In addition to his depictions of World War I, Otto Dix was also known for his ruthless criticism of German society during the Weimar years.
Chapter

The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy

Explore the efforts to build a democracy in Germany in the 1920s, and examine the misunderstandings, myths, and fears that often undercut those efforts.

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At a Glance

Chapter

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History

Grade

6–12
  • The Holocaust

Overview

About this Chapter

The Weimar Republic, the post–World War I German government named for the German city where it was formed, lasted more than 14 years, but democracy never found firm footing. This chapter explores Germany in the years preceding the Nazis' ascension to power by highlighting efforts to turn a fledgling republic into a strong democracy and examining the misunderstandings, myths, and fears that often undercut those efforts.

  • How do fears, both real and imagined, shape the way we as individuals and as citizens define our nation’s universe of obligation?
  • How can we as citizens build and maintain a democracy that protects the nation as a whole without undermining individual rights? 
  • How could a society that is politically and culturally liberal and progressive fall victim to a government that espouses intolerance, discrimination, and hatred?

This chapter is from the The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 20 readings 
  • 1 visual essay
  • Connection Questions

After World War I ended in 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm fled to the Netherlands, and Germany became a republic. The Weimar Republic was characterized by contrasts and conflicts. The Weimar government granted significant new rights and freedoms to individuals and groups, beginning an era in which creativity and experimentation flourished. At the same time, the republic struggled to convince many Germans, accustomed to monarchy, to accept and trust its authority. The people’s trust in the republic was especially damaged as it faced economic crises as well as challenges from political parties that were hostile to democracy.

Two very different moods characterized Weimar politics and society. The first mood was one of excitement and creativity. Newly permitted freedom of expression in art, music, dance, and architecture burst forth in Weimar culture and left a lasting legacy for our modern world. Women took on new roles in Weimar society, as they constituted roughly a third of the German workforce after World War I, exercised their new right to vote, and held political office for the first time. 

The second mood was one of anxiety and fear. The pace of change, especially in expanding political rights and social freedoms, made many Germans uneasy and sparked backlash against the changes. Many also feared the impact of communism, which had taken over Russia and threatened to spread its abolition of private wealth and property to Germany, by violence if necessary. This fear was heightened by two economic crises that tested the leadership of the Weimar government: the hyperinflation that beset the republic in its early years and the Great Depression in its final years. Parties from across the political spectrum clashed violently in the streets throughout the Weimar era, leaving citizens on edge. Meanwhile, interest in and enthusiasm for the message of ultra-conservative forces, in particular the growing National Socialist Party with its message of racial hatred and its demand for a return to an autocratic government, continued to grow. 

In his autobiography, artist George Grosz recalls how these moods shaped life in Germany during the 1920s:

Even the capital of our new German Republic was like a bubbling cauldron. You could not see who was heating the cauldron; you could merely see it merrily bubbling, and you could feel that heat increasing. There were speakers on every street corner and songs of hatred everywhere. Everybody was hated: the Jews, the capitalists, the gentry, the communists, the military, the landlords, the workers, the unemployed . . . the politicians, the department stores, and again the Jews. 1

An investigation of the Weimar Republic not only provides a crucial foundation for understanding the Nazi era that followed it but can also serve as a warning and a guide for democracies today. Historian Paul Bookbinder explains:

The history of the Weimar Republic illuminates one of the most creative and crucial periods in the twentieth century and serves as a significant case study of our own time. Many of the questions asked about the Weimar Republic are relevant to problems that individuals and societies face in the twenty-first century. 2

Historian Detlev Peukert has observed that the hallmark of the Weimar period was uncertainty. 3 In many ways, the crises and dilemmas Germans faced in the 1920s were similar to those that people in other nations have faced and continue to face today in times of transition and change.  

  • 1George Grosz, An Autobiography, trans. Nora Hodges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 149–50.
  • 2Paul Bookbinder, "Why Study Weimar Germany?," The Weimar Republic: The Fragility of Democracy, Facing History and Ourselves, accessed March 30, 2016.
  • 3Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987), 275.

Facing History Scholar Reflections: The Weimar Republic

Professor Paul Bookbinder describes the “noble experiment” of democracy in the Weimar Republic.

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Analysis & Reflection

Enhance your students’ understanding of our readings on the Weimar Republic with these follow-up questions and prompts.

  1. The Weimar era began with one of the most democratic constitutions that had existed up to that point. But by 1933, Germany was poised to become a dictatorship. Why did democracy in Germany fail? What were the roles of political parties, the judiciary, the educational system, the economy, and the beliefs and attitudes of citizens themselves? Does Weimar teach us anything about what is necessary to sustain and protect democracy?
  2. Historian Peter Gay has written: “The excitement that characterized Weimar culture stemmed in part from exuberant creativity and experimentation; but much of it was anxiety, fear and a rising sense of doom.” 1 How do the readings in this chapter help you understand his statement?
  3. Historian Detlev Peukert has written that the fundamental problem of the Weimar Republic and the main reason for its eventual downfall was the failure of its government to achieve legitimacy, or the people’s trust and acceptance of the government’s authority. 2  What groups challenged the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic? What role did economic crises play in making some Germans see their government as illegitimate? 
  4. What is necessary in a democracy to ensure that its citizens have faith in their government?
  • 1Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), xiv.
  • 2Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity (New York: Hill and Wang, 1987), 3–18.

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