The Weimar Republic of 1919 | Analysis

The Weimar Republic of 1919 characterised the struggle – and failure – to establish democracy in Germany following World War One. Despite possessing near-identical elements required to govern as successfully as the Federal Republic of 1945, the government was fragile and short-lived (Smith, 1991). Those in authority neglected to increase the power of the parliament or commit fully to the system, choosing instead to stumble along forming weak coalitions that did not stand the test of time (Conradt, 2009). Weimar’s constitutional weaknesses allowed Hitler to come to power and the dark reign of the Third Reich began in 1933. By contrast, post-WWII democracy was successfully implemented and maintained because the policy makers of the Basic Law ensured a politics of consensus dominated (Slagter and Loewenberg, 2009). Roberts (2009) further believes they were influenced by the material, political, and ethical legacy of the two world wars Germany was a part of. Germany was divided into the democratic West and the communist East, before achieving unification in 1990. Despite the brief history given here, it is easily recognised that Germany’s political history is a complex story of a country struggling to achieve a stable democracy in an unconventional way. The Federal Republic of 1949 distinguished itself from Weimar through its constitution and electoral/party system, which are key factors when explaining democracy’s success. This essay will specifically contrast the constitutions and electoral/party systems of Weimar and Bonn, as well as other factors such as the economy briefly, to explain why democracy succeeded after 1949.

The Federal Republic demonstrated clear changes from Weimar, but also contained elements of continuity from the past both in its constitution and party system (Roberts, 2000). Both federal systems had similar institutions in place, such as the Constitutional Courts to resolve disputes, and the representation of 16 Lander (federal states) at a national level through the Bundesrat (federal Council). Their constitutions were quite advanced, with a Bill of Rights guaranteeing every German citizen the freedom of speech, religion and equality. Both governed through coalition parties; no party has been able to govern alone in Germany’s history save one (Gordon, 1991). This demonstrates that permanently built into the system is the need for different political groups to reach out across the political chasm and co-operate in a politics of consensus. With such similarities, why did the Weimar government collapse a few years later? Pulzer (1994) believes that “if it had been dealt a better deck of cards, [the Weimar Republic] might have survived longer” (1994, p. 4). The answer is also that it is institutions and everyday practices that promote stability in the system, and in Weimar, neither was stable.

The Federal Republic distinguished itself from Weimar through the governing framework of its constitution. The Basic Law bolstered the parliamentary system “by downgrading the president, who became a largely representative, indirectly elected head of state, and by enhancing the stature of the chancellor” (Smith, 1991, p.48). This was a clear reaction to the dual executive in Weimar’s constitution which authorized the president to act autonomously of the Reichstag (Conradt, 2009). Although the president of the Weimar Republic was given more power to avoid political paralysis in the Reichstag, Article 48 allowed Hitler to come to power in the end. Hence the Basic Law made the presidential role more ceremonial than anything else. By using the failings of Weimar to measure the effectiveness of the present democracy, the policy makers of Bonn achieved to still fears of a second Hitler (Paterson, 2000).

The constitution of 1949 also helped democracy by dispersing power from the centre of German authority. The Basic Law worked against centralised power, guaranteeing autonomy of responsibility to Germany’s different regions, and thus preventing the rise of authoritarian rule (Paterson, 2000). “In the Bonn Republic power was diffused to institutions, not the general population, despite the frequent invocation of the phrase ‘Die Staatsgewalt geht vom Volke aus’, [the government authority emanates from the people] the famous Article 1 of the Weimar constitution” (Paterson, 2000, p.25). This diffusion of power ensures institutions must operate together during the decision-making process, thus promoting a democratic atmosphere. The Constitutional Court, for instance, exemplifies the separation of powers by upholding the Basic Law and defending civil liberties, in contrast to Weimar, whose court was easily subverted and unstable. It can be argued that such diffusion of power might negatively affect governing by creating too many agencies and actors. Alternatively, if one institution decides to create paralysis in the system, fragmentation could occur. However, the systems’ stability has not been greatly threatened. This is testament to Germany’s constitutional strength and determination to uphold democratic rule (Paterson, 2000).

The reforms to the party system after 1949 also aided in democracy’s success. Consensus among the political parties in the Bundestag (Federal Diet) ensured institutional stability after 1949 (Slagter and Loewenberg, 2009). In contrast, stable majorities could not be formed in Weimar’s’ Reichstag (parliament) due to the existence of ‘proportional representation’ (Conradt, 2009). The republic was therefore a polarised pluralist system of numerous small parties, with no consensual decision-making taking place. The hyperinflation of 1923, for example, “fuelled new political parties which the Reichstag was unable to socialise to its norms” (Slagter and Loewenberg, 2009, p.470). Orderly parliamentary procedure disintegrated once the centre parties came under the assault of the radical extremists. By contrast, the success of post-WWII democracy can be explained through consensus promoting institutional stability, because this was absent in the Reichstag. After 1945, there was co-operative federalism and consensual decision making among the political parties, especially with the issue of comparable living standards in all regions.

