The magnitude of the German catastrophe in the twelve years of Hitler’s rule (1933–1945) casts such a dark shadow that it is difficult to see the preceding fourteen years of Weimar democracy (1919–1933) as a historical era in its own right rather than as a prelude to the dictatorship that followed. The Weimar Republic was certainly burdened by severe systemic flaws, and a strong case can be made that it was doomed from birth. However, Volker Ullrich’s Germany 1923 and Mark William Jones’s 1923, published on the centennial of that crisis year, analyze instead the resilience of German democracy in the face of multiple challenges of staggering dimension, perhaps the most easily thwarted of which was Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. Understanding how Weimar survived the crises of 1923 also helps illuminate factors that contributed to its demise ten years later. In another shift of perspective, Michael Brenner’s In Hitler’s Munich looks at the experience of the city’s Jews in the years 1919–1923 from the perspective not of 1933 but rather of the Bavarian revolution of 1918–1919.
Following Germany’s defeat in World War I and acceptance of armistice terms as well as the flight of the kaiser and the collapse of the monarchy in November 1918, the new provisional government was dominated by Social Democrats, and in Berlin a move by the Communist-linked Spartacists in January 1919 to replace it with a more revolutionary regime—as had occurred in the fall of 1917 in Russia—was repressed with much bloodshed, including the summary execution of the Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht at the hands of right-wing paramilitary units. In nationwide elections held later the same month, a coalition of middle-class liberals (German Democratic Party, or DDP), moderate socialists (German Social Democratic Party, or SPD), and Catholics (Center Party) won a clear majority, drew up the constitution for a parliamentary democracy known as the Weimar Republic, and formed the governing majority in its first legislature, or Reichstag.
However, even if not doomed, the republic was a “burdened” democracy from the beginning. The terms of the Versailles Treaty that the new government had to sign were reviled by the vast majority of Germans, so nationalism thereafter was an issue effectively monopolized by the right to attack the republic, never an issue to rally support for it. Anxious to blunt revolutionary momentum on the left, Weimar’s founders left much of the old infrastructure (most notably, the educational system, the civil service, the military, and the judiciary) unreformed, and those elements all too often responded not with gratitude but rather with eagerness to use their entrenched positions to sabotage the republic and return Germany to authoritarian government. German industry, forced to make significant concessions to workers to defuse the revolutionary situation in 1918, spent the next fourteen years trying to claw back those concessions. Both ends of the political spectrum—the radical left, composed of Communists loyal to Moscow, and the resurgent right, composed of both traditional authoritarians and emerging fascists—rejected democracy outright and sought the overthrow of the republic.
In 1920 the three founding parties of the new German democracy lost and never regained their electoral majority. Henceforth a rapid succession of unstable cabinets depended on support (or at least toleration) from parties that were either divided or equivocal in their desire to preserve democracy itself. One could say that the Weimar Republic was like a candle cracked in the middle and burning at both ends. The question of how it survived even four years, much less fourteen, is the one addressed by Ullrich and Jones.
The onslaught against the republic began with the 1920 Kapp Putsch, launched by right-wing paramilitary groups and insurgent German army units and named after one of its leaders, Wolfgang Kapp. Army and police units in Berlin refused to defend the government. Instead an enormous general strike called by the left in defense of the republic brought the putsch to a halt. Right-wing extremists continued their assault with a terrorist campaign of political assassination that claimed more than 350 lives over the next four years, including former head of the Center Party Matthias Erzberger (who had signed the armistice) and Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau (a rare Jewish cabinet minister who pursued a policy of fulfilling the obligations of the Versailles Treaty for the moment in order to negotiate their mitigation in the near future). Ultimately, however, it was not domestic opposition but rather foreign intervention—what Jones unequivocally deems an act of “French aggression” launched by the malevolent French premier Raymond Poincaré, who sought to cripple Germany permanently—that provoked the “spiral” of “multiple and overlapping crises” of 1923 from which Weimar democracy so narrowly escaped, though not unscathed.
