Bavarian wing of the Centre Party had voted for Hindenburg’s best-supported opponent, the Catholic politician Wilhelm Marx, the Field Marshal might have been defeated. But, thanks to the egotism above all of the Bavarians, he was elected by a clear majority. A symbol par excellence of the old military and Imperial order, Hindenburg was a bulky, physically imposing man whose statuesque appearance, military uniform, war service medals and legendary reputation - mostly undeserved - for winning the great Battle of Tannenberg and for guiding Germany’s military destiny thereafter, made him into a much-revered figurehead, above all for the right. Hindenburg’s election was greeted by the forces of the right as a symbol of restoration. ‘On 12/5,’ reported the conservative academic Victor Klemperer (an alarmed and unsympathetic observer) in his diary, ‘as Hindenburg was sworn in, there were black-white-red flags everywhere. The Reich flag only on official buildings.’ Eight out of ten Imperial flags Klemperer observed on this occasion were, he said, the small ones of the kind used by children.9 For many, Hindenburg’s election was a big step away from Weimar democracy in the direction of a restoration of the old monarchical order. A rumour duly did the rounds that Hindenburg had felt it necessary to ask the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm, now in exile in Holland, for permission before he took up the post of President. It was untrue, but it said a great deal for Hindenburg’s reputation that it gained currency.10

Once in office, and influenced by his strong sense of duty, Hindenburg, to the surprise of many, stuck to the letter of the constitution; but, as his seven-year term of office wore on, and he moved into his eighties, he became ever more impatient with the complexities of political events and ever more susceptible to the influence of his inner circle of advisers, all of whom shared his instinctive belief that the monarchy was the only legitimate sovereign power in the German Reich. Persuaded of the correctness of the use of Presidential emergency powers by the example of his predecessor, Hindenburg began to feel that a conservative dictatorship exercised in his name was the only way out of the crisis into which the Republic fell at the beginning of the 1930S. Whatever influence Hindenburg’s election might therefore have had in reconciling opponents of the Republic to its existence in the short run, in the long run it was an unmitigated disaster for Weimar democracy. By 1930 at the latest, it had become clear that the Presidential power was in the hands of a man who had no faith in democratic institutions and no intention of defending them from their enemies.11


Besides the office of Reich President, Weimar’s constitution provided for a national legislature, named, as before, the Reichstag, but now elected by all adult women as well as all adult men, and by a more direct form of proportional representation than had been used before 1918. In effect, the electors voted for the party of their choice, and each party was allotted a number of seats in the Reichstag precisely corresponding to the proportion of votes it received in the election. Thus, a party that received 30 per cent of the vote would be allotted 30 per cent of the seats, and, more worryingly, a party that received I per cent of the vote would be allotted I per cent of the seats. It has often been said that such a system favoured small parties and fringe groups, and this was no doubt true. Yet the fringe parties never achieved a combined vote of more than 15 per cent, so it was in practice seldom necessary for the larger parties to take them into account when forming a government. Where proportional representation did have an effect, it was in evening out the chances of the larger parties in the competition for votes, so that, if a first-past-the-post electoral system had been in operation, the bigger parties would have done better, and more stable coalition governments with a smaller number of coalition partners might have been possible, thus perhaps persuading a greater number of people of the virtues of parliamentarism.12

As it was, changes of government in the Weimar Republic were very frequent. Between 13 February 1919 and 30 January 1933 there were no fewer than twenty different cabinets, each lasting on average 239 days, or somewhat less than eight months. Coalition government, it was sometimes said, made for unstable government, as the different parties were constantly squabbling over personalities and policies. It also made for weak government, since all they could settle on was the lowest common denominator and the line of least resistance. However, coalition government in Weimar was not just the product of proportional representation. It also arose out of long-standing and deep fissures within the German political system. The parties that had dominated the Imperial scene all survived into the Weimar Republic. The Nationalists were formed by the amalgamation of the old Conservative Party with other, smaller groups. The liberals failed to overcome their differences and remained divided into left (Democrats) and right (People’s Party). The Centre Party remained more or less unchanged, though its Bavarian wing split off to form the Bavarian People’s Party. On the left, the Social Democrats had to face a new rival in the form of the Communist Party. But none of this was solely or even principally the product of proportional representation. The political milieux out of which these various parties emerged had been in existence since the early days of the Bismarckian Empire.13

