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.


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.


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.

15 March 2024

The Kiel Mutiny, November 1918

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 48-50:

The anti-war propaganda campaign unleashed by these left-wing socialist groups made a deep impression on sailors in the High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte), who opposed a German admiralty plan, codenamed ‘Plan 19’, scheduled for 28 October 1918, for one last make-or-break North Sea battle. Hopelessly outnumbered by the Allied navies, which included British, French, and American ships, the plan had little chance of success. Few sailors were interested in sacrificing their lives on such a pointless suicide mission. The Naval Supreme Command had sanctioned Plan 19, on the basis that the British would demand the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet as part of the armistice agreement.

The centre of the agitation against Plan 19 was in the port city of Kiel, on the Baltic coast, which along with Wilhelmshaven formed the anchorage base of the Kaiser’s fleet for the duration of the war. Blockaded by Allied ships, it had remained inactive ever since the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in late May 1916. Kiel also contained 50,000 troops stationed in barracks, and many industrial workers were working in armaments factories and shipyards. On 29 October, sailors on two major ships at Kiel failed to return from shore leave. Within hours, the mutiny spread to a number of other battleships and cruisers, forcing the Admiralty to abandon Plan 19.

The mutineers held a meeting on 2 November on a large parade ground in Kiel. They wanted the release of their comrades who had been imprisoned during the rebellion. The key speaker was 27-year-old Karl Artelt, a committed revolutionary and a member of the USPD [Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands], who called not only for the release of all the rebel sailors, but for the abolition of German militarism and the overthrow of the ruling classes. The sailors held a further meeting on 3 November 1918, again supported by USPD members, attended by about 6,000 people. They demanded the immediate release of the imprisoned sailors. The demonstrators then moved in the direction of the Waldwiese, a beer hall temporarily acting as a naval prison. The guards fired on the demonstrators, killing seven and wounding 29 others. On the next day, the rebel sailors moved through the town, and soon brought public and naval institutions under their control, detaining their officers, and taking control of their ships. By the end of 4 November, about 40,000 rebels in Kiel had formed councils elected at mass gatherings of sailors, soldiers, and workers. The Revolutionary Shop Stewards announced that a general strike in Kiel factories would begin on 5 November 1918.

Within Prince Max’s government, there was concern over the wider implications of the Kiel Mutiny. A sailors’ mutiny at a time when armistice negotiations were at a very delicate stage could only weaken the hand of the German government. Scheidemann feared the rebellion in Kiel might ignite a revolution against the old order and he was worried the formation of sailors’ and soldiers’ councils would turn the naval mutiny into a broader Marxist uprising.

14 March 2024

Germany's Military Collapse in 1918

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 26-28:

Victory in Russia gave the German people real hope of victory in the war. On 21 March 1918, Germany launched a spring offensive, better known as the Ludendorff Offensive, on the Western Front. It aimed to knock Britain and France out of the war before significant numbers of US forces arrived in Europe. Unfortunately, German expectations of victory proved illusory. Scarcely in the annals of military history has there been such a spectacular reversal of military fortune as Germany suffered towards the end of the war. By early June 1918, it was clear that the Ludendorff Offensive had failed. On 8 August, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), spearheaded by tanks and supported by massive numbers of newly arrived American troops, launched a surprise attack between Amiens and St Quentin in northern France against the German Second Army. It punched a huge hole in the defensive line and captured 15,000 German soldiers. The significance of this decisive British breakthrough in the Battle of Amiens was not lost on Ludendorff, who called it ‘the blackest day of the German army in the history of this war’. He knew the Allies were now able to deploy thousands of tanks on the Western Front while the Germans had been able to manufacture only 20. Fritz Nagel, a German officer in the German anti-aircraft artillery, later recalled: ‘The German armies were in bad shape. Every soldier and civilian was hungry. Losses in material could not be replaced and the soldiers arriving as replacements were too young, poorly trained and often unwilling to risk their necks because the war looked like a lost cause.’

