The Collapse of the Weimar Republic

This is a reprint of an article by Professor Gerhard Rempel,

who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts.


The good days of the Weimar Republic came to an end in the late 1920s, especially as the depression began to take a hold on the German economy. As a result the political situation became uncertain and dangerous. The genuine believers in the republic began to loose the battle against the enemies of the Weimar Republicfrom the left and the right.

I. The Elections of 1928 and 1930

In the 1928 elections for the Reichstag the Nationalists sustained a clear defeat.

Election of 1928

Their number of seats went down to 73 from 103. There appeared to be a swing to the Left. The Social Democrats picked up 22 seats, going from 131 to 153. This seemed to be a significant trend because it brought the Weimar coalition (Social Democrats, Democrats and the Center parties) to within six seats of an absolute majority. That was as close as this famous republican coalition had ever come to a predominant political position within the parliament. Müller, a Social Democrat, was the chancellor and the renowned Stresemann remained foreign minister, although his moderate-liberal Peoples Party was not in the coalition.

The Weimar Republic appeared to be enjoying its halcyon days, thanks largely to the foreign policy achievements of Gustav Stresemann. Domestically the challenge from the Right appeared to be blunted by the decline of the Nationalist vote. The Nazi Party seemed to be an insignificant, radical splinter with a mere 12 seats in the Reichstag. So the dominant political fight was among the major parties themselves and not against the NSDAP, which few people looked upon as a serious movement In fact most politicians thought the Nazis were just another temporary expression of racist extremism.

But there was the persistent issue of unemployment, which had stalked the republic from the beginning. Although unemployment had receded from time to time it was definitely on the increase in the late 1920s. A policy of retrenchment in spending and inauguration of additional taxes were agreed upon by the Müller cabinet, but the details of these arrangements split the cabinet and brought it down. Dr. Heinrich Brüning, an economist by training and a member of the Catholic Center Party, now became chancellor. But the economic issues were so volatile and the parliamentary situation so insecure, that Brüning agreed to govern by emergency decree provided for in Article 48 of the Constitution. It was felt that the stringent economic measures planned to bring about recovery could not be executed otherwise.

So a host of legislation was issued under the signature of the president and countersignature of the chancellor. The Reichstag was quickly dissolved in order to prevent a vote of no confidence. Brüning's intent, no doubt, was honorable. But he set a very dangerous precedent. He used the emergency clause in a situation that was not the kind of military or foreign-induced emergency the constitution-writers had in mind. Article 48 was not planned as a political expedient.

Election of 1930

The election that followed, in 1930, was the first signal of decline for the Weimar Republic. What no one anticipated happened. The Nazis pulled off a major political victory by increasing the number of parliamentary seats from 12 to 107. This result sent shock waves through the political system and almost obscured the sizable increase of the Communists, who went from 54 to 77 seats in the Reichstag.

Part of the reason for the Nazi landslide could be found in the constitution itself, namely the provision for proportional representation. Under this system a certain number of seats were assigned to a party in the Reichstag, depending on the total percentage of the popular vote a party received. If it had been a matter of single-man constituencies, the National Socialists could not have won much more than about 20 seats. In no district did they poll more than 40 per cent of the vote. But under proportional representation their national popular vote percentage of a mere 18.3 gave them 107 deputies.

Under these circumstances, the Right and Left extremists had a larger combined representation than the Social Democrats, traditionally the largest single party in the Reichstag. The political fight against fascism finally began now. But the danger of a Right or Left dictatorship was not perceived very clearly by Brüning, whose idea of fighting internal radicalism was to win a foreign policy victory. This meant that he concentrated on the economic and financial crisis, reparations and unemployment. But despite several additional taxes, revenue dropped by one third and a four-billion mark deficit soon developed. Expenditures were cut by one third with the aid of reparation cancellation and a cut in salaries and pensions.

II. Brüning's "constitutional dictatorship"

Since the threat from the Right and Left now definitely existed the other parties in the Reichstag tolerated Brüning's slightly irregular, but nevertheless "constitutional dictatorship". Some 50 decrees were issued during Brüning's two-year chancellorship. All but 12 dealt with the economic and financial crisis. In the world market Brüning's measures brought tariff retaliation and other forms of economic pressure, particularly from Great Britain and the United States. These unanticipated reactions largely robbed Germany of any advantage from economic self-discipline.

economic dogmatism

Domestically the Brüning policies upset the political balance, since those whose belts were tightened turned to Rightist propaganda in desperation. Brüning may have been sincere in his economic dogmatism, but the times called for unorthodox economic solutions. Unfortunately, the Keynesian idea of compensatory spending was not yet generally accepted as a way to fight depression. Besides, the Germans, after the horrifying experience of 1923, were in constant fear of inflation. So reduction of spending, wages and benefits, plus higher taxation, were the only solution that could be tolerated. These things, of course, did little to stop the increasing rate of unemployment, which threatened the stability of the social structure.

