Weimar Republic (Weimarer Republik) is the name for the parliamentary republic established in 1919 to replace the former Imperial form of government in Germany. The name derives from the city of Weimar, where its constitutional assembly first took place. The official name of the state was still Deutsches Reich; it had remained unchanged since 1871. This is usually taken to mean “German Empire”, but “Reich” can also mean “realm” or “federal government”. In English, the country was usually known simply as Germany. In its fourteen years, the Weimar Republic faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremism (with paramilitaries), and contentious relationships with the victors of the First World War. However, the Weimar Republic government successfully reformed the currency, unified tax policies, and organized the railway system. Weimar Germany eliminated most of the requirements of the Treaty of Versailles; it never completely met its disarmament requirements, and eventually paid only a small portion of the war reparations (by twice restructuring its debt through the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan). Under the Locarno Treaties, Germany accepted the western borders of the republic, but continued to dispute the Eastern border.
In October 1918, the constitution of the German Empire was reformed to give more powers to the elected parliament. On October 29, rebellion broke out in Kiel among sailors. There, sailors, soldiers, and workers began electing workers’ and soldiers’ councils (Arbeiter und Soldatenräte) modeled after the Soviets of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The revolution spread throughout Germany, and participants seized military and civil powers in individual cities. The power takeover was achieved everywhere without loss of life.
At the time, the Socialist movement which represented mostly laborers was split among two major left-wing parties: the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), which called for immediate peace negotiations and favored a soviet-style command economy, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) also known as “Majority” Social Democratic Party of Germany (MSPD), which supported the war effort and favored a parliamentary system. The rebellion caused great fear in the establishment and in the middle classes because of the Soviet Russia aspirations of the councils. To centrist and conservative citizens, the country looked to be on the verge of a communist revolution.
By November 7, the revolution had reached Munich, resulting in King Ludwig III of Bavaria fleeing. The MSPD decided to make use of their support at the grassroots and put themselves at the front of the movement, demanding that Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicate. When he refused, Prince Max of Baden simply announced that he had done so and frantically attempted to establish a regency under another member of the House of Hohenzollern. Gustav Noske, a self-appointed military expert in the MSPD, was sent to Kiel to prevent any further unrest and took on the task of controlling the mutinous sailors and their supporters in the Kiel barracks. The sailors and soldiers, inexperienced in matters of revolutionary combat, welcomed him as an experienced politician and allowed him to negotiate a settlement, thus defusing the initial anger of the revolutionaries in uniform.
On November 9, 1918, the “German Republic” was proclaimed by MSPD member Philipp Scheidemann at the Reichstag building in Berlin, to the fury of Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the MSPD, who thought that the question of monarchy or republic should be answered by a national assembly. Two hours later, a “Free Socialist Republic” was proclaimed a little over a mile (2 kilometers) away, at the Berliner Stadtschloss. The proclamation was issued by Karl Liebknecht, co-leader (with Rosa Luxemburg) of the communist Spartakusbund (Spartacist League), a group of a few hundred supporters of the Russian revolution that had allied itself with the USPD in 1917.
In a legally questionable act, Reichskanzler Prince Max of Baden transferred his powers to Friedrich Ebert, who, shattered by the monarchy’s fall, reluctantly accepted. In view of the mass support for more radical reforms among the workers’ councils, a coalition government called “Council of the People’s Deputies” (Rat der Volksbeauftragten) was established, consisting of three MSPD and three USPD members. Led by Ebert for the MSPD and Hugo Haase for the USPD it sought to act as a provisional cabinet of ministers. But the power question was unanswered. Although the new government was confirmed by the Berlin worker and soldier council, it was opposed by the Spartacist League.
The Executive Council of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils, a coalition that included Majority Socialists, Independent Socialists, workers, and soldiers, implemented a program of progressive social change, introducing reforms such as the eight-hour workday, the releasing of political prisoners, the abolition of press censorship, increases in workers’ old-age, sick and unemployment benefits, and the bestowing upon labor the unrestricted right to organize into unions.
On November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed at Compiègne by German representatives. It effectively ended military operations between the Allies and Germany. It amounted to German capitulation, without any concessions by the Allies; the naval blockade would continue until complete peace terms were agreed.
