A History of the German Republic, Arthur Rosenberg 1936
From the summer of 1920 onwards considerations of foreign policy came into the foreground in Germany. The demands of the Entente and the burdens upon Germany increased steadily. It was in particular the question of reparations which prevented any recovery of the German republic. It must be said, however, that the political insight brought to bear by the victorious powers who at that time sought to rule the destiny of Europe and the world was slight. At Versailles in 1919 there was a lack of statesmen really equal to their task. At two earlier periods – one a century and one two centuries before – there had also been European wars in which victorious alliances of powers had defeated a single state that was too arrogant. In both cases France was the conquered power. And there were on both these occasions real statesmen among the victors who were capable of dealing with the situation. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1712 and the settlement effected at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 brought actual peace. They made provisions under which even the vanquished could continue to exist. These earlier peace settlements were followed by periods of real peace, and genuine economic and cultural progress.
Undoubtedly the task of the victorious powers in 1919 was much more difficult than in either 1712 or 1815. Two hundred and one hundred years ago the capitalist order of society in Europe was still unbroken. In 1919, on the other hand, there lurked behind the political crisis a social crisis of vast extent. The difficulties confronting the restoration of Europe after the World War were far more serious than the difficulties at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession or the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless the utter political inadequacy of the work done at Versailles and during the following years cannot be excused. In the councils of the victors in 1919 there was neither a Bolingbroke nor a Metternich.
The victorious powers in 1919 might have destroyed Germany entirely as an independent state. But such an attempt could only have brought immeasurable trouble upon Europe. Even the partitions of Poland did not do the receivers of the spoil any good, and the German people, who were greatly superior to the Poles in number and vigour, would have borne partition even less willingly in the long run. The makers of the Treaty of Versailles did not for obvious reasons take this course, but decided to leave the German Reich in existence. As a result of this decision, however, the conditions of peace should have been so formulated as to make it possible for Germany to exist under them. Nevertheless the Entente statesmen of 1919-23 could not bring themselves to adopt this obvious view. The territorial provisions and their execution involved intolerable hardships for Germany. And the financial demands of the Entente became fantastic. Such sums were required from Germany for reparations that in the shattered economic condition of the country could never even with the best will in the world have been raised. Germany was continually being forced to express its readiness to pay, and when it proved impossible to fulfil the obligations that had been extorted, the victors took punitive measures. No German government could maintain itself for any length of time under this pressure. Every attempt to put German economic life on to a sound footing was nipped in the bud. Confusion grew increasingly greater, and there seemed no way out of the blind alley.
Certain sections of the wealthier French middle classes wished to exploit Germany’s incapacity to pay in order to keep a permanent army of occupation in the Rhineland with the help of the so-called sanctions; to add the Ruhr to the occupied area; to separate these western provinces from Germany and to bring them under French influence in one form or another. In other words, they wanted to make reparations an excuse for territorial conquests that France had been unable to make in 1919 at Versailles. The English and Italian governments did not favour this tendency in French policy, but they were not at all inclined to come into serious conflict with France over Germany. After 1919 America had at first retired wholly from European politics. Thus French influence was at that time predominant on the Reparations Commission. The genuinely republican governments in Germany were the very ones that were not in a position to induce the Entente to grant any mitigation of the reparations demands. If the chief war aim of the Entente was to destroy German militarism, and thus to give democracy a chance in Germany, the political practice of the years 1919-23 certainly did not contribute to its fulfilment. Bolingbroke in 1712 exerted himself to build golden bridges for Louis XIV’s vanquished government. Metternich and the other leading statesmen at the Vienna Congress of 1815 wanted to drive the spirit of revolution out of France, and to revive monarchical and conservative tendencies. Hence they did all that was humanly possible to make the tasks of the restored French monarchy easier. The victors of 1919, on the other hand, did not possess this insight. The policy of the French, especially, made life impossible for every single republican or democratic government in Germany. The forces of German democracy were driven into a hopeless struggle both internally and externally; and then people wondered why the counter-revolution and the old ‘militarist’ spirit in Germany revived.
The first purely middle-class government of the German republic, which was formed after the Reichstag elections in June 1920 as a consequence of the decisive defeat of Social Democracy, was led by the Centre deputy Fehrenbach as Chancellor. After the withdrawal of the Social Democrats, the two other republican parties, the Centre and the Democrats, were not strong enough to carry the responsibility alone. Hence they were forced to include in the Cabinet representatives of one of the two parties hitherto constituting the monarchist opposition. The capitalist German People’s Party held three portfolios in the Fehrenbach government. The German People’s Party did indeed officially recognise the Weimar Constitution, at least as a political basis for German policy. Meanwhile, the entry of three members of the People’s Party into the government was an extremely significant symptom of the defeat of the German proletariat. The capitalist counter-revolution was already taking possession of the government. The weakening of German Socialism, and thereby of the democratic republic, was shown in the next few years in the two most important spheres of internal development – in military affairs and in economics.
The Reichswehr Minister, Gessler, who was officially a member of the Democratic Party, was taken over by the Fehrenbach ministry from the former Cabinet. In all subsequent governments Gessler remained as the fixed pole, whatever parties happened to be at the head of the government, from German Nationals to Social Democrats. Until the year 1928 Gessler could never have been ousted. Gessler did not owe the unusual stability of his ministerial existence to his own outstanding capability. But it indicated that during these years the Reichswehr had become a state within a state and no longer allowed itself to be influenced by the political life of Germany. Under the political responsibility of Gessler, General von Seeckt, the so-called Chief of the Army Command, carried out the organisation of the Reichswehr on non-political lines.
According to the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was only allowed to maintain a professional army of one hundred thousand men. This army had no such contact with the broad masses of the people as an army formed by universal military service possesses. The officers of the Reichswehr represented the traditions of the old Imperial army, and the men, who were carefully selected, were trained in the same spirit. The organisation of the Reichswehr on non-political lines signified that the defensive force was intending to steer clear of current party politics. The wild spirit of adventure that had had its being in the Free Corps of 1919 and 1920 faded out of the Reichswehr. It was not to be had for any minor political ventures. Nevertheless the Reichswehr was an entirely anti-democratic and anti-republican organisation. Every vestige of socialist ideas was carefully weeded out of the Reichswehr, and every connexion between the soldiers and organised labour was severed. In a wide political sense the Reichswehr under the leadership of Gessler and Seeckt became an insurmountable obstacle to all socialist or democratic progress in Germany. On the other hand, any effort for the restoration of the monarchy or for the establishment of a capitalist dictatorship could reckon on the support of the Reichswehr, always provided that it was not a case of some small and reckless plot, but of a serious movement on the part of the German upper classes.
