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GERMAN GUN LAWS (1919-1920) 76B-77B

TL; DR – Read Course Reader 59-77

Please answer the following question in the form of a solid paragraph (AT LEAST 4-5 sentences each):

What was life like in Germany during the Weimar Republic?  In what ways is the Weimar Constitution similar to the US Constitution?  In what ways is it different?  


FROM: Peter Gay, Weimar Culture (New York, 1968), 147-164. Significantly modified.


The Weimar Republic was proclaimed on November 9, 1918, by the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann. It followed upon more than four years of bloody war, with German troops, though still on foreign soil, in disarray, the General Staff (headed by Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff) frantic for peace, and the imperial administration demoralized. Reversing German advances on the Western front in the spring of 1918, the Allies had gone on the offensive in the summer, and kept the initiative. On October 4th Prince Max von Baden, known as a liberal monarchist inclined to domestic reforms and international understanding, became chancellor. Prince Max appealed to President Wilson for an armistice on the basis of the Fourteen Points. The country was exhausted, weary to death of the adventure it had welcomed in August 1914 as a relief from petty civilian cares. Germany had lost 1.8 million dead and over 4 million wounded; the cost in materiel, wasted talents, maimed minds, sheer despair, was incalculable. Since the early summer of 1917, when the Reichstag had passed a resolution calling for a peace of understanding, it had been obvious that the old regime would never survive unchanged. On October 28, 1918, sailors at the Kiel Naval Base mutinied; by the first week in November some kind of revolution seemed inescapable. On November 8th a republic was proclaimed in Bavaria; other cities and states joined their lead. On the same day, Chancellor Max von Baden firmly called for the abdication of the Emperor. The workers of Berlin were in the streets, the successor of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff joined the Chancellor’s plea. Emperor William II delayed, insisting at least on the Prussian throne, but he was asking too much, and Prince Max took what his chief was unwilling to give. He made the Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert his successor and announced the Emperor’s abdication. Some thought Scheidemann’s proclamation of the Republic hasty; from Scheidemann’s point of view it was barely in time—it anticipated the Spartacists (Communists), who were ready to proclaim a Soviet republic. That night, William II fled to Holland.

The Emperor and his partisans were discredited; leadership would have to come from Social Democrats. But what kind of Social Democrats? The Social Democratic party had long been a major party, but even before 1914 it had been a tense coalition, divided among radicals who took revolutionary Marxism seriously and trade unionists who wanted to forget about ideology and seek higher standards of living for the working classes. The trade unionist Ebert put together a temporary government on November 10th, which held intact for almost two months. Since November 8th a German armistice commission had been negotiating with the Allies under the leadership of a prominent Catholic Center Party deputy. And on November 11th the war was over, even if peace had not been made. It was a promising beginning for the new regime.

But the temporary government broke apart on December 27th. The radical left wanted a soviet republic and a complete reconstruction of society along the lines of what had taken place in Russia during the war. The Social Democrats wanted a parliamentary regime and a waiting policy on social and economic transformation. There was fighting in the streets in December, and there were some dead—bitterly remembered. But on the whole the country supported the parliamentarianism of the Social Democrats. Accordingly on January 19, 1919, there was a national election for deputies to a constitutional convention to be held at Weimar; despite a Communist boycott, over thirty million Germans turned out to vote. Four hundred twenty-one seats were at stake. The Social Democratic Party led the poll with 11.5 million votes and 163 seats; the Catholic Center Party, an amalgam of monarchists and mild republicans, got below 6 million votes and 89 seats; the newly founded Democratic Party (left liberals) did extraordinarily well, totaling about 5.5 million votes and 75 seats—it was this party, abundant in talent, decent in campaign methods, rational in its program, that turned out to be “the only party that lost in each election”; the National People’s Party, the Conservatives of the Empire, unchanged in all but name, got 3 million votes and 42 seats; while the newly founded People’s Party (right liberals), the party of Stresemann, big business, and right-wing leanings, got 21 seats on only 1.5 million votes. The Weimar coalition had received a strong mandate.

