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To 7th century AD
8th - 9th century
10th - 12th century
13th - 15th century
16th century
17th century
18th century
19th century
The approach of war
     The Weimar republic
     Paris and Versailles
     Extremes of chaos
     Hitler's putsch
     Two plans and a pact
     Hindenburg and Hitler

Hitler in power
Steps towards war
World War II
To be completed

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The Weimar republic: from1919

The six months between the armistice of 1918 and the peace of 1919 are turbulent ones in Germany, where those hoping for a democratic version of traditonal German society are confronted by revolutionaries intent on introducing socialism on the Russian pattern. The two sides both emerge from the Social Democratic party, originally Marxist but by the time of the war a powerful mainstream party believing in democratic change.

Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democrats, is the man chosen by Prince Max of Baden as his own successor after the deposition of the Kaiser. He thus becomes the first chancellor of the German republic. But a splinter group from within his own party has a radically different concept of the republic.


This more radical group (calling themselves the Spartakusbund or Spartacus League, after the rebel leader of the gladiators), has split from the Social Democratic party in 1916. It is led by Karl Liebknecht and the Polish-born Rosa Luxemburg.

On 9 November 1918, the day on which Ebert becomes chancellor, Liebknecht proclaims in Berlin the birth of a German Socialist republic along Russian soviet lines. On January 1 the Spartacus League is transformed into the Communist party of Germany. Five days later a vast crowd gathers in Berlin, demanding revolution. Though urged by Rosa Luxembourg to proceed cautiously, they seize many of the public buildings in the capital.


Confronted by the strong possibility of a successful communist revolution, as has happened in Russia not much more than a year earlier, Ebert deploys army units and right-wing volunteer militias armed with machine guns and artillery.

The result, after several days of violent street fighting, is the death of more than 1000 revolutionaries and the collapse of their uprising. On January 15 Liebknecht and Luxemburg are captured and summarily shot. Luxemburg's body is unceremoniously dumped in a canal in the centre of the capital city. Four days later elections are held for a new national assembly, to be entrusted with the task of devising a constitution for the young republic.


The assembly meets in Weimar in February and elects Ebert as president of the republic. When the constitution is drawn up (to be promulgated in August 1919), extensive powers are given to the president as the chief executive of the state.

He will derive strong personal authority through being elected for a seven-year term by universal suffrage. He will be commander of the armed forces, with the right to appoint and remove officers. He will make international alliances and treaties. He can suspend civil liberties and impose a state of emergency. He can reject any law passed by the national parliament (the Reichstag), submitting it instead to a referendum. And he has the power to dissolve the Reichstag.


But the Reichstag, with its members elected by universal suffrage, is itself for the first time given a proper democratic role. The chancellor will be the leader of the party or coalition which can command a majority. And although Germany retains a federal structure (with the German states, or Länder, reduced to seventeen in number), the Reichstag now at last has control over all areas of taxation.

So the hope is that a viable new democracy has emerged from Germany's defeat. But in these same months of 1919 that defeat is being harshly emphasized in the Paris peace talks.


Paris and Versailles: 1919

The delegates to the peace conference gather in Paris and hold their first full session on 18 January 1919. The terms to be imposed upon Germany are not agreed until May. The treaty is finally signed at Versailles, on 28 June 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors - the very room, so profoundly symbolic of triumphalist French power, which has been sullied by the proclamation here in 1871 of the German empire.

In most respects the terms follow Wilson's Fourteen Points (though distorted by an animosity towards Germany) and the broad outlines of the armistice. Historic national frontiers are restored except where the higher principle of self-determination is deemed to prevail (plebiscites in border regions between Germany and Poland are used to define new boundaries).


Germany's land and sea forces are to be permanently reduced to a very limited size, and she is to be allowed no air force at all. Her pre-war pride, the great High Seas fleet, is to be transferred to the Allies (a decree frustrated in a splendid act of defiance by the German sailors themselves who on 21 June 1919, under the very eyes of the British, manage to scuttle every one of the fifty German warships held in Scapa Flow).

The German empire is to be dismantled and all its colonies redistributed among the victorious powers under mandates from the League of Nations. And finally, under consideration by the delegates in Paris, there is the contentious matter of reparations.


Germany cannot complain at the principle of reparation, for in 1871 she imposed a vast indemnity on France after a brief war blatantly engineered by the Germans themselves. But in Paris there is profound disagreement as to the proper level of payment. The USA, Britain and Italy argue for a more moderate imposition than France and Belgium (the main sufferers) are inclined to demand.

Eventually, in 1921, the commission set up for the purpose assesses Germany's obligation at $33 billion. Of this some $21 billion is eventually paid, becoming a profound source of German grievance. The economic burden does not prove quite as crippling as is often implied. But the injury to a nation's pride is of a different order.


Extremes of chaos: 1920-1923

The coalition government of the Weimar republic, which in June 1919 reluctantly accepts the terms of the treaty of Versailles, is centrist in its politics, being led by the Social Democrats. Its leaders have little option, for it is made all too plain that the alternative is an Allied invasion of Germany. But these events leave a poisonous legacy in the theory, held in right-wing circles, that the German army was never defeated. Instead it was stabbed in the back, first in the armistice and then in the treaty, by republicans and socialists - a group to which rabble-rousers glibly add the Jews.

From the start, therefore, the new republic is strongly opposed by enemies on the right. Indeed a military putsch seizes control in Berlin for a few days in March 1920.


The Berlin putsch fails in the face of determined resistance from the left. The trade unions call a general strike, after which lawful authority is restored. But the extreme left is no more inclined that the extreme right to support the new republic.

It appears evident to Marxists that Germany is the most likely nation to follow Russia into a communist future, and postwar discontent seems to give them cause for optimism. In the Ruhr, in the spring of 1920, Communists lead a workers' rising which is only suppressed after ferocious encounters with German army units and volunteer militias, mainly recruited from the right. Both right and left see themselves as competing, in a struggle to the death, for Germany's future.


The ability of both sides to recruit support is much enhanced by the behaviour of the Allies - particularly France, which on three occasions marches troops into German cities on the grounds that Germany is failing to meet her treaty obligations.

The most serious intrusion by France, and the one with the most disastrous consequences, is the occupation of Germany's industrial base in the Ruhr in January 1923 (on the grounds that Germany is failing to deliver the amounts of timber, coal and coke specified in the treaty). The result is an immediate escalation of political and economic chaos.


The German government orders passive resistance to the French (and to their Belgian partners in this invasion), so as to prevent them benefiting from the mines and factories of the region. The occupying forces respond with mass arrests. Meanwhile the German economy collapses, both from the removal of its industrial base and from the resulting loss of confidence. The government takes the disastrous short-term option of printing money. Inflation is already a major problem in postwar Germany. It now reaches levels which beggar the imagination.

One of the most pervasive images of the 20th century is of banknotes being pushed along the street in a wheelbarrow in Germany in 1923. But the bare statistics tell the story even more starkly.


At the start of the year the German mark is already at the very depressed level of 7000 to the dollar. Six months later, on July 1, it stands at 160,000 to the dollar. By October 1 a dollar buys 242 million marks. On November 20 it purchases 42,000 billion. But these are fantasy figures, of interest only to speculators. In everyday life people lose their savings and resort to barter. And extremists seize their chance, amid the fear and unrest.

In October 1923 there are Communist uprisings in Saxony, Thuringia and Hamburg. In early November there is an attempted putsch in Munich, capital of Bavaria, the most resolutely right-wing of German states. This failed putsch would be little more than a footnote in history, were it not also an ominous prologue.


Hitler's putsch: 1923

The events in Munich on November 8-9 in 1923 would seem like a comic sketch about a brilliant confidence trickster, were they not also tinged with the foretaste of tragedy. Adolf Hitler, the central character, is a self-dramatizing obsessive who dreams of restoring the great German reich, now so cruelly betrayed by the men he calls the 'November criminals' (the political leaders who accepted the armistice in November 1918).

Born in Austria, he has moved to Munich in 1913. He has served with distinction in the war as a corporal in the Bavarian infantry. On his return to Munich he joins a tiny German Workers' party (he is its 55th member). He soon becomes its propaganda chief.


In 1920 the party changes its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NAZI for short). During 1921 Hitler and Ernst Röhm recruit squads of thugs to protect party meetings and to beat up Communists and Socialists. With this private army at his command (his 'storm troopers', or Brownshirts), Hitler becomes in 1921 the president of the party, which by now has about 3000 members.

In the chaos of 1923 Hitler conceives a bold plan. The right-wing regime in Bavaria is under the control of Gustav von Kahr (prime minister), Otto von Lossow (military commander) and Hans von Seisser (police chief). Hitler intends to abduct the three men and force them to front a new national government on his behalf.


His chance comes on November 8, when all three are attending a large political meeting in a Munich beer cellar. Hitler is in the audience. After twenty minutes his colleague Hermann Goering bursts into the hall with twenty-five armed brownshirts.

Hitler jumps on a chair, fires a shot from his pistol at the ceiling and declares that the national revolution has begun. There are, he says, six hundred armed men surrounding the hall (true); moreover the local army and police are at this moment marching here from their barracks under the banner of the swastika (false). Everyone is to remain in their seats while he talks with Kahr, Lossow and Streisser in a neighbouring room.


In the privacy of the next room he tells the three men that they will die if they do not cooperate. Then, in the bold move of the confidence trickster, he returns to the hall to declare the existence of a new national government with Kahr as regent, Lossow in command of the army, Streisser as police chief, and - as director of national policy - Hitler himself.

Astonishingly, the bluff works. The audience, until now apprehensive, breaks into wild applause. The three men in the side room, hearing this response, consider it wise to go along with it. The meeting ends in high excitement. Hitler declares that the November criminals are about to be overthrown. A new and glorious Germany will arise. Everyone joins in singing Deutschland über Alles.


But the outcome proves that at this early stage in his career it is Hitler who is naive. The three men of power slip away into the night. The next day their offices are not returning calls. Hitler (joined now by his most distinguished supporter, Ludendorff, one of the heroes of the war) leads the storm-troopers in a march to the centre of Munich. They are met by a hail of bullets. Ludendorff marches straight ahead. Hitler turns and flees.

Both men are arrested and put on trial. Ludendorff is pardoned. Hitler, with much clandestine support in this right-wing city, is given five years in gaol, the minimum sentence for treason. He serves only nine months and uses the time to start writing his political credo, Mein Kampf (My Struggle) - dictating the text to the fellow Nazi, Rodolf Hess, who shares his prison cell.


Published in two volumes (1925,1926), the book is a turgid but fateful tract which few at the time bother to read. It contains a vivid forewarning of Hitler's heady brew of obsessions . He views the world as a conflict to the death between the nordic Aryan race (a spurious concept) and the Jews - seen as a virus, dedicated to corrupting the purity of the Aryans through interbreeding.

The Jews are blamed for Germany's humiliation at Versailles, and for the rise of communism. Hitler presents himself as the leader who will end these twin threats and unite all Germans in a greater Germany. In the coming years this remains his theme in speeches around the country. But meanwhile mainstream politicians are themselves making headway in winning justice for the nation.


Two plans and a pact: 1924-1929

From the lowest point in Germany's postwar economic and political chaos, in November 1923, the country makes a remarkable recovery over the next six years - largely thanks to the energy and diplomatic skills of Gustav Stresemann, who as foreign minister achieves a new level of cooperation between Germany and her wartime enemies.

The first success is the acceptance of the Dawes Plan, put forward by a committee under the chairmanship of a US financier, Charles G. Dawes, and accepted by Germany in August 1924. The plan temporarily defuses the controversial issue of Germany's reparations, by providing US loans to ease the situation and placing the system of payments under international control.


In the same month the trauma of runaway inflation is forcefully solved. The national bank (the Reichsbank) is made an independent institution and introduces a new unit of currency, the Reichsmark. For those who still have any devalued currency to change, the rate is one new mark for a trillion of the old.

Germany's international relations are further improved by the Locarno Pact, signed in 1925 with Belgium, France, Great Britain and Italy. This is in effect a new European peace treaty, with guarantees of international boundaries and with Germany now an equal and willing partner (in contrast to the duress involved in the treaty of Versailles). In the following year Germany joins the League of Nations, with a permanent seat on the council.


The third in this sequence of agreements is the Young Plan, devised in 1929 by a committee chaired by an American lawyer, Owen D. Young. Its primary purpose is to establish the total amount of the reparations to be paid by Germany. The figure fixed upon is too high to please many in Germany, but in accepting it Stresemann secures a highly significant concession. The Allies will withdraw their occupying forces from the Rhineland in June 1930, five years ahead of the scheduled date.

With this much accomplished, Germany should be well placed to advance in prosperity and to take her natural place as the major power at the heart of Europe.


The past few years have already seen great strides in national prosperity, hastened by generous foreign investment and loans in the new mood of international cooperation. But in this very year, the world economy is about to deal Germany a blow from which she will not recover until after another disastrous war.

In October 1929 the stock market crashes in New York, triggering a world-wide depression. Nowhere does it hit harder than in the newly recovered Germany. As foreign money is withdrawn, businesses crash, wages are slashed, unemployment soars. Coming a mere six years after the horrors of inflation, this is a situation in which extremist parties are certain to flourish - on both left and right of the political spectrum.


Hindenburg and Hitler: 1929-1933

During four years of economic turmoil, as the unemployment figure rises to 4.3 million in September 1931 and more than 6 million in 1932 (and Nazi seats in the Reichstag make comparable gains), Hitler jockeys for position with Germany's political establishment. At the head of the nation is Hindenburg, the war veteran who has been elected president of the republic in 1925. He and Hitler are the two most significant figures during the mounting crisis.

Elections in 1930 bring the first indication that the Nazis are now a power to be reckoned with. The campaign is marred by violence from both Nazis and Communists, but it brings the two extremist parties unprecedented success. Nazi representation in the Reichstag rises from 12 to 107, while the Communists win 77 seats


The success of the Communists helps Hitler in his grassroots campaign, as the man who can save Germany from this Jew-inspired foreign creed. But at the same time his own appeal to the masses causes the political establishment in the centre to close ranks against him. In the next three years a succession of schemes are hatched by Hindenburg and the established politicians to form alliances which will keep Hitler out of power.

As their various coalitions crumble in disagreement, a more dangerous policy comes under consideration. Perhaps the best way forward may be to smother Hitler's ambitions by giving him a little power within a government controlled by others?


Hitler himself is adamant in any negotiation. He will only take power if it is legitimately conferred. And he will accept nothing less than the role of chancellor.

Meanwhile his share of the vote continues to rise. When Hindenburg's first term of office as president comes to an end, in March 1932, Hitler stands against him. In the first round he wins 30% of the vote, in the second 36.7%. This is not sufficient to prevent the re-election of the 85-year-old field marshal, but it is more than enough to establish Hitler in the public's mind as a potential leader in waiting.


Rivalries among the politicians favoured by Hindenburg prompt the second Reichstag election of the year, in July 1932. This time the Nazis achieve another breakthrough, becoming with 230 seats the largest party (the Social Democrats are second, the Communists third). Yet the Nazis cannot find partners to form a ruling coalition - a situation which results in yet another election, in November 1932.

For the first time, in what has been until now a crescendo of success since 1930, the Nazi vote slips (by 2 million). In the circumstances Hitler becomes slightly more willing to compromise in his negotiations with a weary political establishment, though he still demands nothing less than the office of chancellor for himself.


In January 1933 Hitler comes to an agreement with Franz von Papen, a political amateur who has been appointed chancellor by Hindenburg in June 1932. Papen attempts to persuade Hindenburg that his agreement with Hitler is the safest way out of the present impasse. If Hindenburg will appoint Hitler chancellor and Papen vice-chancellor, Papen will form a cabinet in which, with Hitler's agreement, the Nazis will hold only three out of eleven portfolios. From that position they can do little harm. Hindenburg agrees.

So, on 30 January 1933, the 43-year-old Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany - legally rather than by revolution, unlike the despised Marxists in Russia. His revolution, at least as ruthless as theirs, is to be put in place after achieving power.


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