The Reichswehr generals did not wish for any interference in the affairs of the army on the part of civilian politicians. The military establishment of the German republic was in reality outside the control of the Reichstag. No member of the Reichstag ever fathomed the many secret funds of the Reichswehr Ministry. The Reichstag might pass any resolutions it liked; the generals organised the army as they thought best. Nor did the Reichswehr tolerate any minister that was not to its liking. Since the generals were in harmony with Gessler, they prevented his removal from office in all the numerous crises of the republican governments for eight years. The generals did not interfere in everyday matters of civilian policy, but in important affairs the veto of the Reichswehr sufficed at any time to exclude a person or to render impossible a course of action. From 1920 onwards the German republic really always had a twofold government. One was the Chancellor and his ministers; the other was composed of the leading Reichswehr generals. In any conflict between the two ‘governments’ the Reichswehr generally emerged victorious. The whole was called ‘German Democracy’.
After 1920 the upper middle-class and aristocratic counter-revolution forged an unbreakable weapon for itself in the Reichswehr. Parallel with this went the new structure of capitalist economy, the existence of which had at first been challenged by 9 November and its consequences. Inflation was the lever with which the great capitalists renewed their power, dispossessed the middle classes, and continually forced down the standard of life of the working class. As has been shown above, it would in no circumstances have been possible to take over the mark into peace conditions at its full prewar value. But it should have been the task of the German government to stabilise the mark again after a little while at some other level.
As a result of her defeat in the war Germany had become an exceedingly poor country. But the poverty of a country does not necessarily lead to inflation. The example may be taken of a poor peasant country whose inhabitants have to live on the sparse produce of the fields and pastures. Such a land would possess little gold. It could only obtain few articles of luxury from abroad in exchange for its own goods. The administration could only be paid for with difficulty by the small yield from taxation. But there would not be the slightest need for such a poverty-stricken little country to suffer an inflation. On the other hand, a very rich country may undergo an inflation, although it has command of immeasurable quantities of gold, raw materials and claims. A proof of this was given recently in the United States. An inflation is per se no indication either of the poverty or of the wealth of a country, but it is a speculative phenomenon attendant upon a crisis.
There had been innumerable causes since 1920 for the continually increasing internal devaluation of the German currency. First of all there was Germany’s incapacity to pay for the necessary importation of raw materials and food with her own surplus products. Then there were the continual reparation demands of the Allies, which could only be satisfied by buying foreign bills with paper marks, which of itself led to the automatic sinking of the rate of exchange. Furthermore, there was the increasing disorganisation of the Reich finances. In a short time the Reich was only able to fulfil its current obligations by discounting bills of exchange at the Reichsbank. The more treasury bills flowed into the coffers of the Reichsbank, the more bank notes had to be printed. Eventually the press, which continued merrily printing notes, became the main source of the Reich’s sustenance.
The situation grew steadily worse. The above-mentioned evils were very much worse in November 1923 than, for example, in July 1920. Nevertheless the mark was successfully stabilised in November 1923 by strong measures on the part of the government and by a necessary adjustment in German economic life. Hence it follows that stabilisation would have been possible at any time during the three preceding years, if it had been seriously desired.
That the stabilisation of the mark did not take place between 1920 and the end of 1923 was the fault mainly of uncertainty and indecisiveness on the part of the governments, and, above all, of the democratic governments, which allowed themselves to be imposed upon by the arguments of the capitalists’ so-called experts. Primarily the reason for the unhindered spread of inflation – that curse of the German people – was the advantage gained from it by great capitalists, and the fact that this section of the people was strong enough to prevent stabilisation. In the year 1919 the average value of the German paper mark was about one-fourth of the gold mark; the average for the year 1920 was one-thirteenth, for 1921 one-twenty-second. In January 1922 the paper mark was worth about one-fiftieth of the gold mark. In other words – it was worth about a farthing. In October of the same year the value was only slightly above one-thousandth of a gold mark, and on 11 January 1923 the paper mark was equal to three-ten-thousandths of a gold mark.
The chief sufferers from the inflation were the great masses of the German wage and salary earners. For the paper notes in which they were paid were devaluated almost as they received them. Thus the true wages and the standard of life of the broad masses of the people sank lower and lower. In the same way the taxes collected by the state were also completely devaluated, for between the time of the assessment and the time of payment the value of the mark had again decreased considerably. In so far as they owned securities in paper money the German middle classes were utterly impoverished by the inflation. For the state of affairs was ultimately reached in which the only use to be made of war loans, mortgages and industrial bonds was to paper the walls with them.
Those who derived profit from the inflation were debtors and all those who possessed material valuables. The farmers were actually freed from their debts, and were able to alter the prices for their produce daily according to the value of the mark. And heavy industry enjoyed a golden age. It too, was freed of debt, and continually obtained from a kindly Reichsbank fresh credits which were in practice never repaid. Thanks to the inflation, the industrialists paid almost nothing in taxes, and they carried on production at the lowest possible real wages. Enterprising industrialists could in these years collect an immense amount of property and build up vast concerns. Outdistancing them all was Stinnes, who grew to be the head of German industry during the inflation. While the Reich was becoming more and more disintegrated, the power of the industrial magnates appeared to increase month by month. The big banks as typical creditors were the first to suffer damage through the inflation; but in this period of enormous gains by speculation on the Stock Exchange, when prices of stocks and shares rose continuously with the dollar exchange, the financiers always more than made good their losses. Objectively the inflation became a kind of revenge carried out by the German upper classes, the big capitalists and great landowners, upon the masses of the people. It was in the nature of a reprisal for the alarm experienced by the masters on 9 November and during the subsequent months.