A rift developed between the MSPD and USPD after Ebert called upon the OHL (supreme army command) for troops to put down a mutiny by a leftist military unit on December 23/24, 1918, in which members of the Volksmarinedivision had captured the city’s garrison commander Otto Wels and occupied the Reichskanzlei where the “Council of the People’s Deputies” was situated. The ensuing street fighting left several dead and injured on both sides. The USPD leaders were outraged by what they believed was treachery by the MSPD, which, in their view, had joined with the anti-communist military to suppress the revolution. Thus, the USPD left the “Council of the People’s Deputies” after only seven weeks. On December 30, the split deepened when the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was formed out of a number of radical left-wing groups, including the left wing of the USPD and the “Spartacist League” group.
From November 1918 to January 1919, Germany was governed by the “Council of the People’s Deputies”, under the leadership of Ebert and Haase. The Council issued a large number of decrees that radically shifted German policies. It introduced the eight-hour workday, domestic labor reform, works councils, agricultural labor reform, right of civil-service associations, local municipality social welfare relief (split between Reich and States) and important national health insurance, re-instatement of demobilized workers, protection from arbitrary dismissal with appeal as a right, regulated wage agreement, and universal suffrage from 20 years of age in all types of elections—local and national.
Ebert called for a “National Congress of Councils” (Reichsrätekongress), which took place December 16-20, 1918, and in which the MSPD had the majority. Thus, Ebert was able to institute elections for a provisional National Assembly that would be given the task of writing a democratic constitution for parliamentary government, marginalizing the movement that called for a socialist republic.
To ensure his fledgling government maintained control over the country, Ebert made an agreement with the OHL, now led by Ludendorff’s successor General Wilhelm Groener. The ‘Ebert–Groener pact’ stipulated that the government would not attempt to reform the army so long as the army swore to protect the state. On the one hand, this agreement symbolized the acceptance of the new government by the military, assuaging concern among the middle classes; on the other hand, it was thought contrary to working-class interests by left wing social democrats and communists, and was also opposed by the far right who believed democracy would make Germany weaker. The new Reichswehr armed forces, limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 100,000 army soldiers and 15,000 sailors, remained fully under the control of the German officer class, despite their nominal re-organization.
In January, the Spartacist League and others in the streets of Berlin made more armed attempts to establish communism, known as the Spartacist uprising. Those attempts were put down by paramilitary Freikorps units consisting of volunteer soldiers. Bloody street fights culminated in the beating and shooting deaths of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht after their arrests on January 15. With the affirmation of Ebert, those responsible were not tried before a court martial, leading to lenient sentences, which made Ebert unpopular among radical leftists.
In January 1919, the former Reichspostamt in Berlin became the Reichspostministerium. That same month, it issued its first stamps utilizing stocks of the Germania wartime printings of the former German Empire.
The National Assembly elections took place on January 19, 1919. In this time, the radical left-wing parties, including the USPD and KPD, were barely able to get themselves organized, leading to a solid majority of seats for the MSPD moderate forces. To avoid the ongoing fights in Berlin, the National Assembly convened in the city of Weimar, giving the future Republic its unofficial name. The Weimar Constitution created a republic under a parliamentary republic system with the Reichstag elected by proportional representation. The democratic parties obtained a solid 80% of the vote.
During the debates in Weimar, fighting continued. A Soviet republic was declared in Munich, but was quickly put down by Freikorps and remnants of the regular army. The fall of the Munich Soviet Republic to these units, many of which were situated on the extreme right, resulted in the growth of far-right movements and organizations in Bavaria, including Organisation Consul, the Nazi Party, and societies of exiled Russian Monarchists. Sporadic fighting continued to flare up around the country. In eastern provinces, forces loyal to Germany’s fallen Monarchy fought the republic, while militias of Polish nationalists fought for independence: Great Poland Uprising in Provinz Posen and three Silesian Uprisings in Upper Silesia.
The German peace delegation in France signed the Treaty of Versailles, accepting mass reductions of the German military, the prospect of substantial war reparations payments to the victorious allies, and the controversial “War Guilt Clause”. Explaining the rise of extreme nationalist movements in Germany shortly after the war, British historian Ian Kershaw points to the “national disgrace” that was “felt throughout Germany at the humiliating terms imposed by the victorious Allies and reflected in the Versailles Treaty…with its confiscation of territory on the eastern border and even more so its ‘guilt clause.'” Adolf Hitler repeatedly blamed the republic and its democracy for accepting the oppressive terms of this treaty.
