The Weimar Republic
|Information about this image can be found here.||This picture is from Olga's Gallery.|
The Weimar Republic (named after the capital of Germany at the time) was a tumultous period in Germany's history. It was marked by economic, political, and social upheaval. World War I was responsible for many disquieting changes in German society, the full scope of which were not apparent until the 1920s. One example was that of the changing role of women. With the death of so many of Germany's young men during the war, legions of women were faced with the prospect of never marrying. These women began taking jobs as secretaries, sales clerks, and factory work, all of which were traditionally considered "men's work," to support themselves. Since male unemployment was rife during the interwar period, resentment grew for single working women, who were perceived as taking away jobs from men with families. Many veterans had difficulty relating to these "new women." The wives and girlfriends that they left behind during the war did not understand their experiences and were larely uninterested in doing so. Such men tried to escape the domestic sphere and recreate the fraternity of the front by joining paramiliary groups, like the Nazi SA (Stormtrooper) division. Men and women alike were fearful that changing gender roles and the alienation between the sexes would lead to a societal breakdown.
The Bauhaus building (1925-1926) in Dressau exhibits the modern architectural style of the same name that was created during the Weimar Republic.
This period was also distinguished by the development of a flourishing avante-guarde artistic culture. Modern artistic styles, such as futurism, challenged the traditional definition of art and aesthetics. Some of the finest German authors were active during the Weimar Republic, including Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, and Hermann Hesse. Composers such as Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg astonished the world with their forays into atonal and dissonant music. The UFA movie studio was responsible for some of the most groundbreaking cinema of the silent era, including Metropolis, The Blue Angel, and The Holy Mountain. However, the average German viewed this artistic ferment with dismay. Traditional conservatives proclaimed it to be an erosion of morality, fascists interpreted it as evidence of the pernacious influence of Jewish culture, and the communists condemned it as bougeouis decadence. The Weimar artistic culture would come to an abrupt end when the Nazis came to power; many artists, film-makers, and musicians fled Germany to avoid persecution and censorship.
After Germany's loss in World War I, the country was burdened with massive war debts which crippled its ability to regain its economic foothold. Although 1924 to 1929 were fairly stable, conditions worsened during the Great Depression. There were several reasons for this occurrence. First, the international markets had yet to return to their pre-war levels. Every country in Europe was negatively impacted in some way by this, but Germany, with its reparation debts, experienced a harsher blow. Second, there was also an agricultural depression as well as an industrial depression. Farming in the East Elbe region (a major farming area) had not modernized; this meant that yield was lower, prices were higher, and the product crops uncompetitive on the domestic and international markets. This radicalized not just farmers, but the entire rural sector. Third, the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles diverted resources from economic development. Fourth, a reluctance for people to spend money in a difficult economy made growth difficult in the consumer sector. These reasons, coupled with the effects of hyper-inflation (the decreased value of money) effectively wiped out the savings of millions of people.
The Cabinent of Dr. Calagari is an example of the Expressionist style that typified German cinema during the Weimar period.
The political instability of the Weimar era did not help the economic situation. Although a parlimentary government was established in Germany following the end of World War I, there was very little support for such a system among the German citizenry. Most German, regardless of their political affliation, believed that the Weimar government was illegitimate. Democracy was considered a foreign imposition that was incompatible with the "German spirit" and unable to improve the material or spiritual welfare of the nation. Members of the Reichstag (the German parliament) reflected this cyncism towards the democratic process by undermining democracy from within; most of the political parties had the aim of replacing the republic with another form of government, whether it be Soviet-style communism or a restoration of the monarchy. Although there were about two dozen political parties in the Weimar Republic (the name given to the democracy that existed from 1919-1933), most fell into six main categories:
- Traditional conservatives - This group was primarily composed of the old Junker class (the Prussian landed nobility) and members of the middle class. Traditional conservatives disliked the changes that occurred in German society after World War I (specifically the rise of communism and socialism, changing morality, and shifting sex roles) and wanted to restore society to the way it was before the war. They supported the restoration of the monarchy as well as the privileges of the traditional aristocracy. Examples of traditional conservative parties included the German National People's Party, the German Conservative Party, and the Christian Social Party.
