You are on page 1of 7

The Weimar Republic

In 1920s Germany
Scott Abel

The era of the Weimar Republic saw some artists and journalists who depicted the Germany that they lived in through their art and literature in manner that the government would censor only a decade later. The social commentary of the journalist, Joseph Roth, and contemporary artists demonstrated that the Weimar Republic gave a certain amount of freedom of speech and press. Only until after the start of the Great Depression did the National Socialist Party, also known as the Nazis gain considerable power. The German artists and journalists of the Weimar Republic depicted German society as fractured and divided along class, ethnic, religious, and political lines, but this did not mean that the Germany of the 1920s was inevitably leading towards a totalitarian fascist regime that would bring Europe into chaos. Germany during the Weimar Republic was a cosmopolitan and tolerant country that took full advantage of its new-found freedoms. The works of Joseph Roth provided social commentary on German society during the 1920s. Roth did not depict a society ripe for a popular fascist coup dtat; rather he depicted a society divided along class, ethnic, religious, and political lines. Roth often focused his attention on the neglected people of German society, such as the poor and the religious minorities. One such group was the followers of the Jewish faith, who often lived separately from the rest of the population. Roth, an anti-Zionist, firmly believed that the Jewish people should live as wanderers who must deal with pogroms and not as conquerors of Arab lands. Roth left out mentioning any large scale institutionalized anti-

Semitic activity. Roth only capitulated to the Nazis in 1933 after they succeed in burning many books written by Jews. Berlin also possessed a substantial population of homeless people, who rioted after being fomented by an agitator from East Prussia. However, this riot was not a political response to a lack of humanitarianism. Instead the riot released the anger and frustration from day-to-day life that resulted in the injuring of an official and the calling up of the police to quell the rioters.1 German artist George Grosz painted some scenes of daily life during the Weimar years and often his works commented on the socio-economic conditions of the German people in the 1920s. Grosz often portrayed ideas that consistent with major political beliefs at the time, such as the ideology of the Social Democrats, and avoided an association with radical right-wing nationalists. Grosz compared the affluent to the poverty-stricken with such commentaries as the named Although Ruhr Sickens, which depicted a wealthy German only sacrificing by eating an entire prepared chicken. Contrarily, Grosz demonstrated the lives of the less-fortunate in Sticking It Out with impoverished citizens begging for spare change on the street. This social disparity failed in providing for a fertile breeding ground for the rise of fascism, but allowed for the opportunity for a liberal democracy to take root.2 Unlike the Nazis, Grosz also showed a society truly tired of war and not aching for revenge in his work, Four Years of Murder, in which soldiers execute unarmed people. Grosz consistently created politically based satire that possibly considered sedition in previous years, such as High Treason, Fatherland, May You Be at Peace,
1 2

Joseph Roth, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-1933, (New York: Norton, 1996) 45-50, 63-64, 297 George Grosz, Sticking It Out Albrechnung Folgt! 57 Politische Zeichnungen (1923), Graphic Witness, Visual Arts and Commentary, George Grosz, Although the Ruhr Sickens,

and Arise, Ye Works From Your Slumbers. Another work, Stinnes and His President demonstrated that Grosz believed that wealthy capitalists controlled the national policy rather than the workers. These works consistently demonstrated that Grosz wanted the workers of Germany to unite to form a government that better provided for the German people, yet the German government still allowed these challenges to their authority. Such freedom of speech allowed for Germans to have the opportunity to develop a democracy that could last.3 Although George Grosz had some disagreements with the government, he was not a maverick out-of-touch with the populace, but rather he demonstrated common beliefs among many of the German people during the Weimar years. For example, on January 19, 1919 during the election of the National Assembly when the Socialist Democratic Party became the largest party with 37.9% of the vote as opposed to the conservative German National Party, which won 10.3% of the vote. These results demonstrated that the social disparity did not directly result in the rise of the Nazi party, but helped their opponents instead. This Socialist Democratic victory was due in large part to the militant and brutal tactics of their opponents in the Freikorps, which caused violence and murdered socialists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. This helped to unify the socialists as the Friekorp and other similar civilian groups often fought against their leftist opponents. These groups were not successful in managing to gain power in a putsch lead by Wolfgang Kapp in March of 1920.4

George Grosz, Four Years of Murder, George Grosz, High Treason, George Grosz, Fatherland, May You Be at Peace, George Grosz, Arise, Ye Works From Your Slumbers, George Grosz, Stinnes and His President,

Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987) 30-33

This failure was in large part due to refusal of the Reichswehr to participate, although units of the Reichswehr disavowed orders to use arms in the suppression of the putsch despite the orders from Walther Reihardt, the head of Army Command. The German Army was an important institution often portrayed in artistic works of the Weimar Republic. In the film, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City and Opus I, there was still an active military presence in the city in the form of marching columns of soldiers and militaristic pomp and circumstance in government affairs. George Grosz portrayed the military as one of the pillars of German society in multiple paintings, so the opinion of the Reichswehr leadership was important in determining the fate of the Weimar Republic.5 Some would point toward Germanys military tradition and reverence for the military as a sign that a society would become totalitarian, but this is simply not the case. Events pushed The German military farther away from backing the anti-republic conservatives when the leftists in the government managed the organization a general national strike, which the military found remarkable. The Reichswehr gained a large degree of independence from the government under General von Seeckt, but the military was willing to accept the Weimar Republic as the government. Von Seeckt sought to expand the military through gaining help from the Red Army, but was later caught and lost power to General Kurt von Schleicher. The Reichswehr was not a hindrance toward democracy in the Germany of the 1920s; rather it was a protector of the Weimar Republic. The German military would only seriously question the loyalty to the Weimar

Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic, 66-69 George Grosz, Germany: A Winters Tale, (1917/1919), Olgas Gallery, George Grosz, The Pillars of Society,(1926),

Republic until the public protest of the construction of new battlecruisers in 1928. It was not until 1929 and 1930 that the ruling coalition of the Weimar Republic no longer had the backing of the military, so the military was not an obstacle to the maintenance of democracy in 1920s Germany.6 The Weimar Republic was able to keep power thanks in large part to an economy that was prosperous enough to allow for a sufficient degree of social stability. Frans Mansereel portrayed a sense of economic stability in his woodcut, Die Stadt (1925), which was demonstrated by the smoke billowing from the chimneys of many factories. Contemporary film revealed Berlin to have been a bustling city with trains transporting people and goods from all over the nation, factories producing goods from steel to bread, and typist diligently working on their assignments. There were still many people wealthy enough in Germany who could afford luxuries such as eating in fancy restaurants, purchase automobiles, and hire servants. This strong economy was beneficial to the Weimar Republic, because people would be less inclined to join radical movements if they had employment.7 Some might argue that the poor German economy resulted in the rise of National Socialism and Hitler, but the German economy was in stable condition with 1923 being the exception. Immediately after the Great War, the Weimar Republic, during the years 1919-1921, experienced some inflation due to the demobilization of the military. The government provided social welfare benefits to its citizens, but unemployment became a grave issue only after the financial crisis in 1923. That year saw an increase in
6 7

Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic, 226-227 Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, DVD, directed by Walter Ruttmann (1927; Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 1999). Franz Masereel, Die Stadt (1925), Visual Arts and Social Commentary,

unemployment and an increase of inflation from the beginning of 1923 with 2,783 times higher than 1913 to 1,261 thousand million times higher at the end of the year in comparison to 1913. Germany stabilized the economy upon adopting the gold standard in 1924. By 1927, German industry reached its prewar levels and continued to grow over the next three years.8 The Germans of the Weimar Republic seemed to be less xenophobic than in the years of the Third Reich, because Germany became a refuge for foreign exiles during the 1920s. One example of an exile living in Germany was the Russian Lieutenant Colonel Bersin who fought for the czar in the Sino-Russian War, Russo-Japanese War, and the Great War. Bersin lost not only his job, but also his family, with whom he lost contact upon fleeing Russia. Other refugees sought asylum in Germany at this time such as Frst Geza from Budapest, Hungary, who was in the Hungarian Red Army. Such instances demonstrated that the Germany of the Weimar Republic was a nation that would peacefully coexist with foreigners within their own boundaries.9 Although the 1920s were not the glory days of Germany, that era did not result in the growth and eventual seizure of power by the Nazi party. Instead, the majority of the German populace, including the higher echelons of the military, did not actively support Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists until the advent of the Great Depression. The Weimar Republic helped Germany recover from the Great War and gave Germany an opportunity to become a lasting democracy, even though this was not to be until another conflict erupted in Europe. The artists and journalists, allowed in expressing for the most

8 9

Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic, 63-65, 121 Joseph Roth, What I Saw, 35, 67

part their views as the ills of German society, opposed the fascists fascist ideology and represented a liberal democracy that could have persevered.

Honor Code: