The origins of the fall of the Weimar Republic

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The origins of the fall of the Weimar Republic
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La délégation allemande lors des négociations du traité de Versailles.

Faculté Faculté des sciences de la société
Département Département de science politique et relations internationales
Professeur(s) Rémi Baudoui
Cours Introduction à la science politique


The experience of democracy that has lasted just over ten years is characterized by strong social tensions and political instability. What interests us is to understand this seizure of power by the Nazis in a peaceful manner and the advent of the regime of the Third Reich, since Hitler would soon suspend the individual and political freedoms that would lead to the extermination of the Jews as well as the Second World War.

It is a pivotal moment that in its inability to form stable governments has contributed to Hitler's legitimacy, agenda and folly.

We will study this theme in the form of a great question and a causal form. Institutionalists question "big questions", as for the theory of rational choice, it chooses its object according to rigorous methodological approaches.

There are different currents which believe that one cannot distinguish cause and effect relations in social science from constructivists who believe that one cannot account for the conflicts of social relations.

From a Marxist perspective, one refuses to identify causal relations since this methodology approaches the world through a historical dialectic where any factor can influence a result that affects at the same time the primary variable.

The question is: what factors can explain the collapse of the Weimar Parliamentary Republic and Hitler's coming to power? What factors explain this phenomenon? Individual responsibility?

Economic factors that will drastically increase unemployment? Dysfunctional political institutions? The call of the charismatic leader Adolph Hitler?

It is an intrinsically interesting period situated in a period of revolution as in Russia with stakes of war, but also stakes related to industrialization, the unification of Italy and the unification of Germany.

The inter-war period was crucial in Germany against the backdrop of the Second World War, which followed closely.

Concerning the theory of democracy, Germany will introduce a first experiment after the First World War. There are a large number of concepts such as electoral systems, the role of institutions, parties and ideologies.

Describe the Republic of Weimar

What is the Weimar Republic?

The Weimar Republic is the name of the German political regime in place between 1919 and 1933. It follows the defeat of the First World War and the German Revolution of 1918-1919.

This revolution stems from numerous communist revolts and actions that led to the fall of the German Empire and the parliamentary "pseudo" monarchy. It started in the ports of Kiel with sailors' mutinies, which were followed by a generalised movement of the working class, which is showing solidarity with their dissatisfaction.

However, the working class is divided between the independent Social-Democracy with a socialist orientation that has leaders like Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Lübeck and the Social-Democracy that wants to introduce a parliamentary democracy.

The majority group of Friedrich Erbert (Social-Democracy) who is the last chancellor of the German Empire will form a pact with the military who will commit to maintaining and restoring security while protecting a new democratic government as long as it does not attack the privileges and status of the army.

A National Constituent Assembly meets in Weimar, Thuringia. The Constitution of the Weimar Republic adopted in July 1919 will be drafted. It was the birth of a parliamentary democratic regime that put an end to the German Empire and the German Revolution.

This democracy is governed by a president elected by direct universal suffrage, but it is the chancellor who is in charge of the executive, the latter being elected by the government.

This experience was marked by great political instability with twenty different governments between 1919 and 1933.

The appointment of Adolph Hitler by Hindenburg and the advent of the Third Reich regime were simultaneous and simultaneous, since the Nazis who came to power in 1933 would suspend fundamental freedoms and introduce an authoritarian regime.

Map of Prussia in 1871.
Map of the German Reich, (Republic of Weimar/Third Reich) 1919–1937.

What is important is the date of 1870 when Germany unites. Previously, there was the kingdom of Prussia in the south. The date of 1871 corresponds to the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine.

Before the First World War, the situation was similar. At the end of the First World War, following the Treaty of Versailles, which settled the economic reparations to be paid for, Germany was again cut off from its territory, namely part of Poland and Alsace-Lorraine. However, East Prussia is maintained in German territory.

How and what factors brought Hitler to power?

On the one hand, the transfer of power is done in a non-violent and democratic way, on the other hand, it will be demonstrated that the consolidation of power by the Nazis was extremely rapid from 1933 onwards; therefore the fall of the Weimar Republic and Hitler's rise coincided with January 1933 and the next few weeks that followed.

Transfer and consolidation of power

The "Weimar coalition" that will govern during the Weimar Republic is formed between the social-democratic party and the middle classes. It was based on a double pact: between the government and the military, then between industry and the working class, which consisted of protecting the economy through social partnership rather than class struggle. This will lead to a power struggle between the Conservatives and the Progressive Party.

A process will emerge from the progress of the democratic order. There is a beginning of this fragility following the end of an agreement between the capitalists and the workers in June 1933, then there will be employer offensives to abolish this social legislation during the period of the "Great Depression" from 1929 onwards. Moreover, the military will feel increasingly alienated and marginalized.

There is a general weakening of the partners of the "Weimar coalition" with a return of the Conservatives. Thus, these initial pacts gradually break down.

The dissolution of the Weimar Republic itself proceeded in stages and was initiated in the early 1930s with the appointment of Brüning by presidential decree. The appointment of Franz Von Papen and Herman Göring as Chancellor will be followed again. These are emergency measures taken by the president to set up a government.

In 1932, it is considered that there is no alternative to Hitler as a strong man to a new regime.

As for the transfer of power, President Hindenburg, who was leaning in favour of the authoritarian camp but was not prepared to suspend the constitution, will appoint Hitler on the assumption that he would keep his promise to continue governing with the parliamentary majority.

However, this was a profound and fatal error of judgment on the part of President Hindenburg. Thus Hitler and the Nazi party took power within the institutional framework.

The consolidation of power and the development of democratic governance.érive totalitaire se produisent rapidement.

Reichstagsbrandverordnung of 28 February 1933.

From 4 February 1933 onwards, censorship began to appear with the banning of socialist and communist newspapers. On 28 and 29 February, the Reichstag was officially set on fire by an "unemployed Dutch Communist". The following day, limits were imposed on individual freedoms, particularly with regard to the freedom of opinion approved by President Hindenburg, which would result in the arrest of Communist militants.

On March 5 instead of the national elections which will be the last elections of this new era in a climate of terror towards the left and generalised public insecurity. The Nazi party obtains 44% of the vote with the conservative forces which obtain 8% is allowing them to form a majority. As the Communists were arrested and banned, the Nazis obtained a 51% majority.

On 23 March, a law aimed at eradicating the misery of the people and the Reich suspends the constitution for four years and will concentrate power in Hitler's hands. Only the Socialists oppose this new law.

Within seven weeks, Hitler came to power by legal means and orchestrated the authoritarian drift of the political regime.

The seizure of power continued during the summers of 1933 and 1934. In 1934, the Nazi party became the only authorized party and in July 1934, when Hindenburg died, Hitler granted himself the power of chancellor and president, becoming the "führer".

The whole of society was then brought into line, the political regime changed fundamentally; it was no longer democracy, but the regime of the Third Reich that would later be characterized as a totalitarian regime.

Democratic potential of the Weimar Republic

The democratic potential of the Weimar Republic was limited and narrow. It must be understood as the democratic conception of political order among political parties. Is this a democratic concept? Authoritarian? Socialist? Communist?

This democratic potential can be measured by the number or percentage of votes for parties that support a democratic political order. The more political components that support democratic institutions, the more democratic potential there is to strengthen the democratic foundation.

A change in the distribution of party forces can have a direct and immediate impact on the nature of the political system involved.

During the period of the Weimar Republic, it is possible to count three main political concepts:

