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Useful Notes / Weimar Republic
aka: The Weimar Republic

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"They carry the name of the enterprise - but who carries its spirit?" note 

The German Reich is a Republic, and whoever doesn't believe it gets one in the neck.

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 conclusion of World War I with the end of the Kaiser's empire 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 monarchist Hindenburg who was somewhat contemptuous of democracy 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 German 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.

What also didn't help the legitimacy of the republic was the persistent "stab-in-the-back" myth: a conspiracy theory that blamed subversive elements, namely civilian politicians and Jews,note  for Germany's defeat in the First World War, which major generals like Hindenburg and Ludendorff were happy to propagate to shift blame away from their own decisions. Between angry nationalists who were happy to use the Republic as their scapegoat and communists who hated the government for its less-than-ideal record on worker's rights, one German politician called the republic a "democracy without democrats."

Still, for all its flaws, the Weimar Constitution had some admirable policies, like the right to unionize and ensuring freedom 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 regarding 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". And many scientists of the Republic went on to win Nobel Prizes, including Albert Einstein.

For a while, after 1923, things seemed to stabilize. Under Chancellor and Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, the Weimar government gained some significant concessions from Europe and the United States, including several reductions to the reparations, 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 Kellogg-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 subsequent economic collapse led to a return to the political turbulence of the early 20s, and Gustav Stresemann's premature death meant no one could manage the economic and political crisis. 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 as the political climate of the time.

In some ways, democracy was already functionally dead by the time Hitler was appointed: From 1930 onward, Hindenburg was governing almost exclusively through Article 48, appointing chancellors and cabinets without parliamentary approval, and the chancellors he appointed didn't make the situation any better: Heinrich Brüning, who held office between 1930 and 1932, enacted a policy of deflation in an attempt to get the Allied Powers to roll back the reparations of the Treaty of Versailles: but not only did this not get them revoked, but the deflationary policy and Brüning's insistence that Germany couldn't pay led to even worse economic collapse (earning him the unflattering epithet of the "Hunger Chancellor") and allowed Hitler to gain more power both electorally and by absorbing Germany's weakened civil society. Brüning's successor, Franz von Papen, was an authoritarian monarchist who tried to use Hitler to restore the monarchy. His attempts to form some alliance with the Nazis and his overthrow of Prussia's democratic government only exacerbated the political polarization. Papen's successor, Kurt von Schleicher, was mostly competent, having implemented a public works program that worked...but only after he left office and which benefited his nefarious successor. Still, he alienated Hindenburg and many public officials with his arrogant behavior and lost a lot of confidence after his attempt to divide and conquer the factions of the Nazi party failed.

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 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 were the largest party, without a majority. 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, and the Nazis quickly used their appointments to absorb large parts of the security services and army into their emerging apparatus while government figures like Franz von Papen were pushed into obscurity.

Then came the Reichstag Fire on Monday 27 February 1933, where the Reichstag building was subjected to a arson attack in the dead of night. There has been much speculation about the event, and the fact quite a few facts to this day still remain somewhat unclear, makes the event a popular target of various conspiracy theories. Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist, was arrested for the arson as he was caught near the scene of the crime and confessed to it. Hitler and the Nazis immediately jumped on the opportunity to declare the fire a part of a major communist conspiracy meant to undermine the German State. They used the event as a pretext for mobilizing the the Prussian police force, which, due to a quirk of how the Republic was constitutionally constructed, had come under the personal control of the high-ranking Nazi, Hermann Göring, whom Hitler had instated as the Minister of Prussia, to enact a major purge against the German communist party (as well as some of the Nazis' other political opponents who were conveniently swept up in the confusion of the fire and the following mass arrests).

At the same time, Hitler and his main propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, used the fire as a major set-piece for the upcoming election, declaring that it was proof that Hitler needed Emergency Authority, so he could be allowed to suspend civil rights and liberties and ban political parties in order to "restore order" and root out the enemies of the state (essentially arguing that in order to "rescue" the Republic, the Nazis should be allowed to kill its spirit). At the same time, some suspicious facts came out about the arson: by all accounts, Van der Lubbe was in a confused state when he was arrested and had been found half-naked and acting "dazed", and the crime had been reported very quickly after its presumed outbreak. Because of this, German leftists and other opponents of the Nazis claimed that the fire was in fact a False Flag Operation staged by the Nazis in order to use the communists as scapegoats and enable their authoritarian takeover. note  Van der Lubbe, for his part, claimed to have been acting alone, and he stubbornly maintained this story, even under torture at the hands of the Nazis, and up until to the day he was executed in January 1934. Four other communists (three of them Bulgarian citizens) were accused and arrested under orders from Göring, but the charges were so transparently fabricated that they were ultimately acquitted in December 1933. True to form, Hitler took this as a personal slight against him and redoubled his efforts to subvert the German justice system and bring it to heel under the Nazis.

Consensus amongst historians in the aftermath of World War II and for most of the latter half of the 20th century was that Van der Lubbe was the most probable culprit and that he had probably acted alone, though latter historians, supported by the declassification and discovery of previously sealed or forgotten documents, would poke several holes in this story.note  Whatever the case, the fire can be pointed to as the death knell of the Republic.

With the emergency powers granted to him by the Reichstag Fire Decree, Hitler launched a persecution of his political opponents on the left and the center, effectively beginning the Nazi's program of state terror, which allowed his coalition to make massive gains in the March 1933 elections. With his coalition having a massive majority in the Reichstag, Hitler passed the Enabling Act, which functionally killed the Weimar Constitution as a functioning document and granted Hitler absolute power. Soon, opposition parties were banned, trade unions were abolished, with their leaders (even those who had collaborated with the Nazis) arrested and being amongst the very first inmates in the newly established concentration camps, and all media was brought under the control of the Nazi Party. And with Hindenburg's death in August 1934, Hitler could assume complete control of the army, giving him total control over the German state.

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, the national-conservative German National People's Party (DNVP), 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 forcibly 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 and Benjamin Carter Hett, 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


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.
  • The Cherry Queen stretches from 1914 to 1946. The protagonist loses both of her parents in the Weimar era part, The Roaring '20s are in full swing, two of the protagonist's friends are lesbians (one of which is a crossdresser singer) and Nazi Brownshirts start showing up in town towards the era's end and display their reactionary stances to the era's more liberal sides.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Weimar Germany, The Weimar Republic