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Weimar Germany- T,U, V

By Sarah Zama

Sarah Zama, @jazzfeathers on twitter and a writer of historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s, did 26 blog posts in 2018 as an A-Z challenge on the cultural and political aspects of inter war Germany over on her blog The Old Shelter. We're reposting these here as they talk about an area of History ripe for AH. Today we have the entries for T, U and V.

It is sometimes said that just like WWI was the war to end all wars, the Treaty of Versailles was the peace to end all peace.

Often described as punitive to Germany, who was cast as the villain and the loser of Europe, the treaty failed to create the base for solid peace and ended up laying down the groundwork for precisely what all nations didn’t what to ever happen again.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919. The Allies wrote it with almost no participation from Germany, who at the time was facing urgent matters at home – the Revolution.

Although it started as an elaboration of US President Wilson’s fourteen points, which theorized cooperation between all European nations that would hopefully prevent the breaking out of a new war, the treaty was soon heavily influenced by France’s strong need of retribution and fear of German revanchism. The enmity between France and Germany went a long way back. In the 19th century the Franco-Prussian war, had seen France on the loser’s side, and those scars had not healed yet. In addition to this, the Great War in the West had started with a German attack on France and had seen the main Western Front lay across French territory, with the most damage done to the French land and population, with huge parts of French industry sabotaged and destroyed by the occupying armies.

French politicians had twice seen German armies invade their soil and wanted either a strong alliance against Germany or for the Germans to be made too weak to rise again. The preference was for the former but the result was primarily an attempt at the latter aim, as the treaty imposed new, artificial borders on Germany, which included the loss of territories of strong German culture (such as the city of Danzig) and the shattering of the Victorian dream of a pan-German nation. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled, and its pieces were not allowed to unify with Germany. Germany lost her colonies, and harsh limits were imposed on army forces as well as limitations on the production and exportation of military goods.

In spite of Great Britain’s attempt to impose more lenient provisions against Germany, France’s premier, George Clemenceau, argued for demanding enormous reparation payments (hundreds of billions of marks as opposed to the tens of billions that were to be expected). Clemenceau knew fully well that Germany was unlikely to pay such large amounts of money, especially with all the limitation the treaty was also placing on her, but, without British agreements for alliance, the French feared a swift recovery of Germany if they allowed her to, and a new war against France.

This war reparation and its unprecedented amount were possible because of the infamous article 231 of the treaty, which would become knows as the War Guilt Clause. It reads:

“The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

This clause was never accepted by the German people. Like everyone else, Germans entered the Great War feeling it was a defensive war against Russia. Moreover, the Allies wrote this clause to take advantage of the troubles Germany was facing at home and the dire state of their economy and armed forces which prevented her from contesting anything the Allies could say.

The Generals who had fought and lost the war and then accepted the armistice refused to sit at the Treaty table. Instead of publicly accepting their defeat, they left the matter to be dealt with by the new republic, who (because the German situation was much worse than the German government had ever admitted) had little choice but to accept the treaty and all its provisions – including the War Guilt Clause – if she wanted to close the matter of war and try to build a new life. The intention was to try and renegotiate the terms later when feelings might be less hard toward her.

But many German people never forgave the republic for accepting what they viewed as a degrading, punishing and false judgment about them. The Weimar Republic started her history with a heavy burden on her shoulder.

One of the most speculated about matters in the history of the Weimar Republic is whether it would have weathered the hard crises of the Great Depression, and so resist the rise of the Nazis, if all the forces within that republic had been more united. Disunity – both true and perceived – was a major characteristic of the Weimar Republic.

The most apparent disunity was the one in the parliament itself. Throughout the republican history, the Reichstag was made up of many small political forces which seem to have a hard time getting along. There were a few bigger parties, of course, most notably the Social Democrats and the Zentrum, but none of these ever won the absolute majority of the parliament. The republic had to rely on coalition governments which were unstable at best, leading to frequent crises and reorganization of the Reichstag and an inability for any one party to achieve all their goals. This disunity and instability ill-suited many German people, whose culture had been taught to idolise an authoritarian, decisive, military efficiency. These people saw the endless parliamentary discussions as weakness rather than democratic discussion and lost faith in the ability of the republic to solve its citizens’ problems.

