"Parliamentary Absolutism" or "Command Democracy" or "Leader Democracy"



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Chapter Two

"Parliamentary Absolutism” or “Command Democracy” or “Leader Democracy”

in Weimar Germany:

What does “democracy” mean?


When Berthold Stauffenberg was being interrogated by the Gestapo for his role in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, he stoutly reasserted his opposition to Hitler as one whose incompetence was dragging Germany into an abyss. Yet he reiterated his support for the leader principle and the Volksgemeinschaft, the (racial) community, which he saw as the alternative to pluralist democracy, partisan squabbling, and the division of the Volk (German people). His position reflects interwar Germans’ often passionate demands for a community (a Volksgemeinschaft) and effective leadership. Those demands generated a conception of politics that would lead many Weimar Germans to reject liberal democracy, parliaments, and individualism for a “command democracy” or a “leader democracy.”1
Institutional Framework
On January 19, 1919, as aftershocks of the November 1918 revolution continued to rumble, Germans elected a National Assembly to write a constitution. The nation-wide democratic election based on universal suffrage gave that parliament a legitimacy that no alternatives could challenge. Germany’s new form of government was going to be based on a parliament, not worker councils or a corporatist assembly. Yet the legitimacy of the constitution it established would, in the eyes of many citizens, erode over time.2

The Weimar Constitution established universal, direct, secret, equal suffrage for citizens over 20 years of age, in all elections. This dramatic change from the Empire gave all adult Germans an effective democratic suffrage for choosing ruling bodies and, indirectly, heads of government, at all levels. Lowering the voting age to 20 reflected a long-standing SPD (moderate socialist) demand but also the need to ensure that veterans, who had made painful sacrifices for the fatherland, would be just as able to vote as war profiteers. Including women also reflected a long-standing SPD demand but also a recognition of the many sacrifices women had made during the war. Of course, German women may have had the vote and a formally equal right to be active politically, but they still faced massive legal restrictions and inequality. Indeed, the constitution would state not that men and women were “equal citizens” but only that they were “in principle equal citizens.”3

Weimar elections to the National Assembly and subsequent Reichstags would be by proportional representation. The imperial government had systematically disenfranchised the SPD by refusing to redraw parliamentary districts to reflect population changes. So the SPD insisted on proportional representation, to ensure that future governments did not manipulate electoral districts at their expense. And some Germans remained committed to proportional representation because they believed that it most accurately represented the will(s) of the German people, even if it did make forming stable governments more difficult. It created a national electorate because voting could matter even if one was a tiny minority of the local electorate, but it meant that M.P.’s were responsible to the party that ranked them on the candidate list, not to their voters. It also left parties visibly catering to interest groups by having representatives of many group on their candidate lists. Many Germans at the time and perhaps most historians since have seen it as disastrous; they believed it contributed to a fragmentation of the Reichstag (parliament) and of the electorate that would make governance difficult and arguably eventually impossible, opening the way for the rise of the Nazi party. Recently, some scholars have argued that German society was already deeply divided, independent of the electoral system, and that a first-past-the-post electoral system would in the 1930s have brought the Nazis to power even more quickly. Yet one can never know how the fragmentation of Germany society would have played out if citizens knew that voting for splinter parties might well waste their votes.4

The Weimar Constitution established, in principle, parliamentary government. The Reichstag would not only have the power to initiate and pass bills for promulgating laws, levying taxes, and making appropriations. The government would also depend on the support of a majority in that parliament, as the Chancellor and all ministers only served so long as they had the confidence of the Reichstag. However, the constitution was not clear on how the parliament and the president were to interact to create a government with parliamentary confidence, and the impression grew that the president appointed the government and the parliament could overthrow it with a vote of no confidence. By the late 1920s conservatives were proposing to amend the constitution so that the government would no longer require the confidence of the Reichstag but only of the (elected) president. The constitution did establish a Reichsrat (upper house) to represent the states, but its role was primarily advisory.5

Crucially, Hugo Preuß, the constitution’s chief drafter, and others feared “parliamentary absolutism,” that the Reichstag would prove to be an unrestrained power. This fear had contributed to the resistance to efforts at parliamentarization during the Empire, and in 1919 German elites continued to fear a concentration of power in a body that represented both (implicitly egoistic) interests articulated through parties and the masses.6

The Constitution hence created a strong presidency with independent legitimacy, as a counterweight to parliament and an obstacle to any parliamentary absolutism. The legitimacy lay first of all in the president being popularly elected through universal suffrage—and indeed by the nation as a whole. He could hence claim a breadth of support that no individual M.P. or party could. He also could stand above parties, regions, and confessions—could be a key element in maintaining unity. The president was going to play some, not clearly defined, role in forming governments, as he was responsible for appointing and dismissing the Chancellor. He could also dissolve the Reichstag, rather than compromising with it, a power—a threat—he could use in any dispute with the Reichstag.7