By the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the victorious Allies occupied the Rhineland—the German borderland with France west of the Rhine River—as a buffer zone against the possibility of renewed German aggression. When Germany requested a three-to-four-year moratorium on future reparations payments and partially failed to make current payments, Poincaré seized the opportunity in January 1923 to order over 70,000 French and Belgian troops also to occupy the Ruhr Valley—Germany’s industrial and coal heartland. In response the German government ordered a policy of “passive resistance”: workers and miners were not to produce for the French, and civil servants were not to obey French occupation authorities. This decision had fateful consequences, especially in that it locked the German government into a battle of wills with Poincaré that it could not win. In the long run passive resistance was far more economically ruinous to Germany than to France—a course of mutual but unequal infliction of damages that Poincaré was happy to continue, regardless of the cost to either France or German democracy.
The order for passive resistance emboldened the right wing to criticize relentlessly the democratic government for its weakness and inability to force the French to leave. Trying to compete with the right in mobilizing nationalism while constrained by the reality of French power was an impossible task. Passive resistance seemed a shamefully inadequate response to brutal French occupation policies that included seizing mines, factories, and railways; deporting tens of thousands of civil servants, railway workers, and their families; arresting, trying, and jailing industrialists; and blocking all exports from the Ruhr to Germany. Violent encounters with French soldiers cost 109 German lives in 1923. Incidents of sexual assault and rape committed by occupation troops were exploited propagandistically by the German government to both mobilize domestic support and tarnish France’s reputation internationally, but this also had the insidious effect of validating the right-wing accusation that the unmanly republic was too weak to defend its women.
The occupation of the Ruhr was not just a political catastrophe for German democracy but also an economic disaster. Between 1914 and 1922 Germany (like other European countries) experienced inflationary pressures, because printing money had helped pay for both the war and postwar economic stabilization. Imposing fiscal austerity after four years of wartime sacrifice was politically impossible. In 1923, with the government obliged to compensate striking workers and nonproducing businesses in the Ruhr, the printing of money increased exponentially, exploding into surreal hyperinflation. The German mark stood at 4.2 to the dollar in 1914, 13.5 in May 1919, before seeming to stabilize while fluctuating between 62 and 75 from October 1920 to July 1921. It then resumed its decline, reaching 338 in June 1922. One year later, in June 1923 (just five months into the occupation of the Ruhr), the mark stood at 120,000, and in July it passed 350,000. The average rates for August, September, October, and November 1923 were 4.6 million, 99 million, 25.2 billion, and 2.1 trillion marks to the dollar respectively.
Jones dubs 1923 “the year of the zeros,” and Ullrich, quoting the novelist Elias Canetti, aptly notes that the hyperinflation constituted a “double devaluation.” Not only was the currency destroyed, but so were traditional economic norms and social values. Thrifty middle-class savers, patriotic purchasers of war bonds, and pensioners on fixed incomes were ruined, while speculators with access to credit or foreign currency amassed astonishing fortunes overnight. A democracy dependent upon middle-class electoral support in effect expropriated the wealth of much of the middle class to pay for unsuccessful passive resistance in the Ruhr.
In August 1923, as the political and economic crises intensified, the seemingly imminent collapse of the republic whetted revolutionary ambitions on both the left and the right. The German Communists and their Moscow masters thought that a working class radicalized by crisis might again make possible a “German October” on the model of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The right, inspired by Mussolini’s successful March on Rome the previous year, which brought him to power in Italy, anticipated an analogous March on Berlin, in which Weimar democracy would crumble in the face of an authoritarian-nationalist show of force backed by a sympathetic military.