  • democratic: it was supported and supported by the "Weimar coalition" of social democracy, the centre party (Catholic) and the liberal left-wing party. It was this coalition, then, that was the spearhead of democracy by signing the armistice, by introducing the constitutional bases and which fiercely defended it in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
  • authoritarian: it is the right-wing Liberals and the Conservative Party that are mainly nostalgic for the Empire and the monarchy. It also embraces some of the middle classes anxious about socialist and socialist reforms. This group believes that there is a German trajectory towards modernity and democracy that is different from other European countries. By 1919, most of Europe's neighbours such as France and Great Britain were already stable democracies, unlike Germany, which was lagging behind. There will be a separate path for Germany, which must be followed and pursued without necessarily following the example of neighbouring democratic experiences. Some of the leitmotifs are that power should be held by an "elite" (elitist vision), they think that these elites must be virtuous and competent do not have to be civil servants emanate from the people. Has an undemocratic and elitist conception. They also advocated a strong state vis-à-vis civil society interest groups. If conflicts arose, it was up to the state to intervene and subordinate the special interests to the property of the company. They also advocated social and political integration through a strong sense of belonging. In short, they were suspicious of democracy and the pluralist organization of social groups by sharing a strong belief in the authority of "elites" and state interventionism in order to restore order, security and the common good.
  • communist and independent socialists: the socialists continue to divide with the creation of the Spartakist communism of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Lübeck. Only communists and socialists support a communist political order in the revolutionary form to introduce a new egalitarian order.
National election in germany, 1907 - 33.png

Looking at this picture, we can see that there is on average 45% of the electorate who support a democratic conception and 35% who support a more authoritarian conception of the political order, then a minority between 10 and 20% who support the extreme left and the revolution. There remains 10% of the undecided electorate who vote for more "particularist" parties. This 10% can decide the destiny of a government and the political order itself. A change of government could bring about a change in the political order at any time, as in 1933 with the return of conservatives and right-wing Liberals under Hitler.

In short, there is a narrow and stagnant democratic potential and a great fragility of democratic institutions with many governments and coalitions forming and breaking down.

Explain the fall of the Weimar Republic

Party system

The main characteristic of the German party system at that time was its fragmentation, particularly its fragmentation into four major groups.

Germany party structure in 1928.png

This graph is a representation of the different parties with two axes:

  • vertical: conception of the political order of the different parties involved: do they support a democratic or authoritarian order?
  • horizontal: conception of the relationship with the economy. Are they capitalists or socialists?

The percentages refer to the percentage of votes obtained by each of these parties in the national parliamentary elections of May 1928.

The first block is the conservative (left bottom) political formation which has its social base in the agrarian (junkers) and Protestant branch of the population in northern and eastern Germany as well as in the extreme east of the former Prussia with premodern authoritarian values.

The Liberal Group is made up of urban and agrarian Protestants from the rural world. It is divided into two currents: the liberal left-wing (DDP) and right-wing liberals (closer to an authoritarian conception of the political order)

The centre party, which federates the middle-class agrarian Catholic populations and industrial centres in the west and south of the country (Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, North-Westphalia).

Social democracy mainly includes the workers of the secularized working class, which is strong in the large industrial urban centres.

Over time, this fragmentation became more pronounced with the splitting of the communists from 1919 onwards, with the nascent Nazi party and the social-democratic divergences. The Catholic camp will also be fragmented by an autonomous Bavarian branch (Bayerische Volkspartei), as well as divisions among the liberals and conservatives.

It should be recalled that the formation of this partisan structure takes place in the period 1870-1890, which reflects multiple and ancient social cleavages such as the cleavage between those who want a marked order between a state religion and secular tendencies. But also urban-rural divides (city - country) as well as regional divides such as Bavaria, which wants to have a party that has its own interests at the national level.

With the rapid industrialisation of Germany from the 1870s onwards, this cleavage was also the result of those who wanted to introduce more extensive social legislation to protect the worker.

These multiple social cleavages will structure this party system in such a way that the old cleavages cannot be pacified, creating multiple political forces until the end of the First World War.

The consequences are that it does not clearly emerge two political blocs opposed to each other.

However, two government coalitions will emerge during the period of the Weimar Republic with the Central Party. On the one hand, we have the democratic coalition (SD, left-wing liberals, Zentrum und bayerischeVolkspartei); on the other hand, the bourgeois coalition with the centre, the two liberal parties (left and right) and the conservatives. This lasted from 1919 to 1933.

The second coalition mainly agreed on economic issues, but disagreed on political organization as left-wing liberals were encouraged by democratic values while right-wing liberals were encouraged by more authoritarian and conservative values.

In this situation, government coherence and stability were difficult to achieve. These two coalitions reigned respectively for 5 and 2 years on the whole of 14 years as long as the experience of the Weimar Republic lasted. During the other seven years, no coalition could be established, only with minority cabinet ministers in charge of government.

