Weimar Republic

The Weimar Republic, often referred to as the first “real” democracy on German soil (in the Kaiserreich, the parliament decided over the budget but the chief of government was appointed by the Kaiser – who, apart from that, did not have any executive power), was ill-fated: its “conception” on November 9, 1918, when the socialist leader Philipp Scheidemann highhandedly proclaimed the Republic, and its birth, when the constitution was voted on August 11, 1919,  where both the result of a series of betrayals and of violent external pressure.

Philipp Scheidemann

Philipp Scheidemann

The German Empire had been ahead of the other European nations not only with regard to education, research, technical innovation, and productivity but also concerning its welfare system (the first social insurance worldwide had been introduced under Bismarck). Thus, its citizens were enjoying a high standard of living (which does not exclude the fact that, judged from our contemporary point of view, many things could have been improved). However, due to the hardships of war and the violent opposition to the Reich by the socialists and the mass media (freedom of speech was higher than today in the Federal Republic of Germany, where it is impossible to express fundamental critique of the government system and its historical genesis in the mass media), discontent among the population was growing. Yet, the abrupt end of the Reich and the proclamation of the Republic where not making the nation’s situation better; they led to a series of new internal and external conflicts which were fundamental for the raise of the National Socialist Workers’ Party and the outbreak of the Second World War.

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Anti German propaganda in WWI

The following text is an extract from this website:

On April 13, 1917, Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) to promote the war domestically while publicizing American war aims abroad. […] “So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations,” wrote Lasswell “that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate.” American propaganda was not the only source of anti-German feeling, but most historians agree that the CPI pamphlets went too far in portraying Germans as depraved, brutal aggressors. For example, in one CPI publication, Professor Vernon Kellogg asked “will it be any wonder if, after the war, the people of the world, when they recognize any human being as a German, will shrink aside so that they may not touch him as he passes, or stoop for stones to drive him from their path?”

A particularly effective strategy for demonizing Germans was the use of atrocity stories. “A handy rule for arousing hate,” said Lasswell “is, if at first they do not enrage, use an atrocity. It has been employed with unvarying success in every conflict known to man.” Unlike the pacifist, who argues that all wars are brutal, the atrocity story implies that war is only brutal when practiced by the enemy. Certain members of the CPI were relatively cautious about repeating unsubstantiated allegations, but the committee’s publications often relied on dubious material.

After the war, Edward Bernays, who directed CPI propaganda efforts in Latin America, openly admitted that his colleagues used alleged atrocities to provoke a public outcry against Germany. Some of the atrocity stories which were circulated during the war, such as the one about a tub full of eyeballs or the story of the seven-year old boy who confronted German soldiers with a wooden gun, were actually recycled from previous conflicts. In his seminal work on wartime propaganda, Lasswell speculated that atrocity stories will always be popular because the audience is able to feel self-righteous indignation toward the enemy, and, at some level, identify with the perpetrators of the crimes. “A young woman, ravished by the enemy,” he wrote “yields secret satisfaction to a host of vicarious ravishers on the other side of the border.”

“Honest, unbiased news simply disappeared out of the American papers along about the middle of August, 1914.” C. Hartley Grattan
Incredible tales of German barbarism in Belgium and France gave rise to a myth of unique German savagery that continues to color the thinking of many persons to this day. German soldiers, the world was gravely informed, amused themselves by cutting off the hands of Belgian babies. Another oft-repeated tale related how German soldiers amputated the breasts of Belgian women out of sheer viciousness.”

First World War and Treaty of Versailles

Wilhelm II at the time of his exile in the Netherlands

According to the constitution of the German Empire, the Emperor only had a representative function. The Chancellor was responsible for political decisions, and the Parliament had to decide about the budget. Nonetheless, the Allies claimed Wilhelm II to be the main responsible for the war and wanted to take him to court, they themselves exercising the functions of public prosecutor and judge at the same time. Due to external and internal pressure (one of the USA’s conditions for peace was the Emperor’s abdication and some German politicians like the Chancellor Max von Baden thought it would made things easier), Wilhelm went into exile to the Netherlands after his abdication had been declared without his knowledge and after the socialist leader Philipp Scheidemann highhandedly had proclaimed a Republic. The new socialist government was forced to accept the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, i.e. also the main responsibility for the whole war. In 1922, Wilhelm published his memoirs in order to respond to the accusations (click on this link for the English translation; the German original is here: Ereignisse und Gestalten 1878-1918). They include some very interesting facts which are withheld normally. Among others:

