Tag Archives: Century of German History

Into the Abyss: The Global Economic Crisis and the Fall of the Weimar Republic (Century of German History, #8)

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:

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.

A26_BittereArmut.jpg

The dire economic situation in post-World War I Germany provided for political tension. Image © Matthias Cramer.

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 Victory

Nazis in parliament, Nazis in the street: The republic has fallen. Image © Matthias Cramer.

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.

Communist Victory.jpg

Poverty has led to widespread unrest in the cities. The Communists take over in the early 1920s. Image © Matthias Cramer.

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.

Further Reading

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.

Advertisements

Willy Brandt and Détente (Century of German History, #7)

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:

Today, we go back to 1969, when Willy Brandt took office as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the policy of détente across the Iron Curtain he implemented then. Here, the „German question“ of reunification merged with superpower détente into détente between West Germany and the Soviet Union as well as her allies in Eastern Europe. And when it comes to matters of détente and confrontation, our accompanying game can be no other than the famed Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games). If you are interested in Brandt’s life beyond détente, check out one of my very first blog posts on exactly that matter. Continue reading

World War II (Century of German History, #6)

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:

Today, we go back to September 1, 1939 and the German attack on Poland – the beginning of World War II. The game that accompanies us is Unconditional Surrender! (Salvatore Vasta, GMT Games). Now the events of World War II from the first shots to the final surrender of the Axis powers are well known (and covered by myriads of books, articles, and, yes, board games). Therefore, I’ll skip the narration of who conquered what when and instead focus on three crucial perspectives on the war and the board game: How was this war different from other great power wars before? How does the game balance between freedom of action of the players and recreating a historical outcome? And why does Unconditional Surrender capture an essential aspect of the war?
Finally, this post will also serve as the starting point of a new project: I’ll do a detailed Unconditional Surrender after action report. Follow my Twitter account for live updates (and vote on strategic decisions) and check out the larger narrative on the blog! Continue reading

The Naval Arms Race (Century of German History, #5)

Welcome to the fifth installment in my series Century of German History! Every post in the series sheds light on a focal event of German history in the 20th century and illustrates this event with precisely one board game. You can find the four previous posts here, here, here, and here.
Today we go to the very beginning of the century, to the very first decade and the Anglo-German naval arms race – from the comfortable naval position the United Kingdom enjoyed in the 19th century to the German challenge to this position, and the arms race proper and its consequences. Our game will be Europe in Turmoil: Prelude to the Great War (Kris van Beurden, Compass Games).

Continue reading

A New Start – and Two New Germanies (Century of German History, #4)

Welcome to the fourth installment in my series Century of German History! Every post in the series sheds light on a focal event of German history in the 20th century and illustrates this event with precisely one board game. You can find the three previous posts here, here and here.
Today, we look at the foundation of two German states in 1949. After the end of World War II, Germany was in ruins – materially and ideologically. While the Allies attempted some cooperation initially, they soon found themselves at odds and the three Western occupation zones and the Soviet occupation zone developed differently. The board game through whose lens we’re looking at these crucial times is Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame).

Continue reading

War and Peace: Germany and the Kosovo (Century of German History, #3)

Welcome to the third installment in my series Century of German History! Every post in the series sheds light on a focal event of German history in the 20th century and illustrates this event with precisely one board game. You can find the two previous posts here and here.
The first half of the 20th century was a storm of blood in Europe, and Germany was right at its center. After the Nazi atrocities, long decades of peace followed in Europe, and Germany – especially the political Left committed herself to a non-violent foreign policy. When ethnical tensions flared up again in Kosovo, a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and new mass carnage loomed to break out in the Balkans, how would the newly constituted center-left government of Germany deal with it? Let’s go back 20 years and find out. Our game will be This War of Mine (Michał Oracz/Jakub Wiśniewski, Awaken Realms).

Continue reading

The Berlin Crisis (Century of German History, #1)

Welcome, readers! You have just come upon my first post in the new series A Century of German History. This year, I will post ten articles, one for each decade of the 20th century. The century was the most dramatic in our history.[1] And it was possibly nowhere more so than in Germany, a country that found itself sometimes on the wrong side of history, sometimes on the right, and sometimes even on both at the same time. The series does therefore not only attempt to show you some German history, but also shed light on the wider processes of those times in which Germany was both a subject and an object. Each article will feature one focal event (all of them in the year ending in a 9) and use one – and only one! – board game to illustrate it. Today, we begin with the superpower bickering over Berlin during the Berlin Crisis (after looking at West Berlin’s special situation). The board game to come with that, however, focuses on Cuba: 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis (Asger Harding Granerud/Daniel Skjold Pedersen, Jolly Roger Games). Why did I choose this game then? Read and find out. Continue reading