After World War I, the German nation and its people were devastated. The public was led to believe that Germany was going to win the war, and it looked forward to a much- improved socio-economic climate. Instead, the war was lost and the country was facing a very dreary future. As a result, the government established the Weimar Republic under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert, a past leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and a supporter of the war efforts. Some historians believe it was fate that Weimar Germany did not succeed. From the beginning the challenges were too great, the situation too grim and the individuals involved too unprepared. As a result, Weimar Germany had a short and bumpy ride that combined the best with the worst: Culturally, it remains one of Germany's most creative periods of time in art, literature and thought. Politically and economically, however, the country stayed in a state of disarray, opening up the door to someone who said he had all the answers.
The date was February 10, 1918: The recently elected National Constituent Assembly meeting in Weimar, Germany, faced its duty. It had to draw up a constitutional framework for a new system of government and social order and determine how to integrate that with the political and social institutions from pre-war days. This in itself was a difficult task. It was made all the more so because of the different factions who had come together to develop the plan. On the one hand, were those who favoured stability and on the other, those who were looking for a counter-revolution and supported the radical Rate (Soldiers' and Workers' Councils) movement1. The main purpose of the new constitution was to restyle the German government through the election of a parliament constituted on the basis of democracy and elected under universal suffrage by the German people.
The town of Weimar was not chosen, as some say, because of its association with well-known Germans such as Goethe, Schiller and Herder, in order to set a positive mood. Rather, this was meant as a strictly military move2. "Noske's advisors from the officers' corps calculated that Weimar was just the right size to be easily defended by a comparatively small contingent of Free Corps troops against any trouble-makers from the left-wing Soldiers and Workers' Councils."
Approximately 30 million voting-age Germans (of the total population of 62 million) had chosen 423 deputies to represent them at this gathering through the process of proportional representation, which the progressive had been advocating. "In fact, this system of proportional representation was to be one of the causes of the downfall of the parliamentary system of government in Weimar Germany"3. It led to a fragmented Germany party structure that eventually made it impossible to find a working majority.
To demonstrate this extent of differentiation, the following political groups and their biases were represented in the Weimar coalition: SPD; the German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei -- DDP), a descendant of the Progressive Party of the prewar period; and the Center Party. The republic received 76.2% of the vote, with 38% for the SPD alone, which suggested wide popular support. In contrast, the anti-republican, conservative German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei -- DNVP) and the German People's Party (Deutsche Volkspartei -- DVP) received a combined total of 10.3% of the vote. The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, which had split from the SPD during the war, won 8 percent4.
Even before it was actually formed, the Weimar Republic was being challenged. When a small group of Free Corps members under the command of Maercker went to Weimar early to set things up for the constitutional meeting, it was confronted and disarmed by the Soldiers and Workers' Council. In a very short time, the confrontation was over (ibid), but it proved that nothing would be smooth going.
The constitution followed the traditional imperial model, with a president elected by the assembly in place of the emperor. The president nominated ministers who were responsible to the assembly, but did not have power to disband the assembly that was sovereign except for the rights of the states. The federal principle was expressed in an upper house, whose vote was required for legislation. A referendum would decide any cases where a disagreement occurred between the two chambers.
Because of the various parties involved in the process of drafting the constitution, it had never been possible or even likely that the document would be consistent. However, the meeting's attendants did everything possible to come to grips with the basic structural problem confronting any modern constitution -- namely, how to accommodate mutually antagonistic social pressures, organized special-interest groups and competing political ideologies and sets of values"5. Basically, the drafters had two choices. The first was to confine the constitution to a set of strictly structural and administrative statutes. The second was to make it a pluralistic compromise. They opted for the latter, which was the more daring and risky.
In his book about the Weimar Republic, Peukert explains that historians often judge this constitution and other similar documents on how they can or cannot be applied to future situations -- how relevant they are to ongoing circumstances. Unfortunately, the Weimar constitution never had the chance of becoming accepted, through regular routine, as the legal foundation underlying the political and socio-economic life of the Republic. Rather it was used as a means for stopgap responses that pleased anyone6.
On February 11 to12, the National Constituent Assembly chose Ebert as Weimar President and Philipp Scheidemann as Chancellor. The latter was a member of the Reichstag for Dusseldorf from 1903 to 1919 and like Ebert supported Germany's involvement in the war. From 1906 to 1911, he was a deputy of municipal council in Kassel and led the party faction in the Reichstag in 1913-1918. After the split with the independent social democrats (USPD), Scheidemann was elected to the SPD executive board.
President-elect Ebert would have a term of seven years, be Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and have the right to appoint and dismiss ministers. Most importantly, under Article 48 of the Constitution, he was empowered to suspend the civil rights of the citizen "in an emergency" and assume the role of dictator. The president had the right to allow the cabinet to govern without the consent of parliament whenever it was deemed essential to maintaining public order. Ironically, the clause was not clearly defined or used until the crisis of the 1930s when it ended the republic and ushered in the Hitler dictatorship7.
It comes as no surprise, given what is expressed above regarding the differences in the involved political parties' agendas, that the Weimar Republic had serious problems from the start that led many Germans to either refuse support of the new parliamentary democracy or actively try to destroy it. Both the extreme left and right were the loudest and most active opponents. The left wing regarded the new government as a prevention to revolution, as they remembered Ebert's agreement with the military in 1918 that resulted in the army's bloody suppression of the left-wing revolts. Because the right wing was made up of the military, financial elites, state bureaucracy, education and most of the media, the latter posed a more serious threat. It could not be considered a loyal opposition because its ultimate goal was to abolish the new government. It opposed democracy and wanted to create a conservative authoritarian regime.
The rest of the left, represented by the SPD, and the moderate right, consisting of the Center Party and the DDP, were the strongest proponents. However, at important occasions, even these supporters failed to behave responsibly due to political inexperience, selfish causes, or unrealistic party programs8.
After the war, the political situation was not by any means the only problem that the Weimar had to face head on. As noted, socio-economic conditions were deplorable. Unemployment and inflation due to wartime debts and war reparations to the Allies were just two of the problems. Many middle-class Germans had lost their entire savings and having problems finding employment9.
Germany had to pay compensation not only for the war damage that she had caused, but also for the entire war. However, the amount of damage was so tremendous that determining actual costs was impossible. In 1921, the Paris conference came up with a number of 269 thousand million gold marks. Not only did the Germans know that this would be impossible to pay back, they were angry to be placed in a position of "debt slavery"10. Further, by not paying the money back right away, Germany could avoid the post-war fall that had impacted both England and America.
The reparations went hand in hand with inflation. Feuchtwanger writes about how the German currency had already lost much of its value during the war and the Weimar Republic was too weak to bring inflation under control. The reparations gave the Reich governments no incentive to put their finances in…