The Assembly was solemnly opened on February 9, 1919; two days later, it elected Ebert President, and Ebert, in turn, asked Scheidemann to form a cabinet. This first full-fledged cabinet drew from the three leading parties, the Social Democrats, the Center, and the Democrats—the Weimar coalition. But the work of the Assembly was marred, though not interrupted, by disorders at home and peacemaking abroad. By March the Social Democrat in charge of restoring order was aided rather doubtfully by the fanatical Free Corps—hastily formed paramilitary organizations of ex-officers, unemployed drifters, and youthful adventurers eager to kill.

In Versailles, meanwhile, a German delegation, disdainfully invited in April to accept peace terms, sought to ameliorate slightly what they could not significantly improve. Germans were angered by the news from France; on June 20th the Scheidemann government resigned and was replaced the next day by a cabinet headed by another Social Democrat. The new cabinet balked at only a few provisions, but the Allies were firm: the losers must sign without reservations. Faced with an ultimatum, the German Government yielded, and, on June 28th, a new delegation signed the dictated peace treaty. No other course was feasible. But inescapable as it was, submission left scars that never healed.

The Versailles Treaty imposed heavy economic, political, and psychological burdens on defeated Germany. It returned Alsace-Lorraine to France, split off East Prussia from the heart of Germany by turning over territory to Poland (the “Polish Corridor”), made Danzig a Free City, left open the disposition of other border areas to later plebiscites, deprived Germany of her colonies, forbade the union of Austria with Germany, imposed military occupation on the left bank of the Rhine, reduced the German Army to 100,000 men, put an end to the General Staff, and in other ways attempted to control German militarism. Most unacceptable—certainly most inflammatory—of all the provisions were articles that deprived the Germans of that intangible thing, “honor.” Article 231 of the treaty insisted that “Germany and her allies” accept “responsibility” for “causing all the loss and damage” to which the Allied powers had been exposed “by the aggression of her allies.” And a still undisclosed amount of reparations was to be paid. The clause did not use the word “guilt,” but it was quickly stigmatized as the “war guilt clause.” While practically all Germans hoped for repeal, some hoped for revenge.

Despite all this, the Weimar Assembly agreed on a constitution in relatively short time—it was adopted on July 31, 1919, and became law on August 11th. It enshrined a set of compromises that antagonized many and delighted few. In some respects, though, it was a perfectly straightforward document. Germany became a democratic republic; elections to the Reichstag, the national legislative body, were by universal suffrage starting at age twenty, Germany remained a federal state, though the powers of the various states were much curtailed. The chief executive body, the cabinet, was responsible to the Reichstag. But Germany did not become a purely parliamentary regime: the Constitution gave it a president, elected for a seven-year term by popular elections; he was symbol at home and representative abroad. Article 48 gave him the power (with the signature of the chancellor) take charge if “public security and order are seriously disrupted or endangered.” In its use of devices like proportional representation, initiative and referendum, the Constitution was as modern as its democratic electorate. In the fields of economic legislation and social transformation, from which so many had expected so much, it was rather vague. It laid down fundamental rights and duties of Germans. The compromise between bourgeoisie and proletariat ended with a victory of the former over the latter. Still, much was done; over much protest, Germany even adopted a new flag—black, red, gold, the flag of the liberal revolutions of 1848. When the delegates came home from Weimar, their Germany was in deep trouble, but the Republic was launched.

The events of the first year of the Republic did not predetermine the fate of Weimar, but they did set its general course. The next four years stood under the signs of domestic violence and foreign intransigence, the two interacting and, to Germany’s misfortune, reinforcing one another.

