The Weimar Republic
by Dr Robert Pearce
St Martin's College, Lancaster
The nature of the topic
The Weimar Republic sprang from the ashes of
Germany's defeat in the First World War and, in sense, never fully recovered
from the circumstances of its birth. It ended when Adolf Hitler achieved
dictatorial powers, replacing Weimar democracy with Nazi totalitarianism. Yet we
must be careful not to see the Republic as merely an interlude, as though it
were doomed from the start, the course of events preordained and the rise of
Hitler inevitable. In short, we must attempt to study the Weimar Republic 'from
the inside' or 'in its own terms', tracing its connections with the Second Reich
(of Kaiser Wilhelm II) and the Third Reich (of Hitler) but also giving due
weight to the failures and achievements of the Republic and to the contingent
factors which left the future open to different possibilities.
The vital first steps
The first thing is to divide the period into
manageable sub-divisions and to gain a good knowledge of issues and events:
a. Examine the years 1918-23, in
particular the ending of the war, the formation of the Republic, the impact
of Versailles, the uprisings and putsches, and the economic and financial
problems of this immensely important, but immensely complicated, period.
Avoid getting bogged down in too much detail. Instead, focus on the
difficulties facing the Republic and on the reasons for its survival.
b. Next, assess the 'golden years' of
Weimar, 1924-9. Note the improvements and successes, especially in foreign
affairs and economic matters, but also that some of the successes were more
apparent than real. Also, be aware of the new climate of moral and artistic
experimentation (some called it decadence) in Berlin and elsewhere. The key
figure of these years is Gustav Stresemann. Estimate how important his role
was. You should also examine the results of the 1928 Reichstag elections for
the light they throw on Weimar's achievements and stability.
c. The period 1929-33 saw continual crises
for the Republic. Focus on the economic problems (compiling statistics for
falling output and rising unemployment) and on the failure of politicians
and parties to achieve stability in government. Construct a narrative from
the splitting of the Grand Coalition in March 1930 to the passing of the
Enabling Bill in March 1933.
a. Why did so many Germans believe that
their country had been 'stabbed in the back' by Weimar's politicians?
b. How can we best explain the failures of
the Spartacist rising, the Kapp putsch and Hitler's Munich putsch? Did the
left and right negate each other?
c. Account for the hyperinflation of
Germany's currency by 1923 and for the stability of the new mark after 1924.
d. How important were the foreign policy
successes achieved when Stresemann was Germany's foreign minister? What
grievances remained from the Versailles settlement?
e. How significant were improvements in
Germany's economic performance in 1924-8? Did all share equally in renewed
f. Why were there so many political
parties during the Weimar Republic?
g. Why was no party, or no coalition, able
to achieve a majority in the Reichstag in Weimar's final years?
h. By what means did Hitler come to power
a. Why were so many Germans convinced that
it was patriotic to oppose the Weimar Republic?
b. Were the problems facing Germany in
1919-23 less or more severe than those afflicting other European countries
at the same time, for instance Italy?
c. How popular a figure was Stresemann
with the mass of the German people?
d. Did Stresemann pursue a peaceful
foreign policy out of political principle or as a matter of tactics?
e. Estimate how severe the depression was
in Germany after 1929. In particular, what percentage of the German
workforce was unemployed? Compare Germany's economic problems with those
f. Why did the German Social Democrats and
Communists, both on the left, not work together during the crises of
g. Which groups of voters supported the
h. Had democracy in Germany ceased to
function by the early 1930s? Was there any hope that the Weimar Republic
might survive as a democracy?
i. To what extent did Hitler come to power
democratically, in accordance with the rules and practices of the Weimar
Republic; and to what extent did he flout the law of the land?
READING SUGGESTIONS: Excellent starting points
are provided by Edgar Feuchtwanger, Germany 1916-1941 (Sempringham,
1997), Ruth Henig, The Weimar Republic 1919-1933 (Routledge, 1998), and
Geoff Layton, From Bismarck to Hitler: Germany 1890-1933 (Hodder &
Stoughton, 2nd edition, 2002). Much more detailed, but highly stimulating, is
Eberhard Kolb, The Weimar Republic (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2005).