Culture in the 20’s

Culture in the 20’s

Culture in the 20's

 

The economy of the United States boomed in the decade following World War I. The development of a consumer driven economy in the United States changed American culture dramatically, as well as cultures across the world, even those of Germany and Japan.

 

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how the social, political, and military costs of World War I fostered geographic and demographic shifts around the world.
  • Assess the impact of the development of a consumer driven economy on culture.

 

Key Terms / Key Concepts

Consumer Revolution: an economic shift that took off in the United States in the 1920s in which consumer spending drives economic growth (The causes of this consumer revolution were rising incomes among the urban working class and innovations in technology.)

hyperinflation: occurs when a country experiences very high and usually accelerating rates of inflation, rapidly eroding the real value of the local currency and causing the population to minimize their holdings of local money by switching to relatively stable foreign currencies; the general price level within an economy increases rapidly as the official currency loses real value

 

The Counsumer Revolution

 

In the decade of the 1920s the world recovered from the devastation of the Great War and enjoyed a period of economic growth due largely to the unparalleled economic expansion in the United States as a result of the Consumer Revolution. The United States was the first nation in the world where consumer spending was driving economic growth. Americans were purchasing a host of new consumer products (i.e., cars, radios. refrigerators, cigarette lighters) in record numbers. Mass demand for these goods boosted production at factories and created a massive number of new jobs.

The causes of this consumer revolution were rising incomes among the urban working class and innovations in technology. Since the late 19th century, wages for workers had steadily increased, as the economy expanded. World War I accelerated wage increases due to labor shortages during this war. As the wealth and size of the working class expanded, so did their ability to purchase consumer goods.

During this period manufacturers also embraced new technology that allowed them to produce more goods and sell them to consumers in mass at prices that they could afford. For example, Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company in 1908 sold the first Model T automobile, which was the first car that people other than the very wealthy could afford. In 1913, Ford introduced the moving assembly line into his factories to expand production and lower costs. Ford was then able to lower the price of his cars, so that more Americans could buy them. Between 1920 and 1929 the number of cars in the United States jumped from 8 million to 23 million. Ford Motor Company and its primary competitor, General Motors, were both headquartered in the city of Detroit, which became known as the "Motor City."

Another booming business in this period was the radio industry. The Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi invented the first radio in 1897. In 1919 the General Electric Company founded the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to manufacture and sell radios to the public. In 1920, the first radio station began broadcasting in Detroit. By 1922 the number of radio stations in the United States had jumped to 522. In 1926 RCA created the first national network of radio stations: the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The very next year, a rival radio network emerged: the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS). Radio stations paid for their programs, which included broadcasting music, sporting events, and dramas, by selling advertising to businesses that wanted to exploit this new medium to sell their consumer products. For example, the founder of CBS, William Paley (1901 – 1990) saw radio as a new way to advertise the cigars manufactured by his family business.

The wealth generated by this economic boom enabled American banks to invest overseas and promote an economic recovery. In the 1920s, New York City with its Wall Street banks replaced London as the world's financial center. After World War I, American investors feared that the economic collapse of Germany would prevent Germany from paying its reparations to France and the United Kingdom, which in turn would prevent British and French banks from paying off the loans that they had received from American banks during World War I. In 1924, after urging France to withdraw from the Ruhr Valley, the Vice-President of the United States, Charles Dawesan eminent Wall Street bankerproposed that France and the United Kingdom negotiate with Germany to set up a way for Germany to pay its reparations without bankrupting Germany. Under the Dawes Plan, Germany slowly paid off its war reparations in series of fixed payments. At this time Wall Street banks also begin investing heavily in German banks. This influx of capital into Germany from the United States ended hyperinflation in Germany and allowed the German economy to recover and grow again. Germany's economic recovery and the flow of reparation payments to France and the United Kingdom from Germany enabled the economies of these countries to expand as well.

