229: Weimar Germany Pt. 2


After surviving possible revolution from the left, the Weimar government is thrown out of power from the right.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 229. Steven Patreon and Kelly donation. Last episode we discussed some of the events in Germany in late 1918 and early 1919. Today we will continue those events as we move our story forward, past the period of revolution from the left and into the period of attempts by the right to overthrow the government. In 1920 these efforts would result in the Kapp Putsch. this Putsch would see Wolfgang Kapp put in control of Berlin by military veterans and other members of the Freikorps. These groups were unhappy with the changes made to the government in the wake of the war, and the concessions that had been made to the socialists during the weeks immediately before the end of the war. The Kapp Putsch would be successful, at least for a few days before the government was saved by the workers. These were the same workers that the government had spent so much time and energy trying to keep under control in 1919. These events would perfectly illustrate the fact that the Weimar government, trying desperately to hold the center, was constantly under attack from both sides. During the second half of this episode we will also look at some of the events in other areas of Germany during the first few years of the Weimar government. We will discuss the plebiscite in Upper Silesia that had been mandated by the Versailles Treaty, some events that occurred in Saxony which made it very clear the Social Democrats views on socialism, and then some of the economic problems that the Weimar government would have to try and work through during its first few years of existence.

On August 11, 1919 the Weimar government would officially be created with the signing of the Weimar Constitution. It was a parliamentary republic which traced its direct roots back to the coalition of parties that had stepped into the leadership void near the end of the war. During late October and early November 198 they had taken control of the German government in the hopes of negotiating a peace with the allies. It is worth stating that at the time of its creation the Weimar coalition represented a large majority of the German voters. They had been able to bring together all of the major center parties, from the left and the right. It was this coalition that prevented Germany from experiencing a more violent revolution or civil war after the war was over. However, these efforts to prevent further revolution came at the cost of violence, some of which we discussed last week. In early 1919 the Weimar leaders had to fend off revolutionary activity from the left, those who took part in those strikes and protests felt that the Social-Democrat led government did not take the reforms in Germany far enough. In these efforts the government felt forced to turn to former members of the military and the right wing conservative political parties to help provide support against possible revolution. These right wing parties had been thrown out of almost all power when the war ended. they had been one of the strongest to support the prosecution of the war and the monarchy, and with both of those over, they were a bit paralyzed. The last months of 1918 would see their power reach its lowest ebb, but events like the Spartacist revolt and then the wave of strikes in the spring of 1919 helped their position to begin to recover. At this time the German right wing political parties were very divided. Many of the parties were led by fiercely independent leaders, a situation that would continue throughout the interwar years. Even if they were deeply divided on certain issues, there was a general agreement among these groups about what they hoped to achieve. Speaking very generally here, they wanted to remove the social changes put in place by the 1918 reforms, they wanted to greatly reduce the power of the socialists, and they wanted to reform, at the extreme end abolish, the parliamentary nature of the Weimar government. Already at this early stage these parties were utilizing the stab in the back myth, the idea that the German army had been betrayed by the socialist leaders in Berlin. This was very powerful for these groups because so much of their support, and especially their power passionate supporters, were formerly in the military. The stab in the back concept would be at the core of the beliefs of the German right throughout the interwar period, and due to its importance it is probably worth reiterating that it was absolutely incorrect. It was Ludendorff and the military leaders who asked the leaders in Berlin to begin serious peace talks with the Allies. When they asked that this take place the German armies were on the verge of collapse and it had become clear that they were unable to stop the Allies on the battlefield. There was initially some resistance from the political leaders, but Ludendorff and others made it clear that peace was absolutely necessary. Then in 1919 it would be Ludendorff that would give his name to the stab in the back myth. He could do this because the conversations at military headquarters were private, while the peace overtures and its resulting armistice were very public.