If this were not enough, there was also a gap between the Reichstag and the army. The republic created the Reichswehr largely with officials and soldiers of the old imperial army, who effectively created a state within the state right in the heart of Weimar Germany. The Reichswehr always saw the republic as a transitory phase in the history of Germany and many wished for the Empire to be restored. They were often loyal to the Republic only until a better, more efficient form of government could come along.

All this division and insecurity hit the Mittelstand – the middle class – which had been the backbone of the Wilhelmin society, hard. They had been led to believe Germany was winning the war and were shocked when it lost it. Battered by all the change that followed – the revolution, the republic, the democratic regime, then the hyperinflation and the many smaller economic crises – the Mittelstand found itself in the position of losing much of its comfort. It became easy prey to the many right-wing forces that were blaming everything on the Republic, which the Mittelstand already had a hard time appreciating, giving in to nationalism and anti-Semitism in the hope to find a solution somewhere.

Even the family, especially the middle-class family, seemed to fall to division, as women started to seek their own paths in the workplace rather than commit themselves to the family as they used to, and young people picked up radical politics and were seen as in all but revolt against their elders.

Besides, even at the Treaty table or during the Great War, there hadn’t been much unity ideals, with hatred and quarrelling between Prussian and Bavarian battalions even in the trenches. Germany was a young nation and still had strong regional identifies and different political cultures.

Maybe times were too difficult to try and look beyond the many pressing difficulties and seek a common unity.

Veterans were a strong public presence in the Weimar Republic. A total of 1.4 million disabled veterans came back from the war, and the republic provided them with occupational training, free medical care and pensions. For the severely disabled, particular jobs were granted special protection.

Still, the republic was ill-rewarded for the care it offered as Veterans often didn’t support the republic. Partly because expectations kept rising as the economic situation kept worsening and there was only a certain amount of money that could be devoted to this cause.

By 1919, veterans were represented by seven different organizations, of which the Reichsbund der Kriegsbeschädigten und ehemaligen Kriegsteilnehmer (National Association of Disabled Soldiers and Veterans) was the most numerous with 600,000 members and ties with the Social Democrats.

But the most notorious was the Stahlhelm (Steel Helmet). Founded in Madgeburg as a small, regional organization in 1918, by the following year it had already grown to national recognition. With 250,000 members in 1925 and a markedly rightist policy, the Stahlhelm didn’t really have a political program, but its ‘street politics’ became firmly nationalist. Its strong belief in the legend of the ‘stab in the back’, its celebration of the valour of the frontline fighters and the alleged ‘community of the trenches’ became very popular in a society that was heavily militarised in so many aspects of life and propagated the model for a renovation of that society. In time, the Stahlhelm got very close to the NSDAP.

But not all veteran organizations were nationalistic. The Stahlhelm’s main opponents, the Reichsbanner, proposed a completely different interpretation of the war and its soldiers, one that emphasised the brutality of war, the hardship soldiers were put thought and the tension-ridden relationship between officers and enlisted man.

Besides many veterans still suffered for the repercussions of war in their lives. WWI had created injuries of unprecedented cruelty, not just in the body, but also in the mind. Ironically, this allowed shocking advance in all camps of medicine.

War techniques had evolved a great deal in the decades previous to WWI. The cannon barrage of the Napoleonic Wars and the automatic weapons of the American Civil War were considered mindblowingly powerful, but nothing prepared officers, soldiers, or civilians for the carnage of WWI. The firepower of WWI artillery was simply something never seen before.

It was in this environment that a new form of injury was first recognized and given a name: the war neurosis. A state where the soldier was not physically injured, but he was clearly damaged and had violent psychological reactions.

