I’m doing a series on German history in the 20th century on my blog this year. In intervals of 10 years, I pick a crucial event and explore it – with the help of precisely one board game. You can find the previous posts here:
- The Berlin Crisis (1959)
- The Ecology Movement (1979)
- The Kosovo War (1999)
- The Division of Germany (1949)
- The Naval Arms Race (1909)
- World War II (1939)
- Willy Brandt and Deténte
Today, we’re going all the way back to Germany’s interwar Weimar Republic and the global economic crisis beginning in 1929. We’ll look at the vulnerable foundations of this new democracy, the immediate effects of the economic crisis, and the part the crisis played in the fall of the Weimar Republic. Also, we’ll discuss the perpetual questions if the Weimar Republic failed and if its fall was inevitable. The game to accompany all of this is Weimar: The Fight for Democracy (Matthias Cramer, Compass Games). The game is to be published next year, so all the components you see here still have the playtest art which will of course be polished. Designer Matthias Cramer provided me with the pictures and answered some questions of mine about the game and its portrayal of the crisis – very kind of him!
The Fragile Democracy
The Weimar Republic was born out of war and revolution. When in September 1918 it became clear that Germany would lose the Great War, the de facto military dictator Ludendorff quickly handed over government to the hitherto powerless parliamentarians. While they were discussing terms for a ceasefire with the Allies, other military leaders prepared (without consulting their new civilian government) for one last naval strike to go out in a blaze of glory. The sailors, however, would have none of it and rose in support for the government. Their revolution spread like a wildfire from the north of Germany and brought down the remnants of imperial rule in Germany. Even though the sailors – and along with them the workers – had risen in support of the Social Democrat-led government, said government grew quickly suspicious of them. Worker protests in early 1919 were gunned down by government-sponsored paramilitary forces. At the same time, the victorious powers of the Great War drew up a treaty to transform the ceasefire into a peace. The terms of this Versailles Treaty were harsh – Germany lost wide swaths of territory, all colonies, had to pay a staggering sum in war reparations, and was assigned the sole guilt for the outbreak of the war – but the alternative – fighting on – was utterly unfeasible at this point. So the German government signed, the National Assembly completed their work on a new constitution, and thus the new Germany of peace and democracy was born.
The Versailles Treaty was a heavy burden on the young republic – not only because of the actual material reparations, but also because of the resentment it created. As accepting the terms of Versailles had been one of the first acts of the new parliament-based government, it was easy to smear them as traitors to their country (just as Ludendorff had wanted). Right-wing opposition to the Weimar Republic always rested on the myth that Germany had not militarily lost World War I, but that an unholy alliance of the parliamentarians in the capital with the revolutionaries all over Germany (often either or both were seen as the agents of a Jewish conspiracy) had “stabbed the army in the back”. The nationalists could never make their peace with the Republic on these grounds. One of the player factions in Weimar: The Fight for Democracy represents these nationalists which are opposed to the Republic from the very beginning.
But not only some few right-wing extremists rejected the republic. Large parts of the traditional elites in the administration, the military, and business disapproved of a liberal, parliamentary democracy, which they found at best suitable to a nation of merchants, like the English, but not to one of heroes, as they saw themselves. The German democratic republic could only grow from below – those at the top had weighed and regarded it as unsuitable from the get-go.
Beyond these lofty matters of republic and ideology, the Republic’s success rested mainly on its ability to deliver economic prosperity to its population. Poverty was rampant at the Republic’s founding, and the comfortable middle classes experienced the same disappointment in Germany as in any other major country after the Great War: Living off one’s fortune was just not feasible anymore. The burden of the war reparations and the volatile situation with various right- and left-wing uprisings contributed their part to the economic disaster of the early Weimar Republic which culminated in a hyperinflation so pronounced that wheelbarrows full of paper money were needed to pay for a loaf of bread at times. The economy only began recovering by the mid-1920s.
The Crisis of 1929
The good years did not last long. Germany’s shyly blossoming economic success was dependent on foreign, especially American, capital. So when the triple crisis of American manufacturing, agriculture, and finance culminated in a massive stock market crash in late October 1929, the country was dragged down even more than the rest of the world: The national income decreased by about 20% from 1929 to 1931. Unemployment tripled from 1928 to 1931.
What was more, the governments of the industrialized countries were singularly badly prepared to handle a crisis of that kind. Some, like the Hoover administration in the United States, believed in the self-regulating nature of the market in the long run, notwithstanding the massive social disruption the crisis caused immediately. John Maynard Keynes, one of the leading critics of crisis management in the western world, bitterly quipped, „In the long run, we’re all dead.“ Where there were social security systems which could have theoretically caught the blow, they were not equipped to handle a social earthquake of this magnitude. The long lines of workers queuing for food stamps or unemployment benefits became a powerful symbol of the crisis. And among western governments, a race toward protectionism set in – a futile attempt to save the market shares of one’s domestic manufacturers which collapsed global trade and exacerbated the crisis further.
