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Prelude to Hitler: the Internal Politics of Germany 1918-1933 / Karl Korsch, 1940

Source:   Prelude to Hitler : the Internal Politics of Germany 1918-1933 / Karl Korsch. – In: Living Marxism : International Council Correspondence, Vol. V (1940-1941), No 2 (Fall 1940), p. 7-14; transcribed by Felipe Andrade, 5 November 2020.

As the period under discussion begins and ends with a revolution, our first and main concern will not be the particular problem, however important, that arise and are solved from day 'to day and from year to year in the normal development of a political unit. Our main concern is rather the basic problem of government itself. The crucial question that faced the so-called Weimar Republic during most of its life-time was the question whether this republic existed at all, and what was its real political structure.

From a formal point of view that question seems to be easily answered. When the empire had been finally defeated and its ruler, the Kaiser, – or more correctly the twenty-odd kings and arch-dukes and dukes who had been the collective sovereign of imperial Germany – had formally abdicated, the German people after a comparatively short period of turmoil and strife gave itself a new republican constitution by its chosen representatives at Weimar in August, 1919. That constitution remained valid until the advent of Nazism, and in a sense remains valid even today, as the state power was seized by the Nazi party in a perfectly legal manner. Hitler was made Chancellor, that is Prime Minister, by the President of the German Republic, Field Marshall Hindenburg, on January 30, 1933. He was confirmed in that position by the overwhelming majority of the Reichstag and by a number of practically unanimous plebiscites. The same procedure was observed when later, after Hindenburg's death in 1934, the office of president was abolished, and Hitler, in his new position as “leader and Chancellor”, united in his person and thereby in the office of Chancellor both the powers of the presidency and of the chancellorship. Even the transfer of all legislative powers from parliament to the Leader, including the power to further change the constitution itself, was performed in a perfectly legal manner. These powers were formally delegated from the Reichstag to Hitler's cabinet by the device of two “enabling acts” presented to the first and second Reichstags of 1933, and invariably accepted by majorities much greater than the two-thirds required by Article 76 of the Weimar constitution.

This formal record of the constitutional development does not, however, give a real answer to the basic problem of that fourteen years' interlude between two revolutions and two world wars that was the German Republic. There is even some doubt whether in the continuous flux and incessant struggle between progressive and reactionary, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces there ever was any tangible condition or state of affairs sufficiently stable to be described as the German Republic or as a government based on the Weimar constitution.

For the purpose of a realistic interpretation the history of the fourteen years preceding the victory of Nazism in Germany must be divided into at least five totally different periods. The first period is marked by the struggle for and against the so-called Workers’ Councils which lasted from November, 1918, to August, 1919. This was, according to a particularly intelligent and understanding British observer (1), “the critical period for Germany and for Europe. It was the formative and creative stage for a new Germany and for a new Europe.” Locking backward, we may say indeed that this was the last chance for the survival of a genuine democracy under conditions of a rapidly increasing monopoly and state capitalism in post-war Europe.

The form of government during that initial period can be described under various aspects: According to the ten generally accepted opinion, both the legislative and the executive powers were vested in a so-called Council of People’s Commissaries which derived its authority from other and more democratic instances of the revolutionary Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council organization. Yet the six leading members of the two fractions of the Social Democratic Party, who composed that so-called Council of People's Commissaries, actually regarded themselves as an antecipated cabinet of the parliament-to-be. These Commissaries were, in fact, replaced as early as February, 1919, by a coalition cabinet and a president elected by the National Assembly, which had convened in January. The “coalition cabinet” thus created, which was to recur again and again in the future development of the German Republic, represented the three parties which had been the only ones to accept unreservedly the new state form of a parliamentary republic on the Western model. The three parties were: (1) the moderate Social-democrats, (2) the catholic Center, and (3) the newly formed democratic State Party. They were opposed from one side by the two monarchist parties which differed from the traditional conservative and National-liberal parties of pre-war times by a change of name only, and from the other side by the new revolutionary parties emerging from the war and the ensuing collapse of the old regime. These new parties were the left wing of the formerly united Social-Democratic Party which now called itself the Independent Socialist Party, and the revolutionary Spartakus Bund which had just re-baptized itself as the Communist Party.

