Years of Instability, 1918-1923 | Between The World Wars

Germans were shocked by their defeat in 1918. The military authorities who ran the German Empire during the last years of the war had not revealed to the public the extent of German reverses on the battlefield, and no fighting had taken place on German soil.

Now the defeated and demoralized armies came home. Schooled in reverence for the military, the Germans could not grasp the fact that their armies had lost the war. Moreover, the Allies, under the leadership of Wilson, simply refused to deal with the supreme command of the German armies. Field Marshal von Hindenburg was never required to hand over his sword to Marshal Foch or to sign the armistice. Rather, it was the civilian politicians who had to bear the disgrace. Thus, the Allies unintentionally did the German military caste a great service.

The generals declared that the German armies had never really been defeated. A legend that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by civilians—by liberals, socialists, communists, and Jews—took deep root. This legend was widely disseminated by politicians, especially those who had a stake in the old Prussian system— monarchists, large-scale agrarians, industrialists, militarists.

In retrospect, the Allies also blundered by including the “war-guilt” clause in the Treaty of Versailles. The German signatories were obliged to acknowledge what none of them believed (and what subsequent historians would disprove): that Germany alone had been responsible for the outbreak of the war. The clause made it harder for the German public to acknowledge defeat, to sweep away the militarists, and to create a republic. Instead, it led many Germans to devote their energies to denying war guilt, to attack the enemies who had saddled them with the charge, and to await a chance to show by force that the generals had been right—that Germany had been betrayed from within.

Threats to stability from the left strengthened the anti-republican forces of the right. Responsibility for launching the republic and for preventing disorder fell upon the “majority socialists,” made up of Social Democrats and right-wing Independent Socialists, and led by a Social Democrat, Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925). A moderate group, the Social Democrats made no attack on agrarian property, and they allowed the Junkers to keep their estates and the social and political position that went with them. The Social Democrats concluded collective bargaining agreements with the industrialists that guaranteed an eight-hour day, rather than trying to nationalize German industry.

But the left wing of the Independent Socialists and the communist Spartacists agitated for proletarian revolution on the Russian pattern. Unable to operate effectively through soviets, the left tried to stage a revolution in the winter of 1918-1919, and Ebert called in the army to stop it. The generals used not only regular units but also the newly formed volunteer units, or Free Corps, made up mostly of former professionals who were embittered by Germany’s recent military defeat and who were opposed to the new democracy. To protest the use of troops, the right wing of the Independent Socialists withdrew from the government, and as civil strife continued, the communists attempted a new coup, which the troops again put down.

The old parties of imperial Germany reappeared, often with new labels. The right wing of the old Liberals now emerged as the People’s party, including the more moderate industrialists, with a platform of private property and opposition to socialism. Its leader was Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929). Former progressives and left- wing Liberals now formed the new Democratic party, a middle-class, republican, democratic group, including many of Germany’s most distinguished intellectuals.

The Catholic Center party reemerged with its name and program unchanged. It accepted the republic, rejected socialism, and, under pressure from its trade union members, favored social legislation; but under pressure from its right wing of aristocrats and industrialists it opposed far- reaching reform. On the right, the former Conservatives reemerged as the National People’s party, or Nationalists, dominated by the Junkers as before. The Nationalists had the support of some great industrialists, most of the bureaucrats, and a substantial section of the lower middle class who did not accept the republic.

When the Germans voted for a national constituent assembly in January 1919, the parties supporting the republic won more than 75 percent of the seats, with the Social Democrats alone obtaining nearly 40 percent. The assembly met in Weimar, elected Ebert president of Germany, and formed a government that reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles. The assembly also adopted the new constitution. The new Germany was still a federal state, but the central government had great authority to legislate for the entire country. The president might use armed force to coerce any of the states that failed to obey the constitution or national laws. The cabinet was responsible to the lower house, or Reichstag, which was to be chosen by universal suffrage of all citizens (including women) over twenty.

The president, who was to be elected every seven years, was given considerable authority. He was empowered to make treaties, appoint and remove the cabinet, command the armed forces, appoint or remove all officers, dissolve the Reichstag, and call new elections. Furthermore, he could take any measure he deemed necessary to restore order, and might temporarily suspend the civil liberties that the constitution granted. Yet the Reichstag could order such measures repealed. The chancellor was a prime minister, with responsibility for planning policy. The powers of the president made dictatorship a real possibility, while proportional representation required that votes be cast for entire party lists of candidates, thus preventing independent politicians from obtaining office and encouraging small splinter parties to multiply.

