Election Policies for Today -- What Can We Learn from Germany and the Weimar Republic?

The Weimar Republic – Can We Learn from It?

Researching the Weimar Republic gave me the chance to study a period of German history I should have known more about. I spent my high school years in Germany and we were given an opportunity to read and learn about this time period over several years. The history of the 20th century lay at the heart of the German high school history curriculum.

Like everything, there is no one simple explanation of why the German people failed to avert the uprising of the Nazis. After reading about this time period using many German websites (see bibliography), I attempted to rephrase, summarize, synthesize, and translate what I found in the following.

The Weimar Republic was the first hands-on experiment of a democratic government in the history of Germany. This experiment started however under very difficult circumstances: the public did not support it, and the executive branch of the government did not back it up either. Mass unemployment, damages to the infrastructure from WWI, and the demand for reparation payments put lots of pressure on the fledgling democracy. Not only in Germany, but all over Europe, radical and anti-democratic movements gained momentum.

Reasons for the Failing of the Republic
In order to understand the situation to some degree, it is necessary to look at the currents of the time. Many authors have named the following items as the main reasons for the failing of the Weimar Republic:

-a) divisions among the labor movement (politically as well as organizationally)
-b) anti-democratic sentiment among the people
-c) the burdens of the lost war and the Treaty of Versailles
-d) structural weaknesses of the political order of the Weimar Republic
-e) economic depression

a.) Divisions within the labor movement
Socialist parties were founded as early as 1875 in Germany under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and August Bebel. After Bismark’s “Sozialistengesetz,” a law banning socialists, was dismissed in 1890, the Socialist Worker Party of Germany (SAPD) changed their name to Socialist Party of Germany (SPD). This party was the ultimate leader of the labor movement for over 30 years, when in 1916 the first divides were formed, which in turn led to the formation of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1918. The KPD’s membership increased enormously and was a direct competitor to the socialist SPD.

Even though it claimed to be Marxist, the SPD had become a reformist party by 1914. The SPD members voted in favor of the war (WWI), while the left wing under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg strongly opposed it.

The SPD was the founding party of the Weimar Republic with Chancellor Ebert as the founding father, but the far-left did not support the republic. They wanted a true socialist revolution.

In 1929 the 2 parties become archenemies. The socialists (SPD) accuse the communists (KPD) of being Stalinists and the Soviet Union’s accomplices and, therefore, being more dangerous than the Nazi party (NSDAP).

The communists on the other hand accused the socialists of being “the left wing of Fascism or social fascists,” because they are leading the workers off the path of revolution. An incidence called the “Bloody May” is often used as evidence for this accusation: On May Day, 1929, the communists held a demonstration without a permit in Berlin. (May Day marches had been prohibited by law since 1924.) The police chief, who was an SPD party member, ordered to use force to end the march and 32 people were killed, demonstrators and by-standers.
The communists were accused of provoking an uprising against the government and the sub-organization called “Rote Frontkaempferbund,” was prohibited nationwide. Tensions between the two parties reached new heights.

The socialist and communist parties, however, were both wrong thinking that the right-wing German National Workers’ Party (NSDAP) was not a serious danger. They saw each other as the greater risk and underestimated the Nazis attraction.
Even though the SPD-led government wished to eliminate the NASDAP, they had no constitutional power to do so and they lacked the majority in the Reichstag (Congress) for a referendum.

By 1932 the NSDAP was the strongest fraction in parliament with 37.4%. The socialists planned to press for new elections in case the NASDAP would take over in the hopes that the Nazis would lose to the SPD. However, they did not anticipate that free elections would not be possible.

So as soon as Hitler came to power, the communist party KPD was banned. In February of 1933 the elected KPD-congressmen were not allowed to enter the parliament building. Instead many were arrested or killed.

Towards the end of the Weimar Republic the situation in Germany was quite acute: There was
-increasing economic distress;
-6 million unemployed;
-widespread poverty, hunger, and squalor.

