The Weimar Republic - Germany’s first democracy



The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) is our country’s oldest parliamentary political party. It represented the workers’ movement during the Kaiserreich and was persecuted by the government. Nevertheless, it participated in the Burgfrieden policy of truce among parties started when the war broke out in 1914. This eventually led to a split in the workers’ movement. The party joined the government in October 1918. Yet the constitutional reforms it was working for were surpassed by the November Revolution. It swept the SPD to power while putting it in a predicament, caught between radical proponents of councils-based democracy on the one hand and the old elites of the Kaiserreich on the other one. During this balancing act, the party bore the core responsibility for constructing the first German democracy. However, this process was marked by many setbacks and mistakes.

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Friedrich Ebert

(© Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)


  • Chairman of the SPD (Social Democrats)
  • Chairman of the Council of People’s Representatives
  • Reichspräsident from 1919 to 1925

Friedrich Ebert was part of the Social Democrats’ leadership. He became the party’s chairman in 1913. During the November Revolution he became chairman of the Council of People’s Representatives and in 1919 the Weimar Republic’s first Reichspräsident. He led the democracy through its difficult first years, having to endure vicious attacks from both the left and the right. His early death in 1925 robbed the republic of its greatest emblematic leader.

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Hermann Müller

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1979-122-28A)


  • Foreign Minister from 1919 to 1920
  • Reichskanzler in 1920 and from 1928 to 1930
  • Chairman of the SPD and its group in the Reichstag

Before World War I, Hermann Müller was an SPD member promoting the party’s Center. Thanks to his extensive knowledge of languages, he served as a kind of “foreign minister”, cultivating connections with other socialist parties. Yet in summer 1914, his attempts to promote mutual understanding failed. He subsequently shifted to the right wing of the SPD. In the November Revolution, he was a member of the Vollzugsrat (executive council) of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, in which he successfully pushed through the National Assembly elections. After Scheidemann’s cabinet resigned, Müller became Foreign Minister and after the Kapp Putsch, he temporarily served as Reichskanzler. From 1920 to 1928, he headed the SPD’s group within the Reichstag. He subsequently took on the post of Reichskanzler again. Yet he was not able to achieve common ground across the various interests of the Grand Coalition’s parties. Müller died one year after the end of the government.

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Philipp Scheidemann

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1979-122-29A)


  • People’s Representative during the November Revolution
  • Reichsministerpräsident (Reichskanzler) in 1919
  • Mayor of Kassel

Philipp Scheidemann was one of the Social Democrats’ highest-profile leaders in the early days of the Weimar Republic. In October 1918, he joined the last imperial cabinet. On 9 November, he proclaimed the republic from the balcony of the Berlin City Palace, pre-empting Karl Liebknecht. Initially, he worked within the Council of People’s Representatives. In February 1919, he was elected Reichsministerpräsident of a coalition composed of the SPD, the DDP, and the Center Party. There was a great deal of unrest and strikes during his time in office. In the end, his cabinet collapsed under the pressure of the Allies’ harsh peace conditions; Scheidemann himself also resigned in protest in June 1919. He stayed in politics, serving - for example - as a member of the Reichstag and as Mayor of Kassel. In 1921, he survived a hydrogen cyanide attack. He fled Germany in 1933 and died abroad in 1939.

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Gustav Noske

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 102-14240-1)


  • Member of the Council of People’s Representatives
  • Minister of Defense from 1919 to 1920
  • Oberpräsident (Governor) in Hannover from 1920 to 1933

Gustav Noske was arguably the Weimar Republic’s most controversial Social Democrat. He joined the party in 1884 and served in the Reichstag from 1906, where he made his mark in military affairs. This work already put him at odds with the party’s left wing. In October 1918, he was sent to Kiel, where he pacified the sailors’ uprising. After the USPD left the Council of People’s Representatives, Gustav Noske was promoted, taking on the Army and Navy portfolios. With his statement “Someone has to be the bloodhound”, he deployed the Freikorps units to put down the left’s attempted revolution, granting the Freikorps sweeping authority. This allowed an unleashed band of soldiers to murder defenseless people in many parts of Germany. Noske was Minister of Defense until the Kapp Putsch, but he had to resign in 1920. He then took on the post of Oberpräsident in Hannover, staying in office there until 1933. During the Third Reich, he was in the resistance and imprisoned in Ravensbrück concentration camp.