Two Germania wartime printing stamps of the German Empire were re-issued on May 1, 1919, as charity stamps, each with a 5 pfennig surcharge, bearing the overprint 5 / Pf / für Kriegs / geschädigte to raise money to help War Invalids. The first commemorative stamps of the new republic were issued on July 1, 1919, marking the National Assembly in Weimar in a set of three. The stamp designs feature allegorical symbols of Germany’s emerging from the devastation of World War I. The 10 pfennig denomination depicts a tree with new growth while the 15 pfennig depicts new growth from a tree stump. The 25 pfennig denomination depicts a builder; A 30 pfennig stamp with the same design as that of the 25 pfennig was issued during February of 1920.
The Republic’s first Reichspräsident (“Reich President”), Friedrich Ebert of the SPD, signed the new German constitution into law on August 11, 1919.
The new post-World War I Germany, stripped of all colonies, became 13.3% smaller in its European territory than its imperial predecessor. Of these losses, a large proportion consisted of provinces that were originally Polish, and Alsace-Lorraine, seized by Germany in 1870, where Germans constituted only part or a minority of local populations despite nationalist outrage at the fragmentation of Germany.
In the early post-war years, inflation was growing at an alarming rate, but the government simply printed more currency to pay debts. By 1923, the Republic claimed it could no longer afford the reparations payments required by the Versailles Treaty, and the government defaulted on some payments. In response, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region, Germany’s most productive industrial region at the time, taking control of most mining and manufacturing companies in January 1923. Strikes were called, and passive resistance was encouraged. These strikes lasted eight months, further damaging the economy and the social life.
The strike prevented some goods from being produced, but one industrialist, Hugo Stinnes, was able to create a vast empire out of bankrupt companies. Because the production costs in Germany were falling almost hourly, the prices for German products were unbeatable. Stinnes made sure that he was paid in dollars, which meant that by mid-1923, his industrial empire was worth more than the entire German economy. By the end of the year, over two hundred factories were working full-time to produce paper for the spiralling bank note production. Stinnes’ empire collapsed when the government-sponsored inflation was stopped in November 1923.
Since striking workers were paid benefits by the state, much additional currency was printed, fueling a period of hyperinflation. The 1920s German inflation started when Germany had no goods to trade. The government printed money to deal with the crisis; this meant payments within Germany were made with worthless paper money, and helped formerly great industrialists to pay back their own loans. This also led to pay raises for workers and for businessmen who wanted to profit from it. Circulation of money rocketed, and soon banknotes were being overprinted to a thousand times their nominal value and every town produced its own promissory notes; many banks & industrial firms did the same.
The value of the Papiermark had declined from 4.2 Marks per U.S. dollar in 1914 to one million per dollar by August 1923. This led to further criticism of the Republic. On November 15, 1923, a new currency, the Rentenmark, was introduced at the rate of one trillion (1,000,000,000,000) Papiermark for one Rentenmark, an action known as redenomination. At that time, one U.S. dollar was equal to 4.2 Rentenmark. Reparation payments were resumed, and the Ruhr was returned to Germany under the Locarno Treaties, which defined the borders between Germany, France, and Belgium.
During the hyperinflation period, the Reichspost issued stamps up to 50 billion marks. The main common stamp series then was the “famous German people” series, followed by the Hindenburg stamps. The first of the valuable German Zeppelin stamps appeared in 1928, After the hyperinflation period, the Deutsche Reichspost (DRP) agency was again spun off in 1924 and operated as a state-owned enterprise.
Gustav Stresemann was Reichskanzler for 100 days in 1923, and served as foreign minister from 1923–1929, a period of relative stability for the Weimar Republic, known in Germany as Goldene Zwanziger (“Golden Twenties”). Prominent features of this period were a growing economy and a consequent decrease in civil unrest.
To help Germany meet reparation obligations, the Dawes Plan (1924) was created. This was an agreement between American banks and the German government in which the American banks lent money to German banks with German assets as collateral to help it pay reparations. The German railways, the National Bank and many industries were therefore mortgaged as securities for the stable currency and the loans.