The SPD had 2 million members and a great influence among the working class, whereas the KPD had 200,000 members and was growing steadily in number. Unfortunately, with all the past animosity towards each other, the socialists and communists were unable to form a united coalition against Hitler.

b.) The Anti-Democratic Sentiment among the German People
After the failing of a democratic state in 1848, most Germans were of the opinion that supporting a unified nation was more important than building up a democratic tradition. Unlike in England where capitalist nobility pushed for democratic change, in Germany the working class (under the guidance of the social democrats) was the main supporter of the democratic Weimar Republic.

The Weimar Republic was not the result of a mass people’s movement against monarchy, but it came out of the disappointment over the loss of WWI and the resulting collapse of the monarchy. Democracy was seen as something the victors of the war stipulated and therefore forced upon them. In the German people’s opinion, this was a drawback, so they did not want to support it wholeheartedly.

The democratic supporters of the Weimar Republic were unable to demonstrate the advantages of a democracy during these times of economic instability. Furthermore, government leadership positions in of the military, administration, economic, and judicial systems remained the same after the collapse of the monarchy. This meant that these institutions most likely kept their anti-democratic/pro-monarchy undercurrents.

The “Buergertum” or bourgeoisie, of course, did not support the process of increasing democracy, but longed for the good old days of the authoritative state, which was more advantageous for their class (i.e. Dreiklassenwahlrecht: three-class-voting-system in which the richest class had the most votes).

Besides the bourgeoisie, farmers, big industry, and petite bourgeoisie were all afraid of losing their private property under socialism and, therefore, they were adamantly opposed to socialism or communism.

c.) The Burdens of a Lost War and the Treaty of Versailles
The reparations Germany had to pay for being the sole perpetrator of the war were extremely difficult to fulfill: 114 billion Mark needed to be paid over 59 years. The Germans were very unhappy with these demands. Especially with the economy lagging and high unemployment (44% in November 1932) it was impossible to make the payments. After paying the reparations no money was left for the necessary rebuilding of Germany’s war-torn infrastructure.

The Treaty of Versailles was the work of Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George (England) and Georges Clemenceau (France). Germany was not a part of it. The peace negotiations demanded the Germans take on sole responsibility of the war, give back colonies and land taken (a total of 13% of physical territory and 10% of the population), pay reparations, and limit sovereignty.

The new government and the German people at first refused to support these demands. But there was no way out and the treaty was signed on the 28th of June 1919.

Most of the territory Germany lost was given to the State of Poland, which was re-formed after 123 years. Some say that the allies planned to use it as a cushion against communist Russia.

With the loss of these territories and other colonies, Germany lost 50% of its iron reserves, 25% of its coal reserves, 17% of its potato and 13% of its grain/wheat producing land. Also land east of the Rhine River (Alsace and part of Saarland with its coal mines) was taken over by France.

The Nazis used this discontent among the people and targeted their propaganda towards emphasizing how future generations of Germans would have to suffer until the reparations were paid off.
It wasn’t until the Treaty of Lausanne was signed that the Germans were released from paying the reparations, but this came too late. The progress these revisions would bring was overshadowed by high unemployment rates, the economic depression, and the increasing influence of the Nazi party.

d.) The Structural Weaknesses of the Political Order of the Weimar Republic
The founding fathers of the Weimar Republic, the SPD and centrist groups, wanted to have a strong president to keep the anti-republic radicals from the Left (KPD) and the Right (NASDAP) at bay. What they, however, did not foresee was the possibility that a president could be sworn in who was an enemy of the Republic. The president had the power to dismiss parliament/congress (the Reichstag) and “rule” under a “State of Emergency.” This tactic was used from 1930s and on. These structural flaws in the constitution weakened Germany’s democracy, caused its collapse, and helped Hitler gain power.

Because of this, today’s German “Bundespresident” only has representative duties and it has become very difficult to dissolve parliament. Furthermore, proportional representation was established as the voting system of the Weimar Republic. This led to fractioning of political parties and has made it difficult for parties to obtain a majority. Parties must form coalition governments.

e.) The Great Depression
There were 6 million unemployed in 1929. The government’s newly instituted unemployment insurance was totally overwhelmed and large sections of the population were living in poverty, with many people dying of starvation.

The middle and ruling classes were also affected by the economic crisis of 1929, many losing their wealth due to inflation.

