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Friedrich Ebert, president in 1919-1925, painted by Lovis Corinth in 1924
Paul von Hindenburg, president in 1925-1934, painted by Max Liebermann in 1927

The Reichspräsident was the German head of state during the period of the 1919-1934 Weimar Republic and the title was later briefly revived in 1945. The German title Reichspräsident literally means Realm President (reich is a German word that roughly means "empire", "realm", and refers to the central/federal level of government). In English he is usually simply referred to as the President of Germany (like the modern Bundespräsident).

The Weimar constitution created a semi-presidential system in which power was divided between the president, a cabinet and a parliament. The Reichspräsident was directly elected under universal adult suffrage for a seven year term. It was intended that the president would rule in conjunction with the Reichstag (legislature) and that his emergency powers would be exercised only in extraordinary circumstances, but the political instability of the Weimar period, and a paralysing factionalism in the legislature, meant that the president came to occupy a position of considerable power (not unlike that of the German Kaiser he replaced), capable of legislating by decree and appointing and dismissing governments at will.

In 1934, Hitler's Nazi government merged the office with his own Reichskanzler office. Hitler now styled himself Führer und Reichskanzler ("Führer and Reich Chancellor"). It was later revived in the last days of the Nazi regime when Hitler named Karl Dönitz his successor as Reichspräsident (but not as Chancellor) upon his suicide in April, 1945.

The modern office of President of Germany (Bundespräsident), established in 1949, is the successor to the office of Reichspräsident. However, it is largely a ceremonial position, granting most executive powers to the Chancellor.

Contents

List of Presidents of Germany (1919-1945)

Election

Candidate Karl Jarres (conservatives and national liberals) in 1925, first round
Propaganda for Paul von Hindenburg, right wing candidate in the second round of 1925
Propaganda at a poll site, April 12th 1932

The Weimar constitution required that the president be directly elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of seven years; reelection was permitted. This is in contrast to the modern Federal President who is indirectly elected, by a Federal Convention, for a five year term and can only be reelected once. Nonetheless, during the Weimar Republic only two direct presidential elections actually occurred.

The first Reich President, the social democrat Friedrich Ebert, was elected by the National Assembly on February 11th 1919. This election was in principle provisional. Ebert wanted to be elected by the people in 1922 when, after the Rathenau murder, the situation seemed to be positive. But Gustav Stresemann from the national liberals persuaded the other centrist parties to avoid elections in politically turbulent times. In October 1922 the Reichstag extended Ebert's presidency to June 30th 1925. Because this was not according to the constitution, this decision needed a two thirds majority. In February 1925 Ebert died.

The two direct elections were the election of Paul von Hindenburg in 1925, and his re-election in 1932. Hitler wanted to avoid elections and took the presidential powers over after Hindenburg had died in August 1934. The two presidential elections of the Weimar period were:

During the Weimar period the law provided that the presidency was open to all German citizens who had reached 35 years of age. The direct election of the president occurred under a form of the two round system. If no candidate received the support of an absolute majority of votes cast (i.e. more than half) in a first round of voting, a second vote was held at a later date. In this round the candidate who received the support of a plurality of voters was deemed elected. A group could also nominate a substitute candidate in the second round, in place of the candidate it had supported in the first.

The Reich President could not be a member of the Reichstag (parliament) at the same time. The constitution required that on taking office the president swore the following oath (the inclusion of additional religious language was permitted):

I swear to devote my energy to the welfare of the German people, to increase its prosperity, to prevent damage, to hold up the Reich constitution and its laws, to consciously honour my duties and to exercise justice to every individual.