One key constitutional provision was Article 48, which (in)famously provided that the president could in an emergency “take measures necessary to reestablish public security and order,” including a right to suspend basic political rights such as freedom of expression, assembly, and association. He would need the signature of the Chancellor to do so, and the Reichstag could by majority vote abrogate any measure he took. On one level, the Article sought to eliminate some of the worst features of the emergency-rule powers the monarchy had possessed and exercised during World War I. More importantly, it reflected the chaos Germany faced in the early 1919, amid defeat, demobilization, continued Allied blockade, insurrections, and near civil war. The Article also reflected doubts about the ability of a democracy or a parliament to act decisively to maintain order.8

In practice, the president and the government played a much greater role in legislation than the constitution might seem to suggest. The president would issue numerous crucial decrees under Article 48, with the first president, Friedrich Ebert (SPD), using his exceptional powers 100 times. In addition, the Reichstag developed the practice early on of promulgating Enabling Acts that delegated authority to the government to issue decrees with the force of law, to make hard decisions the parliament was unwilling or unable to make. Formally this was still “democratic,” in that the popularly-elected parliament passed such Enabling Acts with constitution-amending majorities and could revoke any decree by majority vote. Yet the frequent resort to Article 48 and to Enabling Acts, 1919-24, set a precedent that would be used to supersede parliamentary, and arguably democratic, rule after March 1930.9

The popular election of the president was not the only “plebiscitary” element the constitution included. The citizens could petition for a referendum on issues, and the president or the Reichsrat could submit any law the Reichstag had passed to the people in a referendum. These provisions were intended to serve as another restraint on parliamentary absolutism. Political organizations did seek referenda, but none ever passed.10

Unlike the 1871 imperial constitution, the Weimar Constitution contained elaborate lists of rights: civil, political, and social. These rights reflected deep-seated mistrust of parliaments and fear of parliamentary absolutism, but also desires to ensure for individuals a stable, secure role in polity and society. A clash developed within the legal community, as many scholars and judges asserted that the constitution’s social rights were incompatible with traditional liberal individual rights, so that the Social State and the Rechtsstaat were mutually contradictory. The ability to exercise those rights would be eroded by violence and the threat of violence after 1929 and would be curtailed by presidential decree in early 1933. Nonetheless, through virtually all of its existence the Weimar Republic provide for its citizens more rights than the Kaiserreich or, certainly, the 3rd Reich and had a fundamentally free political life.11

Judicial review can be seen as crucial to democratic constitutionalism (a guarantee of individual rights against executive or legislative oppression) or as inherently anti-democratic (rule by unelected judges). Judges in the Empire had believed that their role was simply to adjudicate cases based solely on the statutes in force. The National Assembly had discussed judicial review, but the Weimar constitution did not mention it (despite its potential as a bulwark against parliamentary absolutism). Nonetheless, many in the Weimar legal community argued for judicial review by any judge who considered a law unconstitutional or otherwise beyond the pale legally. In addressing the Third Emergency Tax Decree of 1924, the Reichsgericht (the highest appeals court) accepted the decree’s legitimacy but included an obiter dictum that it could review the decree’s constitutionality. The government was so pleased to have its vital decree accepted that it did not object to the broader assertion. Subsequently, Reichsgericht president Walter Simons wrote to the chancellor asking for a legislative regulation of judicial review (to prevent confusing rulings from different courts), as a “counterweight to popular sovereignty.” Unlike in a monarchy, he wrote, “in a parliamentary republic … the danger exists that without such a counterweight a transitory majority could, under the influence of fleeting opinions and political passions, introduce disorder and uncertainty into the constitution’s organic development.” The Reichsgericht then in November 1925 reviewed the constitutionality of the crucial Revaluation Law but declared it constitutional. As had John Marshall in Marbury vs. Madison, the court gave the government a substantive victory on the vital issue at hand but established a precedent for its right to judicial review. The court did in 1929 declare a minor law unconstitutional. Most post-1929 legislation was in the form of Article 48 decrees from the revered President Paul von Hindenburg, whom conservative judges were unlikely to challenge. One can never know how judicial review by a conservative judiciary would have played out if the Weimar Republic had survived, but if it had proved a “counterweight to popular sovereignty,” it could well have become an anti-democratic infringement on the people’s rule.12