A two-day military conference on the critical situation on the Western Front was held on 13–14 August 1918 at the headquarters of the Supreme Military Command in Spa, Belgium. Hindenburg chaired it, and Paul von Hintze, the new Foreign Minister, and Ludendorff were present. Ludendorff said Germany now needed to adopt a purely defensive strategy, but he thought it might still be possible to sue for peace with the western Allies on favourable terms. Hindenburg agreed with Ludendorff’s judgement about continuing with strategic defence, while Hintze thought the German Army was in no condition to fight a successful strategic defence, and he felt diplomatic steps had to be taken to bring the war to an end.

When Kaiser Wilhelm II was apprised of these discussions in a Grand Council meeting, he seemed blinded by the optimism of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and instructed Hintze to refrain from making a direct peace offer to the Allies and to wait for a more favourable moment. This proved wishful thinking, as Germany’s Central Power allies now began to collapse. On 24 September 1918, the Bulgarian Army was defeated when the Allied armies based in Greece broke through the Macedonian Front. The Bulgarian government, which had previously been under German control, requested an armistice and accepted it five days later. This placed the Austro-Hungarian empire, Germany’s principal ally, in a precarious position. Emperor Charles I of Austria, desperate to end the war, sent a circular diplomatic note inviting all the belligerents in the war to send representatives to Vienna to a confidential conference to discuss the basic principles of a peace settlement. On 27 October, Austria-Hungary ended its formal alliance with Germany, and the subject nationalities of the Habsburg Empire all declared their independence. On 30 October, the Ottoman Turks signed a regional armistice. Germany was now left without any allies.

13 March 2024

Germany's Eastern Victory in WW1

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 21-22, 25-26:

Germany’s confident hopes of a swift victory were halted in September 1914 by British, Belgian, and French troops on the Marne River in France. From this point onwards, the war on the Western Front became a stalemate, with 8 million troops stretched along a 450-mile front from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Numerous attempts to break the deadlock turned into dogged struggles for mere yards of territory, with millions of lives lost and little ground gained. Barbed wire entanglements impeded the advance of competing armies and machine guns mowed down advancing troops. It was a struggle in which an average of 6,000 troops were killed every day.

The stalemate in the west contrasted sharply with the stunning victories of the German Army on the Eastern Front in 1914 and 1915, masterminded by General Paul von Hindenburg, the chief of the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, OHL), and his brilliant Chief of Staff, the Quartermaster General, Erich Ludendorff. By the end of 1915, the Germans had driven the Russian armies back remorselessly over 250 miles. These stunning victories turned Hindenburg and Ludendorff into national heroes. As the war progressed, Kaiser Wilhelm proved incapable of effective leadership, which resulted in a power vacuum, filled by the military high command. In late August 1916, Germany became a de facto military dictatorship led by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who were able, until the later stages of the war, to ignore the wishes of the parliamentary parties.


On 19 July 1917, Erzberger introduced a resolution in the Reichstag for a ‘peace without annexations’, which was passed by 212 to 126 votes. It was the first major intervention by the Reichstag to oppose the war, but Kaiser Wilhelm refused to be bound by the Reichstag. Hindenburg and Ludendorff considered the resolution a ‘scrap of paper’ and ignored it. The blame for the political crisis was placed on Bethmann Hollweg, who had rightly been sceptical about unrestricted submarine warfare. He was forced to resign as Chancellor.

His replacement, Georg Michaelis, who took office on 13 July 1917, was the first German Chancellor who was not of noble birth. His background was in business, but his only previous minor political posts were as an undersecretary of state in the Prussian Treasury, and as the head of the Reich Grain Agency (Reichsgetreidestelle), the office responsible for the distribution of corn and wheat. The prime movers in the unexpected elevation of this inexperienced bureaucrat to the role of Chancellor were Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who felt he would do their bidding. True to form, Michaelis kept the Reichstag completely in the dark on matters of war and foreign relations. He was forced to resign on 1 November 1917 after his refusal to give support to Erzberger’s peace resolution led to the loss of a vote of confidence in the Reichstag.

In Eastern Europe, relentless German military pressure contributed to the abdication of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917, which eventually led to the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Ilyich Lenin coming to power in November of that year. Lenin’s return to Russia was assisted by his sealed train being given permission to cross German territory – an incident in which Ludendorff played a key role.