 

Culture of Consumption

 

“Change is in the very air Americans breathe, and consumer changes are the very bricks out of which we are building our new kind of civilization,” announced marketing expert and home economist Christine Frederick in her influential 1929 monograph, Selling Mrs. Consumer. The book, which was based on one of the earliest surveys of American buying habits, advised manufacturers and advertisers on how to capture the purchasing power of women, who, according to Frederick, accounted for 90 percent of household expenditures. Aside from granting advertisers insight into the psychology of the “average” consumer, Frederick’s text captured the tremendous social and economic transformations that had been wrought over the course of her lifetime.

Indeed, the America of Frederick’s birth looked very different from the one she confronted in 1929. The consumer change she studied had resulted from the industrial expansion of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With the discovery of new energy sources and manufacturing technologies, industrial output flooded the market with a range of consumer products such as ready-to-wear clothing, convenience foods, and home appliances. By the end of the nineteenth century, output had risen so dramatically that many contemporaries feared supply had outpaced demand and that the nation would soon face the devastating financial consequences of overproduction. American businessmen attempted to avoid this catastrophe by developing new merchandising and marketing strategies that transformed distribution and stimulated a new culture of consumer desire.

The department store stood at the center of this early consumer revolution. By the 1880s, several large dry-goods houses blossomed into modern retail department stores. These emporiums concentrated a broad array of goods under a single roof, allowing customers to purchase shirtwaists and gloves alongside toy trains and washbasins. To attract customers, department stores relied on more than variety. They also employed innovations in service (such as access to restaurants, writing rooms, and babysitting) and spectacle (such as elaborately decorated store windows, fashion shows, and interior merchandise displays). Marshall Field & Co. was among the most successful of these ventures. Located on State Street in Chicago, the company pioneered many of these strategies, including establishing a tearoom that provided refreshment to the well-heeled female shoppers who composed the store’s clientele. Reflecting on the success of Field’s marketing techniques, Thomas W. Goodspeed, an early trustee of the University of Chicago, wrote, “Perhaps the most notable of Mr. Field’s innovations was that he made a store in which it was a joy to buy.” The joy of buying infected a growing number of Americans in the early twentieth century as the rise of mail-order catalogs, mass-circulation magazines, and national branding further stoked consumer desire.

 

Newspaper adds
In the 1920s Americans across the country bought magazines like Photoplay in order to get more information about the stars of their new favorite entertainment media: the movies. Advertisers took advantage of this broad audience to promote a wide range of goods and services to both men and women.

 

The automobile industry also fostered the new culture of consumption by promoting the use of credit. By 1927, more than 60 percent of American automobiles were sold on credit, and installment purchasing was made available for nearly every other large consumer purchase. Spurred by access to easy credit, consumer expenditures for household appliances, for example, grew by more than 120 percent between 1919 and 1929. Henry Ford’s assembly line, which advanced production strategies practiced within countless industries, brought automobiles within the reach of middle-income Americans and further drove the spirit of consumerism. By 1925, Ford’s factories were turning out a Model-T every ten seconds. Americans owned more cars than Great Britain, Germany, France, and Italy combined. In the late 1920s, 80 percent of the world’s cars drove on American roads.

 

Culture of Escape

 

As transformative as steam and iron had been in the previous century, gasoline and electricity—embodied most dramatically for many Americans in automobiles, film, and radio—propelled not only consumption but also the famed popular culture in the 1920s. Edgar Burroughs, author of the Tarzan series, claimed “We wish to escape [. . .] the restrictions of manmade laws, and the inhibitions that society has placed upon us.” Burroughs authored a new Tarzan story nearly every year from 1914 until 1939. “We would each like to be Tarzan,” he said. “At least I would; I admit it.” Like many Americans in the 1920s, Burroughs sought to challenge and escape the constraints of a society that seemed more industrialized with each passing day.

Just like Burroughs, Americans escaped with great speed. The public wrapped itself in popular culture, whether through the automobile, Hollywood’s latest films, jazz records produced on Tin Pan Alley, or the hours spent listening to radio broadcasts of Jack Dempsey’s prizefights. One observer estimated that Americans belted out the silly musical hit “Yes, We Have No Bananas” more than “The Star Spangled Banner” and all the hymns in all the hymnals combined.

