Weimar republic

Prof. Dr. Thomas Raithel, Institute of Contemporary History Munich/Berlin, his research focuses on comparative history of Germany and France in the 20th century. The history of the twentieth century, the history of the European Union, the history of parliamentarism, and the history of sports.

Weimar = crisis?! Even contemporaries often perceived the young republic as being in crisis. Historical scholarship eventually perpetuated the narrative of the crisis-ridden republic. But what were the crisis conditions of the Weimar Republic?? A stocktaking.

alt="A master baker counts his daily takings in 1923 during the Great Inflation. During the inflation crisis, prices for food and other goods rose to immeasurable heights." width="620" height="413" /> A master baker counts his daily takings in 1923 during the Great Inflation. During the inflation crisis, the prices of food and other goods rose to immeasurable heights. (&copy picture-alliance/akg)

Briefly summarized

  • Crises were omnipresent during the Weimar Republic and also shaped the perception of contemporaries.
  • The various crises were often fed by political and economic structural problems, but they were also caused by sociopolitical tensions between representatives of the "old" and the "new Orders and traditions and proponents of democratic modernization.
  • However, the instability and crisis-ridden nature of Weimar democracy was not a special case, but in some ways a European normality of the interwar period.

The Weimar Republic in the Sign of Crisis

The history of the Weimar Republic is usually associated with the concept of crisis. This is justified insofar as there were massive political, economic and social problems that repeatedly led to exacerbations – for example, in the "crisis year" of the 1923, in which hyperinflation, the Ruhr struggle, government and parliamentary crises, and an attempted National Socialist coup all came to a head. The many difficulties were severe strains on Germany’s first parliamentary democracy, and created conditions for the rise and rise to power of National Socialism. The image of a deeply crisis-ridden republic, however, always possessed the characteristics of a construct with a specific function. This already began with the contemporary judgments, in which the diagnosis of crisis was often tied to location: Thus, an opponent of the parliamentary form of government perceived certain phenomena of political life more critically than a proponent. In general, however, it can be said that the tendency to perceive crises and the associated feeling of insecurity were widespread among contemporaries of the Weimar Republic.

The crisis paradigm then gained fundamental importance for West German self-perception. "Weimar" served for decades as a negative foil from which to positively contrast one’s own circumstances: "Bonn is not Weimar". Although historiography now paints a more differentiated and less gloomy picture of Weimar, "Weimar" is still a very different story currently returned to current debates as a negative contrast. In the following, the crisis conditions of the Weimar Republic will be dealt with in a double sense. Outlines, on the one hand, the main challenges and areas of conflict, and, on the other hand, the structures of the political system that was involved in dealing with the problem. Since these domestic political structures not infrequently became a problem themselves, the focus of the account here will be on. The crisis aspects, which are the focus of this article, must not be absolutized, however. The Weimar Republic was not doomed to failure from the outset, and its developments should not be evaluated solely in terms of the year 1933. The Weimar period was also an era of diverse potential, promising new beginnings and great achievements – and not only in the cultural sphere. And until the end there were always situations in which a different path could have been taken.

It should also be taken into account that between the world wars, other parts of Europe and the world also experienced more or less serious crises. Placing the Weimar Republic in this larger scenario of the European and global "interwar period represents a difficult task that historical scholarship is increasingly addressing.

Economic problems and sociopolitical limits

The economy of the Weimar Republic was characterized by serious structural problems. This concerned, on the one hand, the often obsolete agricultural sector. Although it had already been overtaken by industry in terms of overall economic importance before 1914, it still represented an important sector of economic life. Farmers, under global competitive pressure and confronted with falling prices for agricultural products, expected help from the state, which the latter was hardly able to provide in view of its difficult financial situation. In the late 1920s, even before the onset of the Great Depression, the agrarian crisis led to fierce peasant protests in some regions and to a radicalization of the electorate. In the final phase of the Republic, the economic crisis of the East German landowners was also politically explosive.

alt="Demonstration of Berlin metalworkers against the Bruning government’s austerity program during the economic crisis." width="620" height="413" /> Demonstration by Berlin metalworkers against the Bruning government’s austerity program during the economic crisis. (&copy picture-alliance, akg-images)

Structural problems also prevailed in industry, which was characterized by a lack of capital, overcapacity and overall weak growth. World economic factors, including in particular a high degree of protectionism, played an important role. Researchers are controversial about the contemporary assumption that excessive sociopolitical involvement of the state – with consequences for the tax burden and the credit system – and an excessively high wage level were partly responsible for the economic difficulties. In the Weimar Republic, these conflict issues led to increasing confrontation between business associations and trade unions, after initial cooperation had soon broken down. As a result of the system of compulsory state arbitration of wage disputes, criticism of the Weimar state grew at the same time on the part of the business community.

