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This paper examines the devastating economic, social and political situation in Weimar Republic and the concept of hyperinflation as part of the daily life of the Germans during those times. A movie ‘M’ and a TV series ‘Babylon Berlin’ will be described as examples to shed light on the 1920s Germany on this regard. Then, it will be explained how the great depression emerged throughout the world and how it brought the end of the Weimar Republic.
Although it is now known as one of the strongest economies of the world, Germany faced major economic difficulties after the I. World War, when the imperial structure collapsed. In this period, the Weimar Republic, which the social democrats led to the establishment of it, worsened everything for the Germans. The structure of society has broken down rapidly. Germany was declared a war criminal in the international arena, and the price was heavily paid to the entire society. The Weimar Republic came to an end with Hitler taking power. Firstly, I will give short description of hyperinflation and its impact on social life and then I will exemplify it with the data of Germany in 1920s. Secondly, I will explain the “short” history of Weimar Republic i.e. how it emerged, what processes it went through, and how it ended. Here, I will give examples of a TV series called as “Babylon Berlin” and a movie called as “M” which subjected the economic, social and political conditions of Germany at those times. Lastly, I will focus on Great Depression as a result of World War and I will apply viewpoints of different academicians about the reasons and result of it and its impacts on the fall of Weimar Republic in Germany.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, ‘hyperinflation’ was not a concept in economics. However, after the World War I, it has taken place in the literature with concrete examples. John Maynard Keynes has introduced this term to the literature as the meaning of it by emphasizing the destructive potential of uncontrollable level of high inflation. Keynes perceived moderate inflation as a result of economic sustainability and welfare-enhancing behavior. However, it is aware that inflation, which cannot be controlled and rapidly increasing, has a destructive effect on a society. This view was expressed in his book ‘The Economic Consequences of the Peace’ which was published after WWI in 1919. And the Weimar Republic, established after the war, can be seen as the most concrete example of this. High inflation, which caused high fluctuations in international trade, caused foreign currency crises. Despite the fact that nobody understands the inflation mechanism, many economists have focused on this issue due to their destructive effects and the concept of inflation has emerged as an important concept in economics.
Hyperinflation is called an economic situation caused by excessive abundance of money, excessive paraplegicity or excessive inflation in the market. Cagan (1989) termed hyperinflation as more than 50% of the monthly inflation increase, while Samuelson (1960) stated it as a situation of the increase of prices of goods and services has exceeded 200% annually. When the its cases in the different parts of the world are analyzed, it is determined that the biggest common feature is the transformation of huge budget deficits that are often caused by world wars, civil wars and political mismanagement into big price explosions. Although it is thought to be an extreme situation, Hanke and Krus (2013) showed 56 different locations in the world in which people faced with hyperinflation. There were some examples of countries in the world faced with hyperinflation problem because of war debt or civil war situations and use the print of money as a way of deal with them which are Weimar Germany in 1923, Greece in 1944, Hungary 1946, Yugoslavia in 1994, and Zimbabwe in 2008.
Hyperinflation affected human life quite badly with terrible price increases in the world history. The first and perhaps most important impact of hyperinflation on human life is that it poses a threat to human health. The people who have the power to buy will not get enough nutrition and shortages emerge. According to some studies, in countries where money is rapidly depreciating, people lose weight permanently and people’s physical prototype changes. Unhealthy people also suffer from access to health care services, because medication prices rise rapidly. The public only has to pay the money to cover the daily needs. The middle class disappears, income inequality increases, savings become worthless and financial institutions and lenders may go out of business. Social life activities become available only to the rich. The ever increasing level of poor and unhealthy people become unable to protect their mental health.
In this paper, the hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic case will be concentrated. In Hanke’s article called as ‘World hyperinflations’, it is observed that when Germany’s 1922-1923 consumer price index is analyzed, the monthly inflation rate reached 29,500% and hyperinflation constitutes a vital risk for the society (2013). Markets and sellers were making price updates every hour. These two visuals, revealing the sudden depreciation of money, revealed the extent of the tragedy of Germany after the war.
A German woman lights a fire with worthless banknotes, 1923. Queues for groceries in Berlin as the value of the German Reichsmark spirals out of control and becomes worthless, 1923.
The Weimar Republic is the name of the period in Germany, which began with the proclamation of the republic on 9 November 1918 by Philipp Scheidemann and continued until 30 January 1933 when Adolf Hitler became chancellor. Instead of the German monarchy which was abolished as a result of the defeat from World War I, the National Assembly was convened in 1919 to form the new constitution in the city of Weimar which gave its name to the republic.
The Weimar Republic was called a ‘temporary democracy’ because of its short history, non-systematic construction and the lack of permanent changes in transforming authoritarian state structure to the democracy. This structure, developed as an urgent solution, to mitigate the effects of World War I on the German people as much as possible, was unable to achieve the desired result, and when the victorious Allies brought an oppressive peace despite the establishment of a democratic republic, the new constitution had been discredited in the eyes of the majority of the population.