As the automobile became more popular and more reliable, more people traveled more frequently and attempted greater distances. Women increasingly drove themselves to their own activities, as well as those of their children. Vacationing Americans sped to Florida to escape northern winters. In order to serve and capture the growing number of drivers, Americans erected gas stations, diners, motels, and billboards along the roadside. Automobiles themselves became objects of entertainment: nearly one hundred thousand people gathered to watch drivers compete for the $50,000 prize of the Indianapolis 500.

 

woman getting into car
Side view of a Ford sedan with four passengers and a woman getting in on the driver’s side, ca.1923. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-54096.

 

Meanwhile, the United States dominated the global film industry. By 1930, as moviemaking became more expensive, a handful of film companies took control of the industry. Immigrants, mostly of Jewish heritage from central and Eastern Europe, originally “invented Hollywood” because most turn-of-the-century middle- and upper-class Americans viewed cinema as lower-class entertainment. After their parents emigrated from Poland in 1876, Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner (who were, according to family lore, given the name when an Ellis Island official could not understand their surname) founded Warner Bros. In 1918, Universal, Paramount, Columbia, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) were all founded by or led by Jewish executives. Aware of their social status as outsiders, these immigrants (or sons of immigrants) purposefully produced films that portrayed American values of opportunity, democracy, and freedom. Americans fell in love with the movies. Whether it was the surroundings, the sound, or the production budgets, weekly movie attendance skyrocketed from sixteen million in 1912 to forty million in the early 1920s.

Not content with distributing thirty-minute films in nickelodeons, film moguls produced longer, higher-quality films and showed them in palatial theaters that attracted those who had previously shunned the film industry. But as filmmakers captured the middle and upper classes, they maintained working-class moviegoers by blending traditional and modern values. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic The Ten Commandments depicted wild revelry, for instance, while still managing to celebrate a biblical story.

Moguls and entrepreneurs soon constructed picture palaces. Samuel Rothafel’s Roxy Theater in New York held more than six thousand patrons who could be escorted by a uniformed usher past gardens and statues to their cushioned seat. In order to show The Jazz Singer (1927), the first movie with synchronized words and pictures, the Warners spent half a million to equip two theaters. While some asserted that sound was a passing fancy,  Warner Bros.’ assets, which increased from just $5,000,000 in 1925 to $230,000,000 in 1930, tell a different story.

Hungarian immigrant William Fox, founder of Fox Film Corporation, declared that “the motion picture is a distinctly American institution” because “the rich rub elbows with the poor” in movie theaters. With no seating restriction, the one-price admission was accessible for nearly all white Americans—as African Americans were either excluded or segregated.

han 60 percent of moviegoers, packing theaters to see Mary Pickford, nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart,” who was earning one million dollars a year by 1920 through a combination of film and endorsements contracts. Pickford and other female stars popularized the “flapper,” a woman who favored short skirts, makeup, and cigarettes.

 

Woman in front of mirror
Mary Pickford’s film personas led the glamorous and lavish lifestyle that female movie-goers of the 1920s desired so much. Mary Pickford, 1920. Library of Congress.

 

As Americans went to the movies more and more, at home they had the radio. Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi transmitted the first transatlantic wireless (radio) message in 1901, but radios in the home did not become available until around 1920, when they boomed across the country. Around half of American homes contained a radio by 1930. Radio stations brought entertainment directly into the living room through the sale of advertisements and sponsorships, from The Maxwell House Hour to the Lucky Strike Orchestra. Soap companies sponsored daytime dramas so frequently that an entire genre—“soap operas”—was born, providing housewives with audio adventures that stood in stark contrast to common chores. Though radio stations were often under the control of corporations like the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) or the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), radio programs were less constrained by traditional boundaries in order to capture as wide an audience as possible, spreading popular culture on a national level.

