WWI Term Paper

Major changes took place within Europe in the years following the end of the First World War (WWI). Once great and powerful empires were toppling from the great human and economic costs impressed upon them by the world’s first great war. Germany, deemed by world public opinion as the primary aggressor in the Great War, was on the verge of collapse due to the heavy costs from the all out war of attrition. America’s entrance into the war against Germany in March of 1917 and decisive Allied victories in late 1917 and early 1918 spelled the beginning of the end for Germany. German resources were exhausted from the great economic cost of war and its military was depleted from years of trench warfare. On November 9, 1918 Kaiser Wilhelm II, the leader of the German Empire, abdicated his throne and fled to Holland. (1)

A new republic was created in the wake of the Kaiser’s departure from Central Europe and German politics. The new German republic was created and named after the city of Weimar, where it’s constitution was drafted. The Weimar Republic took control of the affairs of Germany the same day Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne on November 9, 1918. This new government broke away from the monarchical Wilhelmine Empire and sought to create a new democratic German Republic in the midst of international turmoil and domestic infighting. The Weimar Republic came to suffer hardships from a number of international and domestic issues, which constantly challenged its authority over Germany. A thoughtful examination of events surrounding the Weimar Republic gives greater insight into the challenges it faced and accounts for its ultimate collapse.

In mid January 1919 there was a call in Germany for the election of a constituent assembly. This assembly met in Weimar and drew the new German republic’s constitution. The primary framers of the Weimar constitution were Friedrich Ebert, and a left wing liberal named Hugo Preuss. Friedrich Ebert became the Reich Chancellor in November 1918 and the first provisional president of the Weimar Republic in February 1919. (2) Ebert was a member of the Social Democratic party of Germany and sought to combine the best features of the British, French and American constitutions into the new Weimar constitution. (3). From January to July of 1919 Ebert, Preuss and representatives in government created Germany’s new constitution. The constitution granted the German people the opportunity to elect their own president of the republic. The Weimar constitution declared that the president would be elected by universal suffrage. The new government’s principle of universal suffrage bestowed political efficacy to all men and women over the age of twenty.

The many egalitarian provisions established in the Weimar constitution set a very democratic tone for the new republic, but many safeguards were emplaced to insure the president’s control over the republic. The president of the republic was given the right to select his own chancellor. The chancellor was the chief minister of state, whose power was concentrated on governing domestic issues. The constitution made Germany a federal state, thereby allowing elected representatives to form a congress known as the Reichstag. Members of the Reichstag were elected by universal suffrage and displayed the highly diverse political community that was Germany from 1919-1933. (4)

The Weimar government was a democracy that encouraged a high level multiparty involvement in government. In the Reichstag all political parties had some level of representation. Any political party, no matter how small, that could maintain two percent of the popular vote in general elections would be granted at least one representative in the Reichstag. (5) The Weimar constitution’s drafting of minority representation in the Reichstag fostered the existence of controversial parties within government. In addition to the representation of minority parties in the Reichstag, the Weimar constitution also allowed for initiatives, where laws can be passed by popular vote. (6)

The Weimar constitution can be described as a bipolar document that varies from one extreme to the other. The Weimar Republic was very democratic, but it also wanted insured government stability behind a strong leader. The president would be elected to terms of office that were to last seven years. Article 48 of the Weimar constitution insured the president supreme power over Germany in emergency situations. Article 48 declares that the president, if he wishes, can dissolve the Reichstag and dismiss the Chancellor if he felt the republic was threatened. (7) The Weimar government would come to use Article 48 a number of times throughout its turbulent existence.

The constitution and its emergency clauses served to aid Germany in creating a modicum of stability in governance. Germany was marked by internal strife immediately following its surrender to the Allies in November of 1918. Political parties viewed the fall of the Kaiser’s government in November 1918 as their opportunity to take control of Germany. The Liberal, Conservative and radical parties of Germany vied to become the dominant influence in the Reichstag. In February 1919 Friedrich Ebert officially became the provisional president of the Weimar Republic. The Weimar government immediately faced opposition from the communist party of Germany. Violent uprisings were taking place throughout Germany and Ebert knew that a display of force was the only way to stop these daily threats to the new Democratic Republic. Ebert had to back the Weimar government with military force.