These milieux, with their party newspapers, clubs and societies, were unusually rigid and homogeneous. Already before 1914 this had resulted in a politicization of whole areas of life that in other societies were much freer from ideological identifications. Thus, if an ordinary German wanted to join a male voice choir, for instance, he had to choose in some areas between a Catholic and a Protestant choir, in others between a socialist and a nationalist choir; the same went for gymnastics clubs, cycling clubs, football clubs and the rest. A member of the Social Democratic Party before the war could have virtually his entire life encompassed by the party and its organizations: he could read a Social Democratic newspaper, go to a Social Democratic pub or bar, belong to a Social Democratic trade union, borrow books from the Social Democratic library, go to Social Democratic festivals and plays, marry a woman who belonged to the Social Democratic women’s organization, enrol his children in the Social Democratic youth movement and be buried with the aid of a Social Democratic burial fund.14 Similar things could be said of the Centre Party (which could rely on the mass organization of supporters in the People’s Association for a Catholic Germany, the Catholic Trade Union movement, and Catholic leisure clubs and societies of all kinds) but also to a certain extent of other parties too.15 These sharply defined political-cultural milieux did not disappear with the advent of the Weimar Republic.16 But the emergence of commercialized mass leisure, the ‘boulevard press’, based on sensation and scandal, the cinema, cheap novels, dance-halls and leisure activities of all kinds began in the 1920s to provide alternative sources of identification for the young, who were thus less tightly bound to political parties than their elders were.17 The older generation of political activists were too closely tied to their particular political ideology to find compromise and co-operation with other politicians and their parties very easy. In contrast to the situation after 1945, there was no merger of major political parties into larger and more effective units.18 As in a number of other respects, therefore, the political instability of the 1920S and early 1930S owed more to structural continuities with the politics of the Bismarckian and Wilhelmine eras than to the novel provisions of the Weimar constitution.19

Proportional representation did not, as some have claimed, encourage political anarchy and thereby facilitate the rise of the extreme right. An electoral system based on a first-past-the-post system, where the candidate who won the most votes in each constituency automatically won the seat, might well have given the Nazi Party even more seats than it eventually obtained in the last elections of the Weimar Republic, though since the parties’ electoral tactics would have been different under such a system, and its arguably beneficial effects in the earlier phases of the Republic’s existence might have reduced the overall Nazi vote later on, it is impossible to tell for sure.20 Similarly, the destabilizing effect of the constitution’s provision for referendums or plebiscites has often been exaggerated; other political systems have existed perfectly happily with such a provision, and in any case the actual number of plebiscites that actually took place was very small. The campaigning they involved certainly helped keep the overheated political atmosphere of the Republic at boiling point. But national plebiscites had little direct political effect, despite the fact that one provincial plebiscite did succeed in overthrowing a democratic government in Oldenburg in 1932. 21


Map 4. The Weimar Republic

In any case, the governmental instability of Weimar has itself often been overdrawn, for the frequent changes of government concealed long-term continuities in particular ministries. Some posts, notably the Ministry of Justice, were used as bargaining counters in inter-party coalition negotiations and so saw a succession of many different ministers, no doubt putting more power than usual into the hands of the senior civil servants, who stayed there all through, though their freedom of action was curtailed by the devolution of many functions of judicial administration to the federated states. But others became the virtual perquisite of a particular politician through all the vagaries of coalition-building, thus making it easier to formulate and implement strong and decisive policies. Gustav Stresemann, the leading figure in the People’s Party, for instance, was Foreign Minister in nine successive administrations and remained in office for an unbroken period of over six years. Heinrich Brauns, a Centre Party deputy, was Minister of Labour in twelve successive cabinets, from June 1920 up to June 1928. Otto Gessler, a Democrat, was Army Minister in thirteen successive governments, from March 1920 to January 1928. Such ministers were able to develop and implement long-term policies irrespective of the frequent turnover of leadership experienced by the governments they served in. Other ministries were also occupied by the same politicians through two, three or four different governments.22 Not by chance, it was in such areas that the Republic was able to develop its strongest and most consistent policies, above all in the fields of foreign affairs, labour and welfare.

The ability of the Reich government to act firmly and decisively, however, was always compromised by another provision of the constitution, namely its decision to continue the federal structure which Bismarck had imposed on the Reich in 1871 in an effort to sugar the pill of unification for German princes such as the King of Bavaria and the Grand Duke of Baden. The princes had been unceremoniously thrown out in the Revolution of 1918, but their states remained. They were equipped now with democratic, parliamentary institutions, but still retained a good deal of autonomy in key areas of domestic policy. The fact that some of the states, like Bavaria, had a history and an identity going back many centuries, encouraged them to obstruct the policies of the Reich government if they did not like them. On the other hand, direct taxation was now in the hands of the Reich government, and many of the smaller states were dependent on handouts from Berlin when they got into financial difficulties. Attempts at secession from the Reich might seem threatening, especially in the Republic’s troubled early years, but in reality they were never strong enough to be taken seriously.23 Worse problems could be caused by tensions between Prussia and the Reich, since the Prussian state was bigger than all the rest combined; but through the 1920s and early 1930s Prussia was led by moderate, pro-republican governments which constituted an important counterweight to the extremism and instability of states such as Bavaria. When all these factors are taken into account, therefore, it does not seem that the federal system, for all its unresolved tensions between the Reich and the states, was a major factor in undermining the stability and legitimacy of the Weimar Republic.24


All in all, Weimar Germany’s constitution was no worse than the constitutions of most other countries in the 1920s, and a good deal more democratic than many. Its more problematical provisions might not have mattered so much had circumstances been different. But the fatal lack of legitimacy from which the Republic suffered magnified the constitution’s faults many times over. Three political parties were identified with the new political system - the Social Democrats, the liberal German Democratic Party, and the Centre Party. After gaining a clear majority of 76.2 per cent of the vote in January 1919, these three parties combined won just 48 per cent of the vote in June 1920, 43 per cent of the vote in May 1924, 49.6 per cent in December 1924, 49.9 per cent in 1928 and 43 per cent in September 1930. From 1920 onwards they were thus in a permanent minority in the Reichstag, outnumbered by deputies whose allegiance lay with the Republic’s enemies to the right and to the left. And the support of these parties of the ‘Weimar coalition’ for the Republic was, at best, often more rhetorical than practical, and, at worst, equivocal, compromised or of no political use at all.25

The Social Democrats were considered by many to be the party that had created the Republic, and often said so themselves. Yet they were never very happy as a party of government, took part in only eight out of the twenty Weimar cabinets and only filled the office of Reich Chancellor in four of them.26 They remained locked in the Marxist ideological mould of the prewar years, still expecting capitalism to be overthrown and the bourgeoisie to be replaced as the ruling class by the proletariat. Whatever else it was, Germany in the 1920s was undeniably a capitalist society, and playing a leading role in government seemed to many Social Democrats to sit rather uneasily alongside the verbal radicalism of their ideology. Unused to the experience of government, excluded from political participation for two generations before the war, they found the experience of collaborating with ‘bourgeois’ politicians a painful one. They could not rid themselves of their Marxist ideology without losing a large part of their electoral support in the working class; yet on the other hand a more radical policy, for example of forming a Red Army militia from workers instead of relying on the Free Corps, would surely have made their participation in bourgeois coalition governments impossible and called down upon their heads the wrath of the army.

The main strength of the Social Democrats lay in Prussia, the state that covered over half the territory of the Weimar Republic and contained 57 per cent of its population. Here, in a mainly Protestant area with great cities such as Berlin and industrial areas like the Ruhr, they dominated the government. Their policy was to make Prussia a bastion of Weimar democracy, and, although they did not pursue reforms with any great vigour or consistency, removing them from power in Germany’s biggest state became a major objective of Weimar democracy’s enemies by the early 1930s.27 In the Reich, however, their position was far less dominant. Their strength at the beginning of the Republic owed a good deal to the support of middle-class voters who considered that a strong Social Democratic Party would offer the best defence against Bolshevism by effecting a quick transition to parliamentary democracy. As the threat receded, so their representation in the Reichstag went down, from 163 seats in 1919 to 102 in 1920. Despite a substantial recovery later on—153 seats in 1928, and 143 in 1930—the Social Democrats permanently lost nearly two and a half million votes, and, after receiving 38 per cent of the votes in 1919, they hovered around 25 per cent for the rest of the 1920s and early 1930s. Nevertheless, they remained an enormously powerful and well-organized political movement that claimed the allegiance and devotion of millions of industrial workers across the land. If any one party deserved to be called the bulwark of democracy in the Weimar Republic, it was the Social Democrats.

