Reichstag (Weimar Republic)
Though German constitution commentators consider only the Reichstag and now the Bundestag the German parliament, in fact Germany since 1871 is governed by a bicameral legislature, of which the Reichstag served as a kind of lower house and the Reichsrat (from 1949 on the Bundesrat) the upper house. Actually the Reichsrat represented the governments of the federal German states.
According to the 1919 Weimar Constitution, the Reichstag MPs were to be elected in general universal suffrage according to the principle of proportional representation. Votes were cast for nationwide party lists. Elections were to be held after a legislative session of four years. Because of some special requirements, there were still incongruencies between the total share of votes and the share of mandates.
There was no threshold for getting a seat in the Reichstag. A party could win a seat with as little as 0.4 percent of the national vote—one seat for every 60,000 votes. While this provision was intended to reduce wasted votes, it also resulted in a very large number of parties being represented in the chamber. Combined with the nationwide party-list system, this made it extremely difficult to form a stable government.
Moreover, each political party wanted to pull Germany in a different direction and often refused to compromise with, or even recognize other parties. As scholar Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote in 1943:
- Catholic Centrists wanted to create conditions in Germany which would make it easier for the individuals to save their souls; Socialists denied the existence of souls and divided people into classes; the German Nationalists were interested in language and culture; while the National Socialists put the main stress on race. Whereas some looked at pocketbooks, others at the pigmentation of the skin or the index of the skull, fruitful discussions became impossible. When the speaker of one party indulged in his oratory, the others walked out. It was not worth while to listen to somebody's opinion when you knew that his premises were all wrong. The grim determination to silence the unconvincible enemy by execution or imprisonment already existed prior to 1933 in many parties.
The parliament passed legislation and the government budget as well as declarations of war and ratified treaties. The members of the German government were responsible to the Reichstag, it could enforce the resignation of minsters or the whole cabinet by a motion of no confidence, revoke "emergency decrees" by the Reich President according to Article 48 —however, in turn the President was able to dissolve the Reichstag. In contrast, the Reichsrat organ of the states' representatives had minor significance. The constitution also provided the possibility of referenda, but the hurdles were high. There were only two plebiscites (in 1926 on the Expropriation of the Princes and on the 1929 "Liberty Law" against the Young Plan), which were both unsuccessful.
In the 1928 election, the Nazi Party had won 12 seats in the Reichstag, but they accumulated an additional 95 seats within the following two years. Upon the election of 1932 the Nazis and the Communist Party together as declared enemies of the parliamentary system held an absolute majority. In 1920–1923 and from 1930 on, the parliament was often circumvented by two instruments not provided (as such) by the constitution:
- the extensive use of the powers that were granted to the president under the Emergency Decree in Article 48 of the constitution,
- the use of enabling acts, especially in 1919-1923, and then again the Enabling Act of 1933 after Hitler had been appointed Chancellor, that formed an important basis of his dictatorship.
With this latter enabling act, the Reichstag formally dispensed from itself exclusive responsibility for the exercise of the legislative power.
From then on the parliament only functioned as a one-party-assembly and a body of ratification by acclamation, for the actions of the dictatorship. Even in its purely ceremonial role, the Third Reich's Reichstag convened only 20 times, for the last time on April 26, 1942. On January 25, 1943, five days before the expiration of the last Reichstag's period, the inaugural of a new body was postponed for another electoral term until January 30, 1947 on decree of the Führer.
When in 1948/1949 the West German politicians established a new democracy, they used the word Bund (federation) in place of Reich; in German constitutional history both terms were rather exchangeable. With memories of how the Nazis exploited the weaknesses of the Reichstag still fresh, they built in several safeguards to prevent a repeat occurrence. The new parliament became the Bundestag, elected by mixed-member proportional representation—a mix of members elected from individual constituencies and state party lists. To qualify for proportional representation, a party must either win at least five percent of the nationwide vote or three directly elected seats. To be elected head of government (Bundeskanzler), it is necessary to acquire an absolute majority in the Bundestag. Besides the Bundestag, the Bundesrat (representing the governments of the states) has a decisive vote on legislation if states' interests are concerned.
After German unification, the Reichstag gathered first in the houses of the Prussian Landtag in Berlin, then, in 1871, it decided to have a new building built. For the time until it had its seat in the former porcelain manufactory on Leipziger Straße No. 4. Only 23 years later the new building was ready. This building is today known as the Reichstagsgebäude or short Reichstag. It was opened in 1894.
After the building was severely damaged in the Reichstag fire of February 1933, the Nazi Reichstag met in the nearby Kroll Opera House. Towards the end of the war the remaining, but heavily damaged building was the object of numerous Soviet assaults because it was seen as a symbol of the Third Reich. They hoisted the Red Flag just in time for the Mayday celebrations of 1945. After the war, it was repaired and used as an exposition hall, but major renovation and rebuilding was needed for the new German Bundestag. Since 1999 the German Bundestag parliament again uses the Reichstag as its permanent building. The official address is Platz der Republik 1.
- Moonis Raza. Geographical Dictionary Of The World In The Early 20th Century With Pronouncing Gazetteer (in 2 Vos.). New Delhi, India: Concept Publishing Company, 1990. Pp. 712.
- Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, under the pen name Francis Stewart Campbell (1943) The Menace of the Herd, or Procrustes at Large, The Bruce Publishing Company, p. 183
- Peter Hubert: Uniformierter Reichstag. Die Geschichte der Pseudo-Volksvertretung 1933–1945. Droste Verlag, Düsseldorf 1992
- Joachim Lilla: Statisten in Uniform. Die Mitglieder des Reichstags 1933–1945. Droste Verlag, Düsseldorf 2004
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