Prof Rempel lecture: weimar, 1926-29

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Weimar 1926-29: the Good Years

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Despite negative diplomatic flurries, Germany was admitted to the League of Nations and the Council of the League by unanimous vote in September 1926. (The Council admission happened later). Stresemann and Briand, the French Foreign Minister, tried to reach a quid pro quo at Thoiry during the same month. This involved the evacuation of the whole Rhineland and the return of the Saar in exchange for German bolstering of the falling franc.

I. The Era of Stresemann

This would have been a good idea, putting the capstone on Locarno, but the U.S. and French politicians prevented success. Stresemann then demanded the withdrawal of the Military Control Commission, but the French were worried about the proliferating paramilitary organizations in Germany, like the Stahlhelm and the Reichsbanner.

Stresemann finally won on this issue and also managed to activate the general disarmament discussions in Geneva, while continuing to press for total evacuation of the Rhineland, which he got in 1927-1929. He also continued to raise the war guilt issue and the proposed Anschluss of Austria. Although he responded eagerly to the Kellog-Briand Pact proposal which sought to officially renounce war as an instrument of national policy, the disarmament negotiations got no where since France was unwilling to surrender her favorable military situation vis-a-vis Germany.

There is no doubt that Germany was in a much stronger international position by 1927 than she had been since 1918. The evacuation of the Rhineland, the Locarno Treaty and entrance into the League of Nations, not to mention the Berlin Treaty, were major achievements for Stresemann, whose skill and goodwill received greater respect abroad than at home. To put this achievement in a more meaningful perspective, it may help to take a look at French and British policy towards Germany during the mid-twenties.

In essence it can be said that France failed to maintain her superiority over Germany, which she enjoyed at the end of the war. The character of the peace the French fought for at Versailles was a contributing factor, but that treaty was not alone at fault. The persistent controversy between the political Left and Right had a significant effect on French policy towards Germany. The issue boiled down to whether France should try to use force or persuasion with the Germans; to go it alone or in conjunction with Britain. The rightwing parties believed that Germany understood only force and should not be given any freedom of choice. The Right was willing to cooperate with concerted international actions, but only if it would help France to enforce the Treaty of Versailles unchanged. However, they were not willing to wait for the League of Nations to take action and eager to move independently.

The great opportunity of the Right to test its approach came before 1924. La politique de la Ruhr was the crucial test of Rightist policy. It was conceived as a showdown with Germany that would prove to Britain French independence of action. It turned out to be a miserable defeat for Rightist policy and culminated in Poincare's fall. It also put the franc in a shaky position and earned France the hostility of Great Britain. For ten years after the Ruhr episode and the failure of force as an instrument of policy towards Germany the Right criticized and protested. But independent French military action was therefore out of the question.

It should not be assumed, however, that the French Left accepted the alternative, that is, refrained from trying to maintain the status quo of Versailles. The Left was willing to wager on the existence and future potential of a "new Germany," as distinguished from the old aristocratic one. For men like Briand it was essentially a policy of rapprochement between 1925 and 1929 to help consolidate the "new Germany" of republican and democratic tendencies. He believed that nationalist Germany wanted revenge but Republican Germany wanted peace. The new Germany objected only to what Briand called "ephemeral clauses of Versailles," those concerning the execution of the Treaty. But this Leftist policy was only a change in form and spirit from that of the Right. It was designed to make the status quo more acceptable to the Germans. As such it lacked any real substance and failed just as much as did the policy of the Right. This failure was due not so much to the Rightist opposition in both countries, but rather to the existence of a fundamental misunderstanding between France and Germany.

Briand thought he could get the Germans to surrender the idea of future revision of Versailles by giving them present economic relief. The Germans were quite willing to accept immediate economic relief but essentially unwilling to abandon future revision. The theory of the two Germany's quite plausible on the surface, was bound to fail once it was realized that there was one Germany when it came to Versailles revisionism. Now, it is possible that Briand did not misunderstand Stresemann's purpose of eventual peaceful revision, but he thought time would be in France's favor. He hoped that a policy of rapprochement would eventually reconcile Germany to the territorial status quo. This was a basic misconception and was bound to appear as such quite early. The Germans were hardly grateful for the final evacuation of the Rhineland in 1930-five years before the deadline. The German government almost immediately embarked on a revisionist campaign which became shriller and shriller as the German Right ascended to greater influence.