In early November 1918 Friedrich Ebert reached an agreement with the commander in charge of the armed forces General Wilhelm Groener. (8) In the agreement between Ebert and Groener, Groener agreed to assist the government in maintaining order at home and would administer the demobilization of the troops on the front. (9) The Ebert-Groener pact became highly criticized because it created a “state within a state”(10) but Ebert had immediate issues to deal with including the demobilization of a mass number of troops from France and Belgium and the Weimar Republic’s lack of internal security. (11)

In early January of 1918 Ebert enlisted the aid of Groener’s army to put down a violent revolution incited by the newly formed German Communist Party. Ebert enlisted the aid of the Freikorps, also known as free soldiers of vigilantes, to suppress the communist rebellion. (12) Ebert had shown that the strength of the Weimar government through the military suppression of the Communists during what became known as Spartacus Week, which lasted from January 5 through January 12, 1920. (13) Through the midst of political and social turmoil in founding a new republic and creating a constitution in Germany, Ebert and other political leaders were obliged to address the peace terms to end World War One.

The first international order of business for the Weimar government was to complete the terms of the peace treaty. The peace treaty was held in France near Paris at the royal palace of Versailles. Germany had unconditionally surrendered to the Allies and was at their will when the terms of the Treaty of Versailles were being created. The main goal of Britain and France in the treaty making process was to hold the Germans responsible for paying the war and for hindering further German aggression by weakening them economically, militarily and in international affairs. Under conditions of the Versailles treaty France came to occupy parts of Germany. In addition to French occupation of German lands, Germany lost vast amounts of territory to its neighbors and lost control its colonies. The Weimar government was forced to accept the conditions of the Versailles treaty including the humiliating War-Guilt clause, where Germany accepted full responsibility for the war and agreed to pay the Allies, namely Britain and France, 132 billion in gold marks. (14)

The Versailles treaty can be seen as a punitive and preventative act against Germany. The Allies punished Germany for its past aggression and created provisions to weaken Germany economically and militarily. The Weimar government was forced with an ultimatum, either sign the Versailles treaty or face a possible invasion by Allied forces. The government was deadlocked whether to accept or reject the Versailles treaty and became such a controversial issue in Germany that the DDP, the Democratic Party, cabinet resigned from government along with the Weimar’s the first Chancellor Phillip Scheidemann. (15) Scheidemann was replaced by Gustav Bauer, a social democrat, and the cabinet was filled with social democrats and Center party ministers. (16). The new Weimar cabinet was not beholden with a rakish or self-destructive mindset and came to the sensible conclusion that the best course of action was to accept the treaty and remain a sovereign nation. The Versailles treaty substantially diminished Germany’s level of prestige and influence in Europe. Germans from all political parties met the acceptance of the Versailles treaty with great dissent.

The German people felt the Versailles treaty’s terms were too severe in their appraisal of reparations and seizure of German lands. The Weimar government encountered their next great crisis; the issue was how would Germany pay the indemnities for World War One. The level of payments was set so high that it devastated the German economy and did not allow for any growth. Reparations were further complicated for the Weimar Republic because of the subsequent inflation from the imperial government’s war spending. “The imperial government had decided to finance the war almost entirely with credits. By the end of the war, the German mark had fallen from a value of 4.2 to the dollar in July 1914 to 8.9 in January 1919.” (17) The German mark’s value was diminishing and Germany’s industrial potential was limited because of “the loss of… seventy five percent [its] pre-war iron reserves and a significant portion of her coal mining capacity in the areas of Silesia, Alsace-Lorraine, and the Saar” (18).

The Allied governments were constantly fighting with the Weimar government to fashion the most immediate timetable for paying war indemnities. Germany was reluctant to pay the debts asked of them by the Allies because of the impoverished state of the German economy and the underdeveloped German industries. In 1922 the French government felt that the Germany was not paying its war debt fast enough so the French government decided to move into an industrial region of Germany known as the Ruhr valley to take German reparations in kind. The Weimar government’s response, under Chancellor Cuno, was to passively resist French occupation of the Ruhr valley by encouraging German workers in the Ruhr to strike. (19)

France’s response the German workers strike was to bring the armies of France and Belgium to work in the factories in the Ruhr valley. Another method of passive resistance employed by the Weimar Republic under the domestic leadership of Chancellor Wilhelm Cuno was to pay off war debts not in kind or from solidly backed German marks from a stable German economy, but by simply printing more German currency. Germany began exponentially increasing the production of German marks, which subsequently devalued the Deutschmark to the point where it became virtually worthless. Tables estimate that from January 1923 to November 1923 the German mark went from 18,000 DM to the U.S. dollar to 4.2 trillion DM to the U.S. dollar. (20) German experienced a period of hyperinflation from January to November of 1923. The strategy was employed by Cuno and other members of the Weimar government to show the allies that firstly, war debts were almost impossible to pay and secondly, expedient efforts could not be made towards reparations with the weakness of German economy and industry.