The Fehrenbach government did nothing to prevent the progress of the inflation, the increasingly powerful position of heavy industry, or the detached development of the Reichswehr. In the spring of 1921 it was involved in a serious crisis in the domain of foreign policy. At the London Conference in March 1921, the Entente demanded of Germany that it should admit an amount of debt that ran into astronomical figures. The German government quite rightly refused the demand, whereupon the Allied troops occupied the towns of Düsseldorf and Duisburg as ‘sanctions’. In May the Entente sent a new ultimatum to Germany demanding her acquiescence in a total debt of one hundred and thirty-two milliard gold marks. The German government was required within twenty-five days to pay off one milliard in gold or securities; the remainder of the debt was to be paid in annual instalments of two milliard gold marks, together with the value of 26 per cent of the German exports. If Germany refused the ultimatum, the Ruhr was to be occupied by Allied troops.
The Fehrenbach government resigned on failing to find a way out of its difficulties. The People’s Party was once again excluded from the government. The thorny task of guiding the German republic, therefore, once more fell to the parties of the former Weimar coalition. Wirth, a Centre deputy, formed a new government supported by his own party, by the Democrats, and by the SPD. In theory the outcome of the crisis of May 1921 was a success for the left. There was once again a purely republican government supported by the parties which had drawn up the constitution in Weimar. The representatives of the monarchists and capitalists had been obliged to retire from their ministries. Nevertheless this left-wing success was only illusory. The power of the counter-revolution was so strong in industry, in the army, in the administration and justice, that its representatives could afford to ignore exclusion from the Cabinet. They bequeathed to the republican left the difficult and thankless task of fighting over reparations with the Entente.
The Wirth government took office when the situation seemed completely hopeless. The Social Democrats did not want to abandon the republic at such a time, and they accepted certain portfolios again. The tactical situation of the SPD within the working class had improved somewhat since the end of 1920. For a split had meanwhile taken place in the USPD, and the violent internal crisis which rent the radical working classes gave the moderate party greater weight again. The left wing of the USPD had been fused with the Communists. The right continued for the present as a rump. Nevertheless it could not maintain itself permanently between the SPD and the Communists. Under the onslaught of the KPD the right-wing independents were obliged to seek union with the SPD. The Majority Socialists were therefore able to take the risk of re-entering the government in May 1921.
The new Chancellor, Wirth, was a convinced democrat and a friend to the Christian trade unions. He had every wish to defend the achievements of the German Revolution. If it proved impossible for him to tackle the superhumanly difficult problems that lay before him, this must be ascribed primarily to the unfortunate general situation in which the German republicans and Socialists found themselves in 1921 and 1922. Nothing less than a fresh impetus from below, from the masses of the proletariat, would have given the republic the strength to settle with the generals and the industrialists within the country and to ward off the encroachment of the Entente from without. But the masses of the German workers were weary, disappointed and exhausted. Here Wirth could find no fresh sources of strength. The new government therefore confined itself to seeking to avert the worst of the dangers threatening Germany. It attacked neither the generals nor the industrialists, and endeavoured to soften the heart of the Entente by being as accommodating as it possibly could.
At the suggestion of the Wirth government, the Reichstag voted for the acceptance of the London ultimatum. The government embarked on the so-called policy of fulfilment of which the most important supporters were the Chancellor himself and the Democrat minister Rathenau. The advocates of this policy imagined its development more or less on these lines: Germany must prove to the world that it was honestly intending to fulfil its obligations and to make reparation. Germany must therefore agree to the demands of the Allies and summon up all its forces in order to pay reparations. In course of time it would become obvious that Germany was materially not in a position to pay what was demanded of it. The victorious powers would then realise for themselves that concessions must be made to Germany.
The policy met with no success. The Entente was not in this manner to be persuaded to a gentler treatment of Germany. On the contrary, the pressure put upon Germany grew increasingly stronger, and the disintegration of German economic life grew steadily worse. At the same time the authority and popularity of the republican parties were exhausted to a terrifying degree. What other policy could Germany have pursued instead?
It is impossible to put the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on a level with the actions of 1921 and the following years. It was absolutely essential, if only upon psychological grounds, that an official end should be put to the state of war, and that Germany should have a breathing-space. The later demands of the Entente were mostly concerned with matters which – at any rate in this form – were not contained in the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty stated in general terms Germany’s liability to pay reparations. The fantastic sums that were demanded of Germany in 1921 and the following years went far beyond any reasonable interpretation of the treaty. Germany should at that time have laid stress upon her desire for an understanding with France, but at the same time have refused to do anything that could not be reconciled with a fair interpretation of the Peace Treaty.
In common with the other leading men in the German republic since 1918, Wirth was quite prepared to come to an understanding with France. But a general willingness of this description was not enough. A definite programme for Franco-German cooperation in the political as in the economic sphere should have been drawn up, and have been supported by propaganda of every kind, including the moulding of public opinion with the help of the government parties and their press. Every man and woman in Germany as in France should have had it drummed into them that the German government was prepared to work with France without any mental reservation or any regard for the past. The preliminary condition should have been that France should forgo her fantastic and arbitrary demands upon Germany. If no such agreement could be reached between the two countries, Germany should have unequivocally refused to comply with any demand and any ultimatum that went beyond the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
A successful policy of conciliation between Germany and France was also prevented at that time by the pallid and abstract pacifism that had been spreading among the German republican parties since 1918. It was actually regarded as not permissible to make proposals of special political cooperation to any particular power; for that would have been a return to the old policy of alliances. On the contrary, Germany should demonstrate to all powers alike its willingness to come to terms. German policy could find no point of contact anywhere with all these well-meant generalisations. When France persisted in its policy of reparations, the German government appealed accusingly to the ‘conscience of the world’, to England, America, the Pope, etc, without achieving anything.
If every ultimatum were rejected it was to be expected that further parts of Germany, and the Ruhr in particular, would be occupied by the Allies. This would bring further misery and the greatest suffering to the German nation. But this cup, too, must be drunk. Proof had to be given that even with continually extended sanctions France could not squeeze money out of an impoverished Germany. The military occupation of a country containing sixty million inhabitants could not be maintained permanently. Once the policy of ultimatums and sanctions had been exhausted, the way would be open for a reasonable compromise between Germany and France. During this severe but necessary struggle the republican parties should have been at the head of affairs. They would thus have become in the best sense representatives of the national ideal, and have wrested their sharp weapon from the hands of the monarchist opposition. The German people would have supported the government in this hard path if every care had been taken to ensure that no one class made any profit out of the general distress.