The second arm of the ‘Weimar coalition’, the German Democratic Party, was a somewhat more enthusiastic participant in government, serving in virtually all the cabinets of the 1920s. It had, after all, been a Democrat, Hugo Preuss, who had been the principal author of the much-maligned Weimar constitution. But although they won 75 seats in the election of January 1919, they lost 36 of them in the next election, in June 1920, and were down to 28 seats in the election of May 1924. Victims of the rightward drift of middle-class voters, they never recovered. 28 Their response to their losses after the elections of 1928 was disastrous. Led by Erich Koch-Weser, leading figures in the party joined in July 1930 with a paramilitary offshoot of the youth movement known as the Young German Order and some individual politicians from other middle-class parties, to transform the Democrats into the State Party. The idea was to create a strong centrist bloc that would stem the flow of bourgeois voters to the Nazis. But the merger had been precipitate, and closed off the possibility of joining together with other, larger political groups in the middle. Some, mostly left-wing Democrats, objected to the move and resigned. On the right, the Young German Order’s move lost it support among many of its own members. The electoral fortunes of the new party did not improve, and only 14 deputies represented it in the Reichstag after the elections of September 1930. In practice the merger meant a sharp shift to the right. The Young German Order shared the scepticism of much of the youth movement about the parliamentary system, and its ideology was more than tinged with antisemitism. The new State Party continued to keep the Social Democratic coalition in Prussia afloat until the state elections of April 1932, but its aim, announced by the historian Friedrich Meinecke, was now to achieve a shift in the balance of political power away from the Reichstag and the states and towards a strong, unitary Reich government. Here too, therefore, a steady erosion of support pushed the party to the right; but the only effect of this was to wipe out whatever distinguished it from other, more effective political organizations that were arguing for the same kind of thing. The State Party’s convoluted constitutional schemes not only signalled its lack of political realism, but also its weakening commitment to Weimar democracy.29

Of the three parties of the. ‘Weimar coalition’, only the Centre Party maintained its support throughout, at around 5 million votes, or 85 to 90 seats in the Reichstag, including those of the Bavarian People’s Party. The Centre Party was also a key part of every coalition government from June 1919 to the very end, and with its strong interest in social legislation probably had as strong a claim to have been the driving force behind the creation of Weimar’s welfare state as the Social Democrats did. Socially conservative, it devoted much of its time to fighting pornography, contraception and other evils of the modern world, and to defending Catholic interests in the schools system. Its Achilles heel was the influence inevitably wielded over it by the Papacy in Rome. As head of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XI was increasingly worried by the advance of atheistic communists and socialists during the 1920s. Together with his Nuncio in Germany, Eugenio Pacelli, who subsequently became Pope Pius XII, he profoundly distrusted the political liberalism of many Catholic politicians and saw a turn to a more authoritarian form of politics as the safest way to preserve the Church’s interests from the looming threat of the godless left. This led to his conclusion of a Concordat with Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Italy in 1929 and later on to the Church’s support for the ‘clerico-fascist’ dictatorship of Engelbert Dollfuss in the Austrian civil war of 1934, and the Nationalists under General Franco in the Spanish Civil War that began in 1936.30

With such signals emanating from the Vatican even in the 1920s, the prospects for political Catholicism in Germany were not good. They became markedly worse in December 1928, when a close associate of Papal Nuncio Pacelli, Prelate Ludwig Kaas, a priest who was also a deputy in the German Reichstag, succeeded in being elected leader of the Centre Party as a compromise candidate during a struggle between factions of the right and left over the succession to the retiring chairman, Wilhelm Marx. Under Pacelli’s influence, however, Kaas veered increasingly towards the right, pulling many Catholic politicians with him. As increasing disorder and instability began to grip the Reich in 1930 and 1931, Kaas, now a frequent visitor to the Vatican, began to work together with Pacelli for a Concordat, along the lines of the agreement recently concluded with Mussolini. Securing the future existence of the Church was paramount in such a situation. Like many other leading Catholic politicians, Kaas considered that this was only really possible in an authoritarian state where police repression stamped out the threat from the left. ‘Never’, declared Kaas in 1929, ‘has the call for leadership on the grand scale echoed more vividly and impatiently through the soul of the German people as in the days when the Fatherland and its culture have been in such peril that the soul of all of us has been oppressed.’31 Kaas demanded among other things much greater independence for the executive from the legislature in Germany. Another leading Centre Party politician, Eugen Bolz, Minister-President of Württemberg, put it more bluntly when he told his wife early in 1930: ‘I have long been of the opinion that the Parliament cannot solve severe domestic political problems. If a dictator for ten years were a possibility - I would want it.’32 Long before 30 January 1933, the Centre Party had ceased to be the bulwark of Weimar democracy that it had once been.33


Map 5. The Religious Divide

Thus, even the major political props of democracy in the Weimar Republic were crumbling by the end of the 1920s. Beyond them, the democratic landscape was even more desolate. No other parties offered serious support to the Republic and its institutions. On the left, the Republic was confronted with the mass phenomenon of the Communists. In the revolutionary period from 1918 to 1921 they were a tightly knit, elite group with little electoral support, but when the Independent Social Democrats, deprived of the unifying factor of opposition to the First World War, fell apart in 1922, a large number of them joined the Communists, who thus became a mass party. Already in 1920 the combined forces of the Independent Social Democrats and the Communists won 88 seats in the Reichstag. In May 1924 the Communists won 62 seats, and, after a small drop later in the year, they were back to 54 in 1928 and 77 in 1930. Three and a quarter million people cast their votes for the party in May 1924 and over four and a half million in September 1930. These were all votes for the destruction of the Weimar Republic.

