So, there’s this idea that the reason that
the Nazis came to power was because Germany was completely broke under the war reparations
of the Treaty of Vesrailles. This, my friends is a bit of a misconception, you see starting
in 1924 Germany joined the 1920s upswing in what would become known as the Goldener Zwanziger,
the Golden Twenties. Welcome to Between-2-Wars a chronological
summary of the interwar years, covering all facets of life, the uncertainty, hedonism,
and euphoria, and ultimately humanity’s descent into the darkness of the Second World
War. I’m Indy Neidell. In our 1923 episode on Hitler’s failed putsch
we saw how the first years of the Weimar Republic were blighted by hyperinflation as the government
desperately printed more money to pay off massive war debts and reparations. Entire
life savings were made worthless and the economy was in chaos. However, political achievements
in both the domestic and international spheres in late 1923 and 1924 meant that Germany has
entered into an era of relative political and economic stability which, accompanied
by a flourishing of mass culture, leads the era to become known as the ‘golden twenties’.
Like other industrial countries by 1928, Germany is firmly in an economic boom. However, beneath
all this there are still major weaknesses within Weimar’s political and economic systems,
with increasing social conservatism running alongside the social liberalism for which
the era is known. What were these achievements that enabled
Germany’s economic boom? In the domestic sphere, a semblance of political
stability had been guaranteed in the autumn of 1923 by the passing of an enabling act
in the Reichstag which granted the government, headed by Gustav Stresemann, the power to
pass laws without parliamentary approval. Enabling acts were nothing new in German politics
but this was the most extensive so far and would set a dangerous precedent in Weimar
politics. Nevertheless, the government now held much more power than before, allowing
it to beat back uprisings such as the Beer Hall Putsch, and concentrate on economics There was a big rollback in government spending,
and by the end of 1923 civil servants were earning 40% to 70% than they had before the
war. The government also cut social services. The measures were brutal but they allowed
the German economy to stabilize, something also helped by the Dawes Plan, which was the
result of Germany requesting the Allied reparations commission that their ability to pay should
be reviewed by a team of experts, something America had actually already proposed in 1922.
Finalized in the summer of 1924, and passing narrowly in the Reichstag, the plan did not
actually reduce the overall reparations payment but did structure a new payment schedule.
It also took away the threat of sanctions and military occupation, and payments were
now to be made to a reparations agent who would supervise and monitor Germany’s financials
and transmit the money to the various Allied powers. France and Belgium also pledged to
phase out their occupation of the Ruhr. With economic and political stabilization,
the conditions were set for Germany to take part in the economic boom that was sweeping
across Europe and America. Money was flowing in America, and part of
the Dawes agreement is a massive loan. This surplus of capital and a stabilized economy
meant that Germany’s industrial infrastructure could undergo modernization, with businesses
following American model of assembly lines. In fact, German entrepreneurs seem to be fascinated
by American industrialists, especially Henry Ford. One engineer who visited a Ford factory
in Detroit gushed about “the work rhythm that sweeps everything along with it, just
as a band carries along the legs of the marching troops and even the spectators.” There was also now money to invest in housing,
hospitals, or other public projects. Virtually no new housing had been built since before
the war and architects are being called upon to design apartment blocks, and even whole
new settlements, showcasing German modernity. Municipalities across Germany are now vying
for their city to be the most modern, building parks, stadiums, road networks, transport
systems, and public libraries. Berlin towers above these, though. It is the third largest
city in the world, home to business empires, has the fastest underground railway in the
world, and the highest ratio of telephones to population,.
