Understanding Democracy and Nazism: Germany, 1918–1923

One of the challenges of studying Germany from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second World War is remembering and then navigating the intense and dramatic changes that took place throughout the era.

As with previous blog posts helping students to master topic areas, the trick with Germany is to break down the events of the era into understandable phases that can then be connected together.

In this blog post we’ll look at the first of five distinct phases and try to avoid a couple of pitfalls along the way. One of the problems with learning Weimar and Nazi Germany academically is that along the way students tend to acquire huge amounts of information (both useful and misleading) about Nazism and Hitler and wrongly assume that the entire period is the study of the Nazis.

It isn’t, it’s not even the study of the Weimar Government and the Nazi regime, it’s the study of German history, which was defined by the struggles of Weimar and the rise and fall of the Nazi regime.

If we approach the topic in this way, then we can see things from a much wider perspective and pay attention to the affairs of ordinary Germans who often had little time for the Weimar regime, but who weren’t necessarily ardent supporters of the Nazi Party.

If you are just starting on your journey into studying this topic but have been assimilating ‘Hitler facts’ for years through TV shows and other media, please set aside what you know (much of it may be right, but let’s take the focus off Hitler to begin with) because this isn’t ‘Hitler studies’.

Much of what we think we know about Nazism is often tainted with urban myths and other misunderstandings and in some cases the tendency to see him as some sort of evil genius or mad. Hitler was in no way mentally ill and certainly doesn’t qualify for the title of genius.

  1. 1918-23 post war crisis years

In the five years after the end of the First World War, Germany and its new Weimar Republic struggles with intense chaos and multiple attempts by radical left and extreme right groups to seize power.

Many Germans believed that Germany had been fighting a defensive war against its enemies that had encircled Germany in a ‘ring of steel’ and as such, when the war ended without Germany being invaded, imagined that there had not been a defeat as such. Germany’s subsequent humiliation and punishment was understood by many Germans as some form of betrayal.

The stab in the back myth, propagated by Ludendorff and others, had a widespread appeal as a result. Germany’s loss on the battlefield and the effectiveness of the naval blockade and the overall economic cost of the war, along with the devastating effects of Spanish flu led to revolution by November 1918 that swept away the Kaiser.

A starving Germany, it was feared by both the army and the new government, could easily become the next state to fall to a party like the Bolsheviks in Russia. For this reason, accepting the terms firstly of the armistice and then of the Treaty of Versailles was the price that the government had to pay.

The army was not a natural supporter of the Social Democratic Party but saw it as necessary to keep them in power for long enough to prevent the communist threat (which was easily crushed in 1919 in the Spartacist uprising (January) and the Raterrepublik (April-May).

The more serious threats the the republic came from the right, in the guise of the Kapp Putsch in 1920 and Hitler’s Munich Putsch in 1923, but also a wave of assassinations of government ministers throughout the period. These threats were all the more serious because the Kaiser’s former supporters, in the army, police, civil service and judiciary looked upon them with tacit approval. In the case of the Kapp Putsch, the army refused to intervene, hoping to soon have a government that suited their purposes.

The period ended with the inflation that had developed during the war as a result of the Kaiser’s attempts to print currency to pay Germany’s bills, reaching unprecedented levels by 1923.

By 1921 the allies became suspicious that Germany might be paying her debts to
them in worthless paper, so they insisted on reparations being paid in gold instead, but
Germany simply bought in gold and paid for it by printing millions of new banknotes, thus starting hyper inflation.

Germany frequently defaulted on its debts, some of which were paid in raw materials and as a result in 1923 the French and Belgian armies occupied the Ruhr region. They extracted coal, timber and other raw materials of value to cover the costs of the reparations. The payment of striking workers wages throughout this period resulted in the country tipping into hyper inflation.

In this moment of economic chaos, Hitler first attempted and failed to seize power, his failed coup demonstrating that Germany was not like Italy, where a fascist march on Rome had succeeded. It showed Hitler that seizing power would have to be achieved in different ways.

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