In Weimar: The Fight for Democracy, the card events depicting the crisis also drag down the economy. Progress that might have been made during the 1920s will be destroyed, and the question of poverty will again make or break governments. The crisis, however, also has reverberations beyond the economic: The (non-player) Nazi movement will grow stronger and gain more seats in parliament.
The Fall of the Republic
The Weimar Republic, built as we have seen on brittle foundations, and hit harder than most countries by the crisis, lasted for only three and a half year after the stock market had crashed in October 1929. Then Hitler was inaugurated as Germany’s chancellor, not to relinquish power until his death twelve years and millions of corpses later. The fall of the Weimar Republic is one of the textbook examples of a republican system being overthrown by a ruthless autocrat, right next to the fall of the Roman Republic and Palpatine’s coup switching out the Old Republic for the Galactic Empire… or is it? Only halfway. The Nazi Party continually grew in parliamentary votes, membership, and street clout from the late 1920s to 1933, rising from relative obscurity to being the leading party of the country. However, even at its best showing in an election (July 1932), the Nazis took only 37% of the vote, and already lost some of that in the next election only four months later. At no point did they have a parliamentary majority – however, as they and the Communists (benefitting from the Soviet Union’s apparent invulnerability to the global crisis) combined held a majority of seats in parliament, no workable government coalition was possible anymore. The nationalists and conservatives attempted to break that impasse by incorporating the Nazis into government in the vain hope they would be able to control them. With their support, Hitler was elected chancellor on January 30, 1933. Over the next few months, the democratic institutions of the Weimar Republic were dismantled and Nazi tyranny cemented.
Nazi rule is a distinct possibility in Weimar: The Fight for Democracy as well. The Nazis are not a player faction, however – their rise is tracked within the game system. The worse the factions in government handle the crisis, the more powerful the Nazis get. The player factions can gamble that the Nazis will not gain sufficient strength to take over, but if they do, all players are penalized according to their role in the rise of the Nazis. Whoever has the best score then can call themselves, well, maybe not the winner, given that the country is descending into the abyss of fascism, but at least like the most promising loser.
Weimar’s Failure Reassessed
We know that the Weimar Republic lasted only fourteen years and was then replaced by the most murderous regime in history. It is easy, therefore, to write its history as a history of failure (often with the implicit intent to certify the political virtue of the western democracies and/or Germany’s second attempt at democracy after 1949). Yet Weimar was not only disappointment and disaster. It was the first prolonged German experiment with democracy. Its constitution (defective as it proved to produce solid parliamentary majorities in the later years) was a remarkable achievement of marrying liberal ideals and social security. Weimar fell to the right-wing extremists in 1933, but was capable of defeating their other uprisings in 1920 and 1923. Not its least achievement was the cultural and scientific boom of Germany during the Weimar Republic which made the country – and especially its capital Berlin – a major player in avantgarde and mass entertainment as well as one of the global knowledge hubs. The Nazis replaced that with propaganda as uniformed as it was uninformed and science which did not only lose many leading scholars to persecution, emigration, and execution, but whose remaining minds were only allowed to think in certain ways.
Finally, the question remains if Weimar’s fall was inevitable. Hindsight might make it seem so, but if one place should remind us of the contingencies of history it is the „laboratory of modernity“ (Fritzsche) that was the Weimar Republic. Maybe better cooperation between the democratic forces might have saved the Republic. Maybe a slightly better handling of the crisis might have done it – after all, there was a small economic recovery already underway when the nationalists handed the government to Hitler. And, of course, entirely different outcomes were possible, too: The large left-wing protests of the early years of the Republic as well as the Communist election successes in the 1930s hints at the possibility of a Soviet-style revolution in Germany. And the elite support the right-wing nationalists enjoyed makes it quite thinkable that they would install an authoritarian regime, possibly with the restitution of the Hohenzollern monarchy (and they certainly thought that their electing of Hitler to the chancellery would help them with that). All these outcomes are possible in Weimar: The Fight For Democracy. History is in your hands.
For an analytical introduction to the Weimar Republic see Kluge, Ulrich: Die Weimarer Republik, UTB, Paderborn 2006 (in German).
The question if Weimar failed is discussed in this summary review article: Fritzsche, Peter: Did Weimar Fail?, in: Journal of Modern History 68, 3, 1996, p. 629—656, online here (free registration required).
You can find a contemporary voice arguing for demand-based economic policies and the sustainment of global trade here: Keynes, John Maynard: The World’s Economic Outlook, in: The Atlantic, May 1932, online here.
For the role of violence in the revolution and for the Weimar Republic, see Jones, Mark: Founding Weimar. Violence and the German Revolution of 1918—1919, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2016.