Mass demonstration in front of the German parliament (Reichstag) against the Treaty of Versailles (source: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


At the end of the First World War, Germany was in a state of chaos. The country had been defeated, the Kaiser (Emperor) had abdicated, poverty was widespread, riots and civil unrest created fear and instability. No one knew who would take over the reins of power after the collapse of the imperial government.

The political vacuum was filled in November 1918 when the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, abbr. SPD) and of the left-wing Democrats formed a Council of People’s Delegates. It was headed by Friedrich Ebert, a moderate politician who rejected the idea of a Soviet-style revolution and advocated the establishment of a parliamentary democracy (see Richard J. Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich, 2004, pp. 78-79). In early 1919 the Council announced a general election to choose the representatives for a Constituent Assembly.

The elections came at a time when the possibility of a Bolshevik-style revolution loomed on the horizon. The moderate leadership of democratic left-wing parties was a welcome alternative to violent upheaval and Communist dictatorship. The SPD, the Centre Party and the left-wing Democrats won the majority of the votes and their delegates met in 1919 in the city of Weimar. In July of the same year they promulgated a new Constitution, which was largely based on the previous imperial Constitution but contained several fundamental changes.

The most important change was that the state, which officially retained the name “German Empire” (Deutsches Reich), was no longer a monarchy but a Republic with an elected President as the head of state (ibid., pp. 79-80). The new Constitution bestowed on the President extensive powers. Article 25 gave him the right to dissolve the parliament, and the infamous Article 48 allowed him in case of emergency to take all the “necessary measures” to restores order. Furthermore, he could deploy the armed forces and suspend constitutional rights (ibid., p. 80). Nevertheless, the President’s power was checked by parliament. Article 43 stipulated that parliament could call a referendum to remove the President from office. Paragraphs 2, 3 and 4 of Article 48 stipulated that the emergency measures declared by the President could be blocked by parliament.

Friedrich Ebert made use of Article 48 in order to crack down on radical leftist movements or to dissolve local governments he deemed dangerous (ibid.). Yet due to his democratic beliefs he never abused his powers to the extent of threatening the Republic itself. The real implications of Article 48 manifested themselves only later. It is important to note that paragraph 5 of Article 48 stated that the powers of the President would be specified by law. Such a law, however, was never enacted, and the ambiguity of the emergency powers of the President remained perhaps the most striking flaw of the Constitution.

The other major constitutional change was that the parliament was elected by universal suffrage and women were for the first time given the right to vote. Parties obtained a percentage of the seats according to the votes they received. If a party won 20% of the votes, it would receive 20% of the seats. This system gave representation to a large number of parties, which in itself was certainly a democratic principle. Yet it created fragmentation because parties were compelled to form coalition governments. As a result, parties with very different political principles and interests were compelled to form coalitions which were ineffective and marred by internal conflicts. It is thus not surprising that between 13 February 1919 and 30 January 1933 Germany had twenty governments. Political factionalism and instability contributed to the distrust of democratic institutions among the population (ibid., pp. 82-83).

On paper the Republic of Weimar was a progressive state. Although excessive presidential powers could threaten parliamentary representation, the Constitution was fundamentally democratic. Yet the young Republic was from the start beset by four major problems: the humiliating peace treaty; economic crisis; sabotage by radical right-wing and left-wing groups; and the role of the President.

The Treaty of Versailles

In 1919 the fledgling Republic faced the bitter legacy of defeat. One year earlier the German government had agreed to surrender because it believed in a peace settlement based on the Fourteen Points formulated by US President Woodrow Wilson. In January 1918 Wilson had declared to the US Congress that

Peoples are not to be handed about from one sovereignty to another by an international conference … national aspirations must be respected, peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. Self-determination is not a mere phrase but a principle of action which statesmen will ignore at their peril (quoted in: David Evans, Jane Jenkins: Years of Weimar and the Third Reich, 2004, p. 20).

However, British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau did not agree with Wilson’s conciliatory stance. They believed that their respective electorates, who had suffered and sacrificed so much to gain the final victory over the Germans, would not accept anything less than a punitive peace treaty. Lloyd-George had even promised British voters in a campaign speech that he would squeeze Germany “until the pips squeak” (Patrick G. Zander: The Rise of Fascism. History, Documents, and Key Questions, 2016, p. 106). As a consequence of British and French pressure, Wilson had to back down.