However, the real form of government prevailing during this first period did not conform to either of those two theoretical patterns. During this time there was not any generally accepted authority either in the form of a revolutionary rule of the working classes nor in the form of an effective rule by parliament. A temporary eclipse of all state power in November, 1918, was followed by a violent struggle for power between the revolutionary workers' council movement on the one hand and a secretly growing counter-revolutionary form of government which can be most adequately described as a “government by Freicorps” on the other. This state of affairs was in no way changed by the formal enactment of the new republican constitution on August, 11, 1919. It was the tragic fate of the German Republic that its first official government chose to lean more and more heavily on the power of the military. After a first unsuccessful attempt to find effective support in the remnants of the old imperial army, it turned for help and alliance to the newly formed military organizations (Freicorps) which were later to join in every reactionary assault on the constitutional government and which represented in fact the first important kernel of the future military organization of the counter-revolutionary Nazi power.

We now turn to the second period of the Weimar Republic which was inaugurated by the total defeat of the first reactionary onslaught on the new state made by the very powers which it had allowed and even helped to grow up for the purpose of its own defense. This was the monarchistic putsch of Generallandschaftsdirektor Kapp of East Prussia, or rather of the Reichswehr General von Luettwitz, the close friend of the first social-democratic War Minister Noske.

The Reichswehr marched into Berlin through the Brandenburger Tor and the Weimar government fled in terror to Stuttgart where it was joined by the National Assembly. Nevertheless, the enterprise of Kapp failed utterly for two very different reasons. First, he had relied merely on military action and had neglected the task of building up a new political organization and a new political ideology – an experience which was not lost on later putschists. Yet even their later and better prepared actions were for a long time defeated until they had learned by experience and had finally built up that tremendously efficient and recklessly unscrupulous modern counter-revolutionary movement which was to deal blow to the Weimar Republic in 1933.

The second and much more important reason for Kapp’s failure was not of a technical nature. The mass of the German workers, called upon by their government, rose in a unanimous general strike for the defense of republic and democracy. This was a kind of second revolution, though not in the direction of an increased radicalism – like that of the Jacobin Convention of 1792 or that of the Russian October Revolution that followed upon the first revolution of February, 1917. Rather, it was a falling back from the utopian dreams of the first attempt of November, 1918, to the realistic aims of the socialist movement that had developed during the preceding fifty years.

This time the workers fought for what they really wanted and they got what they had fought for. Up to then the Weimar constitution had enjoyed only a precarious existence. The official republican government had been barely tolerated by its own backers, i.e., by the reactionary army and the ultra-reactionary Freicorps. It had now won a certain degree of stability. March, 1920, rather than August, 1919, is the birthday of the German constitution. Even so, this was not a republic triumphant, but at the most a republic mildly militant – as shown later by the feeble reaction of the public against the murder of the Catholic minister Erzberger in 1921 and the Democratic minister Rathenau in 1922. The republican revolt exhausted itself in empty street demonstrations and culimnated in a never constantly applied Statute for the Protection of the Republic. As a detailed discussion of the foreign politics of the Weimar republic is outside the scope of this paper, I propose to pass over the new deep crisis of 1923 which was mainly caused by the impact of foreign coercion: Versailles, reparations, occupation of the Ruhr, separatism, Hitler's beer-hallputsch in Munich, revolutionary rising of the German workers in defense against the Hitler threat, and military expeditions led by Hitlerite and neutral Reichswehr generals against all anti-Hitlerite movements of the people in various parts of Germany.

From this chaos there emerged a new phase of the German Republic, the parliamentary government of the so-called Stresemann era.

The nine cabinets of the six-year period from 1925 to 1929 were of a widely different political composition, varying from the so-called bourgeois bloc which included the Nationalist Right, to a government headed by a social-democratic chancellor. Yet they were in fact all dominated by the undisputed leadership of one and the same minister of foreign affairs. Herr Stresemann represented those strata of German industrial capital which had by then resolved to accept for the time being the republican form of the state as a given fact and to comply with the reparation demands of the Versailles treaty by a carefully elaborated policy of “tactical” fulfillment. At the same time, the impossible burden which had been placed on the German nation after the 1923 crisis by the so-called Dawes Plan was gradually undermined until the Dawes Plan could be replaced by the Young Plan of 1929, which cut down the obligation of Germany to annual payments decreasing from 2½ to 1½ billions in 1988[=1933]. It was in the violent campaign for a plebiscite against the acceptance of this plan that the new counter-revolutionary forces led by Hitler first joined hands with the old reactionary forces of traditional nationalism and conservatism, thereby foreshadowing the combined action of the two unequal partners in 1933. Yet against all such disturbing elements, the Stresemann policy of fulfillment and conciliation prevailed, paving the way for the final annulment of all reparation payments which was to be achieved, one year before Hitler's advent, by the Lausanne conferene of 1932.

