The Legacy of the War.

[from:Kaes, Anton. Jay, Martin, Dimendberg, Edward. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook. University of California Press, 1994.]

From the beginning, the Weimar Republic was burdened by its unexpected and, in many quarters, unwelcome birth in the bitter aftermath of a lost war. When the armistice ending World War I was signed on November 11, 1918, some two million German soldiers were dead—more than those of any other combatant—over four million more were disabled, physically and psychologically, and the German economy was in shambles. The Allied blockade remained in effect until the peace treaty was signed at Versailles on June 28, 1919, and the clamor for punitive reparations continued among the victors for 2 years to come. The harsh legacy of defeat was especially hard to bear for some because the German armies surrendered while still occupying foreign soil. Complete demobilization was hindered by the need to fight internal battles over Germany's political future, as well as by the reluctance of some who had fought to unlearn the brutal lessons they had learned in the trenches. In its short and tumultuous existence, the Weimar Republic never had the opportunity to work through the legacy of the war and come to terms with its defeat. The physical wounds of those who survived may have healed, but their psychological traumas, whose severity was recognized by psychoanalysts like Ernst Simmel as early as 1918, continued to fester for years to come.

The treaty ending the war, signed reluctantly and under pressure, was quickly dubbed the Diktat of Versailles. Political figures blamed for accepting the "Carthaginian Peace" it imposed on Germany were discredited or worse, as demonstrated by the assassination of the Catholic Center Party's Matthias Erzberger in 1921. Among the more controversial clauses were those attributing war guilt to Germany and demanding extensive compensation, which had been vigorously, but vainly resisted by the German delegation to the conference. Even more devastating were the significant losses of territory to France, Poland, Denmark, Lithuania, and Belgium, suffered either outright or after plebiscites, and the radical reduction of the armed forces and demilitarization of the Rhineland.

Hostility to the peace treaty was often accompanied by a search for scapegoats for the defeat, leading to the "stab in the back legend" promulgated by unrepentant military leaders like General Paul von Hindenburg in his testimony to the constitutional assembly's investigative committee on the war in November 1919 [text]. Even more moderate defenders of the new republic, such as the philosopher and theologian Ernst Troeltsch, resisted accepting Germany's responsibility for its plight, however much they may have also faulted the aggressive war policies of the general staff. Voices such as that of Willi Wolfradt, who claimed in Die Weltbühne in 1922 that the army should have been stabbed in the back, were a distinct minority. Indeed, it might be argued that not until the debate unleashed by the revisionist historian Fritz Fischer's Germany's Aims in the First World War in 1961 did the Germans attain a more even-handed, if still often contested, assessment of the war's origins.

During the Weimar Republic, feelings about the war ran too deep to allow any such dispassionate analysis. Not only was the justice of the war's goals still widely maintained, but also the devastating experience of trench warfare could be given a romantic gloss in the writings of veterans such as Ernst Jünger. The postwar exploits of the Freikorps, the still-mobilized veterans used by the government to crush leftist revolts, were subject to even greater glorification in the memoirs of participants, such as Ernst von Salomon's The Outlaws. Here the celebration of violence, a yearning for charismatic leadership, and communal fantasies of male bonding that were to have so sinister an outcome in post-Weimar German politics can be easily discerned.

Yet at least once the republic was successfully defended against these forces of reaction, as the failure of the Kapp Putsch, a rightist coup attempt led by Wolfgang Kapp, an East Prussian politician, and Hermann Ehrhardt, leader of the most notorious Freikorps brigade, demonstrates. Calling for a general strike on March 13, 1920, the German left, in a rare display of unity, mobilized nearly 100,000 workers and civil servants.

There were, to be sure, some German voices opposed to the glorification of war and the politics of belligerent resentment to which it led. A decade after hostilities began, Kurt Tucholsky, the independent leftist journalist associated with Die Weltbühne, mocked the current nostalgia for the chauvinist "spirit of 1914." But as the storm generated in 1929 by Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front and the film made from it demonstrates, the wounds of the war festered until they helped bring about the death of the republic itself. As for the prospects of another war, even pacifist intellectuals like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud could offer little hope that it might be averted, as evinced in the grim letters they exchanged in 1932 [text].