This brings us to the Kapp Putsch. Putsch is a Swiss German word that means to knock or thrust, but at around this point in history it takes on a very different meaning. During the interwar years it came to be used to refer to an attempted violent overthrow of a government, mostly the German government. There would be several of them during this period, and the first would be the Kapp Putsch in 1920. They were generally executed by the most militant right wing groups, and they would generally involve reaching out to the head of the German Army to ask him to join them. During the early 1920s this would be General Hans von Seekt and on multiple occasions he would be asked by groups around the country to join them and to launch a coup detat. This was seen as a required step because those executing the putsch often only represented a small group and they depended on the support of the military to provide legitimacy and to act as a unifying rallying point for other right wing political parties. The hope was that this rallying point would cause the more moderate rignt wing parties to support the putsch, since they were generally not involved in the planning and also generally favored a more political approach to gaining control.

The Kapp Putsch would be named after Wolfgang Kapp, a mostly forgettable government official from East Prussia. Kapp would be supported, and the Putsch would be executed, by former Freikorps men commanded by General von Luttwitz, who had been one of the originators and founders of the Freikorps concept. On March 13, 1920 men of the Ehrhardt Brigade, under the command Luttwitz, would seize several key buildings in the government district in Berlin. Once these builders were seized Kapp was proclaimed chancellor of Germany. Up to this point the Putsch was going mostly according to plan, the Weimar government had not been totally surprised by the Putsch, in fact most of the facts about the plan were known days before it was launched. There were however many people within the government that not only knew about the putsch, but also supported its end goal of overthrowing the Weimar government and instituting a military supported dictatorship. By the end of the 13th the Putsch seemed to have accomplished its goals, the Kapp government was in place in Berlin, and it had been recognized as the national authority by several local administrations in north and east Germany. During all of this the police and the army had barely raised a finger in protest, and had instead mostly stood by and allowed the events to unfold. Even with these early successes, the putsch would rapidly fall apart due to the actions of the workers and citizens of Berlin and other cities. On March 14th, just a day after the Putsch was launched a general strike began in Berlin. Public transit stopped running, water and electricity were turned off, and the workers took to the streets. By the next day the Kapp government it became clear that the Kapp government did not have a clear response to these disturbances. It did not have the military muscle in the city to deal with the mass of striking workers. Food was becoming a problem in Berlin as well, and the head of the Reichsbank was refusing to give any money to the new administration, making it impossible for it to pay for anything. The order would eventually be sent out to begin attempting to put down the protests by force, but that did not come out until the afternoon of the 16th, by which point they were beyond the ability of the troops loyal to Kapp to control. On the 17th Kapp fled the capital, with Luttwitz following several hours later. The striking workers in Berlin, as well as around Germany, had prevented Kapp from solidifying his power but there was still the open question of whether or not they would allow the previous government to regain their position.

While the Putsch had failed, the resulting changes to the German political landscape were, in my opinion, somewhat surprising. Because their actions had been so successful at preventing the Kapp government from taking control, socialist groups all over the country were emboldened. This included those that had previously been a part of the Social-Democrat party. When the events were happening in Berlin the central party leadership had been inactive, but lower groups had banded together to launch their own actions. These actions often included working closely with the Communists and the Independent Socialists. The new confidence caused many to question the position of the Social Democratic leadership, and if they were taking the country down the right path. This meant that the erosion of support from the far left for the Social Democrats continued. In Berlin the Social Democrats, who had just been almost unseated by a right wing putsch became even more dependent on the right wing groups to maintain their control. This included from people within the government that had known about and supported the Putsch. This prevented any large changes within the government, even though it was clear that there were people of, dubious, loyalty holding various positions. In June there were another round of elections, and during these there would be changes to the make up of the government. Basically the Weimar coalition of center parties lost a large number of seats within the government. Both the parties on the far left like the USPD and the Communists, and the parties on the far right like the People’s Party and the National Liberals, gained large numbers of votes. This increased the polarization of the political parties in Germany, which did nothing to reduce political tensions in the country. Along with political polarization there was also geographic polarization, which resulted in very strong centers of power for some of the political groups with very different views on the best path forward for Germany. For example some of the most active right-wing parties gathered in Munich while in Saxony support for the Communists was very strong. In these areas the most radical groups would incubate for years, with actions during and after the Ruhr Crisis causing some of them to take additional steps to try and expand their power beyond their localities and to all of Germany.