Through all the twists and turns of its policies during the 1920s, the Communist Party of Germany never deviated from its belief that the Republic was a bourgeois state whose primary purposes were the protection of the capitalist economic order and the exploitation of the working class. Capitalism, they hoped, would inevitably collapse and the ‘bourgeois’ republic would be replaced by a Soviet state along Russian lines. It was the duty of the Communist Party to bring this about as soon as possible. In the early years of the Republic this meant preparing for an ‘October revolution’ in Germany by means of an armed revolt. But, after the failure of the January uprising in 1919 and the even more catastrophic collapse of plans for an uprising in 1923, this idea was put on hold. Steered increasingly from Moscow, where the Soviet regime, under the growing influence of Stalin, tightened its financial and ideological grip on Communist parties everywhere in the second half of the 1920s, the German Communist Party had little option but to swing to a more moderate course in the mid-1920s, only to return to a radical, ‘leftist’ position at the end of the decade. This meant not only refusing to join with the Social Democrats in the defence of the Republic, but even actively collaborating with the Republic’s enemies in order to bring it down.34 Indeed, the party’s hostility to the Republic and its institutions even caused it to oppose reforms that might lead the Republic to become more popular among the working class.35

This implacable opposition to the Republic from the left was more than balanced by rabid animosity from the right. The largest and most significant right-wing challenge to Weimar was mounted by the Nationalists, who gained 44 Reichstag seats in January 1919,71 in June 1920, 95 in May 1924 and 103 in December 1924. This made them larger than any other party with the exception of the Social Democrats. In both elections of 1924 they won around 20 per cent of the vote. One in five people who cast their ballot in these elections thus did so for a party that made it clear from the outset that it regarded the Weimar Republic as utterly illegitimate and called for a restoration of the Bismarckian Reich and the return of the Kaiser. This was expressed in many different ways, from the Nationalists’ championing of the old Imperial flag, black, white and red, in place of the new Republican colours of black, red and gold, to their tacit and sometimes explicit condoning of the assassination of key Republican politicians by armed conspiratorial groups allied to the Free Corps. The propaganda and policies of the Nationalists did much to spread radical right-wing ideas across the electorate in the 1920s and prepare the way for Nazism.

During the 1920s, the Nationalists were a partner in two coalition governments, but the experience was not a happy one. They resigned from one government after ten months, and when they came into another cabinet half-way through its term of office, they were forced to make compromises that left many party members deeply dissatisfied. Severe losses in the elections of October 1928, when the Nationalists’ representation in the Reichstag fell from 103 seats to 73, convinced the right wing of the party that it was time for a more uncompromising line. The traditionalist party chairman Count Westarp was ousted and replaced by the press baron, industrialist and radical nationalist Alfred Hugenberg, who had been a leading light of the Pan-German movement since its inception in the 1890s. The Nationalist Party programme of 1931, drafted under Hugenberg’s influence, was distinctly more right wing than its predecessors. It demanded among other things the restoration of the Hohenzollern monarchy, compulsory military service, a strong foreign policy directed at the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, the return of the lost overseas colonies and the strengthening of ties with Germans living in other parts of Europe, especially Austria. The Reichstag was to retain only a supervisory role and a ‘critical voice’ in legislation, and to be joined by ’a representational body structured according to professional rankings in the economic and cultural spheres’ along the lines of the corporate state being created at the time in Fascist Italy. And, the programme went on, ‘we resist the subversive, un-German spirit in all forms, whether it stems from Jewish or other circles. We are emphatically opposed to the prevalence of Jewdom in the government and in public life, a prevalence that has emerged ever more continuously since the revolution.’36

Under Hugenberg, the Nationalists also moved away from internal party democracy and closer to the ‘leadership principle’. The party’s new leader made strenuous efforts to make party policy on his own and direct the party’s Reichstag delegation in its votes. A number of Reichstag deputies opposed this, and a dozen of them split off from the party in December 1929 and more in June 1930, joining fringe groups of the right in protest. Hugenberg allied the party with the extreme right, in an attempt to get a popular referendum to vote against the Young Plan, an internationally agreed scheme, brokered by the Americans, for the rescheduling of reparations payments, in 1929. The failure of the bitterly fought campaign only convinced Hugenberg of the need for even more extreme opposition to Weimar and its replacement by an authoritarian, nationalist state harking back to the glorious days of the Bismarckian Empire. None of this worked. The Nationalists’ snobbery and elitism prevented them from winning a real mass following and rendered their supporters vulnerable to the blandishments of the truly populist demagoguery practised by the Nazis.37