These factors all helped the Nazis gain popularity and at the Congressional elections of 1932 the NSDAP claimed the majority of seats.

During the Great Depression in the US, people still supported and defended the democratic system and the “American Dream” (the claim that anyone can become rich if they work hard enough). This was not the case in Germany.

Banks were given foreign money/credit (mostly from the US) to then loan to business owners to rebuild Germany’s economy. During the Great Depression, however, the long-term loans given to businesses had to be re-paid over the short-term. Banks were closed for days to avoid the total collapse of the banking system. The government bailed out the big banks and gave guaranties for the small business loans, and therefore controlled the national banking system.

In order to stabilize the economy measures were taken to fight inflation. This caused wages to sink, which led to a decrease in consumer buying power. There was no money for investments and the economy as a whole was totally disrupted.

The Political Divide- A Short Look at the Events

After WWI, retired president Hindenburg gave a speech in which he claimed that the Germans had lost the war because the army did not get the support it needed from the government in the last months of the war. (This was coined the “Dolchstosslegende” or Backstabbing Myth.) This failing support was believed to be the reason behind the refusal of certain military groups to continue to fight hopeless battles.

Unfortunately, the supporters of the democratic republic did not counter this myth and clear up this “misunderstanding.” The consequences of letting the public believe that the war was lost because of this and not because it was Emperor Wilhelm the II fault, led the public to be bombarded with this legend by the conservative politicians, the military, conservative press and right-wing groups.

The conservative public was open to this story and people were tired of hearing that the Germans were the sole perpetrators of the war and needed to pay reparations for many years to come. So this was fertile ground for the right wing radical groups, of which there were several. Many of these groups started militia groups, especially in Bavaria. One of these groups was Hitler’s NSDAP.

In November of 1918, sailors and soldiers initiated a “revolution”. They refused to follow orders for one last battle of WWI. In the port city of Kiel workers and sailors/marines formed councils and took over the city. This movement spread across Germany. The councils took on the forms of Russian soviets and were different from factory councils, since they were based on neighborhoods and cities. These councils were able to take over several major cities and gained power for several months.

The communist worker councils were very successful in some parts of Germany. In 1920 a 50,000 man strong “Red Ruhr Army” tried to complete the revolution started earlier in 1919. This so-called March Revolution was the largest armed action taken by workers in Germany and it showed the bourgeoisie that it should rightfully be afraid of Bolshevism. President Ebert had the army arrest the members of the March Revolution and shoot anyone armed. This led to over 1000 deaths.

This revolution, however, was not a “true” revolution. Instead of working on developing solutions to existential problems such as how to organize food and jobs for everyone, the workers’ councils focused on elections. These workers’ councils, about 10,000 of which were established, elected their leaders who were for the most part members of the SPD. It might have seemed as if the bourgeoisie had given up its leadership through the government, but the old structures were still kept in place. The state was just neutralized, so to speak. The very formation of the councils was the means used to destroy the real revolutionary movement. The military was also never taken over by the workers. So the state was never destroyed.

The following quotes by Rosa Luxemburg shows the dilemma between the socialists who think reform is the way to create socialism and the communists, who see that revolution by the proletariat is the only way to change the system. You can’t just take over the political apparatus of imperialism and insert a socialist president and expect socialism. At the Founding Congress of the Communist Party of Germany (Spartacus League, later KPD) Rosa Luxemburg wrote in “Our Program and the Political Situation” from December 31, 1918:
“They imagined it would be only necessary to overthrow the old government, to set up a socialist government at the head of affairs, and then to inaugurate socialism by decree. Once again, that was an illusion. Socialism will not and cannot be created by decrees; nor can it be established by any government, however socialistic. Socialism must be created by the masses, by every proletarian. Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be broken. Only that is socialism, and only thus can socialism be created.”
“It will be a progression; we shall progressively occupy all the positions of the capitalist state and defend them tooth and nail. In my view and in that of my most intimate associates in the Party, the economic struggle, likewise, will be carried on by the workers’ councils. The direction of the economic struggle and the continued expansion of the area of this struggle must be in the hands of the workers’ councils. The councils must have all power in the state.”

