Reichstag, 24 June 1920
The Weimar Constitution: A Primer
The Reichstag
The Presidency
The Reichsrat
Civil Rights
The Electoral System
Advantages and Disadvantages

Image: The ceremonial inauguration of the first elected Reichstag, 24 June 1920. Image source: 
Deutsches Historisches Museum/LEMO.

The most important thing to grasp about the political system of the “Weimar Republic” (1919-1933) was its parliamentary structure. In a presidential system such as the United States’, the chief executive (the President) is elected directly by those qualified to vote (all citizens of at least 18 years of age). As a result, the American President holds his/her own mandate from the people, albeit indirectly through the electoral college, and this mandate is independent of those held by members of Congress. Similarly, the executive and legislative powers are kept strictly distinct in a presidential system. Finally, in most presidential systems the chief executive and the ceremonial head of state are one and the same person—the president.

Parliamentary systems usually separate the functions of “chief executive” and “head of state”. In Britain, for example, the chief executive is the Prime Minister, the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II. In the Weimar Republic, the chief executive was the Reichskanzler (Chancellor), while the head of state was the Reichspräsident (President). In both Britain and the Weimar Republic, the functions of a “head of state” are largely ceremonial. Also, in parliamentary systems the people do not elect the chief executive directly; instead the parliament elects the chief executive. In the Weimar Republic, this legislature was the Reichstag. Thus there is no strict distinction drawn in parliamentary systems between the legislative and executive branches of government: because the Chancellor (or Prime Minister) is elected by parliament, parliamentary elections determine who will hold the executive power. Rather, in parliamentary systems, the parliament is typically the source of all executive and legislative power. By the way, parliamentary systems have no need for an “impeachment” process: since the executive is dependent on the parliament anyway, all the parliament has to do is pass a vote of “no confidence,” the government falls, and there are new parliamentary elections.

The Reichstag
The central institution of the Weimar Republic as a political system was its parliament, the Reichstag, the supreme lawmaking body in nation. As in other parliamentary systems, the Reichstag held a monopoly over legislative power at the national level, and was the source of all executive authority.

  • Parliamentary elections came every four years, or whenever the Reichstag was dissolved. Only the “head of state” (the President) could dissolve the Reichstag, and that only under special circumstances.
  • As the source of executive authority, the Reichstag elected the Chancellor and his/her cabinet. In order to form a government, a party therefore had to have an absolute majority in the Reichstag. Otherwise, it had to form an alliance or coalition with other parties, which together constituted a majority in the Reichstag. Each party in such a coalition would then take over the operation of one or more ministries in the executive branch.
  • By the same token, the Reichstag had the power to dissolve the executive branch (the government) by a vote of “no confidence.”
  • As the source of all legislative power at the national level, all laws had to originate in the Reichstag—with one exception: The Weimar constitution of 1919 provided laws could be enacted by means of a popular referendum—a direct vote of the people. A national referendum could be held if
    • 10% of all qualified voters signed a petition that requested a national referendum on a particular law; or if
    • 5% of all qualified voters signed such a petition and the petition had the support of at least one third of all Reichstag members.
  • The idea behind this referendum clause was to prevent the possibility that the Reichstag’s legislative monopoly should ever contradict the will of the people; as it happened, though, national referenda were only used by anti-democratic or anti-Republican forces (including the Nazis).

The Presidency

As head of state, the President of the Weimar Republic continued some of the functions of the Emperor under Germany’s old imperial constitution (1871-1918). In contrast to the Emperor, however, the presidency was primarily a symbolic and ceremonial office, and in most respects the president’s powers were fewer than the Emperor’s had been.

  • The President was elected directly in a national election to a seven-year term; a presidential election could also be triggered when the incumbent died in office. This happened once, in 1925, at the death of Friedrich Ebert, the Republic’s first President (1919-1925). The second (and last) president was Paul von Hindenburg, who was elected in 1925 and re-elected in April 1932. He died during his second term in 1934. But by that time Hitler was already in power, and he never held an election to replace Hindenburg.
  • In addition to his role as head of state, the President also served as commander-in-chief of armed forces.
  • The President was empowered to dissolve the Reichstag and call new elections; he was also empowered to appoint the chancellor, once the chancellor had been elected by a majority vote in parliament. If no majority could be found for any candidate, the President had the power to appoint a chancellor of his own choosing.
  • In a state of national emergency, the Article 48 of the constitution empowered the President to suspend civil liberties and to usurp governments at the state level, in order to restore “public security and order”. Once he invoked Article 48, however, the President was required to inform the Reichstag of his actions; and the Reichstag had then had the option to uphold the suspension of civil liberties, or restore them.

The Reichsrat

In addition to the Reichstag, the Weimar constitution provided for a legislative body that would represent the constituent states of Germany, rather like the U.S. Senate does. This was the Reichsrat (“Federal Council of States”). In constitutional form, it was the most obvious continuation of the old imperial constitution of 1871. Basically, the Reichsrat was a representation of state governments and functioned as a kind of upper house.

