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Teodor Nicula-Golovei

Clare College, 01.11.2017

‘The real problem with the Weimar Republic was that there were too few German republicans.’
Discuss.

Any modern commentary of the emergence, unfolding, and collapse of the Weimar Republic needs
to take into consideration the plurality of aspects that shaped historical development within and
beyond the period in question: not only regarding the political realm, but also the Alltagsgeschichte,
not only the economic crises, but also the socio-demographic, psychological and identity issues. A
question of whether there were enough German republicans or not is, hence, less appropriate when
read as one awaiting a definitive answer than as one that encourages analysis of how and why
popular support for the republic rose and fell from 1919 to 1932, what factors caused the
disorientation about the legitimacy of the new regime and which ones of those most contributed to
its demise. Also, it is important to make a distinction between the downfall of the Republic and the
rise of National Socialism and Hitler as an individual to power. As one-sided as the given statement
could seem, it is partly true and relies on a thorough consideration of the subject. On the one hand,
it shifts the focus away from the contribution of the NSDAP to the decline of the republic. On the
other hand, it seeks to give a name to the cumulated outcome of all the numerous crises that
crossed Germany during the period of the Republic. While the necessity to catalogue history in
cause-effect chains justifies this attempt, it can also be misleading if taken out of the context of a
detailed analysis of the period, especially because of the way it is phrased. This essay will attempt to
emphasize that all the simultaneous events that led to the wider effect of the lack of popular
support for the republic were "real problems" and to provide this statement with the context on
which it is based. Thus, we can avoid deterministic approaches to the history of the Weimar Republic
and attempt to reach a more nuanced, multi-causal explanation for the demise of the democratic
regime. Also, it will become apparent that a better description of the main facilitator of the
republic’s decline is a disorientation of popular opinion about the viability of democracy, a sort of
Gleichgültigkeit that allowed those in power to plan the future of the Weimar Republic on their own.

A Weltanshauung that inclined towards quick and radical change at the cost of the disappearance of
the Weimar Republic as a system was already widespread among public opinion before hopes of
change were directed towards National Socialism and the image of Hitler. One could argue that
Hitler's charisma eventually managed to instil a popular enthusiasm for politics that the republic
could not, but that was just the tip of the iceberg of what represented the burdens on shoulders of
the Republic. As important as it is not to give Hitler the credit for the fall of the Weimar Republic, it is
also crucial to see that the lack of republican support increased progressively, that it was not the
exclusive cause of the collapse of the system, and that it was not a given condition right from the
outset. Such an assumption as the latter would misleadingly project an image of artificiality onto the
entire project of the Weimar Republic. In fact, as John Hiden points out, the change of regime was a
natural step after the end of the Great War and there was potential for positive development when
the Weimar Republic was first created. Other European democracies, such as Great Britain and
France, survived the waves of left and right-wing radical heat that were rising in other European
countries after the war and Germany, although on the losing side, had its chances to take the same
path. However, one needs to consider here that, even if the German republic was not “’doomed
from birth’ in the very obvious sense that – in contrast to 1945 – it was neither invaded nor
partitioned”1, it was “born out of national defeat” after the Versailles Dictat, as it came to be
referred to. The effects of this kind of birth were not immediately visible, because there had yet to
emerge a voice to blame the Weimar Republic itself for the shameful peace treaty. Revanchist

1
John Hiden, Republican and Fascist Germany: Themes and Variations in the History of Weimar and the Third
Reich, 1918-1945 (London: Longman, 1996), p. 2.
Teodor Nicula-Golovei
Clare College, 01.11.2017

feelings only sprang out in 1929-1930 as the international and political crisis set in and after older
nationalist desires to make Germany a great power again had resurfaced. Although the demise of
the Weimar Republic was not inevitable at the start and democracy could have been turned into a
viable project under different circumstances, several factors concurred and impeded a positive
development of the democratic regime. The progressive degradation of republican support was an
ongoing process after the Versailles pact that had a multitude of causes and that ultimately led to
the fall of the republic, fate which National Socialism and Hitler himself then sealed.

One of the Weimar crises that received extensive amounts of attention in historiography was the
economic one. The reason it is so crucial is that it represented a constant damaging factor that
altered every aspect of the Weimar Republic from political and social life to popular opinion and
mentalities, in a time when it coincided with a structural crisis, as well as domestic and external
burdens. A brief outline of the economic crises that manifested themselves in Germany in the
Weimar period will provide the backdrop for further explorations of their effects in subsequent
paragraphs. Beginning with the first economic crisis of 1926, production in Germany fell
dramatically. The capitalist system was expected to break down altogether as both the capital-goods
and consumer-goods sectors were affected early. Wages fell greatly and despite simultaneous
decreases in prices, real wages still dropped substantially. Mass unemployment was, however, the
greatest issue: 10% in 1926 and it also remained high afterwards, reaching a peak in 1932, with
29.9%. All layers of German society were affected by the depression of 1929 and a lack of security
characterised the entire German society: white-collar public employees, the unemployed, their
families, small shopkeepers, tradesmen and agricultural workers. The welfare state was unable to
face such large-scale drops in quality of life. With two economic crises in less than a decade which
was far from being at least politically or socially stable, the Germans saw their catastrophic situation
in comparison with the certainties that happened to exist during the old system as a by-product of
the republic. It is true that economic crisis alone could not have destabilised the Weimar Republic
completely and did not make disaster a pre-determined ending, but it greatly reduced the republic’s
options. In conjunction with social and political modernisation, which came naturally, but in the least
favourable circumstances, it was nonetheless one of the major factors that led to the demise of
democracy.