The efforts to modernize industry, which were also characteristic of the Weimar period, remained ambivalent: On the one hand, the rationalization boom of the 1920s represented a necessary adjustment to the global economy; on the other hand, it was burdensome for a labor market in which, as a result of the general economic weakness, there was already considerable base unemployment before 1929. The two major economic crisis complexes of the interwar period – postwar inflation and the Great Depression – each hit Germany hard. After the inflation that had already set in during World War I had also brought economic benefits at the beginning of the Republic, developments since the end of 1922, under the impact of the worsening reparations issue and the Ruhr struggle, turned into an economically and socially fatal hyperinflation that severely damaged the confidence of many citizens in the state. The stabilization of the currency, which began in the fall of 1923, was undoubtedly a success in terms of financial policy; a certain degree of economic recovery was now temporarily possible, mainly due to short-term loans from the U.S.

A German unemployed person looking for work during the Great Depression, around 1930

A German unemployed person looking for work during the Great Depression, around 1930. (&copy Bundesarchiv, image 183-N0904-318)

The rapid spread of the Great Depression from the United States to Germany in the fall of 1929, the rise of mass unemployment and the rapid overtaxing of unemployment insurance, which had been introduced in 1927, finally brought about a broad economic crisis awareness. The rigid austerity policy under Chancellor Bruning, whose assessment remains controversial even within the research community, accelerated the loss of confidence and the strengthening of the political extremes (KPD and NSDAP) in this situation. Overall, the economic weaknesses drew narrow limits on the possibilities of the Weimar welfare state, which was initially quite ambitious and in some respects pioneering. This in turn reduced the social integration power of the young republic.

Socio-cultural tensions and contradictions

In socio-cultural terms, the Weimar Republic was marked by major differences between the "classical modernity" that was gaining in breadth and the "social modernity" that was gaining in strength and the still strong forces of tradition. This affected not only high culture – think, for example, of the conflicts over modern painting and modern architecture – but also people’s everyday lives. The contradictions between the old and new female role models – between the "new woman" and the "new woman" – were a major obstacle to social integration and traditional maternal ideals – are one example among many. However, it is important not to draw a one-sided picture: There were not only contrasts and conflicts between tradition and modernity, but also some overlaps and syntheses. Architecture in particular offers numerous examples of this: Munich’s first high-rise, for example, the Technical City Hall, completed in 1929, incorporated formal elements of local architectural history.

The transnational dimension of modernity was clearly pronounced, arousing enthusiasm on the one hand, but also insecurity and cultural pessimism on the other. The United States became both an image and a horror story, and the term "America" and the still strong forces of tradition to a cipher of the new, which unfolded above all in the big cities. In addition, the growing number of white-collar workers in the service sector – alongside the industrial workforce already established in the empire – gave rise to a further new urban population group. The provinces, on the other hand, remained mostly bound to tradition, and the cultural pessimism and often anti-Semitic hostility toward the big city that had already developed in the late Kaiserreich intensified.

In the Weimar period, socio-cultural tensions also prevailed that could not be assigned to the dichotomy of tradition and modernity: Examples include confessional conflicts, the persistence of socio-moral milieus that hindered political cooperation, and the problems of the young. As a result of high birth rates in the late empire, this young population group, which had a growing sense of its own identity, had grown considerably; however, the labor market and society often offered it few opportunities.

alt="A Berlin working-class family shares a meager meal in times of crisis." width="620" height="413" /> A Berlin working-class family shares a meager meal in times of crisis. (&copy picture-alliance, Mary Evans Picture Library, WEIMA)

