The forming of the Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic was announced following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in November 1918. The removal of the Emperor left an apparent power vacuum, with no Head of State the political structure of the Second Reich was obsolete, and an alternative form of government would have to be established. In fact the move towards a different form of Government had begun prior to the Kaisers abdication. As it became apparent to the German High Command that the war was lost moves were made to not only sue for peace but to amend the way in which the decision making process was conducted in Germany.
In October of 1918 a significant change in the construction was instigated. The Chancellor and his ministers were no longer accountable directly to the Kaiser. Removed from the construction was the right of the Kaiser to install and remove his chief minister as he saw fit. From this point onwards the Chancellor was accountable to the Reichstag. Thus the first moves towards a democratic state were made prior to the abdication of Wilhelm II. This is significant in that this illustrates that there was recognition of the need to change. What is open to debate is where the pressure for this change came from. Historians are split as to whether the impetus for change came from the High Command and the Kaiser himself, or whether pressure from leading members of the Reichstag led to the change in the construction Whichever interpretation is more valid, it meant that upon the Kaiser’s abdication, there was still a form of government in which authority, no matter how much weakened, was held. This meant that to an extent the power vacuum left by the abdication was filled, if left in an extremely precarious position.
On November 9th 1918 Prince Max von Baden, the Imperial Chancellor, announced the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm and the Crown Prince. He also transferred his own position of Chancellor to Fredrich Ebert, leader of the SPD. Ebert immediately set about forming a coalition government that could administer Germany in the interim. He made an agreement with the USPD, a Socialist party, which placated many of the disillusioned workers, soldiers and sailors. Workers and soldiers councils confirmed this on 10th November. Also on 10th November the armed forces agreed to support the new government, on the understanding that the government would support the High Command in its attempts to preserve high levels of discipline within the forces (Mutinies were common at this point, see notes on the problems Weimar faced upon its inception).
The interim government was faced almost immediately with problems. In December the left wing Spartacist group held a demonstration that had to be suppressed by use of armed forces. In January this group again threatened the fledging government, as the Spartacist Uprising occurred. Again the interim government made use of force quell the rebellion. Following the successful defeat of the Spartacists elections were held across Germany for the National Assembly.
The Weimar Government and the formation of the Construction
The early meetings of the newly elected National Assembly were held in the quiet town of Weimar. Between February and August much of the work of the representatives was focused upon forming a construction and establishing the mechanisms within which democratic government would work within the German Republic. The process was so lengthy as many aspects of the constitution had to be redrafted as they moved power from local state governments to the central authorities, for example. The following is an overview of the main features of the constitution that emerged in August of 1919.
The constitution of the Weimar Republic stated that the people would elect the President. The term of the presidency was set at 7 years. The President had a range of powers that need careful analysis when evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the constitution. These included: The President was the head of the armed forces; The President chose the Chancellor and had the legal right to dismiss him; It was the President who decided when to call elections, therefore allowing him to dismiss governments; Article 48 of the constitution allowed the President to rule independently of the Reichstag in the case of national emergency and; The President had the right to call referendums.
The Reichstag was the main legislative body under the Weimar constitution. Members of the Reichstag were elected using a system of Proportional Representation based on Universal Suffrage for all adults aged 20 or older. This system worked as follows. Germany was divided into electoral regions. Within each of these regions a political party would put forward a number of candidates. The number of these who became deputies within the Reichstag was based on the total number of votes the party received within that electoral region. One member could be sent for every 60,000 votes cast for the party.
The elected deputies then sat in the Reichstag. The leader of the most powerful elected party would usually then be appointed Chancellor by the President. The Chancellor could then choose his own Cabinet from the elected deputies. The Chancellor and the Cabinet answered to the Reichstag, so they were reliant upon the continued support of the majority of deputies. Should they lose the support of the majority a vote of no confidence was sufficient for the President to dismiss the Chancellor and either call new elections or appoint an alternative Chancellor.
It was the Reichstag that debated issues and voted on proposed legislation. Once passed by the Reichstag the legislation would then be debated in the Reichsrat, the second German house of Parliament where it would be either ratified or rejected.
The Reichsrat was the second Parliamentary house. Each of the Regional governments could appoint members to this house. The numbers of members sent to this house by any state were roughly in proportion to the size of the state, though the constitution forbade any one state having more than two fifths of the representatives in the Reichsrat. This was to prevent larger states, Prussia for example, dominating proceedings. The Reichsrat had limited authority. It could not propose legislation nor could it amend it. Its function was to offer advice and it had the right to reject legislation that was approved by the Reichstag.
Each of the states that make up Germany retained its own State Parliament. These governments controlled education, operated the local police force and Judiciary and managed local affairs. Under the Weimar constitution several powers that had previously been held by the States now moved to central control, most notably control of the armed forces.
The constitution of the Weimar republic allowed the people to force a referendum on issues. In order to do this 10% of the electorate needed to sign a petition in favour of a proposal. Were the Reichstag to dismiss the proposal it then had to go to a referendum. This would allow the people to vote on the issue, answering a single question with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote.
The guarantee of rights
The constitution also had a section that guaranteed the basic rights of German citizens. In this section the constitution outlined the right to localised self-government, a ‘dignified existence for all people’, economic freedoms, religious freedom and freedom of the Trade Unions. These rights were not only guaranteed but also supported by the development of additional welfare measures such as unemployment benefits, sick pay and the establishment of labour exchanges.
The content of this page was originally written as an introduction to the constitution for AS Level students.