On top public investment, the government began spending on social services again, most significantly
on the unemployment service, which providing 26 weeks of benefit entitlement to any unemployed
worker who had been employed for 26 weeks in the previous twelve months. By 1928, Germany’s
GDP is 25% higher than it was in 1925, with total industrial production reaching pre-war
levels in 1927 which it will then soon surpass. The country also now has the highest paid
industrial work force in Europe, and the female workforce is growing as women increasingly
moving away from the countryside to find work in the city. The middle-class booms, with
legions of office workers and factory managers. This relative economic stability has also
fostered new social and cultural habits amongst the population. Ordinary Germans are going on an American-style
consumption binge, fueling economic growth further. Consumer credit is now socially acceptable
for all classes, and even workers seek out modern style and flair in Germany’s department
stores. American products flood the market, and epartment stores now dot the country.
Why are Germans so willing to spend after the hyperinflation of the early 20s had shown
how quickly economic fortunes could change? Historian Eric Weitz argued that it was exactly
this experience which cultivated such heady consumerism. The trials of war and hyperinflation
has made Germans realize that money and even life itself can disappear in an instant. Everything
was ephemeral and it was better to enjoy life now then worry about the unknown future. This
attitude is boosted by modern advertising which, like its American counterpart, fused
sex appeal with consumer ideals. What is interesting, though, about German advertising is how it
brings together mass culture and high art. Clean lines of modernist design in the style
of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) are used to sell consumer products. Advertising
lights up the streets of German cities, while artists find their work published both by
marketing firms and intellectual journals. New forms of mass-culture are also emerging
as an increasingly urban population enjoys the thrills of modern life. Cinema is extremely
popular, with 353 million cinema tickets sold in 1928. Germany’s own film industry actually
has struggled since 1923, but foreign movies are hugely popular, with films such as Charlie
Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur becoming nationwide favorites. Alongside
the cinema, radio is a phenomenon. Public broadcasting began in 1923 and is hailed as
a triumph of German modernity. The number of listeners has shot up from barely 10,000
in April 1924, to 780,000 a year later, and by 1928 it is on its way to 3.7 million. The
listening public is the second largest in Europe, and they enjoy everything from music
to plays. Boxing becomes the spectator sport of choice for many Germans, fusing athleticism
and show business. Fights are sellout shows all over Germany and it is something enjoyed
by all social classes. In fact, in 1928, a leading Berlin theatre postponed the premiere
of a play because it was the same night as a championship fight It would appear then that Germans are really
enjoying life. But beneath all this spending, social change, and leisure, the German economy
is still suffering from major economic weaknesses. Historian Theo Balderston has gone so far
to say that ‘gold-plated’ is a more suitable term for this era, with the surface level
wealth masking deep problems. For one, the economy has not been progressing as healthily
as it might seem. Despite the clear modernization, it is also stagnating with no real technological
innovations being introduced to boost it. German industrialists may be obsessed with
American techniques but seem unable to actually inject any dynamism into their own economy. Alongside this stagnation, Germany is getting
itself into a dangerous situation with American credit. The country is essentially relying
on American loans not only to fuel its economy but also to pay its reparations to other European
countries, who themselves rely on these reparations to pay their war debts back to America. This
means that a cycle of international loans has emerged which relies too heavily on a
successful American economy and the willingness of creditors to hand out cheap loans. If America
crashes then so does Germany – hard. Alongside these deeper structural issues,
there are also immediate problems which make clear all is not well in these ‘golden years’.
Unemployment has risen significantly as a result of the overenthusiastic introduction
of assembly lines and housing is also still in short supply, despite the efforts made
by local governments. Those who live outside the big cities have barely seen a boom at
all. German farmers had actually benefitted slightly from hyperinflation, being able to
pay off their debts and estate mortgages, but the stabilization hit them hard, and they
are now saddled with tax burdens which are 3.7 times higher than before the war, with
little government expenditure being pumped back into their sector. What is more, worldwide
economic conditions are not favorable. The war led to a global over-expansion of agricultural
capacity, meaning prices have fallen dramatically, and German farmers have to compete with the
agrarian powerhouses of countries like America. Between 1918 and 1928, the national average
of real incomes has risen by 45%, but for farmers, real income has only risen by 4.5%.
