Weimar Republic – Years of crisis

This chapter if about the first German republic, named after the city of Weimar where the national assembly met in 1919, to decide about a constitution and to form a new government. However, the young Weimar Republican had to struggle from its start. 

Germany, 1918/1919. After the defeat in the World War I, Germany was in disastrous shape. The war had ended, but the country was not in peace. Friedrich Ebert (SPD) had taken over government, but he could not win the old elites for the new, democratic regime. What would Germany’s future be like?

After the bloody January uprising in Berlin and the murders of Rosa Luxemburg Liebknecht, political enmity had become hatred. In Berlin, Saxony, the Rhineland and the Ruhr area general strikes and heavy fighting made the first years of the Weimar Republic almost civil-war-like.

Free State of Prussia (1919-1932)

Many people, not only Socialists, thought that Prussia, so far the epitome of the authoritarian state, would be too great a burden for the young republic. There were serious plans to break up Prussia into smaller states. But Prussia prevailed and became by far the largest state of the Weimar Republic. Particularly the Social Democrats around Otto Braun considered it their duty to remodel Prussia into a democratic state that could support the young Weimar Republic. Prussia was proclaimed a “Free State” (i.e. a republic) within the new Weimar Republic and in 1920 received a democratic constitution. Finally, the restrictive three class voting system was abolished, from now on all adult men – and women! – could vote on equal terms.

From 1919 to 1932, Prussia was governed by a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Center Party and the German Democratic Party, from 1921 to 1925, coalition governments included the German People’s Party. Unlike in other states, there was always a majority of the democratic parties in Prussia. The East Prussian Otto Braun, Prussian Minister President almost continuously from 1929 to 1932, was a very remarkable man. The Prussian provinces were represented in the State Council whose President was Konrad Adenauer. Throughout the years of the Weimar Republic, the Free State of Prussia was a “pillar of democracy”, as Gustav Stresemann said.

The National Assembly in Weimar

In the elections for the National Assembly on January 19, 1919, women could vote for the first time. The SPD emerged as the strongest faction and built a coalition with the Center Party / Bavarian People’s Party and the German Democratic Party, the so-called “Weimar Coalition” of 1919.

On February 6, 1919, the National Assembly met in Weimar, and this venue has given the first German Republic its name. On February 11, Friedrich Ebert (SPD) was elected first Reichspräsident (president). On February 13, the Provisional Government assigned its authority to the first democratic government under Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann. On August 11, 1919 the Weimar constitution came into effect. It was considered the most free in the world, and it granted those freedoms also to its fiercest enemies. The Reichspräsident was directly elected by the people and had a very strong position. He appointed and dismissed the Chancellor and his Government, he could dissolve the Reichstag, and he had the supreme command of the armed forces, the Reichswehr. Moreover, article 49 enabled him to issue emergency decrees. For the first time, the national flag was black-red-gold.

The Treaty of Versailles

While the National Assembly in Weimar debated, the victorious powers negotiated in Paris. Unfortunately, US President Woodrow Wilson could not push through his “Fourteen Points”. The conditions for peace were very hard: Germany lost large territories, had to pay large-scale reparations, drastically reduce troops and hand over most of her war material. The left and right banks of the Rhine River would be permanently demilitarized, and allied troops would occupy the left bank of the Rhine and bridge heads in Cologne for a period of 5-15 years. Moreover, the Allies had to right to occupy the right bank, too, if they found that Germany violated the treaty. What embittered Germans most was the War Guilt Clause in Article 231: Germany had to accept the sole responsibility of the war.

The delegation in Versailles, the Government and the people, all were outraged and desperate. As a protest, the Scheidemann administration resigned. But there was no other way, on June 28, the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The young Weimar Republic, however, was seriously weakened from the very beginning.


According to the treaty of Versailles, the Reichswehr had to be reduced in the first months of 1920, and that meant the dissolution of all Free Corps. That measure caused great embitterment among the Free Corps who had fought for the Weimar Republic. The extreme right-wing politician Wolfgang Kapp made use of that situation. On March 13, he led the rebelling Freikorps’ march on Berlin and proclaimed himself Chancellor (Kapp-Putsch). In the Empire, that would have been high treason, yet now the Reichswehr refused to interfere. Nonetheless, the putsch collapsed after four days, because the civil servants in Berlin refused to take orders from Kapp, and all over the country general strikes occurred.

In the Ruhr Area, civil unrest and general strikes again the Kapp putsch grew into civil war. The same day, a “Red Ruhr Army” of 50.000 men formed. Supported by a strike of more than 300.000 miners, they conquered the whole area. In vain Minister of Interior Severing, a brave democrat, struggled for a non-violent settlement. Eventually, Reichswehr troops and Free Corps crushed the uprising, shooting even wounded persons according to martial law until Reichspräsident Ebert stopped it. These traumatic experiences left their marks. In the first regular elections in June 1920, the “Weimar Coalition” lost its majority. In the following years, many short lived administrations followed.

132 Milliards Goldmark reparations payments

In May 1921, the reparation payments were determined to be 132 milliards, to be paid in 37 years. Yet, all administrations in those years had no choice, they had to fulfill the demands and could only hope that it would soon turn out that Germany could not afford these astronomically high reparations payments. In that situation, Chancellor Wirth and Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau concluded in April 1922 the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union: Both countries renounced war claims, made trade agreements and established diplomatic relations. By that, the young Weimar Republic had taken a bit of pressure of itself, but the Allies were suspicious and, for the time being, refused any further negotiations on reparation payments.