The Wirth government, however, and with it the Centre, the SPD and the Democrats, decided otherwise. Being honestly convinced that they were doing what was best for the people, they repeatedly recommended compliance with the hostile demands. They waited vainly for the moment when Paris should come to a clearer view of things. The result was that increasing numbers of the German people turned in bitterness and despair against the republican government. During the years 1921 and 1922 the reparations crisis continued unchanged in Germany despite the acceptance of the London ultimatum. The numerous international conferences that took place during these two years (no fewer than twenty-seven such meetings occurred between Versailles and the beginning of 1923) produced no result.
The financial sacrifices that Germany was obliged to make during this time did not procure for her any better treatment in territorial questions. The plebiscite in Upper Silesia had resulted in a majority for Germany. None the less, Upper Silesia was divided between Germany and Poland by the Council of the League of Nations in October 1921. As a result of this decision the Wirth government resigned. Soon afterwards Wirth formed another government which differed in composition only in inessentials from his earlier Cabinet.
The only positive success of German foreign policy at this time was the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922 between Germany and Soviet Russia. At the international conference at Genoa in May 1922, a Soviet Russian delegation had appeared as well as a German one. Relations between the two powers had been less strained after 1920, since the German troops had evacuated the Baltic states. Their common antagonism to the Entente brought Germany and Russia together. In Article 116 of the Treaty of Versailles the victorious powers had expressly reserved the right for Russia also to make a demand for reparations from Germany. There was some danger that the Western powers would approach Russia with the suggestion that it should join in the reparations campaign against Germany. This was prevented by the compact signed by the representatives of Russia and Germany at Rapallo. Russia renounced any claim for reparations from Germany, and both powers promised to live together in peace and concord for the future.
The renewal of friendship between Germany and Russia in 1922 could not work miracles. Any idea of joint military resistance to the Entente could not be entertained either in Berlin or Moscow. Nevertheless the Treaty of Rapallo brought an enormous relaxation of the tension in Germany’s eastern policy. The Russo-German rapprochement, which lasted until 1933, at least prevented much trouble that might otherwise have overtaken Germany from the east at critical times. But unfortunately the fatal words ‘Too late’, which characterise the whole history of the German republic, are also written across the Treaty of Rapallo. A similar agreement concluded in December 1918 might have given a completely different turn to the internal and external policy of Germany.
The reasons for the defection of the middle classes from the ideal of a democratic republic have been given above. The actual power of the republican parties was as a matter of fact really very small during Wirth’s chancellorship. Officially the Weimar coalition of the Centre, the SPD and the Democrats again bore the responsibility for the fate of Germany, and thus became the lightning-conductor for all the discontent and embitterment that arose in the nation. The capitalists and great landowners and their following were in the extremely satisfactory situation tactically that, while actually in possession of the true power in the state, they were at the same time able to carry on the fiercest opposition to the ostensibly ruling system. Thus the fantastic situation developed that dissatisfaction with capitalist mismanagement, with inflation and its attendant phenomena, weakened the parties of the left and gave an increased following to those of the right.
During these years it was not only the official policy of the Nationalist and the People’s Party – advocating as it did monarchy, authority and private property – that attracted the middle classes in town and country, the peasants and the clerks, and also in increasing numbers the intellectuals and civil servants. Beside the official political parties of the right began a new movement which intersected with them, in many ways strengthened them, but also sometimes diverged from them. This was the Racist movement.
When the official Reichswehr, consisting of one hundred thousand men, was formed, a large number of the Free Corps officers and men could not be absorbed by it. These individuals who were now unemployed either could not or would not turn to any civilian calling but sought to pursue their militico-political activities. The disbanded Free Corps were resurrected in the form of defence associations of all kinds. The Ehrhardt Brigade, which had been the support of the Kapp Putsch, derisively resisted all efforts to disband it. The ex-Free Corps kept in touch with all the other overt or secret counter-revolutionary associations of students, farmers, etc, which had existed in Germany since 1919. Thus the whole country, from Schleswig-Holstein to Bavaria and from East Prussia to the Rhine, was covered with a network of illegal military organisations which were financed by heavy industry, and were waiting for the moment when they might by a successful rising complete the work begun by Kapp and his followers.
The cooperation between the Free Corps and the nationalist student associations came to be of extreme importance. The great majority of German students had been most bitterly disappointed by events after 9 November. They saw the economic misery and the national humiliation, and laid the blame for existing conditions upon the governing republican parties and upon the events of 9 November. Since the government did nothing to make known among the people the truth about war-guilt and the causes of the German collapse, and since men are prone to forget what they do not wish to remember, the ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend gained currency among an increasing number of people and more especially among the nationalist students.
According to this theory the history of the past years was more or less as follows. A surprise attack upon a perfectly peaceable and innocent Germany had been launched by the Entente in 1914. The German army had defended itself heroically and successfully for four years. But then the machinations of the Social Democrats and of the Centre had paralysed the German people’s determined resistance. First Erzberger in league with the Social Democrats had started the cry of peace at any price. Then the Socialist ‘agitators’ had disintegrated the navy, and had finally evoked the November Revolution. Thus unpatriotic agitators had thrust a dagger into the back of the brave fighters in the trenches. When Germany capitulated, this same Erzberger had signed the shameful armistice. The republic and the Weimar Constitution were only the machinery whereby the Reds and the Blacks maintained their harmful predominance over the German people. The German people would be delivered over bound to the powers of the Entente. Amidst all the want and misery of the masses of the people the leading men were taking care to feather their own nests; Erzberger, who had become notorious during his lawsuit in 1920, more than anyone. It was the task of all patriotic Germans to call to account these traitors, to destroy the republic and the Weimar regime, and in its place to set up a strong and upright government which should revive the old German traditions.
