19 April 2024

Effects of the Arandora Star Sinking

From The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp, by Simon Parkin (Scribner, 2022), Kindle pp. 178-179:

THROUGHOUT THE WARM WEEKS OF July [1940], as Hutchinson’s internees appointed their leaders and cooks, drew up the schedule of lectures and entertainments, and learned to paint, a pile of suitcases sat in a corner of another internment camp in Devon, a few hundred miles away. Rescued from the wreck of the Arandora Star, these unclaimed effects were the somber luggage of the recently deceased. It was a smaller pile of belongings than those left at the doors to the Holocaust’s shower rooms, but still emblematic of injustice. As the swollen bodies of the dead began to wash onto Irish and Hebridean beaches, so fresh details about the tragedy continued to emerge, casting further doubt on the official version of events.

On July 30, in the House of Commons, the secretary of state for war, Anthony Eden was asked whether the government had known for sure that, as previously claimed, everyone aboard the Arandora Star had been a Nazi sympathizer. By now, Eden knew for certain that this had not been the case.

“Fifty-three [Germans and Austrians aboard] were or claimed to be refugees, but had nevertheless been placed in category A,” he conceded.

In Whitehall, the impersonal statistics were now clothed with the intimacies of story. Politicians learned that, among the dead, there was a German sailor who came to Britain as an anti-fascist, only to be interned with a “mélange” of Nazi sympathizers; there was a metalworker who, after spending four years imprisoned in Nazi camps, escaped to Britain, was interned, then killed in the sinking; there was the blind pensioner who had been separated from his wife for the first time in his life.

The admission that refugees of Nazi oppression had been aboard the ship caused widespread outrage and called into question the wider policy of mass internment, which had begun to seem less like a rational security measure and more like victim-blaming on an industrial scale. The Jewish Chronicle, which just a few months earlier had defended a wartime government’s “right to interfere drastically with the freedom of the individual,” now likened the “disgraceful hounding of refugees” to “Gestapo methods.” Readers agreed. “It seems strange that in order to defeat the Gestapo abroad, it should be considered necessary to introduce their methods at home,” wrote Moya Woodside in a typical letter published in the Northern Whig. The public’s attitude had changed. Policy would duly follow.

While still far from secure, Britain’s general position in the war had shifted enough that, as Churchill put it to his cabinet, it was now possible to “take a somewhat less rigid attitude in regard to the internment of aliens.” Arrests, which had continued at a rate of around 150 per day throughout July, were suspended. If a so-called enemy alien had thus far managed to avoid being apprehended, they would most likely remain free for the remainder of the war. Mass internment was finished.

“That tragedy may… have served a useful if terrible purpose,” said Lord Faringdon of the Arandora Star in a speech to the House of Lords later that week. “For it may have opened the eyes of those responsible, and of members of the public, and of His Majesty’s Government.” It would take months and years to unpick the tangled mess of internment. Politicians’ efforts to justify and distance themselves from the episode were, by contrast, immediate.

18 April 2024

Hutchinson Internment Camp in U.K.

From The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp, by Simon Parkin (Scribner, 2022), Kindle pp. 164-166:

Hutchinson was six weeks old; Peter had entered a maturing universe. The internees had developed their daily routines—the favored mug, the preferred toilet cubicle, the ideal route to take when crossing the lawn—habits of minor, vital comfort. The camp’s daily, immovable routine provided the semblance of a reassuring structure, too. For those who couldn’t manage to rouse themselves for the optional dawn exercises held on the lawn square at 7:00, there was mandatory roll call at 7:30. Breakfast: 8:15. Lunch: 12:30. Supper: 7:00. Then, a final counting of heads at 9:30 in the evening.

Thanks to Ahrends and Hinrichsen’s formidable powers of organization, the camp’s schedule of intellectual diversions had grown and diversified, too. On the week of Peter’s arrival, Hutchinson’s timetable of cultural events listed no fewer than forty lectures. The subjects covered philosophy, bookkeeping, medieval history, and the nutritional benefits of fruit (Title: “Q. ‘Why should we eat oranges?’ A. ‘Vitamins’ ”), as well as performances of Brahms and Schubert by a young graduate of the Royal College of Music, Hans Fürth, accompanied on violin by the impressionist painter Fritz Salomonski.

For internees who wished to practice their French, there was a weekly “Cercle Française” run by Dr. Arthur Bratu, a teacher who fled Germany for Belgium before escaping to Britain on a fishing boat. Anyone interested in photography could join weekly classes offered by Paul Henning, a member of the Artists Café. There were soccer games, chess tournaments, boxing matches, and local hikes—albeit under armed guard—through the island countryside, with its bowed reeds and ragwort. In the afternoons Peter could watch a kind of proto-aerobics session on the lawn: exercise set to music, led by Kurt Böhm, the school gymnastics teacher. For a young orphan from Berlin it was overwhelming.

“Artists? Painting? Concerts? For free? Every day? It was unheard of,” Peter later recalled.

There was, in Hutchinson camp, no shortage for a man in search of diversion. There was opportunity for paid work, too. The Camp Bank consisted of one manager and a few clerks; the Post and Parcel Office employed a postmaster and four staff. Sixteen men made up the Fire Brigade and the Air Raid Precaution Services and had regular drills to practice using the portable reciprocating water pumps known as stirrup pumps. They were supplemented by one doctor and twelve stretcher bearers.

In the six weeks since its opening, the camp office had expanded its range of community services, too. It now housed two shoemakers, a laundry, a tailor, a pressing and ironing service, a shirt repairer, two hairdressers, and four watch repairers; services that had enabled some internees to return to the vocations they had been forced to leave behind in their homelands. At the suggestion of Bertha Bracey’s man-in-situ, William Hughes, the members of this last group fixed watches owned by residents outside the camp at the trade union pay rate, on the proviso that the watchmakers did not train any fellow internees—presumably so as not to further threaten the livelihoods of British workers. Those who preferred outdoor employment could apply to chop wood or work as farm laborers. One group of young men from Hutchinson helped to build the island’s airport, digging ditches and laying cables.

Anyone could buy items from the camp canteen, managed by Hans Guttmann, the director of Hammond book publishing. Guttmann, supported by four shop assistants, would even allow any internee to purchase items on credit, provided they could prove they owned a bank account on the outside. In time, every prisoner of war and internment camp, including Hutchinson, received bespoke currency: generic notes stamped with the “camp of issue.”

The camp had emerging opportunities for men who wished to exercise existing talents or seek out new ones. Few may have recognized Otto Haas-Heye, a distinguished clothes designer who, via his Berlin salon Alfred-Marie, helped shape fashion during the 1920s. After a dozen or so men joined his weaving school and began to produce exquisite rugs under his tutelage and direction, however, everyone recognized his work. A carpentry school taught woodwork, while another group made artificial flowers and stuffed animals. Some items were of a particularly high quality. Michael Corvin wrote of Leon Kuhmerker’s talent for artificial flower making: “The [flowers] consist mainly of fine coloured leather and their appearance is amazingly vivid… no flower leaves the little shop which is not perfect in form and unique in making.”

A shop was opened in Douglas to sell items made by the internees, including rugs from the weaving school and model boats made by the carpenters. In her role as chair of the Central Department for Interned Refugees, Bertha Bracey organized materials for most of the workshops and schools.

16 April 2024

U.S. vs. U.K. on Mass Internment

From The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp, by Simon Parkin (Scribner, 2022), Kindle pp. 65-67:

ON SEPTEMBER 1, 1939, TWO days before Britain declared war on Germany, police forces around the country received the order to unseal the envelopes sent by MI5 and arrest those individuals named within. In London, officers escorted the internees to the Olympia exhibition hall on Hammersmith, which had been set aside as a clearing center, even forcing the men to pay for the taxi ride. By the end of the week, 350 individuals had been arrested across the country and delivered to Internment Camp No. 4, an out-of-season seaside resort at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, just fifteen miles away from the Kindertransport camp at Harwich.

Despite months of investigation and planning, this first wave of arrests—intended to capture only the most dangerous Nazi sympathizers and fervent communists—was characterized by mistakes and misunderstandings. Eugen Spier, Alex Nathan, and Dr. Bernhard Weiss, all Jews and staunch anti-fascists, were among the first men arrested and taken to Olympia, where they were herded alongside bona fide Nazis such as Hitler’s friend Ernst Hanfstaengl. Weiss was the former Berlin police chief and had become famous in Germany after he sued Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, more than forty times for libel and won every time. It was difficult to imagine a less likely suspect for a Nazi spy.

With those MI5 had deemed highest risk interned, the question of what was to be done with the thousands of other “enemy aliens” living in Britain immediately arose. In the House of Commons on September 4, the MP Arthur Greenwood put the following question to the home secretary, Sir John Anderson, who had been on the job only a day: “What steps [do you] intend to take to deal with aliens in time of war?”

For the first time in public, Anderson began to explain the government’s plans.

“A number of aliens whose suspicious activities have been under observation are already under detention,” explained Anderson. Others, he said, would now have to report to the police and obtain permits for change of residence, travel, and the possession of items such as cameras and motorcars.

“A large proportion of the Germans and Austrians at present in this country are refugees, and there will, I am sure, be a general desire to avoid treating as enemies those who are friendly to the country which has offered them asylum,” Anderson continued. “At the same time, care must be taken to sift out any persons who, though claiming to be refugees, may not, in fact, be friendly to this country.”

Here was the essence of the problem facing the British government. In a letter to the foreign secretary, Sir John Anderson explained that “It was felt… it would be wrong to treat as enemies [those] refugees who are hostile to the Nazi regime, unlikely to do anything to assist the enemy and often anxious to assist the country which has given them asylum.” And yet, there was a risk that there could be enemies posing as refugees, spies who had already entered Britain under the cloak of asylum.

