Weimar Germany: What it is and What it Taught us

Weimar Germany. Oh, how it reminds me of GCSE History, where it was such a big part to me. It gives a very real visualisation of how constitutions don’t really work and why proportional representation is good in theory, but in practice just prevents anything from happening.

How and when did the weimar constitution come to be?

Just after the First World War, the Kaiser of Germany (Basically, the king), Kaiser Wilhelm II, fled to the Netherlands in 1918. By February 1919, the most popular party’s leader, Friedrich Ebert from the ‘Social Democratic Party of Germany’ (SPD) formed the Weimar Constitution in Weimar, Germany because Berlin was too dangerous from the spartacists involvement in the German revolution. They set up parliament in the Reichstag in central Berlin after the revolution was dampened.

How did the constitution work and why did this go wrong?

The members of the Reichstag were elected using proportional representation, meaning the % of votes from the citizens equaled the % of seats the party was offered in the Reichstag. In principal most citizens would be happy. It truly represents the wishes of the country and this would always show in the Reichstag where the laws are made. This started causing problems almost immediately. For anything to effectively happened it would require 50 percent of the votes, which would imply requiring a party having 50% of the seats or at least those with a similar view – hence coalitions became a thing. Coalitions in general don’t work too well because the government parties don’t really agree, and only do it so that they can actually form a government.

At its peak the Reichstag contained 41 different parties, which meant the weimar government never had a non-coalition government. The use of proportional representation allowed extremist parties into the Reichstag because of the low numbers of national votes required to get at least one seat. Because of the large variety of view expressed, the government would rarely make ‘proper’ non-watered down laws. This would also lead to annoyed leaders abusing Article 48, ‘Powers for the Protection of People and the State’ – which means when active they could pass any laws without passing them through the Reichstag. This is what Hitler later uses to become as powerful as he did. Elections were also particularly common, sometimes multiple happening in the same year. Because of the increase in debate because of the number of parties, it allowed the Nazi Party alongside others to cause a ruckus and to effectively force the government to make decisions, (such as Hitler becoming chancellor.)

Was there anything good as a result?

During the weimar Germany years, there was: although rarely anything because of action from the Reichstag. A majority was from the Foreign Minister Gustav Stressemann who was able to reform the international relations lost during the First World War; which would be later lost again because of the Second World War.

Weimar Germany taught us the ineffectiveness of Coalitions, and still stands as a major fear during elections, as seen in the 2017 United Kingdom General Election.