In March 1920 a right-wing putsch, or “coup,” drove the government from Berlin for several days. The commander of the Berlin military district, supported by Ludendorff and Free Corps leaders, had hoped to bring to power an East Prussian reactionary. Ebert defeated the putsch by calling a general strike that paralyzed Germany. An immediate outgrowth of the strike was a communist revolt in the Ruhr. To suppress the communists, German troops entered the area, which had been demilitarized by the Versailles Treaty; this action led to French military intervention and a brief occupation of the Ruhr and Frankfurt.

In April 1921 the Allies presented their bill for reparations, which totaled 132 billion gold marks. The politicians of the right favored outright rejection, while the Weimar parties realistically decided that the threat of invasion made this course impossible. Again the moderates had to take responsibility for a decision that was certain to prove unpopular. The minister for reconstruction, Walter Rathenau (1867-1922), a Democrat, hoped that a policy of “fulfillment” might convince the Allies that Germany was acting in good faith and might in the long run lead to concessions. An intensely patriotic German, Rathenau was also a Jew, and he attracted the particular venom of anti-Semitic nationalist orators.

Secret terrorist groups on the right now began a campaign of assassination. In August 1921 they murdered a Catholic Center politician who had signed the armistice, a leading moderate. The assassins escaped through Bavaria, and when one of them was caught, the courts acquitted him. When the League of Nations awarded to Poland a substantial area of the rich province of Upper Silesia containing many Germans, the right grew still angrier. Rathenau was killed in June 1922 by men who believed that by murdering a Jew they could avenge the “betrayal” of the German army. In the wake of this assassination, Stresemann’s People’s party moved away from the Nationalists, who were viewed as tainted with murder, and worked with the Center and Democrats.

The political maneuvers to meet the increasing threat from the right were largely nullified, however, by the economic problem posed by steadily growing inflation, which in 1922 and 1923 reached unprecedented extremes. Inflation is a complicated economic phenomenon still not well understood, but the single chief cause for the runaway inflation in Germany was probably the failure of the German government to levy taxes with which to pay the expenses of the war. The imperial regime had expected to win and to make the losers pay Germany’s expenses by imposing huge indemnities.

So it had paid for only about 4 percent of the war costs through taxation. As defeat neared, the government borrowed more and more money from the banks. When the loans came due, the government repaid them with paper money that was not backed by gold. Each time this happened, more paper money was put into circulation, and prices rose; each rise in prices led to a demand for a rise in wages, which were paid with more paper money. The inflationary spiral was underway. Instead of cutting purchasing power by imposing heavy taxes, the government permitted buyers to compete with each other for goods that were in short supply, thus causing prices to shoot up even further, and speeding up the whole process of inflation.

During these months the German government begged for a moratorium on reparations payments and for a foreign loan. But the French were unwilling. They had already spent billions to rebuild those parts of France that the Germans had devastated during the war, and they wanted the Germans to pay the bill. As a guarantee, the French demanded the vitally important German industrial region of the Ruhr. Despite British opposition, the French occupied the Ruhr in January 1923, after the Germans had defaulted on their reparations payments. The French declared their intention to run the mines and factories for their own benefit, and thus make up for the German failure to pay reparations.

The Germans could not resist with force, but they declared the occupation of the Ruhr illegal and ordered its inhabitants to embark on passive resistance—to refuse to work the mines and factories or to deliver goods to the French. This order the people of the Ruhr obeyed. Local tension in the occupied area became serious when the French took measures against German police and work- ers, and German Free Corps members undertook guerrilla operations against the French.

But the most dramatic result of the French occupation of the Ruhr was its effect upon the already desperate German economy. Not only was the rest of Germany cut off from badly needed goods from the occupied area, but the Ruhr inhabitants were idle at the order of the German government and had to be supported at government expense. The printing presses ran off ever-increasing amounts of ever-more-worthless marks. The exchange rate went from thousands of marks to the dollar to millions, to billions, and by December 1923, well up into the trillions.

Such astronomical figures become meaningful only when we realize their personal and social consequences. A student who set off one afternoon for the university with a check for a year’s tuition, room, board, and entertainment found, when he arrived the next morning, that the money would only pay for the journey. Lifetime savings were rendered valueless; people were seen trundling wheelbarrows full of marks through the street to buy a loaf of bread. Those who lived on fixed incomes were utterly ruined, and the investments of the middle classes were wiped out. Real estate took on fantastic value, speculation flourished, and some speculators made fortunes.