Mere concessions on the execution of the Versailles Treaty could not really satisfy Germany. Thus the policy of rapprochement collapsed in 1930, coinciding with the first great election "victory" of the Nazi party. In 1931 the French were still able to block the Austrian Anschluss, but in 1932 the French could do little to prevent the stoppage of reparation payments and finally had to stand by idly as Germany began to rearm. By this time France had lost the diplomatic initiative to Great Britain, where appeasement reigned. Leon Blum, the Popular Front premier was even willing to negotiate with Hitler on disarmament. The Right suddenly discovered that France, after all, could be defended from behind the Maginot line. If this policy had been followed earlier, it might have changed the course of European history.

For the French the policy toward Germany revolved around the issue of Versailles. It is understandable that for British policy there was no such common denominator, since territorial boundaries were not involved. The British were concerned with a vaguer attempt to endow Germany with a happy medium of power lying somewhere between the Versailles level and a maximum level to be determined by Britain. Unlike the French the British did not fear a resurgence of German power. She was disarmed and beyond the point of any danger. London was willing to tolerate a rise in German power to improve Europe's social and economic condition as long as there was no immediate danger to British interests. On the whole Britain felt that French fears were exaggerated and that German resentment was justified to some degree. She was content to pacify Germany in order to avoid future explosions. As a result Britain developed a policy of conciliation, readjustment and concessions.

This kind of policy did not intend to create two armed blocks of power as had existed before the war, but rather an older balance of power, a Europe in which no power was strong enough to attack the other. An active League policy was not incompatible with building up whatever counterpoise was necessary to maintain this balance. Very much a part of this goal was also the desire to wean Germany away from undesirably close association with Russia. A corollary was that Britain instinctively sought a more even balance on the Rhine, which brought her into opposition on to French policy, since the latter wanted to maintain permanent superiority over Germany.

The domestic conflict over British policy toward Germany centered on a very delicate issue, how to decide when German increase in power reached a critical point so that checking it became necessary to prevent an undesirable degree of power. But British was in no way opposed to Germany gaining a preponderance of power on the continent. But in the end British policy failed as well. She was unable, through conciliatory methods, coupled with the threat of armaments, to halt a rise in German power beyond the "maximum" level.

More specifically, the Left in British politics favored a strong League policy, whereas the Conservatives favored caution towards commitments and emphasized the development of the empire. The failure of a guarantee pact with France left Britain with a moral obligation to substitute something else. French nervousness was an obstacle to pacification of the continent, in British eyes, and could only be removed by a promise of assistance. The Left therefore urged more stringent adherence to the obligations incurred by membership in the League of Nations. The conservatives, however, defeated the Geneva Protocol of 1924 as they had defeated the proposed military alliance with France in 1922.

The Geneva Protocol, as you may recall, was an attempt to strengthen the League by forcing submission of all disputes to the world Court for arbitration. A refusal to do so would have allowed the League to declare the refusing nation an aggressor and compelled all members to bring economic and military sanction against the offender. But the British conservatives were unwilling to get involved in such far-reaching commitments.

But the Locarno Pact fulfilled the traditional British concerns in an ideal fashion. It involved no commitments beyond the guarantee of a desirable pacification of the Rhine. The eastern frontiers of Germany were of very little concern to the shortsighted British conservatives, whose interest centered on their own empire. In France and Germany the Right spouted violent criticism of Locarno. To the French Right it was a poor substitute for a Franco-British alliance. The German Right felt that Germany had not been treated as an equal, since the permanent separation of Alsace and Lorraine had been confirmed. The British traditionalists raised no such complaints. It was in accord with British interests to their way of thinking. It avoided splitting the continent into blocks and it made British commitments less rigid and automatic. This was then a decisive victory of traditional policy over the collectivist idea of world-wide commitments and "indivisible peace".