Between 1919 and 1933, there were 20 successive government coalitions, many of which were set up to resolve specific and important issues in a short-term perspective to resolve and respond to immediate crises.

This fragmentation generated political instability and, above all, weakened the political legitimacy of the "Weimar coalition". It mainly supported the Weimar Republic's project and will therefore be sanctioned for its failure through a protest vote.

To conclude, Lepsius can be quoted in the article From Fragmented Party Democracy to Government by Emergency Decree and National Socialist Takeover: Germany[1] published in 1978 summarizing this explanation, which states that "the crisis of the democratic regime was closely associated with the nature of the party system, its fragmentation".

Electoral system

The electoral system is proportional in the Weimar Republic. It ensures and aims for a representation that is directly proportional to the number of seats obtained by a party, i. e. the number of seats obtained in Parliament.

The purpose of this system is to represent and have a parliament that truly reflects society as a whole by favouring small parties and minorities.

In any proportional electoral system, the question arises of how many votes are required for a party to obtain a minimum representation in parliament. This is a question that every proportional electoral system must define: what is the minimum threshold for the right to parliamentary representation?

It was on this point that the Weimar Republic's proportional electoral system differed from the rest, as it had a relatively low threshold of representation. It tends to be "pure" because a small number of votes allows for seats in parliament.

The consequence of a "pure" proportional electoral system is that small parties are virtually guaranteed seats in parliament. This will lead to a reproduction of social cleavages within the legislature and thus to political fragmentation in parliament. Thus, there will be a political breakdown and greater difficulty in finding stable and lasting agreements among the forces involved.

Population Registered voters Votes submitted Number of seats
62 410 000 36 766 000 30 400 000 423
Party Number of votes (in thousands) % Number of seats
DNVP 4 382 19,5 95
NSDAP 810 2,6 12
BVP 946 3,1 16
DVP 2 680 8,7 45
Zentrum 3 712 12,1 62
DDP 1 506 4,9 25
SPD 9 153 29,8 153
KPD 3 265 10,6 54 source

This table shows the electoral result by party. On the one hand, we see the percentage of votes obtained in comparison with the previous election, as well as the equivalent of the number of votes obtained. 800 representatives out of the 481 available or 16% are elected on party lists with 4.5% or less of the total votes cast. If we take the elected representatives who obtained less than 5% of the vote, we get 21% of all parliamentarians, which is very high. These small parties are obviously not the ones that will negotiate the coalitions, on the contrary they will make it difficult to create party coalitions.

In conclusion, many researchers believe that the proportional election system explains the dysfunction of parliamentary democracy in the Weimar Republic. Reforms were considered in the post-war period to avoid further political erosion. After 1945, the German regime remained a parliamentary system, but important reforms were made on the functioning and mechanism of proportional representation, since the minimum 5% representation threshold rule was introduced in order to have parliamentary representation at national level.

Thus, with this system, 100 seats would have been redistributed to the strongest parties, and would perhaps have prevented Hitler's accession to power. It is not that the proportional system was the primary cause of the Weimar Republic's downfall, but the proportional electoral system merely replicated national fragmentation in the parliamentary arena, creating difficulties in negotiating stable coalitions.

Constitutional framework

Another institutionalist explanation of the constitutional framework.

As early as 1930, power was shifted from the legislative sphere to the executive sphere. This refers to the transfer of a parliamentary-type regime to a presidential-type regime.

Above all, we must be interested in the prerogatives that the Weimar Republic's constitution granted to the President.

The constitution provided for a parliamentary system. The Chancellor was elected by the Parliamentary Assembly and responsible to that assembly. This is a notable difference from the German Empire since the chancellor was accountable to the president. It provided for three special rights for the president:

  • possibility of dissolving parliament;
  • appointment of the chancellor unless the parliament objects by voting a motion of no confidence to show that it disapproves;
  • and government by ordinances and emergency decrees with the approval of the chancellor.

Overall, it turns out that these special rights allowed the president to govern without consulting parliament.

In March 1930, Heinrich Brüning was elected chancellor. It was set up by President Hindenburg without consultation with parliament and therefore declared unparliamentary and constitutional, a decision based solely on the power of the President.

