Birth of the Weimar Republic
- How did the First World War affect Germany and the rest of Europe?
- Germany, a powerful empire in the early years of the twentieth century, fought the First World War (1914-1918)
- Axis – Germany + the Austrian empire
- Allies – England, France and Russia + US
- All joined the war enthusiastically hoping to gain from a quick victory.
- The war continued for many years, draining Europe of all its resources.
- Germany, a powerful empire in the early years of the twentieth century, fought the First World War (1914-1918)
- What was the course of the war?
- Germany made initial gains by occupying France and Belgium.
- US joined the allies in 1917 and defeated Germany and the Central Powers in November 1918.
- How was the Weimar Republic formed?
- The defeat of Germany.
- The abdication (taking as a prisoner) of the emperor of Germany.
- Rise of the parliamentary parties to reconstruct German politics.
- Meeting of the National Assembly at Weimar.
- Establishment of a democratic constitution with a federal structure.
- Election of deputies (ministers) to the German Parliament or Reich-stag, on the basis of equal and universal votes cast by all adults including women.
- What was Germany’s loss at the peace treaty of Versailles?
The peace treaty at Versailles with the Allies was a harsh and humiliating peace.
- Germany lost:
- Its overseas colonies,
- A tenth of its population,
- 13 per cent of its territories,
- 75 per cent of its iron.
- 26 per cent of its coal.
- The Allied Powers demilitarised Germany to weaken its power.
- The War Guilt Clause held Germany responsible for the war and damages the Allied countries suffered.
- Germany was forced to pay compensation amounting to £6 billion.
- The Allied armies also occupied the resource-rich Rhineland for much of the 1920s.
- Many Germans held the new Weimar Republic responsible for not only the defeat in the war but the disgrace at Versailles.
- Germany lost:
- Why was the Weimar Republic not accepted by majority of Germans?
- This republic was not accepted by the people of Germany because of the above reasons.
1.1 The Effects of the War
- The war had a far reaching impact on the entire Europe both psychologically and financially.
- Earlier Europe used to lend money to other countries but after the war Europe borrowed money from other countries.
- Unfortunately, the Weimar Republic was being made to pay for the crimes committed during the war.
- The republic carried the burden of war guilt and national humiliation and was financially broken by being forced to pay compensation.
- Who were the supporters of the Weimar Republic?
- Catholics (Christians)
- Who were known as the November Criminals?
The supporters of the Weimar Republic were mockingly called the ‘November criminals’.
- The First World War left a deep imprint on European society and politics. Comment.
- Soldiers came to be placed above civilians.
- Politicians and publicists laid great stress on the need for men to be aggressive, strong and masculine.
- The media glorified trench life.
- What was the truth about trench life?
- The truth about trench life was that soldiers lived miserable lives in these trenches, trapped with rats feeding on corpses (dead-bodies).
- They faced poisonous gas and enemy shelling, and witnessed their ranks reduce rapidly.
- How did democracy once again decline in Germany?
- Aggressive war propaganda and national honour occupied centre stage in the public sphere, while popular support grew for conservative dictatorships that had recently come into being.
- Democracy was indeed a young and fragile idea, which could not survive the instabilities of interwar Europe.
1.2 Political Radicalism and Economic Crises
- The birth of the Weimar Republic coincided with the revolutionary uprising of the Spartacist League on the pattern of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
- Soviets of workers and sailors were established in many cities.
- The political atmosphere in Berlin was charged with demands for Soviet-style governance.
- Those opposed to this – such as the socialists, Democrats and Catholics – met in Weimar to give shape to the democratic republic.
- The Weimar Republic crushed the uprising with the help of a war veterans organisation called Free Corps.
- The Spartacists later founded the Communist Party of Germany.
- Communists and Socialists became enemies and could not make common cause against Hitler.
- Both revolutionaries and militant nationalists wanted for a complete solution.
- Political radicalisation was only heightened by the economic crisis of 1923.
- Germany had fought the war largely on loans and had to pay war reparations in gold.
- This depleted gold reserves at a time resources were scarce.
- In 1923 Germany refused to pay, and the French occupied its leading industrial area, Ruhr, to claim their coal.
- Germany fought back indirectly and printed paper currency without gold.
- With too much printed money in circulation, the value of the German mark fell.
- In April the US dollar was equal to 24,000 marks, in July 353,000 marks, in August 4,621,000 marks and at 98,860,000 marks by December, the figure had run into trillions.
- As the value of the mark collapsed, prices of goods rose.
- The image of Germans carrying cartloads of currency notes to buy a loaf of bread was widely publicised evoking worldwide sympathy.
- This crisis came to be known as hyperinflation, a situation when prices rise extremely high.