“The masses must learn how to use power by using power. There is no other way to teach them. Fortunately, we have gone beyond the days when it was proposed to “educate” the proletariat socialistically. Marxists of Kautsky’s school still believe in the existence of those vanished days. To educate the proletarian masses socialistically meant to deliver lectures to them, to circulate leaflets and pamphlets among them. No, the school of the socialist proletariat doesn’t need all this. The workers will learn in the school of action. “

On the left, the disappointment of the failed revolution helped bring the more radical elements together: the USPD (Independent Socialist Party of Germany) and the KPD (Communist Party of Germany). They called for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and insisted on the formation of workers’ councils as the organizing body of a socialist society. The pro-republic SPD on the other hand distanced themselves from the radical Left for they fundamentally opposed that form of government.

After this the government was forced to have elections. The SPD and other liberal, bourgeois parties, along with the catholic center (“Zentrum”) party lost their majority (under 50% now).

Unfortunately, the supporters of the democratic republic also did not counter the myth of and clear up this “misunderstanding.” The consequences of letting the public believe that the war was lost because of this and not because it was Emperor Wilhelm the II fault, led the public to be bombarded with this legend by the conservative politicians, the military, conservative press and right-wing groups.

The conservative public was open to this story and people were tired of hearing that the Germans were the sole perpetrators of the war and needed to pay reparations for many years to come. So this was fertile ground for the right wing radical groups, of which there were several. Many of these groups started militia groups, especially in Bavaria. One of these groups was Hitler’s NSDAP. (By the end of 1922 it would have 10,000 members and a militia group called the “Sturmabteilung” or SA.)

Soon the conservative groups thought it was high time to fight the communists, liberals, pro-democracy groups, and unions, because they were at fault for just about everything. They also thought that the war was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and that the treaty of Versailles was the consequence of the pro-republic and the pro-revolutionary groups (“backstabbing myth”). Many people wanted a stronger government with a strong leader, like Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

When elections took place in January of 1919 the SPD had obtained 35% of the vote. The radical Left (Independent Socialist Party or USPD and KPD) was never able to gain control of the major councils. Within the communist movement (USPD and KPD) a struggle between one side wanting to stay with the masses supporting the SPD (Luxemburg) and others wanting to distance themselves from trade unions and political parties took place. Luxemburg thought that the workers within the system could influence further developments and initiate socialist change over time. She and others did not believe that the masses were ready for a revolution. Liebknecht and the majority of the KPD, on the other hand, did think the situation was mature.

Early on in 1920 only 2.1% of voters supported the KPD, but after internal strife within the left wing of the USPD 300,000 people changed their affiliation and joined the communists. So by the end of 1920 the KPD had 10% of the votes. Thereafter, the KPD decided to join the Communist International under the leadership of the Communist Party of Russia. This sealed the divide between the revolutionary KPD and the reform-oriented SPD.

At a strike called in March of 1920 by the KPD and USPD to oppose a newly signed law on worker councils, which had no revolutionary power in their opinion, the police shot 42 people and injured 105 after they said the crowd was about to storm the Congress building. After this failed attempt of an overthrow, the KPD called off the strike and the protests. Due to this failure the party lost many members.

In 1923 the German Republic faced hyperinflation and soon food, cigarettes and coal were used in daily trade instead of money. While most citizens suffered loss of their life savings and decreased buying power of their wages, people with connections to hard foreign currencies had the great advantage of paying off their debt easily, buying out bankrupt businesses, buying real estate, etc.

Under these extreme economic conditions strike waves swept across the country. This time the call to overthrow the government did not come from the union organizers and KPD, but it was brought on spontaneously. Many people were joining the Communist Party. Several state governments were to be taken over by the KPD, but the central Social Democratic Party would not stand for this. Again the army was sent in to avert this. But before this could happen, 450 delegates met: communists, union members, workers, and some social democrats, and a vote was taken whether to continue with the insurrection. The call for a nationwide general strike and the revolution was rejected. It was not clear to the leadership and the delegates that there was enough support of the masses to be successful.