The use of emergency decrees intensified and became the common way of government until 1933. It replaced the formal legislation that emptied parliament of its substance and the constitution.

Erosion of parliementary power.png

We note that the number of laws is falling sharply, while presidential decrees are also rising sharply with a noticeable drop in parliamentary sessions.

Presidential power has been the main instrument of political authority since 1930. The government comes directly from the president. That satisfied the Conservatives who wanted a government that was only accountable to the president and that transcended basic democratic principles. First, the government of Von Papen and then Von Schleicher gave a lot of room to military interests.

Hitler's arrival in power follows the presidential nomination logic. However, it will not convince parliament. Two days after his appointment, Hindenburg dissolves the assembly.

Moving from a parliamentary system to a presidential system that transfers power to the hands of one man will determine the course of events over these years. Order-in-council governance as a provost within the original constitutional framework of the Weimar Republic was a component of the decomposition of democracy.

Partisan strategies and politics

We will concentrate on the left-wing parties, namely the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party:

  • Communist: between 1924 and 1928, he entered a phase of radicalization during which internal structures were purged; moreover, there was a strengthening of the ideology advocating a vision of social democracy as an enemy and a competitor in order to mobilize and touch the working class. This radicalisation will create a strong internal coherence and strong integrative capacity. This will make it possible to win, in part, the workers' protest vote following the economic crisis of 1929. Its popular support increased during this period.
  • Social-democracy: it will be loyal to the original Weimar Republic project with difficulties in opening up to new voters who do not make amends to court voters, especially those of the working class. From 1928 onwards, it strengthened its links with the trade unions in order to bring the working class closer together while countering the communist threat.

In retrospect, it can be said that these strategies of reinforcement and retreat were serious strategic errors, perhaps rational in the short term as for the communists in order to achieve small electoral victories, but this implied that we were going to fall under a socialist regime. The contributions of forces made it utopian with a much greater probability of overthrow on the right.

The left was the great loser of the advent of the Third Reich. Thus, their short-term strategy would have been preferable if it had only focused on openness.

We can ask ourselves why social democracy is falling apart and why it cannot strengthen the pro-democratic social base of the Weimar Republic?


We will discuss the ideological dimension of the Social Democratic Party, whose ideology prevented it from opening up to peasantry in particular.

In The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of inter-war Europe publié en 1998[2], Berman proposes a study focusing on the German and Swedish cases. She argues that the social democratic parties face very similar problems:

  • What is the relationship between social democracy and bourgeois democracy?
  • under what conditions should alliances with parties beyond the social tradition be envisaged?
  • should we define ourselves as a party of workers with a clearly defined social base (workers, salaried workers, etc.) or should we open up and become a party of the people that would recruit voters from all walks of life?
  • What are the specific economic policy responses to be given in the crises of the capitalist system?

According to Berman, the ideology of these parties as well as the traditional heritage that forms the identity of the parties will show that they are not similar, thus explaining the different trajectories of German and Swedish social democracy. It explains the inability of social democracy in Germany to democratize the country, on the contrary in the Swedish case it will democratize the political system. In Sweden in particular, the post-World War II period was marked by a hegemony of social democracy.

She adds that these characteristics crystallize in structures already before the First World War that we can distinguish:

  • Orthodox and inflexible vision of Marxism: according to this vision socialism is the result of ineluctable economic laws; the more the forces of production will develop and the more conflicts will intensify until they lead to communism. There is economic determinism at work. However, it neglects socialism as the result of individual or class action; it denies the role of actors in the historical framework.
  • Rejection of reformism: Although German social democracy practiced reformism, it never knew it as the goal of profound social transformation. It contributed to reforming social legislation, but this did not lead to individual liberation of workers. Swedish social democracy will adhere to social reformism.
  • The acute conception of class struggle: in Germany, social democracy remains committed to the idea that the proletarian group is a simple reactionary mass. Thus, this posture makes coalition building with other "nonsocial groups" such as peasantry difficult, if not impossible. In Sweden, where social democracy was accustomed to a softer vision of class struggle, it forged an alliance with the peasants.

