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9-08-2015, 21:35

WEIMAR GERMANY

Even before the outbreak of the war, the more discerning conservatives such as Bethmann Hollweg recognised that imperial Germany must move in the direction of a more broadly based constitutional monarchy. The kaiser, the big landed and industrial interests and the powerful military frustrated progressive constitutional policies. Then it happened with the imminence of defeat facing Germany in November 1918: the Social Democrats joined the Cabinet of Prince Max von Baden; government, it was intended, should in future be dependent on a Reichstag majority. The great change from a semi-authoritarian to a parliamentary democracy had taken place without a revolution. The revolution had been anticipated and made unnecessary. The kaiser had left for exile in Holland with his little-loved family and the consequent vacuum of power had to be filled. The peaceful transfer of power was almost successful and there can be no doubt that this is what the vast majority of the German people desired. They did not want to suffer a civil war and bloodshed on top of the defeat. They feared revolution, especially of the kind that had occurred in neighbouring Russia. Indeed, deeply disillusioned by the suddenness of defeat, they cared little about politics altogether, wanted law and order and to keep their possessions. This ‘silent majority’ showed an extraordinary capacity to get on with their own lives regardless of the wild men, the battalions of mutinied sailors and armed bands of various political persuasions rushing around in lorries. Life in Berlin during the early days of the republic went on with everyday orderliness. If shooting occurred, people sheltered in doorways, while in neighbouring streets others shopped, ate and amused themselves as usual. Prussia had been renowned for its public orderliness. No one in their lifetime had experienced violence on the streets. Now the ordinary Germans coped with the breakdown of their orderly world by simply ignoring the disorder and turning the other way. Political democracy requires that the majority feel a concern for their rights and the rights of others and are ready to defend them. In Germany in the early years of the Weimar Republic it was possible for the committed few who did not shrink from using force to threaten to take over control of the state, jeopardising peaceful change. When on 9 November 1918, Prince Max von Baden announced the abdication of the kaiser and handed over his office to Ebert who thereby became chancellor ‘on the basis of the constitution’, the German people were pleased to learn not that there had been a ‘revolution’, but that the revolution had been pronounced as having occurred unbeknown to all but a few. The Social Democrats had long ago given up any real intention of seeking revolution. Like the British Labour Party they were intent on gradual parliamentary and democratic change. They had become the true heirs of the liberals of ‘the 1848 revolution’ including taking pride in German nationalism. They had supported the war. No less a personage than Field Marshal von Hindenburg, testified that Ebert was sound and ‘loved his fatherland’. But this kind of ‘tame’ revolution did not satisfy the more politically active. In imitation of the Russian example, ‘soldiers’ and workers’ councils’ sprang up all over Germany. Ebert humoured them, knowing that the parliamentary constituent assembly he planned would soon give the government of the Reich a solidly based and legal foundation. Then, too, the Social Democratic government was so weak that it had no military forces of its own to resist any group seeking to wrest control from it. The Spartacists’ insurrections in December 1918 and January 1919, followed by political strikes and disorders, although fomented by a revolutionary party with only little support among the workers, nevertheless posed a serious threat to the Ebert government. With the support of the army command and irregular Free Corps bands of soldiers, the violence of the extreme left was met with counter-violence and lawless terror. The two Spartacist (communist) leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. Violence continued in other parts of Germany especially in Berlin and Munich. The Free Corps units, fanatical opponents both of democracy and of Bolshevism and the forerunners of those who were to support the Nazis, everywhere, with excessive brutality, suppressed the militant left. The Social Democratic government and the republic survived. What had maintained it in power was the tacit alliance between Field Marshal von Hindenburg and General Wilhelm Groener, the army chief of staff, with Ebert and his government. Their motives for cooperating with the socialist government were to maintain German unity and to prevent the ‘patriotic’ German Social Democrats from being driven from power by the Bolshevik ‘internationalists’. They also believed that the traditions of the Prussian army represented the ‘best’ of Germany and that the new emerging Germany could be imbued with these qualities provided the Reichswehr retained a position of power in the state. It was a misfortune that the Social Democrats were inevitably stained by the misdeeds of military excess. The communists had not been suppressed, only prevented from seizing power. The communists were never to gain as many votes as the Social Democrats, but as the Social Democrats weakened from their high-water mark of support of 38 per cent of the electorate in 1919, the Communist Party benefiting from the depression, recovered to secure 13 per cent of the vote in 1930, which in the free elections in November 1932 rose to 17 per cent. By then the Social Democratic support had sunk to 20 per cent. Figures do not fully reveal how this split of the