Shortly after the Locarno Treaties were signed. The British, French, and Germans agreed that the borders between their countries would not be changed by force, thus the new borders acted by the Treaty of Versailles were being reinforced by the signing countries, but weakened the 1919 treaty regarding the eastern borders. Germany also agreed to sign arbitration conventions with France and Belgium and arbitration treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia, undertaking to refer any future disputes to an arbitration tribunal or to the Permanent Court of International Justice.
In 1926, Germany was admitted to the League of Nations as a permanent member, improving her international standing and giving her the ability to vote League of Nations legislation. However, this progress was funded by overseas loans, increasing the nation’s debts, while overall trade increased and unemployment fell. Stresemann’s reforms did not relieve the underlying weaknesses of Weimar but gave the appearance of a stable democracy. The major weakness in constitutional terms was the inherent instability of the coalitions. The growing dependence on American finance was to prove dangerous, and Germany was one of the worst hit nations in the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
he 1920s saw a remarkable cultural renaissance in Germany. During the worst phase of hyperinflation in 1923, the clubs and bars were full of speculators who spent their daily profits so they would not lose the value the following day. Berlin intellectuals responded by condemning the excesses of capitalism, and demanding revolutionary changes on the cultural scenery. Influenced by the brief cultural explosion in the Soviet Union, German literature, cinema, theatre and musical works entered a phase of great creativity. Innovative street theatre brought plays to the public, and the cabaret scene and jazz band became very popular.
According to the cliché, modern young women were Americanized, wearing makeup, short hair, smoking and breaking with traditional mores. The euphoria surrounding Josephine Baker in the metropolis of Berlin for instance, where she was declared an “erotic goddess” and in many ways admired and respected, kindled further “ultramodern” sensations in the minds of the German public. Art and a new type of architecture taught at “Bauhaus” schools reflected the new ideas of the time, with artists such as George Grosz being fined for defaming the military and for blasphemy.
Artists in Berlin were influenced by other contemporary progressive cultural movements, such as the Impressionist and Expressionist painters in Paris, as well as the Cubists. Likewise, American progressive architects were admired. Many of the new buildings built during this era followed a straight-lined, geometrical style. Examples of the new architecture include the Bauhaus Building by Gropius, Grosses Schauspielhaus, and the Einstein Tower.
Not everyone, however, was happy with the changes taking place in Weimar culture. Conservatives and reactionaries feared that Germany was betraying her traditional values by adopting popular styles from abroad, particularly those Hollywood was popularizing in American films, while New York became the global capital of fashion. Germany was more susceptible to Americanization, because of the close economic links brought about by the Dawes plan.
In 1929, three years after receiving the 1926 Nobel Peace Prize, Stresemann died of a heart attack at age 51. When stocks on the New York Stock Exchange crashed in October, the inevitable knock-on effects on the German economy brought the “Golden Twenties” to an abrupt end.
When American banks withdrew their loans to German companies, the onset of severe unemployment could not be stopped by conventional economic measures. Unemployment grew rapidly, and in September 1930 a political earthquake shook the republic to its foundations. The Nazi Party (NSDAP) entered the Reichstag with 19% of the popular vote and made the fragile coalition system by which every chancellor had governed unworkable. The last years of the Weimar Republic were stamped by even more political instability than in the previous years.
On June 2, 1932, Paul Freiherr von Eltz-Rübenach was appointed Reichspost Minister by Chancellor Franz von Papen and he maintained his office upon the Machtergreifung of the Nazi Party in 1933, ‘assisted’ by Nazi state secretary Wilhelm Ohnesorge.
The general elections on July 31, 1932, yielded major gains for the Communists, and for the Nazis, who won 37.3% of the vote — their high-water mark in a free election. The Nazi party then supplanted the Social Democrats as the largest party in the Reichstag, although it did not gain a majority.
