Germany’s Transition to a Civilian Government after World War I

Category: Democracy, Germany
Last Updated: 31 Mar 2023
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"The war was now lost,"1 a quote from General Ludendorff's evidence to a post war assembly. It was 1918 and Germany had been defeated. Kaiser Wilhelm had fled to Holland on the advice of General Ludendorff, who had also urged an armistice.

To preserve the reputation of the military forces of Germany, Ludendorff wanted the creation of a civilian government, in the hope that a civilian government could take the blame for Germany's defeat, a revolution from above, to maintain the vision of a still, strong, military force. The country of Germany had to repair itself to survive.

The old constitution had to change, not that it could be classed as old. Germany was a relatively new country, unified in 1871, but because of growing popular unrest and economic discontent, the hierarchy of Germany had to be seen as making changes for the benefit of the population.

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The age of monarchy was dissolved and replaced by a new civilian government. The new constitution would be known as the Weimar Constitution. The new constitution would embrace democracy, it would be an elected government, headed by a president, and elections were to be every seven years. The parliament was known as the Reichstag. All men and women over the age of twenty were entitled to vote.

All Germans were deemed equal under the law. In consequence of this, professional people such as doctors, lawyers and teachers did not want to be equal to proletarians or the lumper proletarians, professional, middle class people believed they were better, why should the whole of society be given an education and opportunities.

In addition, social rights were given to the people, such as, free speech, a country free of censorship, education for all, religious freedom, and the entitlement to negotiate for better working conditions as well as having protection from the state. Unfortunately, Germany was a conservative, traditional country, too much freedom all at once could be too much to cope with, progressive free liberties, introduced on a slower scale might have worked better.

Fredrich Ebert was the leader of the social democratic party, who had the following of the majority of the people and in November 1918, was made the first chancellor of the new constitution.

Included within the constitution was article 48, this article gave permission for the president to dissolve the Reichstag, and act on his own, with the aid of, if necessary, military force. Consequently it could be argued about who was actually in charge of the constitution, was it the representative assembly or the elected head of state. The elected president had the right to interfere with legislation; it seemed a contradiction of a democratic republic.

This immediately throws into disarray the whole idea of a democracy, as well as according to a USPD deputy "if some henchmen of the Hohenzollerns (the royal family), a general perhaps were to be at the head of the Reich,"2 article 48 could be a weakness exploited by military men to use to their advantage as a military coup. Ebert needed the army on side, particularly to cease uprisings by the left wing. Ebert was a socialist but not a communist, neither to his favour was General Groener, who Ebert forged a deal with to win his support, Ebert would keep the authority of any existing officers, thus, the army would defend the new government so uprisings from the left were easily suppressed.

This went against the constitution. The Left Wing unified with the extreme Right over this, because they saw it as a supression to prevent revolution from the middle classes. The KPD co-operated with the extreme Right in efforts to destroy the constitution.

Furthermore, Ebert kept existing civil servants and members of the judiciary in their positions, keeping the people he needed to rely on in favourable positions. In addition to this, Ebert needed experienced people to try and keep the infa-structure of Germany on a stable footing.

However, the German people who were hungry and bitter wanted new faces, they wanted to see change. To keep things as they were was not a democracy, according to an anonymous exiled SPD member, the German working class should have taken over the old state, to leave things unchanged was a grave historical error and not a good start to a new democratic, republican state. Many of he German people refused to accept the new constitution as being legitimate; these people were not used to as much freedom as was being promised. They were battered from the war and not ready for such a change. If the new constitution was going to be part of their lives, maybe initiating it alongside a monarchy would have been more successful in winning them over traditionalists and nationalists cannot be changed overnight.

The first real threat for Weimar was The Treaty of Versailles in 1919"Death rather than slavery,"3 quoted the nationalist newspaper, Duetsche Zeitung. The whole of Germany rejected the Treaty, but the constitution had no choice but to accept it,"There is no alternative to accepting the armistice terms. It is however, already apparent that these conditions will not produce a just peace. The sacrifices on us are tremendous; they must lead to our peoples doom,"3

Germany was brought to its knees by reparations, loss of territory, war guilt and the limitations of a reduced military force, which country would survive, historian A.Nicholls,4 (1979) sums up the Treaty and the impact on the Weimar republic, "Germany's economy was ruined by reparations and her security undermined. Much more serious was the political demoralisation which the treaty caused with in the Reich itself ... The real damage the treaty did to Germany was to disillusion the more moderate men who might otherwise have supported their new republic...The peace settlement continued to poison the political atmosphere in Germany for many years."4

The Treaty helped the radical right wing political party's gain support and challenge the new Weimar republican government. The main right wing parties rejected the republic and its principles and wanted to destroy the democratic constitution and go back to a nationalist system, the signing of the Treaty only reinforced that the new government wasn't working for the people. The aim of the Right Wing was to abolish the constitution and instead have a conservative, authoritarian regime, unlike other conservative political parties in well-established democracies.

It was in March 1920 that the first major problem from the Right occurred. A right wing coup named after its leader Kapp was initiated. It only failed due to a general strike. After marching on Berlin the governments troops refused to fire on the freikorps, the support for a democratic republic was not where the army's loyalties lay, after all it was only because of secret talks between Ebert and Groener, and the fact that Groener was only protecting his position that the army only HAD to support the new Republic, through orders of their commander, they did not support the republic voluntarily.

The judiciary dealt with the people involved with Kapp leniently, showing that the judiciary was not in favour of a democratic country, they were still in favour of the old nationalist Germany. The Right wing consisted of the military, financial elites, state beurocracy, the educational system and some of the press.

However, the Kapp Putsch did demonstrate weaknesses in the New Constitution, democracy in Germany lost its way, there was no political control over the military, the government could not enforce its authority even in its own capital; the government could not put down a challenge to its own authority and only because of mass power was government authority re- established.

It wasn't due to support of the constitution that people supported a general strike. It was due to the fact that peace was more important than political beliefs and who would want a revolution in their town.

In addition to this the failure of Kapp being brought to justice led to a spate of assinations committed by the Right Wing against supporters of the Weimar Constitution. Over 350 political murders took place between 1919 and 1923. Again the perpetrators were dealt with leniently, showing support for the nationalists, and the weak decision of keeping the same people in their jobs, "when the republic was created, these judges held over from the monarchy found it impossible to transfer their allegiance to the new organisation of the state...They created a private law and subverted (undermined) the public law of the Republic by refusing to administer justice in an equal manner to all people, "5Kurt Tucholsky, left wing satirist.

Ebert was in an impossible situation, the Treaty was the major factor in undermining the democratic constitution, and money for the reparations had to be found, promises of a welfare state and a new age for Germany and the rebuilding of great German country seemed impossible. It was no fun for those having to live under the crippling conditions imposed by the Treaty.

In addition to this, Ebert's new Republican foundations were established in debt from the reign of the Kaiser and the war; the country was already weak economically from the war. The only way to remedy a weak economy and pay off debts was through taxes and inflation. War cost, lack of confidence in the currency, reparations, trade deficit and the governments apparent solution to print more and more money, all led to an economic crisis.

People on fixed incomes and the middle class lost out to hyperinflation. Whilst people with debts, mortgages, tradesmen, industrialists and estate agents benefited through hyperinflation. In addition to this, levels of unemployment were kept down and new, international investments were encouraged.

Despite the negative effects of hyperinflation, workers were economically better off due to increased levels of economic activity.

Unfortunately, the Weimar Republic weakened with hyperinflation due to ill health suffered by the population; this was the result of inflation-induced poverty, the new constitution was blamed for this, again injuring the constitution."The savings, hopes, plans and assumptions and aspirations of huge numbers of people were swept away in a whirlwind... Even when the worst material impact was over, the psychological shock of the experience was to have longer lasting effects, confirming a deep-seated dislike of democracy"6

In June 1920, the Weimar Constitution lost its majority. A constitution that had been run by coalition governments, needed that majority, other parties were dissatisfied with the constitution, and because none of the other party's gained 50% of the vote, unstable coalition governments ruled Germany. Add to this bickering and lack of agreement on both domestic and foreign policies, co-operation became lax and there were too many minorities and no majorities.

Elections were built around suffering and proportional representation. What could be seen, as a strength was actually a weakness.

Because everybody was allowed to vote, including extremists from the left and the right. Which meant that with proportional voting, that the minor parties got seats in the Reichstag, thus, disrupting proceedings and make the leading party and the constitution look weak.

In conclusion the Weimar Republic looked on paper like a sure, fire hit but because of the introduction of democracy and no strong patriarchal leader problems were bound to arise. The Kaiser was much loved and respected by a traditional and loyal Germany, the Germans were confused. They were being promised greatness and security but because of the Treaty and the in -fighting the German people never saw what was promised. They only saw problem after problem.

Ebert was a great statesman but circumstances prevented the constitution being a success, and it does take time for new ideas to begin to work, if the Treaty had never been signed by the countries involved Germany would have been great, maybe the blame should be put upon the USA, Italy, France and Britain. The new constitution never stood a chance.

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Germany’s Transition to a Civilian Government after World War I. (2017, Nov 19). Retrieved from

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