Foreign and Military Policy in the Shadow of the First World War

Foreign and military policy issues formed an important aspect of the strains confronting the Weimar Republic. The initial situation of the defeat in the war was decisive. For many, the German Reich was still long dreaming of a brilliant "victorious peace" The new generation of white-collar workers, who had been dreaming of a future, was surprisingly and hardly comprehensibly defeated. It had to submit to peace terms that were perceived as very harsh across almost the entire political spectrum. The constant state effort to undermine the military restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles promoted the militarization of the extreme right and gave rise to serious domestic conflicts. Finally, the smoldering reparations issue became a perennial problem – partly instrumentalized for domestic political purposes – that provided the Republic’s right-wing opponents with propaganda material, for example in the agitation against the Young Plan of 1929, which provided for the reparations debt to be paid until 1988.

Once again, however, one must be warned against a one-sided picture: Weimar foreign policy achieved successes with the reintegration of Germany into the system of states and the efforts to reach an understanding with the Western powers, and these successes were also recognized at home. Longtime foreign minister Gustav Stresemann, who died in 1929 at only 51, was one of the most controversial but also one of the most popular politicians of the republic. In the area of military policy, the Weimar state also scored certain successes: The integration of the Reichswehr into the republican state, which had made little progress for a long time, made progress toward the end of the Weimar period. For example, unlike before, all armaments policy was now coordinated with the government. However, this also gave the military leadership new opportunities to intervene in domestic political developments.

Structures of the political system

The structural problems of the Weimar Republic began with its founding. The transformation of the German Reich from a constitutional monarchy into a parliamentary democracy and a republic was never really accepted in large parts of the political spectrum. Antipathies arose from opposing motives: While the right mourned the Kaiserreich and perceived the system change associated with the defeat in the war as externally determined, the revolutionary upheaval of 1918/19 did not go far enough for the radical left.

The well-known catchphrase "democracy without democrats" – was also used is, however, too sweeping: it obscures the fact that in the parties of the Weimar coalition (SPD, DDP and Zentrum) there were significant forces at work that were committed to the development of democracy and that there were also integrative successes of the republic. The latter was evident, for example, in its early phase, when the right-wing liberal DVP under the chairmanship of Stresemann was effectively incorporated into the camp loyal to the Republic and when large sections of the left-wing pacifist Independent Social Democracy (USPD), which had split off in 1917, rejoined the (majority) SPD. A basic integrative trait of parliamentary culture was able to develop, against many odds, in the Reichstag as well by the end of the 1920s. For a time, the conservative DNVP even came closer to the camp of the system-supporting parties. The legislative achievements of the Reichstag – for example, the.B. the great Reich financial reform of 1919/20 – were quite respectable outside the acute crisis phases of 1923 to 1924 and 1930 to 1933.

The fact that the results of the Reichstag elections, with their increasing party fragmentation and the strengthening of the enemies of the Republic, led in the long term to a clear weakening of the system-supporting forces was not inevitable. Rather, this development also resulted from causes that only emerged in the course of the Weimar period: In the early years, for example, the harsh suppression of left-wing extremist demonstrations and uprisings was a factor that contributed to the distancing and radicalization of sections of the working class. In addition to the economic crises, parliamentary problems, which were also rooted in the weakness of the democratic camp, led to a further loss of confidence in the democratic parties.

Serious crises repeatedly occurred in the formation of parliamentary majorities and thus also in the formation and support of governments. The average lifespan of the 20 Weimar governments remained correspondingly low (ca. eight months). Cabinet formations often became a complicated affair. Compared with the stability that had characterized the governments of the imperial era, it is not surprising that the new circumstances were perceived as a crisis. Moreover, difficulties in understanding a modern parliamentary system were not infrequent – for example, when contemporary criticism was levelled at the influence of the Reichstag factions on the formation of the cabinet.

