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Useful Notes: Weimar Republic
aka: Weimar Germany

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 gained power.

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), Dadaism, 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.

It's important to note, however, that the Nazi party never won a majority of votes — in the March 1933 election with Hitler already chancellor, the National Socialist party gained 43.9% of the votenote , and because of proportional representation, 43% of the seats in the Reichstag,note  and had to resort to arm-twisting the smaller conservative parties into accepting his "reforms". Even during the time of the one-party state, many Germans only supported the Nazis out of necessity.

Mostly, people were just concerned with economical hardships and crushed national pride, and manipulating these two sore points was what allowed Nazis to eventually gain control over the society.

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; when Friedrich Ebert colluded with the German Army to crush the Spartakist Revolt, and that the 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:


Imperial GermanyUsefulNotes/GermanyNazi Germany

alternative title(s): Weimar Germany; Deutsches Reich; Weimar Republic; Weimar Germany
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