Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin

Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic, Berlin
Hannah Höch, "Cut with the Kitchen Knife Through the Beer Belly of the Weimar Republic," Berlin

Saturday, March 21, 2015

3/21 The Weimar Republic

"Metropolis," Otto Dix, 1928
The reading for today's class is the Constitution of the German Reich. http://www.zum.de/psm/weimar/weimar_vve.php. Every modern state has a constitution or a document that outlines the structure of the government and the rights of the citizens. Before explaining more the constitution I would like to explain briefly why the breakdown of democracy in Germany is significant, as well as give a brief history of the republic, before finishing up with an analysis of the constitution itself.

The short life of the Weimar Republic has been studied as a key example in the breakdown of democratic government. Political science strives to find the causes of stability in government, and this includes studying examples of governments that have turned into dictatorships. However, there is probably no example of another government whose self-destruction has had such far-reaching and devastating consequences for the rest of the world.

Although it is agreed that the immediate cause of the later Nazi-takeover was set into motion by the Great Depression which began in late 1929, and hit Europe hard the following year, it is hard to imagine such a drastic and radical change happening to a major country without several factors that contributed to this. Most political scientists and sociologists focus on the weakness of the political institutions of the republic. Specifically, the political party system which featured several parties but failed to attract many supporters including the Nazi party early on. The only political party that continued to have significant mass support was the Social Democratic Party, SPD party. However, as discussed, the SPD had seriously comprised itself by supporting the war effort in 1914 and then brutally suppressing communists in 1918 and the following winter. When the depression came, the SPD once again failed to act decisively in the interests of its people and largely looked on helplessly as the depression reduced workers to poverty, mostly engaged in the ritualistic behaviors of parliamentary parties with the equally ineffective liberal and conservative parties. The weakness of the establishment made it easier for an "outside" group like the Nazi party to establish itself with disaffected voters who were frustrated with the political system.

These voters were mostly from the middle and upper classes in both the cities and rural areas, and across religious lines. Political thinkers since Plato and even the American founders like Madison had conventionally assumed that popular uprising of the poor were most likely to bring about dictatorships. Yet, research into the voting habits of people in the last days of the republic clearly shows that it was the bourgeois, the middle and upper classes, and the petit bourgeois, the lower middle classes that provided the most electoral support to the Nazis. The working classes on the other hand remained loyal to the SPD which were the only credible opposition to the Nazis.

The lack of support for establishment parties are one reason why the Nazis appealed to the middle and upper classes, but certain cultural factors are also important. For one, the Nazis appealed to a sense of "community" which was traditional and appealed to a sentimental image of German history, and which was also highly nationalistic and pro-German. This imagery was in sharp contrast to the radical rhetoric of the SPD, even though in reality it had abandoned its radical stance and become part of the establishment. Many have argued that bourgeois classes had a kind of "paranoia" about the socialists, perhaps stemming from the relative strength of the SPD compared to other parties. The Nazis from the beginning also employed a version of "syndicalist tactics" stressing direct action, and often utilizing violence and terror. These brutal tactics were applauded by many paranoid bourgeois who were happy to see people brutalized by the Nazis, even if many times it was their own supporters instead of socialists and communists.

Finally, the Nazis were more than capable organizers and many were drawn to their blood drenched efficiency. It was not simply a question of violence, Nazis were able to organize themselves and this took effect most dramatically at the local level. The idea of civil society has become an important part in explaining how democracies maintain themselves. This belief goes back at least to the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville who observed this in the U.S. in the early 19th century. Tocqueville remarked that it was the loose network of voluntary groups and organizations that gave Americans the skills and habits necessary to maintain democratic government. This idea became influential again during the last days of the Cold War in 1989 and after when it was believed that civil society groups played the biggest role in bringing down the communist dictatorships. It has become something of conventional wisdom in political science that civil society is necessary for a well-functioning democratic government. Yet, a puzzle is raised when you look at Germany during this period of time because the Weimar republic had a very active and developed civil society, although separated by class divisions. In fact, just the opposite seems to happen, civil society here becomes the training ground for the later Nazi takeover, many of whom are very active in civil society before joining the party, and were very active at the local level before the takeover of the state. It is important to point out that after the Nazi takeover, they made sure to suppress almost all private organizations, or to "fuse" civil society with the party, so that everything from athletic clubs to chess clubs and music clubs had to become "Nazified" and all competing organizations like trade unions were destroyed in favor of Nazi sponsored organizations. In most cases the tendency was to fuse several different organizations into one centralized organization, for to example to combine all athletic clubs of differing classes and religion into one Nazified athletic club. This created what William Sheridan Allen refers to as the "atomization of society" meaning that deprived of the support network of civil society the individual in Nazi Germany was rendered helpless against the state by first being isolated.