Paradoxically, in that same month Weimar’s president—the moderate socialist Friedrich Ebert—invited Gustav Stresemann to form a new government, thus creating a team of two effective leaders dedicated to preserving German democracy. Stresemann’s record as an arch monarchist, nationalist, and annexationist (demanding war aims of maximum territorial acquisitions that thwarted any possibility of a compromise peace) during World War I had caused German liberals to bar him from joining the DDP in 1918. While many Germans became increasingly disenchanted with democracy in the following years, Stresemann followed the unlikely opposite trajectory of conversion to it. On August 13, 1923, he brought his own political party—the German People’s Party (DVP), representing industrial and commercial interests—with him into the democratic fold to form Weimar’s first “Grand Coalition,” embracing the political spectrum from socialists to big business (SPD, Center, DDP, and DVP).
After a month of futile attempts to engage Poincaré in negotiations, on September 26 Stresemann courageously took the unilateral and decisive step of declaring an end to “passive resistance” in the Ruhr, despite getting no French promises or concessions concerning the occupation. Jones notes that this decision, which opened the prospect that Weimar could solve and survive its currency and occupation crises, acted as a “clarion call” for its opponents that “the clock was suddenly ticking. They had to act now or…let the best opportunity to destroy the republic go to waste.” Three attacks on the republic followed in “near-simultaneity.”
Poincaré did not negotiate with Stresemann because he wanted German collapse more than resumption of reparations payments. He thus engaged in the “wishful thinking” of supporting Rhineland separatists who had little popular support and whose leader, Hans Adam Dorten, was a “fantasist.” French troops intervened on behalf of separatist demonstrators in Düsseldorf on September 30, after ten people had already died in clashes with the German police. Separatists seized government buildings in Aachen early on the morning of October 21, but within a few days an “enraged mob” had not only driven them out but also beaten several of them to death. Only in Koblenz did separatists, who had seized the city on October 25 with French support, manage to set up a provisional government, which collapsed within a month under the weight of its own divisions and lack of popular support as well as bloody defeats in several pitched battles in nearby towns. Poincaré “had wasted France’s victory,” Jones writes, and positioned Stresemann to end Germany’s isolation and obtain diplomatic and economic solutions to the occupation and reparations crises, with British and US support, the following spring.
If Poincaré’s hapless gamble on Rhenish separatism ultimately played into Stresemann’s hands, the German chancellor was more immediately challenged by a series of interlocking events in Bavaria and Saxony. On September 26, the day that Stresemann declared an end to passive resistance, the right-wing government in Bavaria declared a state of emergency and appointed Gustav Ritter von Kahr as state commissioner with dictatorial powers. Kahr openly defied Berlin through such measures as suspending the Law for the Protection of the Republic, which both outlawed insurrection and conspiracy for insurrection against the republic and provided a special court to try such cases as an alternative to the utterly lax prosecution of right-wing terror that characterized the traditional judicial system.1 Stresemann also declared a national state of emergency but could take no action, as army commander Hans von Seeckt made clear that the army would not march into Bavaria in defense of the republic.
Meanwhile, the German Communists, as instructed by Moscow, proceeded with their plans for a “German October.” As a first step, on October 10 three Communist ministers joined the cabinet in the state of Saxony under the very left-wing socialist Erich Zeigner. On October 16 a similar socialist-Communist coalition took power in the neighboring state of Thuringia. Fortunately, on October 13 Stresemann (with Ebert’s backing) had been able to obtain passage of an Enabling Act granting his government extraordinary powers for six months. General Alfred Müller immediately banned the Communist paramilitary units in Saxony and placed the Saxon police under military control.
When a lackluster rally in Chemnitz on October 21 revealed to the Communists how little working-class enthusiasm there was for revolution, they called off the planned general strike and uprising. Only in Hamburg was there a brief Communist attempt to seize power. But Stresemann continued to pressure Saxony, sending in 60,000 troops on October 22, demanding Zeigner expel the Communists from his cabinet on October 27, and deposing him on October 29 when he refused. For a brief two days the army occupied the Saxon ministerial and parliament buildings in Dresden, but Stresemann was then able to restore Saxon state democracy with the formation of a new cabinet.