The period of hyperinflation and passive resistance to the Allied powers marks the lowest point of the Weimar Government. Germany was politically and economically weak and required some level of cooperative assistance from the Allies. In the years preceding World War One Germany was the strongest economy in Central Europe and the entire region depended on the economic prosperity of Germany for the economic well being of Central Europe. The collapse of the German Empire after the war sent shockwaves through the economy of Central Europe and many leading statesmen throughout Europe and America argued that the German economy should rebuilt for the economic well being of the region. In December of 1923 private investors from America began to invest money. (21)

December 1923 to October 1929 is marked as the golden years of the Weimar Republic. Chancellor Cuno resigned from office and was replaced by Gustav Stresemann in August of 1923. (22) Under Stresemann was a finance minister named Hjalmar Schacht. (23) Schacht worked to alleviate Germany’s economic problems by calling in the hyper inflated Deutschmarks and began issuing a new currency known as the Rentenmark. (24) The resignation of Chancellor Cuno and the issuing of the new mark were definite signs to the Allies and the world that the Weimar government was serious about economic recovery and paying their war debts. Subsequently, an influx of foreign investment had begun to rebuild and strengthen the German economy under Ebert and Stresemann.

In the spring of 1924 The Weimar government replaced the Rentenmark and issued a new permanent national currency named the Reichsmark. In addition to the new permanent national currency the Weimar government came to an agreement with American investors in the Dawes plan of 1924. (25) The Dawes plan arranged for loans for Germany from American investors and negotiated fairer conditions to Germany’s reparation plan. In addition to domestic economic progress made by the Weimar government, events occurred from 1925 to 1929 that signaled Germany’s rebirth as an internationally powerful European nation. In October of 1925 the treaty of Locarno was signed between Germany, France and Belgium. The Locarno treaty stabilized western frontiers and called for the peaceful negotiation of further disputes. (26)

The continual growth in German economics and international relations from 1924 to 1929 allowed the Weimar government to branch out to other fields. A Weimar culture began that put value in the fields of art and literature. (27) “(The Weimar government was) [c]onvinced that a spiritual and cultural regeneration would provide a vehicle for Germany’s return to greatness” (28). Berlin became the capital of cultural modernism and Art and literature flourished at this time. (29)

It seemed as if Germany would return to glory under the guidance of the Weimar Republic, but German prosperity was at the will of the American stock market. In October of 1929 over speculation caused a crisis in the American stock market and millions of stockholders who had bought stock on credit were losing everything when they could not pay their dues. Banks closed and corporations collapsed. American investment in Germany had virtually ceased to exist and the Weimar government was held responsible with the new economic crisis that had befallen the German people. The international relations and the subsequent economic progress made by the Weimar government were seen as the root of Germany’s economic downfall in October 1929.

The reality of the hollowness of Germany’s economic progress came to light when it was revealed that the Weimar government was completely dependent upon American investment and the American economy. The artistic and literary advancements made that symbolized the Weimar government were now seen as superficial markers of a completely ineffective government. The President of the Weimar that succeeded Ebert, Gustav Stresemann had died leaving Paul von Hindenberg as the new President of the Weimar Republic. Hindenberg faced immediate problems when entering office. He received a nation in a severe economic depression with a high level of popular discontent at his government and its policies. Hindenberg asked a conservative member of the Catholic Center Party, Heinrich Bruning, to be the new Chancellor of the Weimar Republic. (30)

Bruning’s policies towards Germany came to please the conservatives in Germany, but angered and further alienated the German working class from the Weimar government. (31) Hindenburg and Bruning were not equipped to handle all the problems they inherited. Hindenberg was an aging and ineffective president that depended on his cabinet to advise him on the complex economic and political problems facing Germany. (32) Bruning’s term as Chancellor is marked by the Weimar government’s move towards a modified version of authoritarian government. Bruning’s government attempted to severely curtail the powers of the Reichstag. (33). The unpopularity of the Weimar Republic’s previous policies and continuing ineptitude led to the rise of other political parties that could gain popular support by denouncing the recent actions of the government and offer promises of jobs, security and prestige to Germany.

The Weimar Republic was very democratic in nature in that it allowed for a multiparty system of democracy; even to the smallest and most controversial political parties, but by the end with the aid of Article 48 of the Weimar constitution it proved to be as authoritarian as the Wilhelmine Empire. The Weimar government was beset with a multitude of domestic and international crises to attend to in a politically disjointed and war ravaged country. The Weimar government depended on unstable mechanisms for economic growth and faced the ultimate consequences of these high-risk choices. The government entered into unpopular agreements with the Allied powers which came to be resented as the reasons for Germany’s ills, founded or unfounded. In addition, the unresponsive actions taken by the Weimar government after the great depression only furthered its unpopularity and insured its eventual demise.


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