Who, though, were the “people,” das Volk, from whom, the constitution proclaimed, “all state authority emanates”? The citizenship law of 1913 remained the basis for formal citizenship, with naturalization requests processed by the states and reviewed by the Reichsrat. Formally, all those born on German territory or of German citizen parents or legally naturalized were German citizens, were “the people.” The Burgfrieden of World War I, the experience of the battlefront community, and the shared home front misery in the face of the Allied blockade had all contributed to a myth of national community above class and other divisive elements. And Weimar-era Germans would appeal repeatedly to the nation and the people as the basis of legitimacy, without generally defining either too specifically. Moreover, the wartime alliance with Austria and expansion into eastern European territories with ethnic German populations, along with the Allied emphasis on self-determination for ethnically defined peoples, broadened for many Germans the sense of the German people and nation to include all ethnic Germans. Meanwhile, anti-Semitism and fear of radical masses led Germans increasingly to write Jews and “Marxists” out of the people’s community, as alien or subversive. This somewhat inchoate mix of attitudes meant that for most Germans, the (ethnically or racially German) Volk were the ultimate source of legitimate authority, separate from and only imperfectly represented in the Weimar Republic, inclusive in some sense of ethnic Germans across central and eastern Europe, but exclusive of certain disdained groups.13

Crucially, many Germans never fully accepted the Weimar Republic as a legitimate state; indeed, they often saw the German state as somehow separate from, superior to, its unfortunate post-revolutionary form. The monarchical principle had already implicitly separated the state, as embodied in the monarch, from the state form, the constitution that the monarch voluntarily granted. In the Weimar Republic, many saw the state (as popular will or otherwise) as existing prior and in some crucial sense superior to the state form the Weimar constitution established. This perspective would make it much easier for Germans to see the “democratic” Weimar Republic as in fact not embodying the popular will that truly constituted the state and that for them stood above the republic, and to reject the Weimar Republic for some alternative.14

The Versailles Treaty was a crucial blow to the Republic’s legitimacy. Many Germans had supported democracy in 1918/19 in the hope of a better deal in the peace negotiations, as US President Woodrow Wilson seemed to have promised. Whatever Wilson’s October 1918 intentions, the June 1919 treaty was, from the perspective of virtually all Germans, a crying injustice. When the new Republic not only could not block draconian peace conditions, but had to vote to accept them, it came to be identified not only with the defeat of November 1918 but with the national humiliation and enormous burdens of June 1919.15

Convinced that the Weimar Republic had been incapable of defending itself against radical opponents, West Germans in 1949 made their new Federal Republic a “democracy capable of defending itself,” including by a constitutional provision allowing the banning of anti-democratic organizations. Recently, historians have argued that the Weimar Republic was indeed capable of defending itself in constitutional terms, so that its failure to do so reflected fundamental political divisions within the society. The Law for the Protection of the Republic and other legislation did allow Weimar federal and state governments to ban parties and associations deemed dangerous to the republic; they did so 37 times, versus only twice in the Federal Republic. Various laws could also punish and potentially control political violence. However, states varied in their rigor in applying the laws, and governments could only use these measures effectively against weak organizations.16

Notably, as various scholars have pointed out, initial lack of legitimacy for a regime does not mean that it is inevitably doomed. The striking counterexample here is France’s 3rd Republic. Monarchists dominated the early parliaments of that Republic. Fortunately for its survival, they were divided into three groups who could not cooperate. As France prospered, public opinion gradually shifted, so that a growing majority voted for pro-Republic parties; the 3rd Republic eventually secured legitimacy. So the possibility remains that, given more favorable conditions, the Weimar Republic might also have survived.17


Political Culture
Germany had its first democracy—and most Germans were looking for a pay-off. Most had supported democracy not from conviction but because they hoped for a better deal in the peace negotiations or no longer expected anything from the discredited monarchy or hoped a parliamentary republic would prove an effective barrier against Bolshevization. Hence, many Germans would only continue supporting democracy if they approved of the outcomes it generated. In practice, all a democracy can promise is a procedure that allows popular input into, and a “fair” process for, decision-making. Neither it nor any other system can guarantee desirable outcomes, overall or for particular groups or individuals. Too many factors influence outcomes. Nonetheless, most Germans in the interwar period (and perhaps most people everywhere) focused primarily on outcomes—and the Weimar Republic, given the horrific burdens it bore, delivered defeat, national humiliation, conflict, hyperinflation, brutal stabilization, and a great depression. The four or five “good” years of the mid to late 1920s were insufficient to develop any broad commitment to democracy or to the Republic.18