On September 29, Cordell Hull, the US secretary of state, sent a telegram to the American embassy in London warning of the moral dangers inherent in a policy of mass internment. Hull referenced the lessons of the First World War, when “the rigorous… internment of enemy aliens” caused “widespread and seemingly unnecessary suffering to thousands of innocent persons.” Copies of the message were also sent to the American embassies in Berlin and Paris, a pointed sign of US neutrality at this stage of the war.

For now, however, the threat of mass internment seemed both remote and mitigated by the plan for the tribunals that, between October 1939 and March 1940, would deliberate no fewer than 73,353 cases, including that of Peter Fleischmann. Most were refugees, and the others long-established residents or people who, by chance, were in Britain at the outbreak of war. Nevertheless, the reliability and loyalty of everyone would be examined by a panel. If suspicions remained, they were to be interned.

Not everyone condoned such a magnanimous approach. Guy Liddell, MI5’s head of counterintelligence, summed up his view of the decision to forgo mass internment with a single word: “Farce.”

14 April 2024

Death of Stresemann, 1929

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 506-508:

As news spread of Stresemann’s death, there was a flood of tributes. The Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (German General Newspaper) wrote, ‘It seemed necessary for this man to die for his real greatness to be appreciated by his compatriots.’ There were glowing tributes from leading world leaders, including Ramsay MacDonald, the British Prime Minister, who commented: ‘His memory is secure, and I cannot believe the great service he has given to pacification with such patience and faith can now be undone.’ Aristide Briand, the French Prime Minister, sent a telegram to Stresemann’s widow Käte, which read: ‘I will always retain the deepest respect for his memory. In pursuit of our common ideal, Dr Stresemann caused me to appreciate his lofty outlook and fine loyalty.’

Stresemann lay in state in the German parliament. Thousands of people filed past the open coffin to pay their respects before his state funeral on 6 October. Hermann Müller, the Reich Chancellor, bowed to the coffin in the Plenary Hall of the Reichstag, where the memorial service was held, before delivering a moving eulogy, describing Stresemann as a towering figure in world politics. There was then a solemn funeral procession through Berlin, pausing for several minutes outside the Foreign Ministry, before proceeding to burial in the Luisenstädtischer Friedhof in Kreuzberg, Berlin. It was estimated that a crowd of 200,000 had lined the route. Film newsreels of the event appeared in cinemas around the world.

Gustav Stresemann’s record entitles him to be seen not only as the Weimar Republic’s most successful Foreign Minister, but undoubtedly its most dominant political figure. It is impossible to see German history in the 1920s taking the same course without him. Some politicians make an enormous difference, and he was one of those who did. He was a member of every German cabinet from 1923 to 1929, and the Social Democrats were his most consistent supporters. Stresemann raised Germany from a humiliated and disgruntled foe in 1923 into a diplomatic equal and Great Power again at the time of his death. His achievements as Foreign Minister ended the Ruhr occupation of 1923, contributed to the stabilisation of the Republic, finalised the Locarno and Rapallo Treaties and the Kellogg–Briand Pact, took Germany into the League of Nations, eased Germany’s reparations burdens through the Dawes and Young Plans, and brought the foreign occupation of Germany to an end. Never has the Nobel Peace Prize had a more justified recipient.

Stresemann’s death left a huge void in German political life. He had been a force of stability within a deeply unstable political system, and had gained admiration around the world. There was no speech at the League of Nations in the months following his death that did not begin with a homage to his memory. There was simply no one in Germany or outside it capable of stepping into his shoes.

It is difficult to calculate the exact part his tragic death played in the destruction of German democracy, and the souring of international relations, but he was probably the one Weimar politician who, through the sheer force of his personality, might have saved it, though Stresemann himself thought everything in politics was determined by the state of the economy. Critics of Stresemann have depicted him as an opportunistic and deceitful power-politician with a hidden militaristic agenda, with some even trying to depict him as Hitler in a morning suit. Between the extremes of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Stresemann was predominantly Dr Jekyll, whereas Hitler was always Mr Hyde. But there is truly little evidence in his private papers or his diaries of Stresemann desiring a war of revenge or territorial expansion beyond restoring the territory lost by Germany under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and putting an end to reparations.

13 April 2024

Quaker Roles in Kindertransport

From The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp, by Simon Parkin (Scribner, 2022), Kindle pp. 40-44:

Shortly after Kristallnacht, Wilfrid Israel, a Jewish businessman and owner of Israel’s Department Store, one of the largest in Berlin, wrote to Bertha Bracey. Israel, a descendant of the first chief rabbi of Britain, Hermann Adler, was well connected—his friend Albert Einstein later said of Israel: “Never in my life have I come in contact with a being so noble, so strong and as selfless… a living work of art.”

Israel had already begun work to secure the release of Jews who had been arrested during the pogrom. He invited the commandant of Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp where Jewish men were being forced to accept the blame for Rath’s murder, to do his Christmas shopping at the store for free in exchange for the release of captives.

Now Israel wanted to organize the rescue of Jewish children up to the age of seventeen and find a way to send them to Britain. Israel knew that he needed the assistance of regional committees to quickly establish the machinery to realize such a plan, but British Jews were forbidden to visit Berlin. He had remained in contact with Bertha ever since they met in Nuremberg. Bertha was at her Euston office when she received the invitation from her old friend to visit him in Berlin.

The Quakers, a group that numbered just twenty-three thousand in Britain at the time, were permitted to travel freely to and from Nazi Germany. This generous attitude was the result of the group’s humanitarian work after the First World War, the so-called Quakerspeisung—Quaker feeding—a program that provided five million German children with food in the aftermath of the war and recession.

Many children who benefited from this philanthropic work grew up to become senior Nazi officers; the memory of the group’s benevolence remained clear across the nation and political divides. In 1936 a Nazi dictionary for children provided just three entries for church denominations: Protestanten, Katholische, and Quäker. The definition for Quäker identified the group as having “sacrificially cared for destitute children in Germany after the Great War.” As a result, the Nazi regime allowed the Quakers to continue their philanthropic work relatively unimpeded.

In the days after Kristallnacht, Bertha traveled to Berlin with a delegation of five colleagues to confer with Wilfrid Israel as to how they might, with the utmost urgency, evacuate children to Britain. When she arrived, Bertha attempted to keep her presence in the city secret, fearing that German Quakers living in the city might experience reprisals were the group’s plans exposed. These plans, first suggested by the German Jewish social worker and refugee activist Solomon Adler-Rudel and devised in collaboration with the Jewish Refugees Committee, were a masterpiece of collaboration and international organization.

Vulnerable German children up to the age of seventeen would take a train from Germany to the Netherlands, which, the day after Kristallnacht, had agreed to allow temporary residence to an unlimited number of German and Austrian children. From Holland, they would take the ferry to Britain, to be accepted into the home of a willing family. There would be unimaginable pain as children were parted from their parents, not knowing when or if they would again meet, but the plan seemed preferable to any alternative. As she returned to Britain, Bertha knew that without the backing of the British government—which would need to issue the immigration permits—it would come to naught.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was torn on how his government should respond to current events. As news from Germany spread, the prevailing tide of public opinion had shifted; national anxieties about asylum seekers were, it seemed, matched and even surpassed by the urge to demonstrate compassion on the international stage. Outrage had finally grown to the monstrous proportions necessary for action.

Chamberlain told the House of Commons that his government would consider “any possible way by which we can help these people.” An “open doors” policy was out of the question, however, not least because of fears that refugees might compete for jobs at a time of high unemployment. Even prominent Jewish representatives appeared to oppose the large-scale admission of Jews, seemingly afraid of agitating anti-Semitism in Britain.

Four days after the attacks, a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Foreign Policy discussed possible responses. The home secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, who was from a Quaker family, suggested that part of the British annual quota of sixty thousand immigrants—of which only about a quarter had currently been used—might be earmarked for German Jews suffering from Nazi oppression. The previous September, Winston Churchill had written an open letter in the Evening Standard imploring Hitler to cease his persecution of Jews; now he suggested settling refugees in a colony such as British Guiana. The discussion ended without resolution.

On the morning of November 21, eleven days after the violence of Kristallnacht, Bertha Bracey met the home secretary, accompanied by five other humanitarian representatives. Among them was Ben Greene, who had returned from a trip to Germany only that morning. The members of this interfaith group, called the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, outlined a plan that, Hoare soon realized, might represent precisely the kind of grand gesture that the British public required.

At first, Hoare expressed some doubt that any parents would willingly send their child alone to a foreign country, to live with strangers. Greene explained that, while he was in Berlin, he had put the same question to Jewish families in person.

“They were,” Greene told the politician, “almost unanimously in favor of parting with their children.” Better to assume the risks of their children going to a foreign country, most parents had told him, than keep them to face the capricious dangers at home.

Moved by Bertha’s tragic descriptions of Berlin, challenged by her display of Quaker faith in action, and no doubt inspired by what seemed like a public relations coup, Hoare at last committed to a course of action. Provided they had a guarantor to offer food, shelter, and the cost of a ticket home, “transmigrant” children, as they were to be known, would be welcome in Britain. Visas and alien cards would be waived in place of a new permit bearing the child’s name and those of his or her parents.

That evening Hoare made good on his promise. In a debate in the House of Commons he pledged that, while the refugee issue was “an international problem” that “no single country can hope to solve,” Britain was “prepared to play [its] full part. “I believe that we could find homes in this country for a very large number [of children] without any harm to our own population,” he continued. We shall, Hoare promised, “put no obstacle in the way of children coming here.”