Democracy also succeeded because of the modifications made to Germany’s political/electoral system after 1949. In the Reichstag, consensus was neglected because radical groups pursued electoral votes, “not caring that it lost them all effectiveness within the chamber as they contributed to its paralysis” (Slagter and Loewenberg, 2009, p.471). After 1949, however, parliament developed into a moderate pluralist system. Parties could only enter with more than 5% of the national vote or 3 constituency seats without. New parties which entered the Bundestag were therefore socialised to the parliamentary customs (Slagter and Loewenberg, 2009).Through this measure, consensus dominated because it encouraged stable, moderate politics while discouraging extreme politics. This helped democracy succeed, because fewer parties meant more stability, the establishment of a co-operative opposition and prevention of anti-system parties (Paterson, 2000). Therefore, the electoral system, as with all other aspects of the system, encourages moderation and consensus.

Other factors such as economic conditions after 1949 might also explain why democracy succeeded. With democracy stabilising around the 1950s, Germany also experienced full employment. This is vastly different to the economic and democratic situation in 1919, because the existence of a weak government with limited policy making skills meant there was no active labour policy and millions were unemployed (Schmidt, 1992). However, with Marshall Aid speeding Germany’s economic recovery, the 1950s showed rapid progress both in terms of the economy and democratic governing. The ‘German Model’ further developed the state after 1945, in contrast to poorly-developed welfare state of Weimar (Schmidt, 1992). ‘Modell Deutschland’, with the concept of the managed firm and co-determination, became renowned throughout the world (Smith, 2005). Products ‘made in Germany’ demonstrated that it had become an economic force to be reckoned with, especially with its car industry. It can therefore be argued that unprecedented economic stability after WWII also helped ensure democracy’s popularity.

Another factor explaining democracy’s success after WWII emanates from the national and foreign policies Germany has implemented. This country presents a complex and layered picture which is revealed through the challenges it has dealt with in the past. Germany promoted itself as a responsible power and avoided an aggressive foreign policy so reminiscent of Hitler, choosing instead to join NATO and promote pro-European policies at the height of the Cold War (Glees, 1996). Chancellor Brandts’ policy of ‘ostpolitik’ (Change through Rapprochement) exposed the conflict surrounding national identity following unification, where East Germans continued to feel like second class citizens in their own country (Wiesenthal, 1998). The 1970s saw the upsurge of the extreme Left, but despite these negative impacts, the structures of the German political and social systems remain strong. Therefore, Germany’s promotion of European integration and the political culture of the time ensured democratic rule succeeded.

In conclusion, it is clear that despite what some may see as an abnormal path taken by Germany towards normalisation, it seems to have worked (Smith, 2005). It is argued that the country’s first attempt at democracy failed due to a “specific set of circumstances facing interwar Germany, coupled with defects in the Weimar constitution […]” (Conradt, 2009, p.7). It can certainly be agreed on that important evolutions in the system – to the constitution and party/electoral system, coupled with better economic and social conditions – were vital in sustaining democracy after WWII (Smith, 1991). The Basic Law remains largely the same as in 1949, which is a testament to its success in founding and maintaining a democratic Germany. In addition, Germany also recognised a politics of consensus is a pre-requisite for federalism to work. Its decision to take this unconventional path and follow the federal political system with a consensus democracy demonstrates that sovereignty may not always be the answer; homogenising such a large country with different regions and practices would be impossible. It is institutional stability and every day practices, coupled with the politics of consensus, which established democracy successfully in Germany.

Bibliography:
Conradt, D. (2009). The German Polity. 9th ed. USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
Glees, A. (1996) Reinventing Germany: German political development since 1945. UK: Berg
Paterson, W. E. (2000). From the Bonn to the Berlin republic. German Politics, 9(1), 23-40.
Pulzer, P. (1994). Unified Germany: a normal state? German Politics, 3(1), 1-17.
Roberts, G.K. (2009). German Politics Today. 2nd ed. UK: Manchester University Press.
Slagter, T.H and Loewenberg, G. (2009). Path Dependence as an explanation of the institutional stability of the German Parliament. German Politics, 18(4), 469- 484.
Schmidt, M. G. (1992). Political consequences of German unification. West European Politics, (15)4, 1-15.
Smith, G. (1991). The resources of a German chancellor. West European Politics, 14(2), 48-61.
Smith, M. P. (2005). Introduction – From Modell Deutschland to Model Europa: Europe in Germany and Germany in Europe. German Politics, (14)3, 275-282.
Wiesenthal, H. (1998). Post-unification dissatisfaction, or why are so many East Germans unhappy with the new political system? German Politics, 7(2), 1-30.