Speaking of Saxony, lets discuss the situation in Saxony just a bit, even though it is slightly out of order on our timeline I think how the situation in that region is handled is a really good illustration of the path that the Weimar government would take during the 1920s. Up until the Ruhr Crisis in 1923 the Saxon government would be led by the Social Democrat Dr. Erich Zeigner. There was however a big difference between the Social Democrats in Saxony when compared with the national Social Democrats in Berlin. Compared to the rest of Germany Saxony was heavily socialist, far more so than any other area, this meant that Zeigner and the Saxon Social Democrats could adopt a far more socialist focused set of policies, as well as openly working with the German Communist Party. During the Kapp Putsch demonstrations by workers in Saxony had been some of the most well supported in all of Germany. In both Leipzig and Dresden soldiers would fire into crowds of demonstrators, leading to clashes between the two groups. After the Kapp Putsch was over the situation in Saxony would mostly return to normal, until 1923. It was in that year that the Ruhr Crisis occurred, and near the end of the Crisis the Berlin leaders decided that it would be a good opportunity to deal with Saxony. When Bavaria declared a state of emergency, and began to give into French demands, the Reichswehr was sent into Saxony to demand large changes from Zeigner and the Saxon government. The key part of this demand was that Zeigner could stay in power if he formed a new government as long as it did not include the communists. Zeigner was unwilling to take this step, and he was removed from his position. These actions, taken by the government in Berlin, were just more on the long list of actions that many felt displayed that the Social Democrats who were leading the Weimar government could not be trusted by other socialists. It would also be another example of why their influence on, and their support from, the left would continue to decrease.

While the internal political changes were taking place in Germany, the country was not able to exist in a vacuum, and in fact it was under the influence of several external groups. One of these were the Russian Communists who were trying to support and encourage a further revolution in Germany. There were two main phases for relations between Germany and Soviet Russia during the early Weimar period. The first phase was characterized by the Russians providing strong support for the Spartacists, communists, and other radical groups within Germany. During this time the Social Democrats saw the Russians as a threat to Germany, believing that they were trying to encourage revolution within Germany, a fair assessment because that was exactly what they were trying to do. After 1921 this would begin to change and relations would enter the second stage. During this time the Russians would begin to reduce their support for radical political groups in Germany and the Social Democrats would begin to favor better relations with Russia. These improving relations would results in the Treaty of Rapallo in April 1922. This treaty had all of the normal clauses that are generally found in similar treaties, diplomatic relations, any territorial disagreements were handled, and they both agreed to grant each other most favored nation status for trading purposes. This gave the Russians a critical trading partner at a time when few foreign countries even recognized the government’s legitimacy. They would be able to procure German financial and economic help in rebuilding the Russian industrial base and infrastructure around the country. Germany would also gain an important trading partner, with the Western nations still relatively hostile Russia was one of their few options. There was also a secret part of the treaty which occurred between the Germany Army and the Russian leaders. Most of these negotiations revolved around German companies being allowed to build manufacturing centers and funding Russian manufacturing of military goods. This was the only outlet for Germany to continue any form of military construction due to the clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. In later years this cooperation between Germany and Russia would expand, but in these early years it was mostly focused on Germany companies using Russian factories to make German weapons to sell to the Russians.