These are some of the leading causes to explain the breakdown of democracy in Germany, and in a more general sense can be seen as factors that would weaken any democratic government: lack of political legitimacy, aggressive nationalism, a culture of paranoia and violence, a civil society that tolerates and encourages authoritarian behavior, class divisions, and an economic environment that creates resentment and desperation. For the rest of the lecture I will try to explain briefly the history of the Weimar republic and the structure of its government under the constitution.

This is the period of time in which the artistic and cultural texts we have looked at were produced like Hesse's Siddhartha. If Expressionism was pre-war Germany, and Dadaism was during the war itself and lasting till about 1919-1920, then New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) was characteristic of the 1920s till the rise of the Nazis. The 1920s was also the beginning of expressionist cinema as well with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. 

The history of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) is usually divided into three periods. A period of crisis (1919-1923); a short “golden age,” a period of stabilization (1924-1929); and a second crisis with the onset of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism (1929-1933). 

Weimar is the name of a small town in Germany famous for  German culture and civilization and the symbolic capital of the new republic. It was a cultural center and the home of some of Germany’s most respected writers such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), and Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). After his mental breakdown in 1889, Nietzsche lived out rest of his life in Weimar under the care of his sister who began to consciously build a cult of personality around her brother. Later the Nazis would build one of the largest concentration camps, Buchenwald, outside Weimar, thus forever perverting the cultural lineage of the town.

I. The first period of time deals with the immediate aftermath of the revolution in Germany; the aftermath of the war to which Germany is held responsible; and to the severe economic stress placed upon the country following the war. The major problem during this time was dealing with inflation which is when prices increase usually because the value of the money declines or the demand for goods increases. Hyperinflation is a particularly extreme example of this process. The value of paper money in 1923 was worth roughly 1 trillion (!) for every one goldmark in Germany (the value of the currency in gold).

      The inscription reads: 
"On 1st November 1923 1 pound of bread cost 3  billion
1 pound of meat 36 billion
1 glass of beer 4 million."


Governments in debt often times are forced to print more money to spend their way out of immediate problems or to pay off debts which only increases inflation. In Germany’s case this began in 1914 when the decision was made (unopposed) to pay for the costs of the war by borrowing money, not by raising taxes or other means of increasing government revenue. Also important to consider are the exchange rates between states, or the value of your currency relative to another states' currency. Prior to the war the only institution regulating this was the "gold standard," which each state agreed to value their money in relation to gold thus setting a standard by which to compare the value of currency in each state. For example if $1000 was equal to an ounce of gold and 500 German marks were equal to an ounce of gold then, one German mark would be equal to two dollars, this would then allow you to determine the value of goods in America that you could purchase from Germany. In other words, trade between countries is almost impossible without exchange rates, and unstable exchange rates will hurt trade. During the war and after the gold standard was severely disrupted as states took their country off the gold standard thus creating uncertainty and unpredictability in each nation's money supply.

The already high levels of debt from the beginning of the war only magnified the problems faced after the war. Many believe this period of inflation (or hyper-inflation in this case) was a direct cause of the rise of Nazism. Hitler was known to blame the high levels of debt as signs of the incompetence of the democratic government, as well as channeling resentment against bankers which was seen as a “Jewish” profession, some referred to the worthless German money as “Jewish confetti.”

Violent political demonstrations are common during this period of time, including several failed attempts at taking over the institutions of the state, known by the French term "coup d'etat," including one led by Adolph Hitler in 1923, which fails and ends in his arrest.

