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The Weimar Constitution

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The Weimar Constitution

We are often drawn to World War I and World War II when studying German history, but what happened in between? Sandwiched between Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler, there was democracy and the potential for a very different direction, but the Weimar Consitution would be short-lived, lasting from 1918 until 1933.

Setting up the Weimar Republic

Autocracy

Used to describe a state that is ruled by one person without the say of a government

Constitution

The set of laws by which a country is governed.

Communist

A political belief which favours the workers and believes in equality for all.

Democratic

Used to describe a state where leaders and parliament are elected by the people.

Extremist

Political groups at either end of the political spectrum (right or left-wing)

Left-wing

A political viewpoint that focuses on social justice and equality, for example, the German Communist Party.

Right-wing

A political viewpoint often characterised by nationalism, capitalism and private companies, for example, the Nazi Party.

Republic

A state that is democratically run.

By the autumn of 1918, the Kaiserreich was in tatters. Wilhelm II was virtually absent from his position as Kaiser from 1916 and left Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff to make the executive decisions in World War I. As defeat became a certainty, he quickly absconded to the Netherlands. Hindenburg forced Wilhelm to form a government where he no longer had executive power. This was transferred to Chancellor Max von Baden.

Von Baden was never going to have a lasting impact, and his only role was to negotiate German surrender. He quickly passed the responsibility to Friedrich Ebert of the fairly moderate Social Democrats, who had to deal with a winter of discontent and extremist uprisings.

Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish communist. Inspired by the failed 1905 Revolution in Russia, she was jailed in Warsaw for her extremist views. After moving to Germany in 1907, she was a vital cog in the fledging Spartacist Party that formed during World War I. They later became known as the German Communist Party. In January 1919, Luxemburg helped organise a strike to emulate the successful 1917 Russian Revolution, and a protest of 100,000 workers took place in Berlin. The government sent in the Freikorps, a right-wing group of veteran soldiers, to diffuse the situation, and they ended up killing around 100 in what became known as "Bloody Week".

A new democratic constitution was drafted in Weimar to replace the autocracy of the Kaiserreich. The government moved from Berlin to escape the violence on the streets, with political uncertainty and fury at the Treaty of Versailles and finally signed the Weimar Constitution on August 11th 1919.

In the aftermath of World War I extremism was on the rise. Why? Because Germans felt betrayed by the "November Criminals" in their government that surrendered and signed the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Drafted solely by the Allies, the Treaty forced Germany to accept all of the guilt for starting the war and left them with a reparations bill of £6.6 billion!!

Weimar Constitution Negotiating the Treaty of Versailles StudySmarterNegotiating the Treaty of Versailles (1919), Wikimedia Commons

Weimar Constitution Summary

The Weimar Constitution led to seismic political change in Germany. It was the country's first-ever democracy with a parliament or Reichstag that had a real input in making laws. Let's go into more detail about exactly what the rules that governed the new republic were.

Key Features of the Weimar Constitution

  • The President, Chancellor and the Reichstag ran the government. There was no Kaiser.
  • A President was elected every seven years. His orders or laws needed the approval of the Chancellor and the Reichstag.
  • The Chancellor (head of the Reichstag) was elected every four years.
  • All men and women over the age of 20 could vote. The system was proportional representation meaning that the percentage of the vote was converted directly to seats in the Reichstag.
  • A Bill of Rights gave citizens freedom of expression, civil rights, assembly, religion, private property, free educational opportunities, and equality.
  • Article 48 allowed the President to make laws independent of the Reichstag in the event of an emergency.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Weimar Consitution

On the face of it, the Weimar Constitution seemed like the perfect antidote to the erratic autocracy of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but it did not come without its drawbacks. We will dissect the key positives and negatives of the constitution before examining its effects on the Weimar Republic.

Strengths Weaknesses
The Weimar Constitution created a democracy, meaning that everyone over a certain age could vote. The President could, on paper, not make laws without the Reichstag. This was a big shift from the autocracy of the Kaiser. In addition, the government was replaced every four years. Even a war hero with the clout of Hindenburg had to bow to the prevailing winds of the Chancellor and the Reichstag.Article 48 created a great deal of confusion about where power truly lay. Defining an emergency was problematic as the article was too vague. As a result, abuse of Article 48 was routine under Weimar Presidents. Ebert enacted Article 48 more than 60 times between 1923 and 1924 to handle hyperinflation, and by the end of his reign, Hindenburg required it to pass almost every law. It also proved the death knell of the Weimar Republic as Hitler used it to dissolve the constitution.
The Bill of Rights signalled a level of freedom and equality hitherto unheard of in Germany and its previous iterations. It was a far cry from the Carlsbad decrees in the Austrian-dominated German Confederation and the Kulturkampf of Bismarck. This openness allowed for cultural growth in the "Golden Age" of the Weimar Republic (1924-1929).Proportional representation led to difficulty when making laws in the Reichstag. Because many small and often extremist parties had a significant number of seats, it was a constant merry-go-round. Consequently, the Weimar Republic became characterised by short governments whose ability to affect change, for better or for worse, was severely compromised by its democratic method.

Effects of the Weimar Constitution on the Weimar Republic

The different aspects of the Weimar Constitution had a profound effect on the destiny of the Weimar Republic between 1919 and 1933. It allowed for a "Golden Age" where for a time, Germany flourished. But this proved a flash in the pan as the shortcomings of the constitution were laid bare.

"Golden Age" (1924 - 1929)

The pragmatic Chancellor, Gustav Stresemann, sought help from the United States after the crippling hyperinflation, the French Occupation of the Ruhr and the demands of the Treaty of Versailles were destroying the German economy. The constitution allowed him to accept the Dawes Plan in 1924, which decreased the total amount of repayments and electrified the floundering economy with a series of loans from the United States. The effects of the plan were as desired, at least temporarily.