Within the Social Democratic Party and other pro-republic parties, delegates were very upset that the army was sent in to stop a possible communist putsch, whereas in Bavaria a right-wing take-over received no repercussions from the government. They gave the government a vote of no confidence, which resulted in new elections.

The signing of the Dawes Plan helps bring more economic stability to Germany. Not only are reparations reduced, but the area of the Ruhr is also returned to German rule again. American credits give the German industry the necessary shot in the arm to step up production. Production, consumerism, and wages increased between 1924 and 1929.

These times (1924-1929) were politically relatively calm years. The KPD went back to legally trying to work within party politics, and no preparations for an over-throw of the government were initiated.

On the right, there also was little action: Hitler was incarcerated until the end of 1924, where he wrote his book “Mein Kampf.”

Soon the conservative groups thought it was high time to fight the communists, liberals, pro-democracy groups, and unions, because they were at fault for just about everything. They also thought that the war was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and that the treaty of Versailles was the consequence of the pro-republic and the pro-revolutionary groups (“backstabbing myth”). Many people wanted a stronger government with a strong leader, like Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

By 1929 the increasing unemployment made it more and more difficult to pay out benefits without increasing unemployment insurance rates. The government decided to reduce taxes, increase the unemployment insurance rates from 3.5% to 4%, and other austerity measures to save money. But conservatives supported by corporations, small business owners/employers rejected this compromise and did everything to stop any increase in unemployment benefits. They demanded (just like today) tax reductions for employers, destruction of collective bargaining, reduced government spending, restructuring of unemployment benefits through austerity measures, and not tax increases on the employer side. Anti-democratic, anti-republic, pro-big business, capitalist influences were at work.

In the years before, the SPD would have done almost anything to make a compromise work, but this time they decided they couldn’t go that far. The large coalition that formed the government no longer had their support. A vote of no confidence was given.

Hindenburg, the President, made Bruening the Chancellor, with no obligation to work with any coalition. Bruening and Hindenburg were anti-democratic and anti-socialist. Their plan was the reinstatement of the monarchy, although they did realize that the force of the workers was one not to be overlooked.

The SPD did not reach a majority position in Congress and the governments were always a coalition of several parties with the SPD being in the opposition.

As the deliberations of the budget took place in 1930, the SPD and the KPD unsuccessfully tried to stop the new austerity measures which hurt workers and the unemployed the most.

President Bruening used Emergency Law Paragraph 48 to override any opposition and dissolved the parliament.

In these elections the NSDAP amassed enough votes to become the second largest party after the SPD, which lost many votes. The KPD was able to increase voters’ support, indicating a move to the left among workers. All in all, the left did not lose any supporters.

In the meantime, more and more nationalist, conservatives and liberals, protestant middle and upper-middle class voters were drawn to the NSDAP. While the working class supported the left, the middle classes not only felt pressure from corporations and employers to stop supporting the Weimar Republic government, but they also had no intentions of supporting the SPD, KPD, nor the unions.

Hitler’s National Socialist Worker Party of Germany, NSDAP, cleverly combined the middle classes’ anti-Marxist and anti-capitalist tendencies. The NSDAP offered what they called “Middle Class Socialism,” a limited critique of capitalism based on private property rights. Hitler was adamant that he was working only against the capital of the financial sector, such as banks and stock markets. This anti-capitalist critique was then redirected against the Jews as a race. So anti-capitalism, anti-socialism, anti-Marxism, anti-democracy all were united under the umbrella of anti-Semitism by the NSDAP.

Since the KPD had 77 seats and the NSDAP had 107 seats in Parliament, many foreign investors (especially the French and American banks) stopped investing and pulled their short-term credits, because they were worried about the stability of the Weimar Republic. Without these credits, the economic situation of Germany became extremely serious and the unemployment rate increased again.

In order to expand his supporter base to the right, the Kanzler (Chancellor) made more and more concessions to the right. The SPD played along, because they wanted to keep the Republic in tack for as long as possible. As could already be seen in Italy, when the fascism took over, democracy went under. The Left was critical towards the SPD on this issue, since it made the SPD less attractive for the voters and it left them politically incapable. The SPD was no real alternative any longer.