The conservatives thus prevented Britain from becoming a member of either a bilateral or a general alliance. Meanwhile Britain had succeeded in giving France additional security without provoking Germany. It also lessened the danger of German-Soviet intimacy which the conservatives were concerned about. The end result of this policy was that the status quo in the West was stabilized, but the "powder box" in the East remained virtually unchanged. And that "powder box" was to become the great danger for international diplomacy in the 1930's.

In the light of French and British policy the evacuation of the Rhineland and Germany's acceptance by the League of Nations, stand as significant monuments to Stresemann's diplomatic skill and determination. In his dairies he wrote:

"Either Locarno stands for peace on the Western frontier, or it does not. If I am to defend Locarno as the foundation stone of European peace, the Ambassador's Conference must not register a decision that would be the end of the Locarno policy in Germany."

II. The Election of 1928

In the 1928 elections for the Reichstag the Nationalists sustained a clear defeat. Their number of seats went down to 73 from 103. There appeared to be a swing to the Left. The Social Democrats picked up 22 seats, going from 131 to 153. This seemed to be a significant trend because it brought the Weimar coalition (Social Democrats, Democrats and the Center parties) to within six seats of an absolute majority. That was as close as this famous republican coalition had ever come to a predominant political position within the parliament. Müller, a Social Democrat, was the chancellor and the renowned Stresemann remained foreign minister, although his moderate-liberal Peoples Party was not in the coalition.

The Weimar Republic appeared to be enjoying its halcyon days, thanks largely to the foreign policy achievements of Gustav Stresemann. Domestically the challenge from the Right appeared to be blunted by the decline of the Nationalist vote. The Nazi Party seemed to be an insignificant, radical splinter with a mere 12 seats in the Reichstag. So the dominant political fight was among the major parties themselves and not against the NSDAP, which few people looked upon as a serious movement In fact most politicians thought the Nazis were just another temporary expression of racist extremism.

But there was the persistent issue of unemployment, which had stalked the republic from the beginning. Although unemployment had receded from time to time it was definitely on the increase in the late 1920s. A policy of retrenchment in spending and inauguration of additional taxes were agreed upon by the Müller cabinet, but the details of these arrangements split the cabinet and brought it down. Dr. Heinrich Brüning, an economist by training and a member of the Catholic Center Party, now became chancellor. But the economic issues were so volatile and the parliamentary situation so insecure, that Brüning agreed to govern by emergency decree provided for in Article 48 of the Constitution. It was felt that the stringent economic measures planned to bring about recovery could not be executed otherwise.

So a host of legislation was issued under the signature of the president and countersignature of the chancellor. The Reichstag was quickly dissolved in order to prevent a vote of no confidence. Brüning's intent, no doubt, was honorable. But he set a very dangerous precedent. He used the emergency clause in a situation that was not the kind of military or foreign-induced emergency the constitution-writers had in mind. Article 48 was not planned as a political expedient.

III. The Election of 1930

The election that followed, in 1930, was the first signal of decline for the Weimar Republic. What no one anticipated happened. The Nazis pulled off a major political victory by increasing the number of parliamentary seats from 12 to 107. This result sent shock waves through the political system and almost obscured the sizable increase of the Communists, who went from 54 to 77 seats in the Reichstag.

Part of the reason for the Nazi landslide could be found in the constitution itself, namely the provision for proportional representation. Under this system a certain number of seats were assigned to a party in the Reichstag, depending on the total percentage of the popular vote a party received. If it had been a matter of single-man constituencies, the National Socialists could not have won much more than about 20 seats. In no district did they poll more than 40 per cent of the vote. But under proportional representation their national popular vote percentage of a mere 18.3 gave them 107 deputies.

Under these circumstances, the Right and Left extremists had a larger combined representation than the Social Democrats, traditionally the largest single party in the Reichstag. The political fight against fascism finally began now. But the danger of a Right or Left dictatorship was not perceived very clearly by Brüning, whose idea of fighting internal radicalism was to win a foreign policy victory. This meant that he concentrated on the economic and financial crisis, reparations and unemployment. But despite several additional taxes, revenue dropped by one third and a four-billion mark deficit soon developed. Expenditures were cut by one third with the aid of reparation cancellation and a cut in salaries and pensions.