socialists handicapped the strengthening of the democratic parliamentary republic in the 1920s. The growth of the Communist Party to the left of the Social Democrats competing for the working man’s vote sapped the will of the Social Democratic politicians to lead the governments of the republic boldly, even though they formed the single largest party in the Reichstag throughout the 1920s. After 1919 they enjoyed absolute majority, so had they wished to govern they would have had to form coalitions with the ‘bourgeois’ parties of the centre and moderate right. This, of course, they feared would lay them open to the cry of having ‘betrayed’ the working class. The early experiences of the republic also reinforced their conclusion that the danger to its democratic existence arose from an extreme left, that is, a communist takeover. We know better now; but the sudden and huge expansion of the Nazi vote between 1928 and 1932 was entirely unforeseen. The Social Democrats were afraid of losing votes to the political left by collaborating with the ‘bourgeois’ parties in coalition governments; only one of the sixteen chancellors after 1920 was a Social Democrat. Between November 1922 until June 1928 (except for a brief period of three months in 1923) – that is, for the greater part of the life of the parliamentary republic they had done so much to create – the Social Democrats refused to participate in government at all. The parties of the centre and moderate right formed the basis of all the coalition governments, sometimes seeking to strengthen their position in the absence of the Social Democrats by seeking the more extremeright support of the Nationalists. Even so, every one of the coalitions without the Social Democrats was a minority government. They generally lasted only a few months. The major political parties from the Conservatives to the Centre Party were either hostile or lukewarm about the new republic even before the National Socialists became significant. The only genuine parliamentary party fully supporting democracy among the non-socialist ‘bourgeois’ parties was the German Democratic Party, whose support significantly dwindled during the 1920s. Though the Social Democratic leaders recognised that they had most to lose from the destruction of the democratic republic, their own short-sighted political attitude contributed to the spectacle of government instability, which lowered the esteem of parliamentary government in the eyes of the German people when that esteem was already being constantly assailed by the anti-democratic movements. The difficulties under which the Weimar governments laboured during its early years were very evident. It is therefore all the more remarkable how much was, nevertheless, constructively achieved. The constituent assembly met in February 1919 in Germany’s capital of culture, the little town of Weimar, where Germany’s two greatest dramatists, Goethe and Schiller, had lived. Berlin was politically too unsettled and dangerous for lengthy parliamentary deliberations. The majority of the National Assembly belonged to the Social Democratic Party, the Centre Party and the successors of the old Liberal Party. The constitution-making was completed by August 1919. In the spirit of ‘1848’, the inalienable rights of the individual to basic freedoms – free speech, equality before the law, freedom of religion – were set out; so were political rights of free speech and assembly, but the latter could be set aside, for the president was given emergency powers to restore public order if it were seriously disturbed or threatened. The legislators were still living under the shadow of the danger of communist coups and the ability of the president to act quickly and decisively seemed essential. Only later did it turn out that the considerable powers granted to the president would pave the way for the destruction of the democratic republic. The president himself was to be elected every seven years by a direct popular vote, like the president of the US. There was no separation of powers as in the American constitution, yet the president’s powers, which included that of appointing the chancellor, meant that the Weimar constitution also differed from the British form of parliamentary government. The chancellor had to win the majority support of the Reichstag; if he failed, the president could dissolve the Reichstag and call new elections. The introduction of proportional representation was one of the most significant features of the constitution. It led to a multiplicity of parties and inevitable coalition governments. The old pre-1918 states – Prussia, Bavaria and the smaller states – retained their own governments but with lesser powers. The constitution emphasised the sovereignty of the people and the right of all adult men and women to vote. There could be no doubt that the intention of the constitution was to replace the old authoritarian state with a ‘scientifically’ constructed democracy. The flaws of the constitution have been touched on here and are frequently stressed. But they were not the real reason for the failure of political democracy in Germany. The reasons for this failure are not to be found in the shortcomings of legal documents but in the shortcomings of the politicians of the Weimar period and in the reactions of the German people to the problems that faced them. It is perfectly true that the army remained profoundly anti-democratic in attitude despite its oath of loyalty to the republic. So was the higher civil service on the whole. No doubt many judges were politically biased when dealing leniently with the many political crimes of the right and harshly with more of the few of the left. But they did not play an active role in seeking the overthrow of the republic. During its brief years, Weimar also appointed and promoted to high