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Following the armistice on 11 November 1918, 32 representatives of 32 countries convened at Versailles in 1919 to draw up a peace settlement after World War I. In practice, the ultimate arbiters were the US, France and Britain and, to a lesser extent, Italy. Apart from the centrepiece Treaty of Versailles, there were four other major treaties.
The ‘Stab in the Back’
Under Versailles, Germany lost West Prussia and Posen to Poland and Alsace-Lorraine to France. Danzig was made a free port and the Saarland a demilitarized zone administered by the League of Nations. As well as losing 10 percent of its land and all its overseas colonies, Germany was forced to accept humiliating terms: taking responsibility for the war; limiting its armed forces; and paying punishing reparations, which cost Germany 2 per cent of its annual production. Against this background, an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory spread amongst right-wing circles in Germany, which argued that the war had not been lost on the battlefield, but on the home front, where Jews and republicans overthrew the Kaiser in the German Revolution of 1918–19, the so-called ‘stab in the back’.
Unrest and Hyperinflation
The first elections to Germany’s constituent National Assembly had taken place in the immediate aftermath of World War I, on 19 January 1919. Despite severe social unrest, the elections, in which women voted for the first time, resulted in an absolute majority for the mainstream ‘Weimar Coalition’, made up of the MSPD (the Majority Social Democratic Party), the Centre (Zentrum) Party and the German Democratic Party. This election was followed eighteen months later, on 6 June 1920, by the first Reichstag election of the Weimar era. The governing Weimar Coalition suffered heavy losses, losing 124 seats and its parliamentary majority. Instead a minority government was formed under the Centrist Konstantin Fehrenbach, made up of the Centre Party, the German Democratic Party and the German People’s Party (DVP). Clearly the electorate was dissatisfied with the MSDP, which had been failed to satisfy workers’ demands for nationalization and social rights. The USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany) had seen its share of the vote increase to 17.9 per cent. With a total of 84 deputies, it was the largest parliamentary group in the Reichstag. Not far behind, with 71 seats, was the far right German National People’s Party (DNVP).
From 1921–23 there was an intense period of hyperinflation, when the German mark became virtually worthless, war reparations could not be paid, and the Ruhr workers went on a general strike. Beset by feelings of social and economic insecurity, the voters turned away from the republican parties towards the extreme left and extreme right. The election of 4 May 1924 was known as the ‘inflation election’, and resulted in a minority coalition, composed of the DVP (German People’s Party), Centre (Zentrum) Party and DDP (German Democratic Party). Beset by feelings of social and economic insecurity, the voters turned away from the republican parties towards the extreme left and extreme right. The greatest gains were made by the KPD (the Communist Party), whose share of the vote rose from 10.5 to 12.6 per cent. Right-wing parties, such as the DNVP (German National People’s Party) and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) exploited a wave of right-wing nationalist propaganda, spurred on by the general strike and resentment at the Dawes Plan, an attempt by the Allies to resolve the question of outstanding reparations. The DNVP (the German National People’s Party) became the second largest parliamentary group, with a 19.5% share of the vote and 95 deputies. With 6.5 per cent of the vote, the combination of the People’s Freedom Party and the National Socialists were a political force for the first time. This was at the expense of the parties of the Weimar Coalition, who all lost ground.
A few month of economic revival sent the minority coalition of the DVP (German People’s Party), Centre (Zentrum) Party and DDP (German Democratic Party) back to the polls on 7 December 1924 in the hope that they would gain a working majority. This resulted in slight gains for the coalition party, a more noticeable increase for the Social Democrats, who increased their vote by 5.5 per cent to 26 per cent, and a decrease in votes for the National Socialist bloc and the Communists. However, support for the DNVP (German National People’s Party), the major conservative and nationalist party in Weimar Germany, rose to 20.5 per cent, which meant that they held the balance of power and their support was indispensable for any ruling coalition. The Weimar pattern of shifting and collapsing alliances, which ultimately led to 22 coalition governments from 1919–1932, was now well established.
The Nazi Campaign
Four years of economic recovery consolidated the position of the democrats in the Reichstag elections held on 20 May 1928. The SPD (Social Democrats) were the clear victors, with 29.8 per cent of the vote and 153 Reichstag seats. By aligning with the Centre (Zentrum) Party, the DDP (German Democratic Party), the DVP (German People’s Party) and the BVP (Bavarian People’s Party) they were able to form a Grand Coalition, led by Chancellor Hermann Müller. The main losers were the right-wig DNVP (German National People’s Party), which slumped from a 4.2 per cent to 5.4 per cent share of the vote. A large number of votes (13.9 per cent) was polled by non-mainstream parties, most of which were disaffected with democracy and oriented to the right of the political spectrum. The National Socialists (NSDAP), known as the Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler, campaigned for the first time with their own list of candidates and gained a 2.6 per cent share of the vote. He opposed the post-war government of the Weimar Republic, rejected the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and combined pan-Germanism with virulent anti-Semitism.
The Great Depression of 1929 had led to widespread poverty and hardship throughout Germany, resulting in the radicalisation of the electorate. The cabinet of Heinrich Brüning was governing by emergency presidential decree and the elections of 14 September 1930 were called in the hope of gaining parliamentary backing. However, the extremist parties of both the left and right were the main beneficiaries. The Communists (KPD) now held a 13.1 per cent share of the vote. But by far the biggest swing was for the National Socialists (NSDAP), whose share of the vote surged from 2.6 per cent to 18.25 per cent. The radical upsurge was matched by a collapse in votes for the centre. A parliamentary majority was looking every more elusive, and the Brüning cabinet continued to govern by emergency decree.