- Eventually, the Americans intervened and bailed Germany out of the crisis by introducing the Dawes Plan, which reworked the terms
of reparation to ease the financial burden on Germans.
1.3 The Years of Depression
- The years between 1924 and 1928 saw some stability.
- But soon, German investments and industrial recovery were totally dependent on short-term loans, largely from the USA.
- This support was withdrawn when the Wall Street Exchange crashed in 1929.
- Fearing a fall in prices, people made frantic efforts to sell their shares.
- On one single day, 24 October, 13 million shares were sold.
- This was the start of the Great Economic Depression.
- Over the next three years, between 1929 and 1932, the national income of the USA fell by half. Factories shut down, exports fell, farmers were badly hit and speculators withdrew their money from the market.
- The effects of this recession in the US economy were felt worldwide.
- The German economy was the worst hit by the economic crisis.
- By 1932, industrial production was reduced to 40 per cent of the 1929 level.
- Workers lost their jobs or were paid reduced wages. The number of unemployed touched an unprecedented 6 million.
- On the streets of Germany you could see men with placards around their necks saying, ‘Willing to do any work’.
- Unemployed youths played cards or simply sat at street corners, or desperately queued up at the local employment exchange.
- As jobs disappeared, the youth took to criminal activities and total despair became commonplace.
- The economic crisis created deep anxieties and fears in people.
- The middle classes, especially salaried employees and pensioners, saw their savings diminish when the currency lost its value.
- Small businessmen, the self-employed and retailers suffered as their businesses got ruined. These sections of society were filled with the fear of proletarianisation, an anxiety of being reduced to the ranks of the working class, or worse still, the unemployed.
- Only organised workers could manage to keep their heads above water, but unemployment weakened their bargaining power.
- Big business was in crisis. The large mass of peasantry was affected by a sharp fall in agricultural prices and women, unable to fill their children’s stomachs, were filled with a sense of deep despair.
- Politically too the Weimar Republic was fragile. The Weimar constitution had some inherent defects, which made it unstable and vulnerable to dictatorship. One was proportional representation. This made achieving a majority by any one party a near impossible task, leading to a rule by coalitions. Another defect was Article 48, which gave the President the powers to impose emergency, suspend civil rights and rule by decree. Within its short life, the Weimar Republic saw twenty different cabinets lasting on an average 239 days, and a liberal use of Article 48. Yet the crisis could not be managed. People lost confidence in the democratic parliamentary system, which seemed to offer no solutions.
Hitler’s Rise to Power
- Write a note on Hitler’s rise and about his party.
- Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria and spent his youth in poverty.
- When the First World War broke out, Hitler joined the army, acted as a messenger in the war-front, became a corporal, and earned medals for bravery.
- The German defeat horrified him and the Versailles Treaty made him furious / angry.
- In 1919, he joined a small group called the German Workers Party.
- Slowly he became the head of the organisation and renamed it the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
- This party came to be known as the Nazi Party.
- In 1923, Hitler planned to take the control of Bavaria, march to Berlin and capture power.
- He failed, was arrested, tried for treason (working against one’s own country), and later released.
- The Nazis could not get the support of the Germans till the early 1930s.
- It was during the Great Depression that Nazism became a popular movement.
- During the Great Depression:
- Banks collapsed
- Businesses shut down,
- Workers lost their jobs
- The middle classes were threatened with poverty.
- This crisis in the economy, polity and society formed the background to Hitler’s rise to power.
- In 1928, the Nazi Party got no more than 2.6% votes in the Reichstag – the German Parliament.
- By 1932, it had become the largest party with 37% votes.
- On 30 January 1933, President Hindenburg offered the Chancellorship, the highest position in the cabinet of ministers, to Hitler.
- Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany.
- What were Hitler’s special character traits that made him a leader?
- Hitler was a powerful speaker.
- His passion and his words encouraged people.
- What promises did Hitler give the Germans before he came to power?
- Build a strong nation,
- Undo the injustice of the Versailles Treaty
- Restore the dignity of the German people.
- Employment for those looking for work,
- Secure future for the youth.
- End of all foreign influences and resist all foreign ‘conspiracies’ against Germany.
- What was the Nazi Party’s style of politics?
- Hitler understood the importance of rituals and crowd-pulling public shows and rallies.
- Nazis held massive rallies and public meetings to demonstrate the support for Hitler and develop a sense of unity among the people.
- Their rituals were:
- The Red banners with the Swastika,
- The Nazi salute,
- The ritualised rounds of applause after the speeches.
- Nazi publicity skillfully projected Hitler as a messiah, a saviour, as someone who had arrived to deliver people from their distress.
- It is an image that captured the imagination of a people whose sense of dignity and pride had been shattered, and who were living in a time of acute economic and political crises.