administrative and judicial positions sincere democrats who would never have secured such appointments in imperial Germany. All discrimination on grounds of politics or religion was ended. Given time, these newcomers would have increased and enjoyed a growing influence in the state. The years of Weimar were by no means all negative. Women gained just rights and opportunities, progressive social and educational policies were pioneered, the arts and culture flourished. These were impressive achievements in just a few short years, but time was too short. The army was a special case. The Social Democrats treated the army high command and the officers as indispensable pillars of the republic. They shared as patriotic Germans a false veneration for the gods of yesterday such as Hindenburg. There was little excuse for this after the behaviour of the chief of the army, General Hans von Seeckt, in the spring of 1920. A right-wing plot to overthrow the republic, supported by Free Corps units near Berlin, came to fruition in March 1920. Led by a General Lüttwitz, the troops entered Berlin and installed a Prussian bureaucrat, Wolfgang Kapp, as chancellor. To Ebert’s astonishment, Seeckt refused to defend the government, declaring that the ‘Reichswehr does not shoot on the Reichswehr’. Ebert and the government ignominiously fled from Berlin to the safety of southern Germany. The trade unions ordered a general strike. In Berlin some civil servants continued to function, others obeyed the government’s call and refused to work. While there was no military opposition to Kapp’s seizure of power, the country was industrially paralysed, and few people would positively cooperate, though the army continued to remain ‘neutral’. Nevertheless, Kapp quickly recognised that he could not govern in such circumstances. A few days after his arrival in Berlin, he ‘resigned’ and withdrew with his troops. Ebert returned. The weakness of the Social Democrats was now shown clearly, for they neither dismissed the disloyal head of the army, nor attempted to remove from the service of the republic those who had disobeyed the government’s call to strike. The affair was dismissed. But the extremists on the right did not abandon their war against the republic of ‘traitors’. Why did the army not back the right-wing insurrectionists like Kapp? It clearly was not for love of the republic, or of the Social Democrats. The republic was necessary to deal with the Allies, who were in occupation of the Rhineland. The French still enjoyed overwhelming military strength and could occupy parts of Germany at will, as they did in 1920, 1921 and 1923. Seeckt and the army high command knew that the French would certainly not stand idly by if the legal democratic German government were overthrown by the generals. That would be the signal for intervention. It was therefore as unrealistic to support a man like Kapp as it would have been to bring the kaiser back. Besides attempted coups and violence from left and right, every German was affected by the unprecedented experience of hyperinflation. The murder in June 1922 by a young nationalist of the ‘Jew’ Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau undermined internal and foreign confidence in the political stability of Weimar Germany with inevitably disastrous consequences for Germany’s financial standing as well. The final blow to German financial stability was delivered by the Germans themselves. It was due not to reparations payments made by Germany but to the decision of the government to organise passive resistance when the French, in response partly to the threatened political disintegration of Weimar Germany and evasion of reparations, occupied the Ruhr in January 1923. The consequent industrial standstill in the Ruhr and the relief paid by the government to the Germans who had no income now could be met only by printing more money since the government was reluctant to increase taxation sufficiently to meet the bill. By the autumn of 1923 paper money was practically worthless. A tram ticket cost millions of marks. All goods, including food, became scarce. No one wanted paper money that might lose half its value in a day. Somehow people survived with ingenuity. The pensioner and the weakest members of society suffered the most. Unemployment soared. Only those who had property and understood how to manipulate credit became rich. Industrialists like Hugo Stinnes amassed factories and mines paid for in worthless currency. The inflation left an indelible impression. The middle classes saw their modest accumulation of wealth, saved from the war years, being lost. The long-term consequences of the war were now really felt. And more and more people were saying that it was all the fault of the republic, both the lost war and the lost money. The general misery provided fertile soil for extremists. In the autumn of 1923 the attitude and questionable loyalty of the chief of the army, Seeckt, was perhaps the most disturbing feature of the situation. The communists believed Germany to be ripe for revolution and attempted to start it in Saxony and Thuringia. Separatism was still a potent force in Bavaria and a new name, Adolf Hitler, came to national attention when he attempted and failed to seize power in Munich. But in this hour of crisis for democracy and the republic, Gustav Stresemann, a political leader of the more moderate right, an ex-monarchist, an ex-supporter of the war of 1914 and of Germany’s plans to achieve continental European hegemony, was entrusted with guiding Weimar’s foreign relations. Stresemann led the small People’s Party. The Social Democrats agreed to his appointment as chancellor in August 1923 and joined the parties of the centre and moderate right in briefly forming a grand government coalition. In November, he became foreign minister in a