This is roughly how matters appeared to men of the Free Corps and to the nationalist students. Two of the chief objects of their hatred were Social Democracy of all shades and the Centre Party, as the supporters of the German republic and of the Weimar Constitution. To these was added a third enemy persecuted with particular venom – the Jews. The black-red-gold colours of the republic were regarded as the symbol of the confederacy of the Centre, of Social Democracy, and of the ‘golden’ Jewish International. When the German students worked out a new counter-revolutionary philosophy after 1919, they recurred to the racial and anti-Semitic traditions which had existed in the German universities since the days of Treitschke and Stoecker. Academic youth was no longer satisfied with a general nationalist feeling, but it demanded beyond that admission of the principles of race and nationality. It demanded that all foreign elements should be cut out of the German body politic, in especial the Jewish. The struggle against Jewish capitalism furnished the racist movement with a particularly effective party cry. The great masses of the middle classes hated capitalism, and especially speculation and profiteering. At the same time they had been cast off by the evolution of the democratic republic after 1919. These classes now grew most enthusiastic over the racial idea, for they could on this ground fight both against the November republic and against Jewish Stock Exchange capitalism, and at the same time enjoy vague hopes of the regeneration of Germany.
The racist movement was originally not confined to any particular political party. It permeated to a greater or less degree all parties of the right. The National People’s Party especially became more and more filled with racial theories. In the same way the former Free Corps, university corps and defence associations in general took their stand on the racial theory. When the Ehrhardt Brigade marched into Berlin for the Kapp Putsch they wore the racial symbol, the swastika, on their helmets. The racial capital of Germany had since 1920 been Munich, where the counter-revolutionary Bavarian government freely gave shelter to all secret defence associations and to conspirators pursued by north German justice.
The defence associations and the racial agitation as a whole were willingly financed by capitalism. For the financiers saw in the racial movement a welcome counterblast to socialism and communism. The great landowners also gladly took ex-legionaries of the Free Corps on to their estates. Nevertheless the official policy of the Nationalists and of the People’s Party was not identical with the tactics pursued by the leaders of the Free Corps and their militarist student followers. The parties of the right wished to confirm existing rights of property and existing authority. The racist leaders had in the main the same object. Nevertheless they themselves were mostly without settled property and permanent positions. A typical example is the contrast between the officers of the Reichswehr in the secure employment of the state, and the unemployed Free Corps leaders who had no such sense of security; and the similar contrast between the managers of factories and civil servants on the one hand, and the working-class students on the other, who with difficulty managed to earn the money to attend the university. The racist leaders had no personal interest in securing the old authorities in their positions. They wanted to be in power themselves, and therefore wished for open and violent warfare against the republican system, while the parliamentary parties of the right were prepared if necessary to be content to have the republic gradually destroyed by legal means. A separate Racist party was not formed until 1920 in Munich. This was the Nationalist Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) under the leadership of Hitler. As is shown by its very name, the purpose of the party was primarily to detach the workers from socialism. The NSDAP had originally, however, no more than a local Bavarian following.
The secret societies were the worst enemies of the German republic. The republican authorities were crippled in their fight by the fact that the Reichswehr stood in intimate relationship with the secret societies. The Treaty of Versailles permitted Germany to keep an army of only one hundred thousand men, composed of professional soldiers, without military training for the remainder of the population. Thus, according to the letter of the treaty, the Reichswehr would have had no trained reserves in event of war. Hence the Reichswehr kept in touch with the defence associations and regarded these as possible reserves in case of a war: for example, against Poland. During the fighting in Upper Silesia caused by local antagonisms between Germans and Poles, the Free Corps were mobilised in 1921 and sent against the Polish rebels.
The Free Corps spent a curious twilight existence. Officially the government would have nothing to do with them, and according to the peace treaty armed defence associations were prohibited in Germany. At the same time the government, and more especially the High Command of the Reichswehr, used the Free Corps as frontier guards against Poland, etc. Hence the Free Corps and defence associations were especially nervous of the possible existence of treachery. The members of the Free Corps firmly believed that traitors, and more particularly those members of their own associations who gave away any information concerning the existence and armament of such bands, must be killed out of hand. The so-called Vehm murders form a dark chapter in the history of the German republic. How far the chief men in the Reichswehr, including Gessler and Seeckt, knew of or indeed encouraged the practice of Vehm murder has never up to the present been established with any certainty.
The development of secret defence societies was watched in republican circles with increasing anxiety from 1920 onwards. It was said that the Free Corps and other armed associations were useless against a foreign foe and that their real purpose lay in the sphere of internal politics. If the Free Corps could do nothing against the French or the Poles, they might be very useful in preparing for another Kapp Putsch. Nevertheless every serious attempt on the part of the German government to deal with the Free Corps was frustrated by the Reichswehr, and if republicans and Socialists made public reference to secret German armaments, they were cast into prison by the Reich Court of Justice as traitors to their country. The politically-minded judges regarded it as their duty to serve the interests of the state in their sentences. The evidence of the expert witness from the Reichswehr Ministry was always regarded as reflecting the true interests of the state.
The destructive influence of the military shadow-government thus paralysed republican justice and the republican administration. The political sentences of the Reich Court of Justice and the demand for such sentences on the part of the Reich Prosecutor seemed to indicate deliberate preparations for a counter-revolution. Under the protection of the army and the law, the defence associations developed uninterruptedly, and it seemed to be only a question of time and opportunity when they should deal the Weimar Republic its death-blow. Meanwhile, the great official organisations of the right were in no mood to attempt any coups during the years 1921 and 1922. The thankless task of struggling with reparations and inflation was left to the Wirth government. But the leaders of the Free Corps did not wish to wait for so long.
A series of political murders was at the outset to demoralise the republicans and create a panic in the hostile camp. In June 1921, Gareis, a Socialist deputy well known for his determined opposition to the defence associations, was murdered in Munich. In August of the same year two of Ehrhardt’s men murdered the best-hated man in the republican camp – Erzberger. The perpetrators of the deed escaped. Erzberger’s death was another extremely heavy loss to the republican cause in Germany. In spite of personal failings Erzberger was a personality and a real fighter. The counter-revolution murdered with terrible consistency all the really important republican and Socialist leaders. In June 1922, Rathenau was also murdered by Free Corps men. Rathenau had drawn upon himself the hatred of the ‘Racials’ owing both to his advocacy of the policy of fulfilment and to his being a Jew.