In 1931, the KPD voted along with other more moderate, centrist and liberal parties to withdraw support to the government, but the SPD had barely enough votes to counter.

In 1932 the 7-year rule of President Hindenburg was coming to an end. He was 85 years old, but he announced his candidacy again. Among other parties the NSDAP announced Hitler as their candidate and the KPD’s candidate was Ernst Thaelmann. The SPD decided to support Hindenburg and their motto was “Vote for Hindenburg to beat Hitler. “

In this first round of elections Hindenburg got the most votes (49.6%), but he missed the majority mark of 50%. Hitler received 30.1% and the KPD’s Thaelmann 13.2% of the vote. Another round was announced since no single party’s candidate received a clear majority. In the second round Hindenburg was announced the winner with 53% of the vote. Hitler was able to increase his share to 36.8%. The KPD lost 3% and came in at 10.2%.

Hindenburg was now looking for a chance to get rid of Bruening, the Reichskanzler, who was also losing support among the people. His politics of austerity and his efforts towards reducing reparation payments were progressing too slowly. Bruening was replaced by Franz von Papen, who was interested in recreating the old structures of the monarchy, giving all power to the Reichskanzler position leaving the parliament without a vote for impeachment of the Kanzler (=President).

After unrests and demonstrations, Hindenburg used 2 articles of emergency (or martial) law to dissolve parliament and put Papen in charge. The heads of several German states wanted the Supreme Court to look into this takeover, but in the fall of 1932 the court ruled that most actions were within the constitution.

The social democracy of the Weimar Republic was given up without a fight (SPD and KPD were still at odds with each other) and the way was cleared for Hitler to take over.

Most historians do not believe that the democratic forces, made up of mainly the SPD and the unions, had the necessary will to actually fight. Instead they built their politics on humanitarianism, pacifism, and working within the law.

The Communists on the other hand, were encouraging workers to hold a general strike, but the unions objected. They feared that with 6 million people out of work, a strike would be ineffective, since it would be easy to find people willing to work and stand in for the striking workers. One strike in Berlin did take place in Berlin in November 1932. KPD and NSDAP worked together to organize this.

On the 6th of November elections took place and the KPD was able to increase their mandates to 100. The NSDAP lost 2 million votes and some seats in parliament.

In one last desperate attempt, Hindenburg offered Hitler to be the majority leader in the parliamentary-based government, but Hitler declined. He wanted all the power without a parliament, which several months later he received.

The KPD once again called for a general strike and asked the SPD to form a united front against Hitler. Again the SPD and the unions declined. They saw no basis for a successful cooperation, because they did not want support working towards the KPD’s ultimate goal of fighting for a “Soviet-Germany.”

The Relationship between the Social Democrats and the Communists during the Weimar Republic

Some have pointed out that the KPD was under the influence of the Comintern (Communist International) led by Lenin and then Stalin (after 1924) and could not act independently as the specific German situation would have demanded. The Comintern pushed for the so-called “Social-fascism” thesis, which made the point that the social democrats were the greater enemies of the working class, not the Nazis. Even though social democrats and the Nazis did not differ much in their take on private property and ownership of the means of production, their power structures were radically different.

Some see this as an indication that the KPD was not an independent organization, but a puppet of Stalin’s. So it was impossible for the German KPD to go their course according to the German reality, because the strategies were handed down from Russia.

The KPD’s joint actions with the Nazis in 1932 and 1933 also strained the relationship with the SPD and the call for a unified front.

In 1932, there were still attempts to form a united workers’ front against the Nazis. The KPD was offering the SPD to join in a united assault on the Nazis. But the SPD and her supporters were not interested in the ultimate goal of this kind of battle: a socialist, soviet state. The KPD was also trying to form union organizations of their own which split the workers amongst themselves.

The communists were very proactive in organizing the unemployed, while the SPD and unions did not show any interest in this group of workers. This was one of the unions’ greatest weak points and led to the demise of the political influence the unions had to call the population to actions and to fight. The communists also tried to develop and get support for public housing and job creation programs within the parliamentary structure.