2.1 The Destruction of Democracy
- How did Hitler destroy democracy?
- Having acquired power, Hitler set out to change the structures of democratic rule.
- He suspended civic rights like:
- Freedom of speech,
- Freedom of Press and
- Freedom of Assembly.
- Next, Hitler turned to his enemies, the Communists, most of whom were hurriedly packed off to the newly established concentration camps.
- On 3 March 1933, the famous Enabling Act was passed.
- This Act established dictatorship in Germany.
- It gave Hitler all powers to dismiss Parliament and rule by decree.
- All political parties and trade unions were banned except for the Nazi Party and its affiliates.
- The state established complete control over the:
- Special surveillance and security forces were created to control and order society in ways that the Nazis wanted.
- Apart from the already existing regular police in green uniform and the SA or the Storm Troopers, these included:
- The Gestapo (secret state police),
- The SS (the protection squads),
- Criminal police
- Security Service (SD)
- It was the extra-constitutional powers of these newly organised forces that gave the Nazi state its reputation as the most dreaded criminal state. People could now be detained in Gestapo torture chambers, rounded up and sent to concentration camps, deported at will or arrested without any legal procedures. The police forces acquired powers to rule with impunity.
- How did Hitler repress the Communists?
- The repression of the Communists was severe.
- Out of the surviving 6,808 arrest files of Duesseldorf, a small city of half a million population, 1,440 were those of Communists alone.
- They were, however, only one among the 52 types of victims persecuted by the Nazis across the country.
Hitler assigned the responsibility of economic recovery to the
economist Hjalmar Schacht who aimed at full production and full
employment through a state-funded work-creation programme. This
project produced the famous German superhighways and the
people’s car, the Volkswagen.
In foreign policy also Hitler acquired quick successes. He pulled
out of the League of Nations in 1933, reoccupied the Rhineland in
1936, and integrated Austria and Germany in 1938 under the slogan,
One people, One empire, and One leader. He then went on to wrest Germanspeaking
Sudentenland from Czechoslovakia, and gobbled up the
entire country. In all of this he had the unspoken support of
England, which had considered the Versailles verdict too harsh.
These quick successes at home and abroad seemed to reverse the
destiny of the country.
Hitler did not stop here. Schacht had advised Hitler against investing
hugely in rearmament as the state still ran on deficit financing.
Cautious people, however, had no place in Nazi Germany. Schacht
had to leave. Hitler chose war as the way out of the approaching economic crisis. Resources were to be accumulated through
expansion of territory. In September 1939, Germany invaded
Poland. This started a war with France and England. In September
1940, a Tripartite Pact was signed between Germany, Italy and
Japan, strengthening Hitler’s claim to international power. Puppet
regimes, supportive of Nazi Germany, were installed in a large
part of Europe. By the end of 1940, Hitler was at the pinnacle of
Hitler now moved to achieve his long-term aim of conquering
Eastern Europe. He wanted to ensure food supplies and living space
for Germans. He attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. In this
historic blunder Hitler exposed the German western front to British
aerial bombing and the eastern front to the powerful Soviet armies.
The Soviet Red Army inflicted a crushing and humiliating defeat
on Germany at Stalingrad. After this the Soviet Red Army
hounded out the retreating German soldiers until they reached the
heart of Berlin, establishing Soviet hegemony over the entire Eastern
Europe for half a century thereafter.
Meanwhile, the USA had resisted involvement in the war. It was
unwilling to once again face all the economic problems that the
First World War had caused. But it could not stay out of the war
for long. Japan was expanding its power in the east. It had occupied
French Indo-China and was planning attacks on US naval bases in
the Pacific. When Japan extended its support to Hitler and bombed
the US base at Pearl Harbor, the US entered the Second World
War. The war ended in May 1945 with Hitler’s defeat and the US
dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in Japan.
From this brief account of what happened in the Second World
War, we now return to Helmuth and his father’s story, a story of
Nazi criminality during the war.
The Nazi World View
- No equality between people.
- Only a racial hierarchy.
- On the top
- Blond, blue-eyed, Nordic German Aryans.
- In the middle
- All other colored people (Black, brown, etc)
- At the bottom
- On the top
- Nazis were Aryans. They to be regarded as an anti-race, the main enemies of the Aryans (Germans).
- The Nazi argument was simple: the strongest race would survive and the weak ones would perish. The Aryan race was the finest. It had to retain its purity, become stronger and dominate the world.
- The other aspect of Hitler’s ideology related to the geopolitical concept of Lebensraum, or living space.
- He believed that new territories had to be acquired for settlement. This would enhance the area of the mother country, while enabling the settlers on new lands to retain an intimate link with the place of their origin. It would also enhance the material resources and power of the German nation.
