The Stresemann years of 1924-29 have often been portrayed as the “golden years” of Weimar Germany; however this idea has been challenged my many historians. During this period there was an element of political calm but it was mainly typified by political inaction and a failure of coalition governments to agree on any important issues. Economic development did occur but was minimal, and the period was one of slow economic growth and “relative stagnation”. Similarly, there were several signs of social progress and cultural development, but the years were significantly characterised by cultural polarisation. Therefore the blanket statement: “Germany experienced a period of political calm, economic development and social progress in the mid 1920s” ignores the problems in Weimar Germany at this time and is therefore not entirely correct, each clause contains some validity.
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In politics, there was a clear reduction in extra-parliamentary attempts opposing the government and political system. This was particularly significant as the preceding 1919-23 period was characterised by such threats from the Left and Right of the political spectrum, for example the Spartacist uprising, the Kapp Putsch and the Beer Hall Putsch. However, the mid 1920s cannot be said to have been years of political stability. Despite the reduction in threats to the Weimar state, the parliamentary system failed to mature and develop – a political stagnation developed, not a political calm. Seven governments were formed and dissolved during the 1924-29 years, and only two of these claimed a working majority. This clearly illustrates the failures of the coalition system to produce a strong working government with sufficient support (something which was greatly needed in order to tackle the problems that faced the new democracy.) Instead, a “stalemate” ensued. Blame for this can be partly placed upon the political parties of this time, as up until 1914 they had no experience of forming governments or compromising in order form governments.
Instead, parties acted more as interest groups rather than as national parties of government. This was significant as the electoral system of proportional representation relies on the cooperation of political parties. However the German People’s Party (DVP)’s increasing association with the interests of business caused it to refuse to form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Between 1924 and 1928 the SPD resisted becoming involved in the formation of any viable coalition government because they believed that a coalition with the “bourgeois” parties would lead to a compromise of party ideals. As a result the influence of the SPD in the Reichstag was significantly reduced and the parties rejection of political responsibility undermined the democratic system; contradicting the key concepts of representation and accountability. Other, smaller issues undermined the political system, as Chancellors fell out over very petty things such as the use of the imperial flag. Thus it can be concluded that throughout the years 1924 to 1929 politics was inefficient and suffered from stagnation. The simple claim that the years were a period of political calm is misleading as, despite illustrating a brief reduction in attempts at extra-parliamentary action, it ignores the many problems which underpinned politics at this time.
Historians commonly argue that during the mid 1920s the German economy experienced currency stability, slow growth and “relative stagnation.” There was significant economic growth but it was underpinned by significant industrial unrest and unstable foreign investment. Therefore simple claims of economic development during this period do not show the whole picture. Having said this, there was a definite increase in monetary stability which can be attributed to the introduction of new currency in 1923, the Rentenmark, and also the consequences of the Dawes Plan which brought about a significant influx of foreign capital. The monetary stability brought about by the establishment of the Rentenmark was a great improvement after the hyperinflation of 1923 and helped the classes who had suffered most during this time. However, the foreign investment which enabled the reconstruction of German industry to take place was potentially dangerous as it could be quickly and easily withdrawn if there was a downturn in the world economy.
Thus although it enabled a degree of economic progress, the measure could be seen as temporary and had the potential to bring disaster upon the German economy if it fell through. Some of the growth in available capital was also due to the Dawes Plan though which decreased the rate of repayments, though. National Income in 1928 increased by 12% from 1913 levels and industry experienced massive growth. These positives are balanced by the sobering reminder that monetary stability was based on foreign capital, and the fact that other areas suffered change and unrest. Unemployment figures also question the image of the 1920s as the “golden years” of Weimar Germany. By 1928, 3 million Germans, accounting for 15% of the workforce, were unemployed. These figures suggest that many of the economic problems which would later surface were actually rooted in these supposed years of stability, and any economic progress related to the mid 1920s is only relative, in comparison to the dire state of the German economy in the periods directly before and after it.
There was considerable social progress in the mid 1920s as advancements in welfare, housing and public health improved the standard of living for many German people. After the war there was an increased need for welfare and in 1924 the system for claiming relief and assessing the needs of the claimant was codified (although many claimants continued to receive benefits at a subsidence level.) Other changes in the law signalled social progress, such as the 1927 Labour Exchanges and Unemployment Insurance Law which introduced unemployment insurance. Thus the welfare state was significantly increased, though it remained imperfect. In general terms of public health, standards improved. Better health insurance and medical provision led to a reduction in deaths from certain diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. The position of women mainly remained the same as the proportion of women working outside the home increased only minimally. Although there was a growing number of women in new areas of employment in the civil service, teaching and social work, attitudes towards women working were generally conservative.
However, arguably more significant than these minimal signs of social progress was the cultural polarisation which existed in this period. During 1919-24 a new style unique to the Weimar Republic developed and manifested itself in the media. The new movement stressed objectivity and matter-of-factness. Alienation from the Weimar Republic was a common theme of writing, theatre and cinema highlighted social issues with a new seriousness and architecture was dominated by the Bauhaus movement. This “Weimar culture” was used to show the injustices that existed in Weimar society. However the objectivity of this new movement was in direct contrast to the nostalgic romanticism and escapism of popular literature. Similarly, the modern Bauhaus movement stood against the majority of Germans traditional taste. Some historians have claimed these supposed cultural advancements were just the movement of a “counterculture” which many opposed. It is also important that the cultural developments which did take place did nothing to help stabilise the Weimar Republic; instead they only served to further divide Germany society, this time on cultural lines. Neither culture showed particular support for Weimar Germany and its values, thus this limited form of social progress did nothing to improve the stability of the Weimar Republic.
In conclusion, the statement: “Germany experienced a period of political calm, economic development and social progress in the mid 1920s” is only partly true. Germany did experience limited political calm, a somewhat greater degree of economic development, and a small degree of social progress. However the claims made in this statement are broad and ignore the complexities of German politics, society and economics in the mid 1920s. Although there were suggestions of political calm, many problems were evident within German politics at this time such as political paralysis – the above statement ignores this. There was monetary stability and cases of economic development during these years, far greater than social or political stability and improvements.
However the causes of this economic progress and stability can be considered superficial, as fundamental weaknesses in the German economy ensured it remained far from stable. Lastly, there were improvements in public health and welfare services but they were limited and imperfect. Social developments were evident but what may be considered social progress by some engendered hostility in others, resulting in cultural polarisation. In contrast to the rosy image painted in the original statement, this period saw the beginning of economic pressures and social discord which were to worsen after 1929. Many historians have traced the weaknesses which contributed to the breakdown of democracy in the early 1930s back to this period.