The murder of Rathenau roused tremendous agitation among the republican masses. Wirth did all he possibly could to organise the defence against racial terrorism. The Reichstag passed a very severe emergency decree for the protection of the republic, and a separate court was created in order to deal with conspirators against the republic. The flight of Rathenau’s murderers was prevented by the police. They committed suicide in order to avoid arrest. Nevertheless the decree for the protection of the republic turned out to be a failure, for the political judges soon gained the upper hand in the new court. It is true that they did send Communists to prison, but spared those conspirators who came under the protection of the Reichswehr Ministry.
Important changes in the political grouping of the working classes took place during these years. There had already been a split in the Communist Party in 1919. Paul Levi and his closer friends had learnt from the course of the German Revolution that utopian adventures must prevent revolutionary socialism from having any success. The Communists could only gain influence among the broad masses of the working classes if they ruthlessly refused to participate in foolhardy ventures. The group of men about Levi provoked a split at the Heidelberg party meeting. The Central Committee proposed resolutions to the meeting, especially regarding parliamentary and trade union activities, that no utopian could accept. At the same time it was stated that anyone who opposed these resolutions thereby placed himself outside the party pale.
The Spartacus Union, which was in any case numerically weak, lost the greater number of its members by the Heidelberg party split. The radical utopians who had thus been ejected united with some syndicalist theorists to form the Communist Labour Party. This party never exercised any influence upon politics. The way was now clear for fusion between the Spartacus Union and the millions of workers who had hitherto been adherents of the USPD but who had in reality sympathised with Communism. In 1920 at the party meeting in Halle came the long overdue split in the USPD. The two tendencies which had from the beginning been present within the Independent Party now divided over the question whether fusion with the Communists should take place or not. The left wing, led by the Obleute, was in favour of it; the right wing, the supporters of the old party leaders, was against it. The group round the old party leaders had sustained a great loss through the death of Haase, who had been murdered by a lunatic obviously without political motive. The most important men in this group in the party struggles of 1920 were Dittmann and Hilferding. At the head of the left wing were Däumig and his closer friends. But their authority among the working classes had suffered greatly from the fact that they had proved themselves hopelessly incompetent during the Kapp Putsch. The majority at the party meeting in Halle declared itself in favour of cooperation with the Third International and of fusion with the Spartacus Union. But this did not by any means imply that there was any special confidence in Däumig’s leadership. Ledebour disapproved of cooperation with the Third International and voted with the right wing.
In 1920 disputes within the USPD were exceedingly violent and passionate. Fundamentally they were concerned with different views of the prospects of the German Revolution. The chief cause at issue was whether after the obvious failure of the November Revolution the German working classes would be capable of regaining in a second revolution the power they had lost in the course of the year 1919. The right wing of the party, the group round the party leaders, did not believe in the prospects of a second revolution. Their view was that after the serious defeat that they had sustained the working classes must for the present remain on the defensive. Avoiding all foolish ventures, the German proletariat must for the present confine itself to legal activities. It must be remembered that this group in the party had from the very beginning been doubtful whether it was possible for Germany to become a thoroughgoing socialist state by any rapid metamorphosis. This group would for the time being have been content with a definite democratisation of Germany and a careful advance along the path to socialism. Indignation with Noske’s policy in 1919 had also placed the right wing of the USPD in sharp opposition to the SPD. The quarrel over Noske, however, had petered out for the simple reason that the working classes had meanwhile lost all military and political power. Indignation over the events of the year 1919 could not permanently bridge the internal antagonisms of the USPD.
The left wing of the USPD, on the other hand, had demanded that a definitely socialist state should be set up in Germany in the form of a soviet republic. It had hitherto avoided fusion with the Spartacus Union solely because it did not wish to have anything to do with the rag-tag and bobtail adventurers who had been attached to the Spartacists. This obstacle was removed since the Heidelberg party meeting. Levi and his friends were sober Marxists and not adventurers. The Russian Bolshevists were definitely in favour of Levi’s tactics, and against the left-wing extremists. Thus the working-class masses in the USPD who wished for the prolongation of the German Revolution might without any scruples join the Third International.
At the party meeting in Halle the majority of the delegates, officially led by Däumig, declared in favour of the Third International. The union between the left wing of the USPD and the Spartacus Union soon followed. The leadership of the new party – which first took the name of the United Communist Party, and then simply called itself the German Communist Party (KPD) – was at first undertaken jointly by Levi and Däumig. Meanwhile a considerable minority in Halle had not voted for joining the Communists. This group, under the leadership of Hilferding, Dittmann and Ledebour, at first sought to maintain the USPD as an independent party. But in practice its policy came to approximate increasingly to that of the SPD. The serious crisis in the history of the republic revealed most clearly by the murder of Rathenau demanded that the republican and socialist forces should be combined. Fusion took place in September 1922 at Nuremberg between the old Majority Socialists and the greater part of the right USPD. Only a small section under Ledebour’s leadership did not wish to join the SPD and remained aloof.
In this manner the unnatural partition into three divisions of the German socialist working classes resulting from the war was at length overcome. Two great parties of socialist proletarians now confronted one another and represented the true differences of opinion within the proletariat – a larger party, which was for the present ready to accept the Weimar Republic and to fight with legal weapons; a smaller party which aimed at a second and purely socialist revolution in Germany. Once again the tragic words ‘Too late’ must be set at the head of a chapter in the history of the German republic. If the real split had come in December 1918, the German Revolution might have been saved. It was impossible for the new parties which came into being in 1920 and 1922 to win back the ground that had meanwhile been lost by the working classes.
At the time of the fusion with the right wing of the USPD, the Majority Socialist Party was no longer the party of 1919. The men who had really represented the policy of 1919 – Scheidemann, Noske and Wolfgang Heine – had lost the controlling influence in the party. Ebert’s position as President of the Reich had really removed him from the sphere of party politics. The fusion between the SPD and the right-wing USPD took place easily and without friction despite the serious reproaches that they had levelled at one another only a comparatively short time before. On both sides there was an honest desire to forget the quarrels of the past and to work jointly in the interests of the socialist proletariat. In 1922 a re-established Social Democracy was backed by a considerable majority of the working classes, and it had almost undisputed control of the independent trade unions.