The concrete causes of the government crises were more complex than suggested by the cliche, which has long been popular in historiography, that the parties were not responsible enough. The massive differences within a polarized multiparty system reflected the conflicting interests of the fragmented German society after the lost war. They were also an expression of the tense overall political situation. A greater willingness to compromise always entailed the risk of being punished in the next elections, especially since the understanding of pluralism and compromise was poorly developed in German society. The dominant political mentalities had lagged behind the social and political changes. And the diversity and conflict-ridden nature of the Weimar conditions encouraged counter-designs that propagated a holistic or even totalitarian understanding of the state and society. Domestic political complications were also created at times by the striving for a grand coalition from the SPD to the DVP, which had been evident time and again since 1922. Behind this were not only arithmetical motives interested in forming a parliamentary majority. The ideal of national unity, reinforced by the world war and the post-war crises, also played a role, as did the tactical efforts of the bourgeois center to frame the SPD as a government partner as broadly as possible. When grand coalitions actually governed in 1923 under Reich Chancellor Stresemann and from 1928 to 1930 under Hermann Muller (SPD), they were burdened by strong internal tensions and partially paralyzed. At the same time, there was almost no opposition in the Reichstag that was loyal to the system, which contributed to the strengthening of the extremes in the subsequent Reichstag elections. Structural problems also included a tendency toward violence: the Weimar period was marked by left-wing radical uprising attempts and their suppression by the military and the Freikorps, as well as right-wing radical coup attempts in the early phase of the republic, political assassinations and, finally, the confrontation of militarized military associations close to the party (SA, Stahlhelm, Rotfrontkampferbund and – between the extremes – Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold) with each other and with the state organs of order.

The attempt to resolve the domestic political difficulties by upgrading the status of the Reich president was an option that was already embodied in the Weimar constitution and developed over the course of the years. The inflation crisis of 1922 to 1924 played an important role here. For the first time, a government was now formed that was strongly controlled by the Reich President (Cuno cabinet in November 1922). In addition, a de-parliamentarized form of legislation was introduced by means of the "presidential" cabinet The government practiced the constitutional constitutional reform through Article 48 of the constitution and broadly based parliamentary enabling statutes. All this happened under Reich President Friedrich Ebert with the best intention of overcoming the political and economic crisis and saving the Republic.

However, this also created the conditions under constitutional law for the more profound loss of parliamentary function that had been taking place since 1930 under the "presidential governments Bruning, Papen and Schleicher took place. In the meantime, after the early death of Ebert and the election of the Reich president in 1925, Paul von Hindenburg, a representative of the old army and the old system, held the highest office in the state. For parts of the center-right spectrum, this development was combined with the hope that they could now abandon the parliamentary system in favor of an authoritarian-presidential-state solution and at the same time permanently force the SPD out of government responsibility.

The fact that the return to a cabinet formation anchored in the Reichstag since the elections of July 1932 also had to mean the participation in government of the strongly growing NSDAP created a paradoxical situation that in the short term could probably only have been resolved by a coup d’etat. Reich President Hindenburg, who was oriented toward national consensus, shied away from this step – and in January 1933, by formally orienting the formation of the government to the customs of the parliamentary system, he finally handed over the Weimar state to its fiercest enemies.

Comparative Perspectives

The fragility and crisis of Weimar democracy was not a special case, but to a certain extent European, even worldwide normality of the interwar period. A tendency toward authoritarianism can also be observed in many democratic states of this era, with governments gaining power over parliaments.

The historical comparison, which is increasingly practiced in the meantime, must, however, pay close attention to the respective national specifics. Superficially similar phenomena often conceal phenomena that are to be evaluated differently. For example, the equally frequent change of governments in the Third French Republic had a less serious dimension than in the Weimar Republic. Due to a weak party system and a broad republican consensus, new governments were usually formed very quickly in France. Ministerial personnel often remained stable. Nor was the failure of a democracy and its replacement by an authoritarian regime a German peculiarity in the interwar period. Corresponding processes took place across Europe and worldwide, in 12 to 15 other states, depending on the criteria used for the count. Young parliamentary systems in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe were particularly affected. There was also a transnational dynamic – for example, in the exemplary effect of Italian fascism.

The failure of the Weimar Republic, however, is a special case with regard to its terrible consequences: the rise to power of the National Socialists. The analysis of this process, for which neither a straightforward German Sonderweg nor mere chance is responsible, remains a central task of contemporary historiography, especially also with regard to the classification and evaluation of Weimar problematic situations and crises. The comparison can make both transnational phenomena and national specifics stand out more clearly. The need for research in this area remains high.


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