Lessons from Weimar Part I

Different approaches to preventing another Nazi regime

The Weimar republic ended with the machtergreifung by the Nazis. This has obviously led to Weimar democracy being bot much derided and debated. Where exactly did it go wrong. Ironically, the Nazis themselves hated Weimar democracy, but virtually everybody now seems to agree that their alternative was worse.

In a way the Weimar republic got off to a bad start. The Allied powers had forced the German government to kick out the Kaiser and then to except the Treaty of Versailles. They created a republican government which immediately had to discredit itself.

Counterrevolutionaries hoped to restore the monarchy or at least undo what they saw as a treacherous government. They organized the Kapp Putsch and would continue to enjoy influence in the army and were represented by the DNVP. Nazi and Communist revolutionaries desired to overthrow the Weimar republic and replace it with a totalitarian state.

Yet, these forces were largely contained and eventually even marginalized for a period. Hitler’s attempted coup in 1923 failed (and the Kapp Putsch before had failed along with various Socialist and Communist revolutions) and moderate parties strengthened during the second half of the 1920’s. That was… before the great depression hit in 1929.

Economic crisis mixed with lingering resentment over (continued) Allied mistreatment paved the way for Nazi popularity. The fact that the Nazis ended up winning 37 % of the popular vote in the July 1932 Reichstag elections while the Stalinist Communists won 15 %, shows the biggest problem. The majority ended up rejecting constitutional democracy in favor of revolutionary totalitarianism. The Weimar system did not preserve constitutional democracy against the majority.

This is why the German resistance factions that united to kill Hitler in 1944, had little desire to restore Weimar democracy or something similar to it. The plot was led by the military resistance, many of whom were active before WWII even started and who had always been opposed to Weimar democracy but also loathed Nazi totalitarianism. They had generally been close to the DNVP and favored a restoration of the (semi)constitutional) monarchy. One of the leading figures of this group was Ludwig Beck who worked closely with former DNVP politician Friedrich Goerdeler.

Claus von Stauffenberg who joined later was more a Conservative Revolutionary. He was skeptical about the restoration of the monarchy but favored a more authoritarian regime as well.

It seems the main lesson they took from Weimar was, if only the Kapp Putsch had succeeded we wouldn’t have Nazi tyranny.

Even the non-Communist civilian resistance that they entered into contact with both Catholics and moderate Social Democrats were critical of Weimar majoritarian democracy, whether they were sympathizers for the monarchy or republicans like Social Democrat Julius Leber. Eventually the restoration of the monarchy was accepted by the sceptics.

A partially military regime mixed with an unelected civilian government consisting off DNVP, Catholic Centrists and moderate Social Democrats would have served as initial government. It would have been headed by a triumvirate consisting of Ludwig Beck (military) as head of state, Goerdeler (DNVP) as chancellor and former minister of finance in Hitler’s government before being cast aside, Hjalmar Schacht. A temporary mixed dictatorship that would eventually see a constitutional monarchy. The various plans for the future constitutional order all tended to involve mixed government.

Goerdeler’s constitution provided a bicameral parliament off which the upper house was chosen on a corporatist instead of a democratic basis. Only a majority of both houses could have dismissed the government or cancelled decree laws passed by the government. A two thirds supermajority in the lower house could have done the same without the upper house. The future monarch would have a largely ceremonial role and preserve the constitutional order while there’d be a strong executive government.

The Kreisau circle had plans for a new constitutional system where the head of state would be called regent yet be elected for a 12 year term. That seems like they were pulling what interwar Hungary did, restore the monarchy but not the monarch. The regent would actually have been a very powerful head of state, while the Reichstag would have been elected by the councils of the states (regional indirect election).

Neither of these visions favored a restoration of majoritarian or parliamentary democracy. In both systems the executive branch would be strong and only controlled by parliament to a certain extent while the election of parliament was either indirect of partially corporatist.

This all stands in sharp contrast to the constitutional system adopted in West-Germany after WWII. The concept of resilient democracy was adopted. Everything was done to ensure majoritarian parliamentary democracy would never be overthrown again. They did not entertain the restoration of the monarchy.

The Constitutional Court was established which had as its specific task to rule on the constitutionality of laws and decrees. It was tasked with outlawing parties opposed to the constitutional democratic order. Thereby ensuring such parties could never reach power while ensuring neither the government nor a parliamentary majority could use claims of antidemocratic activity to outlaw the opposition parties. In this they had likely learned from how Hitler’s government had outlawed the KPD after the Reichstag fire (though ironically his own Nazi Party had been temporarily banned 10 year earlier after Hitler’s failed coup attempt). The 12 year terms of the judges and the fact that they’re nominated by either a two thirds majority in the lower house or in the upper house ensures broad consensus and independence for the court. It truly was one of the high point of the West-German political system.

Another interesting feature is the rule of the constructive vote of no confidence. That a government can only be voted out when a workable alternative is offered.

But they also added two horrible features. A voting threshold of 5 %, keeping small parties out of parliament in order to keep out (small) extreme parties. A system that favors establishment parties while disadvantaging newer parties, silences smaller minority voices and artificially inflates the seat held by the main parties.

The other change was that the president was no longer popularly elected and got a largely symbolic role with (fully) parliamentary controlled government holding nearly all executive power, thereby weakening the separation of powers and centralizing both legislative and (delegated) executive authority in the Reichstag and the majority coalition.

Both of these horrendous decisions were based on a selective or flawed view of what had gone wrong with the Weimar system. We’ll analyze this further in the next part along with what could have been.

Ramon Giralt

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