Radio exposed Americans to a broad array of music. Jazz, a uniquely American musical style popularized by the African-American community in New Orleans, spread primarily through radio stations and records. The New York Times had ridiculed jazz as “savage” because of its racial heritage, but the music represented cultural independence to others. As Harlem-based musician William Dixon put it, “It did seem, to a little boy, that . . . white people really owned everything. But that wasn’t entirely true. They didn’t own the music that I played.” The fast-paced and spontaneity-laced tunes invited the listener to dance along. “When a good orchestra plays a ‘rag,’” dance instructor Vernon Castle recalled, “one has simply got to move.” Jazz became a national sensation, played and heard by both white and Black Americans. Jewish Lithuanian-born singer Al Jolson—whose biography inspired The Jazz Singer and who played the film’s titular character—became the most popular singer in America.

The 1920s also witnessed the maturation of professional sports. Play-by-play radio broadcasts of major collegiate and professional sporting events marked a new era for sports, despite the institutionalization of racial segregation in most. Suddenly, Jack Dempsey’s left crosses and right uppercuts could almost be felt in homes across the United States. Dempsey, who held the heavyweight championship for most of the decade, drew million-dollar gates and inaugurated “Dempseymania” in newspapers across the country. Red Grange, who carried the football with a similar recklessness, helped popularize professional football, which was then in the shadow of the college game. Grange left the University of Illinois before graduating to join the Chicago Bears in 1925. “There had never been such evidence of public interest since our professional league began,” recalled Bears owner George Halas of Grange’s arrival.

Perhaps no sports figure left a bigger mark than did Babe Ruth. Born George Herman Ruth, the “Sultan of Swat” grew up in an orphanage in Baltimore’s slums. Ruth’s emergence onto the national scene was much needed, as the baseball world had been rocked by the so-called Black Sox Scandal in which eight players allegedly agreed to throw the 1919 World Series. Ruth hit fifty-four home runs in 1920, which was more than any other team combined. Baseball writers called Ruth a superman, and more Americans could recognize Ruth than they could then-president Warren G. Harding.

After an era of destruction and doubt brought about by World War I, Americans craved heroes who seemed to defy convention and break boundaries. Dempsey, Grange, and Ruth dominated their respective sports, but only Charles Lindbergh conquered the sky. On May 21, 1927, Lindbergh concluded the first ever nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris. Armed with only a few sandwiches, some bottles of water, paper maps, and a flashlight, Lindbergh successfully navigated over the Atlantic Ocean in thirty-three hours. Some historians have dubbed Lindbergh the “hero of the decade,” not only for his transatlantic journey but because he helped to restore the faith of many Americans in individual effort and technological advancement. In a world so recently devastated by machine guns, submarines, and chemical weapons, Lindbergh’s flight demonstrated that technology could inspire and accomplish great things. Outlook Magazine called Lindbergh “the heir of all that we like to think is best in America.”

The decade’s popular culture seemed to revolve around escape. Coney Island in New York marked new amusements for young and old. Americans drove their sedans to massive theaters to enjoy major motion pictures. Radio towers broadcasted the bold new sound of jazz, the adventures of soap operas, and the feats of amazing athletes. Dempsey and Grange seemed bigger, stronger, and faster than any who dared to challenge them. Babe Ruth smashed home runs out of ball parks across the country. And Lindbergh escaped the earth’s gravity and crossed an entire ocean. Neither Dempsey nor Ruth nor Lindbergh made Americans forget the horrors of World War I and the chaos that followed, but they made it seem as if the future would be that much brighter.

 

picture of baseball player
Babe Ruth’s incredible talent accelerated the popularity of baseball, cementing it as America’s pastime. Ruth’s propensity to shatter records made him a national hero. Library of Congress.

