1918-1933

1918-1933

THE TRAGEDY OF THE GERMAN REPUBLIC

Greatness and dignity in disaster are the surest proofs of a people’s quality. The best friends of the Germans cannot claim that these traits manifested themselves in post-war Germany. It was the famous querelles Allemandes again and again, over technicalities, over obsolete privileges and traditions, over titles and ranks, over the colours of the flag, over working hours, wages and holidays, over the procedure to settle strikes, and over the role of the ‘Councils’ in public and economic life. Even so, the orderly and disciplined spirit of a people drilled by its sergeants for three centuries succeeded in asserting itself to some extent. After a first fierce revolt of the pupils of Moscow, the ‘Spartacus’ Party led by idealistic fanatics like Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and a great deal of bloodshed and destruction in street-fights between armed Communists and regular and irregular troops hastily collected for the defence of the yet half-baked republic, a regular election in January 1919 created legitimate authorities, a Scheidemann Cabinet appointed by the first President of the German Republic, Friedrich Ebert, and a National Assembly charged with the task of elaborating a republican Constitution. Weimar, the town of Goethe and Schiller, was chosen as temporary capital, and much back-stairs intrigue as well as much sincere idealism was displayed in the National Theatre of the Thuringian capital.

The genius loci could not prevail against pedantry and doctrinairism. An electoral system was created which gave equal rights to men and women and permitted anybody able to collect 500 signatures to start a party and to have himself and his followers presented as candidates at the expense of the state. Proportional representation destroyed any chance of forming workable majorities. The Constitution, while aiming at a maximum of justice, contained snares and loopholes that were to prove disastrous later on. Efforts to damp down misguided revolutionary excitement and harness its energies for the benefit of reconstruction within the limits of severely indented frontiers and reduced means were again and again frustrated, either by hot-heads of the extreme left or by free corps leaders of the extreme right. The terms of the Armitice and afterwards of the Treaty of Versaille (reluctantly signed by Germany after her plenipotentiary, Count Brockdorf-Rantzau, had first refused to do so), which took affect as from 10th January, 1020, took heavy toll of an already weakened and impoverished economy. Under the heading of Reparations coal, chemicals and timber had to be delivered in gigantic quantities, cattle to be restored and gold payments to be made which although nothing like sufficient to cover the damage done to German-occupied territories during the war, soon confronted the republican treasury with complete bankruptcy.

The result of these payments in cash and in kind, together with the unreasonable demands of short-sighted doctrinaires who thought it was the dawn of a new social era, hastened on an inflation begun during the last years of the war. Following the Russian and Austrian example, but soon out-distancing them, the printing-press of the German Reichsbank turned out first millions, then milliards and finally billions, which retained their nominal value and their purchasing-power for a shorter and shorter time, until in the end wages had to be paid daily and converted into goods at once, for fear that next day they would buy only half the quantity, and the whole of economic life became one mad whirlpool of astronomical figures. Extremely unpleasant phenomena showed themselves: the profiteer who hoarded goods, bought property and shares for a song with smuggled dollars, contracted debts and repaid them with money; the corrupt official or deputy; the illegal bucket-shop, money-exchange and trade in precious metals. The hoarding or usurious ‘black’ selling of foodstuffs and other goods, the exploitation of a complete confusion in prices by foreign speculators, the progressive failure of rapidly changing governments and parliamentary majorities to re-establish some degree of order and justice, all contributed to a mad dance that reached its peak when France, under the impression of bad faith on the German side in carrying out the Reparations clauses of the Treaty, and desiring to offset what inter-allied negotiations had done to preserve the Rhineland for Germany, invaded the Ruhr valley, the industrial heart of Germany, in January 1923.

Nationalism, which had been forced into the background by the new social experiments and the general reaction against militarism, once more became rampant during the regime of French bayonets in a most important part of Germany. During the previous three or four years it had been thriving underground, only showing its hand in a number of crimes. Haase, a leader of the Independent Socialists, Eisner, the head of a left-wing Socialist Bavarian government, Erzberger, who had signed the Armistice and been Minister of Finance, and Dr. Walther Rathenau, a wealthy Jewish intellectual and succesively Minister of Reparations and Minister of Foreign Affairs, who tried to bring about a modus vivendi with France, were assassinated by young fanatic. In March 1920 the attempt of a group of nationalists backed by the ‘black,’ i.e., officially non-existent, forces of the Reichswehr to overthrow the republican government and replace it by the dictatorship of a high provincial official, Dr. Kapp, was frustrated by the concerted action of the trade unions and the democratic parties. Nationalism secured or helped to secure favourable results during the different plebiscites prescribed by the Versailles Treaty, but it deprived Germany of the then precious asset of foreign belief in her fundamantal conversion. It found adherents everywhere during Poincare’s blunder in the Ruhr, which destroyed the country’s last remaining economic resources.