II. The so-called golden period began after Germany began to get some control over its inflation problems. During this time the economy improves and cultural life begins to come to life again. This period of time is really the height of the post-Dada period and "New Objectivity," Bauhaus, Expressionist cinema, as well as German nightclubs or cabarets such as the fictional one like the Blue Angel (a real Blue Angel eventually opened in Paris) or the real ones with Josephine Baker. 

The stability of this period can partly be explained because after trying several forms of money, the Germans were able to make one that was relatively stable, the Rentemark and afterwards the Reichsmark (understanding why is fairly technical but it has to due with valuing the currency against certain kinds of stable bonds and creating "confidence" in the currency, money only has value to the extent people "believe" that it does).

U.S. policy in the early 20s contributed to inflation in Germany. After the war Germany had to make reparations payments to Britain and France. At the same time, Britain and France had to pay back loans to the U.S. during the war. In other words Germany had to pay Britain and France (increasing the money supply) so they in turn could pay the U.S. It was because the U.S. insisted on this policy even when its damaging consequences were known that contributed to the high inflation in Germany, and to a global economic recession in the 1920s.

Eventually, the U.S. backed Dawes Plan was also put into effect in 1924. This helped ease the burden of war reparations, especially after French troops occupied parts of Germany in 1923 to enforce reparations payments. The plan provided for the withdrawal of foreign troops; gave Germany money from the U.S.; and also tied the German economy to the world economy especially the U.S. (for example the film industry and also banking). This provided relief for a few years, but because of its connections to the U.S. economy, when the Great Depression hit, Germany was effected especially harshly. This more or less set into motion the chain of events that led to Hitler’s rise to power. 

However, even during the relatively stable period between 1924-1929, there were deeper problems under the surface. For one, the government had trouble finding support, there were extremists on both the right and left neither of whom regarded the government as legitimate. Throughout the 1920s (although declining between 1924-1929) street battles become increasingly common between Communists and Nazis, both of whom are becoming increasingly militarized in their organizations.

The Frankfurt School claims authoritarianism was developing just below the surface of society, as revealed in films we have looked at: the choice between chaos and tyranny, the choice always resolved in favor of tyranny. The Weimar state was founded through violence. The undeniable reality of this fact of violence undermined democratic government, and showed the willingness to turn towards tyranny. Despite all this, under better economic conditions, the appearance of stability and order was put forward, if never a real consensus, but even this fragile appearance was demolished by the Great Depression.

III. In 1929 the Great Depression began triggered by the collapse of the U.S. stock market. The full effects of the Depression did not hit Germany until 1930-31, this set into motion the chain of events that led to rise of the Nazi party–we will come back to this in a couple of weeks.

On face value, the Weimar Republic was supposed to be one of the most progressive and most democratic forms of government ever created. Its Constitution was considered the best Constitution written at that time. It's chief architect was Hugo Preuß a progressive German-Jewish lawyer and politician. The obvious point of comparison is the U.S. Constitution and the comparisons are revealing. First, both Constitutions display a similar basic structure although in a different order they outline the powers and responsibilities of: the Legislative, the Executive, and Judicial branches of government; the relationship between the individual states and the federal government (Germany was and is a federal government like the U.S.). The German constitution contains additional sections outlining the details of Legislation and Administration which are lacking in the U.S. Constitution and is much longer overall than the U.S. Constitution 

There is also an additional branch of government, the Reichsrat, which represents the individual states.  In the U.S. members of Congress are selected from the states and represent those states. In Germany legislators elected to the German parliament, the Reichstag, do NOT represent the states they come from, they represent all of Germany, and are thus less responsive to regional areas. This is because of the methods of voting used. 

At this time, the Germans used Proportional Representation (PR) which means that seats are given in the legislature based on the total percentage of votes won by the party, for example, 40% of the vote equals 40% of the seats in the Reichstag. This makes the representatives less responsive and less dependent on local voters, but it also reduces “wasted votes.” Votes are wasted when they are unnecessary for the candidate to win.