Yet many observers agree that the Müller and Brüning cabinets (1928 to 1932) came very close to bringing economic salvation. Reparations were finally cancelled, the budget was nearly balanced, the public debt was low. Collapse of the great financial institutions was prevented. Perhaps, even the intractable unemployment problem could have been solved if the government had had the foresight to enforce a 32-hour week.

The armaments question also came close to solution except for the intransigence of the French. It was the obstinate refusal of France to make even minor changes in the Versailles Treaty which sabotaged agreement at the Disarmament Conference. Had the French been more flexible and granted Germany some form of military parity, it might have saved Brüning and with him the Weimar Republic. Strangely enough, once Hitler came to power, the French made all kinds of concessions, but of course it was too late then.

So, fighting fascism by economic means proved to be ineffective. One could, of course, also fight fascism directly, that is by suppressing it. It is always difficult to do in a democracy, even a weak one like the Weimar Republic. The peculiar federal structure of Weimar was a special hindrance in this respect. Law enforcement was the prerogative of the states, not the national government. But the state governments could not suspend constitutional guarantees, except with the specific approval of the federal government. Prussia, the largest state with the greatest amount of lawless violence, perpetuated by the Communists and the Nazis, made no move to disband the paramilitary storm troopers. It waited for the national government to do so.

Article 48

It could be done under Article 48, providing for emergency suspension of civil rights, without fear of legal challenge. In 1930 the Prussian government did exclude the Nazis and Communists from municipal offices and the civil service and prohibited the wearing of uniforms. But that was not very effective, since the federal government could not interfere if state governments appointed Nazis to public office, which happened in the state of Brunswick. The National government could have done this only if it took over the police under Article 48, which would have led to serious conflict with Bavaria, where separatist feelings were very strong.

Brüning did take some mild measures to control radical violence before 1932. Police received permission to shut down meetings on 48-hour notice. Posters and other advertising had be approved by the police. The use of trucks in parades was prohibited. Private uniforms could be banned by police and were actually banned nationally in November 1931. The penalties for high treason were raised. Finally, the police could arrest anyone who bore arms in public meetings and parades. But these measures fell short of outright disbanding of paramilitary formations, which now far outnumbered the size of the regular army.

In April 1932 it was thought that Hitler could be stopped by re-electing Hindenburg as president. The Social Democrats, for instance, strongly backed his reelection. The result was that Hindenburg got 19.4 million votes, Hitler 13.4 million and the Communist candidate, Thälmann, 3.7 million votes. Three days after this election, Hindenburg, at the recommendation of Brüning and Groener, the defense minister, disbanded the SA. But that prohibition only lasted until June and its effect was not what one might have expected.

III. Constitutional Defects

There were at least four fatal defects in the Weimar Constitution. All of them were used to destroy the Weimar Republic, but all of them could have been corrected.

proportional representation

First, there was this matter of proportional representation. It led directly to splitting and splintering of parties, since any party with a certain percentage of the popular vote could get some representatives into the Reichstag. It also produced a stalwart group of delegates who usually adhered to party discipline and resisted reasonable compromises. It further prevented the formation of local combinations which might have resulted in stronger candidates.

election of the president

Second, there was the election of the president by popular vote. This may be a debatable question, but Hindenburg, who opened the final door to Hitler, would not even have been elected if the president had been chosen by the two houses as in France. It would have given the whole structure a more genuinely parliamentary character. Since the final decisions that assured the demise of the Republic were made by a handful of disreputable characters surrounding the senile president, a parliamentary selection might have produced stronger and wiser presidents.


allocation of presidential powers

Third, there was a definite defect in the allocation of presidential powers. The powers were not carefully limited. A chancellor could be dismissed even before he was defeated in the Reichstag by a vote of no confidence. A chancellor could also be appointed by the president, even if he had no chance of getting the support of the Reichstag. He could thus sign decrees dissolving the Reichstag and rule by decree in its absence. The constitution provided no minimal guarantees for the control add limitation of police powers in such cases.

Under a democratic president there would have been no opportunity for a "sliding revolution" under legalistic disguise. Moreover if presidential rights had been limited, Hindenburg could not have dismissed Brüning in 1932. Nor could he have appointed Papen or dissolved the Reichstag with the latter's futile counter-signature, or removed the Prussian ministers, or suspended individual rights without limitation.