After seizing power, Lenin and the Bolsheviks opened negotiations for a peace settlement with Germany. This resulted in the signing of the punitive Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918, under which Russia lost possession of 34 per cent of its population, 54 per cent of its industry, including 89 per cent of its coalfields, and 26 per cent of its railways, and was also obliged to pay 6 billion marks in compensation for German losses. The Treaty completely contradicted the Peace Resolution of the Reichstag, which had pledged ‘peace without annexations’, yet the Reichstag deputies ratified the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk without suggesting any amendments.

12 March 2024

Bypassing the Reichstag in World War I

From The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933, by Frank McDonough (Bloomsbury, 2023), Kindle pp. 18-20:

At the start of the First World War, Imperial Germany was not a parliamentary democracy, but nor was it an autocracy. It had a constitution, a national parliament, and independent states which controlled the local budgets of each region. The national parliament consisted of the Reichstag directly elected by the German people and an upper unelected chamber known as the Federal Council (Bundesrat), with representatives from the 26 individual princely states. Voting in elections for the Reichstag was confined to all males aged 25 and over and based on a constituency-based, first-past-the-post system. Neither the Bundesrat nor the Reichstag had the power to draft legislation but were expected to approve it. Even so, more people were entitled to vote in German parliamentary elections in 1914 than was the case in Britain.

Despite the Reichstag’s lack of political power, German national elections were hotly contested....

The power and influence of the military was stronger than that of any of the political parties. It was often described as a ‘state within a state’. The Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria, had been in power since 1888. He had the final say on policy, controlled the armed forces, appointed the German Chancellor and the cabinet ministers and was able to veto decisions taken by the Bundesrat and the Reichstag. The German Empire’s governing system, dominated by the Kaiser, was called an ‘autocratic state’ (Obrigkeitsstaat). On the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, the German Emperor told the assembled members of the Reichstag: ‘I no longer recognise parties. I know only Germans.’ He then asked the Reichstag members to endorse an Enabling Act which suspended elections and Reichstag meetings and afforded him unlimited powers. Under Article 68 of the then German constitution, the Army seized wide-ranging executive powers, which included a strict censorship of the press.

Kaiser Wilhelm decided to finance the war not by raising taxation, but by creating Loan Banknotes (Darlehenskassenscheine), issuing three-month Treasury Bills and printing money. The idea was for these loans to be paid back in the event of Germany winning the war, capturing territory, and imposing reparations on the defeated powers. It was only in 1916 that new taxes were belatedly introduced on business, but not on incomes. Only 13.9 per cent of Germany’s war costs came from direct taxation, compared to 18.2 per cent for Britain. During the war, the amount of money in circulation rose from 7.4 million to 44.4 million marks, which inevitably led to high inflation.

The Germans prided themselves on the superiority of their armed forces and the strength of their economy. In 1914, Germany possessed the most powerful and dynamic economy on the European continent, which had experienced 50 years of uninterrupted growth. Germany produced two-thirds of Europe’s output of steel, half its coal production, and 20 per cent more electrical energy than Britain, France and Italy put together. It had a population of 67 million, which had grown from 25 million in 1800. It was also Europe’s leader in modern industries such as chemicals and pharmaceuticals. In agriculture, it produced a third of the world’s output of potatoes.... 

Germany in the period from 1916 to 1918 has been correctly described as a ‘Silent Dictatorship’. Censorship over newspapers was tightened; at the same time, Hindenburg ordered the systematic economic exploitation of German-occupied areas in France, Belgium and in East Central Europe, under the Hindenburg Programme of August 1916, which aimed to double industrial production by increasing the output of munitions, explosives, weapons, artillery, and ammunition. On 1 November 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff founded the Supreme War Office (Kriegsamt), under General Wilhelm Groener, to create a command economy ruled by the army. Compulsory military service was introduced for everyone aged 16 to 60, and businesses not related to the war economy were closed down. More alarmingly, compulsory hard labour was imposed on prisoners of war in labour camps, often under appalling conditions. Under the ‘Silent Dictatorship’, Germany pursued its war aims in a ruthless manner. At the beginning of 1917, the Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) adopted unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic to disrupt British and French supplies arriving from the USA. This proved counterproductive and provoked the Americans, led by President Woodrow Wilson, to enter the war on the Allied side in April 1917.