In a proportional system those votes would be counted towards the overall percentage of votes for that party, distributed nation-wide. Unlike the electoral system in the U.S. votes are not really cast for individual candidates, instead political parties usually publish a list of candidates, more votes for the party equals more people selected from the list which follows a set order. The downside is voters have less control over choosing individuals for office. Proportional voting systems tend to have multiple political parties competing instead of two. This increases the tendency for minority groups to have a voice in politics, but this is a double-edged sword because it also allowed the Nazis to come to power despite never gaining more than about 30% of the vote. 

The Reichsrat was created to allow each state in Germany to elect their own representatives, thus balancing out the Reichstag who are not tied to any specific state or province in Germany. As we will see in next week's lecture, before there was a state called "Germany" there was a network of city-states and small kingdoms that shared a common German culture. This history of independence translates into a political system where there is a large degree of regional autonomy, and this autonomy is registered in the Reichsrat.

The President under the Constitution is granted extensive powers. He serves a seven year term instead of four as in the U.S. system and can still run for re-election. The Reichpresident is granted control over the armed forces and over foreign affairs and has the power to appoint Ministers of government and the Chancellor who oversees the various ministries (Finance, War, Foreign Affairs, Education, etc). The U.S. presidential system has no equivalent to a Chancellor, and so the German system can be called "semi-presidential." In the U.S. Constitution, the Senate has to approve of all presidential nominations. This is a power not given to the Reichstag, although they can force ministers to resign on a vote. Article 48 of the constitution gives the president the power to suspend civil liberties in times of crisis. This was the legal pretext the Nazis used to turn Germany into a dictatorship, however it was originally invoked by the government before the Nazis took power, they simply continued the "state of emergency." 

There were only two Reichpresidents: Fredrich Ebert, leader of the SPD during the revolution of 1918, who authorized the violent suppression of protestors using returning soldiers and militias and Paul von Hindenburg (one of the leading members of the Supreme Command during the war). Adolph Hitler eventually became the Chancellor, appointed by the President in 1933, and charged with overseeing the day to day operations of government. After Hindenburg's death in 1934 Hitler fused both offices together creating his new title as the Fürher (Leader in German).

The second section of the Constitution like the U.S. Bill of Rights but also longer lays out the rights of German citizens. Unlike the Bill of Rights which were added as constitutional amendments, the more extensive rights outlined here are part of the original document. Voting is a right given to everyone over the age of 20. Minority rights and other protections not in the U.S. Constitution are given here such as Article 113: 
Reich communities speaking a foreign language may not be deprived by legislation of their national identity, especially in the use of their mother language in education, in local administration and jurisdiction.

Some social rights seem strange in an American context because of the American idea of “limited government” like Article 119 which provides Constitutional protection for marriage and motherhood: 

Marriage, as the foundation of the family and the preservation and expansion of the nation enjoys the special protection of the constitution. It is based on the equality of both genders. It is the task of both the state and the communities to strengthen and socially promote the family. Large families may claim social welfare. Motherhood is placed under state protection and welfare. 

Or regarding education. The U.S. Constitution does not provide for a right to education. In contrast to this, the Weimar Constitution not only provides a right to education but specifies in detail what this right entails like Article 146:

Public schooling has to be organized organically. Middle and high schools are based on an elementary school common for everybody. For the organization of the school system the variety of occupations, for the acceptance of a child into a school his talent and inclination, but not the economic and social position nor the religious confession of his parents are authoritative.Within the communities, at the request of Erziehungsberechtigten (legal guardian), Volksschulen (primary school) of their confession or world outlook have to be established, if this does not obstruct the regular operation of the school. The wish of those Erziehungsberechtigter has, when possible, to be considered. Further details are specified by state legislation, according to principles laid down in a Reich law.Reich, states and communities have to provide funds to allow poor children access to middle and high schools, to grant financial aid to parents, whose children are regarded qualified for the education on middle and high schools, until their education is ended.