The immediate question was what part the now large Nazi Party would play in the Government of the country. The party owed its huge increase to growing support from middle-class people, whose traditional parties were swallowed up by the Nazi Party. The millions of radical adherents at first forced the Party towards the Left. They wanted a renewed Germany and a new organization of German society. The left of the Nazi party strove desperately against any drift into the train of such capitalist and feudal reactionaries. Therefore, Hitler refused ministry under Papen, and demanded the chancellorship for himself, but was rejected by Hindenburg on August 13, 1932. There was still no majority in the Reichstag for any government; as a result, the Reichstag was dissolved and elections took place once more in the hope that a stable majority would result.
The November 6, 1932, elections yielded 33.1% for the Nazis, two million voters fewer than in the previous election. Franz von Papen stepped down and was succeeded as Chancellor (Reichskanzler) by General Kurt von Schleicher on December 3. Schleicher, a retired army officer, had developed in an atmosphere of semi-obscurity and intrigue that encompassed the Republican military policy. He had for years been in the camp of those supporting the Conservative counter-revolution. Schleicher’s bold and unsuccessful plan was to build a majority in the Reichstag by uniting the trade unionist left wings of the various parties, including that of the Nazis led by Gregor Strasser. This policy did not prove successful either.
In this brief Presidential Dictatorship intermission, Schleicher assumed the role of “Socialist General” and entered into relations with the Christian Trade Unions, the left-wing members of the Nazi party, and even with the Social Democrats. Schleicher planned for a sort of labor government under his Generalship. But the Reichswehr officers were not prepared for this, the working class had a natural distrust of their future allies, and the great capitalists and landowners also did not like the plans.
Hitler learned from Papen that the general had not received from Hindenburg the authority to abolish the Reichstag parliament, whereas any majority of seats did. The cabinet (under a previous interpretation of Article 48) ruled without a sitting Reichstag, which could vote only for its own dissolution. Hitler also learned that all past crippling Nazi debts were to be relieved by German big business.
On January 22, 1933, Hitler’s efforts to persuade Oskar von Hindenburg, the President’s son and confidant, included threats to bring criminal charges over estate taxation irregularities at the President’s Neudeck estate; although 5,000 acres (20 km²) extra were soon allotted to Hindenburg’s property. Outmaneuvered by Papen and Hitler on plans for the new cabinet, and having lost Hindenburg’s confidence, Schleicher asked for new elections. On January 28, Papen described Hitler to Paul von Hindenburg as only a minority part of an alternative, Papen-arranged government. The four great political movements, the SPD, Communists, Centre, and the Nazis were in opposition.
On 29 January, Hitler and Papen thwarted a last-minute threat of an officially sanctioned Reichswehr takeover, and on January 30, 1933, Hindenburg accepted the new Papen-Nationalist-Hitler coalition, with the Nazis holding only three of eleven Cabinet seats: Hitler as Chancellor, Wilhelm Frick as Minister of the Interior and Hermann Göring as Minister Without Portfolio. Later that day, the first cabinet meeting was attended by only two political parties, representing a minority in the Reichstag: The Nazis and the German National People’s Party (DNVP), led by Alfred Hugenberg, with 196 and 52 seats respectively. Eyeing the Catholic Centre Party’s 70 (plus 20 BVP) seats, Hitler refused their leader’s demands for constitutional “concessions” (amounting to protection) and planned for dissolution of the Reichstag.
Hindenburg, despite his misgivings about the Nazis’ goals and about Hitler as a personality, reluctantly agreed to Papen’s theory that, with Nazi popular support on the wane, Hitler could now be controlled as Chancellor. This date, dubbed by the Nazis as the Machtergreifung (seizure of power), is commonly seen as the beginning of Nazi Germany.
Scott #237, a 5000-mark deep blue engraved stamp issued in May 1923 during the period of hyperinflation, was issued in May of 1923 to mark the 850th anniversary of the construction of Wartburg Castle, situated on a 1,350-foot (410-meter) precipice overlooking the town of Eisenach in the state of Thuringia. In 1999, UNESCO added the Wartburg to the World Heritage List. It was the home of St. Elisabeth of Hungary, the place where Martin Luther translated the New Testament of the Bible into German, the site of the Wartburg festival of 1817 and the supposed setting for the legendary Sängerkrieg. It was an important inspiration for Ludwig II when he decided to build Neuschwanstein Castle. Wartburg is the most-visited tourist attraction in Thuringia after Weimar. Although the castle today still contains substantial original structures from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, much of the interior dates back only to the nineteenth century.