Duties and functions

The Presidential Palace (Reichspräsidentenpalais) in Berlin
  • Appointment of the Government: The Reichskanzler ("Reich Chancellor") and his cabinet were appointed and dismissed by the president. No vote of confirmation was required in the Reichstag before the members of the cabinet could assume office, but any member of the cabinet was obliged to resign if the body passed a motion of no confidence in him. The president could appoint and dismiss the chancellor at will, but all other cabinet members could, save in the event of a no confidence motion, only be appointed or dismissed at the chancellor's request.
  • Dissolution of the Reichstag: The president had the right to dissolve the Reichstag at any time, in which case a general election had to occur within sixty days. Theoretically, he was not permitted to do so more than once for the same "reason", but this limitation had little significance in practice.
  • Promulgation of the law: The president was responsible for signing bills into law. The president was constitutionally obliged to sign every law passed in accordance with the correct procedure but could insist that a bill first be submitted to the electorate in a referendum. Such a referendum could, however, only override the decision of the Reichstag if a majority of eligible voters participated.
  • Foreign relations: Under the constitution, the president was entitled to represent the nation in its foreign affairs, to accredit and receive ambassadors and to conclude treaties in the name of the state. However approval of the Reichstag was required to declare war, conclude peace or to conclude any treaty that related to German laws.
  • Commander-in-chief: The president held "supreme command" of the armed forces.
  • Amnesties: The president had the right to confer amnesties.
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Emergency powers

The Weimar constitution granted the president sweeping powers in the event of a crisis. Article 48 empowered the president, if "public order and security [were] seriously disturbed or endangered" to "take all necessary steps to re-establish law and order". These permissible steps included the use of armed force and the suspension of many of the civil rights otherwise guaranteed by the constitution. Most importantly, the president could take over the legislative powers of the Reichstag by issuing Notverordnungen, (emergency decrees) which had the same rank as conventional acts of parliament.

The Reichstag had to be informed immediately of any measures taken under Article 48 and had the right to reverse any such measures. Even so, during the Weimar period the article was used to effectively by-pass parliament. Furthermore, although the article was intended for use only in an extraordinary emergency the article was invoked many times, even before 1933. An additional special power conferred on the Reichspräsident by the constitution was authority to use armed force to oblige a state government to cooperate if it failed to meet its obligations under the constitution or under federal law.

Powers in practice

The Reichstag, 12 September 1932: Chancellor Franz von Papen (standing left) who wants to declare the dismission, above at the right the Reichstag president Hermann Göring (NSDAP) who looks the other way

The Weimar constitution created a system in which the cabinet was answerable to both the president and the legislature. This meant that the parliament had the power to make a government retreat without the burden to create a new one. Ebert and Hindenburg (initially) both attempted to appoint cabinets that enjoyed the confidence of the Reichstag. Most of the Weimar governments were minority cabinets of the centrist parties tolerated by the social democrats or the conservatives.

Ebert (especially in 1923) and Hindenburg (from 1930 onwards) supported governments also by presidential decrees. The last four cabinets of the republic (Brüning I and II, Papen, Schleicher) are even called "presidential" cabinets (Präsidialkabinette) because the presidential decrees more and more replaced the Reichstag legislature. Under Brüning the social democrats still tolerated the government by not supporting motions that revoked the decrees, but since Papen (1932) they refused to do so. This made Hindenburg dismissing the parliament twice in order to "buy" time without a working Parliament.

Removal and succession

The Weimar constitution did not provide for a vice presidency. If the president died or left office prematurely a successor would be elected. During a temporary vacancy, or in the event that the president was "unavailable", the powers and functions of the presidency passed to the chancellor. This mechanism was exploited by Adolf Hitler following the death of Hindenburg. As chancellor, the powers of the president devolved on Hitler, who merged the two offices by creating the position of Führer und Reichskanzler ("Führer and Reich Chancellor").

The provisions of the Weimar constitution for the impeachment or deposition of the president are similar to those found in the Constitution of Austria. The Weimar constitution provided that the president could be removed from office prematurely by a referendum initiated by the Reichstag. To require such a referendum the Reichstag had to pass a motion supported by at least two-thirds of votes cast in the chamber. If such a proposal to depose the president was rejected by voters the president would be deemed to have been re-elected and the Reichstag would be automatically dissolved.