- Fascists - Fascism is a political system characterized by authoritarianism, corporatism, extreme nationalism, and militarism. As with communism, fascism is grounded in a planned economy, though there is room for more private enterprise under the latter than the former. Fascism is an anti-individualist ideology, in which the interests of the race or nation are above thoe of the individual. The redemptive powers of violence and war are a key part of fascist ideology. The most noteworthy of the German fascist parties was the National Socialist Workers Party (the Nazis).
- Catholics - Since Catholics were often persecuted by the Protestant majority, the former established their own political parties to protect their interests. The largest was the Catholic Center Party. Catholic parties were socially conservative, but the voters themselves had diverse views of how society should be organized; some Catholic voters favored a return to the monarchy, while others desired a corporotist state that followed Catholic social teachings.
- Classical Liberals - Classical liberals were in favor of the Enlightenment-era values espoused by philosophers such as John Locke. They believed in constitutionalism, universal male sufferage, representational government, and free speech. Consequently, classical liberals welcomed the development of the Weimar Republic as a chance to create a democratic Germany. The Liberal parties were heavily Jewish, gaining 75 percent of the Jewish electorate. However, as the economy worsened and political turmoil increased, the number of classical liberals dwindled. Classical liberal parties included the German Democratic Party, the National Liberal Party, and the German People's Party.
- Socialists - Socialism is a political economic system in which means of production are owned by the people. In practice, this usually means public ownership of certain key industries, the creation of government welfare programs, or the forming of worker co-ops. The Social Democrat Party was the largest political group in the Weimar Republic and the dominant party in the Reichstag. Members of the party ranged from classical liberals who favored a moderate welfare state to violent revolutionaries who were indistinguishable from communists.
- Communists - Communism is a political economic system whose aim is to create a classless, stateless society, in which goods are held in common. Religion, private property, and the traditional family structure are to be abolished in the future communist society. To reach this utopia, communists believed that a violent revolution was necesssary to destroy the remnants of the old capitalist order. Although the Communist Party of Germany was directly controlled by the Soviet Union, there was an anti-Russian party known as the Communist Party Opposition.
Despite the large number of parties in the Weimar political system, the one commonality was the fact that (with the exception of the classical liberals and some of the socialists) none of them believed that the government was legitimate. Fights between paramilitary groups affiliated with the Communists and the Nazis were common, particularly in major cities like Berlin and Munich. These fights ranged from beer house brawls to major street battles involving machine guns and homemade grenades. Rebellions against local, regional, and national governments were common, the most famous being the failed Beer House Putsch committed by the Nazis and the brief establishment of a Soviet-styled communist state in the state of Bavaria by the Sparticists, an independent communist party not affiliated with Russia.
Adding to the instability was the presence of Freikorps, private militias comprised of demobilized war veterans. These paramilitary groups attacked communists, socialists, Jews, and classical liberals - the groups considered responsible for Germany's loss in World War I. Communist leaders Rosa Luxemborg and Karl Liebknecht were perhaps the two most well-known victims of Freikorps violence. It was not unusual for local, regional, and national governments to hire Freikorps units to eliminate potential threats. The political climate became so violent, that by the end of the Weimar era almost every political party had a private militia to protect itself against rival organizations.
As the political and economic situation deteriorated throughout the 1920s and continued to decline during the Great Depression, more Germans began to support extremist political parties, believing that their radical solutions would be preferable to the miserable status quo. Without the economic and political turmoil of the Weimar era, Nazism would not have been considered a feasible political ideology.
Burleigh, Michael. The Third Reich: A New History. Hill and Wang: New York, 2000.
Blackbourn, David. The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany. Oxford University Press: New York, 1998.
Grosz, George. The Eclipse of the Sun. 1926. Heckscher Museum, Huntington. Olga's Gallery Home Page. http://www.abcgallery.com/G/grosz/grosz15.html (accessed July 11, 2008).
Peukert, Detlev J.K. The Weimar Republic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.