Once again the presidential government, led by Franz von Papen (Zentrum/Centre) went to the polls on 31 July 1932, in the hope of securing a parliamentary majority. The elections were held against a backdrop of economic depression, with unemployment at nearly 30 per cent. They were accompanied by political violence; the SA, the Nazi paramilitaries, clashed with militant Communists. Shock waves reverberated throughout Germany when Hitler’s National Socialists (NSDAP) emerged with 37.4 per cent of the vote (230 seats in the Reichstag), more than doubling its share of the vote. At the other end of the political spectrum the Communist Party (KPD) increased its share of the vote to 1.5 per cent (89 seats). With a combined tally of 319 out of 608 Reichstag seats the Communists and National Socialists effectively held a joint power of veto within the Reichstag. The upsurge of the radicals was matched by a collapse of the centrist pro-Republican parties: the Social Democrats (SPD) lost 3.9 per cent of the vote, polling 21.6 per cent, although the Centre made a small gain of 0.7 per cent to poll 12.5 per cent. The National Socialists (Nazis) were the largest party but did not hold a governing majority, and the other parties refused to join them in a coalition, so von Papen’s minority government maintained its precarious hold on power until November.
Hitler the Victor
The elections of 6 November 1932 were the last democratic national election until 1949 in West Germany and 1990 in East Germany. In essence, the trends of the July elections towards radicalisation and extremism were not reversed. The National Socialists gained 196 seats (33.1 per cent) and the Communists (KPD) achieved their best ever result, with 16.9 percent of the vote (100 seats). Communists and National Socialists combined held 296 out of 584 seats, retaining their power of veto in the Reichstag. In December 1932 President von Hindenburg had sacked Chancellor von Papen, replacing him with the defence minister, Kurt von Schleicher, who was determined to form a coalition. The aggrieved von Papen then opened negotiations with Adolf Hitler, proposing a Nationalist-Nazi coalition, and indicating to von Hindenburg that such an alliance would temper the Nazis’ more thuggish tendencies. Hitler was appointed chancellor on 30 January 1933, with von Papen as his vice-Chancellor.
When the Reichstag was set on fire on 27 February, allegedly by a Dutch communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, support for the Communist Party (KPD) saw a marked decline. Despite the violence, threats and intimidation meted out by the brownshirts and SS, however, the Nazis polled only 43.9 per cent of the vote at the elections held in a febrile atmosphere just six days later, well short of a governing majority, and were forced to form a coalition with the DNVP (German National People’s Party). The Communists polled 12.3 per cent and the SPD won 20.4 per cent. The electoral process was subject to the National Socialists’ policy of repression and intimidation and there were numerous irregularities, so the election of 1933 cannot be regarded as truly democratic. Just two weeks later Hitler passed the Enabling Act, supported by all the non-Socialist parties, which effectively gave him dictatorial powers, and within two months all the other political parties had been banned.
Nazi Germany’s pursuit of Lebensraum (‘living space’), began legitimately. The 1935 Saarland plebiscite had been mandated at Versailles, and the Saarlanders elected to join Germany. Hitler seemed taken with plebiscites: he held another the following year in the Rhineland, after first occupying it with his army in contravention of Versailles, and won another vote for Germany. The retroactive referendum gambit was employed again when he annexed Austria in 1938. Belatedly, the Great War’s allies evinced concern, as Hitler demanded the (mainly German) Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia. This produced the iconic moment of ‘Appeasement’ when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waved his worthless ‘agreement’ with Hitler and proclaimed, ‘Peace for our time’. The price was Sudetenland; Czechoslovakia was not consulted. ‘Our time’ proved brutally short; in March 1939, Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, establishing the ‘Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia’. Slovakia was termed a ‘protective zone’, then Lithuania was forced to cede Memel. The collision course for war was set.
Under the Treaty of Versailles, the newly-formed Poland had been given a thin strip of land around the River Vistula which provided access to the Baltic, and vital economic rights to the free port city of Danzig. This resulted in German East Prussia becoming an exclave and meant that large numbers of German-speaking peoples in the newly formed corridor fell under Polish rule. The territory had historically been contested and subjected to a programme of Prussian settlement after 1886 as part of Otto van Bismarck’s attempts to germanize the area and dilute Polish influence. As a result, many Germans were forcefully evicted from the Danzig corridor post-1919. Transport between East Prussia and Germany through the corridor also became very restricted. The Danzig Corridor was another grievance that provided the pretext for much of the tension that sparked World War II, as Hitler capitalized on resentment over Poland’s refusal to cede the territory back to Germany.
The severe penalties placed upon the defeated countries of World War I under the Treaty of Versailles fostered conditions that encouraged right wing nationalist political ideologies to flourish. Fascism as a political ideology first emerged in Italy and grew under the leadership of Benito Mussolini, who seized power in 1922 as the country’s economy was gripped by the great depression. Although Mussolini was an inspirational figure for Adolf Hitler during the rise of German Fascism, or Nazism, the two movements were largely independent of each other with some key differences and clashes of interest. Italian fascism promoted the restoration and expansion of the Italian nation, with economic cooperation between all Italians regardless of social class, whereas Nazism focussed on unity of the German people as a master race, regarding other races as inferior. Fascist movements were also present in Spain during its civil war and Austria, which became aligned with Germany.