The terms of the peace treaty were harsh. Germany had to give up 13% of its territory, which contained 12% of its population. The Rhineland was to be demilitarised and occupied by allied troops for fifteen years. Poland would be given a part of East Germany in order to gain access to the sea, and the city of Danzig became a Free City under the direct control of the newly-founded League of Nations. Several German rivers were internationalised. Germany had to renounce all its former colonies. Unification of Germany and Austria was forbidden. The country was to be almost completely demilitarised. The army could have a maximum of 100,000 men and could not possess tanks or heavy guns. The navy was to have only 15,000 men and six battleships. The rest of the fleet, as well as war planes, had to be surrendered to the allies, and no new aircraft were allowed to be built. Furthermore, Germany had to accept full responsibility for the outbreak of the war, and pay reparations which were to be decided later by a Reparation Committee (see Evans, Jenkins 2004, pp. 20-23).

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, causing a storm of indignation in Germany. German nationalists blamed the Republican government for accepting the “Diktat of Versailles”, and especially the war guilt clause. Right-wing groups denounced the signatories of the Treaty as “November criminals” (Martin Kitchen: A History of Modern Germany, 1800 to the Present, 2012, p. 200). In 1921 the total amount of war reparations was fixed at 136,000 million gold marks, a sum that the bankrupt German state could not realistically pay. British economist John Maynard Keynes bitterly criticised the peace treaty and the imposed reparations. In his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace he wrote:

The Treaty includes no provisions for the economic rehabilitation of Europe,—nothing to make the defeated Central Empires into good neighbors, nothing to stabilize the new States of Europe, nothing to reclaim Russia; nor does it promote in any way a compact of economic solidarity amongst the Allies themselves; no arrangement was reached at Paris for restoring the disordered finances of France and Italy, or to adjust the systems of the Old World and the New.

Economic Depression

The war had wrecked the German economy even more than that of other European nations. The value of the German mark dropped continuously during and after the conflict. In 1914 a British pound was worth 20 German marks; in 1919 it was worth 250 marks, in 1922 35,000 marks, and in late 1923 16,000,000,000,000 marks (Evans/Jenkins 2004, p. 41). The devaluation of the mark had two main causes: first, the German government printed money as a short-term solution to its economic woes; secondly, in 1921 French troops occupied the Rhineland, one of Germany’s most important industrial districts.

Hyperinflation ruined the middle class and wiped out citizens’ savings. The only beneficiaries of the crisis were big industrialists. Currency devaluation made German exports cheap while de facto cancelling companies’ debts. German exports soared, and entrepreneurs could use foreign hard currencies to buy property and businesses in Germany at low prices (ibid., p. 42). Thus a few enriched themselves while the majority suffered.

During the 1920s, however, the situation stabilised and the country experienced a period of relative prosperity. Hyperinflation was curbed in 1923, when a new currency, the Rentenmark, was introduced, which in turn was replaced by the Reichsmark in 1924 (ibid., pp. 46-47). Recognising Germany’s inability to repay its war debt, in 1924 the US launched the Dawes Plan. It provided loans to help the German economy and restructured the war reparations. The Dawes plan was followed by the Young Plan in 1929.

The years between 1923 and 1929 were the “golden age” of the Weimar Republic. US loans took some pressure off the German government and allowed it to make investments. Industrial production and consumption recovered. By 1929 Germany had become the world’s second largest economy behind the United States (Stephen J. Lee: The Weimar Republic, 1998, p.63). In 1928 real weekly wages were slightly above pre-war levels, industrial output had nearly doubled, and unemployment was at 6.2 %, or 1,312,000 (Evans, Jerkins 2004, p. 73).

Nevertheless, the German economy was inherently weak. It was overly dependent on US loans. It was mainly export-driven, and domestic demand was insufficient to absorb production. These weaknesses manifested themselves in 1929, when the crash of the US stock market caused a severe global economic downturn. As the US was itself facing the most disastrous depression in its history, Washington cut back on its loans. The effects on the German economy were devastating (Lee 1998, p. 94).

By 1933 German exports had halved compared to 1929, while industrial production had fallen by 34%. Unemployment skyrocketed: from 1.3 million in 1929 to 3 million in 1930, 4.3 million in 1931, 5.1 million in 1932, and 6 million in 1933. The national income dropped by 39% between 1929 and 1932 (Evans, Jerkins 2004, p. 90 / Lee 1998, p. 95). The impact of the slump was felt among all classes. The inability of the government to tackle the crisis paved the way for the rise of radical parties whose aim was not to reform, but to destroy the Republic.

