The First World War (1914-18) ended as abruptly as it had started. Germany’s loss and consequent abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II meant that the country was now in a leadership crisis. General sentiments further exacerbated the situation, especially by people who felt that Germany had been treated somewhat unfairly by the Allied powers and deeply resented its leaders for agreeing to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. To fill this leadership void, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) announced the formation of a provisional government that would create a democratic society and transfer power from the military (Feldman, 2015, p. 77). The National Assembly soon embarked on fashioning a new constitution for the country and a new structure of governance for the new state. Thus, the Weimer Republic was born on February 6, 1919, with Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Friedrich Ebert being elected as its first leader. Conditions laid out in the armistice had spelled out some of the first tasks that this government would have to embark on (Hett, 2019). The Weimer Republic was expected to shoulder the blame for the war, reduce its militaristic capabilities, pay war reparations and surrender part of its territory. These terms spelled doom for the young nation and soon became primary causative factors for crises that were faced and survived by the Weimer Republic (1918-23).
The signing into law of the Weimar Constitution was a source of discontent for many Germans who had now been relegated to the fringes of society. These individuals were strongly opposed to its stipulations and provision, viewing it as an insult on German nationhood. Opposition to this nascent political establishment came from all corners of society, particularly from the radical leftist and former military officers. In essence, Germany now became a republic headed by a president who was aided by a chancellor and kept in check by a parliament (the Reichstag) (Layton, 2008). The president was accorded sweeping powers under Article 48 that allowed him the discretion of suspending the civil liberties of citizens at any given moment acting under the premise of enforcing emergency related laws. Revolutionaries opposed to the Weimer Republic, therefore, decided to seize the moment when the nation was still young and topple it within the shortest time possible. Most notable among these rebellions was the Spartacist Uprising instituted by a splinter group from the Social Democratic Party (SDP) (Jones, 2014, p. 45). Their radical left-wing views were at odds with the current political establishment and end what they aptly dubbed as “bourgeois democracy.” Even so, their attempts at seizing power were brutally thwarted by the government on January 1st, 1919 and its leaders killed while in police custody. Similarly, right-wing opposition was mounting across the country and culminated in the Kapp Putsch of 1920. Its members were predominantly members of the Freikorps, a paramilitary militia that was bolstered by top military officers. Members soon took control of Berlin, forcing the president to move his government hastily. A general strike called for by President Ebert soon turned the tide of events, though vestiges of political instability were still evident.
War Guilt and Reparations
In signing the Treaty of Versailles Germany had accepted all the terms of surrender that were presented. Article 231 clearly stated that Germany was responsible for the outbreak of the war that resulted in the loss of lives and damage to property suffered by the Entente powers. Germany and its allies were thus viewed as the primary aggressors who waged a relentless war of attrition and had to pay the ultimate cost for such actions. The final figure to be paid by Germany was arrived at in the 1921 Paris Peace Conference where Germany tried to negotiate better terms. The Inter-Allied Reparations Commission finally slapped the Weimer Republic with a 269 billion gold mark fine that was equivalent to half of the world’s gold reserve at the time (McElligott, 2013). Its war efforts in the eastern and western fronts were costly affairs that had drained the country’s major resources. Furthermore, its overseas campaigns in Africa and the South West Pacific led resulted in the loss of key territories which crippled its attempts to pay the £1 billion interim installment. The Weimar Republic was also informed that these payments had to be accompanied by tradable commodities such as coal, iron, and steel (Storer, 2013, p. 12). These exaggerated figures placed a heavy burden on the young state’s shoulders with notable economists such as John Maynard Keynes terming them preposterous. Ordinary Germans suffered the most during this epoch specifically because they now had to grapple with obtaining essential provisions in a rapidly declining economy.
Hyperinflation and Subsequent Fiscal Woes
The period that followed Germany’s surrender after the First World War was marked severe hyperinflation, the likes of which the German people had never experienced before. There was a dramatic increase in the cost of goods and services in the economy, which made life quite difficult. Before the formation of the Weimer Republic, a single US dollar could be traded against 8.9 German marks. Two years after signing the armistice, inflation had rocked the economy, and now one required 191.9 German marks to complete the same transaction (Jones, 2016). As the years went by, the value of the German currency continued falling and steadily declining with no hope of making any quick recovery. War debts that the country had incurred as per the Treaty of Versailles worsened the situation. Each payment made to an aggrieved party drained the Weimar Republic’s derisory coffers, with the government soon announcing that it would be unable to honor some of its commitments. Belgium and France did not buy this claim and were prepared to result in unconventional tactics to recover the money they were owed. In breach of the League of Nation’s charter, the two countries occupied the iron ore and coal-rich Ruhr region which was the major revenue-generating region (Sachar, 2014, p. 45). In response, the Weimer Republic urged workers in this region to down their tools in protest which resulted in a general strike. The economy suffered as a result of this response. The Weimar government next best option to salvage the situation was to print more money, efforts that further debased the German Mark (Schumann, 2012). The audacious Dawes Plan soon resulted in the replacement of the country’s currency with the American-backed Retenmark that aimed at stabilizing the economy and the Weimer Republic.
From its inception, the Weimer Republic encountered a series of debacles that were bound to affect the young post-war state. An amalgamation of political instability, hyperinflation, war guilt, and reparations were experienced between 1918 and1923, testing the nation’s grit. The Social Democratic Party (SDP) proved resilient and would go on to govern the Weimar Republic during the most tumultuous period in German history.