The SPD on the other hand was immobilized by their fear of helping the communists by supporting the unemployed, for instance. The SPD tolerated the slow demise of democracy in order to save it. Their politics of going with the lesser evil to save democracy was as it turns out an illusion. Also the bureaucracies of the SPD and its mass trade union formation (ADGB) stymied any action by the working class. General strikes, factory councils, etc. (especially during the summer of 1923) demonstrated that the German workers were in support of revolutionary change, but the SPD feared competition to their goal of a democratic republic and so made sure these actions were not sanctioned by the party.

The KPD on the other hand, falsely analyzed the willingness of the workers (especially during the summer of 1923) and members of the SPD to join in their fight. Even though the elections in 1932 showed an increase in the party’s popularity and votes, they were not successful in convincing the majority of social democratic workers to join their mobilization.

Another mistake, according to some, is the Comintern’s pressure to avert the social democrats’ plan to wage war against Russia. To a certain degree this might have made sense from a Russian perspective, but it was unfounded from the German social democratic government’s. But these theories of Russia strong-arming the KPD are not shared by all.

During the First and Second Congresses of the Communist International, Russia maintained the upper-hand. It was not always clear how the Russians intended to advise the revolutionaries in Europe. One big debate was the question of being a part of the parliamentary system or not. Lenin advocated organizing the masses and saw the parliamentary system as an institution that was capable of interesting all classes. So from his point of view, it was necessary to go where the masses are: in the trade unions, parliament, etc, as long as there was communist leadership.

But in the end, the Left failed to create new structures needed to carry out a struggle against capitalism. One example is the trade unions: these had become stable institutions within the system, which just defends limited interests of the workers and does not claim revolutionary potential.

Another failure was that the communist party did not take Hitler as a serious threat and after his accent to power they predicted his quick demise. After 1933 the communist party was banned and forced to work in the underground.


After reading some of the literature on the Weimar period I put together these tables on problems we face today, which were similar in the Weimar time, and problems we don’t seem to have.

Problems Weimar had but we don’t have in the US today:
-Americans support the democratic system in general, even though many don’t see how it is eroding before our eyes (Patriot Act). People hold the Constitution high and are proud of their inalienable rights.
-Americans think the US is the greatest. Self-critic is at a low, no self-esteem problems here.

-Constitutional weak points, such as Weimar’s Article 48, which was supposed to help govern during times of emergency and crisis, martial law like, but with the President having all power over congress/parliament.

Similar Problems Weimar faced in the US today:
-Corporations have lots of influence on politics, policies, and elections by making contributions and donations (the “Citizens United” ruling has even gone a step further in paving the way for corporations to basically buy elections.).
-The political shift to the “right” politically is taking place on all levels. The “center” has already moved so far to the right that President Obama is labeled a “Socialist.”
-Political parties are not willing to work out compromises, so finance reform and social policies are suffering. (For example: economic disparity between rich and poor is the greatest in the US, high unemployment, spiraling costs of health care.)
-Anti-governmental sentiments help support or even establish a very conservative, authoritarian (anti-democratic) principle of rule. Many are opposed to so-called big government, but don’t realize that this means more power concentrated in the hands of fewer people, a move towards authoritarian rule.
-Big business, corporations, big banks all support less democracy: oppose more transparency and oversight, do not want to take responsibility for crisis they created, oppose taxes or tax increases, support abolishing collective bargaining rights and dismantling unions.
-Support for coalitions with anti-democratic forces (corporations, banks, ultra-right, conservative religion, etc.) thinking that these forces could be “tamed” a bit, so that there could be some benefit for more than just the 1%. Taming the extreme right-wing conservatives is possible and can be done within the party framework.

I think that what we can learn from the Weimar period is that the “ultra-right” should always be taken as a serious force, even today. One of the greatest dangers is for us to focus on the things that are not unifying among the 99%. When we put too much effort in trying to figure out how great the differences are between us (race, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.) or what it is that sets us apart, then we are playing into the hands of the 1%: we are dividing up our own base, our own support structure.