Anti-Democratic Movements

The third major weakness of the Weimar Republic was internal opposition to the democratic form of government. There were mainly three anti-democratic groupings: far-right nationalists, monarchists and Communists. At first, these groups tried to overthrow the Republic by force, and between 1919 and 1923 there were three anti-Republican coups.

In January 1919 the Spartacus League, a Communist organisation, staged an uprising and proclaimed the foundation of a revolutionary government. The Weimar authorities deployed the army, who mercilessly quelled the revolt. Two leaders of the League, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, were killed under mysterious circumstances (Evans, Jenkins 2004, pp. 11-12). The collaboration of the SPD government and the army was made possible by the fact that both moderate leftists and the rightists (whether moderate or radical) were opposed to the establishment of a Communist dictatorship. However, the army and the police were not so co-operative when it came to crushing right-wing revolts.

This became clear when on March 1920 a monarchical far-right group tried to topple the SPD government. The leader of the coup was Wolfgang Kapp, the founder of the German Fatherland Party, who was supported by a minority of the army generals. When the insurgents seized Berlin, the army regiments loyal to the Republic refused to fire at their own comrades. The government was utterly powerless and fled to Dresden. However, Kapp’s regime soon collapsed. His party lacked popular support, and most civil servants did not recognise his authority. The majority of the army was suspicious and did not endorse him. After four days Kapp resigned and fled to Sweden. The SPD government returned to Berlin. Yet only 48 of the army officers who had taken part in the coup were sacked. This demonstrates the government’s weakness and its unwillingness to crack down on far-right extremism.

In November 1923 another coup took place in Bavaria, this time led by Adolf Hitler. The uprising was put down but the insurgents were given mild sentences. Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison, but he was released after only nine months (Kitchen 2012, p. 209).

After these failed attempts to overthrow the Republic by force, the Communists, the Nazis and the monarchists decided to work “within the system”. They took part in democratic elections, but their long-term goal was to undermine and ultimately destroy the Republic.

The Presidency and Article 48

In February 1919 the Constituent Assembly elected Friedrich Ebert as the provisional President of the Republic. Article 41 of the Constitution stated that the President had to be elected by popular vote, but due to the unstable political situation, in 1922 parliament prolonged Ebert’s provisional presidency until 30 June 1925 (Eberhard Kolb: The Weimar Republic, trans. P. S. Falla and R. J. Park, 2005, p. 226).

Friedrich Ebert died unexpectedly before the end of his term. On April 26, 1925, the German voters elected a successor: the former general Paul von Hindenburg, who received 48.3% of the votes. His main opponent, Wilhelm Marx, gained 45,3%, while Communist leader Ernst Thaelmann won 6,4% of the votes (Kitchen 2012, p. 211 / William J. Astore, Dennis E. Showalter: Hindenburg. Icon of German Militarism, 2005, p. 84).

The election of Hindenburg was a setback for the Republic. While Ebert was a guarantor of the democratic system, Hindenburg was a monarchist and a militarist. All his life he had served in the German army, and during the First World War he and general Erich Ludendorff had set up a de facto military dictatorship in which the Emperor played but a ceremonial role. Hindenburg distrusted parliamentary democracy and party politics.

During his presidency Hindenburg strictly followed the letter of the Constitution. But because Article 48 granted him broad powers, he gradually dismantled the parliamentary system without breaking the law. He established a kind of presidential dictatorship by making ample use of emergency decrees to sidestep parliament. When his authority was challenged by parliament, Hindenburg simply dissolved it and called for new elections.

In 1929, before the beginning of the Great Depression, Hindenburg approached Heinrich Bruening of the conservative Centre Party to form a “presidential” government without a parliamentary majority. Hindenburg thus replaced the SPD government, a party with which the ultra-conservative President was never on good terms. Bruening accepted the offer and formed a government. Because he had no majority in parliament, the only way his cabinet could pass laws was to ask the President to issue emergency decrees.

Bruening was a supporter of austerity policies, and upon taking up office he submitted to parliament a set of harsh austerity measures. When parliament rejected them, Hindenburg stepped in and passed them by emergency decrees. The SPD bitterly protested what they regarded as abuse of power by the President. But to no avail. “Presidential” cabinets became the norm, and the SPD did not return to power until after the dissolution of the German Reich in 1945.  In 1932 alone Hindenburg issued 66 decrees, while parliament passed only five laws (Astore, Showalter 2005, pp. 88-89 / Lee 1998, p. 96).

Austerity policies made the crisis worse. Bruening became known in Germany as the “hunger chancellor”. In the end, the democratic impasse and the severity of the Depression led to the rise of the National-Socialists and of the Communists.