Up to April 1932, the first and second defect (proportional representation and popular election of the president) existed only in theory. Besides, the 2/3 vote necessary to amend the constitution would have been difficult to get in the Reichstag. To change proportional representation it would have been necessary to persuade 2/3 of the Reichstag deputies that they were incompetent! Two attemptsin 1924 and 1930were made to change proportional representation by enlarging the number of election districts and limiting candidacies. But both attempts failed because the rank and file party members opposed them. Politicians do not easily submit to self-denial.

The federal system

A fourth shortcoming was the peculiarity of the federal system. Prussia was so large that it literally functioned as another central government, instead of a regional one. There was almost continuous friction between the two cabinets, both housed in Berlin. Part of the cause for the friction was that Prussia remained more democratic throughout the Weimar period. Overall the distribution of power between the federal government and the states was not satisfactory. Such things as public works and unemployment insurance brought the national government into immediate contact with the municipalities. This left the relations of federal, state, and local authorities in a precarious condition.

An attempt was made in 1928 to ameliorate the Reich-Prussian dualism by increasing national jurisdiction over Prussian provinces and regionalizing them. But this effort failed when Brüning was dismissed. So, this issue like many others was left for Hitler to resolve. Hitler, of course, corrected all these defects by simply regarding the whole constitution and republic itself as a national defect and disgrace. But he might not have been able to do that if these relatively minor flaws in the constitutional fabric had been mended early enough.

IV. The Role of the Army

This then brings us to the other side of the coin. If Hitler could not be stopped from destroying the Republic by economic, direct and constitutional warfare, who or what propelled him into office? There was only one German institution historically powerful enough to do that--and that was the Army.

In order to attain power Hitler had to reassure the Reichswehr and seduce it from its loyalty to the state at the same time. The Reichswehr said Hitler, had a political as well as a military mission to fulfill, namely, to assist in the destruction of "the muddle and pestilence" of party politics. Hitler was determined to gain the allegiance of the Army in the event of a Nazi putsch.

To defense minister Groener, generally a well-meaning sort of chap, there was very little difference between Communists and Nazis, since their behavior reminded him of the nightmare days of chaos in 1918. Military discipline bad then been undermined by the soldiers conscience and had only been restored and maintained by the actions of the officer corps. Like von Seeckt had done in 1923, so Groener tried to do in 1930: to assert the sacred task of the Wehrmacht in preventing the cleavage between classes and parties from ever widening into a suicidal civil war.

Scheringer and Ludin

But party politics was already infecting the army, For instance, there was the celebrated case of Richard Scheringer and Hans Ludin, two young lieutenants brought to trial for passing out Nazi propaganda in their 5th Artillery Regiment at Ulm. These young soldiers, like many others, were fighting the grinding monotony of garrison life. Beside that, they knew that many people in the Republic, despised them as bearers of arms. But Hitler offered glory, freedom, a national resurgence and an expanded army. This restored a sense of hope and the promise of quick promotions, something that the limited Versailles army could never offer them.

Scheringer and Ludin were arrested in March 1930. The event caused a sensation all over Germany and particularly within the Army. They were tried by the Leipzig Supreme Court on a charge of high treason. However, both of them were defiant in proclaiming that the struggle for liberation would always remain the ultimate goal of the Reichswehr. Many officers, including the regimental colonel, Ludwig Beck, later a leader in the resistance to Hitler, openly expressed their sympathy with these young soldier-politicians. Hitler himself was called as a witness during the trial. He cleverly used the court for a propaganda platform. He was bent on making the army realize that the was indispensable to them. To maintain the unity of the Reich and their own interests they must support and not oppose him.

Hitler's dramatic performance at Leipzig on September 25 was a masterpiece of intellectual dishonesty, a tour de force in the reconciliation of legality with illegality. ''When we come to power," he promised, "the Reichswehr shall rise to become the great army of the people." It was responsible for the destiny of the people and it must therefore be the supporter of the völkisch idea. The SA or Storm Troops, which some army leaders feared as a future competitor, Hitler explained away as only an instrument for the protection of National Socialist propaganda. They carried no arms and had no military character, according to Hitler, since the movement did not require violence. But during cross-examination he admitted that violence might come in the process of eliminating the November criminalsby which he meant those responsible for the revolution of 1918 and the establishment of the Republic.

