The Social Democrats and their allies in the Reichstag, faced an enormous task at the end of 1918: organizing a new government, one that would be responsible to the people rather than to a monarch. So in the midst of rioting at home and negotiations with peacemakers at Versailles, they arranged for the election of a National Assembly whose task would be writing a constitution for the new republic. The election took place in January 1919, and almost every eligible voter, including women and young people between the ages of 20 and 25—both groups that were voting for the first time—voted for parties that were supportive of democracy rather than those that favored other systems of government. The Social Democratic Party won the largest number of votes, and the Catholic Center Party, also a moderate group, came in second. Fear of extremist forces, particularly the Communists, created a basis for cooperation among moderate, conservative, and liberal groups in writing the constitution and organizing the new government.
The newly formed National Assembly met in the city of Weimar, in order to avoid the turmoil in Berlin (see reading, The November Revolution). Therefore, the government they created is known as the Weimar Republic. The assembly was made up of people with diverse beliefs, including a few who did not believe in democracy at all. In the constitution they drafted, they took care to divide power among the three branches of government. The people would elect the executive and legislative branches, while the judicial branch would be appointed. In choosing a president, German voters would select among several candidates. In electing members of the Reichstag, they would cast their ballots for a particular party rather than a particular candidate. As long as a party got 1% of the vote, it was entitled to a deputy in the legislature. The more votes a party received, the more deputies it got. For example, if the Social Democrats received 36% of the vote, they would get 36% of the seats in the Reichstag. But party officials, rather than the voters, would decide exactly who those representatives would be.
As head of the government, the president would appoint the nation’s chancellor. In a parliamentary system, the chancellor (or prime minister, in some countries) is in charge of the day-to-day operations of government with the help of a cabinet of appointed advisors. During the first decade after World War I, the president usually appointed a chancellor from the political party that had the most deputies in the Reichstag.
Since no single party ever held a majority in the Reichstag during the years of the Weimar Republic, two or more parties often banded together to form a majority to run the legislature. But almost any controversy or disagreement between parties might break up such a coalition. Whenever that happened, the legislature would dissolve and a new election would be held, in hopes that the people would support parties that could work together to form a new coalition. In the 14 years between 1919 and 1933, the Weimar Republic had 20 different legislatures.
Adopted on August 11, 1919, the new Weimar Constitution began with a preamble:
The German people, united in all their racial elements and inspired by the will to renew and strengthen their Reich in liberty and justice, to preserve peace at home and abroad, and to promote social progress, have established the following constitution.
The constitution spelled out the “basic rights and obligations” of government officials and the citizens they served. Most of those rights and obligations had not existed in Germany under the kaiser, including the following:
Article 109: All Germans are equal before the law. Men and women have the same fundamental civil rights and duties. Public legal privileges or disadvantages of birth or of rank are abolished. . . .
Article 114: Personal liberty is inviolable [cannot be destroyed]. . . .
Article 115: The home of every German is his sanctuary and is inviolable. Exceptions are permitted only by authority of law. . . .
Article 117: The secrecy of letters and all postal, telegraph, and telephone communications is inviolable. Exceptions are inadmissible except by national law.
Article 118: Every German has the right, within the limits of the general laws, to express his opinion freely by word, in writing, in print, in picture form, or in any other way. . . . Censorship is forbidden. . . .
Article 123: All Germans have the right to assemble peacefully and unarmed without giving notice and without special permission. . . .
Article 124: All Germans have the right to form associations and societies for purposes not contrary to criminal law. . . .
Article 126: Every German has the right to petition. . . .
Article 135: All inhabitants of the Reich enjoy full religious freedom and freedom of conscience. The free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution and is under public protection. . . .
Article 137: There is no state church. . . .
Article 153: The right of private property is guaranteed by the Constitution. . . . Expropriation of property may take place only . . . by due process of law. . . .
Despite the inclusion of these rights in the Weimar Constitution, individual freedom was not fully protected. Old laws that denied freedoms that were promised in the new constitution were rarely revised, replaced, or even challenged in court. Among them were laws that discriminated against homosexual men and “Gypsies” (the name Germans gave to two groups of people called the Sinti and Roma). And Article 48 of the new constitution gave the president special powers. It states, in part:
In the event that public order and security are seriously disturbed or threatened, the Reich President may take the measures necessary for their restoration, intervening, if necessary, with the aid of the armed forces. For this purpose, he may temporarily suspend, wholly or in part, the basic rights laid down in Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153.
The president alone was to decide whether an emergency existed. Nevertheless, the Reichstag could regain power by calling for a new election.
- What is democracy? How does the Weimar Constitution reflect democratic aspirations?
- What does it mean to create a government responsible to the people? What measures did the Weimar Constitution take to make the new government accountable to the German people?
- What do you think the preamble means when it says that the German people are united in their “racial elements”? What might be the consequences for nationhood, belonging, and universe of obligation when a nation thinks of itself as having “racial elements”?
- Based on evidence from the reading, which rights guaranteed by the Weimar Constitution are also guaranteed in your country?
- What did Article 48 allow the president to do? Is such an article necessary in a democracy? What are its benefits and dangers?