The renewed ability to pay the reparations meant that Germany was no longer a pariah in Europe, culminating in its entrance to the League of Nations in 1926. The Ruhr, which was its industrial heartland, was returned to them, and production was back at pre-war levels by 1928. Berlin became an emblem of everything good about the Weimar Constitution: culture, modernity and freedom. It also decreased extremism, marginalising parties such as the Nazi Party, who were furious at the reliance on foreign loans.

A self-defeating democracy

According to historian Mark Chou, the Weimar Constitution was self-effacing. Some of the elements of the constitution were admirable, but it came at the wrong time for a country used to the strong-arm tactics of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm II. In the Weimar Republic, the President had no agency meaning that during the times of great peril in the immediate aftermath of World War I, Germany was a rudderless ship. The constitution enabled "almost any party with a grievance to have a say and influence the nation's policies"1. The volatile changes within the Reichstag, thanks to proportional representation, illustrate this. Here is an example of the voting system from the election in 1930.

The Weimar Constitution Proportional Representation StudySmarterThe proportional representation allowed many small parties to have seats in the Reichstag, Wikimedia Commons

Hindenburg: A metaphor for a confused constitution

Weimar Constitution Paul von Hindenburg StudySmarterPaul von Hidenburg,Wikimedia Commons

The final President of the Weimar Republic was Paul von Hindenburg, who, along with Erich Ludendorff, had run the German war effort in the absence of the Kaiser towards the end of World War I. He was relatively ineffectual between 1925 and 1934. The acceptance of foreign aid by Chancellor Stresemann could not be halted, and collaboration with European countries in the Locarno Pact (1925) and the League of Nations (1926) proved this.

Hindenburg was no longer a war hero to be idolised by the right-wing. He was a middling figure, powerless to stop the Dawes Plan or the Young Plan and the United States' control of the German bank. By the same token, his military and nationalistic past unsettled the left. Due to the freedom of expression laws in the Bill of Rights, the Nazi Party's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was able to hijack these concerns in the form of cartoons2.

Soon the Nazi Party gained popularity due to the economic turmoil brought about by the Great Depression, and finally, Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. He triggered Article 48 in the event of the "emergency" Reichstag Fire to create the Enabling Act, which dissolved the constitution completely and gave him all the power, marginalising Hindenburg.

The Weimar Constitution - Key takeaways

  • The Weimar Constitution was signed in 1919 amidst extremist unrest and anger at the treatment of Germany in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
  • It made history as the first democracy in Germany.
  • There were positives such as the ability of all citizens over the age of 20 to vote and the Bill of Rights.
  • However, proportional representation and Article 48 led to serious issues with the constitution.
  • The Weimar Republic was successful between 1924 and 1929 due to United States loans.
  • Ultimately, Article 48 allowed Adolf Hitler to dissolve the constitution in 1933.

References

  1. Mark Chou, "Sowing the Seeds of Its Own Destruction: Democracy and Democide in the Weimar Republic and Beyond", Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, Vol. 59, No. 133 21-49 (Dec 2012).
  2. Richard Scully, "Hindenburg: The Cartoon Titan of the Weimar Republic, 1918-1934", German Studies Review, Vol. 35, No. 3 541-565 (Oct 2012).

Frequently Asked Questions about The Weimar Constitution

The Weimar Republic was the government that was in charge of Germany between 1919 and 1933 under the laws of the Weimar Constitution.

The Weimar Constitution was the set of laws which allowed the Weimar Republic to function as a democracy.

The Weimar Constitution failed because of Proportional Representation meaning that no single strong government could be formed and Article 48 which meant that the President could ignore the Reichstag in an emergency.

Paul von Hindenburg was the final President of the Weimar Republic before being succeeded by Adolf Hitler.

The biggest threat to the Weimar Republic was extremism which was given a platform due to Proportional Representation. Ultimately, Hitler and the Nazi Party took advantage of this in 1933.

Final The Weimar Constitution Quiz

Question

What was the Weimar Constitution?

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Answer

The constitution that governed Germany during the Weimar Republic era from 1919-1933

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In what year was the Weimar Constitution signed?

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1918

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How many parts were in the Weimar Constitution?

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Answer

180

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What did Article 48 do?

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Answer

It gave the President broad powers to suspend civil liberties with an insufficient system of checks and balances. 

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Who was Rosa Luxemburg a member of?

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Answer

German Communist Party

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Who was head of the Reichstag in the Weimar Constitution?

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Chancellor

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What was the method of choosing parliamentary seats?

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The method of choosing parliament was proportional representation where the percentage of votes corresponded to the number of seats.

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What did the Bill of Rights do?

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It gave citizens a series of rights and opportunities that had not been afforded them in the Kaiserreich.

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What did Article 48 do?

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Allowed the President to make laws without the Reichstag or Chancellor

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What was the problem with Article 48?

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There was no clear definition of what an "emergency" was.

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How often did the Chancellor get elected?

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Every four years

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Who worked with the United States to improve the German economy in 1924?

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Answer

Gustav Stresemann

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Which event crippled the German industry?

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Answer

The French occupation of the Ruhr

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Why were the Nazi Party annoyed about the Dawes Plan?

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It meant that Germany relied on foreign loans.

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Why did the Nazi Party gain popularity?

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The Great Depression and resulting economic turmoil led to people turning to extremism and a strong leader.

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Which event allowed Hitler to trigger Article 48 and create the Enabling Act?

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Answer

The Reichstag Fire

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Who was the subject of Goebbels' cartoons while President?

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Answer

Paul von Hindenburg

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