- Sep 13, 2008
Dancing on a Volcano
Looking back over the 1910s in late 1919, FVP leader Adam Stegerwald remarked ‘’we were dancing on a volcano’’ referring to the undermining of the unity of German Republicanism throughout the decade. When the volcano eventually erupted in 1919 it presented Republican Democracy with the gravest threat it had ever faced.
The government set an early precedent in its latest term for how it intended to proceed as compromise as negotiations over foreign policy in the turbulent months of 1914 were handle largely by the leaders of the FVP and DZP with the Social Democrats having policies they disagreed with imposed upon them. In February a small army was dispatched to the Middle East to assist the Ottoman Empire – whose military had lost control of most of Syria, Kurdistan and Mesopotamia with Palestine and the heart of Anatolia under threat. The effect the presence of elite German troops and advisors had upon the Ottoman was extraordinary – by the end of the year the rebellion in the Islamic East of the Empire was over, even as conflict continued to rage in the Balkans (where the Germans had refused to become involved).
In Hungary, the government entered into a diplomatic standoff. After initial fears that the Communist states would march to war to protect Hungary subsided when it became clear that Scandinavia had no desire to enter into an unwinnable war against Germany and her allies. This led to an easing of tensions along the Danube as the Germans looked to negotiate with Budapest. However, the triumphant diplomatic mission to Moscow of Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti in July 1914 proved a game changing moment. With Italy and Russia now locked in an alliance the two powers, incapable of challenging Germany alone, presented a counterpoint to German hegemony in Central and Eastern Europe. When the Italians began to open up diplomatic negotiations with the Hungarians in September, the German government panicked and invaded Hungary – establishing an anti-Communist Republican regime in the country by the end of the year.
During this period, Germany was not only afflicted by troubles abroad, but the rising power of the German Workers’ Party’s paramilitary organisation – colloquially known as the ‘paper hats’ or ‘brown shirts’. Whilst the organisation had existed for some time, it grew far bolder after 1914 following a change of leadership as the youthful figures of Julian Drexler and Adolf Hitler rose to the top of the party, and the famous ‘Battle of Kabel-Strasse’ in Munich, in which thousands of fascists had fought against a mixture of Jews, Socialists and other anti-fascists over the course of several hours before breaking forth to ransack the Jewish quarter – police not arriving to drive away the fascists for hours. Kabel-Strasse quickly became mythologised by fascists and anti-fascists alike – both pointing towards the paper hats’ success as a clear indication of the weakness of their opponents. As the DAP’s paramilitaries grew stronger, increasing in size, and bolder in their actions through the 1910s Socialists would frequently call for the state to provide a greater degree of security for embattled communities, many demanding that the brown shirts, and even the DAP be banned.
Starting at the very end of 1914, the government began to institute a renewed programme of economic cooling after the level of subsidies had once again ballooned over the course of the year. With this round of cooling lasting well into 1916, was more severe than the previous round and left a far more lingering impact on Germany. Even after economic cooling was announced to be over in 1916 the taxes for the working class remained at a much higher level, even as those for the rich fell (with the state taking a far less prominent role in supporting industrial investments), worse still wages continued to be suppressed throughout the period as a means of improving industrial profits even as prices rose rapidly a lingering level of regional unemployment continued to afflict parts of the country where the new industries (which began to really boom during this period) had never taken a strong foothold – Vienna, the Rhineland, Silesia, Saxony and Prussia outside of Brandenburg being the worst effected provinces. By the end of the decade German industry appeared to be in a strong position, punctuated by now highly profitable modern industries (Germany produced 60% of the world’s automobiles and 70% of its planes and telephones by 1920) and steadily expanded year on year, not to mention no longer reliant on state subsidisation. However, all this had come at a serious social and political cost.
After the elections of 1914, the Communist Party went through five different leaders in a little over three years. The party was torn between moderates who wished to focus unquestionably on anti-fascist and trade union work – and sought unification with the SPD – revolutionaries who denounced Social Democracy and slavishly pro-Scandinavian factions who looked to Copenhagen for answers in all things. In the end, it was the rightist moderates who won the factional struggle in the party as around 1/3 of the membership left to found various extra-parliamentary groups in early 1917. At the same time, the SPD had been going through internal struggles of its own as the staunchly pro-government leadership of Friedrich Ebert was brought down in the same year and replaced with the left leaning leadership of Arthur Crispien – a former USPD deputy who had re-joined the SPD when the left had moved to form the KPD. Crispien had fought for the leadership on an ambitious platform – he promised to remain within the government but provide greater support for the trade union movement which had felt abandoned under Ebert, to strengthen the struggle against fascism, to seek working class unity (in other words some sort of accord with the Communists) and to prevent any further imperialist engagements on the part of the German government that might provoke international conflict.
On May 1st 1917 the SPD and KPD ceased to exist as the two parties dissolved themselves into the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or SED). The new party was, for all intents and purposes, a continuation of the SPD only enlarged to include the Communist Party’s valuable cadres and infrastructure. The SED was now Germany’s largest parties both in terms of membership and Reichstag representation. Quickly the party began to put its plans into action. With FVP and DZP unwilling to legislate against the DAP or its organisations (siting past disputes such as the Kulturkampf and Anti-Socialist Laws) the Socialists looked to alternative means to combat the fascists. Working alongside other anti-fascists (including supporters of other Republican parties) the Socialists organised local militias ready to fight against any paper hat assaults whilst the DAP programmes of community support, including soup kitchens amongst other programmes, were fought against by parallel anti-fascist organised institutions in support of the needy.
