Weimar Republic

Despite all of the difficulties faced by young democratic Germany, its parliamentary method was quite well-developed

Between the end of World War I in 1918 and the Nazi rise to power in 1933, Germany was a democratic republic. This attempt at democracy, however, endured for only 14 years, ultimately failing due to tremendous political, social and economic strains.

In gatherings of the National Assembly, held at the National Theater in the city of Weimar at the beginning of 1919, delegates formulated a modern democratic constitution, which provided the foundation for German society after hundreds of years under monarchic rule. This constitution is considered progressive to this day, although a significant discrepancy remained between the good intentions of most of the delegates and their implementation during the short life of the republic, a gap that ultimately led to the failure of the first democracy on German soil.

Although political power was seized from the elite following the revolution that took place at the end of 1918, most of the state functionaries remained in office even after the political change, and in most cases, these individuals did not support the democratic government.

Despite all of the difficulties faced by young democratic Germany, its parliamentary method was quite well-developed. Many parties competed for votes and for the first time in German history, women were granted suffrage in 1919.

The range of parties was quite wide, including streams and ideologies from the left (the Communist Party) to the center (Social-Democrats, Liberals, Christians) and the far right (the German Nationalist Party, and later, the National Socialist Party). The electoral threshold remained very low, which increased the number of parties in the national parliament and made coalition agreements very difficult throughout the Weimar Republic’s 14 years.

The beginning of this political entity was also complex. Difficulties abounded. Defeat in the world war resulted in subsequent debts and enormous reparation payments to the Allied powers, a high number of casualties, a high rate of unemployment, a general sense of disorientation, and hyper-inflation so out of control that in December 1923 a loaf of bread cost billions of marks. Beginning in 1924, the overall situation began to improve, and the period until 1929 became known as the Golden Age. With the global financial crisis that began in 1929, and its particularly detrimental effect on Germany, the ranks of the unemployed rose to unprecedented rates (in 1932, there were some five and a half million unemployed Germans!). As a result, the political system became unstable. This state of affairs made it possible for the Nazi party to garner strength and quickly gain hold of public support.

At the same time, the period of the Weimar Republic is considered one of the most dynamic in the history of Germany with technological and scientific advances including the research of Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Gustav Herz in Berlin, radio broadcasts reaching a broad audience, German zeppelins crossing the Atlantic Ocean, sound films conquering the cinemas, and many other notable achievements.

Fourteen German scientists won Nobel prizes between 1919 and 1933. In design and art, innovations appeared in the famous Bauhaus school, while modern German literature reached many readers and popular music was influenced by America, as can be seen, for example, in the success of the Comedian Harmonists ensemble (comprised of three Jews and three Christians), which conquered the concert halls of Germany and Europe at that time.

Countless German Jews were leaders in a variety of fields, including Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, two of the founders of the German Communist Party, as well as Walther Rathenau, the Director of the Board of AEG and German Foreign Minister of 1922 (all three of whom were murdered by right-wing extremists); conductor and composer Otto Klemperer; actors Alexander Granach and Kurt Gerron; authors Else Lasker-Schüler, Lion Feuchtwanger and Jakob Wasserman; director Max Reinhardt; scientists Albert Einstein, James Franck and Gustav Hertz; philosophers Ernst Cassirer, Leo Strauss and Ernst Bloch; architect Erich Mendelsohn; and many others.

Elections Placard for the German National Assembly, 1919

The placard states that this day was "the great day of the German people" and emphasizes that "every vote counts."

Elections Placard for the German National Assembly, 1919

After the end of World War I, with the resignation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the soldiers’ and workers’ revolution at the end of 1918, the temporary government agreed to hold general elections to establish a national assembly, a kind of preliminary parliament after the collapse of the Second Reich. The elections, set for January 19, 1919, were the first in which women in Germany were given the right to vote. The placard states that this day was “the great day of the German people” and emphasizes that “every vote counts.” Following the political-revolutionary riots in the German capital of Berlin, it was decided that the elected assembly would meet in Weimar, a small and quiet city, “the capital of classical culture,” located in the center of the country. On February 6, 1919, the delegates met for the first time and appointed Friedrich Ebert, representative of the Social Democratic party, as chancellor. Ebert in turn appointed the first government of the young republic. The city where the National Assembly convened was the origin of the informal name for the political entity: The Weimar Republic.