There is also an agricultural labor shortage as people, especially young women, have moved
to the big cities to find better work. The Mittelstand class of shopkeepers and artisans
face similar problems as they pay high taxes and deal with the complicated bureaucracy
of the Weimar system. They find their prices undercut by the much larger department stores.
These ‘golden years’ rest not only on shaky economic foundations, but also only
really benefit urban communities and big business, while the rural areas suffer. And these economic problems do little to help
the Republic with its legitimacy crisis. Germany’s far-right are keen to exploit
the grievances of the non-urban communities and drive home the degeneracy of Weimar. Julius
Streicher, a top Nazi party official and publisher of Der Sturmer, declared in 1927 that “the
peasantry is without a fatherland, German land is sold and mortgaged to the international
Jewish controlling power; today the peasant no longer possesses his own corn, for he must
pay four-fifths of his income in taxes, and woe betide him who does not pay, for then
the bailiff comes”. Demonstrations are arranged by organizations like the Rural League, the
Farmers’ Association, League of Smallholdings, Artisans’ League, Settlers’ Association, and
the Shopkeepers’ Guild, with Nazi and other far-right speakers denouncing the Weimar democracy
that has caused Germany’s farmers and Mittelstand to become slaves to the stock market. The
fact that many department stores are Jewish-owned has also led to increasing anti-Semitism amongst
artisans and shopkeepers. And the middle-class in general are distrustful of the political
system, having been the hardest hit by hyperinflation. Workers, too, are resentful after increased
job insecurity and the loss of hard-won rights such as the eight-hour day, which the government
cut in a bid to appease businesses during stabilization. Even without these specific grievances, there
is the significant challenge of encouraging a general faith in Weimar. Real democracy
is still new to Germany and the population has had little political education and practice.
This isn’t helped by the nature of the newspaper industry. Pro-Republican newspapers either
try to pursue a neutral editorial position or are drowned out by the shrill calls for
the death of the Republic from either the far-left or far-left. Of course, none of this
is helped by the fact that the country had 6 different cabinets between December 1923
and June 1928, supposedly showing that parliamentary democracy is weak and unstable. Finally, the
fact that Paul von Hindenburg, hardly a man embodying democratic values, was elected as
president in 1925 suggests that there is little commitment to Weimar’s ideals among the
general population. Growing cultural conservativism, in part a
reaction to the increasingly socially liberal times, also threatens the republic. Women
have also become a potent symbol used by conservatives to show the degeneracy of the republic. Many
have enjoyed unprecedented freedom, and their sporting of new American fashions and access
to contraception has led conservative and religious groups to decry the decadence of
urban life and loss of pure German morality. It is of course, easy to look at all this
and see an inevitable collapse of Weimar democracy. But there is a lot that appears to be going
well with the country. Many people are much better off than they were before as they enjoy
an unprecedented range of freedom and leisure options. Commitment to the values of the Republic
are maybe a little thin on the ground, but political participation is still undoubtedly
high with up to 80% of the population often voting in elections. And it says something
that the largest paramilitary group in this time, the 3 million-strong Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold,
is committed to defending parliamentary democracy, suggesting that a great number of people are
in fact willing to fight for the Republic. Also, though he is hardly the embodiment of
its values, Hindenburg is a potentially stabilizing figure for Weimar, providing continuity between
the imperial past and the republican present. Thus, in everything from economics to politics
to society, the ‘golden years’ of Weimar Germany are defined by its contradictions.
Economic modernization and economic stagnation; relative political stability and a crisis
of legitimacy; cultural change and cultural conservativism; are all the orders of the
day and it isn’t clear which side will win out. If you want to learn more about the times
when Germany was still suffering from hyperinflation and it did in fact almost bring the Nazis
to power, watch our epode about the Hitler Putsch here. Our TimeGhost Army member of
the week is Sebastian Räihä – do like Sebastian and join us on Patreon or – that
is the only thing keeping these golden episodes coming. Prost!