The abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on 9 November 1918 marked the end of the German Empire. On the same day, chancellor Prince Maximilian of Baden resigned and appointed the new chancellor, Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
The Weimar Republic was a democratic revolution born of Germany’s desire for peace above anything else in 1918, and the country’s belief that Kaiser Wilhelm would not be the one to deliver it.
Yet the republic would constitute some of the most tumultuous years in German politics: its leaders negotiated the terms of German surrender following World War One, navigated the ‘years of crisis’ between 1920 and 1923, endured economic depression, and all the while forged a new type of democratic government in Germany.
President Friedrich Ebert (February 1919 – February 1925)
A socialist and trade unionist, Ebert was a leading player in establishing the Weimar Republic. With Chancellor Maximillian’s resignation in 1918 and growing support for the Communists in Bavaria, Ebert was left with little choice – and no higher power to direct him otherwise – than to watch as Germany was declared a republic and establish a new cabinet.
To quell unrest during the winter of 1918, Ebert employed the right-wing Freikorps – a paramilitary group responsible for murdering the leaders of the leftist Spartacus League, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – making Ebert wildly unpopular with the radical left.
Nevertheless, he was elected as first president of the Weimar Republic by the new national assembly in February 1919.
Philipp Scheidemann (February – June 1919)
Philipp Scheidemann was also a Social Democrat and worked as a journalist. Without warning on 9 November 1918, he publicly proclaimed a republic from the Reichstag balcony which, faced with leftist uprisings, was pretty hard to take back.
After serving the interim republican government between November 1918 and February 1919, Scheidemann became the first chancellor of the Weimar Republic. He resigned in June 1919 rather than agree to the Versailles Treaty.
Gustav Bauer (June 1919 – March 1920)
Another Social Democrat, as the second German chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Bauer had the thankless task of negotiating the Treaty of Versailles or “peace of injustice” as it came to be known in Germany. Accepting the treaty, generally seen in Germany as humiliating, substantially weakened the new republic.
Bauer resigned shortly after the Kapps Putsch in March 1920, during which Friekorps brigades took Berlin while their leader, Wolfgang Kapp, formed a government with World War One general, Ludendorff. The putsch was put down by resistance from trade unions who called a general strike.
Hermann Müller (March – June 1920, June 1928 – March 1930)
Müller was made chancellor just 3 months before he was elected out in June 1920, when the popularity of the republican parties dropped. He was chancellor again in 1928, but was forced to resign in 1930 as the Great Depression wrought disaster on the German economy.
Konstantin Fehrenbach (June 1920 – May 1921)
A chancellor from the Centre party, Fehrenbach led the first non-socialist government of the Weimar Republic. However, his government resigned in May 1921 after the Allies stipulated that Germany had to pay reparations of 132 billion gold marks – far above what they could reasonably pay.
Karl Wirth (May 1921 – November 1922)
Instead, the new chancellor Karl Wirth accepted the Allied terms. The republicans continued to make the unpopular decisions forced upon them by Allied powers. As foreseen, Germany could not pay the reparations on time and, as a result, France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr in January 1923.
Wilhelm Cuno (November 1922 – August 1923)
Cuno’s coalition government of the Centre Party, People’s Party and the SPD, ordered passive resistance to the French occupation. The occupiers responded by crippling German industry through arrests and an economic blockade, leading to massive inflation of the Mark, and Cuno stepped down in August 1923 as the Social Democrats demanded stronger policy.
Gustav Stresemann (August – November 1923)
Stresemann lifted the ban on paying reparations and ordered everyone back to work. Declaring a state of emergency, he used the army to put down Communist unrest in Saxony and Thuringia while the Bavarian National Socialists led by Adolf Hitler staged the unsuccessful Munich Putsch on 9 November 1923.
Having dealt with the threat of chaos, Stresemann turned to the issue of inflation. The Rentenmark was introduced on 20 November that year, based on a mortgage of the entire German industry.
Although his drastic measures prevented the collapse of the republic, Stresemann resigned after a vote of no confidence on 23 November 1923.
Wilhelm Marx (May 1926 – June 1928)
From the Centre Party, Chancellor Marx felt secure enough to remove the state of emergency in February 1924. Yet Marx inherited the French occupied Ruhr and issue of reparations.
The answer came in a new plan devised by the British and Americans – the Dawes Plan. This plan loaned the Germans 800 million marks and allowed them to pay reparations several billion marks at a time.
Paul von Hindenburg (February 1925 – August 1934)
When Friedrich Ebert died in February 1925, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was elected president in his place. A monarchist favoured by the right, Hindenburg raised the concerns of foreign powers and republicans.
However, Hindenburg’s visible loyalty to the republican cause during the ‘years of crisis’ helped to strengthen and reconcile the republic with moderate monarchists and the right-wing. Between 1925 and 1928, governed by coalitions, Germany saw relative prosperity as industry boomed and wages grew.
Heinrich Brüning (March 1930 – May 1932)
Another Centre Party member, Brüning had not held office before and was most concerned with the budget. Yet his unstable majority could not agree on a plan. They were made up of a hostile selection of Social Democrats, Communists, Nationalists and Nazis, whose popularity had risen during the Great Depression.
To get around this, Brüning controversially used his presidential emergency powers in 1930, but unemployment still soared into the millions.
Franz von Papen (May – November 1932)
Papen was not popular in Germany and relied on the support of Hindenburg and the army. However, he did find success in foreign diplomacy, overseeing the abolishment of reparations, and united with Schleicher to prevent Hitler and the Nazis taking power by ruling through emergency decree.
Kurt von Schleicher (December 1932 – January 1933)
Schleicher became the last Weimar chancellor when Papen was forced to resign in December 1932, but was himself dismissed by Hindenburg in January 1933. In turn, Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor, unwittingly ushering in the end of the Weimar Republic and beginning of the Third Reich.