Political assassinations

The hard Peace Treaty of Versailles, perceived as humiliating by many people, made the radical Right strong. They openly showed their despise for the Weimar Republic, and blamed all the suffering, the great need and the peace terms on the new democratic state and its leaders. Armed paramilitary forces banded together, and secret organizations formed who felt entitled to take revenge. Matthias Erzberger, who had negotiated the armistice, was murdered in 1921. On June 4, 1922 Philipp Scheidemann narrowly escaped an attack. A year later, Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau was shot. The whole country was in shock, and for a moment, outrage and grief got people, and even the political parties, closer and cohesive.

Ruhr Occupation 1923

According to the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to pay large-scale reparations. In May 1921, they had been determined to be 132 milliards, to be paid in 37 years. At the end of 1922, Germany was late with reparation payments.

The French Premier Raymound Poincaré ordered French and Belgian troops, 60,000 to 100,000 men, to occupy the Ruhr Area and thereby control Germany’s center of coal, iron and steel production. The German Government called for passive resistance: orders from the occupying forces were not fulfilled, general strikes paralyzed industry, administration and transportation, and also branches of industry depending on the Ruhr Area were brought to a standstill. Against all appeals, also increasingly acts of sabotage and attacks on the occupying forces occurred. More than 100 people lost their lives.

With the occupation of the Ruhr Area, also in the occupied Rhineland tensions between the French troops and the locals aggravated, in Bonn about 350 people where exiled. At the end of February / beginning of March, the French took over the American area of control. On February 25, 1923, Königswinter was occupied by French troops. Many young men who had been exiled and now lived from “Ruhr area subsidy” joined separatist groups.

Eventually, the passive resistance turned out to be a loss-making deal for the Poincaré administration. On the other hand, it almost ruined German economy and demanded great sacrifices. About 150,000 people were punished or even exiled; about two million people had no more income. The benefits paid to those families swallowed enormous sums that the crisis ridden young Weimar Republic could not raise. The Government did not know any other way then to print more money. Also states, cities and even companies printed money. The more money circulated, the less it was worth, and the already existing inflation got out of control, eventually prices would raise several times a day.

In September 1923, the value of the Goldmark had fallen into a bottomless abyss and economy had collapsed. It was irresponsible to continue the passive resistance, although it was an unpopular decision. On September 1923, the new chancellor Dr. Gustav Stresemann called an end to the passive resistance and imposed emergency rule on the whole country. In this desperate situation, the Government in Berlin thought about separating the Rhineland, at least for a while, from Germany, and turning over responsibility to the occupying forces.

The Separatist “Rhenish Republic”

As the situation in the occupied Rhineland deteriorated more and more, the separatist groups became more radical. On August 15, 1923, several groups joined forces in the “Vereinigten Rheinischen Bewegung” under chairman Franz Josef Matthes. In October, the separatists launched their attacks in the cities of Aachen, Bonn and Coblenz, here the “Rhenish Republic” was proclaimed.

On October 25, the separatists “raided” Königswinter, as the local newspapers reported. That choice of words is understandable: a group of mostly non-locals marched into town, occupied the city hall by force of arms, and plagued the people – and all that under protection of the French soldiers.

A battle in the Siebengebirge

The separatists often drove into the villages nearby to “requisition” goods, or, seen through the eyes to the people, to steal them. The villages formed self defense groups. On November 15/16, 1923, an armed fight close to Aegidienberg broke out, in which at least 14 separatists and 2 locals died. There is a monument in Aegidienberg-Hoevel to remind us of that day.

It may be hard to believe that Rhineland separatists were beaten out of the villages and cities, even killed, by Rhenish citizens. The separatists failed because they were not supported by the citizens themselves. These didn’t feel liberated by the separatists, but threatened by them, and they didn’t believe in the separatists’ patriotic conviction, especially in light of the fact that the separatists were supported, at least tolerated by French military.

Moreover, the “official” representatives of the “Rhenish Republic” were not in a position to care for their people without “requisitions”, and most worrisome of all, keep criminal elements out of their movement.

Finally France and Great Britain agreed to put an end to separatist movements, so the remaining separatists went into exile, and on December 28 the “Rhenish Republic” was officially done away with.

Hitler’s beer hall putsch

By 1923, Bavaria was a stronghold of the right-wing extremists. On November 9, 1923 Adolf Hitler, head of the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party, led an coup in a Munich beer hall. It failed, Hitler was arrested and condemned to five years in prison, but he was released already at the end of 1924. In the few months in prison, he wrote “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle).

November 1923. The Stresemann administration introduced a new currency, the Rentenmark, later Reichsmark, and drastically cut down expenses and raised taxes. And yet, the stability of the currency was the first ray of hope at the end of the year of crisis 1923.

20th century
The short 20th century | The Great War | German Revolution 1918/19 | Occupation of the Rhineland | Weimar Republic – Years of Crisis | Weimar Republic – Golden Era | Weimar Republic – Depression and Decline | Nazi Germany | World War II | Federal Republic of Germany

The following images are from the German Wikipedia. They were provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project.

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