Example 1: Already before the First World War, social democracy was unable to formulate a programme of agrarian reforms because of its adherence to a rigid vision of class struggle. It was not possible for her to alter the short course of events towards the end of the Weimar Republic when the political insatiability increased, she was not able to form coalitions with the peasants..

Example 2: In the 1930s and 1933s, social democracy failed to develop a reformist program like the Keynesian reforms proposed in 1932. Social democracy is divided internally, i.e. whether or not to support this project, which originated in the trade unions in January 1932. This programme aimed to create 1 million jobs through the financing of public buildings by countering the vicious cycle. Faced with the proposals of trade unions, social democracy is not convinced that this is the way forward by promoting this type of policy.

The identity of social democracy, its ideology and vision as thought, limited the democratization of the political system in the inter-war period and contributed to the emergence of fertile ground for an autocratic power.

Political culture

Alexis de Tocqueville is the forerunner of civil society theory and the role of associative life in the functioning and dysfunctions of democracy.

De Tocqueville is a French politician who went to the United States to report on American penitentiaries.

In his book On Democracy in America, published in 1850, he says:

« Americans of all ages, all conditions, all spirits, unceasingly unite. Not only do they have trade and industry associations in which everyone participates, but they also have a thousand other species: religious, moral, serious, futile, futile, very general and very particular, immense and small. There is nothing, in my opinion, that deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. »

— On Democracy in America, Vol. II, Book 2, ch. V

« In order for people to remain civilized or become civilized, it is necessary that among them the art of association develops and perfects itself in the same relationship as the equality of conditions increases. »

— On Democracy in America, Vol. II, Book 2, ch. V

The idea is that an abundant civil society is a virtue, especially vibrant associationism would be a condition and an indicator of the proper functioning of democracy. In other words, there is mutual reinforcement between democratic associations and a strong civil society.

This thesis contradicts that of Arendt (1906 - 1975). For her, the failure of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism are mainly due to the disintegration of intermediary associations in European countries between the two world wars. Moreover, it stresses the role of very intense technical progress and mass society, which leads to alienation and uprooting of individuals. The social fabric is undergoing transformation, which will provide a breeding ground for recruitment for extremist parties. Thus, the Weimar Republic is an archetype of the mass society where an anomie resides linked to industrial and technical progress; civil society is absent, inert.

Berman shows in Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic, World Politics publié in 1997[3] :

« ore voluntary associations attracted more members and did so in a more active fashion than ever before.Just as retailers, bakers, and commercial employees had organized into economic interest groups, so also did gymnasts, folklorists, singers and churchgoersgather into clubs, rally new members, schedule meetings, and plan a full assortment of conferences and tournaments »

Berman argues that a vigorous civil society has contributed to approaching the democratic experience rather than strengthening it as Tocqueville advocated. High associationism has contributed to weakening the democratic experience.

In the absence of a national government and political institutions receptive to society's grievances, associationism has led to a fragmentation of social cohesion.

In the inter-war period, the Germans entered all sorts of clubs to express their frustration with political failures. It is a way of turning your back on the political world by joining civil society organisations.

Moreover, it must be stressed that the Nazis will benefit from high associationism. A high associative life allows for the learning of skills such as leadership in civil society. On the other hand, the associations will serve as a recruitment base for the Nazis; they will practise a policy of infiltration of the associations and then purge them in order to take control and turn them into Nazi sympathizers.

During the interwar period, farmers participated in various associations. They initially tended to vote for the Liberals and the Conservatives. In the 1920s, they withdrew from politics and no longer had a representative. This is done by taking over peasant associations such as the Reichslandbund with 6.5 million members. They will conquer position by position starting with the lowest hierarchy. As early as 1931, the Nazis managed to place one of their own among the leaders; in 1932, the Reichslandbund officially supported the Nazi party.

In these terms, civil society associations facilitated Hitler's accession to power.

Hannah Arendt's theory can be dismissed; on the contrary, a weaker civil society might not have facilitated the capture of associations by Nazi supporters. Berman's arguments advocate a strengthening of political institutions, in their absence this contributes to weakening the existing political system.

Strong associationism is something that is transmitted in the family sphere within a certain democratic and political culture that induces a certain participation and interest in politics.


