On June 6th, 1920, the German Republic held its 2nd ever democratic federal election. Set in a time of political instability and economic uncertainty, the election had a profound impact on politics in Weimar Germany and set the pace for the rest of the republic’s duration.
The previous election, in 1919, had made the Social Democratic Party (SPD) the largest political grouping in the Reichstag. This left-wing, socialist party had dominated German politics for the last 30 years. The year between these two elections was an incredibly tumultuous one in Germany, as the political spectrum became increasingly polarised and political violence escalated dramatically.
The Right v. the Republic
The year’s intensity began on March 13th, when civil servant Wolfgang Kapp and General Walther von Lüttwitz, attempted to undo the ‘revolution from above’ and establish a right-wing, autocratic regime in place of the Weimar government. The Kapp Putsch, as this famous rebellion is known, involved the occupation of the German capital, Berlin. Immediately, the coup received the support of parts of the army and monarchist, conservative and nationalist factions.
That same day, uprisings began in the Ruhr region in opposition to the military coup in Berlin. In the town of Bochum alone, 20,000 people were involved in demonstrations. The Kapp Putsch had an immediate impact on the established, left-wing political parties, as a day later the Communist Party (KPD), the SPD and the Independent Socialist Party (USPD) entered talks to form an alliance against the putschists. The parties drafted a joint appeal to win political power by the dictatorship of the proletariat. In response, some leftist organisations tried to seize power across the Ruhr. Executive councils took control across the region and the Red Ruhr Army was formed, comprised of approximately 50,000 men. These actions and the left’s policies were terrifying to conservative elements of German society. A rift had emerged in the political spectrum.
By the 20th, the putsch had collapsed. A general strike, coordinated upon the directive of the government, had halted Berlin’s economy. Quickly, the putschists lost their support and conceded defeat. Alas, the damage to German politics had been done, as the resignation of Chancellor Gustav Bauer (SPD) was announced on the 26th (his government is suspected of having negotiated with the rebels). On March 24th, the government delivered an ultimatum that the workers’ councils – who had a delivered a swift and decisive defeat to rebels in Berlin – ended the general strike by April 2nd.
That day eventually came, but the worker’s councils had not complied, causing a government crisis. The conflict escalated as 300,000 miners in the Ruhr region joined the general strike, equating to 75% of the mining workforce. To navigate this crossroads, the newly appointed government of Chancellor Hermann Müller (SPD) dispatched Reichswehr (army) forces into the Ruhr on the 2nd. The army acted to quickly to suppress the uprising, with controversial support from a nationalist paramilitary group, the Freikorps (henceforth, the Freikorps would play a prominent role in polarising German politics by relentlessly instigating political violence against communists).
The German electorate took to the polls on June 6th, 1920. Over the course of 12 months, German politics had been transformed. Whilst the SPD remained the largest party, it saw a drastic reduction in its share of the Reichstag – it lost in excess of 1/3 of its seats. On the whole, the left remained in control, but liberal and centrist parties were annihilated. What’s more, nationalist and conservative parties also made a formidable block in the Reichstag after the elections.
* marks conservative and/or nationalist parties.
The election of June 6th, 1920, epitomised the immense polarisation of German politics. In one year, the political landscape had been transformed – it was no longer a platform for ideas and progress, but a war of left v. right.