On June 6, 1920, there were elections to the Reichstag; they were disastrous for republicans. The German National Party and Stresemann’s People’s Party emerged strong, adding millions of votes and dozens of deputies; the Democratic Party declined spectacularly, dropping to almost a third of its earlier voting strength, the Social Democratic Party polled only 5.5 million votes. Another ominous development was the burgeoning of splinter parties. The Weimar coalition with 11 million votes and 225 deputies had lost control of the Reichstag; it confronted 14.5 million votes and 241 seats held by a variety of other parties. Not every right- or left- wing deputy was a mortal enemy of the Republic; few of them were dependable friends. The politics of militarism, revolutionary and counterrevolutionary slogans, and direct action was on the ascendant.

After long negotiations, the Catholic Center Party led cabinets until November 22, 1922. But problems remained intractable. In late April 1921 the Allies let it be known that German reparation payments, though sizable, were gravely in arrears, and they fixed the total sum at 132 billion gold marks, of which over 8 billion had so far been paid. The cabinet, committed to fulfillment of Germany’s obligations, delivered one more billion in gold. But now inflation—the result of the deficit financing of the war by the imperial government, the end of wartime wage and price controls, the resumption of international trade, the increase in government spending for the demobilization of soldiers and other war victims (including the increase in the number of civil servants), an inadequate system of taxation, government underwriting of credit with little backing by means of the printing press, inadequate regulation of the economy, and the reparations—became worrisome. In January 1921 the German mark had stood at 45 to the dollar, through the spring and summer it had remained stable at 60, in September it had reached 100 and by the end of the year it took over 160 marks to purchase one dollar. During this period, a terror campaign by the right, especially elements of the disbanded Free Corps, culminated in the assassination of Walther Rathenau, the Foreign Minister. “The enemy,” the Center Chancellor exclaimed, “is on the right”—but the right, unrepentant, continued its campaign of vilification and terror. And big industry was regaining self-confidence; there was talk that the eight-hour day should be replaced by the ten-hour day.

The Germans were not paying their reparations on time, a delay the French interpreted as deliberate sabotage. Late in December 1922 the Reparations Commission officially declared that Germany had failed to meet her obligations, and on January 11, 1923, a French-Belgian contingent occupied the Ruhr to operate the mines and the industries in behalf of the victorious powers. The occupying troops acted with a high hand and open brutality. There were bloody clashes. The German Government counseled passive resistance. Production came to a standstill. And inflation, already a grave threat, now got out of control altogether; the disruption of trade, the disastrous decline in tax payments, all consequences of the Ruhr occupation, were more than the mark could stand. The Reichsbank tried to help, but its reserves were near depletion, and in April 1923 the dam burst: the currency dropped daily, and inflation reached fantastic dimensions—by October 1923 not millions, or billions, but trillions of marks were needed to buy a loaf of bread or mail a letter. Farmers refused to ship produce, manufacturing reached an all-time low, there were food riots, workers hovered near starvation, millions of bourgeois lost all their savings, while speculators grew rich. The resulting economic dislocation and psychological upheaval only strengthened the already pervasive distrust of the Weimar Republic.

Early in August 1923 the Social Democrats declared the need for a national coalition. Ebert called upon Gustav Stresemann of the People’s Party to form a cabinet; the first Stresemann government lasted until early October, followed by a second, which survived until the end of November. It ended passive resistance, to get production started again; and in November, under the direction of Hjalmar Schacht, the government ended the printing of money, began a ruthless economy drive, and proclaimed a new mark, the Rentenmark, which was “secured” by Germany’s total resources. Schacht became president of the Reichsbank. Stability returned, though hardships did not end.

Stresemann’s conciliatory policy exasperated the right, already embittered and emboldened by French violence, local successes in Bavaria, and the general uncertainty. On the night of November 8th, 1923, and the morning of November 9th, Adolf Hitler and General Ludendorff led a putsch attempt in Munich. It failed, and some of the conspirators were captured and tried. Ludendorff was, of course, acquitted; Hitler was convicted of high treason, but permitted to convert the trial into a propaganda feast against the Republic. His sentence was the minimum possible—five years—of which, in any event, he spent only about eight months in confinement, to emerge a significant political figure. Hitler had joined an obscure right-wing group—a small cluster of anti-Semitic, anti-republican, anti-modern misfits—in July 1919. By April 1920 it had formulated a program and taken a name, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. For three years the Nazis fomented disorder, gave inflammatory speeches against the Republic, preached violence against Jews, and enlisted some sympathizers in high positions. When Hitler’s rebellion in November 1923 collapsed, and when financial stability gradually returned, republicans breathed easier; was Hitler not, after all, just another crank? It took years before they were proved wrong.


The middle years of the Weimar Republic were far from happy; still the political events of this comparatively tranquil time can be rapidly summarized. Sanity seemed to be returning at home and abroad. In November 1923 the Social Democrats defeated the Stresemann cabinet, charging that it had been gentle with right-wing subversion, but the six cabinets that were to govern Germany between December 1923 and the end of June 1928 showed sturdy continuity: each had Stresemann as its Foreign Minister. If it was a relatively stable period, it was also a conservative one: though they repeatedly saved it with their votes, the Social Democrats were out of the government for almost five years. Meanwhile, the “Dawes Plan,” named after the American banker and statesman Charles G. Dawes, proposed the evacuation of the Ruhr, considerable reductions in reparations payments, and loans to Germany.

The German Government accepted the plan, over fierce right-wing opposition. It was always the same story: the concessions that seemed to implacable Frenchmen too great, seemed too small to irreconcilable Germans. In July 1924 the Allies met in London; in August they invited the Germans to join them, and the French reluctantly agreed to begin to evacuate some troops. After venomous Reichstag debates, Germany accepted the Dawes Plan, French troops moved out of the Ruhr—they were gone by July 1925—Germany received foreign loans, and the Rentenmark was replaced by the Reichsmark. By mid-1925 the “golden twenties” had arrived.

But then President Ebert died on February 28, 1925, and the elections for his successor brought out all the old divisions. On the first run no one received the required majority of all the votes cast; on the second run a plurality would be sufficient. And after prolonged maneuvering among the parties, after some old candidates had been dropped and new candidates brought forward, it was the aged hero of World War I, Hindenburg, who received the largest vote—14.5 million, or 48 percent. His main opponent, the Center Party leader Wilhelm Marx, got nearly 14 million votes. It seemed a grave setback to the Republic, but Hindenburg acted quite scrupulously and effectively as a loyal chief executive during this period.

As the fears of German republicans about Hindenburg waned, they waned abroad as well. Germany’s isolation gradually ended. Since early 1925 Stresemann had been making overtures to the Allies, and in October France, Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, and Germany signed a treaty at Locarno, which settled the western frontiers, and called for the peaceful settlement of all further disputes. Like every other step toward fraternity, Locarno was denounced by the right in Germany, but the treaty was adopted by a narrow margin. For several years the “spirit of Locarno” guided European diplomacy. In September 1926 Germany entered the League of Nations. Stresemann followed up these triumphs by discussions with the French on international peace that eventuated, in 1928, in the Kellogg-Briand Treaty condemning war as an instrument of national policy. It was like a handsome screen concealing unpleasant realities.

There was something mask-like about German internal prosperity as well. The prosperity was real enough; German industry was modernizing its plant, business was stable, wages were relatively high, unemployment was low—it fell below three-quarters of a million in 1928. But there were hidden ominous developments: governments, both federal and state, were wasting funds; the powerful industrial magnate Alfred Hugenberg, who had grown rich in the inflation, was gaining control of the opinion industries; and much of the basis of the prosperity was, after all, foreign money pumped into Germany—a source that might dry up. Reparations remained an issue. The Communists continued to refuse cooperation with “Social Fascists”—that is, Social Democrats. The new army retained its old ideas: it wanted political influence, nationalist policies, and secret rearmament. And right-wing fanatics never weakened in their determination to overthrow a regime that was being almost suicidally indulgent with them. In September 1928 the Brandenburg section of the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet), an extreme anti-Weimar group of veterans founded in 1918 and swollen to great size in the following years, candidly proclaimed: “We hate the present regime”; it has “made it impossible for us to liberate our enslaved Fatherland, destroy the war-guilt lie and win needed Lebensraum (living space) in the east. We declare war against the system which today rules the state and against all those who support this system by a policy of compromise.” It would be wrong to say that no one listened, but things were going too well to make such threats really terrifying.