The government, which had difficulty in preventing the political turmoil in the country, was crushed under the heavy economic obligations of the Versailles Treaty and forced to pay war debt from I. World War. The high compensation payments and the cost of war led to destructive consequences. The government quickly began to print money to cover these costs, which caused hyperinflation in the country. The cost of living in Germany increased twelve times between 1914 and 1922. As a result of hyperinflation, the middle class disappeared and unemployment increased rapidly. According to Gerald Feldman (1997), the horrific unemployment, salary cuts and dire poverty deepened by the great depression would bring the end of the Weimar Republic faster than hyperinflation. Moreover, the Treaty of Versailles banned armored vehicles, heavy cannons, submarines and any military aircraft of the Reichswehr of Germany. The Reichswehr was limited to 100,000 men, and production and stockpiling of chemical weapons was banned. For this reason, according to monarchists, militarists and extreme right-wingers, the people of Weimar signed the Treaty of Versailles, stabbing the German army in the back. Hence, both economic and political situations got worse after the Treaty of Versailles.
On the other side, the period was not full of poverty and political turmoil. Germany and especially Berlin experienced their own “Golden Twenties” in the Weimar Republic period until Great depression started. The cities, with new people coming to the countryside to look for work, have laid the ground for a vibrant urban life. Besides growing nightlife full of bars and cabarets, there were several gay-lesbian bars which showed sexual freedom was a real phenomenon.
Babylon Berlin is a TV series which brings the complex and chaotic situation in Germany in the period of Weimar Republic to light. In the Washington Post, it is stated that Flapper girls and Nazi storm troopers, prostitutes and proletarians, jazz troupes and jackboots are all Weimar era stereotypes which the German hit series “Babylon Berlin” make them visible. In the series,1920s Berlin is characterized as a “metropolis in turmoil” and as a place in which “growing poverty and unemployment stand in stark contrast to the excesses and indulgence of the city’s night life and its overflowing creative energy.” The Photograph below is a performance scene which reflects the grandeur of nightlife of Berlin.
Lana Nikoros (Severija Janusauskaite) sings ‘Zu Asche zu Staub’ surrounded by her Banana Skirt dancers at the Moka Efti.
Along with the swaggering nightlife, certain issues such as the underground world where political figures are involved and the use of the police force to get rid of the crimes, the conflicts between the Communist leaders (Stalin vs. Trotsky, etc), terrible deterioration of economic situations, the workers and the mass movements and the Armenian genocide were discussed through characters in the series.
Apart from losing the right base with the Versaille agreement, the killing of civilians on May 1, which Babylon Berlin also presented as a real historical section, 1929 was fatal for the Weimar government. After the mass murder, 200 injuries, more than 1,200 people arrested and state of emergency were declared in the Neukölln and Wedding working class regions; a deep cliff began between the social democrats and the left. The German Communist Party decided to fight the Social Democratic Party’s social fascism. After all, the separation on the left gave the fascist rights an opportunity to come to power in 1933. Henrik Handloegten, co-writer and co-director of the Babylon Berlin said that one of the main aims of him to make Babylon Berlin was to show how all these Nazis did not just fall from the sky. They were human beings who reacted to German society’s changes and made their decisions accordingly (Grey, 2018).
Another work that sheds light on the Weimar republic is the ‘M- Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder’ by the original title. 1931 The German-made psychological thriller ‘M’ has influenced many films that have been shot after it by creating the basic motifs to be used in film noir and horror / thriller cinema. The film reveals the period in which the German society, which had suffered a great devastation after World War I, surrendered to the Nazis, which would lead to a deeper devastation by the deep desperation and desire to get rid of the depression, and the factors underlying it.
Story of movie is based on real events. The serial killer Peter Kürten, who became known as “Vampire Duesseldorf’ with the brutal murders in the 1920s, is the inspiration of the film. The story of the film is based on the efforts of the people of the city to come together for capturing a serial killer. The character Hans Beckert is presented as a serial killer with pedophilia and kills the girls he abuses. This situation causes great fear and panic in Berlin. Different segments of society come together for a common purpose in their own interests. This is not easy to see at those times in the Weimar Republic of Germany.
In the 19th century, Berlin was a city of population explosion with industrialization and enlarged with imperialist policies. Its population jumped from 30 thousand to millions and the city was filled with crowds of people. Most of this was made by Prussian immigrants. “It was a provincial city”. It was characteristic of the industrial age cities. On the one hand, there were workers’ quarters where there was a lonely life, and on the other, more isolated bourgeois quarters with comfort. There were many different segments of the community living together in which consist of workers, bourgeois, beggars, crime victims, policemen, children, prostitutes and others were in a metropolis. This experience had its own problems. The metropolitan life created distrust and skepticism in humans. It was money-oriented and changed human relationships. The networks of collective solidarity were eroded, imposing individualist culture. When all these were added to the economic and cultural bottleneck in Germany, insecurity and uneasiness were folded. The background of the film’s chaotic universe, which develops on the axis of murders, includes these elements.