new government and remained in this post through every successive government until his death. Historical controversy surrounds the evaluation of Stresemann’s role in the Weimar Republic. Was he a blatant nationalist, even still an expansionist? There can be no doubt that he did wish to free Germany from the remaining restrictions of the Versailles Treaty: reparations, foreign occupation and military limitations. He followed pacific policies openly, yet was ready secretly and deceitfully, by any practical means, to reach his goals in making Germany respected and powerful. His aims included the restoration of German territory lost to Poland in the east, and the former colonies too. But it is mistaken to see in Stresemann a precursor of Hitler. He was at heart a conservative and an old-fashioned nationalist. He learnt from the war experience that Germany could not ‘conquer’ Europe. To attempt this would create another coalition against it. He was realistic and accepted limits to German power. His powerful and respected Germany would be one of Europe’s great powers, not the only great power. He recovered his country’s position and prestige during the course of the next six years until his untimely death in October 1929. Stresemann had the courage to do the politically unpopular. Despite the nationalist patriotic clamour against the French and the Diktat of Versailles, he recognised that Germany was only ruining its economic recovery at home and its reputation abroad. His policy was that of sweet reasonableness, a policy of ‘fulfilment’, as it became known. Germany would now freely accept the Versailles Treaty, seek peace and friendship with France and renounce any future claim to recover Alsace-Lorraine. The French should feel secure and so, to prove their own acceptance of the entirely new spirit of reconciliation, would show their confidence by giving up the remaining guarantees of its security – the occupation of the Rhineland and the Allied commission supervising German disarmament. He called off passive resistance and allowed the French president, Poincaré, the illusion of victory and German submission. The French were not so naive as to accept all these protestations of love at their face value but the British were delighted at this promising turn of events. They wanted the war to be over and peace and goodwill instantly to reign. British foreign secretaries were more suspicious of the French than of the Germans, though one of them at least, Austen Chamberlain, recognised clearly enough that French militancy was the result of their feeling of insecurity. Yet, he too grasped at the opportunity of avoiding closer commitments to France. Instead he underwrote a general Western European security treaty suggested by Stresemann to head off any possibility of an Anglo-French alliance and drafted with the help of the British ambassador in Berlin. The outcome was the Locarno Treaties of 16 October 1925. France and Germany undertook to respect each other’s territories and frontiers and to accept them as final. This treaty of mutual guarantee, which included Belgium, was also signed by Britain and Italy. Britain and Italy guaranteed that they would come to the immediate aid of any country attacked by the other signatories of Locarno. But Stresemann had refused to extend Locarno to cover Germany’s eastern frontiers with Czechoslovakia and Poland, nor would Britain guarantee the post-Versailles frontiers in the east as it had done in the west. Although Germany also signed arbitration treaties at the same time with Poland and Czechoslovakia, they did not form part of the Locarno security system. Stresemann’s hardly realistic long-term aim was to revise the eastern frontier peacefully making use of Germany’s economic preponderance. In return for renouncing territorial changes Stresemann won concessions from the Allies. Reparations were scaled down in 1924 and 1929. Stresemann aimed to get rid of them altogether. Germany was admitted to the League of Nations in 1926 and given a permanent seat on the Council. Stresemann joined on condition that Germany, too, need never fight to back up the League if it chose not to do so. The Allied commission supervising German disarmament was withdrawn. Stresemann never lived to see the fulfilment of one of his most cherished objectives – the complete Allied evacuation of all German territory – but before his death he had secured agreement that the Rhineland would be evacuated in 1930. With his French opposite number, Aristide Briand, Stresemann gave publicity to the new Franco-German friendship, the essence of the so-called ‘spirit of Locarno’, even though in private Stresemann was continually demanding more concessions than France would grant. As for Briand, he believed the French had no alternative but to make the best of German protestations and promises. At home, too, the years from 1924 to 1927 were a brief golden period for the republic. The currency was stabilised. The promise of peace at home and abroad enabled the hardworking Germans to attract large American loans which covered the cost of reparations. American efficiency and methods of manufacture were successfully adopted by German industry. Business concerns combined and formed themselves into huge cartels in steel, chemicals and the electrical goods industries. Export flourished. Trade unions, too, enjoyed freedom and for the first time the positive protection of the state. These were the brief years of prosperity and had they continued the German people might well have come to value more their new republican democracy. Instead, as the economic crisis, which began among the farmers and spread to industry, hit Germany, a majority of the electorate in the early 1930s turned to parties that sought totalitarian solutions.

 

 

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