We need to build a mass movement and on the way we cannot let sight of how much momentum we are gaining. It seems to me that in the Weimar Republic in 1923 there was so much support for a take-over by the working class, but the leadership on the KPD failed to believe it was possible. Maybe this viewpoint is wrong; we will never know the answer to the “What if” question. But what we can gain form reviewing the Weimar period is that change is possible, more likely than we might think.

In the moment of revolutionary upheaval, it’s not always clear at first what the priorities should be. Weimar showed how easy it is to lose sight of the prize. The Germans were so close to governing through workers’ councils and agreeing on the start of the revolution, but ultimately lost out by focusing their efforts on re-elections within a system that didn’t support socialism. Another deleterious blunder was the refusal of both parties, SPD and KPD, to overcome their animosities in order to unify and fight the ultra-right. The short-sightedness of the SPD to equate republic with democracy and of the KPD in thinking that attaining socialism could happen without a unified republic helped pave the way for a dictator who was able to tie in his anti-capitalist rhetoric with his anti-Semitic agenda.

Considering the challenges I have listed above as problems we have in common with the Weimar Republic today, one cannot but notice the prevalent trend in this country towards the undermining of democracy. Fighting against the increasing influence of big-money in elections, union-busting efforts, voter suppression, etc. are some of the tasks we face today. If we ask who is behind these anti-democratic measures, we will quickly see the parallels to Weimar again: the ultra-right.

The message I take away from this study of the Weimar Republic is that defeating the ultra-right has to be our priority in America today.

--Klara Henkel (February 16, 2012)


1.) http://www.hellfirez.de/web/referate/inhalte/Weimarer_Republik.htm
2.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_of_Germany
3.) http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4d/Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-P046291,_Berlin,_Reichstagswahl,_Wahlzettel.jpg/220px-Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-P046291,_Berlin,_Reichstagswahl,_Wahlzettel.jpg&imgrefurl=http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichstagswahl_November_1932&h=180&w=220&sz=17&tbnid=rSDHRhhcOo5JtM:&tbnh=88&tbnw=107&prev=/search%3Fq%3DReichstagswahl%2B1932%26tbm%3Disch%26tbo%3Du&zoom=1&q=Reichstagswahl+1932&usg=__XXWxgxKcZOZtR1yZAY4CYmPNpzc=&sa=X&ei=l-8dT7OMIeOJsQK9-OC0Dg&ved=0CCcQ9QEwBQ
4.) http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/4d/Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-P046291,_Berlin,_Reichstagswahl,_Wahlzettel.jpg/220px-Bundesarchiv_B_145_Bild-P046291,_Berlin,_Reichstagswahl,_Wahlzettel.jpg&imgrefurl=http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichstagswahl_November_1932&h=180&w=220&sz=17&tbnid=rSDHRhhcOo5JtM:&tbnh=88&tbnw=107&prev=/search%3Fq%3DReichstagswahl%2B1932%26tbm%3Disch%26tbo%3Du&zoom=1&q=Reichstagswahl+1932&usg=__XXWxgxKcZOZtR1yZAY4CYmPNpzc=&sa=X&ei=l-8dT7OMIeOJsQK9-OC0Dg&ved=0CCcQ9QEwBQ
5.) http://www.bpb.de/publikationen/EZLPWP,7,0,Zerst%F6rung_der_Demokratie_19301933.html
6.) http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/31.htm
7.) http://www.bundestag.de/kulturundgeschichte/geschichte/infoblatt/parteien_weimarer_republik.pdf
8.) http://www.dhm.de/lemo/html/weimar/revolution/index.html
9.) http://www.planet-wissen.de/politik_geschichte/deutsche_politik/weimarer_republik/index.jsp
10.) http://www.planet-wissen.de/politik_geschichte/deutsche_politik/ursachen_des_zweiten_weltkriegs/index.jsp

12.) http://www.bpb.de/themen/VHFOXX,0,0,Der_Untergang_der_Weimarer_Republik.html
13.) http://library.fes.de/gmh/main/pdf-files/gmh/1983/1983-04-Streitgespraech.pdf
14.) http://links.org.au/node/2064
15.) http://www.marxists.org/subject/germany-1918-23/dauve-authier/appendix2.htm