Katja Hoyer Katja Hoyer

Why did the Weimar Republic descend so rapidly into chaos?

Despite its democratic ideals and artistic creativity, 1920s Germany lacked both the flexibility and social cohesion necessary for functional politics, says Frank McDonough

Children playing with worthless banknotes in a German street in 1923. [Getty Images]

‘Thirteen wasted years’ bellowed Adolf Hitler at receptive audiences in the spring of 1932. He was talking about the first full German democracy, the Weimar Republic. Proclaimed in November 1918, it was born out of a desire to do things better after the horrors of the first world war and was an ambitious attempt to establish one of the most progressive states in history. ‘Democratic chaos,’ sneered Hitler, ‘unmitigated political and economic chaos.’ Much of the electorate agreed. Less than a year later, Hitler became chancellor and immediately set about fulfilling his electoral promise to destroy democracy.

The short and tumultuous story of the Weimar Republic continues to fascinate. The globally successful Babylon Berlin, set in the last years before Nazi rule, is said to be the most expensive non-English TV series ever made. When there is a sense of crisis in politics, journalists often speak of ‘Weimar-isation’, the term evoking concern, upheaval extremism and unease.

Weimar’s interest partly lies in the fact that it seems so very familiar: women had democratic rights; there was political infighting, inflation and deep societal division; there were radios, cars, cinemas and planes. Yet it also represents a twisted version of our reality with its twitching, war-marked veterans, its intense street violence and its backdrop of perennial cynicism. Weimar acts as a dark mirror to modern democracies, disturbingly absorbing for its spectacular fall from the heights of liberalism to the depths of Nazi tyranny.

Frank McDonough sets out to tell this dramatic tale in full. An expert on the Third Reich, he now presents a prequel to his two-volume work The Hitler Years. The Weimar Years offers a systematic narrative history that begins in the blood-soaked trenches of the first world war and ends with Hitler’s triumphal accession to the chancellorship in January 1933.

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