There was much to be done. In addition to the logistical challenges involved in bringing unaccompanied minors across Europe, there was the issue of locating and vetting British families who could provide safe lodging. Ideally these individuals would be equipped to ease the children’s psychological turmoil at having been separated from their parents. Regional committees needed to be set up to enlist foster parents and organize accommodations.

Then there was the question of how—considering that the need vastly outstripped the provision—places would be allocated. Priority would be given to middle-class candidates, perceived to be likely to adapt most quickly to a new country, and—in a grim paralleling of the Nazi preference for Aryan-looking children—blond girls were favored, as potential British foster parents and guarantors were more inclined to choose them from photographs.

Dennis Cohen, chair of the Jewish Refugees Committee’s emigration department, and his wife left for Berlin on November 28, 1938, to finalize arrangements with the German government and consult with the welfare organizations responsible for making selections—the Reichsvertretung in Germany, and the Kultusgemeinde in Austria—from more than six hundred applications that had already arrived.

The children were to be brought out of Germany by various means, mainly train, but also by plane in some cases. The proposal was dubbed by the German Railway Authority as simply Kindertransport—the Children’s Transport.

The Nazis cooperated with the plan: so long as no money or valuables were removed from Germany, and the emigration was handled discreetly and with no cost to the state, the party voiced no objection to sending Jewish children to Britain. The SS organized extra carriages for the refugees to be attached to regular trains. The refugees would be accompanied by a minimum number of adult supervisors, around one adult per twenty-five children in the first instance. The British act of benevolence was also conditional: all young people accepted into the country were expected to have left Britain for a new country of asylum within two years, preferably one.

09 April 2024

Kellogg-Briand Delusions, 1927

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 468-470:

At the same time as Hitler was planning a future world war, the world’s major powers were gathering in the Clock Room (Salon de l’Horloge) inside the French Foreign Office on the Quai d’Orsay, Paris, on 27 August, for an elaborate ceremony to sign the General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy. The pact had evolved from negotiations begun in 1927 by Frank Kellogg, the US Secretary of State, and Aristide Briand, the French Foreign Minister. On 6 April 1927, Briand announced his country’s intention to enter into a bilateral agreement with the USA, stipulating that neither country would resort to war with each other, and that any dispute between them would be settled by peaceful means. Two months later, Briand submitted to the American government a draft of the proposed treaty. The American reply came in December 1927. Kellogg suggested the proposed Franco-American agreement should be expanded into a multilateral treaty to be signed by other countries, to which Briand readily agreed. In recognition of their joint diplomatic efforts, the agreement became known as the Kellogg–Briand Pact, and was greatly welcomed by the public.

At the signature ceremony in Paris, Briand gave an inspiring speech, saying at one point: ‘Can the world present a nobler lesson than the spectacle of this assemblage, where Germany appears for the signature of a pact against war, of its own free will, and without reserve, among the other signatories, its former enemies?’ Briand also spoke in glowing terms of Stresemann: ‘One can believe me particularly happy, to render homage to the highness of mind and to the courage of this eminent politician who, during more than three years, has not hesitated to assume full responsibility in the work of European co-operation for the maintenance of peace.’

The main text of the Kellogg–Briand Pact consisted of two brief articles. Under Article 1, the signatories condemned the ‘recourse to war for the solution of international controversies’, and further promised to ‘renounce it as an instrument of national policy in their relationship with one another’. Article 2 required the contracting parties to solve all disputes or conflicts by peaceful means. The original 15 signatories were the United Kingdom, Germany, USA, France, Italy, Japan, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland, and South Africa. Eventually, a further 47 nations followed suit. Elements of the pact were later incorporated into the League of Nations charter.

The Kellogg–Briand agreement, which was seen at the time as a milestone in international relations, gave the public around the world the false illusion that perpetual peace had arrived, but did not limit in any way the right of a nation to self-defence against the attack of any other nation, or alter the military obligations arising from the Covenant of the League of Nations or already agreed binding treaties. The pact contained no legal mechanism for enforcement and was, for some, a ‘worthless piece of paper’, which proved completely ineffective as a means of preventing war. It did provide, however, a legal basis for the concept of a ‘crime against peace’, the crime for which the Nuremberg Tribunal and the Tokyo Tribunal tried and executed the senior leaders judged responsible for starting the Second World War.

08 April 2024

Russo-German Rearmament, 1926

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 417-419:

The year ended dramatically with another domestic political crisis, revolving once again around the activities of the Reichswehr. It began on 3 December, when the Manchester Guardian published an article by its Berlin correspondent, Frederick Voigt, on the clandestine connection between the Reichswehr and the Soviet government, headlined ‘Cargoes of Munitions from Russia to Germany’. The article gave details of an agreement between the Junkers Company and the Soviet government to build factories for the manufacture of military aircraft. Details of this plan fell into the hands of Voigt, who also discovered plans for the building of chemical plants in the Soviet Union that would manufacture poison gas for both countries. Voigt further revealed that a Soviet cargo ship loaded with ammunition and weapons had sunk in the Baltic, en-route to Germany. A second article by Voigt, published on 6 December, with the headline ‘Berlin Military Transactions’, gave details about the building of a Junkers plant in Moscow, which was intended to manufacture 100 aeroplanes for German use. It was clear Seeckt had sanctioned these plans, and officers of the Reichswehr had travelled to Russia on false passports to disguise their identities.

On 9 December, the Social Democratic newspaper Vorwärts printed these startling revelations, under the headline: ‘Soviet Grenades for German Guns’. The Social Democrats were given further damaging information about German secret rearmament: in the harbour of Stettin, local stevedores had observed freighters bringing in artillery shells from Russia for delivery to the Reichswehr. These workers admitted they were given extra money in return for a promise of secrecy. On 16 December, Philipp Scheidemann, a prominent Social Democratic member of the Reichstag, used parliamentary exemption from prosecution to deliver a devastating speech outlining details of the Russo-German secret rearmament, during which he called for the resignation of Otto Gessler, the Defence Minister. Right-wing nationalists called Scheidemann ‘a traitor’ and walked out of the debating chamber. Of course, the allegations made by Scheidemann were not new, but the effect of revealing them in a Reichstag debate raised the political temperature to boiling point.

The Social Democrats called on the Chancellor, Wilhelm Marx, to immediately remove Gessler as the Defence Minister and reform the Reichswehr. Failure to act would compel them to withdraw their support from the government. On 17 December, the day after Scheidemann’s incendiary speech, the Social Democrats tabled a vote of no confidence against the Marx government, which was carried by a vote of 249 to 171, with the DNVP surprisingly voting for the motion because they were determined to join the next government.

The third Marx cabinet resigned on 18 December, but agreed to Hindenburg’s request to stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government was formed. For the third year running, Germans celebrated Christmas with another government crisis. Once again, it would not be resolved until the New Year.

07 April 2024

Reactions to the 1926 Treaty of Berlin

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 397-400, 416:

Meanwhile, German foreign policy once again took centre stage. Stresemann had reacted to the delay in Germany’s admission to the League of Nations by taking a crucial step in improving relations with the Soviet Union. He wanted to keep friendship with the Soviet Union as a form of insurance policy, which might be used later to alter Germany’s eastern borders at the expense of Poland.

The pivot of German foreign policy towards the western Allies at Locarno had filled the Soviet government with feelings of deep anxiety. The delay in Germany joining the League offered the Soviets an ideal opportunity to make a dramatic diplomatic intervention. The Soviet Foreign Minister, Georgy Chicherin, told Stresemann that if the Locarno powers could not push through the entry of Germany to the League, then what could Germany expect of them when more serious matters were discussed? He felt a new Russo-German agreement would weaken the idea of the western Allies developing a common front against the Soviet Union. In response, Stresemann explained that he had always wanted to sign a new agreement with the Soviet Union, and had only delayed this due to a wish not to antagonise the members of the League of Nations during Germany’s application process.

On 24 April, the Treaty of Berlin (otherwise known as the German–Soviet Neutrality and Nonaggression Pact), was duly signed in Berlin by Gustav Stresemann for Germany and Nicolai Krestinski, the Soviet Ambassador, for the Soviet Union. It greatly strengthened the relationship between the two powers. The treaty consisted of just four brief articles: (1) The 1922 Treaty of Rapallo remained the basis of Russo-German relations, to which was added a promise by the two governments to maintain friendly relations with each other, and to promote a solution to all outstanding political and economic questions that concerned them both. (2) Germany and the Soviet Union pledged neutrality in the event of an attack on the other by a third party. (3) Neither party would join in any coalition for the purpose of an economic boycott on the other. (4) The duration of the treaty was set at five years. In 1931, it was renewed for three more years. To this, Stresemann added the additional assurance that if the League ever contemplated anti-Soviet sanctions or a military attack then he would do everything in his power to oppose it. The agreement was endorsed by a vote in the Reichstag on 10 June, with only three dissenting votes. On 29 June, the agreement was officially ratified by the German government. On 3 August, it was officially registered in the League of Nations.

In Germany, the Russo-German Treaty was received with universal acclaim. There was much greater public and political unanimity than there had ever been over the Dawes Plan, the Locarno Treaties and Germany’s proposed entry into the League of Nations. On 27 April, the Reichstag Committee on Foreign Affairs, usually the scene of bitter party disputes, gave the treaty its unanimous approval. The Nationalist DNVP believed the new agreement with the Soviet government would bring closer the return of Upper Silesia, Danzig and the Polish Corridor, for it was clear that a revision of Germany’s eastern frontiers required Soviet support, or at the least benevolent neutrality. Stresemann felt the agreement would quieten Soviet apprehension about the Locarno Treaties, maintain Germany’s good relations with Russia and appease the pro-Russian element on the Nationalist Right.

In the rest of Europe, the Treaty of Berlin caused a high degree of anxiety. The reaction in France, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania was wholly critical. The French press claimed the Treaty placed Germany’s entry into the League in jeopardy, and accused Stresemann of provocatively signing the German–Soviet Treaty to undermine the Geneva negotiations over Germany’s entry into the League of Nations. To the French government the treaty represented another Russo-German threat to Eastern Europe, and the French responded in June 1926 by signing an agreement with Romania, to add to its existing security agreements with Poland and Czechoslovakia. Aleksander Skrzyński, the Polish Foreign Minister, urged the Allies to examine what effect the new German–Soviet treaty would have on the obligations Germany would have to assume if it joined the League of Nations. In Britain, The Times adopted a surprisingly conciliatory tone, suggesting the agreement was not in conflict with the agreements made at Locarno, but the Daily Mail was much less charitable, arguing the Treaty of Berlin had raised suspicions about Germany’s true motives in moving closer to the Soviet Union at a time when it was supposedly aiming to become a loyal member of the League of Nations.

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On 10 December, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Peace Prize for 1926 jointly to the Foreign Ministers of Germany and France, Gustav Stresemann and Aristide Briand, for their ‘critical roles in bringing about the Locarno Treaty and Franco-German reconciliation’, while at the same time awarding the Peace Prize for 1925, retrospectively and jointly, to Austen Chamberlain, the British Foreign Secretary, for his role in the signing of the Locarno Treaties and to the American financier Charles Dawes, for the central part he had played in brokering the financial restricting of Germany’s reparations under the Dawes Plan.

06 April 2024

Turning Point at Locarno, 1925

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 377-379:

When the question of Germany’s entry to the League of Nations cropped up, Stresemann defended his government’s unwillingness to be bound by Article 16 of the Covenant. Germany, he said, could not pledge itself to support Poland in a war involving the Soviet Union. Briand tried to reassure him by saying that as Germany would be given a permanent seat on the League Council it could veto any proposal it disagreed with. A formula was finally worked out whereby each member of the League was obligated to cooperate against military aggression ‘to an extent which is compatible with its military situation, and which takes its geographical situation into account’. In return, Stresemann promised Germany would seek entry into the League of Nations as soon as possible.

Mussolini, the Italian Prime Minister, was initially lukewarm on the proposed Locarno agreements. He wanted a guarantee of the Brenner frontier between Italy and Austria to be added to the treaties, but Stresemann said this would only be possible if Germany was allowed to unite with Austria, something the Allies were not willing to accept. However, once it became clear the agreements would be signed, Mussolini turned up, on 14 October, wanting to share in the glory of joining Britain in guaranteeing the peace of Europe.

The ‘big day’ of the Conference took place in the town hall in Locarno on 16 October 1925. It witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Guarantee between Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain, and Italy (the Locarno Pact). Under its terms, Germany recognised its western borders as fixed by the Treaty of Versailles, and the continuance of the Rhineland demilitarised zone in perpetuity. Stresemann emphasised the voluntary affirmation of Germany’s western borders was much more acceptable than the dictated terms of the Versailles Treaty. Germany, France and Belgium all agreed not to attack each other ever again, and Britain and Italy agreed to function as the joint guarantors of the agreement. All the parties agreed to settle disputes by peaceful means in future. The Locarno Treaties would only come into force when Germany was finally admitted to the League of Nations. The signatories further agreed to meet in London on 1 December for a formal signing ceremony.

Annexed to the main treaties were the German–Polish, German–Czechoslovak, German–Belgian, and French–German arbitration treaties, which promised all disputes which could not be settled amicably through normal diplomatic channels would be submitted to an Arbitration Panel or to the Permanent Court of International Justice. To add further insurance in Eastern Europe, France signed binding treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia, pledging mutual assistance, in the event of conflict with Germany. Polish and Czech leaders signed these agreements in fear rather than hope. The agreements reaffirmed existing treaties of alliance concluded by France with Poland on 19 February 1921, and with Czechoslovakia on 25 January 1924. The British government refused to be a party to the arbitration treaties.

The Locarno Treaties were a key turning-point in the international relations of the 1920s. They were the effective diplomatic end of the Great War, and reconciled Germany and France in a way that had previously seemed impossible. Locarno was a much bigger triumph for the appeasement of Germany than Neville Chamberlain ever achieved, and how ironic that his half-brother Austen was one of its chief architects.

05 April 2024

Death of Weimar President Ebert, 1925

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 355-357:

The Barmat-Kutisker Scandal did little to improve the failing health of President Ebert, who had been suffering from undiagnosed severe stomach pain for weeks. He became even more ill in mid-February, and was confined to bed with what was initially diagnosed as a severe bout of influenza. His condition then deteriorated further, and his doctors next thought he was suffering from a recurrence of a severe gall-bladder infection known as cholecystitis. Finally, on 23 February, he was admitted to a hospital in Charlottenburg with appendicitis and peritonitis. Ebert underwent an emergency appendectomy, performed by August Bier, one of Germany’s most eminent surgeons. At first, he seemed to be recovering, but then his condition suddenly worsened. On 28 February at 10.15 a.m., Ebert died in his sleep, aged just 54, of post-operative septic shock, with his wife and family at the bedside.

Friedrich Ebert was a Social Democrat of humble origins, and a firm supporter of democracy, who had led democratic Germany through six difficult years from the ashes of defeat in 1918 to the threshold of international reconciliation. He considered himself a patriot and a social reformer, not a rabble-rouser. Despite all the hostility he faced from the extreme Left and Right, he remained the Republic’s anchor of stability, always showing a willingness to find a consensus among different viewpoints. His departure from the political scene was undoubtedly a bitter blow and a key turning point in the history of the Weimar Republic.

The state funeral of Friedrich Ebert was a huge public event, attended by vast crowds in Berlin and Heidelberg. Ebert’s coffin was draped in the flag of the Reich President in which the black-red-gold colours of the Republic were prominent. The black eagle on a yellow background was also displayed. The main ceremony was held in the presidential palace, followed by a sombre funeral procession including representatives of the police, the Reichswehr, the Reichstag and the German states, which wound a slow passage through Berlin’s streets to the Brandenburg Gate, and to the nearby Reichstag building, then proceeded to Potsdam railway station where the coffin remained for a while so that ordinary Germans could pay their respects.

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The funeral train journeyed to Ebert’s home town of Heidelberg for the service and burial in the Bergfriedhof Cemetery. The memorial service began with the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, played by the orchestra of the German State Opera. A moving eulogy was then read by Hans Luther, the German Chancellor, and the ceremony ended movingly with the music of Mozart. A short newsreel film of the funeral, showing scenes from the Berlin and Heidelberg ceremonies, appeared in cinemas throughout Germany.

02 April 2024

New Reichsmarks and Elections, 1924

 From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 341-343:

Whilst the Allied Control inspection was in progress in the autumn of 1924, there was a huge shake-up in German currency. On 11 October, the Reichsmark (RM) was introduced, as part of the Dawes Plan [to pay war reparations under the Versailles Treaty], as a permanent replacement for the interim currency, the Rentenmark, which had restored economic stability, and the old Papiermark, which had collapsed under the weight of hyperinflation. The denominations of Reichsmarks came in lower-value coins and banknotes of 5M, 10RM, 20RM, 50RM, 100RM and 1,000RM. Each Reichsmark was divided into 100 Reichspfennigs. Germany finally had a stable currency once again, guaranteed by the independent Reichsbank. The Reichsmark remained the German currency until it was replaced by the Deutsche Mark on 23 June 1948, which itself was succeeded by the Euro in 2002.

...

The German national election took place on 7 December 1924. Voter turnout was 78.8 per cent. The parties who had supported the Dawes Plan did well. The party gaining the most seats was the SPD, which won 131 seats, a gain of 31 from May 1924, with a popular vote of 26 per cent (7.88 million), up 5.5 per cent. The middle-class parties made smaller gains. The DVP, led by Gustav Stresemann, won 51 seats, up from 45, and polled 3.05 million votes, or 10.1 per cent of the electorate, an increase of 0.99 per cent since May. Zentrum won 69 seats, up from 65, polling 13.6 per cent overall (4.11 million), only up by a narrow 0.22 per cent since May. The DDP improved its position slightly, winning 32 seats, up from 28, taking 6.3 per cent of the popular vote (1.91 million), an increase of 0.6 per cent. The big electoral surprise was the performance of the nationalist DNVP, which improved its position, winning 103 seats, an increase of eight from May, taking 20.5 per cent of the popular vote (6.20 million), an increase of just 1 per cent.

The two other parties who had opposed the Dawes Plan, the Communists and the National Socialists, performed poorly. The KPD won 45 seats, a loss of 17 seats since May, polling 8.9 per cent of votes (2.7 million), down 3.7 per cent. The National Socialist Freedom Party (NSFP), led by Ludendorff, won 14 seats, down 18 on May, polling a total vote of 3 per cent (907, 242), down by 3.55 per cent. The mediocre performance of these extreme parties was proof of the change that had come over the economy since the May election. The gradual consolidation of economic affairs was clearly impacting on voting behaviour. Inflation was now under control and unemployment was falling. This meant the working classes and the lower middle class were much better off than they had been six months earlier. In these circumstances, the parties of the extreme Right and Left seemed much less attractive.

