If you're ever on QI
and Stephen Fry
asks you what Germany was called in 1930 (he hasn't done it yet, but it's bound to come up at some point), don't say "The Weimar Republic". That name is an invention of historians and was not used at the time (like The Bonn Republic
). The correct term is "Deutsches Reich" (German Empire).
Weimar (so called because that's where the constitution was written - Berlin remained the capital note
) was the government that ran Germany from the end of World War One
until Those Wacky Nazis
Ironically Friedrich Ebert, the chief founder and first president of the Weimar Republic, had not wanted to establish a republic at all. Though a social democrat, he was also a monarchist and wanted to keep the Hohenzollerns (albeit reduced to figurehead status as in Britain); the declaration of the republic was only a desperate move by a member of his cabinet to stop the communists declaring one instead. Technically, it failed in that - the communists declared a Soviet Republic a few hours later. Very few people cared about the second declaration. After that there was no going back, even if the monarchists wished so.
Structurally, the Republic wasn't actually terribly different from the Hohenzollern Empire. Rather than an Emperor, there was a directly-elected Reichspräsident
(Reich President), who on account of his level of power was called (only half-jokingly) the Ersatzkaiser
("Fake/Replacement Emperor"). Other than that, there were only a few other changes, the requirement that the Chancellor have the support of the Reichstag and the extensive emergency powers of the President (Article 48) being the most important. Their new constitution was supposed to be the Best Constitution Ever, thus uniting the best things (considered) from the constitutions of the most successful western democracies: A strong president as in the US of A, a strong parliament as in the (Third) French republic, and direct democracy / plesbiscites as in Switzerland. All of these backfired spectacularly
: The strength of the president became a problem when a half-senile, easily influenced Hindenburg had almost-dictatorial powers; the strong parliament, which could kick out every government they didn't like, made governing first difficult and finally impossible, when the Nazis and the Commies got more than 50% of the votes; and the plebiscites were welcome opportunities for agitators from both left and right to spread their propaganda.
The first few years (and for that matter the last few years) of the Weimar Republic was a time of enormous political instability. Between 1918 and 1923 there was an attempted coup by either the far right or the far left every year, as well as almost 500 political assassinations, most of which went unpunished by the toothless democracy. The last one in 1923, the Munich Beer Putsch, was actually led by Adolf Hitler
. He got a year in jail and wrote Mein Kampf
Culturally, the Weimar Republic was very productive. Most notably, it contained the Cabaret culture (which produced Marlene Dietrich
, Bauhaus architecture, German Expressionism and director Fritz Lang
, who probably created the Robot Girl
trope (and others) in Metropolis
. Even Alfred Hitchcock
made some British-German coproductions during this time. Then there were lots and lots of famous writers and intellectuals
: Bertolt Brecht
, Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Maria Remarque, Erich Kästner, brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Elias Canetti, Lion Feuchtwanger, Ödön von Horváth, Robert Musil, and so on.
Economically, though... well, the Mark suffered from Ridiculous Exchange Rates
, thousands of people lost any money that wasn't saved as gold or silver, and when things looked as if they had somewhat stabilized, the economical crisis of 1929 struck. Germany became so ruined that people didn't even hesitate to give their vote for Adolf Hitler
after he promised them economic prosperity. The Nazis beating up their opponents also contributed, though the violence was entirely mutual.
In fact, in the Language of the Third Reich
one of the characters, an old Jewish doctor, mentions that it was possible to see who won the last street brawl just by the injuries alone: if there were mostly crushed skulls and blunt trauma from beer bottles, chair legs or just plain old clubs — that was the Communists beating Nazis, and if the wounds were mostly by the knife — then vice versa, such was the political climate of the time.
Near the end, the Republic was in chaos. No party could gain a majority, and they all hated each other so much that forming a coalition was impossible. At the very first meeting of the Reichstag of 1932, the first and only thing it did was dissolve itself and call for new elections. In 1933 there still wasn't a majority and the German government was desperate, feeling that if they didn't act there'd be a civil war. The Nazis at this time, while without a majority, were the largest party. Faced with either working with them or declaring a national emergency, President Hindenburg invited Hitler and his Nazis into the government. They hoped they would be able to control them. They couldn't.
The question of whether the Nazis were "voted into power" or seized it sometimes comes up. On the one hand, it's true that the Nazi party never won an absolute majority of votes — in the March 1933 election with Hitler already chancellor, the National Socialist party gained 43.9% of the vote. note
While this may seem extraordinary, it only seems so to countries with a two-party system (like the US). Many countries in the world have multiple parties in their governments, requiring parties to make alliances to govern effectively. In such a system a party receiving 44% of the vote is a big win. Even though the Nazis "only" held 44% of the vote, its opponents were fractured into so many little parties they didn't matter. Furthermore, the third-largest party were the communists. Either way, democracy had been given a thumbs down by a majority of Germans.
Historians' perceptions of the Weimar Republic differ. Marxist historians present it as an example of capitalism in crisis, arguing that the rise of the far-right and later the Nazis was orchestrated and abetted by business interests to preserve their power. Others, like William L. Shirer, present it as being doomed from the start, and that its later history was simply a failed state stumbling from crisis to crisis until its inevitable final collapse. Still more, like Ian Kershaw, adopt a more moderate approach, pointing out that at no point was the rise of Hitler and the end of the republic inevitable; on the contrary, the Republic gained strength during the boom years, and, even after the crisis of the Great Depression: the electoral support of the anti-democratic forces of Nazism and Communism was actually falling and the Nazi party almost bankrupt by the time Franz von Papen made his fateful decision to invite the Nazis into the cabinet in 1933.
Films made in this era
Works of fiction set in this era: