“On 2 August 1934, President Hindenburg died. Within an hour of his death Hitler announced that the offices of chancellor and president were to be combined and that he was the new head of state. Hitler’s adolescent dream of becoming Fuhrer of the German people had been realized” President Hindenburg’s death marked the official end of the Weimar Republic, a democratic ‘experiment’ that had lasted since 1918. The causes of the dissolution of the Republic are wide ranging and numerous, as was explained in the articles of both Richard Bessel, and John McKenzie. The two author’s agree on the sequence of events which led to the dissolution of the Republic, however, they disagree on what exactly caused the transition from Weimar to the Third Reich. The author’s disagreement stem from a differing view of the fundamental cause, political structure versus political leadership.
Richard Bessel’s article stresses the political structure of Weimar Germany as the cause of its failure. Its structure was flawed in numerous ways, all of which contributed to its inevitable failure. First of all, the problems within Germany due to the First World War were massive. This caused economic, political and social problems which first had to be dealt with by the new Weimar government. The loss of the war had left Germany with huge reparations to pay, and massive destruction to repair. In order to gain the capital needed to finance efforts to rebuild, and repay the Allies, the economy had to be brought back to its prewar levels. This was not an easy task.
Roughly 2.7 million German soldiers returned from the First World
War with some sort of permanent disability, and in 1923 the Reich
Labour Ministry estimated the number of war widows at 533,000
and of war orphans at 1,192,000…the scale of the problem may be
judged from the fact that during the mid-1920s nearly one third of
the funds at the disposal of the Reich government were swallowed
up by pension costs.
This alone was a major economic hurdle to overcome. With the amount of money being demanded by the Allies in reparation payments, and the pension costs of the war victims, there was little left to finance rebuilding initiatives, and to get the country back on its feet in general. These economic problems were worsened by the very weak currency, and loss of many international trading partners. The people of Germany did not at the time realize that the country was as poor as it was, and expected the situation to revert to what it had been like previous to the war. Unfortunately this was not possible.
The Left wing government had gained power quite unexpectedly, and was not prepared to deal with the problems the country was facing. Many of the political elites had relinquished power, and backed out of the new left government, taking with them their leadership, experience and support. The Left gaining power was “perhaps less the consequence of a triumph of the Left, than a colossal failure of elite politics in Germany.” This ‘compromise’ made it difficult for the Left wing government to function. The people were in no means ready for a Bolshevik style revolution, or even left wing reforms for that matter. The left gained power because there was no one else to take control. This presented a problem, in that there was no strong leadership of the left. The government was never quite legitimate in the eyes of the public.
As well, in the formation of the constitution of the new Weimar republic, there was such an emphasis on it being democratic, that it ended up being so democratic that it was very difficult for legislation to be passed. All the balances and counter-balances proved to stall proposed bills before they got anywhere. This caused a vicious cycle in which not legislation was being passed. The inability of the Reichstag to pass any legislation forced President Hindenburg to enact Article 48 of the constitution numerous times to the dismay of the people and the parties. Article 48 allowed law to be passed by only presidential decree, effectively bypassing all debate over it. This ended democratic politics, and started the Weimar Republic on a road to dissolution. As this political turmoil was occurring, the right-wing Nazi’s had begun to muster much political support. The people of Germany were fed up with ineffective decision-making, and the numerous elections that had been occurring. Hitler used these views to create powerful propaganda, and gain considerable public support, eventually leading to his capture of full and total power of Germany.
John McKenzie presents a very different view on the cause of the dissolution of the Weimar Republic. Although he agrees with Bessel on the events that led to the end of the republic, he argues a different motivation to the events. McKenzie squarely puts the blame on the individual political leaders of the Weimar Republic for its failure. A succession of bad leaders led to rise of the Nazi party, beginning with Bruning. Bruning had started many economic reforms that did not have popular support in the Reichstag. Although the bills had been voted down, Bruning and Hindenburg decided to make use of Article 48, and pass them without the support of the Reichstag. As well, Bruning agreed to pass legislation banning the SA and the SS. This Angered the Nazi Party, and caused them to demand Bruning’s dismissal. Bruning was dismissed, which was just one in a line of actions designed to appease the Nazi’s and Hitler. Following Bruning, a new leader, Franz von Papen was made Chancellor by President Hindenburg’s decree, on advisor Schleicher proposal. “Schleicher believed his old comrade [Papen] would be a ‘pliable henchman’, a puppet chancellor who could be trusted to implement his schemes. He had after all no experience as a diplomat, an administrator or a leading politician.”
Papen proved to be a very inadequate leader. On numerous occasions, Papen underestimated the power of the Nazi’s and Hitler in general, ceding more and more power to them. Under Papen, Hindenburg (who at the time was beginning to become senile) signed an order to suspend the constitution. Again, as in the case of Bruning, Schleicher persuaded Hindenburg to ask Papen to resign. Schleicher then took the role of chancellor for a very short time, and was unable to accomplish anything. Hindenburg, then had no other option, he declared Hitler as chancellor, not entirely realizing what the decision would end up causing.
McKenzie argues throughout his article that it is the political leadership, which caused Hitler to gain power. The combined actions of the various ineffective chancellors and President Hindenburg led a direct path to Hitler’s rise to power.
“Instead of regarding the Weimar Republic as a brave experiment gone wrong, more appropriate might be to consider Weimar as a gamble which stood virtually no chance of success.” This quote sums up the differing views of the two authors in my opinion. Bessel views the Weimar Republic as a state that was doomed before it began, whereas McKenzie views it as a state that was horribly mismanaged. The difference between their views is that McKenzie’s article leaves the option open, that if different leaders had been in place, the Republic could have survived. However, I tend to agree with Bessel.
The Weimar Republic was born in a time of massive change. The First World War was more then most people at the time could comprehend. The destruction it caused was greater then anything that had ever been seen before, and the people of Germany were not exactly prepared for it. At the same time, there was much political turmoil in all of Europe. The people had just witnessed the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and the quick decay of Austria-Hungary. Personal thoughts and views had begun to change, almost as if the war had brought in a new order. The economic problems facing Germany were too much to even fathom. And the German people were largely unaware of the poor state of the German economy. They expected to see a quick recovery, and return to the prewar economic atmosphere they had been used to. All of these factors together were far too much to expect a very strong, well-organized party with popular support to deal with. Unfortunately, the fact that there was no strong, organized and well-liked party to take control made matters even worse. After years of stagnant policy making, and very little change, it is no wonder the people turned to something new, and something that promised to make things change. It is truly unfortunate for human kind, that this party happened to be the Nazi Party.
1. Bessel, Richard. “Why Did the Weimar Republic Collapse?” Why Did German
Democracy fail, Ed. Ian Kershaw. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1990.
2. McKenzie, John. “The End of the Republic” Weimar Germany 1918-1933. London:
Blandford Press, 1971.