Nevertheless the reconstituted SPD did not increase the fighting strength of the proletariat. The leading officials, both those who had come from the old SPD and those who had belonged to the USPD, regarded the situation of the working class with the greatest pessimism. They were all so conscious of the failures of the proletariat that it was impossible for them to conceive of a new revolutionary advance. The party clung to the legal methods of parliamentary democracy and trade unionism, despite the fact that the increasing inflation was shaking every foundation of middle-class society. The party wished to do what it could to ease the difficult situation of the proletariat, to check the inflation, to find a tolerable solution to the question of reparations, and to render innocuous Racist conspiracies. In order to achieve these aims the SPD was prepared to cooperate with the other republican parties in the government. But it did not believe that the working classes would within a short time be in a position to seize power in Germany.
The attitude of the newly-formed Communist Party was quite different. The workers in the KPD were convinced that the unsatisfactory course of the German Revolution was to be explained by the weak and vacillating leadership of the proletariat that the SPD had failed just as badly as the USPD but that now the KPD with the help and under the leadership of the great Russian revolutionaries would soon give a new turn to events. Although the leading men in the party were not prepared to throw themselves into any hazardous adventure that might offer, they were nevertheless resolved not to avoid any opportunity to fight that might arise out of the situation of the working classes. This policy followed precisely the lines laid down under the influence of Lenin at the Second Communist World Congress in Moscow in 1920. The commissars of the Third International who had been sent to Germany from Moscow were working in the same sense and seriously endeavoured to encourage the movement.
In March 1921, an opportunity for fighting seemed to present itself. A particularly revolutionary and determined section of workers was at that time employed in the mining district of Mansfeld. As a result of small local skirmishes the Prussian government sent police reinforcements to Mansfeld. The miners regarded the entry of the state police into the district as a provocation and took up arms. Max Hölz, the leader of a proletarian Free Corps, who had made a name for himself in Saxony during the Kapp fighting, was summoned and took charge of the rising. The Central Committee of the KPD had not occasioned the Mansfeld rising. Nor had the KPD at that time any influence over Hölz, who did not really belong to the party. Nevertheless the party leaders believed that they ought to support the rising. A short time previously Paul Levi and Däumig had resigned from the party leadership owing to differences of opinion with the Russians. Brandler, a former member of the Spartacus Union and a man who was unconditionally loyal to the Bolshevists, now became the leading personality in the party. The Central Committee of the KPD called a general strike throughout Germany in the hope that the Social Democratic workers would be induced to join.
The hoped-for mass rising of the working classes failed to materialise. The organised members of the KPD spared no effort to carry out the orders of their leaders. But the mass of the workers remained untouched by the events at Mansfeld. They did not regard this local conflict as the occasion for a general rising to begin the final struggle with capitalism. The general strike was a total failure. The armed rising spread into a few of the districts around Mansfeld, but finally collapsed owing to its complete hopelessness. Nevertheless this armed revolt has its historic significance. It was the last time that any considerable number of German workers took up arms independently. After March 1922, the spontaneous revolutionary energy of the workers as it had developed since 9 November 1918 was for the time being exhausted. It was a tragic consequence of the many local skirmishes between January 1919 and March 1921 that they paralysed the active vanguard of the working class, especially in Central Germany and in the Ruhr, but also in Saxony, Bavaria, and to a lesser degree throughout the whole country. Some of the most determined fighters had been killed, others were in prison, the rest had lost courage.
The events of March produced results within the KPD and the Third International that were also of importance in the history of the German republic. When the German delegation arrived at the Third Communist World Congress in Moscow in 1921, Lenin received them with the bitterest reproaches. The Russian leaders had completely changed their views on the course of world revolution. Lenin and his friends no longer believed that there would be victorious revolutions in the near future on the part of the workers in Germany, Italy or even the other countries of western Europe. They no longer felt that Soviet Russia could expect help from foreign revolutions, and realised that it must try to maintain itself within the capitalist world depending solely upon its own resources.
After 1921 the Soviet republic embarked on a new economic policy. It made important concessions to the peasantry and to private capital. Russia was striving with might and main to be recognised by the capitalist great powers. Since the Treaty of Rapallo, Soviet Russia had been at peace with the middle-class German republic, and statesmen in Moscow saw no reason to make any difficulties for the friendly bourgeois government in Berlin. The Communist Parties outside Russia were recommended to keep clear of purposeless revolutionary action, and instead to take part in the peaceable day-to-day struggle of the proletariat. If Lenin’s view of the situation was correct, the Communist Parties really lost all justification for their existence after the Third World Congress; and a new course had been initiated which must end in the fusion of Communists and Social Democrats upon the basis of the Social Democratic programme.
The German Communists were, in fact, recommended by Moscow to make a tactical agreement with the Social Democrats for the purpose of forming a ‘united front’ of all workers. The German Communists were no longer told to make propaganda for the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, but merely to aim at a parliamentary labour government. That would be more or less a Wirth government, with the addition of such Communists as were prepared to collaborate. The final aim of the Russian rulers was obviously to carry over the Rapallo idea into German internal policy, and to make it conceivable for the SPD and the Christian trade unions to regard the Communists as potential allies.
The change in Communist policy during the second half of 1921 was so surprising that the German public did not take it seriously. And the Social Democratic leaders at first remained sceptical of the overtures of the Communists. As ill-luck would have it, the Communist Party in Germany happened to lose the one man who would have been most capable of carrying out the new policy, namely, Paul Levi. The March rising had met with the severest disapproval of Paul Levi and his closer friends. In a pamphlet which Levi published immediately after the rising, he repeated in very matter-of-fact terms what Lenin had said to the German Communists at the Moscow congress. But Levi combined with his criticism of the March rising severe attacks upon the Russian leaders, to whom he attributed part of the blame for the events in Germany. Lenin and the other leading Bolshevists, however, were determined at all costs to preserve their authority within the Communist International. If the Communist Parties in foreign countries – in Germany and elsewhere – were unable to conduct a revolution, at least they should carry on propaganda for Soviet Russia. Thus the Moscow leaders – Lenin himself, and later to a far higher degree Zinoviev and Stalin – took advantage of the naive faith of the revolutionary European working classes in the Russian Revolution.
