The Weimar Republic: 1919-1933

The history of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) illuminates one of the most creative and crucial periods in the twentieth century and serves as a significant case study of the critical issues of our own time. Many of the questions asked about the Weimar Republic are relevant to problems that individuals and societies face in the twenty-first century.

Kellogg-Briand-Stresemann Pact

The Kellogg-Briand-Stresemann Pact was negotiated in Paris by Frank Kellogg, the American Secretary of State, August Briand, the French Foreign Minister, and Gustav Stresemann, the German Foreign Minister. The treaty declared that all the nations signing this pact committed themselves to renounce aggressive war and to settle their differences by peaceful means. All the leading world powers signed this agreement.

Start of World War I

The assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by Serb nationalists in June 1914 was the immediate spark that led to the First World War. The foundations for a full-scale European war included a dangerous system of alliances, an armaments race, and a risk-taking foreign policy by Germany, Austria and Russia designed to reduce domestic discontent and create national unity.

US and German Trade

By 1914, Germany and the United Sates were overtaking England economically and were the world's fastest growing economies. Germany’s economic success was undermined by the war and US-German trade was reduced to less than 1% of its 1914 value by England’s successful naval blockade. American ships going to England became potential targets for German U-boats.

Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)

Bertha Pappenheim urged members of the League of Jewish Women (JFB), which she had founded, to join the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) which was a pacifist group founded in 1915 and led by Jane Addams. The League was not a popular movement in Germany but Papenheim admired its commitment to peace and its condemnation of antisemitism as an “enemy of world peace."

The Russian Revolution

In 1917, Russia was unable to supply its soldiers in the field or feed its people at home. A strong desire for an end to Czarist misrule, for bread, and peace led to riots which in turn led to revolution. A moderate revolution in March of 1917 was followed by a more radical revolution in November of 1917. That radical revolution brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. Lenin and his second in command, Trotsky, took Russia out of the war by accepting a harsh peace treaty from the Germans and created the Red Army, which defeated the Bolsheviks’ internal enemies and began more than 70 years of communist rule in Russia.

Abdication of the Kaiser

On November 10th 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II boarded the imperial train for Holland. He signed the official act of abdication as King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany on November 28th with German troops still on foreign soil and the Weimar republic not yet a reality. His abdication was designed to put Germany in a better negotiating position with the victorious democracies. The final pressure for his abdication came from General von Hindenburg.

The End of World War One / November Criminals

Germany's failed final offensive was followed by the mutiny of its High Seas Fleet. Forced to seek peace by naval rebellion, increasing desertions, shortages of ammunition and food, and the prospect of ever increasing American troops and supplies, the General Staff agreed to an armistice and the fighting ended on November 11, 1918. The negotiators of the armistice who were leaders of the Social Democratic, Democratic and Catholic Center parties were labeled as the criminals by Germans on the political right who felt that these men betrayed their country and stopped a war that Germany could still win. Men like Phillip Scheidemann, Walter Rathenau and Matthias Erzberger who negotiated did so because the German Generals pleaded with them to gain an armistice as they feared that the German army was running out of munitions and food and was in danger of falling apart. These men, who helped create and lead the Weimar Republic in its early years, would always be considered "November Criminals" by the enemies of the Weimar Republic. The reluctant negotiators who had felt it was their patriotic duty to follow the Generals request were marked for murder by their enemies and would be repudiated by the Generals who had pressured them to carry out the negotiations. Since reporting of the actual progress of the war was highly censored, and virtually all combat took place outside of Germany, Germans were almost totally unprepared for their defeat and surrender.

Germany Signs the Treaty of Versailles

In June of 1919, the German government leaders reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles. Virtually all Germans considered this Treaty--imposed by the victorious English, French and Americans--to be unfair and humiliating. Germans were particularly disappointed in the American President Woodrow Wilson who they thought would gain them more moderate terms. The Treaty stripped Germany of territory, people, and resources and imposed monetary reparations payments. Those socialist, liberal, and Catholic political leaders who argued for the Treaty’s acceptance did so only after the Generals had made it clear to them that Germany could no longer militarily resist and faced occupation if it tried. Nonetheless, German nationalists considered the Treaty’s signers as traitors who stabbed Germany in the back.

Sparticist Revolution

Disappointed by the Social Democrats (SPD) support for the War in 1914, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht founded the Spartacists, a revolutionary anti-war faction within the moderate Social Democratic Party. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were imprisoned in 1915 for their anti-war activities. In 1919, at the end of the war, the Spartacists led a group of radical workers on the streets of Berlin who wanted to create a German Bolshevik state. The moderate Socialists used troops to put down these radical workers, as they feared the radicals threatened the chances for republican government in Germany. Undisciplined Freikorps troops who followed regular Army troops into Berlin murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. The actions of moderate socialists against more radical socialists during the Spartacist revolution created a split in the left, which lasted throughout the Weimar years and strengthened the position of those on the right.

Weimar Republic Established

The Weimar Republic was first proclaimed on November 9,1918, by the Social Democratic leadership. The city of Weimar, a traditional center of German culture removed from the crisis of Berlin, was chosen as a safe place to draft a new Constitution, which was signed on August 11, 1919.

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