Part 2 of Between the World Wars
A Political Education Snippet
The Weimar Republic was an experiment with democracy that ultimately ended in one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes known to world history. Nicknamed after the German city wherein its first constitutional assembly was held, the Weimar Republic emerged in 1918 from the chaotic fallout of World War I. It was fatally unraveled on January 30, 1933, with the appointment of Adolph Hitler to Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg. To many the Republic serves as an object lesson of the volatility of young democracies and the dangers of unchecked political radicalism.
Another story of the Republic is the internecine conflict of the German left. On one side are the moderate leftists and liberals who early on were tasked with leading and stabilizing a country after a lost war and ongoing political revolution. On the other hand are the radical leftists who spurred the revolution on and refused a simple return to normalcy. In the background of the battle between radicals, leftists, and liberals was a festering anti-democratic, revolutionary far right that was constantly allowed room to grow by sympathetic actors within Germany’s institutions. It is also a story of how these institutions eventually fell victim to the reactionaries they cultivated.
The end of World War I left a European continent fraught with societal upheaval and revolution. In few places was this more true than in Germany. With the war effort becoming increasingly desperate, political dissidents were emboldened by the lack of leadership and deteriorating economic conditions. A democratic revolution had been burgeoning in the streets as the monarch, Kaiser Wilhelm II struggled to hold his empire together. Eventually the country’s leaders, so thoroughly racked by the wages of war, were forced to sue for peace on November 11, 1918. The Kaiser had abdicated the throne only two days before. On the day of his abdication, a member of the Reichstag declared the “German Republic” to be born. The November Revolution had begun.
The dissolution of the monarchy created a pressing need for new leadership. As the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) had been the largest political party in the Reichstag parliament dating back to the 1890s, it was natural that this party would facilitate the beginnings of this new democratic order. The SPD brought this new leadership to the country through an ad hoc deliberative body called the Council of People’s Deputies, located in Berlin. The party itself, however, had recently fractured over the issue of funding the war effort. In 1917, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht (son of Wilhelm Liebknecht, one of the founders of the original Social Democratic Party), formed a splinter party within the SPD that would go on to become the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), which would constitute the main organized left opposition to the SPD throughout Weimar Germany. Those who remained in the SPD were markedly more conservative and opposed to the radicalism of the communist party. Chief among the more moderate political figures was the SPD’s leader, Friedrich Ebert, who would be elected as the first president of the new German Republic on February 11, 1919, and serve in the role until his death from a long-fought illness on February 28, 1925.
Though the SPD’s members were quite moderate relative to the KPD, they still put forth an impressively progressive agenda as they took power. The SPD ushered in a slew of far-reaching reforms, which included ratifying women’s suffrage, opening Germany’s elite academic institutions to Jewish scholars, and implementing an unemployment insurance system, among other significant policies.
Aside from introducing these liberal reforms, Ebert’s main priority as de facto national leader after the Kaiser’s abdication, and later officially as the elected German president, was to bring a sense of order to a country that was bursting at the seams with revolutionary energy. In setting about this task, Ebert adopted a governing strategy of aligning with the right and far right which would have ripple effects throughout the short life of the Republic. Though a large share of the revolutionary activity was being driven by the far right, Ebert found himself in a position where the far left was consistently the easier target. Aside from the Reichstag, the institutional power structures that Ebert and the SPD had to work with, from the military to wealthy elites, were holdovers from the monarchical system who were sympathetic to the grievances of the far right.
Perhaps the most powerful of these grievances was the “stabbed in the back” narrative around the country’s defeat in the Great War. During the war, the Kaiser’s propaganda made it seem as though victory was always just around the corner. So, when defeat did come, and rather swiftly, towards the end of 1918, the message spread that the army had been well-suited to win the war but was “stabbed in the back” internally by revolutionaries, cowards, and traitors who did not support the war effort or truly support Germany. This narrative bred extreme hostility towards leftists and an appetite from some institutional players to punish the left for their perceived lack of fealty to the nation. This sentiment was mixed with a general distrust of democracy and weariness towards the liberalism of the November Revolution. At the same time, many on the left resented the SPD for voting to fund the war effort and had disdain for the party’s conciliatory political approach. These dynamics led to a situation where it was often politically expedient for Ebert to align with the institutionally more powerful right wing against the left in an attempt to restore order in the country.
