The “golden years” of the Weimar Republic, as the middle period from 1924 to 1929 has been labeled, came crashing down with the onset of the world economic crisis in October 1929. The impact of the stock market crash in the United States quickly spread to Germany. By spring 1930, its economy was in free fall as American banks called in their short-term loans to German businesses, and local, state, and national governments. Capital evaporated, leading to a rapid decline in production and, finally, a demand crisis as both consumers and businesses lacked the resources to enter the marketplace. By mid-1932, the depth of the crisis, fully one-third of the paid labor force was unemployed. Even the previously sacrosanct civil service faced salary and pension cuts and dismissals. In a single generation, Germans had lived through total war and hyperinflation. Now they faced a depression the likes of which had never been known before.
The political ramifications were immediate. The Grand Coalition fell apart over the issue of unemployment insurance. The drafters of the 1927 law had established a fiscal reserve for the fund that would tide workers over through periods of episodic joblessness. No one had imagined mass, long-term unemployment on the scale of the Great Depression. The unemployment insurance fund quickly went bankrupt. Social Democrats and reform-minded Catholics demanded increased payments to protect workers from a crisis for which they bore no responsibility. Conservatives, following the standard economic thinking of the day, demanded substantial cuts in unemployment benefits so that the state could remain solvent. The government fell and President Paul von Hindenburg named a conservative Catholic, Heinrich Brüning, to the chancellorship in March 1930.
From that point until the Nazi seizure of power on January 30, 1933, Germany was ruled as a presidential dictatorship. Germans still had an impressive range of political liberties. Freedom of speech, assembly, and the press were still protected, and Germans made full use of the liberties afforded them. But deep ideological conflicts fractured the parliamentary system, making Germany virtually ungovernable, and Nazis and Communists deliberately created disorder in the streets. No effective parliamentary majority could be formed, especially after the Nazis won 18.3 percent of the popular vote and 107 seats in the Reichstag election of September 1930. Brüning invoked Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution to govern by decree. While his legacy remains controversial, he did want to use the crisis of the depression to pursue the goals of the conservative Right: overthrow the Weimar system and the Versailles peace treaty. He sought to make Germany overtly Christian, conservative, authoritarian, and imperial. His successors, Franz von Papen and General Kurt von Schleicher, pursued the same course and were even more willing to traffic with the Nazis in order to destroy German democracy. All the while throughout 1932, the economic crisis continued, providing a reservoir of support for those parties hostile to the Republic.
It was the Nazis who made full use of the opportunity. They invented nothing in ideological terms. Their virulent anti-Semitism, general racism, deep hatred of the Republic and all it represented, strong desire for a powerful leader, and determination to dominate Europe and beyond drew on long-standing sentiments on the German Right. But the Nazis were innovative political organizers. They put the new media of the 1920s, film and radio, to effective use. Hitler barnstormed the country by airplane, the first German politician to take to the skies. Nazi organizers went everywhere, staking out the most isolated villages and the most hostile working-class neighborhoods. They contributed to the creation of modern politics as spectacle with their mass rallies, street theater, and violent, confrontational tactics.
Whether popular support for the Nazis was due to their anti-Semitism is another point that remains controversial. Jewish life had flourished in Germany, including during the Weimar Republic, even though anti-Semitic attacks became more frequent in the 1920s. In response, some Jews formed self-defense organizations. Overall, the Jewish community remained committed to Germany and the freedoms offered by a liberal political system. The Nazis systematically intensified German anti-Semitism, making out of Jews the cosmic racial enemy. Only through the destruction and removal of Jews, the Nazis claimed, could Aryan life flourish – what Saul Friedländer has labeled the Nazis’ “redemptive anti-Semitism.” For many Germans, Nazi anti-Semitism was at least acceptable. Even if they rejected the more radical expressions of hostility toward Jews, many Germans had come to believe that Jews played too large a role in German politics, society, and culture, and that their influence had to be in some way curtailed. Still, it was more the economic and political crisis of the Republic than anti-Semitism as such that secured popular support for the Nazis among the electorate.
Ultimately, the Nazis brought together the established and the radical Right. The more traditional elements thought they could use the Nazis to destroy the Republic. The Nazis thought they could use the established Right to come to power. On January 30, 1933, President Hindenburg, acting at the behest of a small clique of army officers, high state officials, landowners, and businessmen, named Hitler to be chancellor Germany. The assumption of power occurred in a legal, constitutional manner. Many Germans were reassured that the new government contained only three Nazis – Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring and Wilhelm Frick – while the other cabinet members were conservative bureaucrats and political figures. Inhibited by none of the established mechanisms in politics and society, the Nazis would easily triumph over their erstwhile allies.
The Weimar Republic did not collapse. The Republic was destroyed by the alliance of the established and the radical Right, who despised the Republic’s emancipatory promise and were determined to bring it down.