The term shell shock was coined by a medical officer, Dr Charles Myers, in 1915. Initially, it was believed to be physical damage to the nerves suffered by soldiers exposed to heavy shelling on the front and those who were buried by such shelling – sometimes as long as 18 hours. But soon it was clear that even soldiers who were never near to the frontline suffered from the same illness and so doctors realised these men simply could not cope with the horrendous circumstances of the new industrial war.

The reaction to this ‘new’ war illness was initially very hard. These soldiers were sometimes considered cowards because they could not cope with the demands of war. Cases were particularly sever among officers, who had to ‘manage’ the lives – and deaths – of the soldiers under their command. But as cases piled up of men who could not eat after stabbing an enemy in the gut, who could not see after being a sniper on the battlefield, those who suffered from nightmares or nervous ticks, it became clear that the war trauma, though it left the soldier physically untouched, gravely affected his mind and emotions.

During the first years of the war, this was met with scepticism, especially by the army leaders. Soldiers were often suspected of pretending to be ill and anyway, the main object of any cure was to get them well enough to be sent back to the frontline. The ones who broke down were considered cowards and were a shame to themselves and to their family since a man – especially a military man – should have been able to cope with any crises.

But as the years stretched, doctors started to understand that emotional injury could be as severe as a physical one and could affect the body just as cruelly. Then they started studying the mind’s reaction more closely. Psychology and psychoanalysis were employed ever more often and leapt ahead in treatment and understanding.

The war, such terrible experience, was instrumental in a definite advancement in these fields of medicine.

WWI is possibly the war that most disfigured the soldiers who fought it. The ‘advancement’ in artillery and weaponry, which could cause unprecedented damage to the human body, went alongside dramatic advancement in medicine, which could save men who would have previously doomed. But the physical scars would remain. WWI is particularly remembered for the horrid facial injuries of so many veterans. Beside, trench warfare seemed to be diabolically conducive of facial injuries as soldiers would bring their head over the trench to watch out.

After some battles, the field hospitals received thousands of injured soldiers, and doctors learned very quickly what worked and what didn’t. But as for the disfigured, the main goal was always to save their life. Aesthetics never even come into the equation. If this may have been well and good on the battlefield, it proved to be terrible once the war was over.

Shrapnel facial wounds were terrible to behold. It took away whole parts of the face – noses, ears, jaws, sometimes half of a face. These soldiers could and were saved in the field hospitals, but once they went home, their life was forfeit. They became monsters in their own eyes, and many just retreated from social life. Special retirement houses were set up so that they could live among themselves and never have to see an undamaged human being again.

But the numbers of such wounded were so staggering that different solutions had to be found. Plastic surgery was another field of medicine that advanced dramatically during the war. Sir Harnold Gillies, a New Zealand born doctor at Cambridge Military Hospital, was a pioneer of this field. In his hospital, dramatic advancement in plastic surgery was made, but the extent and severity of the facial injuries were often so great that alternative solutions were employed.

Dr Gillies was also one of the first to work together with artists, especially sculptors, to create metallic masks that would recreate a men’s whole face, so to enable him to continue his life. This quickly was taken up by other British hospitals, the Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department at the Third London General Hospital was nicknamed the “Tin Noses Shop". This was a long, expensive process, and only a few of the thousand facial injured soldiers could afford it, but it was a path also followed in France and Germany. In France the veterans became known as “gueules cassées,” or “broken faces". The mask making however only lasted a few years. At the beginning of the 1920s all facilities of this kind had been dismantled.

Though it was ascertained that a mask – which was a think layer of usually copper and carefully painted to match the man’s skin colour – could only last a few years before starting to look very battered, the veterans often kept wearing them beyond that state.

Very few of these masks still exist today. Most of them were probably buried with their owners.


Sarah Zama writes historical fantasy stories set in the 1920s and blogs about the culture of that time period at The Old Shelter.


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