1848 Chapter 8: The Long Road to German Democracy
From the Empire to the Federal Republic
In the hall of mirrors of the French royal palace of Versailles, of all places, the former conqueror of the revolution, King Wilhelm of Prussia, is proclaimed German Emperor in January 1871. After the victory over Napoleon III and France, the German unification process is completed by men in military uniforms.
The new German Empire is a constitutional state, and in 1900 the Civil Code, admired throughout Europe, comes into force. But voting rights, political freedoms and democratic participation rights are undemocratic or severely limited. The empire is structured along military lines, with the aristocracy and the upper middle classes setting the tone.
After the First World War (1914-1918) was lost, a democratic imperial constitution came into force for the first time in 1919 in the Weimar Republic. Just 14 years later, law and freedom perish in the National Socialist terror state. The mass murder of European Jews and other minorities, state terror and the war of extermination are the low point of German legal history. It was not until the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 that comprehensive fundamental rights were established and democracy was also safeguarded against its enemies.
As a Jew, the constitutional law expert Hugo Preuß, born in 1860, was unable to obtain a professorship. It was not until 1906 that he was allowed to teach at the Berlin Handelshochschule. The left-liberal Preuß advocated local self-government. He coined the term „authoritarian state“ in contrast to parliamentary democracy. He is elected to the Berlin City Council, co- founds the left-liberal German Democratic Party in 1919 and enters the Prussian Parliament.
After the November Revolution of 1918, Preuß is appointed state secretary in the Reich Ministry of the Interior and is commissioned by Reich Chancellor Friedrich Ebert to draft an imperial constitution. At Ebert’s special request, Hugo Preuß added a fundamental rights section to the draft. The later constitution closely follows the fundamental rights of the Paulskirche constitution.
Preuß is briefly the first Reich Minister of the Interior of the Weimar Republic. Even before 1933, the National Socialists denigrate the Weimar Reich Constitution as „un-German“ because its author, Hugo Preuß, is Jewish. Preuß dies in Berlin in 1925 shortly before his 65th birthday.
Two Constitutions: Federal Republic and GDR
On September 1st 1948, the Parliamentary Council begins work on a constitution for the western states. On the basis of various draft constitutions, the body wrestles for months over the „Basic Law“ for the future Federal Republic of Germany. Basic rights form the core of the constitution, and the regulations governing democratic elections, the formation of government and the distribution of powers between the federal and state governments also reflect the experience of the Weimar Republic and the totalitarian Nazi regime.
On May 24th 1949, the Basic Law comes into force, and the Federal Republic of Germany is formally founded. Only CSU-governed Bavaria rejects the Basic Law, fearing that it would give the federal government too strong a position vis-à-vis the states.
In the Soviet occupation zone, a constitution of its own comes into force on October 7th 1949. However, the „German Democratic Republic“ is neither a parliamentary democracy nor a liberal constitutional state. Its constitution secures the absolute power base of the Communist Party SED. Opposition figures are criminalized and imprisoned in the GDR.
Equal Rights? The Right to Vote for Women
Neither the Paulskirche Constitution of 1848 nor the Reich Constitution of 1871 granted women the right to vote or to stand for election: they could neither vote nor be elected to political office. The First World War, with its temporary softening of gender roles, promotes legal equality for women in Europe: Young women, who take over men’s jobs during the war due to the men’s absence, including in industrial firms and in service professions, demand political participation rights.
Some Scandinavian countries are the first to introduce women’s suffrage, starting in 1906, followed by Russia and the Netherlands in 1917. In 1918/19, Germany, Austria, Poland, Sweden and Czechoslovakia join in, followed by the U.S. in 1920 and Great Britain in 1928. Bringing up the rear in Europe are France (1944) and Switzerland in 1971.
Elisabeth Selbert, Frieda Nadig, Helene Weber and Helene Wessel: The Four Mothers of the Basic Law
The Parliamentary Council, the preliminary deliberative body for the creation of a constitution for the West German states, includes 65 voting members elected by the state parliaments. Only four of them are women:
Elisabeth Selbert, a businesswoman from Kassel who later became a lawyer, joined the SPD in 1918. In the party work of the Weimar Republic, she fights for the legal equality of men and women.
Frieda Nadig (SPD), a Prussian social politician, also has parliamentary experience when she is sent to the Parliamentary Council in 1948, where she is a staunch advocate of equal rights for women and equal treatment of legitimate and illegitimate children.
Helene Weber, a native of Elberfeld, has held a Reichstag seat for the Center Party since 1919. During the Nazi era, she works as a welfare worker. In the Parliamentary Council and the Bundestag, she is committed to equal pay for men and women.
Helene Wessel is a youth welfare worker in Dortmund and, from 1928, a member of the Prussian parliament for the Center Party. After the Nazi era,
she is one of the party’s re-founders. In the German Bundestag, she speaks out against German rearmament.
Theodor Heuss: The First President of West German Democracy
As a member of parliament for the liberal German State Party, the Swabian Theodor Heuss voted in favor of the Enabling Act in 1933, with which Chancellor Hitler stripped parliament of its power and suspended fundamental rights. Heuss explained after the war that this was intended to put a stop to the violent dissolution of the Reichstag and the terror of the streets.
During the Nazi era, Heuss was under surveillance and banned from publishing; he struggled to make ends meet as a freelance journalist. After the end of the war, he becomes Minister of Culture in Württemberg-Baden and newspaper publisher. In 1948 he is the first chairman of the newly founded FDP. He works on the Basic Law in the Parliamentary Council, enters the Bundestag and is elected the first Federal President of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.
During two terms in office, he leads the Federal Republic back onto the international stage, promotes a united Europe at an early stage and sets standards with his speeches in the appreciation of the German resistance against Hitler. In 1963, the year of Heuss‘ death, he published his memoirs, which are still worth reading today.
Carlo Schmid: Courage for a Defensible Democracy
Carlo Schmid, who was born in France and grew up in Württemberg, took part in the First World War, studied law and qualified as a professor at the University of Tübingen. The „Third Reich“ interrupts Schmid’s career, he is considered „ideologically unreliable“. In occupied Lille, he is able to help endangered Frenchmen as an occupation officer.
After the war, Schmid joined the SPD, became Minister of Justice in Württemberg-Hohenzollern and chaired the main committee of the Parliamentary Council. Democracy, he says, is more than a matter of
expediency; it is something „necessary for human dignity.“ It must also have the „courage to be intolerant of those who want to use democracy to kill it.“
Schmid pushed through the inclusion of the right to conscientious objection, the right to asylum and the constructive vote of no confidence in the Basic Law. The convinced European was a member of the German Bundestag until 1972. Throughout his life, he was committed to Franco- German reconciliation. His „Memoirs,“ published in 1979, remain an outstanding work on German history in the 20th century.