As industrial action began to ramp up through 1917, in line with rising economic prosperity, which was clearly not being passed down to the working class, tensions within the coalition grew ever more strained with the FVP and DZP refusing to budge even as the SED’s militancy slowly rose. Between February and late April 1918 a long wave of industrial action across the country saw the alliance between the Socialists and the Populists, which had endured for two decades, break down for the first time. With trade unionist demanding more progressive taxation (which would ease the burden on workers), wage rises after years of stagnation, an end to factory closures in areas with high unemployment and the 8 hour day the SED backed them to the hilt. With the Populists eager to keep the Centrists on side by standing against the trade unions the coalition broke down as the hostility between the SED and the other parties grew too great – the Socialists left the government in April 1918, agreeing to tolerate a minority FVP-DZP administration until the Presidential elections in less than a year.
When Adam Stegerwald had first run for the Presidency in 1905, the election at which the right was defeated – ushering into 14 years of FVP led government – the DNVP had attempted to lure Centrist votes over to their camp by promoting the candidacy of Austrian born General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. Their strategy in 1919 would be similar with another military hero lured into standing for the Presidency from a non-partisan background. Paul von Hindenburg had spent half a century in the German military. Hindenburg had been present at the proclamation of the German Empire in 1869, as he was being decorated for outstanding bravery in the German War of 1868-9 that had led to the unification – subsequently serving in the War of 1873 against France, in East Africa during the late 1870s, in the Brothers’ War against Austria-Hungary in 1881-2 and then the Great War in 1886-7. After the Great War he fought against the revolutionaries during the Civil War, but was deployed by Ludendorff, who viewed him as a potential rival for power, to Hungary to assist in the struggle against revolutionaries there, where he remained 1899 – avoiding being associated with the worst excesses of the Ludendorff dictatorship. During the Republican era Hindenburg reached the very pinnacle of the German Army – becoming Chief of Staff in 1908 he organised Germany’s victories over Italy in the Alpine War of 1910-11 and Hungary in 1914 before retiring in 1915. Although sympathetic to the right, Hindenburg had avoided involving himself in politics until late 1918 when several retired military men associated with the DNVP had lured him into running for the Presidency at the age of 71.
The deep divisions in Germany’s Republican camp facilitated Hindenburg’s spectacular capture of the Presidency in 1919. Campaigning for stable government, constitutional reform and anti-Marxism the old General was able to capture support from wide sections of Germany’s political spectrum. In the first round of the election a minority of the FVP had rejected the calls of the leadership to support the Centrist candidate Wilhelm Marx – blaming alliance with the DZP for the collapse in the party’s relationship with the Socialists – and instead voted for Crispien whilst some had abstained. Far more importantly, the right wing of the Centre Party launched a dramatic rebellion under the leadership of blue-blooded Westphalian Franz von Papen 35 Centrist Reichstag members voted for Paul von Hindenburg in the first round of voting, instead of their party’s own candidate. With the DAP lining up behind Julian Drexler, in the first round Hindenburg could rely on the support of the DNVP as well as around half of the DDP – with a large number of Liberals rebelling against their leadership’s calls for a vote for Hindenburg as a means of defeating the left.
With Hindenburg and Crispien passing through to the second round of voting, the Socialist candidate portrayed himself as the democratic and Republican antithesis to Hindenburg’s authoritarian monarchism. By beating the drum of Republican unity Crispien was able to amass most of the FVP and much of the DZP (Wilhelm Marx publically supporting him in the second round). However, Hindenburg drew the support of virtually all of the DAP (Drexler’s calls for right wing unity against the left drowning out Hitler’s belief in an abstention in the second round) and DDP (with small numbers abstaining) and a slightly larger number of Centrists as he rallied a broad base of opinion behind himself, many favouring an authoritarian President to a Socialist.
Hindenburg’s victory represented a disaster for Republican democracy in Germany. Soon after his victory he dismissed the FVP-DZP government and appointed Gustav Stresemann of the DNVP as Chancellor in a government featuring the DDP and DZP (the Centre Party, as ever, propping up the government in the name of stability) and tolerated by the DAP, whose Julian Drexler saw the regime as favourable to the Republican alternative. Germany now had a monarchist Chancellor with a sympathetic President. Stresemann quickly became the architect of a legalistic path for Germany to reform its political institutions, potentially restoring the monarchy but at the very least creating a strong Presidential Republic. With the monarchists in the new government (including those within the DZP associated with von Papen) in balance with Republicans, constitutional reform would be difficult navigate – in the end Stresemann secured the promise of a referendum alongside the coming legislative elections in one years’ time, the German people would be given the opportunity to vote on whether to give President Hindenburg full powers to write a new draft constitution that would then be presented to the newly elected Reichstag.
Having lost power for the first time in 14 years the Republican Left was shattered and despondent. With the Weimar Republic that they had helped form and so cherished now under grave threat both the FVP and SED entered into a period of internal discord as different factions looked to find who was to blame for the rise of Hindenburg. In the FVP, Adam Stegerwald, who had dominated the party since the War, came under heavy criticism with many considering removing him from the leadership. However, taking personal responsibility for the collapse of the unity of German Republicanism and promising to defeat the Anti-Republican Right in the coming elections he retained his position as leader. Arthur Crispien of the SED was not so lucky, with his confrontational politics being blamed for causing wavering deputies to either abstain or support Hindenburg the party’s first leader was replaced with a man from the party’s right – Philipp Scheidemann. Calling for a renewal of the historic alliance between Populism and Socialism, Scheidemann was able to restore the alliance between the two parties as his ascension to the leadership was cheerily greeted by the FVP.
As the 1920 elections drew ever closer Germany appeared more polarised than ever between the supporters of the Weimar Republic and those who wished to call all its existing institutions into question.