Indeed, while the Nazis and their allies floundered and fumed—peace and prosperity were never their best times—and the Communists continued their opposition, the Social Democrats gained strength. In the last general elections to the Reichstag, in December 1924, the Social Democrats had held 131 seats; in the new elections, of May 1928, they raised their representation to 152. In contrast, the German Nationalists were reduced from 103 seats to 78; and the Nazis from 14 to only 12. Other right-wing and center parties lost seats as well; the time for the Social Democrats’ return to a leading rather than supporting role had come. On June 28, 1928, a Social Democrat formed a cabinet of distinguished individuals speaking only for themselves; most were Social Democrats. But not all: Stresemann, the indispensable man, after some hesitation agreed to serve as Foreign Minister once more. The enemies of Weimar, needless to say, did not remain silent. Hugenberg took over the leadership of the German National Party and soon made overtures to Hitler, still the pariah of German politics; among the crowd of self-appointed gravediggers to the Republic, Hugenberg has undisputed claim to front rank. The Nazis had held their first Nuremberg party rally in August 1927, calling for a general purge of the German body politic and the German soul. But they did not merely rave; the Nazi leadership found some connections in respectable circles.

But in 1928 and 1929 the center of tension was still in foreign affairs. It was not until August 1929 that the French promised to evacuate their troops from the Rhineland by the following year—the sore of occupation had continued to fester for over six decisive years. Earlier, in mid-December 1928, the French, British, and Germans had agreed to appoint a committee of experts to look, once again, into Germany’s capacity to pay reparations. The United States agreed to join, and one of its delegates, Owen D. Young, became chairman. The experts, including Hjalmar Schacht who had acquired a reputation as a financial wizard, wrangled, privately and publicly, for half a year. On June 7, 1929, they finally signed an agreement: Germany was to be complete master over its affairs, but would continue to pay reparations on a graduated scale, ranging from 1.7 billion marks the first year to about 2.5 billion in 1966 and around 1.5 billion annually thereafter until 1988. The amount, though large, was lower than any other demand made so far; the specificity, though it now seems absurd, was designed to anesthetize passions and reduce reparations to a merely technical question. The German response was quick and wholly predictable: vehement denunciations by Hitler and Hugenberg, poisonous speeches on the right, vigorous defenses by republicans, and delay. There was even an opposition referendum on the Young Plan that failed. Five days later the Reichstag finally voted to adopt the Young Plan, and Hindenburg conscientiously signed it. But then, by mid-March 1930, the architect of Germany’s foreign policy, Gustav Stresemann, had been dead for over five months. In bad health for over a year, harassed by members of his own party, vilified by the Nazis and the German Nationals, he had continued to defend his policies until the end. He died on October 3, 1929, and was succeeded a fellow member of the German People’s Party—a friend and follower, but no replacement. We should not exaggerate the power of one man in the turbulent stream of history—there were forces at work in New York and Paris and Berlin that Stresemann would have been powerless to stem. Yet his death was a grievous loss; it was, if not the cause, at least a sign of the beginning of the end.


Stresemann’s death dramatized the dilemma of “bourgeois, politically homeless Protestantism”—that large number of voters mortally afraid of Communists, unwilling to join the Social Democrats, suspicious of the Catholic Center, disoriented by the war and its aftermath and, on the whole, unimpressed by Germany’s renewed international prestige. Stresemann had taught these millions the virtues of collaborating with Social Democrats—a collaboration which, he had candidly said, was an affair not of the heart but of reason. With his death, the right wing of his People’s Party reasserted itself, and the fragmentation of the Weimar coalition—its vital political center—continued.

