Civil Society as the Main Cause of the Fall of the Weimar Republic
It is believed that active civil society guarantees democracy and ensures the stability of the political system. The Weimar Republic is a prominent example of political freedom in the interwar Europe. Its structure and form of government incorporate all of the values of a democratic society. At the same time, a combination of circumstances has led to the emergence of conditions under which the civil society does not hinder, but rather contributes to the destabilization of the political structures and weakens the relation between the parties and the people. This combination of political, social and economic events along with the growing dissatisfaction of the society demonstrates that the Weimar Republic was doomed to fall.
The civil society, which is believed to be the foundation of democracy, was the main reason for the fall of the Weimar Germany. During the interwar period the political situation in the country was very unstable. Many citizens joined clubs, professional and voluntary organizations out of frustration and disappointment with the failures of the political parties and national government. This flourishing social life together with the weak government that was unable to quickly react to changes fragmented the German society and contributed to the social unrest and instability. This is the reason why so many people joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which facilitated Hitler’s rise to power. If the German society was weaker, the Nazis would not have received such great public support.
The neo-Toquevilleans believed that industrialization and technical progress increased the feeling of alienation of people, leaving them disengaged and rootless. The masses started searching for some new ways of belonging, which caused the development of communal bonds through organizational involvement. Social atomization caused anxiety and disposition to take part in extreme activities in order to get rid of the feeling of alienation. The engagement in organizations satisfied the need of the people to belong to some larger group. Thus, all the alienated individuals who felt the need to integrate themselves into some community joined the NSDAP. This is one of the key reasons why the Weimar Republic collapsed.
The society of the Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany was strongly predisposed to join associations and form organizations. Max Weber emphasized that the German associationism did not lead to the responsible citizenship or democratic values. He believed that any group activity turns a man into a passive citizen. The engagement of civil society in organizations united the people and mobilized them to participate in political life. Their actions were directed not to the strengthening of democracy, but to its weakening. The NSDAP came to power through recruiting highly active people and later using their skills to expand and strengthen its position as the greatest German political force.
The growing of the German associational life began in the late 18th century. The changes of the legal code and the growing social wealth caused the spread of private voluntary associations, which took an active part in public life and helped bourgeoisie pursue its economic and social interests. But the following prolonged economic downturn that started in the late 1870s emphasized the vulnerability of separate social groups, which started demanding the governmental aid. This caused the burst of another wave of associational activity. Thus, the representatives of heavy industry, small businesses, and the white collars began forming their own organizations. The difficult economic situation not only highlighted the fight over protectionism of distinct socioeconomic groups, but also showed that by the end of the 19th century the economy of Germany would have been balancing between the traditional agricultural and industrialized models. The tension between these two models caused the formation of a great number of organizations, the activity of which was directed not to the political processes but to the promotion of some distinct lifestyle. Thus, by the end of the 19th century the political system was unable to overcome the social division, which increased the already existing contradictions between the political parties that had been formed around particularistic social organizations.
The growing contradictions between the representatives of different classes like industry versus agriculture, or protectionists versus free traders unbalanced the German economy, caused the fragmentation of Reich and threatened to tear apart the ruling coalition. Simultaneously the lower and middle classes initiated the process of mobilization: the electoral participation has grown from 50.7% to 77.2%, which challenged the existence of the National Liberal party that was dominant in Germany directly after the state unification, but later could not adapt to the changing environment of that time. The National Liberals did not manage to satisfy social and political needs of the middle class, which started searching for the new power that could meet their expectations. Thus, a range of new organizations was created to appeal to the unsatisfied groups. Therefore, the highly active associational life of the German society divided citizens and set them up against the existing political system.
After the World War I, the active social life led to the formation of a great number of voluntary organizations. In particular, the representatives of the middle classes demonstrated a high level of participation in professional organizations throughout the 1920s. These parties of the bourgeois middle class reconstructed themselves after the war and claimed to be the true people’s parties, which would reunite the German society. However, due to their weakness these parties could not deal with the growing economic, social and political conflicts. New organizations, which later undermined and delegitimized the existing political structures, had been created.
