From that day on Germany became a house divided.
The conservatives would accept neither the treaty of peace nor the Republic which had ratified it. Nor, in the long run, would the Army—General Groener excepted—though it had sworn to support the new democratic regime and had itself made the final decision to sign at Versailles. Despite the November “revolution,” the conservatives still held the economic power. They owned the industries, the large estates and most of the country’s capital. Their wealth could be used, and was, to subsidize political parties and a political press that would strive from now on to undermine the Republic.
The Army began to circumvent the military restrictions of the peace treaty before the ink on it was scarcely dry. And thanks to the timidity and shortsightedness of the Socialist leaders, the officer corps managed not only to maintain the Army in its old Prussian traditions, as we have seen, but to become the real center of political power in the new Germany. The Army did not, until the last days of the short-lived Republic, stake its fortunes on any one political movement. But under General Hans von Seeckt, the brilliant creator of the 100,000-man Reichswehr, the Army, small as it was in numbers, became a state within a state, exerting an increasing influence on the nation’s foreign and domestic policies until a point was reached where the Republic’s continued existence depended on the will of the officer corps.
As a state within a state it maintained its independence of the national government. Under the Weimar Constitution the Army could have been subordinated to the cabinet and Parliament, as the military establishments of the other Western democracies were. But it was not. Nor was the officer corps purged of its monarchist, antirepublican frame of mind. A few Socialist leaders such as Scheidemann and Grzesinski urged “democratizing” the armed forces. They saw the danger of handing the Army back to the officers of the old authoritarian, imperialist tradition. But they were successfully opposed not only by the generals but by their fellow Socialists, led by the Minister of Defense, Noske. This proletarian minister of the Republic openly boasted that he wanted to revive “the proud soldier memories of the World War.” The failure of the duly elected government to build a new Army that would be faithful to its own democratic spirit and subordinate to the cabinet and the Reichstag was a fatal mistake for the Republic, as time would tell.
The failure to clean out the judiciary was another. The administrators of the law became one of the centers of the counterrevolution, perverting justice for reactionary political ends. “It is impossible to escape the conclusion,” the historian Franz L. Neumann declared, “that political justice is the blackest page in the life of the German Republic.”4 After the Kapp putsch in 1920 the government charged 705 persons with high treason; only one, the police president of Berlin, received a sentence—five years of “honorary confinement.” When the state of Prussia withdrew his pension the Supreme Court ordered it restored. A German court in December 1926 awarded General von Luettwitz, the military leader of the Kapp putsch, back payment of his pension to cover the period when he was a rebel against the government and also the five years that he was a fugitive from justice in Hungary.
Yet hundreds of German liberals were sentenced to long prison terms on charges of treason because they revealed or denounced in the press or by speech the Army’s constant violations of the Versailles Treaty. The treason laws were ruthlessly applied to the supporters of the Republic; those on the Right who tried to overthrow it, as Adolf Hitler was soon to learn, got off either free or with the lightest of sentences. Even the assassins, if they were of the Right and their victims democrats, were leniently treated by the courts or, as often happened, helped to escape from the custody of the courts by Army officers and right-wing extremists.
And so the mild Socialists, aided by the democrats and the Catholic Centrists, were left to carry on the Republic, which tottered from its birth. They bore the hatred, the abuse and sometimes the bullets of their opponents, who grew in number and in resolve. “In the heart of the people,” cried Oswald Spengler, who had skyrocketed to fame with his book The Decline of the West, “the Weimar Constitution is already doomed.” Down in Bavaria the young firebrand Adolf Hitler grasped the strength of the new nationalist, antidemocratic, antirepublican tide. He began to ride it.
He was greatly aided by the course of events, two in particular: the fall of the mark and the French occupation of the Ruhr. The mark, as we have seen, had begun to slide in 1921, when it dropped to 75 to the dollar; the next year it fell to 400 and by the beginning of 1923 to 7,000. Already in the fall of 1922 the German government had asked the Allies to grant a moratorium on reparation payments. This the French government of Poincaré had bluntly refused. When Germany defaulted in deliveries of timber, the hardheaded French Premier, who had been the wartime President of France, ordered French troops to occupy the Ruhr. The industrial heart of Germany, which, after the loss of Upper Silesia to Poland, furnished the Reich with four fifths of its coal and steel production, was cut off from the rest of the country.
This paralyzing blow to Germany’s economy united the people momentarily as they had not been united since 1914. The workers of the Ruhr declared a general strike and received financial support from the government in Berlin, which called for a campaign of passive resistance. With the help of the Army, sabotage and guerrilla warfare were organized. The French countered with arrests, deportations and even death sentences. But not a wheel in the Ruhr turned.
The strangulation of Germany’s economy hastened the final plunge of the mark. On the occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923, it fell to 18,000 to the dollar; by July 1 it had dropped to 160,000; by August 1 to a million. By November, when Hitler thought his hour had struck, it took four billion marks to buy a dollar, and thereafter the figures became trillions. German currency had become utterly worthless. Purchasing power of salaries and wages was reduced to zero. The life savings of the middle classes and the working classes were wiped out. But something even more important was destroyed: the faith of the people in the economic structure of German society. What good were the standards and practices of such a society, which encouraged savings and investment and solemnly promised a safe return from them and then defaulted? Was this not a fraud upon the people?
And was not the democratic Republic, which had surrendered to the enemy and accepted the burden of reparations, to blame for the disaster? Unfortunately for its survival, the Republic did bear a responsibility. The inflation could have been halted by merely balancing the budget—a difficult but not impossible feat. Adequate taxation might have achieved this, but the new government did not dare to tax adequately. After all, the cost of the war—164 billion marks—had been met not even in part by direct taxation but 93 billions of it by war loans, 29 billions out of Treasury bills and the rest by increasing the issue of paper money. Instead of drastically raising taxes on those who could pay, the republican government actually reduced them in 1921.
From then on, goaded by the big industrialists and landlords, who stood to gain though the masses of the people were financially ruined, the government deliberately let the mark tumble in order to free the State of its public debts, to escape from paying reparations and to sabotage the French in the Ruhr. Moreover, the destruction of the currency enabled German heavy industry to wipe out its indebtedness by refunding its obligations in worthless marks. The General Staff, disguised as the “Truppenamt” (Office of Troops) to evade the peace treaty which supposedly had outlawed it, took notice that the fall of the mark wiped out the war debts and thus left Germany financially unencumbered for a new war.
The masses of the people, however, did not realize how much the industrial tycoons, the Army and the State were benefiting from the ruin of the currency. All they knew was that a large bank account could not buy a straggly bunch of carrots, a half peck of potatoes, a few ounces of sugar, a pound of flour. They knew that as individuals they were bankrupt. And they knew hunger when it gnawed at them, as it did daily. In their misery and hopelessness they made the Republic the scapegoat for all that had happened.
Such times were heaven-sent for Adolf Hitler.