Weimar Republic

Old view of Siebengebirge and Rhine from Rolandseck
Old view of Siebengebirge and Rhine from Rolandseck

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. Emperor Wilhelm II had finally abdicated, the Social Democrat 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.

In November 1918, allied troops had occupied the left bank of the Rhine River and “Bridge heads” at Cologne, Koblenz and Mainz, a 50 km wide strip on the right bank had been declared demilitarized zone. After at first British and Canadian troops had been stationed in Cologne and Bonn, in February 1920 French troops marched into Bonn.

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.

Separatism in the Rhineland 1918/1919

Already on November 10, 1918, the day after the proclamation of the republic, some Center Party Politicians suggested seceding the Rhineland from Berlin. Back then, many people feared that the Rhineland would be annexed by France, and that the revolution in Berlin and other big cities would lead to a Socialist overthrow as in Russia. Today historians agree that the danger of a Bolshevik revolution was over-estimated, but back then people were in a state of shock and could not know. Moreover, many Catholic Rhinelanders resented the dominance of Protestant Prussia and her Junkers, the Kulturkampf of the Bismarck era was not forgotten, and finally they insisted on the Rhinelanders’ right to self-determination within a federate state.

Many of these thoughts were expressed by Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), since 1917 mayor of Cologne. On February 1, 1919, he spoke on an assembly of Rhenish delegates to the National Assembly in Weimar, to the Prussian State Assembly and mayors from the occupied territories. If Prussia was broken up and her Western provinces were joined into a “West German Republic”, he said, the might of the old, “belligerent cast” (in German: “kriegslüsterne Kaste”) that had dominated Prussia would be broken. Since then, Adenauer has been a highly controversial man. Yet, we have to listen carefully. Adenauer spoke of seceding the Rhineland from Prussia, not from Germany – what he wanted was a West German federate state within Germany, as we have today the federal states Northrhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, Brandenbug and Berlin. Separating the Rhineland from Germany against the law or even making it a part of France was not option for him.

Others did not think the same way. A group around the former attorney Dr. Hans Adam Dorten (1880-1963) in Wiesbaden, Hesse, did not shy away from unlawful actions. On June 1, 1919, Dorten and his followers occupied the Government building in Wiesbaden, supported by the French occupation troops. Dorten proclaimed the Rhenish Republik within the German Empire. Yet, strikes and mass demonstrations against him forced them to withdraw already four days later, under French protection again.

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.

Rhenish Republic and the “Battle of the Seven Mountains”

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. 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. The citizens didn’t feel liberated by the separatists, but threatened by them, and the citizens 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 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.

The short recovery

After the Weimar Republic had survived the year of crisis 1923, it was granted a short time of economic recovery and political stability. An international committee worked out a plan for the reparations to be paid by Germany, it is referred to as Dawes Plan after its American chairman Charles G. Dawes. Germany was obliged to pay enormous sums every year that should increase in 1928, that way the interests of the Allied were covered. But it also took a bit of pressure of the Weimar Republic, Germany was granted large foreign loans and the Allies’ right on sanctions was limited. Moreover, the French eventually accepted the Dawes Plan and withdrew from the occupied areas in July and August 1925. That way, German economy gradually recovered and in 1928 reached the production level of 1913. Also a lot was done for people: Unemployment insurance, 8 hour days, better protection for working youngsters and mothers, paid vacation, new flats to live in and education benefits, employees’ councils to represent employees’ interests.

Briand and Stresemann

As to foreign policy, these years are marked by Aristide Briand on the French and Gustav Stresemann on the German side. Both strove for understanding instead of eternal enmity. In October 1925, the Treaty of Locarno was concluded by which Germany recognized its borders with France and Belgium according to the Treaty of Versailles, voluntarily relinquished Alsace-Lorraine and accepted that the Rhineland would remain a demilitarized area forever. Britain, Italy and Belgium would assist France should German troops march into the demilitarized Rhineland. In turn, Germany regained freedom of action, was protected against French attacks on the Rhine and Ruhr area and could look forward to be accepted into the community of nations soon again. In July 1925, the French troops began to withdraw from the Ruhr Area.

Swing to the Right

Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert died in 1925. Field Marshal Hindenburg, a supporter of the monarchy and candidate of the political Right, won the elections and became Reichspräsident. He swore an oath on the Weimar Constitution and remained loyal to it until the end. For many people and particularly the Reichswehr troops, Hindenburg became a “Substitute Emperor”, because he stood for the conservative, national tradition, and with him on top they could arrange with the Republic although they rejected parliamentarian democracy. Yet, Hindenburg was already 78 years old when he took up his new office.

The following years brought some political recovery and some stability, a period of uneven prosperity. In 1926, Germany joined the “League of Nations”. The same year, Briand and Stresemann were together awarded with the Nobel peace prize. In 1930, the last Allied troops left Germany, five years earlier than stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles, as an answer to the policy of reconciliation under the Stresemann administration. Yet, not all people in Germany and France were ready for a policy of understanding, both Briand and Stresemann were grimly criticized in their countries. Shortly after, Briand was replaced by the hardliner Poincaré. In the German general elections for the Reichstag of 1928, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei (DNVP, German National People’s Party) emerged as second strongest faction in the Reichstag, after a campaign against the Treaty of Locarno.

