Weimar Political Parties

By Professor Paul Bookbinder, University of Massachusetts Boston

For the first time in German history political parties had real power. They could determine policy and had patronage available for supporters. However, the large number of political parties made coalitions necessary and made it difficult to obtain and maintain legislative majorities. At times there were more than thirty political parties on the ballot although only about six commanded substantial voting blocs. Making life even more difficult for the Republic were extremist parties on both sides of the political spectrum who were opposed to the existence of the Republic itself. The most important of these radical anti-Republican parties were the communists on the left and the National Socialists (Nazis) on the right. Most of the 22 Weimar government coalitions were made up of members of the Catholic Center, Social Democratic, Democratic and People’s parties.

The concept of “left” or “left wing,” and “right” or “right wing” political parties originated in the French Assembly in the 19th century where people and groups were labeled by where they sat in the meeting hall. In Weimar Germany, while there were often as many as 30 parties on the ballot, there were a group of larger and more important parties. These parties were identified by names and initials related to their names in German. The most frequently used initials were:

Initial German English Translation:
D Deutsche German
D Demokratische Democratic
S Sozialistische Socialist
Z Zentrum Center
K Kommunistische Communist

In the Weimar Republic the left consisted of the Communists (KPD) and the Social Democrats (SPD). The Center consisted of the Democratic party (DDP), the Catholic Center Party (Z) and the People’s Party (DVP). The right consisted of the German Nationalist Party (DNVP) and the National Socialist Party (NSDAP-Nazi). Unlike American political parties, German political parties had narrower bases of support generally based on class, occupation and religion. They were therefore less inclined to compromise and more inclined to have programs based on clear sets of ideas (ideologies).

The parties on the left were strong supporters of progressive taxation, government social welfare programs, labor unions, equality and economic opportunity for women. They were less nationalistic, militaristic and antisemitic than the parties on the right. They favored greater government involvement in—and control of—business and industry, and were to varying degrees anti-religious. Still, there were strong differences and major conflicts between the two major leftist parties. The Social Democrats were strong supporters of the Republic and democracy while the Communists were opposed to both, favoring a Russian style communist dictatorship. The parties on the right were strongly nationalistic and supported large military. They were opposed to social welfare programs, labor unions and progressive taxation. They favored an economy directed by industrialists and landowners with large estates. They were antisemitic and favored traditional roles for women. The Nationalists were a more traditional Conservative Party, while the National Socialists were a radical party wanting revolutionary change. Both parties publicly supported the Churches and the role of religion in society but some elements in the Nazi Party harbored hostility to traditional religion.

The parties in the center were the most moderate and the least ideological of the German political parties. The members of the Democratic Party tended to be the most sympathetic of the center parties to the Social Democratic leftist ideas and were strong supporters of the Republic. The Catholic Center Political Party which had been created to protect a Catholic minority from persecution in the 1870s was held together by a commitment to Catholicism. The party had elements within it that were more sympathetic to the left and elements that were more sympathetic to the right. For most of the Weimar years the party strongly supported the Republic and democracy. In the last years of the Weimar Republic the party moved away from its strong support for the Republic. The Peoples Party was generally closer to the parties on the right but its leader for most of the Weimar years, Gustav Stresemann, held the party in a supportive role for the Republic, often having to struggle against members of his own party. 

Catholic Center Party (Zentrum, or, Z)

In terms of ideology and class, the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum, or, Z) was more diverse than any of its Weimar rivals. Its one area of uniformity was its commitment to protect the interests of Germany’s Catholics; about 34% of the population. Thus, it is not surprising that the largest number of Center Party supporters were Catholic, although Protestants also supported the party and were included in its legislative delegation. Even some of Germany’s Jews (1% of the population) voted for the Catholic Center party. Catholic women voted for the party in very high numbers. While it had a left-liberal trade union wing, and a right-conservative nationalist wing, the weight of its support placed the party at the center of the political spectrum. The Center Party was vital to the stability of the Republic, and it was a part of every Weimar government. Its leaders served as chancellors for nine administrations and were included in each of the twenty-one cabinets that ruled during the fourteen years of the Republic. With the change in leadership of the party in 1928, it drifted towards its more conservative wing which had evolved into the Bavarian People’s Party.(BVP). Independent of the national Catholic Center party, the BVP often positioned itself in opposition to the Weimar government. 

Communist Party (KPD)

The German Communist Party (KPD) was founded at the end of December 1918 in the midst of revolutionary chaos. Its earliest members came from the ranks of the radical Spartacist group that had been crushed by the army under orders from a transitional government dominated by Social Democrats. Drawing on a membership of more radical workers and a small group of radical intellectuals, the party was fundamentally opposed to the existence of the Weimar Republic and, although a leftist party, was particularly antagonistic to the democratic leftist Social Democratic Party. The Communists were in favor of a Russian style dictatorship and during the Weimar period fell more and more under the control of the Communist international based in Moscow. While the party had a strong feminist agenda, as well as the only prominent woman party leaders and the most women candidates for office across the political spectrum, this position did not translate into substantial female voting support. Although the party opposed antisemitism and had Jews among its leaders, very few German Jews voted Communist. During the crisis of the last Wemar years the parties voting strength grew substantially as it attracted support from the growing ranks of the unemployed. 

