Weimar and Nazi Germany, 1918-39

The Weimar Republic, 1918-1929

After World War One, Germany became democratic. All adult Germans were able to vote and the system of proportional representation meant a wide range of views were given a voice in Parliament. There was also an elected President instead of the Kaiser.

However Germany still faced problems. The Treaty of Versailles had embarrassed Germany as the ‘war guilt’ clause had to be accepted, as did military restrictions. Reparations were huge and there was political and economic instability:

  • in the first four years of the Weimar Republic there were three serious attempts to overthrow the government
  • in 1923 there was a hyperinflation crisis that left Germany’s currency worthless
Portrait of Gustav Stresemann
Gustav Stresemann

Between 1924 and 1929, Germany did better. The politician Gustav Stresemann arranged American loans and Germany could pay reparations again. By the late 1920s the Weimar Republic was a key member of the League of Nations and its culture was modern and vibrant. The government was still quite unstable but this was not as much of a problem in a time of greater wealth, which the loans had helped create.

Hitler's rise to power, 1919-1933

The Nazi Party had been founded in 1920 and Hitler became its leader soon after. During the hyperinflation crisis Hitler decided to try and seize power in the Munich Putsch (1923). He was jailed briefly and after this promised to win power only through elections. The Nazi Party membership grew but didn’t have very many seats by 1928 as people were less likely to vote for extreme parties in times of stability.

In 1929 the Wall Street Crash brought a worldwide depression. The loans given to Germany were recalled and the economy collapsed. Unemployment rocketed, poverty soared and Germans became desperate. This led to a chain of events that ended in the destruction of German democracy:

  • With the government unable to win a majority in the Reichstag, laws could only be passed by presidential decree. As a result, not enough action was taken to tackle the economic and social consequences of the Depression and Germans increasingly began to look to the political extremes for answers.
  • The Nazis benefitted from this the most, as a combination of policies with widespread appeal, a charismatic leader in Hitler and the violence of the SA helped make them the largest party in the Reichstag by the middle of 1932.
  • In January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg.

Nazi control and dictatorship, 1933-1939

Hitler quickly set about dismantling German democracy. He forced the passing of the Enabling Act through the Reichstag, which gave him unlimited powers for four years. He then eliminated any potential sources of opposition: other political parties, trades unions and even Ernst Rohm, the leader of the SA.

By the time President Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler was able to declare himself Führer and had absolute power in Germany.

Nazi Germany was a totalitarian state, which means that the government sought to control every aspect of life. To understand how Germans experienced this, one has to consider how control was established (police state, removal of opposition, propaganda and censorship), and how everyday life and society was influenced with Nazi ideals.

The police state

Hitler used three weapons to control the German people:

  • The Schutzstaffel (SS). This organisation was responsible for ensuring the population remained under control and any potential threats to the Nazis were dealt with. It oversaw the Gestapo (secret police), which spied on ordinary Germans, and it ran concentration camps where enemies of the state were sent.
  • Control of the legal system. All judges had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Führer and all lawyers had to join the Nazi Lawyers’ Association. It was made harder to defend people placed on trial for suspected crimes and the death penalty was used much more widely than before.
  • Propaganda and censorship. Joseph Goebbels ran the Ministry of Propaganda, whose job it was to convince the German people to embrace Nazi rule. This was achieved through control of the press, radio and the arts, and through rallies and sporting events.

The police state and laws protected the Nazis against opposition. It is difficult to know how large opposition to the Nazis was, because fear and intimidation stopped many from openly opposing them. Despite this, limited numbers people did oppose them – religious figures, old political opponents and youth groups like the Edelweiss Pirates.