World Economic Crisis

In the years 1924-1924, the Weimar Republic was granted a short time of economic recovery and political stability. These were the “Golden Twenties”. However, that had been possible thanks to foreign loans. On October 25, 1929, a stock exchange crash in New York widened into a world economic crises and global depression that caused high unemployment in industrial countries, bank failure and collapse of credit. In Germany, the depression led to economic collapse, mass unemployment and pauperization. The acting grand coalition under Chancellor Hermann Müller (SPD) broke apart in March 1930. It was the last parliamentarian democratic administration of the Weimar Republic.

On March 29, 1930, Reichspräsident Hindenburg appointed the finance expert Heinrich Brüning (Center Party) Chancellor. For Brüning, the only way that Germany could survive financially was to drastically cut state expenditures, including cuts in the social sector that would affect people greatly. But he had no majority in the Reichstag, and his plan was turned down. To push it through nonetheless, he submitted it to Reichspräsident Hindenburg who passed it as emergency decree according to article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. Throughout his chancellorship, Brüning ruled by emergency decrees, which meant that the Chancellor depended on the Reichspräsident’s trust him, not the Reichstag’s, so de facto the parliamentarian democracy had ended. Brüning’s chancellorship is referred to as a “presidential cabinet”.

The extremists become stronger and stronger, among them Adolf Hitler and National Socialist movement. Hitler’s party, the NSDAP, had promised to reduce unemployment and do something against the Treaty of Versailles with was perceived as shameful. The movement was anti-Semitic, and anti-Communist, and planned to do away with democracy. The Reichstag general elections of September 1930 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Nazi Party. Now the democratic parties tolerated Brüning’s policy, to avoid new elections that would probably bring even more votes for the extremists.

In July 1931, one of the biggest German banks collapsed, and in early 1932 the number of unemployed rose to more than 6,000,000. Brüning struggled to alleviate the burden of reparation payments, and indeed in 1931 the American President Hoover passed a memorandum postponing reparation payments for one year.

In March and April 1932, Hindenburg was re-elected Reichspräsident for a second term. In the second round, it was between him and Hitler, and since only Hindenburg could defeat Hitler, the Center Party, the Social Democrats and other democratic parties had supported him.

Brüning had made mighty enemies, especially among the landowners in the East, many of them having a lot of influence on Hindenburg. On May 30, 1932, he was dismissed – “hundred meters before the finish”, as he said himself, because in 1932 the reparations where reduced to a final payment and afterwards let off. Franz von Papen, a staunch Conservative, was appointed Chancellor.

After his dismissal, Brüning spent many years in the United Kingdom and in the USA. He taught political sciences at the Harvard University, and died in 1970 in Norwich, Vermont. Still today, Brüning is a controversial figure.

“Preußenschlag” (Prussian Coup)

Throughout the years of the Weimar Republic, the Free State of Prussia had been a pillar of democracy. Minister President Otto Braun, Minister of Interior Carl Severing and their administrations had fought for democracy until the last moment. In Prussia, The Nazi SA and SS, the right-wing Stahlhelm and other paramilitary extremist groups were banned, and extremists could not get into civil service. However, the Prussian Government had mighty enemies. Under the pretext that it had lost control of public order in Prussia, Chancellor von Papen issued an emergency decree: On July 20, 1932, he unseated the Prussian Government, appointed himself Reich Commissioner for Prussia. Prussia as a state was abolished de facto by the Nazis in 1934 and de jure by the Allies of Word War II in 1947.

Hitler’s chancellorship

Von Papen could not win Hitler over and most parties opposed him, so he had the Reichstag dissolved and called for new elections. In the Reichstag general elections of July 1932, the Nazi Party became the largest party, also the Communists had major gains. Together, the anti-democratic parties of the right and left were now able to hold the majority of seats in Parliament. Hitler demanded the chancellorship for himself, but was rejected by Hindenburg in August 1932. Since there still was no majority in the Reichstag for any government, it was dissolved again. The Reichstag general elections of November 1932 resulted in a victory for the Communist Party who became the strongest faction in the Reichstag, whereas the Nazi Party lost votes. Franz von Papen stepped down and was succeeded by General Kurt von Schleicher in December, but Schleicher had no majority either.

On January 30, 1933, pressured by former Chancellor Franz von Papen and other conservatives, President Hindenburg finally appointed Hitler Chancellor. He immediately took measures to achieve

The following photos are from the German Wikipedia. Die folgenden Bilder stammen aus der freien Enzyklopädie Wikipedia und stehen unter der Creative Commons Lizenz 3.0. Sie wurden im Rahmen einer Kooperation zwischen dem Bundesarchiv und Wikimedia Deutschland aus dem Bundesarchiv für Wikimedia Commons zur Verfügung gestellt: Berlin – demolierte Schaufenster des Warenhauses Wertheim, Oktober 1930 / unbekannt / Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10561 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The other pictures are from the Germania Wikipedia, public section.

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