- Hitler intended to extend German boundaries by moving eastwards, to concentrate all Germans geographically in one place. Poland became the laboratory for this experimentation.
- Where did Hitler get his idea of racism?
- Hitler’s racism borrowed from thinkers like Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer.
- Darwin was a natural scientist who tried to explain the creation of plants and animals through the concept of evolution and natural selection.
- Herbert Spencer later added the idea of survival of the fittest. According to this idea, only those species survived on earth that could adapt themselves to changing climatic conditions.
- Hitler’s racism borrowed from thinkers like Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer.
- We should bear in mind that Darwin never advocated human intervention in what he thought was a purely natural process of selection.
- However, his ideas were used by racist thinkers and politicians to justify imperial rule over conquered peoples.
3.1 Establishment of the Racial State
Once in power, the Nazis quickly began to implement their dream
of creating an exclusive racial community of pure Germans by
physically eliminating all those who were seen as ‘undesirable’ in the extended empire. Nazis wanted only a society of ‘pure and healthy
Nordic Aryans’. They alone were considered ‘desirable’. Only they
were seen as worthy of prospering and multiplying against all others
who were classed as ‘undesirable’. This meant that even those Germans
who were seen as impure or abnormal had no right to exist. Under
the Euthanasia Programme, Helmuth’s father along with other Nazi
officials had condemned to death many Germans who were considered
mentally or physically unfit.
Jews were not the only community classified as ‘undesirable’. There
were others. Many Gypsies and blacks living in Nazi Germany were
considered as racial ‘inferiors’ who threatened the biological purity
of the ‘superior Aryan’ race. They were widely persecuted. Even
Russians and Poles were considered subhuman, and hence undeserving
of any humanity. When Germany occupied Poland and parts of
Russia, captured civilians were forced to work as slave labour. Many
of them died simply through hard work and starvation.
Jews remained the worst sufferers in Nazi Germany. Nazi hatred of
Jews had a precursor in the traditional Christian hostility towards
Jews. They had been stereotyped as killers of Christ and
usurers.Until medieval times Jews were barred from owning land.
They survived mainly through trade and moneylending. They lived
in separately marked areas called ghettos. They were often persecuted
through periodic organised violence, and expulsion from the land.
However, Hitler’s hatred of Jews was based on pseudoscientific theories of race, which held that conversion was no solution to
‘the Jewish problem’. It could be solved only through their
From 1933 to 1938 the Nazis terrorised, pauperised and segregated
the Jews, compelling them to leave the country. The next phase,
1939-1945, aimed at concentrating them in certain areas and eventually
killing them in gas chambers in Poland.
3.2 The Racial Utopia
Under the shadow of war, the Nazis proceeded to realise their
murderous, racial ideal. Genocide and war became two sides of the
same coin. Occupied Poland was divided up. Much of north-western
Poland was annexed to Germany. Poles were forced to leave their
homes and properties behind to be occupied by ethnic Germans
brought in from occupied Europe. Poles were then herded like cattle in the other part called the General Government, the
destination of all ‘undesirables’ of the empire. Members of the Polish
intelligentsia were murdered in large numbers in order to keep the
entire people intellectually and spiritually servile. Polish children
who looked like Aryans were forcibly snatched from their mothers
and examined by ‘race experts’. If they passed the race tests they
were raised in German families and if not, they were deposited in
orphanages where most perished. With some of the largest ghettos
and gas chambers, the General Government also served as the killing
fields for the Jews.
In May 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allies. Anticipating what
was coming, Hitler, his propaganda minister Goebbels and his entire
family committed suicide collectively in his Berlin bunker in April.
At the end of the war, an International Military Tribunal at
Nuremberg was set up to prosecute Nazi war criminals for Crimes
against Peace, for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.
Germany’s conduct during the war, especially those actions which came to be called Crimes Against Humanity, raised serious moral
and ethical questions and invited worldwide condemnation. What
were these acts?
Under the shadow of the Second World War, Germany had waged
a genocidal war, which resulted in the mass murder of selected
groups of innocent civilians of Europe. The number of people killed
included 6 million Jews, 200,000 Gypsies, 1 million Polish civilians,
70,000 Germans who were considered mentally and physically
disabled, besides innumerable political opponents. Nazis devised
an unprecedented means of killing people, that is, by gassing them in
various killing centres like Auschwitz. The Nuremberg Tribunal
sentenced only eleven leading Nazis to death. Many others were
imprisoned for life. The retribution did come, yet the punishment
of the Nazis was far short of the brutality and extent of their crimes.
The Allies did not want to be as harsh on defeated Germany as
they had been after the First World War.
Everyone came to feel that the rise of Nazi Germany could be
partly traced back to the German experience at the end of the
First World War.