Lessons from Weimar Part II

The previously mentioned bad elements of the post-WWII (West-)German political system were the weak presidency and the electoral threshold keeping small (and new) parties out and a very weak symbolic presidency. The president is not elected by popular vote and has little executive power. Executive power rests almost entirely in the government which relies on parliament (legislative power).

This is based on a certain interpretation off what went wrong in Weimar. Small extremist parties supposedly made a constructive Reichstag majority impossible and were able to build support by gaining attention in parliament.

Eventually the fringe Nazis became popular. Authoritarian leaning Hindenburg undermined democracy by using his presidential powers and helped the Nazis destroy democracy through the Reichstag fire decree.

This is not even half of the real story and it provides a cure worse than the disease.

Electoral threshold

Germany’s electoral threshold off 5 % is unusually high. While Weimar did indeed see a lot of small splinter factions with the larger parties having trouble forming a majority, this was partially due to disagreements over how to handle the great depression amongst large parties like the Catholic Centrists and Social Democrats.

The fact that there were many splinter indicated the high level of dissatisfaction. To try to hide this through a voter threshold is extremely dubious. Feigning a consensus that doesn’t really exist is not a good system. It’s a pseudo-democracy where larger groups dominate and monopolize the claim to the general will.

As opponents of electoral thresholds have pointed out, an electoral threshold would have actually aided the Nazis if they had managed to break through without first having a tiny representation in the Reichstag, and it’s a significant possibility they could have done so.

The Nazis did not acquire much attention between 1928 and 1930 with their tiny percentage of seats in the Reichstag but largely through activity outside of parliament, primarily it allying with the Right-wing parties in opposing the Young Plan. It’s highly debatable whether the Nazis would have been kept out of that alliance and failed to score a huge victory during the 1930 Reichstag elections, if they had been excluded from the Reichstag under a voter threshold in 1928 or before.

The KPD managed to get just over 5 % and earn representation in the Reichstag during the 1949 elections.

Hindenburg and the ‘overly powerful’ presidency

When it comes to the presidential powers, several facts and nuances undermine the anti-authoritarian narrative.

While the Nazis ended up making use of Hindenburg’s emergency powers after the Reichstag fire, this abuse of the presidential powers was only possible after Hitler had actually successfully become chancellor and the misuse of the Reichstag Fire Decree was only one part of their power grab.

The function of the President under the Weimar system has been criticized by experts as being a de facto replacement emperor. The President was head of state, commander in chief and could veto legislation, but also this is true of the president in the USA as well and the President was not head of government (unlike in the USA or even Brazil) instead the chancellor was.

The main controversial presidential powers were: the ability of the president to sack a chancellor who retained majority support in the Reichstag, his ability to sign decree laws (always needing co-signature of the chancellor or another minister) in case of parliamentary deadlock, his ability to declare a state of emergency or martial and suspend several civil liberties such as freedom of the press or assembly (but not basic rights like freedom of religion) and temporarily take over state governments (this also needed to be co-signed), and finally his ability to dissolve the Reichstag and call for new elections.

The Reichstag could cancel both the decree laws and the state of emergency and suspension of civil liberties by simple majority however. They could hold a vote of no confidence against any chancellor the president appointed who needed to co-sign such measures. While the president could dissolve the Reichstag and could for new elections, these were constitutionally required to be held within 60 days.

The only way for a president to appoint a chancellor to his own liking and pass unpopular decree laws indefinitely against the majority, was too ignore that last provision, violate the constitution and not hold new elections after dissolving the Reichstag. This Hindunberg never did, in spite of urger by authoritarian conservatives around him. Instead the Nazis used emergency powers within the constitutional limits.

Parliamentary problems

Unlike under the imperial system, there was parliamentary control over the government. As such it was a semi-presidential system, just with a rather strong executive and emergency power for the president. But unlike in the Russian system (even under Yeltsin) it wasn’t the norm for the president to impose his chancellors on the Reichstag. That would only change when constructive parliamentary majorities collapsed in 1930.

Parliamentary control was ironically used by the Nazis to bring down various governments through votes of no confidence and push for Hitler to become chancellor. The emperor could and his chancellor could have ignored the Nazis Bismarck-style.

As mentioned in the previous article, the West German Instead of restoring the monarchy or even just embracing a fully presidential system, the aspect of parliamentary government that had been most abused was fixed. Parliamentary government had to be preserved and strengthened at all costs.

Constructive vote of no confidence only (possible) obstacle to Nazi rise to power

The disunity between the Nazis and Communists may have been the only thing preventing them from passing harmful legislation and setting up a radical government and resulted in all the other parties teaming up to keep the NSDAP out, but without the KPD, that would still have been a minority government and one that would even need the DNVP to support it.

Literally the only thing that would ensure that the divided NSDAP-KPD majority wouldn’t be able to destabilize parliamentary governments and acquire power was the requirement of a constructive vote of no confidence.

A red-brown front to create an anti-liberal government isn’t completely outside of the realm of possibilities if that would have been the only way to carry out a constructive vote of no confidence against the bourgeoisie parties.

But even if such a front failed to form, and the DNVP and the NSDAP together would fail to form a majority for a constructive vote of no confidence, and a minority constitutional democratic coalition government continued indefinitely as a result, this minority government couldn’t pass legislation through presidential decrees under the parliamentary government system.

A minority government opposed by the majority would have been retained without any laws being passed for years during the great depression.

When a majority in parliament belongs to anti-constitutional totalitarian parties, parliamentary government becomes problematic.

If Weimar had had a ceremonial president, Hindenburg would have been in no position to refuse Hitler the chancellorship after the NSDAP’s victory during the July 1932 elections and Hitler would likely have become chancellor a lot faster. He wouldn’t have had a real prerogative to refuse the appointment of the head of by far the largest party nor could he have sustained minority governments against KPD and NSDAP majority opposition. He wouldn’t even be in the position to veto radical legislation passed by a NSDAP and the KPD. A ceremonial president would have done little to prevent the Nazis from abusing the ministries under their control.

The Nazis rarely made use of presidential decree laws and only asked Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag once so they could make gains during the new elections.

The only real harm caused by Hindenburg’s power was the Reichstag fire decree, which crucially was approved by the government which was majority non-Nazi. If the president hadn’t held such emergency powers but the government, it still would have passed. It was the NSDAP-DNVP majority that prevented the decree from ever being cancelled in the Reichstag after the march 1933 elections.

Only if the constitution had preserved the right to authorize such emergency powers exclusively for parliament, would this part of the Nazi power grab have failed, assuming that without the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Nazis wouldn’t have wouldn’t have won a majority together with their allies during the 1933 elections. If the momentum off the crisis and its exploitation by state-media had still led to a majority, nothing would have changed.


The Weimar system had a more genuine separation of powers than the modern post-war parliamentary system. The presidential powers in Weimar were only abused because the government and a large portion of the Reichstag had it so.

Keeping a parliamentary system alive by artificially inflating establishment parties and suppressing the political establishment of discontent, while also gutting a real separation of the executive and legislative powers is not the proper way to ensure a democratic society. The Weimar system splintered because the people did not support it and the governing parties couldn’t ensure their welfare.

The main reason West-Germany did not see another Nazi regime is probably cause there was no new great depression more than anything else.

Ramon Giralt

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