30 March 2024

British Alien Internment Camps, WW2

From The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp, by Simon Parkin (Scribner, 2022), Kindle pp. 2-4:

EIGHT WEEKS EARLIER, ON SATURDAY, July 13, 1940, Captain Hubert Daniel, a kindly, keen-drinking forty-eight-year-old army officer, had declared the camp open. Hutchinson was the seventh of ten internment camps to open on the Isle of Man, an island positioned sufficiently far from the neighboring coasts to be ideally suited for imprisonment. The island’s boat-owning residents had been instructed to stow the oars and remove the spark plugs from their vessels’ engines at night. Even if an escapee were to board a suitable craft, the journey to the mainland was perilous. If you were here, you were here for good.

Hutchinson was currently home to around twelve hundred prisoners, predominantly refugees from Nazi Germany who had been living peacefully in Britain at the time of their arrest. In recent months rumors abounded that a fifth column—a neologism to Britain, now universally understood to refer to traitors living within their country of asylum—had assisted the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Newspapers had stoked national paranoia with claims that a similar network of spies lurked in Britain.

Even before the outbreak of war, Scotland Yard, working in conjunction with MI5, the British domestic intelligence service, had been deluged with tip-offs about suspicious refugees and foreigners. The police detained one man when investigators found an entry in his diary that read: “Exchange British Queen for Italian Queen.” The detective assumed he had exposed a fascist plot against the crown. In fact, the man was a beekeeper, planning to overthrow only the tiny monarch that ruled his hive.

The police were first alerted to one of Hutchinson camp’s internees, the young art historian Dr. Klaus Hinrichsen, and his fiancée, Gretel, when a neighbor reported hearing the young couple’s lovemaking. The distrustful neighbor suspected the rhythmic knocking of the bed might contain a coded message. It was difficult, Klaus pointed out, to prove that one did not understand Morse code.

The recent German occupation of France meant an invasion attempt seemed not only plausible but imminent. Days after he became prime minister, Winston Churchill authorized the arrest of thousands of so-called “enemy aliens.” In the chaotic roundups that followed, thousands of Jews who had fled Nazi Germany—including some teenagers like Peter who came via the feted Kindertransport trains—were imprisoned by the same people in whom they had staked their trust, a nightmarish betrayal. The refugees that comprised the majority of tonight’s audience had experienced a collective trauma: to be imprisoned by one’s liberator is to endure an injustice of chronology.

Status and class, those twin, usually indefatigable armaments of privilege, had provided no protection. Oxbridge dons, surgeons, dentists, lawyers, and scores of celebrated artists were taken. The police arrested Emil Goldmann, a sixty-seven-year-old professor from the University of Vienna, on the grounds of Eton College, Britain’s most elite school. At Cambridge University dozens of staff and students were detained in the Guildhall, including Friedrich Hohenzollern, also known as Prince Frederick of Prussia, a grandson of Queen Victoria. That year’s law finals were almost canceled because one of the interned professors had the exam papers locked in his desk and had no time to pass someone the key. The police came for Peter in the early hours of the morning, without prior warning, a manner of detention that had reminded him of the Gestapo’s moonlit roundups and the muggy world of fear and distrust from which he had just fled.

27 March 2024

Revolts Left, Right, and Rhenish, 1923

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 289-291:

The Munich Beer Hall Putsch is the most notorious event in the early history of Hitler and the National Socialist Party (NSDAP). It was hurriedly planned, bungled in execution, and resulted in humiliating failure. Because of what came later it has been elevated to the status of a monumental event, when in fact what occurred was a small, localised revolt, confined to Munich, which lasted a few hours. It failed because Hitler had allowed his party to become a purely paramilitary organisation involved in an ill-defined conspiracy with disparate Bavarian right-wing politicians. Hitler, who had never been brought into the heart of Kahr’s conspiracy, had whipped up his own supporters into a frenzy only to find that he had already been deserted by his supposed co-conspirators before he ever arrived at the Bürgerbräukeller.

Gustav Stresemann gave a speech on 11 November 1923 in which he reflected on the recent events in Munich, admitting that ‘Germany is now confronted with the demand for a dictatorship’, but he stressed that anyone thinking a dictatorship would improve matters was making a ‘great mistake’. The recent attempt by Hitler to bring about a dictatorship via a beer hall in Munich would have brought no help to the German people. Stresemann was most ‘deeply shaken’ by the involvement of Ludendorff in Hitler’s attempted coup. Stresemann thought a ‘destructive force’ such as Hitler’s movement represented could never have provided competent government for Germany, even if he had succeeded.

At the same time as the left-wing revolt in central Germany and the right-wing struggle in Bavaria were going on, a much more dangerous threat to the territorial unity of the Weimar Republic had erupted in the Rhineland. In the occupied area, separatist associations and parties flourished, primarily under the patronage of the French occupying authorities. The Reich government was powerless to intervene, as it was prohibited from using the Reichswehr in the demilitarised Rhineland under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.

The leading figure in the Rhineland separatist movement was Hans Dorten, the wealthy owner of a porcelain company, who created the Rhenish People’s Union (Volksvereinigung), which demanded a Rhenish republic as an autonomous state within the Reich, but his opponents suspected his real aim was an independent Rhenish republic. In the occupied Ruhr the separatist movement also flourished, with various groups sprouting up, including the Rhenish Republic People’s Party and the Rhenish Independence League. Separatists armed themselves, held demonstrations, occupied town halls, and called for the foundation of an autonomous Rhenish republic. Some of their supporters even advocated the full integration of the Rhineland into France. After the end of passive resistance, separatist demonstrations broke out in several Rhineland cities. On 21 October, separatists led by Leo Deckers captured the City Hall in Aachen, and proclaimed a Free and Independent Rhenish Republic. This so-called Rhenish Republic was based in three areas: North (Lower Rhine), South (Upper and Middle Rhine) and the Ruhr, but it received little support from the local population.

The French gave the impression in many places they supported the separatists. The military authorities thought a Rhineland buffer state would offer additional security from a future German invasion, and there is no doubt the French provided arms and offered military security for separatist demonstrations. This was especially true in the Bavarian Palatinate, where the French General Georges de Metz, was in command. He encouraged the local state parliament to proclaim the Palatinate’s independence on 24 October. On 26 October, Paul Tirard, the French High Commissioner, announced the separatists were also in effective control of Koblenz, but it had been recaptured with French military support.

26 March 2024

Weimar-Soviet Rapprochement

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 229-230, 232:

The Treaty of Rapallo, signed on 16 April, was the first of Germany’s major diplomatic surprises of the inter-war period. The agreement was not the result, as is often supposed, of a spur-of-the-moment flight of inspiration by Rathenau, but resulted from painstaking secret diplomacy by the German Foreign Ministry, led by Maltzan, which had already resulted in the signing of a Russo-German trade agreement on 6 May 1921, and had also led to the formal diplomatic recognition of the Soviet government by the German government.

The Treaty of Rapallo was called a ‘treaty of friendship’, with both signatories agreeing to improve trade relations by offering each other ‘most favoured’ trading status, re-establishing normal diplomatic relations, and renouncing reparations claims against each other. The German government also agreed to waive indemnities and losses sustained by German citizens due to the abolition of private property in Soviet Russia. The treaty did not contain any secret military provisions, but secret military cooperation did develop in the years following.

The agreement came as a huge surprise to the British and French governments. Their first reactions were a combination of anger and fear. The agreement between Europe’s two political outcasts was viewed by the Western Allies as a potential menace to the European balance of power. The French government’s response was particularly bitter. Poincaré voiced his objections plainly in a speech on 24 April, in his home town of Bar-le-Duc. He declared the treaty a provocation and reiterated his determination to ensure the complete fulfilment of the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles by Germany. He also warned that if the Allies could not agree how to secure their treaty rights and reparations payments, then the French government would resort to unilateral action against Germany.

The British government was also deeply alarmed. Lloyd George had been trying to create an alliance of the non-socialist countries to force Soviet Russia to recognise the debts incurred by the deposed Tsarist regime before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The release of Soviet Russia from the diplomatic ghetto gave him no pleasure whatsoever. Lloyd George had also been trying to restrain Poincaré from taking unilateral military action by occupying the Ruhr, and he thought the Treaty would only serve to gain support in France for military action.

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A belief commonly held among the Allies was that the treaty contained secret military clauses. Both the German and Soviet governments denied this, publishing the treaty in full to pour icy water on this accusation. Yet soon after the signing of the Treaty of Rapallo, Seeckt did conclude a secret agreement with the Russian Army general staff. To conceal secret German military training and rearmament, Seeckt was granted generous funds from the German government to set up the Society for the Encouragement of Commercial Enterprises (GEFU). Under cover of this organisation, he negotiated opportunities for German military training in the use of tanks and aircraft in Soviet Russia. This led to the later creation between 1929 and 1933 of the secret Kama Tank school near Kazan, in the Soviet Union, which trained Germans in the use of modern tanks, and the Lipetsk Fighter-Pilot school, in Lipetsk, also in the Soviet Union which trained German pilots. In return, Russian officers gained valuable training in military strategy from their German counterparts. The Russian military were also commissioned to manufacture artillery ammunition, planes, and poison gas for Germany. These secret military training arrangements and armaments supply deals remained in effect throughout the Weimar years.

25 March 2024

Weimar Inflation, 1921–22

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 218-219, 238, 242:

The Weimar Republic would have undoubtedly been helped by having a stable economy, but instead it was fragile, with a rate of growth well below that of its major competitors. German growth from 1913 to 1929 was 0.3 per cent, compared to 1.4 per cent in the UK and 2.2 per cent in the USA. The state of the German budget in 1921 made grim reading. The accumulated government debt was over 400 billion marks. The government had to also bear the cost of food and wage subsidies to deal with rising inflation. The Weimar government refused to cut expenditure or to raise taxes to deal with the deficit. This kept people in jobs. Unemployment in 1921 was at a record low of 0.9 per cent.