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Gustav Bauer

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 183-J0113-0500-001)


  • State Secretary in the last imperial government
  • Reichskanzler from 1919 to 1920
  • Minister in Scheidemann’s and Müller’s cabinets

Gustav Bauer was one of the SPD’s right-wing members and supported the policy of Burgfrieden (truce among parties). In October 1918, he joined Max von Baden’s cabinet as State Secretary. In February 1919, he became Minister of Labor in Scheidemann’s cabinet. When the government collapsed in June under the burden of the Treaty of Versailles, Bauer became Reichsministerpräsident (Reichskanzler from August 1919). In this capacity, he pushed through the nationalization of the railways and reforms of the Reich’s finances. Yet his policies remained controversial. After the Kapp Putsch, he had to leave politics as the SPD no longer trusted him. In the mid-1920s, he was temporarily excluded from the SPD because of the Barmat scandal. He subsequently withdrew from politics, tending to his private life.

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Carl Legien

(© Bundesarchiv SAPMO-BArch Y10-56100)


  • Union official
  • Member of the National Assembly
  • Signed the Stinnes-Legien-Agreement in 1919

Legien started his political career in the 1880s as a politician in the SPD and a union official. In 1890, he became chairman of the General Commission of German Trade Unions. At the same time, he worked for the Socialist Federation of Trade Unions, which was later renamed the International Federation of Trade Unions. He became its president in 1913. During the war, he worked to help the Reich leadership’s war policy gain support from the unions, but also demanded concessions from the state. During the post-war revolution, he negotiated the Stinnes-Legien-Agreement with the industrialist Hugo Stinnes. This is considered a watershed moment in German labor law, as unions were recognized for the first time as equal social partners - parties to wage agreements. In 1919, Legien was elected to the National Assembly. In the fight against the Kapp Putsch, he organized the unions’ general strike. Ebert then offered Legien the post of Reichskanzler, which he rejected. He died shortly thereafter.

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Rudolf Hilferding

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 102-00144)


  • Member of the Reichstag from 1924 to 1933
  • Finance Minister in 1923 and from 1928 to 1929

Born in Austria, Hilferding joined the USPD in 1919 and became editor-in-chief of its core publication “Freiheit” (Freedom) in the same year. He pushed strongly for the party to rejoin the SPD. This was realized in 1922. After the merger, Hilferding served as an SPD Member of the Reichstag from 1924. In 1923, he was Finance Minister for a few weeks. Hilferding took this post on again from 1928 to 1929. Due to the stock market crash and a falling out with Reichsbank President Schacht, he resigned. After the Nazis seized power, Hilferding went into exile. He was arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in 1941 and died a few days later in the Gestapo’s prison.

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Rudolf Breitscheid

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 102-13412)


  • Member of the Reichstag from 1920
  • Prussian Interior Minister from 1918 to 1919

Breitscheid left the SPD to join the newly founded USPD during the war, in 1917. He was the editor of the party’s weekly publication “The Socialist” from 1918 to its closure in 1922. As representative of the USPD, he took on the office of Interior Minister in the first Prussian cabinet of the revolution from 1918 to 1919. In 1922, together with many other USPD members, he joined the SPD. Breitscheid was one of the SPD’s most important foreign policy spokesmen. In this role, he actively supported Stresemann’s Locarno policy. Stresemann appointed him to the League of Nations delegation in 1926. After the Nazis seized power, Breitscheid fled into exile, maintaining contact with the resistance. He was arrested in France in 1940 and died in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944.

