The Death of a Republic: Germany 1933

A piece of currency from 1923 worth 200 billion reichsmarks GUNTER KIRSCH/ALAMY

Adolf Hitler's dreams for a 1,000-year empire thankfully ended in ruin more than 70 years ago, but his crimes still cast a long shadow over humanity. Newsweek's Special Edition—Hitler: Can His Evil Legacy Ever Be Defeated?, by Issue Editor James Ellis explores his evil reign and the impact it still has on the world today.

For centuries Germans were a people in search of a state. Although the tribes roaming the north-central reaches of Europe loosely shared a set of cultural and linguistic touchstones, the modern German nation-state didn't come into being until the late 19th century. A remarkable number of revolutions and reformations have swept through modern German throughout its relatively brief history, the most dramatic (and for the rest of the word, consequential) being the collapse of the Weimar Republic and its replacement by Hitler's Third Reich. But Germans didn't just wake up one day and decide to become Nazis. Hitler was only able to seize the state because the Republic's massive flaws allowed it, and to fully understand his reign of evil, there must be an understanding of the breeding ground from which it spawned.

The Weimar Republic was born from violence. In the wake of Germany's defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Kaiser, members of the country's Social Democrat party spearheaded a movement for a representative republic that culminated in the Republic's declaration in the city of Weimar. From its inception, the Republic faced a series of revolutions and coups, both from the Communists on the left and elements of the disgruntled military leadership on the right. But one of the most deadly weapons threatening the Republic's existence didn't come from the battlefield, but from the banks and treasuries of the nations that had defeated Germany. The financial reparations for the damage caused by German armies in France and Belgium undermined Germany's currency, given its government's refusal to raise taxes to pay them. The resulting hyperinflation reduced the Republic's currency to a nationally sponsored joke and brought misery to everyday Germans trying to make ends meet.

The Republic's early leaders proved themselves up to the task of keeping the government together—at least initially. Although the Republic's system of electing members to the Reichstag (its legislative body) by proportional party vote did not help a country divided between its regions, classes and religious denominations, Germany entered something of a cultural and economic renaissance by 1924.

That all came to an abrupt end when the American financial markets went kaput five years later. German businesses had come to depend on loans from banks in the U.S. for their survival, and when the Great Depression crippled American banks, the economic engine driving German employment stalled. As more and more workers joined the ranks of the unemployed, the bankers, doctors, lawyers and business owners comprising the country's besieged middle class feared a Communist uprising. The moderate political parties, save the Social Democrats and the Catholic Centre parties, found themselves bereft of constituents and relegated to the sidelines.

The rampant inflation of the Weimar Republic’s currency, the mark, made it nearly worthless as a means of purchasing the necessities of life. The innovative German woman pictured here opts to use the money as fuel for a stove. WORLD HISTORY ARCHIVE/ALAMY

However, Germans did take note of a vigorous, uncompromising movement vowing to make their nation great again. The Nazis gained support both among young Germans disaffected with the Republic and with middle-class Germans searching for a bulwark against a Communist takeover. Hitler and his Nazis now found themselves a
valuable asset in a German political system ruled not so much by elections as by behind-the-scenes horse trading and parliamentary maneuvers between the presidency and chancellery, the only parts of Weimar still capable of governing with any type of efficacy. Conservative politicians believed the Nazis' popularity could be used as a tool to build their own Germany. But once appointed Chancellor, Hitler turned on his would-be puppet masters and through a combination of deft political moves and unprecedented brutality among his followers, he became Germany's undisputed ruler. It would be a harbinger of greater carnage to come.

This article was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition—Hitler, Can His Evil Legacy Ever Be Defeated?, by Issue Editor James Ellis. For more about the the rise and fall of the world's most infamous dictator, pick up a copy today.

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The Death of a Republic: Germany 1933 | World