This placard was collected by the Jewish physician Arthur Czellitzer, who ran a private clinic in Berlin until the Nazis’ rise to power. Czellitzer was interested in various historical questions and in Jewish genealogy, but he also had a broad historical consciousness that manifested itself in the collection of announcements and posters he cultivated between 1918 and 1928. His collection contains hundreds of items relating to many political parties and candidates for various elections that took place during the Weimar Republic, and Czellitzer appears to have acquired the items in Berlin. In many cases, he added the date of acquisition and sometimes the location, filing his findings meticulously. In 1936, Czellitzer donated his collection to the National and University Library in Jerusalem. Dr. Arthur Czellitzer was murdered in the Holocaust, at the Sobibor Camp, in 1943.

Source: Archive Department, Ephemera Collection from the Weimar Republic, V 662.

The Journal “Rimon” – “Milgroim”

The first Jewish journal devoted to art

Logo of "Rimon" Publishing House, 1922. Design: Tobias Schwab

In early autumn of 1922, the premier issue of “Rimon”, the first Jewish journal devoted to art, was published. The Hebrew-language readership, which until then had been accustomed to various journals and literary collections printed on cheap paper with cramped lettering, was stunned by the exceptional quality of this innovative journal, not only in terms of its content – serious articles dealing with all aspects of Jewish art – but also from its excellent typographical quality, the fine paper on which it was printed and the abundant colorful, eye-enchanting illustrations it incorporated.

The driving force behind Rimon was a small circle of Russian Jews, headed by historian Mark Wischnitzer and his wife, art historian Rachel Bernstein-Wischnitzer. In late 1921, the couple joined a group of Russian-Jewish émigrés in Berlin. They presented the idea of publishing a Jewish art journal to their friend Leopold Sew, a Russian-Jewish intellectual who was visiting Berlin from Paris, where he had fled after the revolution. Sew was excited by the idea and referred the couple to Eliahu Feinson, who belonged to a group of Jewish-Russian capitalists who supported Hebrew publication projects. Feinson enlisted with fervor in the publication of Jewish art books, and provided the necessary funding for commencing the work. His name appeared on almost all publications of the company as one of its three directors, alongside Dr. Mark Wischnitzer and Alexander Kogan, two of the great Russian publishers who had come to Berlin during this period, and were involved in the production of one of the most esteemed journals to be published in both Russian and German, “The Firebird” (“Jar-Ptiza”).

Cover of the Russian art journal The Firebird, 1921. Design: Sergei Czokhonin

Despite the defeat of Germany in World War I and the lack of political stability that characterized it in the years that followed, the publishing industry recovered rapidly and continued to be among the most progressive and advanced in the world, as it had been in the past. The spiraling inflation in the Weimar Republic at the time severely damaged the local industry and economy, but on the other hand, it gave owners of foreign capital the possibility of producing published materials at a high standard for a very low cost.

Between 1921 and 1923, over thirty different Hebrew publishing houses were active in Germany, many of them in Berlin. These publishing houses succeeded within a very short span to print hundreds of Hebrew titles of a quality unprecedented in the world of Hebrew publishing of that time. During this period, Jewish-German publishers, like their German colleagues, were in the throes of a deep economic crisis. In contrast, the state of Jewish immigrants from Russia was radically different. Most of the financial institutions of the Zionist Movement were located in the United States and Britain. The philanthropists who provided the funding for many Russian refugees to stay in Germany conducted business outside of the Weimar Republic. The small sums (in terms of the dollar or sterling) that were sent regularly to Jewish immigrants in Germany were thus sufficient to enable them to live respectably. Therefore, despite the ostensibly low status of Russian Jews in the Weimar Republic as immigrants and refugees with no legal standing, they had a tremendous advantage over their local German-Jewish brethren.

Emerging from the multi-lingual reality that characterized the society of Jewish-Russian immigrants in Germany was the idea to publish, in parallel to the issues of “Rimon”, a Yiddish edition called “Milgroim”, which like the Hebrew word “rimon,” means pomegranate. Some of the articles on art appeared in identical form in both language editions, while the literary component was different. Although “Milgroim” is one of a long list of Yiddish journals founded by the literary hub of Eastern-European Jews in Berlin at the beginning of the 1920s, it is completely unique in character due to the visual language through which it communicated to its readership.

