Impact of World War One on the Weimar Republic

World War One had a devastating impact on Germany. Throughout World War One, the people of Germany had been led to believe by their government that they were winning the war. Government propaganda had been used to great effect. When the temporarily blinded Adolf Hitler had gone into hospital in 1918 (the result of a gas attack), he, along with many German soldiers, was convinced that Germany was not only winning the war but was in the process of putting together a major military assault on Allied lines. 

Only the military leaders such as Luderndorff and Hindenburg knew the true state of Germany’s military plight which had become even more apparent when America had joined in the war in 1917. The success of the Luderndoff Offensive in 1918 was only paper-thin as Germany had lost many of her most able officers in battle. 

Germany itself was being starved of food and all goods as a result of the British Navy’s blockade of her ports in the north. With such a small coastline, the British Navy found it a relatively easy task to blockade her. German troops were poorly equipped and what food there was went to the war effort leaving the people of Germany very short of food.

In the autumn of 1918, the Allies launched a massive attack on the German lines. The German Army could not stand up to such an attack and in just a few weeks the German Army had collapsed. The euphoria of the success of the Luderndorff Offensive was quickly forgotten. Many Germans could not accept that they had lost the war. The blame was put on weak politicians rather than on military exhaustion. In the space of two months, Germany had gone from being a fighting nation to a defeated one; from a nation with a leader – Kaiser William II – to one with politicians leading the country. William II had been forced to abdicate – give up the throne.

The two months of October and November 1918 are crucial in setting the scene of why Germany got off to such a bad start immediately after the war.

In October 1918, Germany’s naval command at Kiel decided to take on the might of the British Navy which was blockading Germany’s northern ports and starving out the nation. British submarines patrolled off the north German coast and such a mission would have been all but suicidal. The sailors of Kiel mutinied rather than go on such a mission. Officers were killed and naval boats were taken over. This one incident seemed to have been the catalyst that sparked off total anger in Germany. The navy had been the Kaiser’s, and therefore, Germany’s pride and joy and here were the sailors rebelling against authority.

The army was not sent to crush this mutiny as the Kaiser and his government could not trust that they would not join the sailors. In fact, demonstrations took place all over Germany and those who worked went on strike. Soldiers did join the protests.   

By early November 1918, many cities had been taken over by workers’ and soldiers’ councils. This was very similar to what had happened in Russia during the communist take over of 1917 and politicians were fearful of another communist takeover in Germany itself.

The leading party in Germany’s Reichstag (Parliament), was the Social Democrat Party. It was lead by Friedrich Ebert and the party pleaded with the Kaiser to abdicate to save Germany from mayhem. OnNovember 9th, the Social Democrats announced that the Kaiser had abdicated – at that particular time he had not. But there was a general strike in Berlin at that time and the Social Democrats feared that extremists would take over and anarchy would occur. The Social Democrats announced that Germany was now arepublic (lead by a civilian government and not by a monarch), and that the country would be run by the Reichstag. On the following day, the Kaiser fled to Holland and on November 11th, 1918, an armistice was declared.                                                                   

Food shortages in Germany itself had pushed many civilians to the brink of starvation. Farmers were short of labourers to bring in the harvest as young men had been drafted into the military. By 1918, Germany was producing only 50% of the milk it had done before the war. By the winter of 1917, the supply of potatoes had run out and the only real alternative was turnips. This is why the winter of 1916 to 1917 is known as the “Turnip Winter“. Turnips were used as animal foodstuff and the thought of eating them repelled many as they were the food of cows, pigs etc. Lack of food had seriously weakened the ability of people to fight off disease. Flu had a terrible impact on Germans as the people had little bodily strength to fight the illness. It is thought that nearly 750,000 died of a combination of flu and starvation – this figure included mainly civilians but it also included soldiers who had survived the horror of war, returned to Germany and had died of the disease.

By Christmas 1918, Germany was at peace with regards to the war. The Armistice held out – though Germany was incapable of fighting anyway. However, the shock of defeat combined with the state of Germany caused the new government lead by Ebert to inherit many problems. 


Friedrich Ebert

The most obvious was Ebert’s inability to control Berlin. Such was the violence and chaos in Germany’s capital city between the German Communists and the Freikorps and army, that the government moved to the nearest large city which was ‘peaceful’ and set up government there. This was the city of Weimar. Hence the name of Germany from 1919 to 1933. However, how could Ebert’s government appear strong when it had fled its own capital?

Ebert had inherited a far worse problem. Many soldiers had returned from the war with their weapons. Their retreat had been so haphazard that there had been no formal disarming of soldiers. Germany was littered with weapons. Soldiers had been greatly angered by the defeat and they blamed the government – which happened to be Ebert’s. These men could not be disarmed nor were they loyal to the government. They were potentially a serious source of trouble. Ironically, it was not Ebert’s fault that Germany had lost the war. The incompetence of the military leaders was forgotten and the government of the time of the Armistice was blamed.

Also Germany had lost 2 million men in the war. These were the core of Germany’s work force and Germany’s industrial base could not recover without them. Therefore, it seemed that in December 1918, Germany was condemned to economic weakness.

Communism had also taken a hold in Germany – and this group, known as the Spartacists, were determined to bring down Ebert and set up a communist style government in Berlin.

The war had brought :

  • economic disaster to Germany
  • a serious loss of man power
  • near total disrespect for the government
  • many thousands of armed and disillusioned former soldiers roaming the streets
  • a civilian population traumatised by the impact of the war

This was all before the anger that was to occur in Germany over the Treaty of Versailles.

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