The short-lived Weimar Republic is the historical name for Germany’s representative democracy in the years of 1919 to 1933. It succeeded Imperial Germany and ended when the Nazi Party came to power.
The Republic experienced notable achievements of national policy, such as a progressive tax and currency reform. The constitution also enshrined equal opportunities for women in a variety of spheres.
Weimar Society was quite forward thinking for the day, with education, cultural activities and liberal attitudes flourishing.
On the other hand, weaknesses such as socio-political strife, economic hardship and resulting moral decay plagued Germany during these years. Nowhere was this more evident than in the capital, Berlin.
1. Political Discord
From the beginnings, political support in the Weimar Republic was fragmented and marked by conflict. Following the German Revolution of 1918 to 1919, which occurred at the end of the First World War and brought about an end to the Empire, it was the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) which came to power.
The Social Democrats had set up a parliamentary system, which clashed with the more pure socialist ambitions of revolutionary leftist groups, like the Communist Party (KPD) and more radical social democrats. Right wing nationalist and monarchist groups were also against the Republic, preferring an authoritarian system or a return to the days of the Empire.
Both sides were causes for concern for the stability of the weak state of the early Weimar period. Communist and leftist worker uprisings as well as right-wing actions like the failed Kapp-Luttwitz coup attempt and the Beer Hall Putsch highlighted discontent with the current government from across the political spectrum.
Street violence in the capital and other cities was another sign of discord. The Communist Roter Frontkämpferbund paramilitary group often clashed with the right wing Freikorps, made up of disgruntled former soldiers and later making up the ranks of the early SA or Brownshirts.
To their discredit, the Social Democrats cooperated with the Freikorps in the suppression of the Spartacus League, notably arresting and killing Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.
Within 4 years the violent far right paramilitaries had thrown their support behind Adolf Hitler, who was relatively mollycoddled by the Weimar government, only serving 8 months in prison for trying to seize power in the Beer Hall Putsch.
2. Constitutional Weakness
Many see the Weimar Constitution as flawed due its system of proportional representation, as well as the fallout of the 1933 elections. They blame it for generally weak coalition governments, although this could also be attributed to extreme ideological cleavages and interests within the political spectrum.
Furthermore, the president, military and state governments wielded strong powers. Article 48 gave the president power to issue decrees in ‘emergencies’, something Hitler used to pass new laws without consulting the Reichstag.
3. Economic Hardship
Reparations agreed to in the Treaty of Versailles took their toll on state coffers. In response, Germany defaulted on some payments, prompting France and Belgium to send troops in to occupy industrial mining operations in the Ruhr region in January 1923. Workers responded with 8 months of strikes.
Soon growing inflation became hyperinflation and Germany’s middle classes suffered greatly until economic expansion, aided by American loans and the introduction of the Rentenmark, resumed mid-decade.
In 1923 at the height of hyperinflation the price of a loaf of bread was 100 billion marks, compared to 1 mark just 4 years prior.
4. Sociocultural Weakness
While liberal or conservative social behaviours cannot be absolutely or arbitrarily qualified as ‘weaknesses’, the economic hardships of the Weimar years did contribute to some extreme and desperate behaviour. Increasing amounts of women, as well as men and youths, turned to activities like prostitution, which became partially sanctioned by the state.
Though social and economic attitudes liberalised partly due to necessity, they were not without their victims. Besides prostitution, an illegal trade in hard drugs also flourished, especially in Berlin, and with it organised crime and violence.
The extreme permissiveness of urban society shocked many conservatives, deepening political and social cleavages in Germany.