Spartacist Uprising and Kapp Putsch
Examining the contrast in Ebert and the SPD’s handling of two distinct uprisings, one on the left, the other on the right, best illustrates this adopted policy of right wing appeasement. The first is Ebert’s brutal crackdown of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919. The Spartacist Uprising was formulated by the KPD and led in part by two familiar characters, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, among several other revolutionaries. Ebert responded by sending in not only the official German Army, but also the Freikorps unit. The Freikorps was an irregular arm of the military which was composed of veterans and soldiers sent home from the front, akin to the United States National Guard. However, the Freikorps behaved more as a far right paramilitary and had a penchant for street violence. The Freikorps was employed by Ebert on several occasions to crush leftist uprisings in the early tumultuous years of the Republic. The unit also likely orchestrated the extrajudicial executions of Luxemburg and Liebknecht during the Spartacist revolt.
On the opposite extreme, Ebert’s response to the Kapp Putsch on March 13, 1920, demonstrates his policy of leniency towards right wing insurrectionists. This attempted coup d’état was led by Wolfgang Kapp, a right wing civil servant, and culminated in the temporary occupation of Berlin. Kapp was surprisingly successful in his execution of the putsch (typically defined as a coup that relies on suddenness and speed). His success was due in large part to the cooperation of high ranking military and police officials. Ebert had ordered the German Army and Freikorps to crush this rebellion (at least the Freikorps soldiers who were not actively involved in perpetrating it) but the military completely refused his orders. Ultimately, the putsch was defeated by the left’s organization of mass strikes and civil disobedience that brought the city of Berlin to a standstill.
After losing this war of attrition with Berlin’s leftist organizations, Kapp and his conspirators were allowed easy passage to flee any prosecution for their actions, receiving passports from their connections with police. The extent of cooperation between the insurrectionists and the upper officials of the military and police was never fully disclosed or reckoned with. Most of the Freikorps and German Army insurrectionists who joined the coup, subsequently fired upon and killed civilians, and agitated for the fall of the Republic, were never punished or ousted from their positions. To add insult to injury, Ebert again sent in the Freikorps to crush a leftist revolt, the Ruhr Uprising, which was generated in response to government’s feckless handling of the Kapp Putsch.
Ebert and the SPD’s policy of ignoring the open partisanship of the military and other institutional actors led to deep fractures among the left. The KPD and other radicals increasingly deemed the SPD to be just as antithetical to their cause as the monarchists and reactionary right. The pattern of leftists being brutally repressed while right wingers escaped any serious consequences for their actions would repeat itself throughout the duration of the Republic. The government’s timid response to Hitler’s Munich Putsch of 1923 is emblematic of this feature of Weimar politics. Hitler was no one of great significance at the time. His only long-term form of employment after his military discharge was as a political education officer for the military. Essentially, his job was to inculcate civic pride in his fellow discharged soldiers and prevent them from becoming communist sympathizers. That the Hitler of 1923 could attempt to overthrow the government and then go on to run for president only nine years later shows how broken the system was, and how easily every sin of the right was forgiven by those with power.
The Great Depression
In a bitter twist of fate, the former foreign minister who had provided such strong leadership to Germany throughout the 1920s, Gustav Stresemann of the German People’s Party, died suddenly of a heart attack only twenty-six days before the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Stresemann had been instrumental in helping guide Germany through the triumvirate crises of hyperinflation, the invasion of Germany’s Ruhr district by France and Belgium, and seemingly insurmountable war reparation payments. His prudence would be sorely missed as Germany plunged into the Great Depression and right wing fanaticism became pervasive. The effects of the economic chaos on the country’s political radicalization are perhaps most clearly expressed by the results of the 1928 and 1930 federal elections. In 1928, moderate parties such as the SPD (29%), Centre Party (12%), and German People’s Party (8%), garnered a majority of the votes. The National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), known colloquially as the “Nazis,” garnered less than 3% of the vote. However, by the 1930 election on September 14, the Nazis had increased their share to 18% of the vote, second only to the SPD’s 21%.
As the economic turmoil of the Great Depression brought more instability to the Republic, the Reichstag parliament floundered. Governing coalitions were nowhere to be found as the country desperately needed a unified course. With the diminution of the more moderate parties and the Nazi’s impressive 18% share of the vote, the KPD also became a stronger presence in the Reichstag. In 1930, the party received 13% of the vote, coming in third place and making them the largest communist party in Europe outside of the Soviet Union. The divergent visions and fraught history between the communist KPD party and the moderates of the SPD rendered them unable to coalesce, even against the imminently rising threat of the Nazis.
In lieu of a functioning parliament, Chancellor Heinrich Bruning, a conservative from Germany’s Centre Party, increasingly ruled by decree pursuant to the Enabling Act, which gave near unrestricted authority to the Chancellor when approved by a super-majority in the Reichstag. In 1930, this emergency device was used five times. By the end of 1931, Bruning had issued forty decrees, effectively making it the standard operating procedure of German government. In a few short years, this vehicle of policy-making would have dire consequences for the survival of the Republic.