04 March 2024

Australian Given Names

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle p. 401:

The [1814] muster record also reveals the most popular first names in the colony. The most common male first name was ‘John’ (1 in 5 males), followed by ‘William’, ‘Thomas’ and ‘James’. These four names accounted for almost half the male population, whereas the name of ‘Anthony’ was rare – only seven men had this name (0.2%). One in five adult females were called ‘Mary’, followed by ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Ann’. Every second female had one of these three names. When combined with the names ‘Sarah’, ‘Jane’, ‘Catherine’ and ‘Margaret’, almost three quarters of the female population were accounted for.

02 March 2024

New Holland Becomes Australia

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle p. 415:

Increasingly, the continent of which New South Wales was part of became known as ‘Australia’ in official communications and documents. Captain Matthew Flinders was the first to adopt this name in the 1814 publication of his charts and journal of the exploratory voyage. The use of Australia for the colony rather than New South Wales first appeared in The Sydney Gazette in 1816. After that, the name ‘Australia’ was widely used. A year later, Governor Macquarie introduced it into his letters to the Colonial Office and on 21 Dec 1817, he recommended that henceforth the continent and colony be called ‘Australia’ rather than ‘New Holland’.

The first Australia Day celebration was held on 26 Jan 1818 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the colony. The official celebration of this day paid tribute to Arthur Phillip ‘whose virtues and talents entitle him to the grateful remembrance of his Country, and to whose arduous exertions the present prosperous state of the Colony may chiefly be ascribed’. In recognition of the anniversary, a 30-gun salute was fired.

01 March 2024

Australia's Currency Lads and Lasses

From In For The Long Haul: First Fleet Voyage & Colonial Australia: The Convicts' Perspective, by Annegret Hall (ESH Publication, 2018), Kindle pp. 443-445:

The younger Rope family members were typical of the new generation of free colonialists, commonly known as the ‘currency lads and lasses’. This was the expression used in the colony to describe those who were Australian born with emancipist or convict parentage. This generation grew up in an adult society in which free immigrants often made slights and barbs about their origins – they were ‘the offspring of thieves’ and ‘good for nothings’. But the spirit and energy of this new breed had its admirers. Surgeon Peter Miller Cunningham was optimistic about the ‘currency youth’.

Our colonial-born brethren are best known here by the name of Currency, in contradistinction to Sterling, or those born in the mother-country. … Our Currency lads and lasses are a fine interesting race, and do honour to the country whence they originated. … The Currency youths are warmly attached to their country, which they deem unsurpassable, and few ever visit England without hailing the day of their return as the most delightful in their lives….

The currency lads and lasses were also referred to as Corn Stalks because they were taller than their British counterparts the Sterlings, and they had a distinct way of talking. The children of exclusives saw themselves as the pure bloods of the colony and, if they came from large estates, as the Pure Merinos. Among the colony’s youth, the currency lads stood together and if one was attacked the ‘whole hive sally to his aid’. Interestingly, drunkenness was much less common among the currency youth than their parents or the adult population as a whole.

Most had at least one convict or ex-convict parent but, to the surprise of their elite contemporaries, they were generally law-abiding. Work was plentiful in the colony, and many had respectable well-paid jobs. In fact, there were far fewer temptations for youth to commit crime in the colony than in the overcrowded and underemployed British cities. Australia had shown itself to be a land of promise for the parents of the currency youth, and so it would be for them. Toby Ryan, as the son of a convict father, reflected on this in his book Reminiscences.

Many of the early Australians sprang from the well-behaved emancipists and military men, who settled down at once, uncontaminated by drink, disease, or other enervating diseases; the result was fine men and women. Of course, hard work and wholesome food were partly the means of raising so fine a race…. Their red cheeks showed the bloom of health and beauty, and they required no artificial means to make them representable. They moved with agility, and were straight and well-formed, showing that their ancestors came from a good stock.

For most emancipists and their children Australia was their home, and they had no intention of returning to the Mother Country. They formed a strong political block that sought to ensure lawful access to all levels in Australian society. In 1821 the emancipists sent a petition to King George IV requesting the removal of any impediments to legal representation and rights. Some members of the community, and particularly the exclusives, government officials, and even governors, consistently discriminated against them. Their work opportunities were improving, but they now feared that the rapid increase in new free immigrants arriving would slow their acceptance into Australian society.

Equal opportunity remained a hot issue in the colony.