In response to rising prices, the German government simply printed money, which only served to push prices up still further. The rising cost of living was already causing industrial unrest in the Ruhr, in the autumn of 1921, and led to bread riots. There were also severe shortages of food in shops. Prices of basic goods rocketed by 40 per cent in the last three months of 1921. Inflation was worst for those on fixed incomes, as it was gradually wiping out their savings and reducing their real spending power. This affected even previously affluent pensioners and those with investments, usually people in solid salaried middle-class occupations such as academics, civil servants, and lawyers. War widows, disabled war veterans and those on welfare on fixed benefits also suffered greatly from the rise in the cost of living.

It would be wrong, however, to think that inflation was bad for everyone. Industrial workers, supported by strong unions, saw their working hours decrease, but their wages increase, often in line with inflation. Big industry also did very well, with industrial production increasing by 20 per cent in 1921–22. The rich industrialists – among them Hugo Stinnes, the richest of them all – grew much richer during the era of high inflation and spent their money on material assets, especially property and new machinery. They also had access to foreign currency loans at low interest rates, and because of inflation interest payments on these were reducing week by week.

...

Meanwhile, Germany’s reparations payment difficulties continued. During July, prices inside Germany rose by 50 per cent, which was then accepted as the beginning of the hyperinflation period. A litre of milk had cost 7 marks in April 1922, but rose to 16 marks in August, and then to 26 marks by mid-September. The prices of other basic goods rose in a comparable manner. The German government response to rising inflation was to continue printing money, with the number of marks in circulation rising from 35 billion in 1919 to 200 billion in 1922.

Hyperinflation led in turn to a dizzying fall in the value of the German mark, which the Reichsbank, lacking gold and foreign currency reserves, was powerless to stop. On 29 July, the mark hit a new low of 650 to 1 US$. The German government claimed this fall in the value of German currency was linked to the demand by the Allies for cash reparations payments. State and local authorities began to issue money tokens called Notgeld ['emergency money'] to replace payments in worthless paper marks.

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On 14 August [1922], the Conference on Reparations ended without any agreement on Germany’s request for a further payment holiday. On the next day, the German government once more defaulted on its reparations payments, claiming it could not afford to pay. The downward tumble of the mark continued. On 24 August, it plummeted to a new all-time low of US$2,000 to 1 mark [sic; should be 2000 marks to 1 US$!], or 9,000 to the British pound. On 31 August, the Allied Reparations Commission decided to grant Germany an exceptional six-month moratorium on reparations payments.

24 March 2024

Weimar's 1921 Communist Uprising

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 194-196:

In the midst of this bitter diplomatic crisis [over reparations], the German government was faced with a fresh wave of violent clashes between the Prussian Security Police (Schutzpolizei), and communist revolutionaries allied to the United Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (KAPD), and the KPD between 17 March and 1 April. The province of Saxony in central Germany was at the centre of these clashes, which were at their worst in Halle, Leuna, Hamburg, Merseburg, and Mansfeld. They became known as the March Action (März Aktion).

The Communists had been buoyed up by performing exceptionally well in elections to the Prussian State Parliament on 20 February 1920, in which the VKPD [Vereinigte Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands] had performed particularly well in central Germany which led party activists to lead a wave of strikes and street clashes with the police. This prompted Otto Hörsing, the Social Democratic Minister-President of Saxony, and Carl Severing, the Social Democratic Prussian Minister of the Interior, to send in a strong contingent of armed Prussian security police to restore order.

The Communists were led by Max Hölz of the VKPD, who had no coordinated plan for what the left-wing rebels were seeking to achieve. He put together a force of 2,500 armed men, mostly aged between 18 and 45. Hölz was something of a communist folk hero, who had been a leader of a ‘Red Army’ in Vogtland, near the Czech border, during the aftermath of the Kapp Putsch in the previous year. In his memoirs, Hölz claimed the workers were far from in a revolutionary mood when he arrived. It was the brutality of the police that had forced the workers to take up arms and adopt guerrilla tactics, he added.

On 18 March, the communist daily newspaper Die Rote Fahne called on the workers to arm themselves. The Communists were able to equip the rebels with guns and ammunition. The rebels engaged in a wave of arson, looting, bank robberies and bomb attacks on public buildings and factories, during which the VKPD leadership increasingly lost control of the armed workers. The SPD and the USPD both issued a joint appeal to the workers of the industrial region of central Germany. This offered some criticism of the high-handed police action, but claimed the so-called revolutionaries had then behaved like criminals and thugs. They called on workers not to support calls for an insurrection or a general strike.

On 24 March, President Ebert declared a non-military state of emergency for Saxony and Hamburg, using his emergency powers under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. Outdoor meetings, demonstrations and Communist newspapers were banned. In an act of desperation, the Communist leadership called for a general strike, but this failed to materialise. By 1 April, the police had successfully put down the revolt without needing to call on the Reichswehr for help. The police confiscated 1,346 rifles, 34 machine guns and 10,000 rounds of ammunition from the rebels. According to the Prussian official figures, 34 police officers were killed and 67 wounded, with 145 rebels and civilians killed, and a further 51 wounded. Some brutal atrocities occured towards the end of the conflict. On 29 March, in Gröbers, near Halle, 11 police officers were brutally tortured, killed and mutilated, while at the Leuna Works, the police maltreated prisoners, and forced rebels to sing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über Alles’.

The ‘March Action’ did not remotely threaten even the local Prussian government. It proved to be the final rising of the radical left-wing during the Weimar years. Neither a general strike nor a mass revolt by the working class happened. The immediate consequences for the VKPD and KPD were disastrous. The violent clashes seemed to confirm the ‘dictatorial’ leadership of the party was out of touch with ordinary working class people. Within weeks, 200,000 members had left the KPD.

23 March 2024

Second Weimar Election, 1920

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 178-180:

The National Assembly held its last session on 21 May 1920. Few mourned its passing. An election campaign to elect the new Reichstag now followed. Elections did not take place in Schleswig-Holstein, Upper Silesia and East and West Prussia, owing to scheduled referenda due to take place in those areas. The 42 sitting parliamentary members for those areas retained their seats until elections took place.

The Reichstag elections of 6 June, with a voter turnout of 79.2 per cent, proved disastrous for the SPD-led Weimar Coalition, which lost its previous huge overall majority. The most serious reverse was suffered by the SPD itself, which polled 21.9 per cent, securing only 103 seats. The SPD remained the largest party, but had lost 62 seats, dropping from 37.9 per cent of the vote at the last election, from 11.51 to 6.17 million votes. Even heavier losses were suffered by the SPD’s partners in government, the liberal DDP, led by Carl Petersen, which polled 2.3 million votes, down from 5.6 million at the previous election, with the number of the party’s seats dropping from 75 to 39 and its percentage of votes falling from 18.6 to 8.3 per cent. This marked the beginning of a decline for middle-class liberalism from which it never really recovered. The third party in the Weimar Coalition, Zentrum, led by Karl Trimborn, also fared badly, with its seats falling from 91 to 64, its votes reducing from 5.9 to 3.84 million and its voter percentage moving downward to 13.6 from 19.7 per cent.

By contrast, the two anti-Republican parties: the DVP, led by Gustav Stresemann, and the DNVP, led by Oskar Hergt, both made gains. The DVP increased its seats from 19 to 65, its vote percentage from 4.4 to 13.9 per cent, with its popular vote going up from 1.34 to 3.91 million. The number of votes for the DNVP also rose, from 3.12 to 4.24 million, its number of seats increasing from 44 to 71 and its poll share up from 10.3 to 15.1 per cent. It was now the strongest middle-class party in Germany.

The party furthest to the Left contesting the election, the USPD, led by Arthur Crispien, made the biggest gains, with a large segment of the industrial working class transferring their allegiance from the SPD to the USPD. The party’s seats increased in number, from 33 to 83 seats, with its percentage vote increasing, from 7.6 to 17.6 per cent, and its total vote share up from 2.32 to 4.91 million. The USPD was now the second most popular party in Germany. Many working-class voters were clearly outraged by the harsh treatment of left-wing radicals during the recent Ruhr Uprising. The KPD decided to contest the election, but fared badly, only polling 589,454 votes, or 2.09 per cent, and securing four seats.

The new Weimar Republic had clearly disappointed German voters. President Ebert, following the tradition of giving the strongest party the first chance to form a government, asked Hermann Müller, the incumbent SPD Chancellor, to form a new coalition. On 8 June, Müller tried half-heartedly to convince the USPD to join a new coalition, but party leader Arthur Crispien decided he would only take his party into a government if the Independents were the largest party, as part of a purely socialist coalition. As Müller did not want to form a coalition involving the DVP, on 12 June, he declined the opportunity to continue trying to form a government.

Ebert finally turned to Constantin Fehrenbach, one of the leaders of Zentrum, and widely respected as the speaker of the National Assembly, to form a minority government, after the Social Democrats had refused to join his government. The SPD now played the bizarre role of being crucial in keeping governments in power, but mostly deciding not to participate in them. The Fehrenbach cabinet was based on three parties: Zentrum, the DDP and, for the first time, the centre-right DVP led by Gustav Stresemann. The DDP had only agreed to join a coalition with the DVP, provided that party promised it would accept the Weimar Constitution, which its leader Stresemann duly did.