 

 

The New Woman

 

The rising emphasis on spending and accumulation nurtured a national ethos of materialism and individual pleasure. These impulses were embodied in the figure of the flapper, whose bobbed hair, short skirts, makeup, cigarettes, and carefree spirit captured the attention of American novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. Rejecting the old Victorian values of desexualized modesty and self-restraint, young “flappers” seized opportunities for the public coed pleasures offered by new commercial leisure institutions, such as dance halls, cabarets, and nickelodeons, not to mention the illicit blind tigers and speakeasies spawned by Prohibition. In this way, young American women had helped usher in a new morality that permitted women greater independence, freedom of movement, and access to the delights of urban living. In the words of psychologist G. Stanley Hall, “She was out to see the world and, incidentally, be seen of it.” Such sentiments were repeated in an oft-cited advertisement in a 1930 edition of the Chicago Tribune: “Today’s woman gets what she wants. The vote. Slim sheaths of silk to replace voluminous petticoats. Glassware in sapphire blue or glowing amber. The right to a career. Soap to match her bathroom’s color scheme.”

As with so much else in the 1920s, however, sex and gender were in many ways a study in contradictions. It was the decade of the “New Woman,” and one in which only 10 percent of married women—although nearly half of unmarried women—worked outside the home. It was a decade in which new technologies decreased time requirements for household chores, and one in which standards of cleanliness and order in the home rose to often impossible standards. It was a decade in which women finally could exercise their right to vote, and one in which the often thinly bound women’s coalitions that had won that victory splintered into various causes. Finally, it was a decade in which images such as the “flapper” gave women new modes of representing femininity, and one in which such representations were often inaccessible to women of certain races, ages, and socioeconomic classes.

Women undoubtedly gained much in the 1920s. There was a profound and keenly felt cultural shift that, for many women, meant increased opportunity to work outside the home. The number of professional women, for example, significantly rose in the decade. But limits still existed, even for professional women. Occupations such as law and medicine remained overwhelmingly male, and most female professionals were in professions in which women traditionally held many of the positions, such as teaching school children and nursing. And even within these fields, it was difficult for women to rise to leadership positions.

A woman’s race, class, ethnicity, and marital status all had an impact on both the likelihood that she worked outside the home and the types of opportunities that were available to her. While there were exceptions, for many minority women, work outside the home was not a cultural statement but rather a financial necessity (or both), and physically demanding, low-paying domestic service work continued to be the most common job type. Young, working-class white women were joining the workforce more frequently, too, but often in order to help support their struggling mothers and fathers and often in low-paying jobs.

For young, middle-class, white women—those most likely to fit the image of the carefree flapper—the most common workplace was the office. These predominantly single women increasingly became clerks, jobs that had been primarily male earlier in the century. But here, too, there was a clear ceiling.

While entry-level clerk jobs became increasingly held by women, jobs at a higher, more lucrative level remained dominated by men. Further, rather than changing the culture of the workplace, the entrance of women into lower-level jobs primarily changed the coding of the jobs themselves. Such positions simply became “women’s work.”

 

photograph of a woman
This “new breed” of women – known as the flapper – went against the gender proscriptions of the era, bobbing their hair, wearing short dresses, listening to jazz, and flouting social and sexual norms. While liberating in many ways, these behaviors also reinforced stereotypes of female carelessness and obsessive consumerism that would continue throughout the twentieth century. Library of Congress.

 

 

drawing of a woman
The frivolity, decadence, and obliviousness of the 1920s was embodied in the image of the flapper, the stereotyped carefree and indulgent woman of the Roaring Twenties depicted by Russell Patterson’s drawing. Library of Congress.

 

Finally, as these middle-class white women grew older and married, social changes became even subtler. Married women were, for the most part, expected to remain in the domestic sphere as homemakers. And while new patterns of consumption gave them more power and, arguably, more autonomy, new household technologies and philosophies of marriage and child-rearing increased expectations, further tying these women to the home.

Of course, the number of women in the workplace cannot exclusively measure changes in sex and gender norms. Attitudes towards sex, for example, continued to change in the 1920s, a process that had begun decades before. This, too, had significantly different impacts on different social groups. But for many women—particularly young, college-educated white women—an attempt to rebel against what they saw as a repressive Victorian notion of sexuality led to an increase in premarital sexual activity.

