If you're ever on QI and Sandi Toksvig asks you what Germany was called in 1930, don't say "The Weimar Republic". That name is an invention of historians and was not used at the time (like 'The Byzantine Empire' or 'The Bonn Republic'). The correct term is "Deutsches Reich" (German Empire).note
The Weimar Republic (so-called because that's where the constitution was written—Berlin remained the capital note ) was the regime that ran Germany from the end of World War I until the Nazis took 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 with the House of Windsor in Britain) in place; 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, however (the man who made the proclamation would later be killed when leading an communist attempted coup against the Weimar democracy in 1919). After that, there was no going back, even if the monarchists wished to.
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/Substitute 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 America, a strong parliament as in the Third French Republic, and direct democracy/plebiscites as in Switzerland.note 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 them committed by right-wing organizations like the Organisation Konsul, most of which went unpunished—especially those committed by right-wing extremists, as many judges were unreconstructed monarchists. The last one, the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, was led by Adolf Hitler. He got less than half a year in jail and wrote Mein Kampf. It didn't help that the Mark suffered from Ridiculous Exchange Rates, in which thousands of people lost any money that wasn't saved as gold, foreign currency, or silver. This might have also recorded one of the first cases of Ridiculous Future Inflation...except not in the future, and with somehow worse inflation. Case in point: you could sit down for tea when the inflation was at its worst at taking the bill two hours later, only to find that your bill had somehow doubled within the two hours you were eating.
For all its flaws, the Weimar Constitution had some admirable policies, like the right to unionize, and ensuring freedoms for women. And the government passed a lot of legislation establishing a decent welfare state and limited working hours. It was also probably the most progressive Western country of its time as far as LGBTQ+ rights. There were numerous gay bars and Germany's first LGBTQ+ advocacy group, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee. The physician who founded it, Magnus Hirschfeld, also founded the sexology institute, the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. There, Hirschfeld and others pioneered research into areas such as gender affirmation surgeries; the Institut performed the first such modern surgery in the 1930s. They also worked with the Berlin police to stop the arrest of people for cross-dressing (for its own sake or as part of the times' understanding of being transgender). Hirschfeld himself performed world tours discussing his research, though he had to change what he discussed as it was far too taboo for the United States. Unfortunately, the famous photograph of Nazis holding a book burning came about when they marched into the Institut and seized everything in the library. The only writings the Nazis didn't destroy were the lists of names and addresses of members and LGBTQ+ people studied or aided by the Institut.
Culturally, the Weimar Republic was very productive. Most notably, it contained the Cabaret culture (which produced Marlene Dietrich), Dadaism, Bauhaus architecture, German Expressionism and directors such as 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, musicians, actors and intellectuals: Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Kurt Tucholsky, Erich Maria Remarque, Erich Kästner, brothers Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Elias Canetti, Lion Feuchtwanger, Ödön von Horváth, Robert Musil, and so on. Berlin grew to a size it still hasn't reached again and some of the social housing from that era is now protected as UNESCO world heritage sites - Not exactly what you'd expect of "the Projects".
For a while, after 1923, things seemed to stabilize. Under Chancellor and Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, the Weimar government was able to gain some major concessions from Europe and the United States, including several reductions to the preparations, and a new currency, which helped end the hyperinflation and brought about an economic boom. Between 1923 and 1929, Stresemann would bring about reconciliation with the rest of Europe, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1926 that he shared with France's foreign minister, Germany's entry into the League of Nations, and ratification of the Kellog-Briand Pact, which outlawed war as a way to resolve disputes.
But with the Crash of 1929, the American loans that supported this economic boom were withdrawn. The economic collapse led to a return to the political turbulence of the early 20s. Communists and Nazis frequently brawled in the streets.
In fact, in 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, declaring a national emergency or facing Communist upheaval, 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 Hitler was defeated soundly in the 1932 presidential election, and 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 that they didn't matter. The Nazis managed to get an agreement with another right wing party, and that got them over 50% both of the votes and of the seats in parliament. Furthermore, the third-largest party was the communists. Either way, democracy had been given a thumbs down by a majority of Germans. The Nazis banned the Communist party while still maintaining a facade of democracy, and there was a relatively free vote (with the Communists "abstaining" due to mostly being in jail) on whether Hitler should be given the power to make laws on his own. Hitler got the required two-thirds majority of those present, despite the Social Democrats voting against him, and the other parties (that had voted for Hitler in exchange for promises Hitler mostly broke) dissolved themselves, with the Social Democratic Party being dissolved through Hitler's new legislative powers.
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.
Works made in this era
- The Blue Angel
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
- Diary of a Lost Girl
- Different from the Others
- The Doll (1919)
- Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler
- The Golem
- I Don't Want to Be a Man
- The Last Laugh
- Mädchen in Uniform
- Die Nibelungen
- Westfront 1918
- The Wildcat
- Woman in the Moon
Literature and Theatre:
Works of fiction set in this era:
- Part of the song "Learn to Do It" in Anastasia (it's not clear at what point in the song they've crossed the Polish-German border, but they're boarding a ship in Stralsund by the end)
- A few strips in Hetalia: Axis Powers show Germany towards the tail end of the Republic, growing more than peeved at having to put up with the Treaty of Versailles.
- The series Babylon Berlin is set during this time and lavishly displays a recreation of the era, including its social and political turmoils.
- The novel Berlin Alexanderplatz and its film and TV adaptations are considered one of the definite portraits of the City Noir side of the era.
- Berlin - The Wicked City, a 2019 setting book for Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, details Weimar Berlin and it's various connections to The Mythos.
- The musical and movie Cabaret takes place during this time. The rise of the Nazis helps lead to a Downer Ending.
- The part of Fullmetal Alchemist: The Conqueror of Shamballa which takes place in our world is mostly in this era; in fact, the Munich Beer Putsch occurs on-screen during the events of the film.
- Hanussen is about a clairvoyant and hypnotist who rises to great fame in Weimar Germany, but runs afoul of the Nazis when they come to power in 1933.
- "Ich Erinnere Mich an die Weimarer Republik", a song by The World/Inferno Friendship Society, told from the point of view of Peter Lorre and other German exiles.
- Klaus Mann's Mephisto and its film adaptation. Both straddle the fall of Weimar and rise of Nazism.
- None Shall Escape, a 1944 film about a trial against a Nazi officer following the end of the (then-ongoing) second world war, told via flashbacks from the points of view of the witnesses at the trial. The first flashback takes place the newly-formed Polish state in 1919 right after the end of WWI, the next one takes place in the Weimar Republic in 1923 right before and after the Beer Hall Putsch before skipping ahead to 1929 and then to Nazi Germany in 1934 after the Night of the Long Knives, and the third and last one takes place in Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII.
- Shadow of the Vampire, a movie that mythologizes the production of Nosferatu. The movie fairly quickly switches locations from Germany to Czechoslovakia, however.
- The Tin Drum is partially set in this era, though it also covers World War II and the aftermath.