External factors

The impact of the crisis of the early 1930s on the breakdown of the democratic and political order cannot be underestimated. The outbreak of the global economic crisis is the 1929 crash. It is admitted that without this shock, the political system would not have known the crisis it had experienced and the rise of Nazism.

Une,ployment rate and vote for the nation socialist party (weimar).png

This graph shows the unemployment rate curve and the vote in favour of the Nazis. We don't see a causal relationship, but a correlation that comes from an association.

National income 1929 - 1932.png

After the United States, Germany was the second most affected by the crisis. This picture reinforces this statement: the most dramatic decline is in Germany and the United States.

Unemployment rate 1929 1933.png

About 6 million people were unemployed, i.e. more than 40% of the population between 1932 and 1933.

Internal factors

In the 1930s and 1932s, Brüning pursued a policy of austerity that proved counterproductive. In terms of fiscal policy, it will impose drastic cuts in public spending, particularly unemployment benefits, by means of emergency decrees, bypassing parliament. It will also force wages down because it was in favour of wage deflation. From the point of view of monetary policy, it will conduct a restrictive policy out of fear of inflation instead of facilitating credit to stimulate the economy.

Austerity is driving Germany into depression, which is a great lesson, because austerity applied in spite of an economic and financial crisis can only lead to depression. This plan was counter-productive and failed to stop unemployment.

In the current situation, a parallel has been made, many researchers believe that it is enlightening in more than one way. Paul Krugman (Nobel Prize for Economics 2008) was critical of the fiscal consolidation measures implemented from 2010 onwards. It is in favour of stimulating the economy, which will ultimately reduce deficits and debt.

Antisemitic culture

Antisemitism is also an argument of political culture.

Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners[4] argues that the existence of an anti-Semitic, eliminationist sentiment was widespread before the war. This anti-Semitic thesis is said to have motivated the executioners during their execution.

It is a book of political culture, for it leads us to think about what education brings to the ways of seeing the world.

The executioners believed that it was "right" to exterminate the Jews, because a large majority of Germans believed that Jews were harmful and should be removed from the social body. The executioners did not have to face up to scruples, for morality said that it was "just" to exterminate the Jews. The role of the Nazis would have been to encourage that sentiment.

Whether during the Empire or before, no actor has attempted to counter the dominant anti-Semitism. All parties have a role in the stigmatization of Jews, but only social democracy agreed to recruit Jewish leaders.

The link with the fall of the Weimar Republic lies in the Nazi seizure of power. By January 1933, the Nazis had already made anti-Semitism a theme in their speeches.

These cultural patterns develop over many decades. This model was based on three ideas:

  • Jews were different from Germans;
  • the Jews were opposing the Germans point by point;
  • These differences were not benign, the Jews were "evil", they were called "evil forces".

The idea that Jews were linked to the setbacks of Germany eventually prevailed. This view prevailed throughout Germany.

Individual Responsibilities

Structural factors may have been necessary, but they are not sufficient either. They can help explain why the Third Reich was a possibility, but not entirely its conception as a reality.

Hitler's appointment was made by individuals at the top of the German state of the time. In January 1933, the warlike and authoritarian intentions were known. The Mein Kampf manifesto already advocated authoritarian solutions to the problems of German society, whose inevitable outcome was war. The Nazis were already showing contempt for the law and its exacerbation, but also dictatorial insistence and anti-Semitism.

It should first be noted that there is a collective responsibility in ignorance of the nature of Nazism. They would have been expected to pay more attention to the nature of Nazism and its leaders. Historical evidence suggests that these figures did not commission expert reports to fully understand the nature of the Nazi phenomenon.