The economic instability and crises had very restricting implications on the freedom of manoeuvre
that the German political parties had. Not at all helping the German democracy find a balance
throughout the period, economic difficulties promoted a lack of trust in the viability of a democratic
regime among the German population. What are thought to be the stabilisation years of the
republic, 1924 to the world economic crash of 1929, was actually characterised by a patchwork
attempt by the moderate parties to come to terms with each other in order to withstand pressure
from the extremes. The fact that the number of splinter parties, each of which responded to the
demands of specific groups of people, was large, made projects such as the Great Coalition of 1923
look very artificial. Coalitions were doomed to instability because of the hardly reconcilable
differences between the parties that formed them, often pertaining to completely different sides of
the political spectrum. The blame is often put on the inability of the liberal parties DDP and DVP to
unite under a common ideology and become a powerful liberal and pro-democratic entity. With the
advantage of hindsight, this seems to be a natural question, but at the time gathering large masses
under the umbrella of a general ideology was difficult given the instability of everyday life that
characterised the German human experience then. The left was not very firm either. Although the
SPD dominated the elections as early as the 1920 elections and rose in popularity until 1928, when
they won a total of 153 deputies, they neither benefited from an economic position from which to
Teodor Nicula-Golovei
Clare College, 01.11.2017

create a sense of stability, nor were they decided whether to opt for being a “broad-based party,
sharing in government and attracting support across class boundaries, or to cleave for a course of
strictly socialist opposition”. In short, the general economic and social situation, internal tensions
between party members, as well as tensions between the centre-right and centre-left parties as they
began to decline, rendered the moderate parties incapable to prove the long-term importance of
preserving the republic and maintain a functional democratic political system. This situation was
decisive for the fate of a republic which, instead of providing a platform for further political debates,
was itself put into question and was fighting for its own legitimacy. The inability of pro-republican
parties to prioritise the legitimation of the system itself over short-term class-related issues was one
of the reasons why “the Weimar Republic never evaded that initial stage”2.

Economic difficulties, especially unemployment, as well as certain political events – such as the 1925
election of 78-year-old Paul von Hindenburg as president of the German Reich – also had an impact
on young people’s mentality and their goals in life, which in turn affected the life of the Weimar
Republic. To begin with the latter, the agreement of the right to support Hindenburg, former
commander of the German military during the second half of the Great War and a statesman in the
Wilhelmine era, was damaging for the cause of the democratic system of the Republic. The result
was narrow (14.6 to 13.7 million) and the republic could still count on substantial popular support,
but subsequent political and economic events would further promote the idea of authoritarianism.
Hindenburg actively sought to transform the position of the Reich President in a powerful political
entity and to create conditions for the eventual rewriting of the constitution in favour of an eventual
authoritarian lead. This way, authoritarian features of the Weimar political life were strengthened, in
detriment of democracy. Economic circumstances would lead to a similar result. the German welfare
state could not meet the demands of large masses of unemployed people and Peukert shows how
this situation oriented many young people to undervalue the importance of a democratic regime
and sympathise with the extremes3. Because of the long periods of unemployment, welfare
insurances could not support the young unemployed whose social status fell and whose income
were reduced to subsistence levels that the local welfare services could provide. Hope for a better
future was soon lost, as well as the sense of being useful, which made them attach themselves to
seemingly dynamic political movements that gave hopes of change through revolution. In 1932 there
were 5.6 million unemployed Germans, and these were the recruiting base for radical parties that
promoted revolution from the bottom (the unemployed were already at the bottom) and an
emphasis of the young over the elderly. These political and economic realities of Weimar life were
factors of uncertainty. Hoping less and less that the republic would be able to foster a change for the
better, modern radicalism began to be seen as a way to combine immediate change, hopefully for
the better, as well as a carrier of old Wilhelmine nationalist great-power ideals. On the background
of popular disorientation about the colour of their views, and relatively confident that the short-
term-oriented majority would not object to the rise of a radical party, the old elites had free hand to
enact the Machtübergebung.

To conclude, the real problem with the Weimar Republic was that it had to face multiple major crises
at the same time. None of them would have had the power to lead to the demise of the republic on
its own, but the simultaneity of crises at multiple levels had and did create the premises for disaster.
Economically, the Great Depression was as critical for Germany as it was for the United States, if not
even worse because of the war reparations. Politically, the many divided pro-republican parties were

2
Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity; Translated by Richard Deveson. (New
York: Hill and Wang, 2001), p. 216.
3
Peukert, p. 249 onwards.
Teodor Nicula-Golovei
Clare College, 01.11.2017

always under pressure from radical parties on the left (KPD) and the right (NSDAP) side of the
spectrum, as well as under popular pressure to solve the economic instability as fast as possible. The
failure to stand up to these tasks, as well as the inability to unite the views of the many pro-
republican parties under a common goal that would have stabilised political life and legitimised
democracy in the eye of the people led to a diminution of popular trust in the viability of the regime.
The 1925 election of Hindenburg as (president of the republic) further damaged the image of the
republic, as it came to be associated with authoritarian tendencies of Wilhelmine reminiscence.
Economic uncertainty and the visible disorientation of democratic party politics gave many other
people little option than to sympathise with whoever gave hopes of change and a way out of the
critical situation. Popular opinion – which was neither devoted to the democratic republic, nor to
radical ideals per se – was not as decisive in bringing the NSDAP to power as were the conservative,
authoritarian-inclined politicians who were in power in 1932. However, people’s lack of devotion to
any other ideal than immediate change or, in other words, their political disorientation did facilitate
the handing-over of power to the NSDAP and, consequently, the change of regime under the
guidance of an increasingly powerful Hitler.

Bibliography
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