Democracy Abolishes Itself

The Weimar Republic exemplifies the dilemmas of modern democracy. What is the limit of freedom? Can anti-democratic forces be allowed to operate in a democratic environment? Does democratic freedom include the freedom to abolish democracy? How could freedom lead to one of the worst totalitarian dictatorships the world has ever known?

In 1925 the German electors delivered the state into the hands of Hindenburg, a general who had loyally served the Kaiser and had ruled the country autocratically during the war. One might argue that the voters were not fully aware of Hindenburg’s distrust of democratic institutions. But while this might be a valid explanation for his first election, the fact that he was re-elected shows that he enjoyed sufficient popular support despite, or perhaps because of, his authoritarian style.

Furthermore, the results of the parliamentary elections from 1919 to 1933 show a clear shift of popular support from democratic parties to anti-democratic parties. Until 1929, democratic parties maintained a strong majority in parliament. After 1929, however, popular consensus for the Republic dissolved. The below list demonstrates this trend:

Elections of January 1919 (number of seats in parliament)

  • Social Democrats: 163
  • Democratic Party: 75
  • Catholic Centre: 71
  • Nationalist Party: 44
  • Independent Socialists: 22
  • Bavarian Party: 20
  • People’s Party: 19
  • Others: 7.

Elections of May 1924

  • Social Democrats: 100
  • Nationalist Party: 95
  • Catholic Centre: 65
  • Communist Party: 62
  • People’s Party: 45
  • Popular National Bloc (included Nazi members): 32
  • Democratic Party: 28
  • Bavarian Party: 26
  • Independent Socialists: 0
  • Others: 29

Elections of May 1928

  • Social Democrats: 153
  • Nationalist Party: 73
  • Catholic Centre: 62
  • Communist Party: 54
  • People’s Party: 45
  • Democratic Party: 25
  • Bavarian Party: 19
  • Nazi Party: 12
  • Others: 51

Elections of September 1930

  • Social Democrats: 143
  • Nazi Party: 107
  • Communist Party: 77
  • Catholic Centre: 68
  • Nationalist Party: 41
  • People’s Party: 30
  • Democratic Party: 20
  • Bavarian Party: 22
  • Others: 72

Elections of 1932

  • Nazi Party: 230
  • Social Democrats: 133
  • Communist Party: 89
  • Catholic Centre: 75
  • Nationalist Party: 37
  • Bavarian Party: 20
  • People’s Party: 7
  • Democratic Party: 4
  • Others: 11

Elections of November 1932

  • Nazi Party: 196
  • Social Democrats: 121
  • Communist Party: 100
  • Catholic Centre: 70
  • Nationalist Party: 52
  • Bavarian Party: 18
  • People’s Party: 11
  • Others: 14

Elections of March 1933

  • Nazi Party: 288
  • Social Democrats: 120
  • Catholic Centre/Bavarian Party: 92
  • Communist Party: 81
  • Nationalist Party: 52
  • Democratic Party: 5
  • People’s Party: 2
  • Others: 7

(Evans, Jenkins 2004, p. 15 ibid., p. 69 ibid., p. 83, ibid., p. 92, p. 101)

The election results show that the rise of the anti-democratic parties, most notably the Nazis and the Communists, coincided with the economic crisis. Poverty and unemployment were undoubtedly two of the major reasons why the majority of the voters turned away from democracy. However, far-right and far-left parties had already existed and legally operated prior to 1929.

As the New York Times noted, Hitler’s rise to power was technically legal. As a matter of fact, in 1934, after Hindenburg’s death, Germany held a “Referendum concerning the head of state of the German Empire” (Volksabstimmung über das Staatsoberhaupt des Deutschen Reichs). The German people were asked if they wanted to unite the post of President with that of Chancellor, thus giving Hitler de facto dictatorial powers. 89,93% of the voters agreed to do so. A contemporary New York Times editorial commented: “The endorsement gives Chancellor Hitler, who four years ago was not even a German citizen, dictatorial powers unequaled in any other country”.

The case of the Weimar Republic demonstrates that the concept of “freedom” is not as intuitively simple as it might appear. When a state allows the enemies of democracy -radical demagogues who manipulate people’s fears, anger, prejudice and bigotry – to operate undisturbed, freedom becomes the very instrument of its own destruction. And even the “will of the people”, whether it is expressed in opinion polls or referendums, can turn its might against itself when it is not mitigated and rationalised by checks and balances and by inalienable constitutional rights.