The Weimar Reichstag was the German parliament or national assembly from 1919. During the Weimar period, the Reichstag was notorious for its high number of parties, its political division and instability and its ineffectiveness. Historians often cite these problems in the Reichstag as a major obstacle to good government in Weimar Germany.
Many voices, many divisions
Several problems emanated from the Weimar constitution adopted in August 1919. This constitution created a political system that was fundamentally democratic and allowed a multiplicity of voices and points-of-view.
This arrangement may have worked if there had been a national consensus about Germany’s political and economic future. The Weimar period was marked by difficult conditions and extreme political divisions, however, and the troubled Reichstag only reflected these divisions.
The Reichstag‘s most glaring problem was its plethora of divergent political parties. Their presence in the Reichstag was chiefly due to an electoral law, adopted in April 1920, that implemented a proportional system of voting.
Weimar electoral law
Under the 1920 electoral law, parties were awarded Reichstag seats not by winning an absolute majority but by reaching a quota, based on the proportion of votes cast. This system is known as proportional voting.
This voting system encouraged a wide variety of parties, including fringe or regional groups, to participate in national elections. As a consequence, Weimar-era ballot papers often contained more than 30 parties and candidates.
The ballot paper pictured above, from the 1928 election, contained 21. Among the parties listed are the German National People’s Party (DNVP, number one), the Centre Party (number three) and the National Socialists (NSDAP, number ten).
A multiplicity of parties
The proportional voting system not only encouraged smaller parties to participate but it also made it easier for them to win seats. In most Reichstag elections, around 60,000 votes, sometimes even less, was enough to win a seat in the national legislature.
In 1920, the tiny Bavarian Farmers’ League party won just over 200,000 votes – almost all from Bavaria – and was able to command four seats in the Reichstag.
As a result, the Reichstag became clogged with more than a dozen different parties from across the political spectrum. In the 1920 election, 11 different parties won Reichstag seats. By 1930, there were 14 different parties represented on the floor of the Reichstag.
Proportional voting and the abundance of parties it produced made it impossible for one or even two parties to ‘dominate’ the Reichstag. No party ever held a majority of seats in its own right. The closest any party came was the National Socialists (NSDAP) in July 1932, which won 37 per cent of seats.
The lack of a clear majority government in the Reichstag made executive government – that is, government by the president, the chancellor and his ministers – extremely difficult.
The nominal head of government was the chancellor, who led a cabinet of ministers. All were appointed by the president, who selected a cabinet he believed could steer laws through the Reichstag.
Passing legislation was necessary to govern effectively but getting bills through the Weimar Reichstag was difficult at the best of times and impossible at the worst.
The need for coalitions
The presence of so many parties in the Reichstag made a single-party majority government almost impossible. Instead, to form a majority government, the chancellor and his ministers had to organise coalitions (voting agreements between different parties).
There were several of these coalitions during the Weimar period. They were notoriously fragile and several coalitions collapsed. Some parties, like the National Socialists, refused to enter into coalitions at all.
Coalitions were continually being formed, tested by legislation, undermined by different views, fragmented, patched up and dissolved – only for the process to begin again. Parties fell out over issues and policies or found it difficult to set aside their ideological differences for any length of time.
As a result of this instability, the Weimar Reichstag was often paralysed by division and unable or unwilling to pass legislation. Most Weimar chancellors found it impossible to get much done.
When it seemed that a chancellor could no longer work with the Reichstag to pass legislation, there were two options: the chancellor could ask the president to pass emergency decrees or the president could replace him.
Between 1919 and 1933, the German chancellor was replaced 15 times. Each change required a new cabinet of ministers, new policies and often the formation of a new coalition. The Reichstag itself was hardly more stable: there were nine general elections held during the same fourteen-year period.
‘Golden Age’ politics
The period between 1924 and 1929 was one of fewer changes of government and improved economic conditions. This five-year period is often described as the ‘Golden Age of Weimar‘.
To the outsider, the mid to late 1920s seemed a brief period of stabilisation. Political violence and extremist rhetoric eased; domestic government functioned better than it had done in the early 1920s. Gustav Stresemann led reforms in foreign policy and international relations.
These outcomes disguised a lack of fundamental stability and cohesion, particularly within the Reichstag. Forming and maintaining coalition governments continued to be enormously difficult. The lack of trust between the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and centrist and right-wing parties remained the most significant obstacle to enduring coalitions.
A historian’s view:
“The Reichstag – that is, an assembly of close to 500 representatives of the most highly opposed political tendencies, split into six large and constant party groupings and a number of smaller and fluctuating groups. This Reichstag produces at best a simple majority, and then usually only at the cost of painful coalition and compromise. [It functions] only if the majority coalition, brought together to form a government, is able to convince a large enough part of the opposition of the necessity of legislation.”
1. The Weimar Republic is perhaps best known to historians for its political instability, such as its frequent changes of chancellor and ministers.
2. This instability was in part due to the proportional voting system adopted in 1919, which encouraged the presence of many parties in the Reichstag.
3. With no single party ever winning an absolute majority in the Reichstag, a national government was always formed by coalitions of several parties.
4. Chancellors were appointed by the president based on their ability to formulate laws and policies and steer them through the Reichstag, a most difficult task.
5. Coalition collapses and frequent changes in government eased in Germany after 1924, though the appearance of greater stability was superficial.