For the German worker, inflation did not mean the liquidation of savings, because the worker usually had none. But it did mean a great drop in the purchasing power of wages, so that the worker’s family suffered from hunger and cold. Since the financial position of the labor unions was destroyed, they could no longer help the workers, who deserted the unions. The great industrialists, however, gained from the inflation, in part because it crippled the labor unions, but still more because it wiped out their own indebtedness and enabled them to absorb small competitors and build giant business combines.

Politically, therefore, inflation greatly strengthened the extremists of both right and left. The middle classes, although pushed down to the economic level of the proletariat, would not support the working-class parties of Social Democrats or Communists. Disillusioned, they would not support the moderate parties that bolstered the republic—the People’s party, the Center, and the Democrats. So the Nationalists, and Hitler’s Nazis above all, reaped a rich harvest of the frightened and the discontented. The hardships of the working class led many workers to turn from the Social Democrats to the Communists. But Soviet Russian constraints on the leaders of the German Communist party prevented any concerted revolutionary drive until the fall of 1923, by which time poor organization and strong governmental repression had doomed their efforts.

With the country seething in crisis, Stresemann became chancellor in the fall of 1923 and proclaimed that Germany could not keep up passive resistance in the Ruhr. He ordered work to be resumed and reparations to be paid once again. Political troubles multiplied when the right refused to accept the new policy. At the height of the agitation in Bavaria, Adolf Hitler broke into a right-wing political meeting in a Munich beer hall and announced that the “national revolution” had begun.

At gunpoint he tried to get other local leaders to support him in a march on Berlin. Troops broke up the demonstration with only a few casualties. Hitler was allowed to use his trial as a propaganda platform for his ideas and was sentenced to the minimum term for high treason— five years. He spent only eight months in jail, during which time he wrote large portions of Mein Kampf (My Battle), soon to be the bible of the Nazis.

In 1921-1922 a new element had emerged among the welter of right-wing organizations in Bavaria. This was the National Socialist Party of the German Workers (called Nazi as an abbreviation of the word National) led by Hitler. Born in 1889, the son of an Austrian customs official, Hitler seems always to have felt bitter and frustrated. In 1907 he had been rejected by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and he became an odd-job man, hovering on the edge of starvation. His hatred of the Jews began during these years. Because Karl Marx himself had been of Jewish origin and because many Viennese Jews were socialists, Hitler associated socialism with the Jews and saw both as responsible for his personal troubles.

Hitler drew support for his anti-Semitism from several nineteenth-century theorists. The French count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) had laid a pseudo-scientific foundation for theories of “Nordic” and “Aryan” supremacy. One of Gobineau’s most influential readers was the German composer Richard Wagner, whose son-in-law, the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), wrote Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which glorified the Germans and assailed the Jews. Chamberlain opposed democratic government and capitalism. Thus he provided Hitler with a potent mixture of racism, nationalism, and radicalism.

Hitler moved to Munich in 1913. In 1914 he enlisted in the German army, fought through the war as a corporal, and then returned to Munich. While employed as a political education officer for the troops, Hitler discovered a small political group that called itself the German Workers’ party, which espoused nationalism, militarism, and radicalism. Hitler joined the party in 1919 and soon proved himself to be far abler than any of his colleagues. He urged intensive propaganda to unite all Germans in a greater Germany, to eliminate Jews from political life, to guarantee full employment, to confiscate war profits, to nationalize trusts, to encourage small business, and to grant land to the peasants.

Hitler was a charismatic orator with almost hypnotic gifts in capturing a crowd. By 1921 he had made himself the absolute leader, the Fiihrer (compare with Duce) of the Nazi party, and he had strengthened himself by founding the SA (originally meaning “Sports Division,” but eventually Sturmabtei lung, or “Storm Troops”), brown-shirted units copied from the black shirts of Italy and recruited largely from the Free Corps.

These storm troopers wore armbands with a swastika emblem, patrolled mass party meetings, and performed other services for the leader. Hitler’s closest collaborators included Hermann Goring (1893-1946), a wartime aviator who had shot down twenty Allied planes, who took on the job of giving the SA a military polish; Rudolf Hess (1894-1987), principal propagandist; and Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946), a Baltic German distinguished for his fanatical hatred of Jews and Bolsheviks, the first editor of the party newspaper.

They and others worked out the basic theories of Nazism, including several elements imitative of Marxism, of which the most important was the conviction that bourgeois politicians could not be expected to rescue the German people from their degradation because they could not unite mind and violence in one organization. This Hitler was determined to do, as he felt the Marxists had done, by uniting ideology and terror in one movement.

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