22 March 2024

Aftermath of the 1920 Kapp Putsch

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 168-170:

The Kapp Putsch may have been a bungled fiasco, but it made possible a victory of immense importance for right-wing counterrevolutionary elements in Bavaria. On the night of 13–14 March, General Alfred von Möhl, the commander of the armed forces in the Munich area, after hearing news of Kapp’s coup in Berlin, decided to launch one of his own, supported by a local paramilitary self-defence militia, known as the Home Guard (Einwohnerwehr). Möhl informed Johannes Hoffmann (SPD), the Prime Minister of Bavaria, that he could not guarantee the safety of his government unless it transferred power to the Army. Hoffmann hurriedly assembled his cabinet in the early hours of 14 March, urging the rejection of the general’s ultimatum. Most of his ministers shrank from such a course of action. Instead, they supported a proposal by Ernst Müller-Meiningen, the DDP leader, who suggested the right-wing nationalist Dr Gustav Ritter von Kahr, the government president of Upper Bavaria and a member of the pro-monarchist BVP, should take over.

Deprived of political or military support, Hoffmann was unceremoniously driven from office. On 16 March, Kahr was elected as the Prime Minister of Bavaria in a vote in the Bavarian Assembly. The Social Democrats refused to participate in Kahr’s right-wing conservative government, and would never again hold power in Bavaria during the Weimar years. Under Kahr, Bavaria became a conspiratorial, anti-Republican ‘cell of order’ (Ordnungszelle). Kahr immediately issued a decree to curtail the immigration of ‘Eastern Jews’ to Bavaria, and he actively encouraged antisemitism. Captain Hermann Ehrhardt, whose naval brigade had played a key role in the Kapp Putsch, immediately found a safe haven in Munich, where he established a new secret society called Organisation Consul (OC), whose main purpose was to murder leading supporters and politicians in the Weimar Republic.

Adolf Hitler was now in the perfect place to establish a new anti-democratic, nationalistic, antisemitic party. On 20 February, the German Workers’ Party (DAP), led by Anton Drexler, changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP). Members of the party, contrary to widespread belief, did not initially call themselves Nazis but rather National Socialists (Nationalsozialisten), but their opponents used the term, and the name stuck.

On 24 February, the first large meeting of the newly named NSDAP took place in the first-floor hall of the Hofbräuhaus, before a crowd of 2,000 people. This day was commemorated by the party as Founding Day, and became the location of an annual speech by Adolf Hitler. At the meeting, Hitler was given the task by Drexler of reading out the 25 points of the NSDAP party programme, which he declared ‘unalterable’. The main authors of the programme were Hitler and Drexler, with some economic ideas from Gottfried Feder added. They were remarkably like those being advanced by many other nationalist right-wing parties at the time. The party’s most notable gimmick was to combine nationalist and antisemitic ideas with anti-capitalist and so-called ‘socialist’ measures. This novel combination allowed the NSDAP a banner under which workers could shelter along with conservative middle- and upper-class groups, thereby acting as a bulwark against communist revolution at home and offering the possibility of restoring German military power abroad.

The ‘national’ elements of the party programme included promises to revise the Treaty of Versailles, to unite German-speakers into an expanded Greater German Reich, which would exclude Jews from German citizenship rights, treat them as foreigners and halt future Jewish immigration. The ‘socialist’ parts of the party platform included pledges to nationalise trusts, abolish land rents, restrict interest on loans, introduce profit-sharing in industry, promised the nationalisation of big business, to open large department stores to small traders, confiscate profits made by industry during the war, and create a People’s Army. The anti-capitalist elements of the party programme appeared to spell the end of interest-bearing loans and clearly threatened the existence of banks.

21 March 2024

Weaknesses of the Weimar Constitution

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 138-139:

The Weimar Constitution was intended to be a charter for an advanced democracy. It claimed to be the most egalitarian and libertarian in the world. The centrepiece of the power structure was the dual power system whereby the Reich President and the Reichstag were elected by direct popular vote. This certainly transformed Germany into a state in which central government was supreme, and where the powers of the federal states were controlled and their autonomy limited, which represented a break from the pre-war Kaiserreich. The federal Länder were now expected to enforce national laws. The result was the extension of the central government’s control over local officials.

The Weimar Constitution of 1919 was, therefore, not a federation of states (Staatenbund), as the Holy Roman Empire had been, or a federal state (Bundesstaat) as the Wilhelmine Empire had been, but a central unitary state deriving power from the people (Volksstaat). Only subsequent legislation and political action would determine the success or failure of the Constitution. It is all too easy in hindsight to point to obvious weaknesses in the Weimar Constitution, but it is impossible to know what other sort of constitution would have prevented the destruction of democracy.

The proportional representation electoral system has been viewed as one of the key weaknesses of the Weimar Constitution. The Social Democrats were the biggest advocates of this system, as they felt the pre-1914 first-past-the-post system had left them grossly underrepresented in the Reichstag; but proportional representation encouraged weak coalition governments and allowed far too many political parties a voice in the Reichstag.

A further interesting feature of the Weimar Constitution was the provision for referenda to be held. A referendum could be called by the President and the Reichsrat, if either were opposed to a piece of legislation passed by the Reichstag. It was also possible for the Reichstag to call a referendum to decide if the President should remain in office. The public was allowed the right to submit a petition either as an ordinary bill or as an amendment to the Constitution and if the number of signatures exceeded 10 per cent of registered voters, a referendum of the whole electorate would be conducted.

20 March 2024

The Weimar Constitution of 1919

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 132-134:

But the biggest political event during the summer of 1919 was the ratification of the new democratic Weimar Constitution, which was adopted by the National Assembly on 31 July by a margin of 262 to 75 votes. It was signed by President Friedrich Ebert on 11 August and came into force on the same day. The Weimar Constitution (Weimarer Verfassung) was a compromise worked out between the various political factions represented in the National Assembly. It retained the term Reich, with all its imperial associations, to denote the new Republic. The chief author of the Constitution, the liberal Professor Hugo Preuss, decided to retain those features of the Bismarckian Constitution that were likely to function under a democratic system and to incorporate some aspects of the 1848 liberal Frankfurt Constitution which had never been implemented. The federal structure was retained, which was welcomed in the southern German states, and by the dominant state of Prussia, which covered 75 per cent of German territory, even though the power and autonomy of the states was weakened. Between 1919 and 1932, Prussia became a stronghold of the Social Democrats who ruled it in coalitions with the Centre Party (Zentrum) and the German Democratic Party (DDP).

The Weimar Constitution was divided into two main parts. The first, which had 77 articles, laid out the various components of the Reich government. Section 1 (Articles 1–19) defined the German Reich as a Republic whose power derived from the people. The territory of the Reich was defined as the regions covered by the German federal Länder. The legislative authority vested in the Reich was extensive, giving the federal government authority over foreign policy, defence, colonial affairs, citizenship, child-welfare, health, freedom of movement, immigration, public order, emigration, banking, taxation, customs, trade, social insurance, currency, postal, telegraph, telephone, railways, and water services. Except for all these, the Länder, elected by a secret ballot, could govern their territories as they saw fit. In the event of a conflict, Reich law superseded regional state law, but the adjudication of conflicts would be determined by an independent Supreme Court (Reichsgericht).

Section 2 (Articles 20–40) described the functions of the national parliament in Berlin, which retained the title of Reichstag. The Reich Chancellor was given a dominant position over the cabinet, and was required, along with the Reich cabinet, to resign in the event of a defeat in the Reichstag, after a vote of no confidence. In the event of a tie, the President had the deciding vote. The Reichstag also had the power to impeach the Reich President, the Reich Cabinet, or individual Ministers, before the Supreme Judicial Court (Staatsgerichtshof). All Germans – male and female – over the age of 20 were given the right to vote in all elections, which were to be held every four years unless a government lost a vote of no confidence in the Reichstag, in which case an election would be held within 60 days. In place of the former single member constituencies, the country was divided into 35 electoral districts. The voting system was based on an exact proportional representation of the votes cast for each party or independent candidate in elections: one seat was allocated in the Reichstag for every 60,000 votes. This allowed smaller parties to gain representation in parliament, with as little as 1 per cent of the votes. Only candidates on pre-prepared lists drawn up by the leaders of the political parties were allocated seats, which tended to mean only those known to be loyal to the party line made it on to the party list. Any constitutional amendments required a two-thirds majority in the Reichstag.

19 March 2024

Weimar Republic's Versailles Millstone

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 126-127, 147-149:

On 28 June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, exactly five years after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the spark that led to the outbreak of the First World War. It was signed in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles where 48 years before the German Empire had been proclaimed. The treaty was ratified by a vote in the German National Assembly by 209 to 116 on 9 July. The politicians who signed the treaty on behalf of Germany were the Social Democrat Hermann Müller, and Johannes Bell of Zentrum.

The Treaty of Versailles was a staggering blow to the Weimar Republic. Instead of using their power to assist the embryonic democracy in Germany, the Allies treated its leaders as no different from Kaiser Wilhelm. Hatred towards those who had signed the treaty spread widely in the population, especially on the nationalist Right. The myth of the ‘stab in the back’ now made rapid headway. The leaders of German democracy were depicted by the Right as cowards and traitors under the umbrella term the ‘November Criminals’ and were blamed by the public for all the misfortunes that followed.

There was a huge contrast between the political and economic distress of the Weimar years and the vibrant culture of the period. Yet what is now routinely called ‘Weimar culture’ is by no means the posthumous glorification of a world destroyed. Many aspects of Weimar culture really were years ahead of their time. That culture not only encompassed film, literature, modern art, architecture, design, literature, drama, poetry, and cabaret, but also displayed path-breaking attitudes towards sexuality.

