Responses to the Treaty of Versailles. The post-war peace settlement, signed in 1919, imposed harsh terms on Germany which generated intense political debate and division. Though the vast majority of Germans opposed the treaty, they were strongly divided about how to respond to it. Right-wing nationalist groups, like the Nazis, demanded the Weimar government refuse to acknowledge the treaty or comply with its terms. Moderates and pragmatists rejected this approach; they believed it would provoke foreign powers to strangle Germany economically and possibly incite war or invasion. Under the ministership of Gustav Stresemann, the government’s approach was to restore foreign relations and to work for a re-negotiation of Versailles and its punitive terms. Germany’s reparations burden. Also stemming from the Treaty of Versailles was the issue of reparations. Historians have reached different conclusions about whether the final reparations figure was justified and the extent to which the exhausted German economy was capable of meeting this obligation. The general consensus is that the final amount was excessive; this hampered Germany’s post-war economic recovery and therefore its ability to stabilise politically. By 1922 Germany was unable to pay quarterly reparations instalments, triggering the Ruhr occupation, the hyperinflation crisis and the collapse of two government coalitions. Reparations remained a divisive issue for the duration of the Weimar Republic.
The impact of conspiracy theories. The political fertility of post-war Germany gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories, the most prolific and poisonous being the Dolchstosselegende or ‘stab in the back’ theory. This fallacy claimed that the 1918 surrender was engineered by socialists, liberals and Jews in Germany’s civilian government, rather than being the product of military defeat. This myth had two significant effects. Firstly, it undermined trust in post-war civilian government, and particularly the SPD, which was painted as treacherous and unpatriotic. Secondly, the Dolchstosslegendeprotected and maintained the prestige of the military and its commanders, despite their profound failures in 1918. The nature of the Weimar Constitution. Germany’s post-war constitution has footed much of the blame for the political instability of the 1920s. The constitutional drafters of 1919 attempted to construct a political system not unlike that of the United States, with democracy, federalism and checks and balances. They created an executive presidency with considerable powers to bypass or override the elected Reichstag. Some historians suggest that the president – with his seven-year term and hefty emergency powers – was not that far removed from the former Kaiser. The stalemate in the Reichstag encouraged and possibly required the use of these powers, which only enhanced and worsened political divisions.
Weimar’s divisive electoral system. The proportional voting system adopted in Weimar Germany was inherently democratic, in that it allocated Reichstag representation based on the share of votes that each party received. Proportional voting ruled out any prospect of majority government. It also filled the Reichstag with smaller parties, many of which had membership and policies that were wholly sectional or regional. The scattered composition of the Reichstag made maintaining and forming coalitions difficult and hindered the process of debating and passing legislation. The difficulties of minority government. For the duration of the Weimar Republic, no single political party ever held a majority of Reichstag seats. To form government and push through legislation, coalition voting blocs had to be coddled together in order to form a majority. But the political divisions of the 1920s made these coalitions fragile and unstable. Some parties, especially those on the radical fringes, either refused to participate in Reichstag coalitions, or