However, the increased intervention of the state in matters like education does lead to a nationalist tendency in education, such as Article 148:

All schools have to work towards ethical education, patriotic spirit, personal and occupational fitness in the spirit of German nationality and international understanding. In the instruction at public schools it has to be taken into consideration not to hurt the feelings of dissenters. Civics and teaching by doing are school subjects. Every pupil, upon graduation, will be given a copy of the constitution. Secondary education, including Volkshochschulen (general education schools open to everyone) have to be promoted by Reich, states, and communities

The Weimar Constitution is also distinctive in that it creates economic rights for the citizens also not stated in the U.S. Constitution such as Article 151 (economic justice) 

Article 159 (the right to form labor unions)  

Article 161: “In order to maintain health and the ability to work, in order to protect motherhood and to prevent economic consequences of age, weakness and to protect against the vicissitudes of life the Reich establishes a comprehensive system of insurances, based on the critical contribution of the insured.”

After the Nazis took power in 1933, the Constitution, although never formally abolished, was suspended and all political and civil rights were taken removed.

Next class we look in more detail how German liberalism and their ideas of politics changed after the war and revolution, and which still influence political science in the present today.

Assignment (Due 3/28): Please choose TWO sections from the Weimar Constitution  one from the first part on the structure of government, (Art. 1-108) and a second from the section on rights (Art 109-181). Write out the passages, interpret the meaning of them, then explain why you chose these passages.

Juan Linz, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Crisis, Breakdown, and Reequilibration, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978
Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes: Europe, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978
Rudolf Heberle, From Democracy to Nazism: A Regional Case Study on Political Parties in Germany, Louisiana State University Press, 1945
William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945, Franklin Watts, 1984 [1965]
Sheri Berman, "Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic," World Politics, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Apr. 1997) pp. 401-29
Thomas Ertman, "Democracy and Dictatorship in Interwar Western Europe Revisited," World Politics, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Apr. 1998) pp. 475-505


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  2. Article 19Regarding constitution disputes within a state, where no court is responsible to deal with, as well as in disputes of non-private matter between various states or between a state and the Reich, the Reich state court, at the request of one party, decides in the name of the Reich, unless another Reich court is responsible.
    The Reich president executes decisions of the Reich state court.

    This article is stating that anytime a conflict within a state regarding the constitution or any public disputes between more than one state or between a state and the Reich, if there isn't a Reich representative available to deal with said issue the Reich state court decides what action will be taken only if one of the two opposing parties request assistance with dealing with the conflict. The President then executes the decision of the Reich State Court. This shows the power the President has as although the court has rendered a decision, it isn't official until the president finalizes it.

    Article 109All Germans are equal in front of the law.
    In principle, men and women have the same rights and obligations.
    Legal privileges or disadvantages based on birth or social standing are to be abolished.
    Noble titles form part of the name only; noble titles may not be granted any more.
    Titles may only be granted, if they indicate an office or occupation; academic degrees are not affected by this regulation.
    The state may no more bestow orders and medals.
    No German may accept titles or orders from a foreign government.

    I interpret article 109 to be stating that as according to the "law" all Germans have the same rights and duties. If there are any advantages or disadvantages or mistreatment Taken place based upon an individual's birth or social status, it must be terminated immediately. Individuals are no longer allowed to carry noble names unless they represent an government official or nod.any special titles acquired through education may be used. Germans are limited to orders and titles within German territory.
    This article is similar to the equal rights of the people we have in the U.S. U.S titles are also limited to governmental office and education.

  3. "It is the Reich's responsibility to take possession of all nautical marks,
    especially lighthouses, light vessels, buoys, tons and beacons and to organize their administration and maintenance. After the takeover, nautical marks may only be produced and/or expanded by the Reich or with its approval".

    After the German renunciation in World War I, a new constitution was drawn with the purpose of a democratic government Weimar’s. Article 101 explains Reich’s administration, and the method that he used during this period. The Germany was governed under the new constitution. It was based on who have the power and how this power was to be used.

  4. According to Article 109 all German are equal before the law. It does not matter their gender, both have privileges and duty. Noble people were the people that come from hereditary class with high social or political status. Also known as aristocratic, but based on this session a titles doesn’t mean nothing. According to the law, it does not matter if the person is lowers or high class, all German have the same rights. The constitution promises all German equality and political, and religion of freedom.

    1. Great explanation. You have added more insight for me once again. Side note, where is class being held today. I am in Carmen Hall at room 126, please save me, lok

    2. I sorry Keisha, but I just saw the massage now