The Downfall of the Weimar Democracy

What factors lead to Hitler's capture of power in 1933?

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2009 21 Pages

History Europe - Germany - National Socialism, World War II



The capture of state power by Adolf Hitler and the National socialists in 1933 marks one of the eminent, and dreadful, turning points in modern history. The appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor in 1933 opened the door to a brutal racist dictatorship grounded in a racist-chauvinist ideology, to a world war which claimed more than 50 million lives, to unprecedented campaigns of mass murder, to the extinguishing of German sovereignty and to the division of Europe into two hostile ideological camps for almost half a century.1 Hitler’s capture of power triggered a wave of violence and destruction without precedent. Until the very present, historical and political analyses have anything but consensually reflected in the momentum that enabled Hitler and the Nazis to gain total control over the most powerful and advanced industrial state in Europe. Moreover, it is uncertain why resistance against Hitler’s rise remained so marginal. A first step in elaborating the causalities that are not satisfyingly explained hitherto is to outline the essential motives and interests that supported Hitler’s election into the Reich chancellery on 30 January 1933.2

This essay aims at providing answers to these questions and in doing so, hopes to contribute to the overall understanding of the fundamentals in play for the rise of the totalitarian Nazi regime. The author will explain the dynamics at work as clear and explicit as possible without leaving the very foundation of scientific analysis. Thereunto, this paper will focus on the socio-political and economic factors that led to the downfall of the Weimar Democracy as well as on the pre-history of the Weimar Republic, starting right before World War I. In four major sections, we will explore the prescriptive economic and socio-political dimensions of the life in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, elucidating the reasons and effects for the increasing disorder in the Weimar Republic and the rise of Adolf Hitler. First, this paper will review relevant developments in the pre-Weimar era, by evaluating the situation in Germany prior to 1920, with particular reflection of the consequences of the Versailles Peace Treaty. Then, it will examine the struggles of the Weimar Republic such as the political unrest as well as economical instability, deriving from hyperinflation and long-term debt. Later, the paper will move on and explore the development of the national socialist movement and Hitler’s political career. In the last section, the paper will reproduce Hitler’s complete capture of power between 1930 and 1933 and the subsequent downfall of the Weimar Republic, noting the significance of the Great Depression of 1929 as well as the Enabling Act of 1933, through which Hitler obtained legally dictatorial powers. Finally, this paper will conclude, that the downfall of the Weimar Democracy and the subsequent rise of Hitler’s NSDAP can be traced back to the pre- Weimar era of as well as the total collapse of the economical and political system, and the inability of the liberal parties to create meaningful responses to the economical depression during the Weimar Republic.

The Pre-Weimar Era

As the German forces were in retreat and their allies defecting, on 29 September 1918 the German Army High Command advised its emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II., that Germany must seek peace. Above all, the war was increasingly causing resentment in the German public.3 The miseries and bereavements of the war affected the mass of the civilian population. A shortage of labour, horses and fertilizers was severely damaging the productivity of German farmers. Urban workers were especially badly affected by food shortages, and their discontent resulted in occasional riots. The morale of the army was similarly damaged by the misery at home and the prospects of a defeat.4 No one really believed in a victory anymore. Germany was war-weary.

The generals had to admit that military force alone could not save Germany, and so they recommended that the responsibility for the peace negotiations be laid on the shoulders of civilian politicians.5 Furthermore, the generals thought that the government should also be given a wider and more popular character in conjunction with the hope that this ‘revolution from above’ would appease public disaffection over a lost war. Before the outbreak of the war in 1914, the German Empire was a constitutional state with a democratically elected parliament (the Reichstag). However, the Reichstag could not exercise any significant power. Therefore, some political parties wanted an extension of parliamentary.6

However, conservative and socialist/communist political movements within the German society thwarted these parties, as a liberal political structure of the German empire was perceived a source of weakness. They believed that a nation as isolated and exposed as Germany could afford the luxury of a parliamentary democracy.7 With respect to this increasingly dominating reflection, Nicholls (1968: 2) notes that: “...it was important in German life that political parties were regarded with distaste. Party intrigue was contrasted with the civil servant’s sense of duty.” Therefore, parliamentarians were often compared unfavourably with the loyalty and obedience of the Imperial Army. The majority of Germans believed that there was something dirty about the business of politics. The generals’ sudden urge to create a parliamentary regime ran parallel with the efforts which some of the political parties had been making to build up resistance against the emperor and the imperial authorities’ handling of the situation and at last impose parliamentary government on the German Empire.8

Although both the generals and the political parties forced the emperor to abdicate from his throne, he remained in power. Meanwhile, the social climate in Germany was turning towards a countrywide turmoil, exemplified by sailors of a naval infantry stationed in North Germany. The sailors refused to obey the orders of their superiors, and the subsequent attempts of the imperial authorities to punish them led to widespread demonstrations. Troops were called out to restore the situation, but proved unreliable. After some bloodshed the authorities wavered. Their position was usurped by a committee of rebellious soldiers and sailors. The German revolution had begun.9

This revolution resulted in the fall of the German monarchy and the establishment of the Weimar Republic. The new social-democratic leadership of the newly founded republic was endeavoured with the hope that the democratic constitution of Weimar would mark a turning point for a more progressive and peaceful Germany. However, transforming Germany from an authoritarian- rooted style of government, towards a stable pluralistic and multi-party democracy, proved more difficult than expected. Since the German nation was used to being ruled, rather than ruling itself, it was a hard transition to accomplish. By and large, democracy was a concept which most Germans could not identify with and consequently remained highly susceptible of its assumed superiority over monarchical governance.