  • But its powers were far fewer than those of the Reichstag: the Reichsrat could veto a law passed in the Reichstag, but only with a two-thirds majority. But it could not initiate any legislation. Much in contrast to the U.S. Senate, the Reichrat functioned as an advisory body.
  • Delegates to the Reichsrat did not represent the people and were not elected. Rather, the state governments appointed them.
  • But unlike the U.S. Senate—in which every state has two senators—not every state government had equal power in the Reichsrat. Rather, the constitution stipulated that every single state in Germany—all 17 of them—should have at least one vote; that no single state should have more than two-fifths of the total; and that within those parameters, there should be one vote for every million inhabitants. This produced the following voting strengths:
Thüringen, Hessen, and the city-state of Hamburg:2 each
All the rest :1 each

Civil Rights

The Weimar constitution was generous with civil rights. It provided for equality before the law, and stated explicitly that men and women have the rights and duties as citizens (to this day, the U.S. has refused to enshrine the equality of the sexes in its constitution). Above all, this clause guaranteed women the vote. In addition, the Weimar constitution guaranteed

  • The inviolable freedom of the individual (§114);
  • Freedom of speech “within the confines of the general laws” (§118);
  • Freedom of “peaceful and unarmed” assembly (§ 123);
  • Freedom of association (§124);
  • Freedom of religion (§135)

The Weimar constitution also provided social rights and protections that are not available under the American constitution:

  • Article 151 declared that the organization of economic life must be consistent with the principles of justice, “with the goal of providing a worthy human existence for all”; on the face of it, this came close to a constitutional guarantee of minimum income.
  • Article 153 guaranteed the inviolability of private property, adding that “private property imposes a duty” on its owner to use it “in the service of the common good.”
  • Article 156 allowed the government to expropriate and socialize private business enterprises;
  • Article 157 guaranteed workers and employees to sit on the governing boards of private businesses “in order to realize their social and economic interests.”

The Electoral System

The Weimar republics electoral system was one of the most democratic on record: its framers were committed to the principle of one person, one vote and to proportional representation. According to the national Franchise Law of 27 April 1920, the nation was divided into 35 electoral districts. In elections, there would be 1 candidate chosen to represent every 60,000 voters, not “inhabitants” or “citizens.” The emphasis on voters was significant: it meant that the total number of delegates to the Reichstag would always fluctuate with voter turn-out. Because under women and young people aged 20-25 now had the right to vote, the size of the electorate doubled from 14,441,436 in 1912 (the last pre-World War I election) to 30,400,000 in 1919!

Proportional Representation: The voting system was designed to reflect the wishes of the electorate as accurately as possible—hence proportional representation. The voting system used in the U.S. is very different: its “winner-take-all” rule guarantees that the wishes of the electorate are not reflected with any precision. Under the proportional system, if 51% voted for Social Democratic candidates, for example, and 49% voted for candidates from the Nationalist party, then ideally 51% of the representatives should be Social Democrats and 49% Nationalists. Such an election result in the American system would produce a 100% Social Democratic delegation.

Voting by ‘Party List’: To achieve this, the electoral system established voting by “Party List.” As an elector, you would vote for a party, not a specific candidate. Instead, candidates are presented on a party list, with the order of candidates determined by the party leadership in each district. After the voting was over, election officials would count up the “party list” votes. The first “bloc” of 60,000 votes would go to the first candidate on the party list, the second “bloc” of 60,000 to candidate number two, the third cluster to number three, and so on. Thus, one’s position on the list was all-important!

The National List: After the election officials were done assigning 60,000-vote “blocs” to candidates on the “party list,” there were usually a certain number of votes left over. These “extra” mandates could be combined with left-overs from other electoral districts to create additional 60,000-vote “blocs.” For this purpose, each party also had a “National List” of candidates, who by this method could be elected to the Reichstag from no place in particular, as it were. But there were some limitations on this practice. No party, for example, was allowed to have more representatives from elected from the national list than it had from the districts. Thus, to get a Reichstag candidate elected from its “National List,” a party had to get at least 60,000 votes in at least one district. But this was not especially difficult to achieve.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Like any electoral system, this one had advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the Weimar system was exceptionally good at achieving its intended goal: reflecting the political will of the people as accurately as possible. Similarly, it prevented the formation of absolute majorities in the Reichstag. This may seem like a mixed blessing, but consider that if Germany had had our “winner-take-all” system, Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP would have obtained an absolute majority already in the summer of 1932.

But there were effects that also undermined the system’s overall stability:

  • The Weimar Republic’s electoral system tended to elevate the party leadership to a dominant position and to reduce the independence of Reichstag delegates.
  • It also encouraged the proliferation of relatively narrow, “special interest” splinter parties, such as the “Hannovarian Party,” the “German Peasants’ Party,” the “Bavarian People’s Party,” the “Economics Party,” the “Christian-National Agrarians,” the “Christian-National Working Group,” the “Christian-Social People’s Service,” the “Conservative People’s Party,” the “Rural Folk,” etc., etc., etc.
  • The proliferation of splinter parties, in turn, made it harder to find a governing, majority coalition in the Reichstag.
  • One result of this was a pattern of was “revolving-door” governments: the average “life expectancy” of a German government between 1919 and 1932 was shockingly brief, only a matter of months. For example in the crisis year of 1923—when inflation reduced the value of German money to nil—there were no less than four governments!

By the same token, the Weimar Republic’s electoral system tended to weaken the personal bond between voters and their candidates. With no single-member constituencies, it was hard to know whom you were voting for. More and more, the system encouraged focussing political loyalties on parties, not people. And with candidates elected from the national list, the gap separating the electorate from their representatives was even greater. Finally, the Weimar Republic’s electoral system had an Achilles heal: like any democratic system, it was vulnerable to manipulation by anti-democratic parties, such as the Nazis, who from 1923 on sought to seize power through the ballot box.