  • In 1897, England, France and the USA had made a secret agreement, directed against Spain and Germany. It only was made public in 1918 by US-insider Prof. Roland Usher. The direct consequence of this agreement was the war against Spain in 1898 (the USA intruded with the ironclad USS Maine into the Spanish port La Habana; Spain was blamed for the explosion of the ship and lost her colonies in the following war). Wilhelm mentions a series of examples for the hostile politics towards Germany until the outbreak of the war in 1914, e.g. attempts to prevent Germany from pursuing free trade.
  • Often, the enlargement of the German navy is mentioned as the reason for the tensions with England. Actually, the German navy never was stronger than 20 % of the English navy, and it was smaller than the navy of many other countries. Thus, it is absurd to pretend that this enlargement was a threat to England. Nonetheless, this was an argument of English war propaganda and after the war.
  • Germany and Austria’s armies always were inferior to their opponents. Also, the position in central Europe with big powers (England, France, Russia) on both sides was considered precarious. According to Wilhelm, Germany had had nothing to win by a war and thus, since the foundation of the Empire in 1871, always had had the intention to keep peace. He writes that, besides, 1914 was a very bad year to start a war for Germany. If Germany had been interested in war, it would have started it in 1900 when England was at war with the Boers (Sout Africa) or in 1905 when Russia was at war with Japan.
  • Wilhelm enlists a series of proofs of early war preparations on the side of Russia, France and England. England, for example, had already stored winter coats for soldiers and bilingual strategic maps in Northern France and Belgium (officially a neutral country) in 1911. The depots were found by the German army in the first weeks of the war (summer 1914, when nobody needed winter coats; the maps had dates on them).

Consequences of the Treaty of Versailles for Germany (source: Dr. Albert Ströhle: Der Vertrag von Versailles und seine Wirkungen für unser deutsches Vaterland. Berlin: Zentral-Verlag, 1926.)

1) Territory and Population

  • Germany lost 13 % of her territory and 10 % of her population.
  • With the argument of giving autonomy to 3 Million non-Germans, 3.5 Million Germans lost their nation and had to live as a minority in other countries. Instead of promoting the “right of self-determination” for the different ethnic and cultural groups in Europe, new sources of conflicts were created.

2) Economic consequences

a) Germany lost

  • 15.5 % of her cattle,
  • 14.6 % of her acreage for wheat,
  • 17.7 % for rye,
  • 16.4 % for barley,
  • 17.2 % for potatoes,
  • 26 % of her coal mines,
  • 68 % of her tin mines,
  • 75 % of her iron mines.

b) Payments in money and in kind:

Germany had to pay/hand out

  • 132 Billion Goldmark, which corresponds to 552 Billion € (in 2010), taking into account that in 1925 Germany’s economic performance was only 5 % of what it is today.
  • The complete German foreign assets – public and private – were confiscated.
  • 90 % of the merchant fleet (530 million gross registered tons),
  • 25 % of the fishing fleet,
  • 20 % of the inland navigation fleet,
  • 700 breeding stallions,
  • 40 000 mares,
  • 4 000 bulls,
  • 140 000 cows,
  • 40 000 heifers,
  • 1 200 rams,
  • 120 000 sheep,
  • 10 000 goats,
  • 15 000 pigs,
  • 43 million tons of coal products.

3) Special conditions (among others):

  • The German Reichsbahn (German railways) had to be converted into a stock corporation. 9 of the 18 members of the supervisory board had to be foreigners.
  • The Government was not allowed to have control over the Reichsbank (German National Bank). At least 7 of the supervisory board’s 14 members had to be foreigners.
  • Germany lost control over her national waterways.

The German economy collapsed; more than one million civilians died of hunger; and, of course, Germany was not able to deliver the payments. A hyper-inflation followed. The number of unemployed workers raised from 250 000 in 1922 to more than 2 000 000 in 1926. Due to the many refugees from the annexed territories, there was a lack of housing. Still in 1930, 80 000 people had no home. Germany, once one of the leading economies in the world, had been converted in sort of an exploited colony.

War invalid, 1923.
“You shall toil for the next three generations.”
They carry the letters of the company – but who bears its spirit? Drawing by Thomas Theodore Heine for the satirical journal Simplicissimus