Weimar Constitution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Weimar Constitution gave the German people the opportunity to create their own form of government after the monarchy was overthrown.

Summary of Event

On November 9, 1918, after massive uprisings within all major cities and two days before the armistice ending World War I World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period was signed, Germany was proclaimed a Socialist republic by revolutionary Karl Liebknecht. In immediate response, Philipp Scheidemann, a moderate Socialist, proclaimed a non-Socialist republic to forestall these more radical designs. In this situation of often chaotic political struggle, exhausted by four years of warfare, the German Empire created in 1871 by Otto von Bismarck came to an end. William II, the last emperor of Germany, fled to Holland, where he formally renounced his throne on November 28. Weimar Constitution Weimar Republic Germany;Weimar Constitution [kw]Weimar Constitution (July 31, 1919) [kw]Constitution, Weimar (July 31, 1919) Weimar Constitution Weimar Republic Germany;Weimar Constitution [g]Germany;July 31, 1919: Weimar Constitution[04800] [c]Government and politics;July 31, 1919: Weimar Constitution[04800] Liebknecht, Karl Scheidemann, Philipp Ebert, Friedrich Maximilian Preuss, Hugo

Maximilian, prince of Baden, the last chancellor of the German Empire, turned over the government to the moderate Majority Socialists, led by Friedrich Ebert and Philipp Scheidemann. As the new chancellor, Ebert created a directorate of six men, three Majority Socialists and three radical Independent Socialists, to govern the country until a constituent assembly could be elected. Elections for the National Assembly took place on January 19, 1919, after radical workers had been suppressed and left-wing Socialists Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg Luxemburg, Rosa had been murdered. Although many radicals boycotted the elections, more than 80 percent of the population voted. The results indicated that most Germans were in favor of a republican form of government, as the parties committed to the establishment of a republic won more than three-fourths of the total vote.

The National Assembly met in Weimar on February 6, 1919, to ratify the peace treaty and thereafter to proceed to the drafting of a constitution. As early as November 15, 1918, Hugo Preuss, a professor of constitutional law and well known as a liberal jurist, had been appointed as secretary of the interior, and he presented his draft of the constitution to the National Assembly on February 24, 1919. After three days of general debate, the draft was referred to a constitutional committee, which held about forty sessions from March to July to examine each article of the constitution. The assembly adopted the constitution on July 31, and it went into effect on August 11, 1919.

The new constitution set up a liberal democratic regime in Germany. Many ideas within it were borrowed from the constitutions of Western European nations and the United States, but it also preserved much of the Bismarckian constitution as a gesture to placate conservatives. For example, the word Reich, with all its imperial associations, was retained to designate “the Republic” as distinguished from individual Lander, or states. As later events would prove, this compromise neither appeased those on the extreme right nor satisfied those on the radical left.

The constitution created the office of Reichsprasident, which was filled through election by the people for seven years with the possibility of reelection. The Majority Socialists opposed the creation of a strong presidency because they feared that the office might be used as a vehicle for the restoration of monarchy, as had happened in France with Napoleon III. At their insistence, the German president’s powers were weakened to the extent that the president had to have all orders countersigned by the chancellor. The chancellor was appointed by the president.

The constitution also established a bicameral legislature consisting of the Reichstag, representing the people, and the Reichsrat, representing the states. Members of the Reichstag were to be elected for four years by secret, direct, universal suffrage and according to proportional representation. As the expression of the will of the people and the sovereign legislative power, the Reichstag initiated and enacted laws, subject to a suspensive veto. The president’s cabinet was made responsible to the Reichstag.

In the Reichsrat, each state was to have at least one member, but no state could control more than two-fifths of the membership. The Reichsrat could also initiate legislation, and, if it disapproved of a bill passed by the Reichstag, it could return the measure to that body. The Reichstag, however, could override such a veto by a two-thirds vote.

The German president, whose powers stood somewhere between those of the strong American president and those of the weak French president, had the authority to dissolve the Reichstag and call for new elections, but only a single time for a given cause. If the president did not want to enact a law passed by the Reichstag, he could call for a referendum of the people on the matter.

Significance

No part of the constitution caused more controversy than Article 48, which was a provision giving the president the power to suspend temporarily the fundamental civil rights guaranteed by the constitution in any emergency that threatened public safety and order. Because of the fear of social revolution in Germany after the war, the framers of the constitution considered this article necessary to prevent the young republic from being overthrown by revolutionaries. Intended to prevent left-wing radicals from taking power as they had in Russia, this article later enabled Adolf Hitler Hitler, Adolf to become dictator. The constitution’s creators made the mistake of thinking that, as the Reichstag could demand the termination of such measures, the actions of the president were ultimately controlled by the Reichstag.

Although Preuss’s original draft had undergone considerable modification by the time the document was adopted, in its final form the constitution met Preuss’s basic aim: the establishment of a parliamentary, liberal, democratic government. As this new republic left untouched the traditional sources of power—the army, big business, and the courts—the high hopes of the Weimar Republic were to remain unfulfilled. In little more than a decade, this liberal government was overthrown and replaced by the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. Weimar Constitution Weimar Republic Germany;Weimar Constitution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caldwell, Peter C. Popular Sovereignty and the Crisis of German Constitutional Law: The Theory and Practice of Weimar Constitutionalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997. Presents analysis of the debates concerning political theory and constitutional law that took place in the Weimar Republic. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eyck, Erich. A History of the Weimar Republic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962. Critical of the voting system established by the constitution and chides the Social Democrats for being too theoretical, particularly in the case of extending the right to vote.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Halperin, S. William. Germany Tried Democracy. 1946. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1965. Among the best political histories on the Weimar Republic available in English. Analysis of the Weimar Constitution points out that it furthered the trend toward administrative centralization that had begun before 1918.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mommsen, Hans. From Weimar to Auschwitz. Translated by Philip O’Connor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Collection of essays brilliantly explores various aspects of the Weimar Republic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Rise and Fall of Weimar Democracy. Translated by Elborg Forster and Larry Eugene Jones. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Examines the period of the Weimar Republic from the perspective of Germany’s political and economic history. Includes select bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peukert, Detlev J. The Weimar Republic. New York: Hill & Wang, 1989. Places the Weimar Republic in a larger European context and examines the significance of antimodern reactions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenberg, Arthur. A History of the German Republic. 1936. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. Probably the best Marxist account of the Weimar Republic.

Germans Revolt and Form a Socialist Government

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Reichstag Fire

Enabling Act of 1933

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