Meanwhile, especially in urban centers such as New York, the gay community flourished. While gay males had to contend with the increased policing of their daily lives, especially later in the decade, they generally lived more openly in such cities than they would be able to for many decades following World War II. At the same time, for many lesbians in the decade, the increased sexualization of women brought new scrutiny to same-sex female relationships previously dismissed as harmless friendships.

Ultimately, the most enduring symbol of the changing notions of gender in the 1920s remains the flapper. And indeed, that image was a “new” available representation of womanhood in the 1920s. But it is just that: a representation of womanhood of the 1920s. There were many women in the decade of differing races, classes, ethnicities, and experiences, just as there were many men with different experiences. For some women, the 1920s were a time of reorganization, new representations, and new opportunities. For many, it was a decade of confusion, contradiction, new pressures, and struggles new and old.

 

Germany and Japan in the 1920s

 

The United States in the 1920s cast a large shadow across Europe and east Asia and exerted a strong cultural influence. Even Germany and Japan in this decade experimented with democracy and enjoyed friendly relations with the United States. In both countries, however, democracy died in the following decade in the wake of the Great Depression.

Japan declared war on Germany on August 23, 1914 and immediately sought to expand its sphere of influence in China and the Pacific. It succeeded to some extent, taking over a number of German colonial holdings in the region. However, although Japan belonged to the victors of World War I, the Japanese were excluded from the prestigious club of world powers and were instead grouped with smaller, less influential countries.

In 1919, Japan proposed a clause on racial equality to be included in the League of Nations Covenant at the Paris Peace Conference. The clause was rejected by several Western countries and was not forwarded for larger discussion at the full meeting of the conference. In the coming years, the rejection was an important factor in turning Japan away from cooperation with the West and towards nationalistic policies.

All these events released a surge of Japanese nationalism and resulted in the end of collaboration diplomacy, which supported peaceful economic expansion. The implementation of a military dictatorship and territorial expansionism were considered the best ways to protect the Yamato-damashii, or what Japanese saw as their spiritual and cultural values.

 

Japan and Democracy

 

In the 1920s, Japan witnessed a development of democratic trends, including the introduction of universal male suffrage in 1925. This period of expanding democracy coincided with the decade of the 1920s when Japan and the United States enjoyed strong economic ties, as the United States was one of Japan’s primary markets for its manufactured goods. However, pressure from the conservative right forced the passage of the Peace Preservation Law of 1925, along with other anti-radical legislation. The Act curtailed individual freedom in Japan and outlawed groups that sought to alter the system of government or to abolish private ownership. The extreme leftist movements that had been galvanized by the Russian Revolution were subsequently crushed and scattered. Historians consider these developments to be critical to the end of democratic changes in Japan. 

In response to post-World War I disarmament efforts, a movement opposing the idea of limiting the size of Japanese military grew within the junior officer corps. On May 15, 1932, the naval officers, aided by Army cadets and right-wing civilians, staged a coup that aimed to overthrow the government and to replace it with military rule (known as the May 15th Incident). Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated by 11 young naval officers. The following trial and popular support of the Japanese population led to extremely light sentences for the assassins, strengthening the rising power of Japanese militarism and weakening democracy and the rule of law in Japan.  

 

The Weimar Republic

 

Weimar Republic is an unofficial historical designation for the German state between 1919 and 1933. The name derives from the city of Weimar, where its constitutional assembly first took place. The official name of the state was still Deutsches Reich; it had remained unchanged since 1871. In English the country was usually known simply as Germany.

In its 14 years, the Weimar Republic faced numerous problems, including hyperinflation, political extremism (with paramilitaries – both left- and right-wing); and contentious relationships with the victors of the First World War. The people of Germany blamed the Weimar Republic rather than their wartime leaders for the country’s defeat and for the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles. However, the Weimar Republic government successfully reformed the currency, unified tax policies, and organized the railway system.

