Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Opening of the Weimar Assembly, February 6, 1919

On February 6, 1919, as the Council of Ten heard Emir Faisal talk about borders and claims in the still fluid Middle East, far away, in the town of Weimar, Germany, the German national constituent assembly held its first meeting.

We have already seen that this newly elected national assembly was the result of both revolution and fear of revolution in its make-up. Actually, the strong showing of the middle parties (moderate SPD, Center, German Democratic Party) enabled the forces for a moderate constitutional republic to prevail. Indeed, constitutional scholar and German Interior Ministry official Hugo Preuss arrived in Weimar with a constitution "in his pocket" which proved the basis of the discussion.

The Weimar Constitution, as the finished product of the National Constituent Assembly would be called, had several notable problems. For one thing, it allowed the government emergency powers to call for martial law without very much limitation (a power devised because both rightwing and leftwing enemies were openly devoted to the violent overthrow of the republic). This power would lead to later problems. And in the end, the "democratic" aspect of the parliament turned out to be too responsive to public opinion. That is to say, in modern governments, we usually hope that they will be responsive, but in this case, by a system of proportional representation, the voting system would later end up deadlocking, with the parties themselves splintering into smaller groups.

Indeed, the chief problem of this tiny proportional distinction turned out to be the essential problem of democracy in general. The parties ended up as groups seeking to legislate special favors, tax monies, and other privileges for their own supporters. (Of course this process happens all the time in modern democracies. The Weimar Constitutional system was simply more responsive to smaller, more specific groups, each voting against the other to control treasure, privileges, etc. The whole splintering process would eventually allow the Nazis to gain much power with only a plurality of votes overall).

But these were all problems in the future. And from the standpoint of the Allies, and especially of the Americans, who spoke as if the whole war had been a crusade for "democracy," the Weimar Democracy should have fit the bill admirably.

But of course the war had not in any sense been a crusade for democracy. For one thing, the Entente, or Allied, side fought most of the war with Russian Empire in its ranks, and Russia was the most autocratic state in Europe. For another, the war led to every sort of violation of individual rights in all belligerent countries. The Australians put into concentration camps and expropriated the Australian population of German origin. The Americans jailed individuals for defeatism and had snoops going through the US Mail to look for more. The French picked up French citizens regularly on suspicion of spying, and strictly controlled the press for any adverse comment on war policies. The British passed the famous Defence of the Realm Act, which pared down individual freedoms enormously. Safe for Democracy? Hardly.

So as opposed to simply talking about "Democracy," the German politicians at Weimar set up a responsive government that should have told the Allies: "We are no longer the regime of the Kaiser; look: many of us were in the Kaiser's jails, persecuted for political reasons." But in fact, Germany was still Germany to the Allies. Both Clemenceau and Lloyd George understood the political aspects of what had happened in Germany quite well, but of course, they couldn't admit to any sympathy for the Germans if they were to get all they needed for their own countries in the peace settlement.

As for Wilson, right through the Peace Conference (see especially the Deliberations of the Council of Four) he considered gave his opinion that the Germans were still evil aristocrats, tools of the Kaiser, from whom he would save Europe. Strangely, it was Wilson who was a political scientist. It was Wilson, an American Anglophile a great deal of whose academic study had been in praise of the British parliamentary system. But the new shape of Germany seemed to have no resonance whatsoever with Wilson. And, as suggested already, Clemenceau and Lloyd George had their own reasons for not taking many pains to educate Wilson on these points.

Finally, one more point about the Weimar Constitution. In spite of the great (anti-individualist) tendencies of the age toward centralization of government, the moderate Germans at Weimar established a federal system. It was lopsided, since the state of Prussia represented three-fifths of the whole. And many German federalists suspected that it was too centralized (some of these later thought that a more decentralized system would have made the Nazi dictatorship more difficult to achieve). But still, the old German tendency for "Church Tower" politics (political organization extending, basically to the range of everyone within sight of one church tower) and fiercely independent cities and states was still reflected in the Weimar Constitution, at least enough to revive later on, after World War II. But that is another story.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Creative Commons License
Design of a Violent Century by Hunt Tooley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.