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The Long Shadow of Propaganda: Lessons from the Weimar Republic

Dr. SHELLY CLINE

Economic despair, political turmoil, shaken national identity…failure. These are the descriptors often associated with the Weimar Republic (1918-1932). This government was born amid the chaos of Germany’s loss of the First World War and the paradigm shift that this great conflict produced. In its first years of existence, the new government battled hyperinflation and attempted coups from fringe parties but eventually found its footing. Due in large part to loans from the United States, economic and social stability returned.

 Weimar’s Golden Age

During the golden age of Weimar (1923-1929) there was much to celebrate. The constitution of the Weimar Republic ended censorship, established universal voting rights for men and women, guaranteed equal pay for women, and protected freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Under this government, universal education for children was guaranteed, welfare programs were expanded to combat homelessness, living standards for the working class improved, women entered the workforce, and the university education system served record numbers, especially in the fields of science, law and medicine. Politics saw a similar influx of women, with Germany electing six times as many female officials as the United States. During the Weimar period, Germans won 20 Nobel Prizes, Berlin rivaled Hollywood as the center of the cinematic world, and Bauhaus and New Objectivity drove artistic movements. The Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin was the first of its kind and pioneered the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.

Why Weimar Failed

The Weimar Republic was the most liberal democratic government the world had seen. Art, science, music and literature flourished during this period, and yet for most people its name is synonymous with failure. This failure is often cited as the reason for the rise of Nazism. Weimar did not fail because it was destined to do so, or because it represented too much change too fast. Rather, it failed because the U.S. economy crashed. The loans given to Germany were called in and the German economy followed the American economy into depression. The end of Weimar was as chaotic as its beginning, and in this atmosphere of economic loss and uncertainty, the Nazi Party gained a foothold. In 1928 the Nazi Party gained only 2% of the national vote. In 1930 it received 18%, and in the election of November 1932 the Nazi Party secured only 37% of the national vote—the largest it would ever receive in a free election. The Nazi Party ran on a platform of job creation, national security, law and order, anti-immigration, remilitarization, and a return to “traditional” German values. All of this is represented in the electioneering posters from the early 1930s. This propaganda showed Hitler as a strong leader who could save Germany from foreign influence, who would put people back to work, who would protect the German family, and who would restore Germany to its former status.

Freedom Once Won

This early propaganda minimized the virulent antisemitic messaging that would come to define later years and dominate actual policy under the Nazi government. No doubt some of those 37% voted for the Nazi Party because of its stance on Jews and other persecuted groups. Still others cast their vote for the Nazis in spite of it. Many were willing to tolerate the unsavory politics of the Nazi Party in favor of the benefits they perceived they would gain from its ascendancy. Those who voted in the election of 1932 did not know it would be the last free election a united Germany would see for over half a century. The image of the Weimar Republic as a failure is also part of the long shadow cast by Nazi propaganda. It was the Nazis who first so effectively marketed this idea and who erased Weimar’s many achievements. The lesson of the Weimar Republic is not that the rise of the Nazi Party was an inevitable outcome of a failed state. Rather, it is a reminder that once won, freedoms and progress must be jealously guarded and protected.

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