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Assignment: The Weimar Republic

Assignment: The Weimar Republic

Assignment: The Weimar Republic


Hitler’s Third Reich sprang from the ashes of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first experiment with constitutional democracy. The Weimar Republic was ill fated from the moment of its inception because it was associated with Germany’s humiliating defeat and the harsh peace terms imposed by the Allied powers after World War I. Burdened by punitive reparations, Germany fell victim to high unemployment, widespread business failures, and rampant inflation.

In the face of such turbulence, German society became polarized between the extreme Right and the extreme Left. In the words of one authority, “Stable democratic government was in jeopardy throughout the life of the Weimar Republic. The country was governed … by unpopular minority cabinets, by internally weak Grand Coalitions, or finally, by extra-parliamentary authoritarian Presidential Cabinets.”* Between the two world wars (1919–1939), the country’s fragile political institutions were put to a test that proved fatal.

Given this background, the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 was risky. Whether democracy could ever be made to work in a country that had only recently bowed to a deranged dictator, served a totalitarian state, and looked the other way while millions of innocent people were systematically murdered was an open question.

Divided Germany: The Cold War in Microcosm

World War II destroyed Germany. The nation and its capital, Berlin, were subsequently bifurcated into the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), or West Germany. From 1949 to 1990, Germany and Berlin, the historical capital, became powerful symbols of the Cold War—the ideological rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union—and the unbridgeable East–West divide.

The West German “economic miracle” in the 1950s was unmatched. In the 1960s, it was the main engine driving the newly established Common Market, a six-nation trading bloc that in time evolved into the world’s largest single economy—the European Union. West Germany’s success stood in stark contrast to the dismal Stalinist state of East Germany.