As in the Empire, most Germans during the Weimar Republic continued to insist that ideals must trump interests. They believed that interests were inherently corrupt, materialistic, and egotistical. Even when they supported special-interest parties (e.g., for landlords or creditors or farmers), they either explained them as a temporary expedient to defend against other, corrupt, interests or, more frequently, presented their demands in moralistic, not interest-based, terms. As Peter Fritzsche argues, “Speaking a morally drenched language of corruption, betrayal, and virtue, they came to identify their own interests and needs with national political renewal.”19

If competing, egotistical interests were illegitimate, what Germany needed instead, many perhaps most Germans believed, was a political system that would secure representation for the interests of Germans and Germany as a whole. Fundamental to this assertion was a belief that a single, overarching interest existed for all Germans, to which any individual interests—if permissible at all—must be subordinate. Germans repeatedly talked in terms of just such a Gesamtinteresse, an all-encompassing interest. Society was, then, an organic totality in which each citizen functioned not as an individual but as an element in a whole. The Gesmatinteresse was deemed particularly crucial for overcoming the clashing class interests that played out so bitterly within the Republic. Replacing such clashes would be a harmonious, conflict-free, unified society. Democracy must reflect not only the Gesamtinteresse but the Volkswille, the true collective will of the people, not the interest-based opinions of different group and class representatives. Many Germans implicitly (and a few political theorists explicitly) were calling for a state based on a Rousseauian general will that existed in some sense prior to political action and that needed only to be recognized and implemented to establish a “true democracy.” Notably, support for this idea extended from the far right to some members of the SPD.20

The desire for a society structured and ruled according to its Gesmatinteresse found its most frequent and vivid expression in repeated calls for a Volksgemeinschaft, a people’s, or indeed a racial, community. The touchstone for Germans was August 1914 and the storied days of “universal” national unity against foreign “attack” when, most Germans were convinced, they had come together comprehensively as a community in mutual support and sacrifice. Even to the extent Germans had put aside traditional conflicts in 1914, the pressures of war had soon produced renewed social conflict, over food and peace especially. And defeat had been accompanied by revolution and violence, from the Left and the Right, as Germans disagreed fundamentally on the appropriate social order and relations among groups. Germans desperately wanted to overcome conflict and Zerreisung/Zersetzung (disintegration) in a fully realized, comprehensive new unity, in the realization of Germans as an organic whole, a true community. This community would transcend petty differences in a higher whole and would secure freedom for Germans not as liberal individuals but in the “true democracy” of a living community. Most closely associated with the Nazis, who promised a true Volksgemeinschaft, this term was in fact embraced across much of the political spectrum. Some in the Left and center sought to use it as inclusive. For most Germans, though, it would exclude (Jews, Bolsheviks, et al.) even as it included all patriotic, ethnically German, citizens, including workers.21

Given the widespread commitment to the Gesamtinteresse and Volksgemeinschaft, most Weimar Germans continued to reject pluralism and compromise. Pluralism assumes that varying interests exist within a society, interests that are worthy of being expressed and represented. Gesamtinteresse and Volksgemeinschaft denied the legitimacy of any particular interest, so that the expression or representation of such interests constituted an assault on the good of the community and indeed on Germany’s future. The acceptance of compromise assumes that varying interests exist, that no single “right” answer to the problems facing a society is attainable, and that no community without conflict is possible—otherwise compromise would not be necessary. Believing in a true single interest/community, many Weimar Germans hence saw compromise as a betrayal of that interest/community in favor of concessions to illegitimate particular interests, an abandonment of principle.22

Having rejected interests, pluralism, and compromise, many Weimar-era Germans rejected political parties as well. They saw parties as the representatives of particular interests and so inherently corrupt. They believed that parties promoted conflict where none need appear because they promoted special interests at the expense of other Germans. Indeed, for many, the parties made partisan strife an end in itself. Such strife then paralyzed Germany, weakening it in the face of its many enemies. So many Germans, including some on the Left, wanted to see the complete elimination of political parties and their replacement with an apoliticism, a public life above parties and partisanship. And many Germans were convinced such a public life was possible—even as they continued to promote their own interests and views.23

Parliaments also came in for abuse. Parliament, many Germans believed, could not represent a true search for truth because election to the parliament and votes within it were determined by party leaders, so that deputies were just party hacks. And economic interests inevitably sought to coopt parties and politicians for their egotistical ends. Parliamentary action then became a series of tawdry business deals among fundamentally corrupt individuals, a view only strengthened by periodic press reports of (relatively minor) corruption scandals. These attacks on parliamentarism have often seemed to be attacks on democracy—and they certainly could be. Yet, crucially, a number of those who attacked parliament did so in the name of democracy, insisting that parliament could only represent egotistical interests and could never represent the Volkswille, the will of the people as a whole. Hence, only by jettisoning the Weimar Republic’s parliamentary democracy could one proceed to create a “true democracy.”24




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