Weimar: The Fragile Democratic Republic

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A HISTORY OF HITLER'S EMPIRE, 2ND EDITION

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

The new democratic republic established in the midst of great turmoil in Germany in 1919 was forced to bear a legacy of war and defeat. Why was the new government in Germany beset by so many problems after the Great War?

German soldiers with machine guns in a trench during the First World War.
Although the German soldiers had fought hard in the Great War, the war ended with great humiliation for Germany. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

For a great deal of the German population, this new government didn’t seem quite like a legitimate government born of revolution. It was assigned responsibility for the surrender—the inexplicable surrender and defeat of Germany in the Great War—while the military avoided responsibility for the catastrophic end of the war.

Between 1919 and 1923, the new republic was troubled by a series of economic and political crises. It was plagued by internal, extremist terror. Assassinations abounded, almost always assassinations of leftist politicians, or those associated with the founding of this new republic, by right-wing terrorists.

One of the things that the new democratic regime in Germany had not done was to purge the old judiciary, nor the high command of the army. That failure to purge the judiciary would prove to be quite important for the fate of the Weimar Republic.

The Instability after the Great War

In part, the new republican authorities didn’t believe that they could afford great instability after the Great War. The German population, which had suffered defeat and millions of casualties during the war, was now faced by what they saw as a Draconian treaty. The allies were ready to invade Germany if the Germans didn’t sign on the dotted line at Versailles.

The government knew that order needed to be restored for the economy to recover and for democracy to have a chance to establish itself. Therefore, Germany couldn’t afford to downsize its economy, for example, to suffer unemployment, as the economy moved from wartime to a peacetime footing.

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The Army, the Judiciary, and the Communists

The new government saw its greatest enemy not as revolution from the right or from the left. In 1919–1920, the German Social Democrats found the greatest threat coming from the radical left, the left wing of the Social Democratic Party that had broken away during the war. This group founded the German Communist Party in January 1919.

The new government, therefore, needed to rely on the army to maintain order, and it needed a stable judiciary. As a consequence, in addition to the problems that were set off by the political assassinations, was the fact that the right-wing thugs that were caught and convicted received slaps on the wrist from the old judiciary as long as the victim was on the radical left or was somebody who was associated—as Matthias Erzberger was—with the armistice, with the surrender, or with the founding of this new democratic German state.

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The Coups in the Weimar Republic

The new republic was also beset by coups from the left and right. The instability didn’t stop with political assassination, but between 1919 and 1924, attempts were made to overthrow this very fragile democratic state by radicals from the left and right.

In January 1919, the communists in Berlin rose in part to prevent there being an election to the constituent assembly to draw up a constitution. It was brutally repressed by the police, the army, and the new government.

In 1920, a conservative military officer out on what had been the eastern front attempted to overthrow the government and re-establish the monarchy. That attempt was frustrated by the calling of a general strike. There was also an uprising of the communists in the Ruhr in 1920, crushed by the army.

Members of the NSDAP dressed in their uniforms and participating in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.
The uprising of the NSDAP in Munich in November 1923 came to be known as the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’. (Image: Bundesarchiv/CC-BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

There was a Rhenish Separatist movement in 1923 when attempts were made to establish an independent Rhineland state. And the French and Belgians invaded the Rhineland in January 1923. The French desperately wanted to see the establishment of a new Rhenish republic to weaken the German state.

There was a Communist uprising in Hamburg in October 1923 and then, the most significant, in November 1923 there was an uprising of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the NSDAP, in Munich, which has come to be called the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’.

The Cabinet Instability in the Weimar Republic

After the 1920 elections—the first real elections to the new Parliament—no government could attain a majority. This was an outcome of the very progressive democratic idea that all parties should have access to representation. It meant that every splinter group, every glorified lobby, would have a chance to have a seat in the Parliament, and it made coalition-building quite difficult.

In this situation, there were nine different cabinet changes between 1919 and 1923 and all of the parties tended to be minority coalition governments. This meant that there really wasn’t a stable majority in favor of them in the Parliament itself, in the Reichstag, but they would pass legislation on a case-by-case basis, without enjoying a stable coalition majority behind them.

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Anton Drexler and the Rise of the DAP

Photo of Anton Drexler, the founder of the DAP.
Anton Drexler founded the DAP in 1919. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

It was in this atmosphere of post-war political and social uncertainty and radicalism that the German Workers’ Party was founded in Munich. It was founded by Anton Drexler, who headed something called the Executive Committee.

The DAP—the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, as the party was called—was really a kind of glorified debating society. It held its meetings in a beer hall in Munich.

In 1919, Anton Drexler had begun this sort of quasi-party. It was just a group of guys getting together to complain about the new German government and the revolution. It was only when he decided to have one of these meetings as an open meeting that he had to register with the police—the police in this instance being the German army, which was still exercising martial law over Munich. The army sent an observer to the proceedings to write a report.

It was to this meeting that the army sent a young corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler, who was stationed in Munich at the time. Hitler went to the meeting and listened to the speech. He was impressed by it, although not by the meeting or the organization. Within a short amount of time, he joined the DAP, and a political career was born.

Common Questions about the Weimar Republic

Q: Was the Weimar Republic threatened by coups?

Yes, the Weimar Republic was threatened by coups. Between 1919 and 1924, attempts were made to overthrow this state by radicals from the left and the right.

Q: What is known as the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’?

The ‘Beer Hall Putsch’ is the name of the uprising of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the NSDAP, in Munich in 1923.

Q: What was the reason for the political instability in the Weimar Republic immediately after the Great War?

After the 1920 elections, no government could attain a majority in the Weimar Republic. It made coalition-building quite difficult. Therefore, there were nine different cabinet changes between 1919 and 1923.

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