Less extreme, but only marginally less vehemently opposed to the Republic, was the smaller People’s Party, the heir of the old pro-Bismarckian National Liberals. It won 65 seats in the 1920 election and stayed around 45 to 50 for the rest of the decade, attracting about 2.7 to 3 million votes. The party’s hostility to the Republic was partly masked by the decision of its leading figure, Gustav Stresemann, to recognize political realities for the moment and accept the legitimacy of the Republic, more out of necessity than conviction. Although he was never fully . trusted by his party, Stresemann’s powers of persuasion were considerable. Not least thanks to his consummate negotiating skills, the People’s Party took part in most of the Republic’s cabinets, unlike the Nationalists, who stayed in opposition for the greater part of the 1920s. Yet this meant that the majority of governments formed after the initial phase of the Republic’s existence contained at least some ministers who were dubious, to say the least, about its right to exist. Moreover, Stresemann, already in difficulties with his party, fell ill and died in October 1929, thus removing the principal moderating influence from the party’s leadership. 38 From this point on it, too, gravitated rapidly towards the far right.

Even in the mid-1920S, therefore, the political system was looking extremely fragile. In other circumstances it might have survived. In retrospect, indeed, the period 1924-8 has been described by many as ‘Weimar’s Golden Years’. But the idea that democracy was on the way to establishing itself in Germany at this time is an illusion created by hindsight. There was in reality no sign that it was becoming more secure; on the contrary, the fact that the two major bourgeois parties, the Centre Party and the Nationalists, soon fell into the hands of avowed enemies of democracy boded ill for the future, even without the shocks to come. That the allegiance of the People’s Party to the Republic, such as it was, owed everything to the persistence and intelligent leadership of one man, Gustav Stresemann, was another sign of fragility. Not even in the relatively favourable circumstances of 1928 had the parties of the ‘Weimar Coalition’ succeeded in gaining a majority in the Reichstag. The widespread feeling after 1923 that the threat of a Bolshevik revolution had receded meant that the bourgeois parties were no longer so willing to compromise with the Social Democrats in the interests of preserving the Republic as a bulwark against Communism.39 And more ominously still, paramilitary organizations such as the Steel Helmets were beginning to extend their struggle from the streets to the hustings in an attempt to win more influence for their anti-Republican views. Meanwhile, political violence, though it fell short of the open civil war that characterized much of the Republic’s opening phase, still continued at an alarmingly high level throughout the mid-1920s.40 The brutal fact was that, even in 1928, the, Republic was as far away from achieving stability and legitimacy as ever.


The Weimar Republic was also weakened by its failure to win the whole-hearted support of the army and the civil service, both of which found it extremely difficult to adjust to the transition from the authoritarian Reich to the democratic Republic in 1918. For the army leadership in particular, defeat in 1918 posed an alarming threat. Led by one of its most intelligent and perceptive officers, General Wilhelm Groener, the General Staff agreed with the Majority Social Democrats under Friedrich Ebert that the threat of the revolutionary workers’ and soldiers’ council would best be warded off if they worked in tandem to secure a stable parliamentary democracy. From Groener’s point of view this was an act of expediency, not of faith. It secured the preservation of the old officer corps in the reduced circumstances of the German army after the Treaty of Versailles. The army’s numbers were restricted to 100,000, it was banned from using modern technology such as tanks, and a mass conscript military force had to give way to a small professional one. Groener ran into fierce opposition from army diehards for compromising with the Social Democrats, just as his opposite number, the Social Democrats’ military specialist Gustav Noske, ran into fierce criticism from his party comrades for allowing the officer corps to remain intact instead of replacing it with a more democratic structure and personnel.41 But in the desperate circumstances of 1918-19, their line won through in the end.

Within a short space of time, however, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils had faded from the political scene, and the need for compromise with the forces of democracy seemed to many leading officers to have lost its urgency. This became dramatically clear in March 1920, when Free Corps units, protesting against their impending redundancy, marched on Berlin and overthrew the elected government in a bid to restore an authoritarian regime on the lines of the old monarchy. Led by the Pan-German former civil servant and leading light of the old Fatherland Party, Wolfgang Kapp, the insurrectionists were also supported by elements within the armed forces in a number of areas. When the chief of the army command, General Walther Reinhardt, tried to ensure the forces’ loyalty to the government, he was ousted in favour of the more right-wing General Hans von Seeckt. Seeckt promptly banned all army units from opposing the plotters and turned a blind eye to those which backed them. Subsequently, he ordered the army to co-operate in the bloody suppression of the workers’ armed uprising against the putsch in the Ruhr. Seeckt had indeed been hostile to the Republic from the beginning. Aloof, authoritarian and unapproachable, his upper-class credentials advertised by the monocle he wore over his left eye, he epitomized the traditions of the Prussian officer class. But he was also a political realist who saw that the possibilities of overthrowing the Republic by force were limited. He aimed therefore to keep the army united and free from parliamentary control waiting for better times. In this he had the full support of his fellow-officers.42