The credulous Communists in Germany and other countries were told that the new policy of a united front was only a wily manoeuvre in order finally to bring about the victory of the revolution; that Russia was as revolutionary as ever even if it were making use of new methods; that every good Communist worker must believe in Russia; and that if he opposed the authority of the Bolshevists, he was a counter-revolutionary and a traitor. In the interests of the Moscow executive, Paul Levi was punished for his criticism by expulsion from the party. Levi did not believe in the possibility of a revolution in Germany in the near future, and went over to Social Democracy with a small band of personal followers.
The new Moscow tactics in a short time destroyed all the energy and the independent political life of the KPD. The Russian influence resulted in conferring the leadership of the party upon a submissive bureaucracy composed of men who obeyed every suggestion from Moscow, who would have no more to do with revolution, who encouraged the policy of the united front, and who soothed the anxieties of revolutionary members by mysterious hints. The historic mission of the KPD should have been to seize the leadership of the proletariat in times of crisis when the cautious policy of the SPD proved inadequate. Nevertheless, from the summer of 1921 onwards, the KPD was just as incapable of action as the SPD. The only difference between them was that the Social Democrats frankly and honestly admitted their cautious and pessimistic view of affairs to the workers. The official KPD, with its hypocrisy and pseudo-radicalism, had just as little faith in a second revolution. But it combined its specific tactics with rantings about the Russian revolution, and thus deceived its own members. In these years there grew up a left-wing opposition within the KPD, supported especially by the organisations in Berlin and Hamburg. This left wing did not wish to support the policy of the united front, and demanded a continuance of the policy of revolution. But it exercised no influence upon the party leaders.
Notwithstanding the formation of new parties, the German labour movement continued on its downward course during the years 1921 and 1922. Deepest pessimism reigned in the SPD, and the KPD was paralysed by the tactical manoeuvres of Russian state policy. An attempt to reconstitute the balance of forces to the advantage of the proletariat failed. In reality the counter-revolution grew increasingly stronger up to the end of 1922. The Wirth government failed to exorcise the two spectres of reparations and inflation, and lost its majority in the Reichstag in November 1922. Wirth did not believe that he could carry on the government on the old basis any longer, and wished to bring back the capitalists as represented by the German People’s Party into the Cabinet. The Social Democrats refused to collaborate in any such coalition. Wirth was overthrown. The way was made clear for a purely capitalist government.
The futile struggles of the years 1920-22 exhausted the democratic wing of the Centre Party exactly as Social Democracy had been worn out in the years 1919-20. The Catholic peasantry of western and southern Germany lost interest in the democratic republic, and were prepared, together with their Protestant brethren, to agree to Germany’s being reconstituted as a conservative and authoritarian state. The Conservative right wing, which relied particularly on the support of the landowners and civil servants, began to gain the upper hand in the Centre Party from 1923 onwards. The democratic period of German Catholicism, which Erzberger had ushered in in 1917, was at an end. The democratic ideal had not only lost its attractive power among the Catholic middle classes. In view of the consistent failures of the Weimar Republic and of Social Democracy, the leaders of the Christian trade unions also made a fateful change. Men like Stegerwald were prepared to continue defending the vocational interests of the Catholic workers as zealously as ever. But they did not believe that the interests of the Catholic workers absolutely necessitated association with Social Democracy and the defence of the democratic republic; the Christian trade unions might maintain their ascendancy just as well in a conservative Germany with certain class distinctions. Within a right-wing government, the Catholic workers would form the bridge between it and the broad masses of the people, and be all the more indispensable. Such a policy appeared very clever, and it obviously to some extent received justification later during the middle-class coalition governments that held power until 1928. In reality this policy, despite all excuses and justifications, signified the passing of the Christian trade unions of Germany into the camp of their class enemy. The blame for the catastrophe which overtook the German republic under Brüning’s chancellorship is to a considerable extent to be ascribed to the pursuit of this policy on the part of Stegerwald and his friends.
The definitely democratic section of the Centre Party under Wirth had since 1923 been hemmed in between the frankly conservative wing on the one side and the trades union wing, which was prepared for every kind of experimental dictatorship, on the other. Thus the democratic tendency in the Centre was rendered powerless from 1923 onwards. The serious crises subsequently encountered by the republic found the socialist working class in complete political isolation.
1. For this and the following chapters cf the collective work Zehn Jahre Deutsche Geschichte 1918-28 (Berlin, 1928, in which, amongst others: Külz, ‘Deutschlands innerpolitische Gestaltung'; Von Rheinbaben, ‘Die auswärtige Politik seit dem Vertrage von Versailles'; Schiffer, ‘Die Rechtsentwicklung im neuen Deutschland'; Schmid, ‘Zehn Jahre fremder Besatzung am Rhein'; Luther, ‘Die Stabilisierung der deutschen Währung'; Popitz, ‘Die Finanzpolitik seit 1918'; August Müller, ‘Die Sozialpolitik seit 1918'; Demuth, ‘Die Wirtschaftsverbände der Unternehmer'; Leipart, ‘Die Arbeitnehmer in Deutschland’). Further, Recht und Staat im neuen Deutschland (Lectures given at the German Association for Education in Political Science, published by Harms, two volumes, Berlin, 1929). Volk und Reich der Deutschen (Lectures given at the same association, three volumes, Berlin, 1929). In the second volume there are important articles on the political parties after 1918, on the patriotic associations, and on the Reichsbanner. For economic and political statistics, see the excellent work of Woytinsky, Zehn Jahre neues Deutschland, ein Gesamtüberblick in Zahlen (Berlin, 1929); cf also EJ Gumbel, Vier Jahre Politischer Mord (Berlin, 1922); EJ Gumbel, Verschwörer, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Soziologie der deutschen nationalistischen Geheimbünde seit 1918 (Vienna, 1924); Konrad Heiden, A History of National Socialism (London, 1934); Walther Rathenau, Politische Briefe (Dresden, 1929); Caro und Oehme, Schleichers Aufstieg, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Gegenrevolution (Berlin, 1933).