A national assembly was convened in Weimar, where a new constitution for the Deutsches Reich was written and adopted on August 11, 1919. Weimar Germany eliminated most of the requirements of the Treaty of Versailles; it never completely met its disarmament requirements and eventually paid only a small portion of the war reparations (by twice restructuring its debt through the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan). Under the Locarno Treaties, Germany accepted the western borders of the republic, but continued to dispute the Eastern border.

 

Challenges and Reasons for Failure

 

The reasons for the Weimar Republic’s collapse are the subject of continuing debate. It may have been doomed from the beginning since even moderates disliked it and extremists on both the left and right loathed it, a situation referred to by some historians, such as Igor Primoratz, as a “democracy without democrats.”

Germany had limited democratic traditions, and Weimar democracy was widely seen as chaotic. Weimar politicians had been blamed for Germany’s defeat in World War I through a widely believed theory called the “Stab-in-the-back myth,” which contended that Germany’s surrender in World War I had been the unnecessary act of traitors, and thus the popular legitimacy of the government was on shaky ground. As normal parliamentary lawmaking broke down and was replaced around 1930 by a series of emergency decrees, the decreasing popular legitimacy of the government further drove voters to extremist parties.

The Republic in its early years was already under attack from both left- and right-wing sources. The extreme left accused the ruling Social Democrats of betraying the ideals of the workers’ movement by preventing a communist revolution, and they sought to overthrow the Republic and do so themselves. Various right-wing sources opposed any democratic system, preferring an authoritarian, autocratic state like the 1871 Empire. To further undermine the Republic’s credibility, some right-wingers (especially certain members of the former officer corps) also blamed an alleged conspiracy of Socialists and Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I.

The Weimar Republic had some of the most serious economic problems ever experienced by any Western democracy in history. Rampant hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and a large drop in living standards were primary factors. By fall 1922, Germany found itself unable to make reparations payments since the price of gold was now well beyond what it could afford. Also, the German currency, the mark was by now practically worthless, making it impossible for Germany to buy foreign exchange or gold using paper marks. In the first half of 1922, the mark stabilized at about 320 marks per dollar. Instead, reparations were to be paid in goods such as coal. In January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr, the industrial region of Germany in the Ruhr Valley, to ensure reparations payments. Inflation was exacerbated when workers in the Ruhr went on a general strike and the German government printed more money to continue paying for their passive resistance. By November 1923, the US dollar was worth 4,2 trillion German marks. In 1919, one loaf of bread cost 1 mark; by 1923, the same loaf of bread cost 100 billion marks.

 

photograph of bank notes
Hyperinflation in Weimar Republic: One-million-mark notes used as notepaper, October 1923. In 1919, one loaf of bread cost 1 mark; by 1923, the same loaf of bread cost 100 billion marks.

 

From 1923 to 1929, there was a short period of economic recovery. An infusion of capital from Wall Street banks in the United States helped the German economy to rebuild in this period. The Liberal Social Democratic Party remained the largest party in Germany in this era of economic prosperity. However, the Great Depression of the 1930s led to a worldwide recession. Germany was particularly affected because it depended so heavily on American loans. In 1926, about 2 million Germans were unemployed, which rose to around 6 million in 1932. Many blamed the Weimar Republic. That was made apparent when political parties on both right and left wanting to disband the Republic altogether made any democratic majority in Parliament impossible.

The reparations damaged Germany’s economy by discouraging market loans, which forced the Weimar government to finance its deficit by printing more currency, causing rampant hyperinflation. In addition, the rapid disintegration of Germany in 1919 by the return of a disillusioned army, the rapid change from possible victory in 1918 to defeat in 1919, and the political chaos may have caused a psychological imprint on Germans that could lead to extreme nationalism, later epitomized and exploited by Hitler. It is also widely believed that the 1919 constitution had several weaknesses, making the eventual establishment of a dictatorship likely, but it is unknown whether a different constitution could have prevented the rise of the Nazi Party.

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