The critical failure of the Weimar governments was their inability to (1) efficiently constrain the increasing public influence of the conservative, communist and fascist anti-democratic forces in German society, located amongst others in the army, the bureaucracy, the universities, and the businesses as well as (2) address the unfamiliarity of the public with the principles and advantages of the established democratic system. In addition, the civil service of the Weimar Republic consisted primarily of the monarchist upper class which created a social exclusiveness within the bureaucratic apparatus, culminating in extensive political homogeneity.10 This condition appeared to be relevant for the very fact that the majority of those working in the civil- service favoured conservative, anti-democratic forces and consequently represented an eminent supportive element to their political rise.11

The serious lack of credibility that continuously confronted Weimar’s political avant-garde partly originated in the rumor around their responsibility for the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty and its perceived embarrassing concessions. There was a wave of popular outrage and protests when the victorious powers announced on 7 May 1919, the strict punitive measures Germany was subjected to. The public majority evaluated these measures as too hard and humiliating, and the members of the new Weimar government never managed to acquit themselves from the image as the nation’s traitors. In detail, the measures included the surrender of approximately ten percent of Germany’s prewar territory in Europe and all of its overseas possessions. Furthermore, the harbor city of Danzig and the coal-rich Saarland area were placed under the administration of the newly formed League of Nations, and France was allowed to exploit the economic resources of the Saarland until 1935. Also, the German Army and Navy were limited to 100.000 men in order to prevent any future threat to European security deriving from Berlin. However, no other article of the Versailles Treaty was as staggering to the majority of the German population, as was Article 231. According to this article, the Germans were declared fully responsible for the outbreak of World War I and, as such, liable to pay financial reparations to the Allies amounting to approximately $32 billion.12 In spite of such measures, the rebuilding of Germany’s economic system seemed to be impossible. The demands of the Allies were exceeding Germany’s capacities, both in economic as well as moral terms.13

Thus, the legacy of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles was the greatest obstacle to a well­functioning democracy throughout the whole Weimar-era. It constrained developments at every stage and gave opportunity to the enemies of democracy for endless rounds of ammunition.14 However, there were several other aggravating circumstances, despite the anti-democratic attitude of the German public and the consequences of Versailles, which created an environment that posed serious challenges to the survival of the young democracy from the beginning. The German society had to witness one of many attempts, from the right as well as from the left, to initiate a revolution and putsch the government, even before the Weimar Republic was proclaimed. The left wing Spartacus movement led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg began a revolt in Berlin in January 1919. They seized buildings throughout the city. Many feared the “red plague” and thus defense minister Gustav Noske used the army and the Freikorps to crush the revolt. The Freikorps was a volunteer militia made up of ex army men set up to defend the borders of Germany. It was strongly anti-communist and took brutal steps to restore order with summary executions becoming commonplace. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were shot and the revolt was crushed. In Bavaria another Communist revolt was defeated with Freikorps help in May 1919. Severe political violence had marred the foundation of the new state.


1 Bessel R. (2004): "The Nazi Capture of Power"p.l69

2 Bessel R. (2004): "The Nazi Capture of Power"p.169

3 Evans R.J. (2003): "The Coming of the Third Reich", p. 1

4 Evans R.J. (2003): "The Coming of the Third Reich". p. 4

5 Evans R.J. (2003): "The Coming of the Third Reich". p. 1

6 Evans R.J. (2003): "The Coming of the Third Reich", p. 1

7 Evans R.J. (2003): "The Coming ofthe Third Reich". p. 2

8 Evans R.J. (2003): "The Coming of the Third Reich". p. 2

9 Evans R.J. (2003): "The Coming of the Third Reich". p. 8

10 Duve F. and Kapitzsch W. (1976): "Weimar ist kein Argument" p.38

11 Duve F. and Kapitzsch W. (1976): "Weimar ist kein Argument"p.42

12 Retrieved from http://www.state.gOv/r/pa/ho/time/wwi/89875.htm

13 Retrieved from http://web.jjay.cuny.edu/~jobrien/reference/ob94.html

14 Evans R.J. (2003): "The Coming of the Third Reich". p. 81


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Title: The Downfall of the Weimar Democracy