Stresemann’s successful intervention in Saxony endangered his own Grand Coalition, however, as angry socialists made clear they would not tolerate the double standard of using emergency powers to overturn a socialist–led government with a democratic majority in Saxony while not reversing Kahr’s right-wing “coup by stealth” in Bavaria. When Stresemann refused their demands, the socialists voted on November 2 to leave the cabinet, which virtually assured that when the Reichstag reconvened in late November his government would fall. Stresemann was now not only operating on borrowed time but also, as Jones explains, pursuing a “high-risk strategy” that a “display of republican authority against the extreme left would be enough to derail the plans of right-wing putschists in Bavaria.” His gamble saved the republic but not his chancellorship.
In Bavaria Kahr was ready to support a coup in Berlin, especially one led by Seeckt, but would not attempt to initiate revolution from Munich. Seeckt, expecting the republic to collapse, awaited the invitation to become Germany’s savior but would not initiate an illegal seizure of power. In short, Kahr and Seeckt waited upon events and each other to make the first move, but Stresemann’s firmness in Saxony at least temporarily neutralized both.
The one man who would not wait any longer was Adolf Hitler. His National Socialist movement had grown significantly in 1923, in no small part with support from and in collusion with the Bavarian conservative establishment, but also in the expectation that triumph was at hand. Now, with the republic beginning to stabilize, Hitler felt that the now-or-never moment had come. There had been growing tension between the two anti-republican leaders about how to proceed, as Kahr wanted to follow the lead of others in Berlin while Hitler wanted to initiate events from Munich.
On November 6 Kahr gave the order to all anti-republican forces in Bavaria to take no action until he gave the signal, and later that evening Hitler decided to go forward on his own with a quickly improvised coup. When Kahr held a rally at the Bürgerbraukeller, a local beer hall, on November 8, the police complied with Hitler’s request to clear away the crowd outside, after which SA troops surrounded the building. Hitler stormed the stage, declared the revolution, and coerced Kahr to acquiesce publicly. Once Hitler left to attend to other matters, Kahr and his allies repudiated the putsch and organized police and military units to resist. When Hitler’s column of supporters marched into Munich the next day, the police blocked their path at the Odeonsplatz. A shot rang out, and the Nazis were quickly dispersed in a hail of gunfire. Hitler, who against the odds had survived four years on the western front, once again narrowly escaped death when the man next to him was killed.
Stresemann’s risky action in Saxony had not only neutralized Seeckt but also boxed Kahr into either joining Hitler’s coup or opposing it. Ironically, it was not loyal republicans supporting Stresemann but Hitler’s own right-wing former allies who suppressed the infamous Beer Hall Putsch in a firefight lasting barely thirty seconds, less than two weeks before Stresemann’s 103-day chancellorship came to an end.
Stresemann made two further fundamental contributions to the survival of Weimar democracy. On November 15, his government introduced a new currency, the Rentenmark, and almost immediately goods (especially food from the countryside) began to reappear in shops. There were also cuts in government salaries and jobs, several new taxes, and a return to the ten-hour workday. By March 1924 the federal budget was balanced.
The resulting economic stabilization was also tied to Stresemann’s diplomatic success. In the fall of 1923 he not only ended passive resistance but offered to resume reparations payments on the basis of the findings of an impartial experts’ commission concerning Germany’s capacity to pay. Poincaré’s intransigence opened the door for Britain and the hitherto indifferent US to back Germany on this issue. The resulting Dawes Commission made its recommendations in April 1924 for a scaled resumption of German reparations payments tied to US investments and loans as well as French withdrawal.
The Dawes Plan was welcomed by all but the unrepentant Poincaré, but he was voted out of office the following month. The ensuing US investments and loans to Germany exceeded the funds pumped into Germany through the post–World War II Marshall Plan and buoyed the German economic recovery even further. And Stresemann, who remained as Germany’s foreign minister, had his final revenge on Poincaré in 1925, when he negotiated the Locarno Pact with his French counterpart Aristide Briand, which formalized Germany’s acceptance of its post–World War I western boundaries and France’s withdrawal from the Rhineland. The pact also earned Stresemann and Briand a shared Nobel Peace Prize the following year for Franco-German reconciliation.
