The Weimar Constitution

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The Weimar Constitution

15th Nov 1918 - 8 liberal lawyers and democrat Hugo Preuss was appointed Secretary of State in the Ministry of the Interior with the responsibility for drawing up a new constitution for Germany.
Preuss attempted to build on the traditions of German politics as well as balance power between the different institutions of the state.
After much discussion - the Weimar Constitution was adopted - 31 July 1919

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What were the main features of the constitution?

The new Reich was to be a federation of 18 regional states known as 'Lander'. Each land was to have its own parliament. 
The President was elected on a 7 year tenure. 
The constitution created the Reich (state) as a parliamentary democracy with the Reich Chancellor + the cabinet needing majority support in the Reichstag. 
The new central parliament was made up of 2 houses:The upper house - the Reichsrat - had the power to delay laws. It's members were chosen by the parliament of the Lander. 
The lower house - the Reichstag - to be elected every 4 years.
It was decided that the Reichstag would be elected by proportional representation: 

  • Each party contesting an election would draw up a list of candidates and the electorate would vote for a list rather than for a specific candidate. 
  • Every party in the Reichstag recieved 1 seat for every 60,000 votes 
  • All men and woman over the age of 20 could vote 
  • The system was very different to the previous electoral voting - its introduction was supported by all main parties - SPD argued it was the fairest system 
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Did the constitution weaken the Republic?.. Yes

Proportional Representation: source of weakness for Republic
Argument for: based on the idea that the constitution was flawed + its mean features e.g. proportional representation parliamnetary government and civil liberties - not widely accepted.
The constitution was the product of compromise between the most successful parties in Jan 1919 elections i.e. SPD, Centre Party, DDP. However, at no election did these 3 parties poll even close to the number of votes they achieved in 1919. 
One might argue that the constitution's base was narrow and unrepresentative. 

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Did the constitution weaken the Republic?.. No

Argument against:
The weimar constitution reflected a broader spectrum of political opinion than the initial coalition that put it together would suggest - i.e. SPD said it was the fairest way to vote. 
It even included those on the nationalist right such as the DNVP. 
It reflected successful constitutional practise at the time and had built into it check and balances, that, if used carefully might have helped create some semblance of political sability. 
The problem of the new constitution was not its design - but its misuse bu the new state's opponents. 

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The importance of proportional representation

  • Proportional representation (PR) led to coalition governments which rose and fell with spectacular consistency. In the period until 1923, a series of miniority governments failed to establish themselves. 
  • The introduction of PR was accepted by most across the political spectrum. It was ideal to which the SPD were committed. However- for many of their political opponents it was the means by which the socialists could be prevented from having total control. 
  • Parties in pre-1914 were more represented by sectional interest - for example, Centre Party gained much of the catholic vote. PR allowed these sectional interests to continue to be represented - an important factor for stability in such uncertain times.
  • The coalition governments failed because parties didnt operate effectively. This was particularly the case with the SPD, whose leaders found it difficult to break the habit of opposition and accept compromise offered by new Weimar. 
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Executive powers and Article 48

  • Between 1919-23, the checks+balances written into the constitution acted to strengthen the political system. 
  • By insisting the President was elected every 7 years and by the people, as well as having the power to dismiss the gov and disband the Reichstag - they created a counterbalance to any potential 'elected parliamentary dictatorship'
  • The excessive use of Article 48 by President Hindenburg from 1930 onwards focused attention on the excessive powers granted to the Reich's President by the constitution, instead of being used to create political continuity. 
  • President Ebert did use it for good to preserve the Republic: Nov 1923 - gave power to the army to put down the Munich Putsch. 
  • Article 48 both undermined the Weimar democracy, but also was used to allow governement flexibility to overcome problems facing the Republic 1919-23.
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A federal state

  • By building in checks + balances + a long list of civil rights, the constitution's authors attempted to prevent any one group/religion from dominating the republic. 
  • In recognising an element of regional authority - e.g. police, representaion of the Lander in Reichstrat - the constitution again reflected pre-1914 practice. 
  • For the political system to succeed - it was essential that it was recognised as legitimate by the majority of the population. 
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