It would not have become dangerous if there had not been a world economic crisis. But there was. Precarious German prosperity had already been shaken early in 1929, when unemployment rose to two million and tax collections declined. The focus of political debate became unemployment insurance, admittedly a heavy and growing burden on the government; it was a principle the Social Democrats dared not touch, and a grievance to industrialists and conservatives of all kinds, inclined to make these payments the convenient scapegoat for all of Germany’s accumulating ills. Then came, late in October 1929, the stock market crash on Wall Street. Its reverberations were felt everywhere; the Great Depression was world-wide. But it was most disastrous for the least stable regime, that is, for Germany, which had lived off foreign investment far more than many Germans knew or were willing to admit. With the rush to self-protection everywhere, German exports dwindled, foreign loans to Germany were not renewed. In consequence, tax income dropped further, bankruptcies multiplied, and unemployment grew inexorably. The Social Democrats demanded an increase in unemployment premiums; the Center Party and the People’s Party, now speaking for the employers, refused to go along; and on March 27, 1930, the Cabinet resigned. The great coalition was dead. On the next day, Hindenburg asked Heinrich Brüning to form a cabinet of personalities. Brüning, since 1929 the chairman of the Center delegation to the Reichstag, a cool, conservative Catholic with a reputation for financial expertness and no gift for oratory, promised continuation of a conciliatory foreign policy, demanded vigorous action in the economic sphere, and called, in almost bullying tones, for cooperation from the Reichstag in this emergency. His program was agricultural tariffs, higher excise taxes, government economies—deflationary policies designed to cheer conservatives and appall the workers. Yet the Nationalists remained dissatisfied; the Nazis, who took to the streets in defiance of police orders, followed a policy of obstruction; the Social Democrats and Communists naturally opposed Brüning’s proposals. In the midst of growing misery, the final evacuation of German soil by French troops, on June 30, 1930, went almost unnoticed—an ironic commentary on the ephemeral quality of political passions. When no agreement on Brüning’s program could be reached, the Chancellor threatened to invoke Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution; then on July 6th, after a defeat in the Reichstag, instead of resigning, he invoked it. Germany was now governed by presidential decree. Faced with strenuous protests, Brüning dissolved the Reichstag, and set national elections for September 14th.

Through the summer, responsible bourgeois and Social Democratic politicians, far from blind to the pressures exerted by the extremists, sought for some accommodation. In vain. The campaign plumbed new depths of demagogy and sheer violence, and voting on September 14 was heavy: there were 35 million voters in 1930, whereas there had been only 30 million two years before. Many of these new voters were the hitherto apathetic, brought to the polls by the general distress and the militant parties, and the young, who had turned to the right in the universities and in the streets, before their elders turned in the same direction. The Social Democrats held firm; they lost a half-million votes and 10 seats, but this still meant a parliamentary delegation of 132. The Center picked up a half-million votes and increased its seats from 78 to 87. The other moderate parties lost disastrously, both in votes and in seats. The Communists gained over a million votes and 23 seats; they were represented in the Reichstag by 77 delegates. But the real victors were the Nazis; they climbed from 800,000 votes to almost 6.5 million, from 12 seats to 107.

Brüning governed on, until May 30, 1932, amid growing unemployment, mounting misery, rising violence, and increasing signs that the Republic was dying. Through 1931 Hindenburg signed one emergency decree after another, controlling the price of food, regulating bank payments, reducing unemployment compensation. The Nazis made no secret of their plans for the future. The Nazi press, skillfully led by Joseph Goebbels, preached action against republicans, democrats, Jews, Communists—”November criminals” all. The threat was grave enough to induce the Social Democrats to support Hindenburg in the presidential elections to be held in early 1932. For the first time unemployment exceeded six million in January 1932, and anything seemed possible. In the election on March 13th, no candidate received a majority of the votes. A runoff was needed, and on April 10, 1932, Hindenburg was re-elected President …