The Last Chancellor
Amid this chaos, the Nazi party’s popularity only grew—as did its waves of street violence and intimidation tactics against the other parties. In 1932, Hitler ran for president but was defeated by the incumbent President Hindenburg. Hindenburg was a retired general, a war hero, and beloved by much of Germany and by the conservative establishment in particular. Though Hindenburg won by a fairly comfortable margin (53% to Hitler’s 37%), the Nazis were by no means deterred. With Hindenburg’s victory, there was yet another example of the German leadership betraying the left in favor of far right forces who despised the Weimar Republic’s very existence.
Perceiving the existential threat of a Hitler presidency, the SPD and other left organizations rallied behind Hindenburg and encouraged their party members to support him in the 1932 election. The main exception to this support was, naturally, the KPD. Rather than endorse Hindenburg’s re-election, the communists decided to run their own candidate, Ernst Thalmann. Thalmann, as leader of the KPD, had spent the past several years denouncing the SPD as the real opponent of the workers while opposing their agenda in the Reichstag. He would refer to the SPD as “social fascists” and had even suggested that a Nazi regime may be the quickest path to revolution. These irreconcilable rifts between the SPD and KPD unfortunately limited each party’s effectiveness when they were most needed. Given the history of the SPD’s ruthless treatment of the KPD and other leftists, it is sadly understandable why these two groups could not come together. This was in addition to the fact that the Comintern was exercising a great deal of control over the KPD and was strongly opposed to the SPD and social democracy in general.
But despite the intra-partisan conflict on the left and Thalmann’s decision to seek the presidency, Hindenburg still prevailed in the presidential election against Hitler. While there was disagreement about whether the SPD’s endorsement was decisive in Hindenburg’s victory, there was no doubt that the party’s support played a significant role. However, rather than acknowledge the SPD with cabinet seats and shared power, Hindenburg began making considerable concessions to the Nazis, further legitimizing them as a political force. Once again, the left was abandoned by those in power in the Republic.
By the July 1932 federal election, the Nazis gained a staggering 37% of the vote, nearly doubling the SPD’s second-place share of 21%. Some political figures at the time suggested that the Nazis were mostly benefiting by being seen as “outsiders.” The Nazi party was able to endlessly criticize because its members had never been tasked with coalition building in the Chancellorship and had been otherwise kept out of the administration of government.
Kurt von Schleicher, who would serve as the last Chancellor before Hitler assumed the office, was a proponent of this strategy for containing the Nazis. Schleicher believed that Hitler would be “tamed” by the responsibility of power. Schleicher spent much of his time courting the favor of the Nazis while trying to make them seem more palatable to Germany’s conservative establishment. By the end of 1932, the Nazis had gained so much popular support and Hitler had become so feared that much of the right wing establishment and industrial elites began to side with Schleicher’s view. Thus began the push for President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor. After months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, schemes, and failed plots, Hindenburg would do exactly that on January 30, 1933.
In the wake of Hitler’s appointment to Chancellor, the KPD’s Ernst Thalmann attempted to organize a massive general strike with the cooperation of the SPD. As a final disappointment of this incessantly strained relationship, negotiations between the parties broke down and no plan was reached on how to oust Hitler. In February of that year, the Nazis used the Reichstag Fire as a pretense to begin eliminating all political parties or figures who would stand in their way to absolute power. The Nazis would use this incident to remove all KPD legislators from the Reichstag, giving Hitler the super-majority he needed to pass the Enabling Act and rule by decree. By March 3rd, Thalmann would be arrested and imprisoned until his execution in the Buchenwald concentration camp on August 18, 1944.
- David Winner, “How the Left Enabled Fascism,” New Statesman, Oct 3, 2018.
- James Sheehan, “How and Why Democracies Fail: The Fall of Weimar Germany,” Encina Hall, Stanford University 2013 (lecture).
- John Simkin, “Ernst Thalmann,” Spartacus Educational, September 1997 (updated January 2020).
- Larry E Jones, “Hitler versus Hindenburg: The 1932 Elections and the End of the Weimar Republic,” New Books Network, Oct 8, 2018 (podcast).
- Rob Sewell, “The German Revolution of 1923,” Socialist Appeal, Jul 23, 2013.
- Shirer, William L., The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1960.
- The GCSE History Revision Podcast: “Germany: Out of the Frying-Pan 1919-1923” Mar 25, 2020 (podcast).