Page 2 The Weimar Republic, 1918-29
Page 21 Hitler’s rise to power, 1919-33
Page 42 Nazi control and dictatorship, 1933-39
Page 63 Life in Nazi Germany, 1933-39
Key Topic 1: The Weimar Republic, 1918-33
The Origins and Early Problems of the Weimar Republic
The German people had gone to war in August 1914 expecting a quick and easy victory, but the failure of the Schlieffen Plan followed by four years of trench warfare had devastated Germany. By 1918, Germany was on its knees, but the German High Command, headed by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, was encouraged by the collapse of Russia and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and decided on one last throw of the dice. They ordered a massive offensive (Operation Michael) in March 1918. The German forces advanced fifty miles, but failed to break the Allied line. In August, the Allied counter-attack was a great success and Ludendorff described 8th August as the ‘black day’. The war was lost.
On 29th September, Ludendorff admitted that German had been defeated, although he had a subsequent change of heart and claimed that the war could be continued until the spring of 1919. However, the collapse of Germany’s allies, Bulgaria and Austria, meant that Germany would have had to fight on its own. Ludendorff suggested an appeal to President Wilson, hoping that the ‘Fourteen Points’ would result in a generous peace, but Woodrow Wilson refused to consider an armistice unless the Kaiser abdicated.
On 28th October, the Reichstag agreed to the creation of a constitutional government, but Wilhelm II ignored the Reichstag and went to the Army HQ. The High Seas Fleet was ordered to sea to take on the Royal Navy. The refusal of the Kaiser and the High Command to accept the decision of the Reichstag resulted in massive protests. The fleet mutinied and sailors seized control of Kiel. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils (Soviets) took control of many major cities. It was clear that support for the Kaiser was minimal. On 9th November, von Baden, the Chancellor, announced that the Kaiser had abdicated and handed over power to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Socialist Party. The Kaiser fled to Holland, where he lived until his death in 1941. Ebert was horrified when he heard from the generals how bad the situation was and called for a cease-fire on November 11th, 1918. At 11.00 a.m. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. That meant that Germany would have to accept whatever conditions the allies imposed in the peace treaty.
Unfortunately, the news that Germany could not go on any longer was not shared with the German people. The German people had been told that the war was defensive and so did not understand why the government surrendered when Germany had not been invaded .The true state of the German armed forces had been successfully concealed for many months and the sudden collapse was greeted with disbelief by many. Furthermore, some units of the German army had seen little action and did not understand why the Armistice was signed and unconditional surrender accepted. One person who thought like this was Adolf Hitler. He had served in the German army throughout the war and had been decorated for bravery. On 16th October, he had been blinded in a gas attack and had spent the last weeks of the war in hospital in eastern Germany. Like many he did not understand why the government had surrendered and came to believe in a Jewish conspiracy to save property in Germany. He accused the ‘November Criminals’, the politicians who had signed the Armistice, of betraying Germany. The failure to appreciate the true state of affairs was made worse by the Allies who allowed German soldiers to return home in uniform and carrying their weapons. This gave the impression that the army had not been defeated. It also meant that ex-servicemen could therefore be easily formed into the Freikorps.
Ebert’s first task was to form a government, which meant writing a constitution. The constitution would establish rules for elections, a parliament and how Germany would be governed. Most Germans wanted democracy, but the communists, who had gained support after the Revolution in Russia in 1917, wanted a revolution. While the work on the constitution was going on, extreme communists formed the Spartacus Union and tried to seize control of Berlin on 5th January 1919. The Spartacists were led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. It was a hopeless attempt because few communists were actually prepared to support them. The Spartacists were easily cut off and attacked by government troops and units of the Freikorps. The latter were gangs of ex-soldiers which had been formed by right wingers who were angry that the Armistice had been signed so easily. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were arrested and murdered on 15th January. However, the Spartacist Revolt had one important effect; the unrest in Berlin resulted in the government being moved to the town of Weimar and the foundation of the Weimar Republic.