Cover of an issue of “Milgroim”, 1922, by Böhm and Baruch
The similarity between the twin journals in Hebrew and Yiddish, “Rimon” and “Milgroim”, published by the Wischnitzers, and the Russian journal published by Alexander Kogan, is not only in the covers notable for their bold colors. Like Kogan, the Wischnitzers also viewed the Middle Ages as the “golden age” of art as a source of inspiration, and this can be readily discerned not only typographically (the shapes of the Hebrew letters drawn from those appearing in Ashkenazic and Sephardic Hebrew manuscripts) but also in other motifs in medieval folk art, as well as in the revival of additional motifs that were typical of early manuscripts and printed materials.
Overall, between 1922 and 1924, seven titles were published by the “Rimon” publishing house, some of them in three and even four languages (a total of twelve books), in addition to the six editions of the “Rimon” journal and six additional editions of its Yiddish corollary “Milgroim”. In 1924, following the halting of German inflation and the stabilization of the mark, the economic conditions that enabled the inexpensive publication of books no longer existed, and this original publishing house came to an end, like many of the Hebrew publication establishments that emerged – and disappeared – during this brief and intensive period.
Cover of the first issue of “Rimon”, 1922. Design: Ernst Böhm and Francesca Baruch

German Inflation 1919-1923

Prices rose to absurd sums: at the end of the period of hyper-inflation, in the fall of 1923, a loaf of bread cost many billions and to send a single postcard from Munich to Prague required stamps worth 36 billion marks

Inflation is the devaluation of a national currency due to a rise in the prices of commodities on the national market, often resulting from the rising price of imports. Mild inflation exists in every modern free economy, and is not considered a worrisome phenomenon, as long as it remains at a low rate. However, if, for political or economic reasons, inflation deviates from tolerable levels to the extent that it has a severe negative impact on the standard of living of many citizens, the phenomenon takes on the attributes of a socio-economic disaster, that also spurs a political disaster when the nation begins to seek individuals on whom to assign responsibility for the economic collapse.

The greatest inflation in the history of Germany occurred mainly from 1919-1923, but in fact it had already started in 1914, with the outbreak of WWI. When the war began, the German governments increased the money supply in order to cover the soaring costs, initially of the war itself, and afterwards, of the heavy reparations that the Allies had imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. One means of increasing the supply of money was the issue of war bonds purchased by many citizens. At the same time, it was decided to cut the linkage between the German mark and the price of gold, a connection that existed at the time in most advanced nations. The result was an expanding gap between the value of gold-based currency (the gold mark, which was actually in use until the end of the days of the German Empire) and paper currency, which could be printed in almost unlimited quantities. Flooding the market with printed money rapidly lowered its value, so that the prices rose disproportionately, while the real wage of salaried workers fell sharply. At the same time, loans and debts lost their value by the same proportion. This was precisely the goal of the German government after the end of the war: to lessen the burden of the reparations and to demonstrate the weakness of the German economy to the allies.

This situation took its toll on the daily life of most citizens. The rise in prices that the consumer was required to pay was not matched by a rise in wages. Since wages rose more gradually, it was more difficult to keep up with the high prices. On payday, employees hurried to reach the stores before the exchange rate of the mark vis-à-vis the dollar which was usually even lower than it had been a few days earlier. Prices rose to absurd sums: at the end of the period of hyper-inflation, in the fall of 1923, a loaf of bread cost many billions and to send a single postcard from Munich to Prague required stamps worth 36 billion marks (see photo). In such a situation, the central bank ceased investing in the design of bills and in their printed elements since it was not worthwhile to produce counterfeit bills, all of the graphic markings that were meant to serve as obstacles to counterfeiting, and some bills were even only one-sided. Often, a denomination – higher than the specified original bills – was overlaid onto existing bills that had not yet entered the money cycle. There are photographs depicting children who had cut out kites from galley sheets of bills that had become obsolete.

In November 1923, the inflation reached a peak: one dollar was worth 4,200 billion German marks. It was clear to all that this trend could not go on. Eventually, a change of government in Germany brought an end to the inflation, after it had achieved one of its main goals: reduction of the debts that were burdening the German coffers. From November 15, 1923, the currency was replaced: instead of the worthless Papiermark, the Central Bank of Germany presented the new mark (Rentermark). In the international arena, the German government reached an understanding with the Allies in the framework of the Dawes Plan, according to which German reparations were adjusted to the country’s economic ability. Following this, the German economy recuperated over the coming years, but millions of citizens lost their capital, which had been deposited in savings plans.

Our display item shows a 50 million mark bill, part of the Means of Payment and Banknotes Collection of the Archives Department of the National Library. This bill was issued in July 1923, just a few months before the inflation peaked. Based on this bill’s physical condition we can conclude that it was heavily used. Originally, the reverse side of the bill was left blank, but in our sample, an informal nationalist, anti-Semitic printing was scrawled on. As in many moments of crisis throughout history, the period of inflation was a time to cast blame for the eradication of private wealth: the anti-Semites were convinced that the “rich Jews” bore all of the responsibility.

Translation of the rhymed lines:

Like the fungus
and the lichens
on the oak’s trunk
The Jew thrives
on mankind’s trunk
Where Jews live in comfort
The majority remains
in poverty’s grip