...

On 12 December, the leading British economist John Maynard Keynes launched a blistering attack on the Treaty of Versailles in his best-selling book The Economic Consequences of The Peace. Keynes, who became the most influential economist of the twentieth century, had attended the Paris Peace Conference, as a senior delegate of the British Treasury, but he was so appalled by the injustice the Germans had suffered in the Treaty of Versailles that he had resigned in despair, on 7 June 1919. His book was full of flashing insights and indignation, which laid out clearly the economic crisis facing Europe by explaining what the Treaty had failed to do, and what the consequences would be. Keynes pulled no punches and upset many people. He famously described the Versailles Treaty as a ‘Carthaginian Peace’ – a peace that has the intention of crushing the defeated enemy.

Keynes further argued that the Allies, blinded by self-interest, were determined to punish rather than to rehabilitate Germany. The Versailles Treaty offered nothing to make Germany a ‘good neighbour’, and had conceded far too much to the vengeful spirit of the French government, which wanted to keep Germany weak. It imposed impossible terms on Germany which would soon plunge Europe into economic chaos. The demand for reparations was way beyond what Germany could afford to pay. Keynes also warned the territorial provisions of Versailles would lead to future foreign policy disputes. He blamed the ‘idealist’ US President, Woodrow Wilson, whom he described as a ‘blind and deaf Don Quixote’, for being unable to produce a peace settlement based on his Fourteen Points, which it had been promised during the Armistice negotiations would give Germany a ‘just peace’ with no ‘punitive damages’.

Keynes predicted the economic demands on Germany would cause high inflation and economic stagnation, which would spread throughout Europe. The Treaty of Versailles had to be modified, not just for the sake of Germany, but for the benefit of the world economy. It would damage the conditions for economic recovery and sow the seeds for another world war. In his persuasively argued and deeply influential book, Keynes laid the foundation for the failure of the American Senate to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and he also helped to create a climate of public opinion in which Germany’s demands for a revision of the terms of the treaty met with a sympathetic response, especially in Britain. Here was sowed the seeds of the policy of appeasement.

18 March 2024

Germany's Territorial Losses at Versailles

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 118-120:

It is, of course, an established tradition of war that the loser pays the costs of defeat, but the terms of the proposed Versailles Treaty were severe, to say the least. Alsace and Lorraine were returned to France, something which had been a French aim during the war. German territory west of the Rhine was to be occupied by Allied troops for at least 15 years to ensure German compliance to the treaty – if Germany did comply, the occupation of Cologne would end after five years, Koblenz after ten years and Mainz after 15 years. The left bank of the Rhine and the right bank to a depth of 31 miles were to be permanently demilitarised. In this region no German arms or soldiers could be stationed. The aim of these clauses was to stop another unprovoked German invasion of Belgium and France.

The Saar, a rich coal mining region, would be governed for 15 years by a commission of the League of Nations. In that time, the Saar coal mines would be given to France, as compensation for the German destruction of French coal mines during the war. At the end of the 15-year period, the people of the Saar would decide, in a referendum, whether they wished to remain under League control, to unite with France or return to Germany. If the people chose the latter option, Germany would be allowed to buy back the mines from France. Belgium received Moresnet, Eupen and Malmédy, but the local populations there would be allowed a referendum to confirm or reject this change. A referendum was also offered to determine the fate of North Schleswig, which voted in favour of being transferred to Denmark.

Germany suffered even greater territorial losses in Eastern Europe. The newly constituted state of Poland included the industrially rich area of Upper Silesia, along with Posen and West Prussia – the latter including the so-called Polish Corridor, which controversially separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Poland was also given extensive trading rights in Danzig (Gdansk), which was now designated a Free City under League of Nations authority. Danzig was Poland’s natural seaport, but ethnically it was a German city and would remain a source of unrest between Germany and Poland during the inter-war years. In addition, the German port of Memel was detached from the Reich, but was not formally awarded to Lithuania until 1923.

German territorial losses under the Treaty as a whole amounted to 13 per cent of its European lands, together with six million of its people. If Germany had been allowed to unite with Austria, it would have lessened the blow of these European territorial losses. Both countries were favourable to the union, but no referendum was offered. The Allies decided instead to prohibit the union with Austria (Anschluss).

Germany’s European losses were paralleled by the sacrifices it was forced to make elsewhere. All overseas colonies under German control were redistributed under mandates issued by the League of Nations, but it was stipulated these mandates must not simply serve the interests of their guardians. When the German delegation protested the loss of its colonies, the Allies pointed out the native inhabitants of the German colonies were strongly opposed to being returned to German control.

17 March 2024

The First Weimar Elections, 1919

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 85-87:

The elections for the National Assembly took place on 19 January 1919. This was the first of nine national elections held during the Weimar era. Weimar politics was characterised by a succession of unstable coalition governments, with each political party wanting to pull Germany in different directions. From 1918 to 1933, there were 20 different coalition governments, with an average life-span of no more than nine months, and none served for the full electoral term of four years.

The voter turnout was 83 per cent, with 30.53 million people casting their votes in Germany’s first truly democratic election. The Social Democrats performed best with 37.9 per cent of the vote, a total of 11.51 million votes. This was the highest percentage vote achieved by any Weimar party in any democratic election before 1933. It gave the SPD 165 seats, which was some way below the 212 seats needed for an overall majority. Zentrum came next with 19.7 per cent, representing 5.98 million votes and 91 seats. Those elected included a high proportion of right-wing Catholic Bavarians. Third place went to the DDP, recording 18.6 per cent, with 5.64 million votes, picking up 75 seats. A large number of middle-class voters opted for the DDP, as it had projected a strong anti-socialist stance during the election campaign. Some way behind was the conservative DNVP, with 10.3 per cent, polling 3.12 million votes and gaining 44 seats. The USPD, representing the far left, performed very poorly with just 7.6 per cent, a total of 2.31 million votes and 22 seats. Of the six main Weimar political parties, the DVP performed much the worst, taking a 4.4 per cent vote share, with 1.34 million votes, leaving it with only 19 seats.

The 1919 German election was a victory for the three parties who gave the most enthusiastic support to the new Republic – the SPD, Zentrum and the DDP, who between them polled 76.2 per cent of the votes. The two parties on the conservative Right, the DNVP and the DVP, could only muster 14.7 per cent between them. Their position seemed hopeless. The most revolutionary party on offer to voters, the USPD, registered just 7.6 per cent, showing left-wing radicalism had been resoundingly rejected.

On 3 February, the workers’ and soldiers’ councils formally handed over their powers to the new National Assembly, expressing a desire for the new constitution to create a unitary state in which the central government was supreme, and the powers of the federal states were done away with. They also expressed a desire for the incorporation of the rights of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils into the constitutional framework of the new Republic.

Weimar, a city in central Germany, in the state of Thuringia, was chosen as the first meeting place of the new National Assembly, as it was felt Berlin was still in a state of unrest and disorder. Weimar had been a focal point of the German Enlightenment and was an historic shrine of German liberalism.

16 March 2024

Germany Becomes a Republic, 1918

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 50-52:

On 6 November, the MSDP [Mehrheitssozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands] leaders held a crisis meeting in Berlin. Scheidemann proposed an ultimatum should be sent to Prince Max stating that the Social Democrats would leave the government unless Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated. Friedrich Ebert, the joint leader of the MSDP, objected to the idea of sending an ultimatum, and suggested he would meet Prince Max to urge a speedy settlement of the abdication question. On the next day, Ebert told Prince Max: ‘If the Kaiser does not abdicate, the social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it, indeed I hate it like sin.’ The German Chancellor agreed to travel to Spa to see Wilhelm II and convince him to abdicate.

In the following days, what had begun as a revolt against suicidal naval orders developed into a fully fledged political revolution. Soldiers and sailors in numerous naval base and coastal towns were disobeying orders. Then the revolution spread through all the regions of Germany. The monarchical federal structure of the country, with its 26 constituent territories each with its own kings, dukes, and princes, dissolved. The course of the German Revolution differed from region to region, but what was remarkably similar in each place was the unwillingness of the local authorities, army and naval personnel and local police forces to intervene to stop it.

The Revolution soon reached the Kingdom of Bavaria in southern Germany. On 2 November 1918, the Bavarian king, Ludwig III, approved a series of democratic reforms, which meant laws in future would be based on a parliamentary majority, not royal consent. This came too late to save the Wittelsbach monarchy, which had ruled Bavaria since the 11th century, from being deposed. The events of 7 November were a key turning point in Bavarian history. On that day, there was a huge anti-war demonstration attended by 60,000 people. The speakers demanded peace and democracy, but taking the lead was the eloquent Kurt Eisner, a member of the USPD [Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands], who had adopted a strong anti-war stance that proved popular with the local population. Eisner was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Berlin. After studying philosophy and German at university, he became a journalist and had been the editor of the Social Democrat flagship newspaper Vorwärts (Forward). During the war, he was convicted of treason for inciting a strike of munitions workers in 1918. He served nine months in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison before being released during the general amnesty of political prisoners in October 1918. At the end of the huge peace demonstration, Eisner, supported by his followers, liberated the military garrisons, and met with no resistance from the soldiers. By 9 p.m. Eisner had proclaimed Bavaria a republic, and occupied the Bavarian parliament. On the next day, he established a Provisional Government with himself as Minister-President and Foreign Minister. The old order in Bavaria had collapsed with no resistance.

Within days the regional German kings, princes and dukes were all deposed in quick succession. There was no resistance offered anywhere. On the morning of 9 November, only King Wilhelm of Württemberg and Wilhelm II, King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany, remained in office.