Immediately following the end of World War I, the Kaiser (Germany's emperor) fled, leaving Germany to be governed by what would become known as the Weimar Republic. Contradictions plagued this governmental system until its demise with Adolf Hitler's rise to power. Perhaps none of these contradictions is more apparent or had more far-reaching effects than Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution.
The Weimar Constitution
Faced with a defeated Army, a shattered economy, and a power vacuum which encouraged political violence, the leadership of the Weimar Republic and the framers of its new Constitution found themselves in an incredibly difficult position. In December 1918, these legal experts, under the control of Interior State Secretary Hugo Preuss, began to draft the founding document of the Weimar Republic. Preuss and many of the drafters sought to remedy the ills of the authoritarian imperial system and adopt a system more similar to the United States and Britain. Preuss happened to be Jewish, leading antisemites and far-right sympathizers to condemn Weimar as the “Jews' Republic.”
The writers began with the premise that the legitimacy of the state rested on the consent of the people. They also thought it vital to enshrine personal liberties such as free speech and assembly, equality before the law as well as equal rights for women. Indeed, the German Constitution gave women the right to vote a year before the United States passed similar legislation. In addition, it provided the foundation for a welfare state which took previous forms of social and economic support, first introduced by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in the Imperial era, and now identified them as rights.
The Weimar Constitution, however, represented Germany's first major foray into a fundamentally democratic system of government. Many in the German elite remained monarchists, supportive of an authoritarian form of government, and unwilling to accept a constitution that challenged too many conservative values and which they viewed as radically liberal. As a result, the framers of the Weimar Constitution attempted the very difficult task of creating a system that would be acceptable to both the left and the right.
The Political Structure Established by the Weimar Constitution
The Weimar Constitution established three central political forces.
First, it created the Reichstag, a legislative body elected by the people. This congress was based on proportional representation, meaning that its seats were divided based on the percentage of the popular vote that each party received.
Second, the Chancellor was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the government, particularly in the executive branch. It was expected that the Chancellor would be elected from the ranks of the majority party or coalition in the Reichstag.
Third, the President held overall ceremonial and real political power. He was directly elected by popular vote and could dismiss the Chancellor. He also controlled the military and could call for new Reichstag elections at will. The office of the President was intended by right-wing politicians to be a check on the powers of the legislature as the President could essentially create and destroy governments at will.
Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution
Embedded within the Weimar Constitution was an article that encompassed the right/left political tension and would be fundamental to Hitler's rise to power. This was Article 48, which stated that “If public security and order are seriously disturbed or endangered within the German Reich, the President of the Reich may take measures necessary for their restoration, intervening if need be with the assistance of the armed forces.” It also allowed the President to suspend civil liberties guaranteed in the Weimar Constitution.
It allowed the President to declare a state of emergency in Germany in times of national danger and to rule as a dictator for short periods of time. The intent was to offer an opportunity for a strong executive leader to take decisive action in times of crisis without navigating what could be a slower legislative process. It was, however, a fatal flaw written into the founding document of the Weimar Republic. This is not to say that it was always abused. President Friedrich Ebert used Article 48 sixty-three times in 1923–24 alone to deal with critical economic dangers facing Germany. Yet, each time he returned his dictatorial powers after a short period time.
Rule by Decree
President Hindenburg, elected in 1925, was a former Prussian general and arch-conservative who distrusted democracy and the Weimar system. In addition, as a result of increasing economic and political turmoil, the Reichstag was often unable to come to a consensus supporting the Chancellor. Hindenburg, not interested in the ins and outs of parliamentary politics, began to routinely use Article 48 to achieve his aims.
The habit of ruling via decree rather than legislation weakened the power of the Reichstag as well as the public's confidence in the Weimar system. It also became a difficult habit to break. The President consistently operated outside of the very system he was meant to uphold. Hindenburg invoked Article 48 sixty times in 1932 alone.
The Significance of Article 48
Article 48 did not solely bring about the collapse of the Weimar Republic but it drastically weakened a system already operating under extreme tension. Rather than a solution for national emergencies, it became a crutch for authoritarian elites to resume ruling by decree. It also undermined the public's faith in democracy. The overuse of Article 48 prepared the way for Adolf Hitler (appointed by Hindenburg) to become Chancellor; indeed, its unlimited expansion was one of his unmet terms for joining the government.
After the Reichstag Fire of 1933, Hitler relied on the precedent of Article 48 to pass the Enabling Act which gave him truly unlimited dictatorial powers. This Enabling Act effectively eliminated the Reichstag as an active force in German politics and allowed the new Nazi government to deviate from the Weimar Constitution. Non-Nazi parties were formally outlawed on 14 July 1933, ensuring Hitler's ultimate success in establishing the Nazi dictatorship.