It was during this Stresemann era – and this era alone – that it might be possible to speark of an existing Weimar Republic.

This was the time of an exceptionally mild political climate, economic prosperity, and a comparatively undisturbed international situation.

It was the time when there was peace on earth and Locarno in Europe. Germany entered the League of Nations and under the leadership of the United States and the French minister Briand, more than sixty nations agreed under the Kellogg Pact to ban war as an instrument of national policy.

Thus, the stability shown by the German Republic during this six-year period was stronger in appearance than it was in fact. It was not exposed to any real trials. The republic survived, yes, but only during the closed season. All apparent stability disappeared when the economic and political climate changed under pressure from the world crisis beginning in p1929. For the sake of brevity I shall describe this change by quoting from a recent article by the English historian G.P. Gooch:

“The Weimar Republic was unwittingly destroyed by American speculators. The economic blizzard crossed the Atlantic and burst on Europe in 1930. In Germany the number of unemployed doubled, banks collapsed, old firms shut their doors. At the general election of September the Nazis jumped from 12 to 107 deputies, which made them inferior in number to the socialists alone.”

From this point there developed what must be described as the decay and fall of the Weimar Republic, and what might be called even more appropriately the rise and victory of the fully matured counter-revolution.

It would be a mistake to look at the three governments following upon at Stresemann era (the government of Bruening, Von Papen, Schleicher) as being republican and parliamentary governments at all.

None of these governments could ever count on a majority in parliament. A note of censure which was passed at the end of the von Papen government late in 1932 (when Herr von Papen had the presidential decree for the dissolution of the Reichstag already in his pocket, but did not succeed in reading it before the vote was taken), showed that of the 600 members of the Reichstag only 40 were prepared to back the government. Thus all governments of the German Republic after September, 1930, represented a presidential regime rather than a parliamentary government. They ruled by emergency decree and not by normal parliamentary procedure. This tremendous growth of the emergency power was, of course, in flagrant contradiction to the spirit of the constitution, though perhaps it did not go against its letter as it was formally based on Article 48 of the constitution which entitles the president of the Reich “in case of severe disturbance of public safety and order to take all necessary masures to restore public safety and order, and, if necessary, to intervene with the aid of the armed forces of the realm”.

Before we deal with this last fateful period when all principles of republican and parliamentary government and the rights of man as embodied in the constitution were utterly destroyed, we must point out in fariness that with all its abuses this indiscriminate recourse to Article 48 was not an entirely new practice.

Government by martial law and by emergency decree was rampant in Germany during the rule of the Social-democratic president, Ebert, from 1919 to 1924, and there was no misuse of the emergency power during the later period of 1930-1933 and beyond for which a precedent could not be found among the hundreds of emergency decrees issued during that earlier phase (2). The much indicted replacement of the socialist government in Prussia by a Reichskommissar under Von Papen in June, 1932, finds its precedent in the “imperial executions” of October and November, 1923, against the socialist governments which had attempted to fight the threatening march of Hitler to Berlin by the organization of a workers' militia in Saxony and Thuringia. Nor was it a novelty when the most unpopular economy measures of Bruening and von Papen were decreed by the government under Article 48 with the formal justification that “according to the statements of the party leaders acceptance by the Reichstag could not be expected”. The machinery of Article 48 had been used for the purpose of normal financial and economic legislation as early as 1923 and 1924 under the presidency of Ebert. Even the “enabling acts” of Herr Hitler in 1933 had been preceded by the "enabling acts" of Herr Stresemann in 1923.

Thus while the whole history of the German Republic from 1918 to 1933 could be described as the history of the growth of martial law and emergency power, yet there are some important differences between the earlier and later periods. First of all, there had been that intervening period from 1924 to 1929 during which the application of Article 48 had become increasingly rare and had finally been discontinued. The return to those rough and ready improvisations after a time of comparative stabilization gives in itself a new significance to the use of the same method in the later period.