Stresemann, never in robust health, died in October 1929, just weeks before the stock market crash on Wall Street led to a desperate withdrawal of American investments in the German economy. This brought about a sudden and drastic plunge into economic depression in Germany and the onset of a new round of “multiple crises” for German democracy, which unlike in 1923 it did not survive.
For both Ullrich and Jones the most crucial factor leading to the different outcomes in 1923 and 1933 was leadership. President Ebert consistently prioritized the survival of the republic above the short-term political interests of his own political party, and both he and Stresemann utilized the emergency powers (Article 48) of the constitution and the special powers of the Enabling Act to defend democracy vigorously. Ten years later President Paul von Hindenburg did the opposite, using his emergency powers to replace parliamentary government with presidentially appointed cabinets in 1930, to appoint Hitler chancellor in January 1933, and then to grant Hitler’s requests to suspend freedom of the press, speech, and assembly, end due process of law, and depose non-Nazi state governments. The Enabling Act of March 1933, rather than arming the government to defend democracy, suspended the constitution and transferred all powers to Hitler. Clearly democracy is lethally threatened by undemocratic leaders who have governmental powers in their hands.2
Ullrich denies that there is any “direct line” between 1923 and 1933. Nonetheless he notes that the trauma of hyperinflation in 1923 left the German government in 1930–1932 with no politically acceptable alternative to deflationary austerity policies. These reduced purchasing power and demand ever further in a downward-spiraling, futile attempt to cut government expenditures faster than tax revenues were falling. Applying the policies that ought to have been pursued in the inflation crisis of 1923 to the very different unemployment crisis of 1929, which desperately needed stimulus, only intensified the economic disaster, with the grave political consequences, in Ullrich’s view, of “a dramatic loss of legitimacy” for democratic institutions among a “psychologically exhausted” people. Jones disputes the portrayal of Weimar as “a democracy without democrats.” Yet he too notes that the 1923 crisis had “sapped pro-republican forces of some of their strength,” and that a “gradual erosion” of democratic “norms and processes” followed.
I would suggest that both authors, in their zeal to emphasize the resilience of Weimar democracy in 1923, have understated both how systemically burdened the republic was beforehand and how badly damaged it emerged from the crisis. A democracy that survived 1923 only thanks to a rare conjuncture of strong and able leaders was already terribly vulnerable to the next crisis. When that crisis inevitably arrived, the flight from a fragile democracy was precipitous. In 1930 the Nazis accomplished a remarkable electoral breakthrough, virtually eradicating the middle-class parties (DVP and DDP) that had been important partners in Stresemann’s Grand Coalition supporting Weimar democracy in 1923. In the summer elections of 1932 over half the German electorate voted either Nazi (37.4 percent) or Communist (14.3 percent)—that is, for either a Hitler or a Stalinist dictatorship. For those seeking contemporary parallels, the Nazis indeed had disproportionate support from Protestants and the economically beleaguered but hitherto politically neglected lower middle class. But they also had disproportionate electoral support from the educated middle class, youth, and women. The flight from democracy, unfortunately, was very widespread.
Jones opens his penultimate chapter with the statement that while the defeat of Hitler’s putsch was “a victory for Weimar democracy,” the “biggest winners were Germany’s Jews.” While Kahr had broken with Hitler over anti-Weimar strategy, he had pursued his own vicious antisemitic policy of driving out foreign Jews resident in Bavaria. Some 180 Jewish families were expelled, most accused of having arrived quite poor and done too well economically through presumably unfair Jewish business practices, and many others fled as well. And on November 5–6, several days before the putsch in Munich, an estimated 10,000 rioters carried out a two-day pogrom that began in Berlin’s Scheunenviertel (the neighborhood where the least-assimilated foreign Jews were concentrated). Clearly the Weimar crisis of 1923 was especially critical for both native and foreign Jews throughout Germany. But Munich as the point of origin for the explosion of antisemitism in Germany in the early 1920s is the focus of In Hitler’s Munich. For Michael Brenner what mattered most was not the reprieve Jews experienced in 1923 but the failed revolution of 1918–1919 that put them at so much risk in the first place.
Two days before the fall of the kaiser in Berlin, the pacifist socialist Kurt Eisner—who had led antiwar armaments industry strikes earlier in 1918—declared a republic in Bavaria. As a socialist, Prussian, and Jew, Eisner was a triple outsider in conservative Bavarian politics but nonetheless led a bloodless democratic revolution. When support for his government declined, he was willing to give up his position, but he was gunned down by a right-wing assassin while on his way to turn in his resignation in late February 1919.
Brenner notes that unlike Leon Trotsky or Rosa Luxemburg, who were both revolutionaries and, in Isaac Deutscher’s phrase, “non-Jewish Jews,” Eisner and his closest Jewish associates—Gustav Landauer, Ernst Toller, and Erich Mühsam—were nonpracticing secular Jews who did not belong to Jewish congregations but recognized their Jewish heritage, especially as exemplified by the Old Testament prophets of social justice. After Eisner’s murder, Landauer, Toller, and Mühsam were among those who declared a Bavarian Räterepublik (a government on the model of a council of workers rather than a multiparty parliament) on April 7. It was promptly overthrown one week later and replaced by a second Räterepublik dominated by Communists and led by the Russian Jew Eugen Leviné and the ethnic German Max Levien (who like Lenin was often wrongly assumed to be Jewish simply because he was a Communist revolutionary). On May 1–2 this Communist-led regime was in turn crushed by counterrevolutionary Freikorps (right-wing paramilitary) and Reichswehr units. Thereafter Munich—a tolerant and cosmopolitan city before 1914—quickly became the epicenter of German reaction, “the capital of antisemitism in Germany,” according to Brenner, and thus quite logically the birthplace of German fascism.
Less than 2 percent of the population of Munich were Jews, and while they displayed a broad range of attitudes, most of them were centrist in their politics, favoring parties that represented professional and propertied middle-class interests. “The majority of Munich’s Jews rejected Eisner and the revolution,” Brenner writes. Nonetheless, the identification of Jews with revolution indelibly shaped Bavarian politics thereafter, and a sharp rise in antisemitism was precisely the outcome that most Jews anticipated and feared: “Aside from the antisemites, hardly anyone had such strong aversions to the involvement of Jewish revolutionaries as Munich’s Jews. They knew that they were going to be held responsible.” As many nonrevolutionary Jews ruefully noted, “The Trotskys made the revolution, and the Bronsteins pay the price.”
By 1923 Thomas Mann had dubbed Munich “the city of Hitler,” but antisemitism was much more widespread than Nazism. The traditional anti-Weimar authoritarians, exemplified by Gustav Ritter von Kahr, shared the same antisemitic passions and pursued the same antisemitic policies. However, they fell out over the tactics and timing of an anti-republican revolt. Faced with Hitler’s improvised and ill-prepared coup attempt, Kahr prevailed. The ironic result was that Weimar survived and the Jews experienced a temporary reprieve. Nearly eleven years later, Hitler had his long-delayed retribution on an erstwhile ally who had turned against him. On June 30, 1934, Kahr was arrested and murdered in the concentration camp in the Munich suburb of Dachau, in yet one more irony suffering the same fate as Hitler’s Jewish victims.
Thus after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch Hitler was tried for treason in a Bavarian court (rather than the new Court for the Protection of the Republic), which he turned into a political stage to continue his attack on Weimar democracy and from which he received a ridiculously lenient sentence because his actions had allegedly been motivated “by a pure sense of patriotism and the most noble, selfless will.” Most crucially, he was not deported to Austria as an alien convicted felon. ↩
See my “The Suffocation of Democracy,” The New York Review, October 25, 2018. ↩