  • Von Hindenburg :
    Hitler and Hindenburg, May 1,1933.
    he has the supreme responsibility, for it was his prerogative to appoint a chancellor in January 1933. Contrary to the public image of a strong and wise statesman, he was weak during the 1933 episode. Having first inducted Von Schleicher he dismissed it because of an aversion sharpened by the machination set up by Von Papen against Von Schleicher. He sent off a false rumour that a military putsch was imminent and convincing Hindenburg against the person of Von Schleicher. Hindenburg thus created a crisis for which he had no solution. He relied on the advice of von Papen, who retired in favor of Hitler. He did not trust his mistrust of Hitler and gave in to Von Papen and his son Oskar Hindenburg, so those around him influenced Hitler's choice as chancellor. Between January 1933 and June 1934, Hindenburg's actions tended to legitimize rather than oppose Nazi tyranny.
  • Von Papen : his behaviour was strongly dictated by his desire for revenge on Von Schleicher and his desire to return to power. He was reckless about the Nazi danger, he never joined him, but he supported him as vice-chancellor then ambassador to Austria and then to Turkey.
  • Von Schleicher : as a soldier, he was looking for the rearmament of the military and hoped to enlist the sympathizers SA (Sturmabteilung;"Assault Section"), i. e. the Nazi sympathizers in the military apparatus. His historic responsibility lies in having, in the 1920s, brought Von Papen out of the shadows. His personal conflict with Von Papen facilitated Hitler's arrival in power. From December 1932 to January 1933, as chancellor, he showed mercy to the Nazis. His influence on President von Hindenburg was weak or non-existent.

Three individuals have less responsibility:

  • Oskar Von Hindenburg :he finally convinced his father to favor Hitler.
  • Meissner : he shared a lesser responsibility, he was the private secretary of Hindenburg. He was opportunistic and by political calculation feeling the end of Schleicher moved his loyalty to the up-and-coming strong man that was Hitler.
  • Hünenberg : he was the leader of the Conservative Party between 1928 and 1933. He became Minister of Agriculture and Economy in January 1933. He can be described as an opportunist and self-interested because his political career was marked by frustration and failure.

Politicians' judgments and decisions can make a major difference. High political and moral responsibilities rest on a small number of individuals who concentrate power in modern states. This type of argument is an argument that advocates a reading of the history of societies through the role of great politicians; history is written through the prism of great politicians and their decisions.

Classify explanations


In the list of explanations we have studied, if only one is considered, the electoral system is rather a probable cause that could explain the fall of the Weimar Republic. The presence of this variable will increase the likelihood of political instability.

In fact, these nine explanations are of a probabilistic type and will cause instability in the Weimar Republic.

Many researchers are interested in a particular relationship such as the causal relationship between the electoral system and the fall of the Weimar Republic. They then posed the relationship, but in another case. There are people who try to explain in a partial way such as electoral system specialists and other researchers who are interested in the totality of the result by mobilizing all the explanations.

  • party system
  • electoral system
  • constitutional framework
  • partisan strategies and policies
  • ideology of social democracy
  • political culture
  • the economy
  • anti-Semitism
  • individual responsibility

Various other factors

  • analysis level (micro/macro)
    • micro: groups together the individual aspect
    • meso: it is the analysis of a sub-national group
    • macro: it is a constant element across nations, nations and regions.
  • external vs. internal factors

This distinction depends on the fact that the world is divided into nation-states.

    • internal dynamics: the political authority resides in the nation-state (ex-partisan politics, the constitutional framework of the Weimar Republic, the electoral system, anti-Semitism determined by the level of national education in Germany at that time)
    • external dynamics: external factors influence policy choices
  • structure – agent

Are they individuals who make their history or structures?

    • structure: it is institutions such as the constitutional framework that determines the action of individuals
    • agent: these are decisions at the level of a functional unit of the system
  • economic, political, social and cultural factors
    • political factor: institutional form
    • economic factor: economic crisis
    • cultural factors: political culture
  • interests vs. institutions vs. ideas-ideologies

To order literature, it is important to do this exercise. If we only look at specific relationships, the other explanations will only be alternative and competitive. Arguments should be grouped and ordered to clarify contrasts between arguments. One of the functions of the literature review is identification.



  1. Lepsius, M. Ranier. "From Fragmented Party Democracy to Government by Emergency Decree and National Socialist Takeover: Germany." In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Europe, by Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, pp. 34-79.
  2. Berman, Sheri. The Social Democratic Moment: Ideas and Politics in the Making of Interwar Europe. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard UP, 1998.
  3. Berman, Sheri. Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
  4. Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, ISBN-10: 0679772685, ISBN-13: 978-0679772682