The results was the formation, at a moment of deepest despair, of a ‘national’ government – excluding only the German Nationalists (who were Monarchists) and the different and as yet unimportant fractions of National socialism and communism – under Dr. Gustav Stresemann, leader of the liberal Populist Party, on 13th August, 1923. This government concluded a temporary arrangement with France, put an end to the inflation at the cost of drastic sacrifices all round, suppressed Communist revolts in many parts of the country and a first Nazi Putsch which started on 9th november in Munich, and generally, though with many setbacks and disappointments, consolidated the position of Germany. Credits, mainly from the U.S.A. and mostly at usurious rates of interest, began to fertilise trade and industry and a boom set in that was later to prove fictitious. Stresemann, confronted with Socialist opposition, was compelled to hand over the Chancellorship to representatives of the Socialist and the Catholic Party alternately, and confined himself to foreign affairs. In that field, in collaboration with the great French statesman Aristide Briand and with the far-sighted help of Sir Austen Chamberlain, he won deserved international fame as the first German European. The Locarno Pact of 16th October, 1925, a reciprocal guarantee of their Rhenish frontiers by all countries participating in that river, backed by Britain and Italy, together with arbitration treaties between Germany and her eastern neighbours Poland and Czechoslovakia, was the first-fruit of that co-operation which lasted until Stresemann’s premature death on 3rd October, 1929.

Germany’s entry into the League of Nations in 1927 gave increased authority to that institutions, a somewhat perverted result of Wilson’s dream of perpetual peace, and proved the culminating point of a period in which a whole series of international conferences and treaties sought to get rid of narrow nationalism, obtain security for minorities and promote international trade and co-operation in a Europe which was being welded into an ever increasing unity. German nationalism, which was slipping further and further into the anti-Semitic, dictatorial doctrines of Adolf Hitler’s National socialist party, while the German Nationalists, the old Conservatives, completely lost their bearings, fought that international development tooth and nail. It might, nevertheless, have been overcome, in spite of the proneness of the German masses, and especially the lower middle-class, to fall for sonorous, loudly shouted slogans, had not the international economic crisis of 1931, which forced the U.S.A. to recall their lavishly granted loans, hit Germany’s weak ecomnomic body with a deadly blow.

The number of the unemployed began to rise rapidly. From hundreds of thousands their figures soon rose to millions, banks and important industrial enterprises crashed, taxes had to be increased, wages and salaries to be cut, and in 1932 the ‘dole’ established by the Constitutions had to be paid to more than six million working people, many of whom, especially in the youngest generation, had never had a job in their lives. Dr. Heinrich Bruning, a Chancellor of the Catholic Party enjoying for a time the particular confidence of old Marshall von Hindenburg – who had been elected President after Ebert’s death in 1925 – did his utmost to stave off the disaster, making deep inroads into democratic rights with presidential decrees. He was bound to fail against the intrigues of the Nationalists who finally replaced him by two of their wire-pullers, Franz von Papen and General von Schleicher, and set up a purely dictatorial government, overthrowing the leftish Prussian Cabinet which had in some degree counterbalanced the nationalist trend in the Reich. Papen and Schleicher, while they intrigued against each other and supplanted each other, both tried to compromise with Hitler, who had meanwhile become leader of the strongest Party in the country among thirty-eight greater or smaller groups, and they thus paved the way for his triumph.

At the presidential election of spring 1932 he had been defeated by the old Marshal, who profoundly disliked and distrusted the ‘Bohemian lance-corpORral.’ but on 30th January, 1933, when all other combinations had failed, he gave in and appointed Hitler Chancellor of the Reich. The idea was that he should head a coalition in which the former Conservatives, Hindenburg’s own Junker friends, and the Catholic centre, aided perhaps by the remains of the Populist and other middle groups, would keep Nazi extremism under control while Franz von Papen, who enjoyed the President’s particular friendship and esteem, as Vice-Chancellor and Prime Minister of Prussia, pulled the wires. Things turned out very differently, and the nailed boots of the massed Brownshirts which resounded on the pavement of the Wilhelmstrasse on the evening of that memorable day, when they staged a torch-light pocession in honour of Hindenburg and Hitler together, beat the time to a new Dance of Death for European and Christian civilisation.