Under Seeckt’s leadership, the army retained in its ‘war flag’ the old Imperial colours of black, white and red. Seeckt distinguished sharply between the German state, which incorporated the abstract ideal of the . Reich, and the Republic, which he regarded as a temporary aberration. General Wilhelm Groener, Seeckt’s mentor, described the army in 1928 as the ‘only power’ and an ‘element of power within the state that no one can disregard’.43 Under Seeckt’s leadership, the army was far from being a neutral organization, standing aloof from the party-political fray, whatever Seeckt might have claimed.44 Seeckt did not hesitate to intervene against the elected government when he believed that it went against the Reich’s interests. He even considered taking over the Chancellorship himself on one occasion, with a programme that envisaged the centralization of the Reich and the curbing of Prussian autonomy, the abolition of the trade unions and their replacement by ‘occupational chambers’ (rather like those later created by Mussolini in Italy), and in general the ‘suppression of all tendencies directed against the existence of the Reich and against the legitimate authority of the Reich and the state, through the use of the means of power of the Reich’.45 In the end, he succeeded in toppling the government, but did not manage to become Chancellor himself; that was to be left to one of his successors, General Kurt von Schleicher, who belonged to Seeckt’s close group of advisers in the years when he ran the army command.

A law unto itself for most of the time, the army did its best during the 1920s to circumvent the restrictions placed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles. Making common cause behind the scenes with another diminished and resentful Great Power, the Soviet Union, the army leadership arranged for clandestine training sessions in Russia for officers anxious to learn how to use tanks and aeroplanes, and willing to engage in experiments with poison gas.46 Secret arrangements were made to train auxiliary troops, in an attempt to get round the limit of 100,000 imposed by the Treaty on the army’s strength, and the army was constantly eyeing the paramilitaries as a potential military reserve.47 These subterfuges and others, including training with make-believe tanks, made clear that the army had no intention of abiding by the terms of the 1919 Peace Settlement and would break free from it as soon as circumstances allowed. Far from being led exclusively by dyed-in-the-wool Prussian conservatives, these clandestine circumventions of the Treaty were organized above all by modern-minded technicians, impatient with the constraints of democratic politics and international agreements.48 The disloyalty of the army, and the repeated intrigues of its leading officers against civilian governments, boded ill for the Republic’s continued viability in a real crisis.49

If Germany’s first democracy could not expect much support from its military servants, then neither could it hope for much support from its civil servants, whom it likewise inherited from the old German Reich. The civil service was of huge importance because it covered a very wide area of society and included not just officials working in the central administration of the Reich but also all those state employees who had secured the tenure, status and emoluments originally designed for senior administrators. They included officials working for the federated states, for state enterprises like the railways and the postal service, and for state institutions such as universities and schools, so that university professors and high-school teachers fell into this category as well. The numbers of civil servants in this broad sense were enormous. Below this relatively exalted level there were millions more state servants living off salaries or wages paid by state institutions. The German state railway was by far the largest single employer in the Weimar Republic, for instance, with 700,000 people working for it at the end of the 1920s; it was followed by the postal service with 380,000. If family members, dependants and pensioners are added on, about 3 million people relied for their support on the railways alone.50 Altogether, by the end of the 1920s there were 1.6 million civil servants in Germany, about half of whom worked for the state proper, the other half for public utilities such as the railways. With such a large number of state employees, it was clear that the state employment sector was politically extremely diverse, with hundreds of thousands of employees belonging to socialist trade unions, liberal political parties or pressure-groups of widely varying political orientation. A million civil servants belonged to the liberal German Civil Servants’ League in 1919, though 60,000 split off to form a more right-wing group in 1921 and another 350,000 seceded to form a trade union the following year. Civil servants were in no sense, therefore, uniformly hostile to the Republic at the outset, despite their training and socialization in the years of the Wilhelmine Reich.51