The Reichstag also had authority to impeach the president before the Staatsgerichtshof, a court exclusively concerned with disputes between state organs. However it could only do this on a charge of willfully violating German law; furthermore the move had to be supported by a two-thirds majority of votes cast, at a meeting with a quorum of two-thirds of the total number of members.

History

The Reichspräsident was established as a kind of Ersatzkaiser, that is, a substitute for the powerful monarch who had reigned in Germany until 1918. The new president's role was therefore informed, at least in part, by that played by the Kaiser under the system of constitutional monarchy being replaced. Hugo Preuss, the writer of the Weimar constitution, is said to have accepted the advice of Max Weber as to the term of office and powers of the presidency, and the method by which the president would be elected. The structure of the relationship between the Reichspräsident and Reichstag is said to have been suggested by Robert Redslop, who believed that France's Third Republic had been brought down by a too powerful legislature.

On 11 February 1919, the National Assembly elected Friedrich Ebert of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as the first Reich President by 379 votes to 277. While in office he used emergency decrees on a number of occasions, including to suppress the Kapp Putsch in 1920. His term came to an abrupt end with his death in 1925. In the election that followed Hindenburg was eventually settled on as the candidate of the political right, while the 'Weimar coalition' united behind Wilhelm Marx of Zentrum (the 'Catholic Centre Party'). Many on the right hoped that once in office Hindenburg would destroy Weimar democracy from the inside but in the years that followed his election Hindenburg never attempted to overthrow the Weimar constitution outright.

In March 1930 Hindenburg appointed Heinrich Brüning to head the first "presidential cabinet", which did not enjoy the support of the Reichstag. In July Hindenburg adopted the national budget by decree and, when the Reichstag reversed this act, he dissolved the legislature. The years that followed would see an explosion of legislation by decree, where previously this power had been used only occasionally.

In March 1932 Hindenburg, although suffering from the onset of senility, decided to stand for re-election. Adolf Hitler was his major opponent but Hindenburg won the election by a substantial margin. In June he replaced Brüning as chancellor with Franz von Papen and again dissolved the Reichstag, before it could adopt a vote of no confidence. After reconvening it was again dissolved in September.

After briefly appointing General Kurt von Schleicher as chancellor in December, Hindenburg responded to growing civil unrest and Nazi activism by appointing Hitler as chancellor in January, 1933. A parliamentary dissolution followed after which Hitler's government, with the aid of another party, were able to command the support of a majority in the Reichstag. On 23 March the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act, which effectively brought an end to the Weimar constitution. From this point onwards almost all political authority was exercised by Hitler.

Hitler's government issued a law providing that upon Hindenburg's death (which occurred in August 1934) the rights of the Reichspräsident, which had to remain undisturbed, would be transferred to Hitler, while the office of Reichspräsident itself would be abolished and replaced with the new position of Führer und Reichskanzler ("Führer and Reich Chancellor"), occupied by Hitler as supreme leader. That was approved by a vote on 19 August.

Hitler committed suicide on 30 April, 1945, as World War II in Europe drew to a close. In his Final Political Testament Hitler stated that Karl Dönitz was to succeed him as head of state, with the revived title of president and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was to succeed him as head of government with the title of Reichskanzler. Goebbels committed suicide shortly after Hitler and within days Dönitz ordered Germany's military (not political) surrender on the 7 May, which ended the war in Europe. He then appointed Ludwig von Krosigk as chancellor and the two attempted to gather together a government. However this government was not recognised by the Allied powers and was dissolved when its members were captured and arrested by British forces on 23 May at Flensburg.

On 5 June 1945 the four occupying powers signed a document creating the Allied Control Council, that did not mention the name of the previous German government. On signing the de facto government of Germany became the de jure.

See also

References

  • Chapter 4, Presidents and Assemblies, Matthew Soberg Shugart and John M. Carey, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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