Since the threat from the Right and Left now definitely existed the other parties in the Reichstag tolerated Brüning's slightly irregular, but nevertheless "constitutional dictatorship". Some 50 decrees were issued during Brüning's two-year chancellorship. All but 12 dealt with the economic and financial crisis. In the world market Brüning's measures brought tariff retaliation and other forms of economic pressure, particularly from Great Britain and the United States. These unanticipated reactions largely robbed Germany of any advantage from economic self-discipline.

Domestically the Brüning policies upset the political balance, since those whose belts were tightened turned to Rightist propaganda in desperation. Brüning may have been sincere in his economic dogmatism, but the times called for unorthodox economic solutions. Unfortunately, the Keynesian idea of compensatory spending was not yet generally accepted as a way to fight depression. Besides, the Germans, after the horrifying experience of 1923, were in constant fear of inflation. So reduction of spending, wages and benefits, plus higher taxation, were the only solution that could be tolerated. These things, of course, did little to stop the increasing rate of unemployment, which threatened the stability of the social structure.

Yet many observers agree that the Müller and Brüning cabinets (1928 to 1932) came very close to bringing economic salvation. Reparations were finally cancelled, the budget was nearly balanced, the public debt was low. Collapse of the great financial institutions was prevented. Perhaps, even the intractable unemployment problem could have been solved if the government had had the foresight to enforce a 32-hour week.

The armaments question also came close to solution except for the intransigence of the French. It was the obstinate refusal of France to make even minor changes in the Versailles Treaty which sabotaged agreement at the Disarmament Conference. Had the French been more flexible and granted Germany some form of military parity, it might have saved Brüning and with him the Weimar Republic. Strangely enough, once Hitler came to power, the French made all kinds of concessions, but of course it was too late then.

So, fighting fascism by economic means proved to be ineffective. One could, of course, also fight fascism directly, that is by suppressing it. It is always difficult to do in a democracy, even a weak one like the Weimar Republic. The peculiar federal structure of Weimar was a special hindrance in this respect. Law enforcement was the prerogative of the states, not the national government. But the state governments could not suspend constitutional guarantees, except with the specific approval of the federal government. Prussia, the largest state with the greatest amount of lawless violence, perpetuated by the Communists and the Nazis, made no move to disband the paramilitary storm troopers. It waited for the national government to do so.

It could be done under Article 48, providing for emergency suspension of civil rights, without fear of legal challenge. In 1930 the Prussian government did exclude the Nazis and Communists from municipal offices and the civil service and prohibited the wearing of uniforms. But that was not very effective, since the federal government could not interfere if state governments appointed Nazis to public office, which happened in the state of Brunswick. The National government could have done this only if it took over the police under Article 48, which would have led to serious conflict with Bavaria, where separatist feelings were very strong.

Brüning did take some mild measures to control radical violence before 1932. Police received permission to shut down meetings on 48-hour notice. Posters and other advertising had be approved by the police. The use of trucks in parades was prohibited. Private uniforms could be banned by police and were actually banned nationally in November 1931. The penalties for high treason were raised. Finally, the police could arrest anyone who bore arms in public meetings and parades. But these measures fell short of outright disbanding of paramilitary formations, which now far outnumbered the size of the regular army.

In April 1932 it was thought that Hitler could be stopped by re-electing Hindenburg as president. The Social Democrats, for instance, strongly backed his reelection. The result was that Hindenburg got 19.4 million votes, Hitler 13.4 million and the Communist candidate, Thälmann, 3.7 million votes. Three days after this election, Hindenburg, at the recommendation of Brüning and Groener, the defense minister, disbanded the SA. But that prohibition only lasted until June and its effect was not what one might have expected.


This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Collapse of Weimar & Hitler's Rise   
  Hitler Home & Structure of the Hitler State
Background | Ideas | The Nazi State: Leadership & Party | Control,
Propaganda & Art |Economics
  Living in the Nazi State:
Social Policy (KDF |Youth |Education )
Persecution (Antisocials, Jewish Attacks, 1933-39|Final solution)
  Women & Family in Nazi Germany
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  The End of the Reich

Resistance | The Impact of Bombing |Death of Hitler | Collapse of the Reich



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