The Weimar constitution was drafted in 1919 and passed by the National Assembly in August that year. This constitution became the basis for the Weimar Republic’s troubled and often unstable political system. Amongst other things, the Weimar constitution created the national Reichstag, established the offices of the president and the chancellor and defined their powers. It also contained very generous protections for the rights and liberties of individual Germans.
The design of a new constitution began in late 1918, following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the collapse of the monarchy.
Though Ebert and his party were nominally socialist, the SPD leadership was dominated by moderates who favoured gradualism and progress rather than radical change.
Ebert also believed that transforming Germany into a representative democracy was important for the peace process. If the victorious Allies could see genuine and lasting signs of political reform in Germany, it would fare better in the ensuing peace treaty.
The National Assembly
In November 1918, Ebert and his cabinet decided to convene elections for a National Assembly. This body was to act as a temporary government and oversee the development of a new constitution and political system.
Elections for the National Assembly were held on January 19th 1919, a few days after the suppression of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin.
The SPD returned the most votes of any single party, its representatives filling 38 per cent of seats in the assembly. Other parties with significant representation included the Catholic Centre Party (20 per cent), the liberal German Democratic Party (18 per cent) and the right-wing German National People’s Party (11 per cent).
A new government
With Berlin still at risk of renewed violence, the National Assembly met in the town of Weimar on February 6th.
Within a week, the Assembly had formed a coalition government comprised of the SPD and other left-wing or liberal parties. Ebert was elected as the Weimar Republic’s first president with Philipp Scheidemann as his chancellor.
The Weimar National Assembly convened for almost 18 months. During this time, it completed two major tasks: the drafting of the Weimar constitution and the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles. Neither proved easy or popular with the German people.
The new constitution
The broad framework for a constitution came from Hugo Preuss, a little-known lawyer rushed into Scheidemann’s cabinet as minister for the interior.
Preuss suggested a political system modelled on that of the United States. It would be federalist but must ensure the continuation of a single German nation; it would be democratic but would contain strong executive powers for dealing with emergencies.
Above all, the new constitution would be liberal. It would contain strong protections for the rights and liberties of the individual.
The draft constitution was finalised in August 1919, passed by the National Assembly and signed into law by Ebert. Some of its key features were:
Federalism. The Weimar constitution recognised the 17 German states and allowed for their continuation. Law-making power would be shared between the federal Reichstag and state Landtags. The national government would have exclusive power in areas of foreign relations, defence, currency and some other areas.
The Reichstag. The national parliament (Reichstag) would be elected at least every four years. All German citizens aged 20 or above – regardless of status, property or gender – were permitted to vote in Reichstag elections. All elections would utilise the secret ballot. Reichstag deputies would be chosen using a system of proportional representation, meaning candidates and parties were allocated seats based on the proportion of their votes received.
The Chancellor. The broad equivalent of a prime minister, the Chancellor would be responsible for leading the government of the day. Chancellors would be appointed and dismissed by the President and would assemble a cabinet of ministers. The Chancellor did not have to be a sitting member of the Reichstag (though they needed support within the Reichstag to pass legislation).
The President. The German President would be elected by the people to serve a seven-year term. The President was the German head of state and was not part of the Reichstag. In principle, the president was not intended to exercise power or personal prerogatives. Article 48 of the constitution, however, granted extensive presidential powers in the event of an ’emergency’. This allowed the president to override the Reichstag and rule by decree, to suspend civil rights and to deploy the military.
Was Germany ready?
This constitution made the Weimar Republic one of the most democratic and liberal political systems of its time. It provided for universal suffrage, contained a limited bill of rights and offered a proportional method of electing the Reichstag.
Giving such an expansive liberal democracy to a people who had previously known only rigid monarchic and aristocratic rule, however, was to prove problematic. This view was expressed by historian Klaus Fischer, who considered it “doubtful whether such a democratic constitution could work in the hands of a people that was neither psychologically nor historically prepared for self-government”.
Even Hugo Preuss, the man who drafted much of the constitution, wondered aloud whether such a progressive system should be given to a people who “resisted it with every sinew of its body.”
A historian’s view:
“There were flaws. The constitution had no stirring preamble that laid out a vision of a democratic Germany. The proportional voting system contributed mightily to the political fragmentation of Weimar. The electoral law that followed [the constitution] authorised representation in the Reichstag for every party with 60,000 votes. The powers granted to the president in emergency situations were too extensive. But the flaws in the constitution had less to do with the political system it established than with the fact that German society was so fragmented. A less divided society, and one with a more expansive commitment to democratic principles, could have made it work.”
Eric D. Weitz
1. In early 1919, the German National Assembly met in the city of Weimar to form a new government, since street-fighting made Berlin unsafe.
2. This National Assembly formed a new government under Ebert and Schiedemann and approved one of the most liberal constitutions in the world.
3. The constitution replaced the king with a president, who was not part of the Reichstag but could exercise emergency powers.
4. The Reichstag was retained as a parliamentary body, though its electoral system was changed and based on proportional representation.
5. The German government was headed by a chancellor, who was appointed by the president. The chancellor nominated a cabinet of ministers and was responsible for steering legislation through the Reichstag.