The People’s Court is one of the most important scenes in the film because of representing an entire German society before Nazism. When the killer is caught, he is brought to an old factory building which is full of people. Most of them are ex-convicts and the leader of the criminal organization Schranker preside over the established court. There are families of victims’, children and people from the public. An entire hall wants Beckert to be killed. He defends himself, committed the involuntary murders because he could not prevent the sound inside and so, he feels remorse. Yet, the people do not be convinced with these arguments, if confessed to the sanction should be death. None of them wants to accept the fact that he is a patient who needs rehabilitation. Only the lawyer defends Beckert, says he is sick and cannot be held responsible for his crimes. Therefore, he should be sent to hospital, not prison. Director Lang questions the concept of justice through the personality / sociality of the crime.
In society, feelings of insecurity, poverty, helplessness and revenge are growing from the inside out. The Weimar Republic, which tried to implement the democratic method, could not prevent Nazism from growing up and taking over the society. Fritz Lang perceived the imminent danger and questioned an entire society on the axis of a crime. Although the act of crime is individual, the conditions that bring it out are social. Beckert, a neglected, sick character who was pushed out of society, established communication with him by turning it into an attack and society’s response to this was the same degree of counter-attack. In the following decade, a society capturing itself to a diseased ideology has waged a war against all humanity. The result of this was the greatest destruction humanity has ever seen.
Despite all the bad aspects in Weimar Republic, this period also produced culturally important and long-lasting results. Famous artists such as Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, Otto Dix, Bertolt Brecht and great thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse grew up during this period. German scientists, including famous physicist Albert Einstein, won at least one Nobel Prize each year from 1918 to 1933. As Peter Gay (2001) expressed, ‘The Republic has done so little; it has freed the things that existed before.’
Because of political and economic dissatisfaction, some of which were based on the establishment of the Republic, Hitler was able to take over. By combining marginalized nationalist parties into the Nazi Party, Hitler was able to obtain enough seats in Reichtag to become a political actor. Finally, conservatives who hoped to control him and benefit from his popularity, brought Hitler to the government. Yet, Hitler used deficits written in the Weimar Constitution to disrupt the constitutional order and assume dictatorial powers. With Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933, the Republic of Weimar came to an end.
Depression, which emerges as a result of the long-term and severe recession in economic activities and the most known example of this is the Great Depression which became the worst downswing in the industrialized world from the late 1920s to the end of 1930s. The fact that the crisis is between wars is not only chronological. There was also a causal relationship between the end of the first world war and the beginning of the second world war since the Great Depression caused the end of cooperation and the start of the conflict among the nation-states as well as an economic deterioration in the world history.
Because of the Wall Street Crash in October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, the US government called on its former allies, Britain and France, to pay their war debt. Britain and France without money forced Germany to pay more war compensation. Moreover, the deterioration of the American economy directly affected the Weimar Republic, as America supported the Weimar Republic with large loans in 1924 (Dawes Plan) and 1929 (Young Plan). America gave Germany 90 days to start to re-pay money loaned to her for assisingt her own faltering economy. With austerity and budget cuts began in Weimar Germany, companies sank and millions of people became unemployed. Besides economic troubles, political instability and distrust in the parliamentary system arose.
In addition to the burden of war debts on the economy and political stance, German agriculture had become a political threat to the republican regime in the depression period as well. An economic problem that the governments of other countries have tried to solve by political-economic means has become a problem with the survival of democracy in Germany.
Consequently, between 1929 and 1933, the world economic crisis had an increasingly powerful impact on Weimar Germany’s the political scene by effecting the power relations within society, the behavior of individual citizens, and government policies. The domestic political situation was characterized by the rapid growth of right-wing anti-democratic forces, which caused the impoverishment of millions of people and the decline and deformation of parliamentarians. Economic desperation was gradually produced and combined with the helplessness of the democratic system, establishing a cause-effect relationship between the crisis and the fall of the Weimar Republic.
After the establishment of the Weimar Republic, one of the most concrete and destructive examples of hyperinflation in the world history, it had to manage an unprecedented economic crisis and a war-ravaged society. The Weimar government, which had to fulfill its mandate to sign the Treaty of Versailles, was also accused of communists and right wing extremists. Because of the heavy economic obligations imposed by the Versailles Treaty, the German economy had to pay heavy prices.
Despite the economic and political deterioration, during the Weimar era, individual freedoms reached its peak and sexual orientations and identities were not overlooked. In this period, great importance was given to art and great artists produced important works. However, with the exception of flashy and sparkling nightclubs and corrupt state institutions, the ever-increasing number of poor and desperate people had to wait long for a piece of bread. Babylon Berlin and M which convey this chaos in the society to the audience in a very good way, shed light on the unknown aspects and contradictions of the period and make it easier for the viewer to understand the conditions of the period.
With the spread of Great Depression throughout Europe, Germany was within weak political institutions and a fragmented but highly organized civil society which was to be the ideal setting for the rapid rise to power of a skilled totalitarian movement. In other words, the Great Depression led many people to become disillusioned with the Republic and even democracy and accelerated the fall of Weimar Republic.
Eric Weitz (2007) in his book ‘Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy’ summarized the atmosphere of the republic which consisted of melancholy, reminiscent of missed opportunities and betrayed hopes.
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