This was about as plain as you could get about Hitler's intentions and it created a sensation around the world, but the Supreme Court refused to challenge it. Eventually Hitler sacrificed the two lieutenants by disavowing them for the greater glory of his party and movement. Many senior officers were impressed by Hitler's Leipzig speech. It is a movement of youth, they said, and cannot be stopped. The Leipzig trial also revealed the disturbing conflict of loyalty among junior officers, between their real ideals and their outward commitment to defend the Republic. The officer corps began to realize that a new situation had arisen. The Nazi Party after the 1930 election was too powerful to be used as a mere tool of the Reichswehr . If they wished to utilize the party, their approach must be on the basis of negotiation with a potential ally over whom only an indirect control could be exercised. As a group the army officers believed that the Reichswehr would always be where the strongest national interests were. It would be a shame, therefore, to have to fire on these splendid youths within the SA.

But General Groener tried very hard to maintain the neutrality of the army. Brüning and he had a close working relationship. If civil war had come, then the Reichswehr would have supported the government. The fear of a double Putsch by the Nazis and the Communists became an obsession in the calculations of the Reichswehr. They believed that such an occurrence would be used by the Poles for an invasion of Upper Silesia. This fear had a material effect on the conduct of the Army during the final days of the Weimar Republic.

The fear of a dual Putsch combined with a Polish invasion was the basic reason for Schleicher's first overtures to the Nazis. It was clearly the mission of the Reichswehr, and particularly of von Schleicher, to canalize this great force of awakening youth into channels where it could do most good for Germany and for the Army. Hitler's individual power must be nipped in the bud and every means must be used to bring him and his movement under the influence of the Army, which for Schleicher, the master intriguer, meant mostly himself. Schleicher was convinced by Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA, that some kind of gentlemen's agreement could be struck with Hitler's private army, which would assure its cooperation. Since Hitler suppressed a revolt of the Berlin SA against himself at this same time, the event seemed to provide evidence of his good intentions to suppress violence in his own ranks.

Groener now developed two schemes, both of them designed to steal Hitler's thunder. First, he projected the creation of a gigantic sport organization (Wehrsportverband), which was to replace the party-linked paramilitary organizations. It was to be controlled by the Stahlhelm, the growing veterans organization, which had close links to the conservative Nationalist Party. Second, he was determined to get some concessions at the Disarmament Conference for a measure of rearmament and the creation of a national militia on the basis of universal military service. In this way it was hoped the Versailles Army could be doubled in size for the time being.

Brüning and Groener

Brüning and Groener also dabbled with the idea of restoring the monarchy with Hindenburg as regent. This also was designed to preserve Germany from National Socialism, as Groener and Ebert had tried to maintain the monarchy with Prince Max as regent, in order to save Germany from communism in November 1918. But the problem was the presidential election of 1932. Hindenburg was advancing in senility and Kurt von Schleicher was intriguing. In fact, Schleicher, who began as a protegé of Groener, was prepared to intrigue with all parties and to betray them with equally unscrupulous impartiality. As a result the influence of the Reichswehr during the crucial final months was uncertain and divided.

Brüning, Groener, Schleicher and Hammerstein (the new chief of the Army Command, Heeresleitung), agreed in the summer of 1931 that salvation lay only in retaining Hindenburg. This could be done either by reelection, or the parliamentary prolongation of his office. Hindenburg was persuaded to see Hitler by Schleicher and Brüning on October 10, 1931, but without effect. Hitler than reluctantly joined the Harzburg Front (October 11, 1931) with Hugenberg's Nationalists and Seldte's Stahlhelm. Here was a potentially potent combinationthe Nationalists, the veterans, and the Nazisbut in reality there was no real unity among the three factions.

Hitler then proceeded to launch an attack on the Reichswehr leadership, particularly Groener, who had recently combined the Defense and Interior ministries under himself. The parties, including Hitler's Nazis, refused to have Hindenburg reelected by the Reichstag. So Schleicher decided to use Brüning Iong enough to have Hindenburg reelected. When that was done he proceeded to intrigue for Groener's and Brüning's dismissal and told Hindenburg that only a strong Mark and a closed Reichstag could save the situation. Brüning tried desperately to get a foreign policy success to maintain himself in office. If he could get cancellation of reparations and some rearmament, he would be strong enough to suppress Hitler's SA and SS. The provincial governments too were pressing for such action.

Groener agreed to persuade the president and chancellor to suppress the SA by decree immediately after the election. Schleicher first agreed, then changed his mind and tried to persuade Hindenburg against the measure. Latter he forced Groener to take full responsibility for the act and also told Groener that the Reichswehr resented the decree. Meanwhile, he was secretly conferring with the Nazis.

On May 10, 1932, Groener was violently attacked by the Nazis in the Reichstag. Schleicher proceeded to inform Groener that he must resign. Seventeen days latter Brüning was summarily dismissed by Hindenburg. Schleicher then presented Hindenburg with the "snake-charming lion-tamer," Franz von Papen, who was supposed to take Hitler captive and make him the hostage of a right-wing cabinet of non-party barons.