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The Rise of Nazism in Germany
Germany’s defeat in World War One created political, economic and social instability in the Weimar Republic and led to the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) or Nazi party.
The First World War placed increasingly heavy strains and sacrifices on the German people. The gap between the rich and poor widened and divisions between classes increased. It had direct effect on the workers’ living standard as earnings fell and food shortages grew. Food was sold on the growing black market but the prices were high and the poor could not afford to buy. This led to a crisis in the cities and as many as 700 000 died of hypothermia and starvation in the winter of 1916-17.
In order to force the German people to bear the hardship of the war, chancellor Bethmann Hollweg promised political reform in a speech in the Reichstag in February 1917. This promise led to political unrest and an organized strike of 400 000 ammunition workers in Berlin, which threatened to cripple arms production. However, as long as the military held their dominant position and the possibility of victory remained, the prospects of reform seemed remote. After the chancellor was forced to resign in July 1917 military repression increased. There were severe restrictions on the right of assembly, stricter control of meetings to discuss grievances, a return to military service for striking workers and the banning of all anti-war material. In September 1918 the military effort suddenly collapsed. The allied powers, in particular President Wilson of the United States, demanded that Germany be transformed into a democracy. On November 1918 the SPD declared the abdication of the Kaiser and the birth of the new Weimar Republic.
On 28 June 1919 the German government signed the Treaty of Versailles imposed on it by the victorious powers. Clause 231 blamed Germany for causing the war and vast majority of Germans rejected this. They blamed the Weimar government for losing the war and signing the outrageous Treaty. Linked to this was the demand for financial compensation for the cost of the war paid to France and Britain. This shocked the Germans severely as it would be hard to pay reparations since the war had weakened the country. Germany’s army personnel was to be reduced to 100 000 and was forbidden to produce “offensive” weapons. There was to be no air force or submarines and the navy was to be reduced to six small battleships and six cruisers. Perhaps the hardest condition to bear was the territorial losses. Germany’s land was reduced by 13 % and all of its colonies were confiscated. Finally, because of French fears of another attack, German territory of Rhineland was to be permanently demilitarized.
Political conflict also arised within the Weimar government. The Worker’s Councils Congress demanded further reforms but was rejected by the SPD. The far left-wing, called the Spartacist League or the Communist Party, created an uprising, which was crushed by the Free Corps – a group of former army officers who later became active Nazis. The leaders of the rebels, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were arrested and murdered. These factors led to a permanent split between the SPD and the USPD.
Army reductions, demanded by the Versailles Treaty, triggered the Kapp Putsch. The extremist right group known as the National Association attempted to seize the government using the help of the Free Corps units. The uprising was defeated due to a general strike by the workers. The extremist right then used political assassination as a weapon to undermine the republic.
There was also an economic instability in Germany during the 1920s. Inflation in Germany began with the war in 1914 and remained a policy tool of the government until the currency stabilization in November 1923. Inflation allowed the government to pay back war debts in increasingly worthless currency and full employment and economic growth at a time when the victorious powers were suffering war slump. Inflation and high interest rates also attracted short-term investment. Hyperinflation in Germany led to a redistribution of wealth and those whose wealth lay in savings lost everything. Meanwhile the stability of the republic continued to be precarious against the determination of the nationalist opposition to bring it down.
Some aspects of the Weimar Constitution allowed the destruction of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi party. Article 20 stated, “Reichstag deputies were to be elected by universal, secret, direct ballot using the method of proportional representation”. The system of proportional representation made it easier to form new parties and difficult to create and maintain coalitions. The SPD failed to establish a coalition between USPD to oppose the Nazis and this helped the Nazi Party to rise and gain power. Article 48 stated, “If public order was endangered the president could suspend the fundamental rights guaranteed elsewhere in the constitution, and could intervene if necessary with armed force”. This granted an enormous amount of power to a single member of the government – the president. Once the Nazi Party rose to power and Hitler became the chancellor, he was able to impose on the fundamental rights of the German citizens during wartime and direct the armed forces.
Social and political effects of the German defeat in WW1, the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and the political and economical instability of the Weimar Republic led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.