As the leading figure in the transitional revolutionary administration, Friedrich Ebert appealed on 9 November 1918 for all civil servants and state employees to continue working in order to avoid anarchy.52 The overwhelming majority stayed on. Civil servants’ career structure and duties were unchanged. The Weimar constitution made them irremovable. However it might have appeared in theory, in practice this step made it virtually impossible to dismiss civil servants, given the extreme difficulty of proving in law that they had violated their oath of allegiance. 53 As an institution that derived from the authoritarian and bureaucratic states of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, long before the advent of parliaments and political parties, the higher civil service in particular had long been accustomed to regard itself as the true ruling caste, above all in Prussia. Up to 1918, for instance, all government ministers had been civil servants, appointed by the monarch, not by the Reichstag or the legislative assemblies of the federated states. In some Reich ministries, where there was a rapid turnover of ministers under the Republic, the top civil servant could wield enormous power, as with Curt Joel in the Ministry of Justice, who served virtually throughout the Republic, while no fewer than seventeen Justice Ministers came and went, before he finally became Minister himself in 1930. For such men, administrative continuity was the supreme dictate of duty, overriding all political considerations. Whatever they might have thought privately of the Kapp putschists in March 1920, senior civil servants in Berlin, including financial officials, thus carried on with their work in defiance of the putschists’ orders for them to stand down.54

The neutrality of civil servants on this occasion owed a good deal to their characteristically punctilious insistence on the duties imposed by their oath of allegiance. Later on, in 1922, the government introduced a new law designed to bind civil servants even more closely to the Republic and impose disciplinary sanctions on those who consorted with its enemies. But this measure was relatively toothless. Only in Prussia was there a serious effort, led by Carl Severing and Albert Grzesinski, successive Social Democratic Ministers of the Interior, to replace old Imperial administrators, above all in the provinces, with Social Democrats and others loyal to the Republic.55 Nevertheless, even the Prussian efforts at creating a civil service loyal to the principles of democracy as well as imbued with a sense of duty in serving the government of the day proved insufficient in the end. Because Severing and Grzesinski thought that the parties should be represented in the higher civil service roughly in proportion to their place in the Prussian coalition cabinets, this meant that a good number of important posts were held by men from parties such as the Centre Party, the People’s Party and to a degree the State Party, whose allegiance to the Republic was rapidly becoming more tenuous from the end of the 1920s onwards. In the rest of Germany, including the level of the Reich civil service, even this degree of reform was barely even attempted, let alone achieved, and the civil service was far more conservative, even in parts downright hostile to the Republic.56

The problem, however, was not so much that the higher civil service was actively helping to undermine Weimar; rather, it was that the Republic did too little to ensure that civil servants at whatever level were actively committed to the democratic political order and would resist any attempt to overthrow it. And those civil servants who were actively hostile to the Republic - probably a minority, considered overall—were able to survive with relative impunity. Thus, for instance, one senior Prussian civil servant, born in 1885, and a member of the Nationalist Party after 1918, founded a variety of fringe groups for civil servants and others, aiming explicitly to combat ‘the Reichstag, the red headquarters’, to frustrate the policies of the ‘treasonous and godless Social Democrats’, to oppose the ‘imperialist world power’ of the Catholic Church and finally to fight against ‘all Jews’. His antisemitism, fairly latent before 1918, became explicit after the Revolution. Thereafter, he later recalled, ‘whenever a Jew was carrying on impertinently on the elevated [railway] or on the train and would not accept my scolding without further impertinence, I threatened to throw him off the moving train ... if he did not shut up immediately’. On one occasion he threatened ‘Marxist’ workers with a gun. His was an obviously extreme example of a civil servant opposed to the Republic. Yet he was not dismissed, only disciplined twice and denied promotion, despite being tried on one occasion for disturbing the peace. ‘I always’, he wrote, ‘took it to be a weakness of my political enemies in the civil service that they let me get off so easily every time.’ The worst that happened to him under the Republic was a blockage of his career prospects.57

There can be little doubt that, even in the Republican bastion of Prussia, the vast majority of civil servants had little genuine loyalty to the constitution to which they had sworn their allegiance. Should the Republic be threatened with destruction, very few of them indeed would even think of coming to its aid. Devotion to duty kept them working when the state was challenged, as in the Kapp putsch of 1920, but it would also keep them working when the state was overthrown. Here was another central institution whose loyalty was to an abstract concept of the Reich rather than to the concrete principles of democracy. In this as in other respects, Weimar was weak in political legitimacy from the start.58 It was beset by insurmountable problems of political violence, assassination and irreconcilable conflicts about its right to exist. It was unloved and undefended by its servants in the army and bureaucracy. It was blamed by many for the national humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. And it also had to face enormous economic problems, beginning with the massive monetary inflation that made life so difficult for so many in the years when it was trying to establish itself.

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