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Marie Juchacz

(© Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)


  • Member of the National Assembly and the Reichstag
  • Founder and chair of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (workers’ welfare association)

Marie Juchacz became a member of the SPD’s executive committee during World War I, after the USPD split off from the SPD in 1917. In 1919, she became a member of the constituent National Assembly and was then a member of the Reichstag from 1920 to 1933, without interruption. She promoted gender equality vigorously, taking on the role of editor-in-chief at the Social Democrats’ women’s magazine Die Gleichheit. In December 1919, Juchacz founded the Arbeiterwohlfahrt (AWO) association, which still exists today with over 40,000 members. Marie Juchacz became honorary chairwoman of the AWO after the Third Reich and her return from exile in 1949.

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Otto Wels

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R12239)


  • SPD Chairman from 1919 to 1933
  • Member of the National Assembly and the Reichstag
  • Member of the Black-Red-Gold Banner of the Realm

A trained painter and decorator, Wels was not in the SPD’s leadership during the Kaiserreich. He did not start climbing the ranks of the party until the November Revolution. In November 1918, he joined the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in Berlin, becoming a city commander. His time in this office was cut off by an incident in December 1918. During their uprising, sailors captured Wels and did not release him until he made various concessions, including his agreement to resign. In February 1919, he became a Member of the National Assembly. Later that year, he was elected SPD chairman, together with Hermann Müller. Wels remained in this office until the Nazis seized power and he went into exile in 1933. On 23 March 1933, he made a last Reichstag speech on the Enabling Act that was to become famous, proclaiming that “you can take our lives and our freedom, but you cannot take our honor.” After 1933, he was very active in Sopade, the SPD’s exile organization, in Prague and Paris.

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Otto Braun

(© Bundesarchiv Bild 102-10131)


  • Member of the National Assembly
  • Prussian Minister-President in 1920 and from 1921 to 1932

Otto Braun started his political career in Prussia during the Kaiserreich, serving as a member of the Prussian parliament from 1913 to 1918. In 1919, Braun was elected to the constituent National Assembly. Yet he became particularly well known and played a key political role as the Minister-President of Prussia. He served in this capacity in 1920 and, with a brief interruption, from 1921 to 1932. He stayed in office for so long that he came to be known as Prussia’s “Red Czar”. Prussia was Germany’s largest and most populous state by far. As such, its government’s long period of political stability was a major source of support for the Weimar Republic throughout its crises. Braun’s cabinet could not be shaken until finally, with the Papen government’s Preußenschlag (Prussian coup d’état), it was dismissed and its political power was transferred to commissioners. The Preußenschlag made it easier for the Nazis to seize power because they were able to take advantage of the provision in 1933.

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Abkürzungs- und Siglenverzeichnis der verwendeten Literatur:

ADGBFederation of German General Trade Unions
AEGGeneral Electricity Company
AfA-BundGeneral Free Federation of Employees
AVUSAutomobile Traffic and Training Road
BMWBavarian Motor Works
BRTgross register tons
BVPBavarian People’s Party
CenterCenter Party
DAPGerman Workers’ Party
DDPGerman Democratic Party
DNTGerman National Theater
DNVPGerman National People’s Party
DVPGerman People’s Party
GmbHLimited (form of company)
KominternCommunist International
KPDCommunist Party of Germany
KVPConservative People’s Party
MSPDMajority Social Democratic Party of Germany; the Majority Socialists
NSnational socialism (Nazi)
NSDAPNational Socialist German Workers’ Party; Nazi party
NVNational Assembly
O.C.Organization Consul
OHLArmy High Command
SASturmabteilung; Brownshirts
SPDSocial Democratic Party of Germany
StGBPenal Code
UfAUniversum Film Aktiengesellschaft
USPDIndependent Social Democratic Party of Germany
VKPDUnited Communist Party of Germany
ZentrumCenter Party
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[BüttnerBüttner, Ursula, Weimar. Die überforderte Republik 1918-1933, Stuttgart 2008.
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[TofahrnTofahrn, Klaus W., Chronologie des Dritten Reiches. Ereignisse, Personen, Begriffe, Darmstadt 2003.
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(zusammengestellt von Dr. Jens Riederer und Christine Rost, bearbeitet von Stephan Zänker)