German Democratic Party (DDP)
The German Democratic Party’s (DDP) largely Protestant membership was drawn from the middle class, often from professional groups of lawyers, doctors and liberal academics. Some of its leaders were converts to democracy and republicanism, but the party was firmly supportive of the Weimar Republic and resistant to militarism and antisemitism. It attracted more Protestant than Catholic voters and many of Germany’s Jews voted for the party. While the party fits on the left side of the political spectrum, it stressed its moderation. Unfortunately for the Weimar Republic, this party received its greatest vote totals in 1919 and saw its support erode for most of the Weimar period. Contributing to the decline of the Democratic Party were the untimely deaths of Max Weber and Friedrich Naumann, its most prominent leaders. Yet, in spite of its declining support, the party played a significant role during the Weimar years, and was an eager participant in coalition governments. In an effort to revive its fortunes in the final days of the Republic, the Democratic Party reconstituted itself as the “State Party.”

German Nationalist People’s Party (DNVP)

The supporters of the German Nationalist People’s Party (DNVP) were generally Protestant and represented a mix of landowners and industrialists with crafts people and civil servants and farmers who followed the lead of the wealthy landowners. The party also attracted the more conservative elements among the white collar clerical and retail sales workers. It was militaristic, resistant to republican government, opposed to attempts to fulfill the terms of the Versailles treaty, and antisemitic. 

German People’s Party (DVP)

The German People’s Party (DVP) represented owners of small and middle-sized businesses and white–collar workers, and its support was much stronger among Protestants than Catholics. It lacked the rural base of the nationalists and was more moderate in its nationalism and less extreme in its antisemitism. The party had a core group which was willing to support and participate in Weimar coalition government, and these reform conservatives kept Gustav Stresemann as party leader. At the same time, other People’s Party members were never reconciled to the new Republic. 

National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP-Nazi)

The National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP-Nazi), founded in 1919 as the German Workers party, began its move toward prominence when Adolf Hitler emerged as its principal speaker and leader. The National Socialists initially attracted young men who had been in the military and had not been able to reintegrate themselves into the civilian society and economy. The party also drew support from members of the lower middle class, shopkeepers, artisans and white-collar workers. The party was unequivocally opposed to the Weimar Republic and in 1923 its members led by Hitler tried unsuccessfully to seize the government by force. After this failed attempt the party reverted to a strategy of gaining power through the electoral process without ever changing its fundamental opposition to democracy and republican government. Antisemitism and the threat that the Jews represented to Germany were at the core of the Nazi ideology.

During the later twenties, the base of National Socialist support expanded considerably. Although most of the top leaders of the party including Hitler were Catholic, and the party had begun in Catholic Munich, fewer Catholics proportionally voted for the party than did Protestants. This voting pattern was the result of the Catholic Church urging its members to avoid supporting the Nazis. This Catholic Church opposition to the Nazis would be dropped once Hitler achieved power. While the Nazis were slow to attract women supporters (program for women was summarized by “Children, the Kitchen and the Church”), women were the fastest growing group of supporters by the early 1930s. By 1932, the Nazis had become the most popular political party and they had the largest legislative delegation.

Funding for the Nazi Party

Money was a necessity for building and maintaining a large political organization. Hitler needed money to support paramilitary groups, stage rallies, publish newspapers, print posters and buy radio time. Historians have argued about how Hitler and the Nazis raised their money. Marxist historians starting with Franz Naumann in the 1940’s had argued that industrialists who hoped to manipulate him bought Hitler’s success because they feared communism. Even in the 1920s left wing critics of Hitler such as the artist John Heartfield had seen him as a creature of industrialists such as Hugo Stinnes. S. and J. Poole’s claim that it was Henry Ford who supplied the Nazis with funds. However most historians today take the position most clearly expressed by Henry Turner and dispute these claims. Turner argues that most industrialists and financiers supported more moderate political leaders such as Gustav Stresemann and only began to supply Hitler with money in the early 1930s when he looked like a winner and they saw the communist threat growing. Turner sees a generous party membership, often with very limited personal means, as the source of the major funding for the party during its growth period. Turner rejects the idea of any support for Hitler from Henry Ford.

Social Democratic Party (SPD)

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) drew its support from blue-collar trade union skilled workers, and at times from more progressive white-collar workers and intellectuals. While the party had proportionally more Protestant than Catholic supporters, it did attract Catholic workers. In some parts of Germany landless farm workers voted for the party. German women from working class families voted for the Social Democratic Party in large numbers. Some of Germany’s Jews also voted for the Social Democratic Party. From 1919 to 1932, the Social Democratic Party was the party that received the most votes in national elections and had the largest legislative delegation. The SPD was committed to further reform of Weimar society and hoped to eventually make the institutions and economy of Weimar more egalitarian. This party was a bulwark of the Republic and was the most active opponent of antisemitism during the Weimar years.

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