The Weimar Republic was Germany’s first democracy, a state in which elected representatives had real power. The new constitution attempted to blend the European parliamentary system with the American presidential system. In the pre- World War I period, only men twenty-five years of age and older had the right to vote, and their elected representatives had very little power. The Weimar constitution gave all men and women twenty years of age the right to vote. Women made up more than 52% of the potential electorate, and their support was vital to the new Republic. From a ballot, which often had thirty or more parties on it, Germans chose legislators who would make the policies that shaped their lives. Parties spanning a broad political spectrum from Communists on the far left to National Socialists (Nazis) on the far right competed in the Weimar elections. The Chancellor and the Cabinet needed to be approved by the Reichstag (legislature) and needed the Reichstag’s continued support to stay in power.
Although the constitution makers expected the Chancellor to be the head of government, they included emergency provisions that would ultimately undermine the Republic. The constitution gave emergency powers to the directly elected President and made him the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. In times of crisis, these presidential powers would prove decisive.
During the stable periods, Weimar Chancellors formed legislative majorities based on coalitions primarily of the Social Democrats, the Democratic Party, and the Catholic Center Party, all moderate parties that supported the Republic. However, as the economic situation deteriorated in 1930, and many disillusioned voters turned to extremist parties, the Republic’s supporters could no longer command a majority. German democracy could no longer function as its creators had hoped. Ironically by 1932, Adolf Hitler, a dedicated foe of the Weimar Republic, was the only political leader capable of commanding a legislative majority. On January 30, 1933, an aged President von Hindenburg reluctantly named Hitler Chancellor of the Republic. Using his legislative majority and the support of Hindenburg’s emergency presidential powers, Hitler proceeded to destroy the Weimar Republic.