Another difference arises from a consideration of the main function fulfilled by Article 48 before 1924 and after 1929. During the first phase it had served mainly to invest the existing authorities with extraordinary powers for the suppression of what was rightly or wrongly considered as threats or dangers to the newly created order of the republic. This was, indeed, the time when all the forces which might have later resisted the victory of the fascist counter-revolution were most cruelly suppressed by an unchecked use both of the military and the civil executive power, by extraordinary courts, and by a general eclipse of the administration of justice in the ordinary courts whenever a crime could be excused on account of a pretended national interest. Even if the criminal was formally tried, he would escape without punishment because political murder from the Right was forever protected by the strong hands of the semi-legal and the wholly illegal, yet officially tolerated, organizations of the secretly recruited new army.

The later period of emergency government since Bruening showed and entirely different character. This time the ordinary business of parliamentary legislation was totally superseded by legislation through emergency decrees. There was a permanent discontinuance of all genuine parliamentary government and a deliberate attempt to replace it by the principle of leadership.

Article 48 became the most important part of the Weimar constitution (3). After five years of non-application of Article 48, Chancellor Bruening on July 16, 1930, enacted his whole program of financial reconstruction in the form of two decrees based on Article 48, and when a majority of the Reichstag revoked his decrees, he dissolved the Reichstag and re-enacted the decrees on the same basis before a new election. Article 48 was in the end used even for the purpose of decreeing the whole of the imperial budget for the parliamentary year 1932 – the last year of the Weimar Republic.

We shall not deal in deatil with those last phases of German republicanism that preceded its ultimate overthrow by the temporarily combined forces of the old nationalist and militarist reaction on the one hand and the new and incomparably more vigorous, reckless, and efficient forces of the Nazi counter-revolution on the other. A closer study of the various phases of this final period would only further corroborate the fundamental result already reached in this paper. It would show that from the grim beginnings to the bitter end all the internal developments of the German Republic are not to be contrasted with the later Nazi development, but rather regarded as its first and preparatory phase.

The main points made in this paper are the following:

I have tried to explode two common fallacies:
1) that there ever was a "German Republic";
2) that there ever was a "German Revolution".

In opposition to those two fallacies I assert:

That the so-called “German Republic” that filled the gap between the old imperialist Germany of the Kaiser and the new Nazi Germany of Herr Hitler was forever a “republic without republicans”; that the so-called “German Revolution”, which is supposed to have taken place during the first years after the war, was neither a social revolution of the proletarian class nor a democratic revolution destroying the old reactionary powers. It as a “revolution without revolutionaries”.

Yet, although there never was a real revolution, it can be shown that there was – and there still is going on – a very real counter-revolution. Those forces which conquered the German state for the Nazi dictatorship in 1933 arose and grew simultaneously with the development of that political system which was generally assumed to be a modern republican and democratic state. Although Nazism is neither socialist nor democratic, yet by feeding upon the failures and omissions of the so-called "system politicians" it enrolled in the long run the support of the majority of the nation, and in both the economic and political fields solved a number of concrete problems that had been neglected or frustrated by the unsocialist attitude of the socialists and the undemocratic behavior of the democrats. Thus a certain part of the tasks that “normally” would have been fulfilled by a genuinely progressive and revolutionary movement were fulfilled in a distorted, but nevertheless realistic manner, by the transitory victory of a non-socialist and undemocratic but plebeian and anti-reactionary counter-revolution. Nor is this a thing of the past. The Nazi counter-revolution that began in Germany, 1918-1933, is continuing today on an enlarged European scale.


1. George YOUNG, The New Germany, London and New York, 1920.

2. The number of decrees issued under Article 48, Section 2, by the government of the Reich alone during the first five years of the republic amounted to’ 135. To this number should be added the decrees issued under Article 48 during the same period by the governments of the states, the uncounted number of emergency measures enforced by civil and military authorities before August 11, 1919, and the 110 decrees issued under the “enabling acts” of October and December, 1923.

3. The comparative number of emergency decrees based on Article 48 as against normal parliamentary legislation rose from 5:95, in 1930, to 42:35, in 1931, and to 59:5, in 1932.

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Compiled by Vico, 7 November 2020