While the Weimar government was working through internal problem, and was trying to recreate relations with other countries, it also had to deal with some of the clauses from the Treaty of Versailles. One of these related to Upper Silesia, a disputed territory in eastern Germany on the border with Poland. Like several other areas around Europe, instead of making a definitive judgement at the Paris Peace Conference, the Supreme Council instead elected to schedule a plebiscite in the future so that the people could decide which country they wanted to belong to. There was some initially disagreement about who should be allowed to vote, the initial position was to only allow citizens from before the war to vote, but there was a growing push for all residents to be allowed to cast a ballot. This was important to the Germans, since large numbers of Germans had moved into the area during the war. In the run-up to the plebiscite Silesia was occupied by a join British, French, and Italian force. This occupation, and the handling of the plebiscite would be an important moment for British relations in the post war period. By the time that the occupation began in early 1920, British opinion, both in the government and among the British electorate had already begun to change from what it had been immediately after the war was over. In London the goal was to get trade with Germany going again as quickly as possible. This was seen as one of the ways to solve the budgetary problems being experienced by the British government at this time. The French were still very focused on punishing Germany, and that meant taking a very hard line on items like the plebiscite and also making sure that Germany obeyed the absolute letter of the law from the treaty of Versailles. These disagreements, or I guess just different viewpoints on how to handle Germany would play a role in the Silesian plebiscite, but they would be front and center during the Ruhr Crisis which would follow two years later. At the end of the day the British had never officially ratified the treaty that had been created to bind them in a mutual assistance pact with the French against Germany, and this meant that the old alliance was still held together only as long as the French and British could agree on policy, they came very close to falling apart completely in the early 20s.

The plebiscite in Upper Silesia would take place on March 20th, 1921. During the actual voting there were no instances of violence, and instead events were very peaceful. 98% of eligible voters took part, and the final numbers were 707,488 for Germany and 479,369 for Poland. The idea of a partition of Silesia had always been present during the discussions for the plebiscite. The Germans were of course strongly against it, since they held a majority in Silesia as a whole. Even though the voting had been peaceful, the resulting confusion around partition or no partition caused confusion and violence. The reason that partition was so attractive to Poland, and therefore to the Western Allies was that Silesia was split quite evenly in its population distribution. The southern areas were heavily Polish with the northern areas were heavily German, and both areas voted along these lines. However, the most important parts of Silesia, all of the industry and coal mines were right there in the middle. A final decision on partition would not be made until early August, and during the summer of 1921 the rioting and violence throughout Silesia began to increase. More Allied troops, especially British troops were brought in to try and maintain peace. While the Supreme Council decided that partition would happen, the precise border was not determined. Instead of making a decision, the issue was given over to the League of Nations. Eventually, after many discussions, the League would draw a line that left 57% of Silesia’s inhabitants and 70% of its territory in Germany, but the most important industry was all in Poland. These decisions would play a role in Germany’s later decisions around the Ruhr Crisis because removing the coal and industry from Germany made it less able to meets its reparation requirements, at least according to the government in Berlin.

Up until this point all we have talked about are problems that the Weimar leaders were trying to work their way through, another item onto this pile of problems were the serious economic issues that Germany was experiencing after the war. The German economy had been wrecked by the demands of the war, and then the economic isolation that it experienced after defeat. Among the many problems were the huge amounts of inflation. The inflation, and eventually hyper inflation, during this period is legendary. The inflation rate became so bad that it was normal for people to spend money as soon as they got it. Workers would buy food immediately after getting paid because if they waited even a single day they may not be able to afford staples like bread. From the perspective of the government it also made taxation almost entirely regardless, because regardless of the amount of tax that was levied, by the time the government received the money it was worthless. The burden of this inflation weight most heavily, as most burdens are, on the shoulders of the wage earners. It was in fact actually advantageous for some sectors of society, especially in agriculture and manufacturing. This meant that when inflation began to slow in 1923 it became clear that since the beginning of the war in 1914 there were drastic changes to the economy and wealth within the country. Wages for most workers were substantially below what they had been before the war, and at the same time the middle and upper classes were in a better position. This was a large problem for Weimar leaders, but they were very successful in channeling some of the blame for this inequality into reparations and then onto the allies. The Allies would in some ways play into this narrative, like when they sent military troops into the Ruhr region in an attempt to compel the Germans to continue reparation payments, an action that would precipitate the Ruhr Crisis, which we will discuss next episode.