The political situation during the 1920s can be described as a confrontation of the nation’s patriotic bourgeoisie and social democrats, and strengthening of the conservative movement. Furthermore, liberal parties like the German Democratic Party and German People’s Party started being formed. The non-socialist party of the German politicians was divided among a very large number of parties, which eventually began to dispute. Without a strong unity of the bourgeois parties, the representatives of the middle class still demanded the greater role in political and social life and more effective representation.
During the 1922-1923, the Great Inflation greatly reshaped the economic situation in the state. All socioeconomic groups suffered significantly. However, the subsequent stabilization during the 1923-1924 hit both the white-collar workers and middle class representatives very hard. By the end of the decade, the economic position of the middle class citizens had been so corrupted that it was impossible to distinguish them from the proletariat on the basis of income. Thus, the middle class was jealous of both workers and big business that seemed to have greater influence in the government. SPD fought for the eight-hour working day and better wages and, therefore, was perceived as the force that served the class interests. Their success increased the antisocial moods of the middle class.
The frustration of the middle class caused further growth of associational activity. Germans abandoned the ineffective liberal parties and joined clubs, community groups and patriotic organizations, which allowed leading apolitical life. Social organizations were believed to be able to give more than the political fight since they united people from different classes. There was a great gap between the social and political authority. The civil society organizations destroyed the faith in the political power of the Republic. The middle class simply abandoned their political leaders. Private organizations offered a sense of unity – the benefit that traditional parties could not provide. Associational life allowed facilitating social contacts and friendships. Thus, the Great Depression led to the weakening of the political institutions and fragmentation of the German society.
As long as the voters did not support bourgeois parties, a political vacuum in German politics provided the Nazis with a great chance to create a coalition. The incredible network of civil organizations supplied them with the required activists, who had been trained to spread their message and recruit even more people. The local newspapers and voluntary organizations contributed to the rise of the National Socialism. It is believed that if the German society was not so well-organized involving different organizations, the Nazis would have never been able to gather this great amount of the resources.
Civil society activists, who abandoned political parties and took part in associational life, possessed the required social bonds and leadership skills that were useful for the further political success of the NSDAP. Therefore, the bourgeois activists were the power that facilitated the growth of the Nazis. By the year 1933, one out of four voluntary groups had involved a Nazi Party member. NSDAP had their representatives in a great number of civic associations and continued gaining control over social organizations. The activists both created a powerful electoral machine and helped NSDAP root itself in local communities, something that no political party could do at that time. This facilitated the subsequent rise of Nazism.
The German civil society of the interwar period sharpened the gap between the social groups instead of mitigating it. The political structures could not respond to the demands of the mobilized population and refused to participate in the important events of public life. Therefore, the interests of the citizens were redirected to private organizational activities. These activities were drawing the public attention away from the political structures and parties, which reduced their strength and significance. The NSDAP used the trained bourgeois activists to seize power and spread the party’s intention to unite the nation.
It is clear that a combination of a series of events contributed to the subsequent fall of the Weimar Republic. There are three main features that played the main role in the collapse of democracy and the rise of Nazism. The first one is the inherent weakness of the German political structures, their inability to respond to the demands of the majority and disengagement in public life. This resulted in the disappointment of the common people, who tried to find the satisfaction of their need for national unity and solidarity in voluntary organizations and social associations, and at the same time, abandoned the existing political parties by making the Republic’s government weak. The second reason is the difficult economic situation of the state after the World War I, the subsequent Great Depression, and the growing dissatisfaction of the middle class. The frustrated burghers and bourgeoisie were the first to join the newly-formed NSDAP since they were convinced that this new party would better represent their needs in the government. The last reason is the nature of the social order of the Weimar Republic. Democracy and active civil society had weakened the influence and power of the political parties, which made the government unstable. More active participation and greater interest in social organizations than in political structures eventually left the existing political authority unsupported, which created a wonderful opportunity for the NSDAP to come to power. A combination of these factors allows concluding that under such conditions the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler were inevitable.