- When the National Assembly* convened in Weimar on 6 February 1919, the first order of business was the writing of a constitution. Hugo Preuss,* appointed Interior Minister on 13 February, submitted a draft document to the Assembly. But deliberations were arduous, complicated chiefly by the continued existence of Germany's federal states (Lander). Although mon-archism* had been abolished throughout Germany, many states—for example, Bavaria,* Prussia,* and Saxony*—had long histories that inspired considerable local patriotism. Preuss, Professor of Constitutional Law at Berlin s Handel-shochschule, wished to radically restructure the states and diminish their im-portance. But opposition grew so acute that he was forced to offer a plan that, while it removed privileges associated with taxation, transportation, and military affairs, left the Lander fundamentally unchanged. Added to the several defects enumerated next, the inability to institute a truly unitary state was a fundamental constitutional flaw that tormented the Republic throughout its existence.Between February and July 1919 every clause in the Preuss draft was debated twice in the Assembly s twenty-eight-member Constitutional Committee. Par-ticularly outstanding in their contribution to the final result were the DDP's Conrad Haussmann* (Committee Chairman) and Erich Koch-Weser,* Wilhelm Kahl of the DVP, and Clemens von Delbrück of the DNVP. The Lander retained a voice in the national legislature through creation of a second chamber, the Reichsrat, made up of state representatives. While not as strong as the old Bun-desrat, the Reichsrat had a key role in advising on legislation. At the Consti-tution's core was the first legislative chamber, or Reichstag,* which enacted legislation and controlled the executive. The country was divided into thirty-seven electoral districts, in which the political parties produced lists of candi-dates, and one Reichstag mandate was allowed for each 60,000 votes received by a party. Surplus votes from all districts were pooled to elect additional del-egates from party lists; thus no vote was wasted in Weimar s system of pro-portional representation. Yet, as explained later, this attempt to ensure balanced democracy probably weakened the Republic.The Constitution created an executive with both a President and a Chancellor. The President, popularly elected every seven years with the option of indefinite reelection, nominated the Chancellor, whose tenure required the confidence of the Reichstag. To avoid parliamentary absolutism, the President was given power through Article 48 to enforce the Republic s laws, even in the face of opposition on the part of state governments and the Reichstag (he could dissolve the latter). Article 48 provided also for proclamation of a state of emergency by the President if and when "public security and order" were endangered. In such circumstances constitutional guarantees impacting individual rights, inviolability of the home, secrecy of communications, free speech and assembly, free asso-ciation, and private property could be suspended. When General Wilhelm Groener,* a key advocate for the Republic, learned of this article, he gleefully wrote Paul von Hindenburg*: "An ordinance is being prepared... which will give the Reichswehrminister such wide powers in those areas designated by the Reichspräsident that one may speak of them as dictatorial" (Gordon). Only Oskar Cohn,* an Independent Socialist, possessed sufficient clairvoyance to warn against giving such power to the President. Outrageous use of Article 48 during 1930-1933 underscored key weaknesses in the Constitution; yet the Re-public might have collapsed in the turmoil of 1923 without the emergency pre-rogative.Since Reichstag elections normally occurred once every four years, the Con-stitution provided for the direct democracy of plebiscites. In theory, a conflict between the chambers, or between the legislature and the President, could be settled by a plebiscite. Moreover, if 10 percent of the electorate petitioned for legislation that the Reichstag rejected, the bill would be placed before the public for plebiscitary decision. Although every attempt to organize a plebiscite failed, the campaigns surrounding them helped poison the Republic s political atmosphere (see Young Plan). Eberhard Kolb has argued that the Constitution s pro-vision for plebiscites underscored the deputies fear of a fully parliamentary system.Although the Constitution was commended as an eminently democratic doc-ument, it contained major flaws reflecting the haste with which it was composed, the inexperience of its authors, and the reassuring presence of Friedrich Ebert* in the presidency. Although they are still open to debate, these flaws are as follows: (1) Proportional representation, assured by Article 22, deterred the in-tegration of diverse views into a reasonable number of parties; indeed, it invited rifts in preexisting parties. It also fostered the election of single-issue zealots possessing neither the ability nor the propensity to seek compromise between divergent viewpoints. Relatedly, Article 22 inhibited the building of local coa-litions that might have defeated extremists. Even as the committee deliberated, Friedrich Naumann* directed criticism to Preuss that a "parliamentary system and proportional representation are mutually exclusive." (2) In a naïve misreading of the American system, the Constitution provided for the popular elec-tion of a President. While this procedure succeeds in an environment dominated by two parties, it is perilous in a system based on numerous parties and splinter groups. When no single party can gain sufficient backing for its candidate, the tendency, as was demonstrated in the 1925 runoff election of Hindenburg, is to elect political outsiders possessing little genuine parliamentary experience. Had the Constitution left the President s election in the hands of the legislature, Hindenburg could not have stood for election in 1925. (3) The insufficiently limited powers of the President transformed the office into that of a pseudoem-peror. Given the tumult of 1919, perhaps it was inevitable that the President received such broad regulatory and emergency powers; such was the rationale for Article 25 ("The Reich President can dissolve the Reichstag" and call new elections), Article 53 ("The Reich Chancellor and on his proposal the Reich Ministers are appointed and dismissed by the Reich President ), and, of course, Article 48. But in improper hands such powers were excessive and damaging to the Reichstag. (4) Article 129 declared that "civil servants are appointed on life tenure, unless otherwise provided by statuteThe vested rights of civil servants are inviolable. Because the imperial bureaucracy had not been purged during the November Revolution,* this provision stood as a major barrier to administrative reform and is perceived as one of the Assembly s cardinal errors. Any demagogic support on behalf of the claims of civil servants could thus be deemed a nonpartisan appeal to the public good and a defense of the Constitution.The committee used forty sessions to debate the Constitution s 181 articles. The resulting draft then received three separate readings before the full Assem-bly. On 31 July it was passed by the 262 votes of those parties—SPD, Center, and DDP—that formed the Weimar Coalition*; the 75 votes cast in opposition were from the USPD, the DVP, and the DNVP. President Ebert adopted the Constitution on 11 August 1919, a date thereafter designated Constitution Day.
A Historical dictionary of Germany's Weimar Republic, 1918-1933. C. Paul Vincent.
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