Primary Documents - George Saunders on the New German Constitution, February 1919

New German President Friedrich Ebert Following the German revolution in November 1918 - which saw the forced abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II - a fresh constitution was drawn up and a new assembly established; the latter first met on 6 February 1919.

Reproduced below is British journalist George Saunders' summary of the compilation of the new constitution and its implications.

Click here to read new President Friedrich Ebert's opening address to the assembly on 7 February 1919; click here to read an extract from a follow-up address four days later.  Click here to read former military leader Erich Ludendorff's condemnation of the new government, in which he first expounded his widely aired belief that the army had been effectively 'stabbed in the back' by subversive political forces rather than beaten in the field.

George Saunders on the New German Constitution, February 1919

It must be acknowledged that the German Government and National Assembly proceeded in an expeditious and businesslike manner to give the empire a new constitution.

The National Assembly, elected by universal male and female suffrage, met on February 6th, at Weimar, and within four days enacted a provisional constitution, in accordance with which it chose a provisional president of the new empire (Herr Ebert) and set up a Council of States to take the place provisionally of the old Federal Council.

The president appointed a ministry of the empire, which proceeded to draw up the scheme of a definite constitution.  This measure, after having been materially revised by a special Committee of the Assembly and by the Assembly itself in plenary session, passed the third reading on July 31st, and was promulgated on August 11th.

As compared with the constitution under which the late German Empire existed, the new arrangements exhibit one feature which is of fundamental importance.  The old imperial constitution of 1871, like that of the North German Confederation on which it was built, was essentially a treaty between the rulers of the different German states.  The constitution of August, 1919, is the expression of the will of the sovereign German people expressed through its representatives in the National or Constituent Assembly, which alone and without the cooperation of the president or the Committee of States enacted the new arrangements.

Under the old constitution Bavaria and, in a lesser degree, Wurttemberg and Saxony, retained a certain independence in the organization of their military forces.  They had War Ministers of their own, and Bavaria had separate army estimates.  All this has been abolished by Article 79, which enacts that the organization of the national defences is to be arranged on a unified basis, though some regard is to he paid to local peculiarities.  In accordance with this provision, Noske, the Minister of Imperial Defense, has assumed supreme control of all the German forces.

The new German Army (Reichswehr) has been divided into four main groups or commands, with headquarters at Berlin, Kassel, Stettin and Munich.  Subordinate to the Berlin command is Dresden, and to the Kassel command, Stuttgart and Hanover.  These arrangements suffice to show how radical are the constitutional changes in the sphere of the army when they come to be carried out in detail.

Of still more vital significance for the unification of the empire is the centralization of the finances.  This is not explicitly enacted in the new constitution, but Article 84 gives the empire legislative power with regard to the management of taxation in the separate territories (states) "so far as the unified and uniform execution of the imperial taxation laws demands."

The empire, moreover, can institute the authorities who are to be entrusted in the states with the collection of imperial taxation and can define their powers.  Direct taxation, until the date of the levy for the imperial defences the year before the war, had been the prerogative of the separate states.  The scheme of taxation recently announced by Herr Erzberger, the Imperial Minister of Finance, shows that this preserve of the separate states will now be formally invaded by the empire, with the probable result that the states will more and more lose the basis for their separate political existence.

One of the new institutions which marks the supersession of some of the old state rights is the Reichsrat or Council of Empire.  It forms the definitive substitute for the old Federal Council, but its position is very different.  Under the old regime all legislation was initiated in the Federal Council, where the supremacy of Prussia, and with it the personal supremacy of the King of Prussia, the German Emperor, was practically secured.

The larger states will be represented in the Reichsrat by one vote for each million inhabitants, and each state will have at least one vote.  No state is to have more than two-fifths of the votes (Article 61).  Roughly speaking, the new council of the empire will be composed of about 60 to 65 members, of which Prussia will appoint 24 to 26.

These delegates will be chosen from the members of the governments of the separate states.  In the case of Prussia, however, it is enacted (Article 63) that the half of its representatives on the council must be supplied by the Prussian provincial administrations in a manner which a future Prussian law is to decide.  This provision is manifestly intended as a sop to the partitionists, who desired the division of Prussia into several smaller states, and who, if Professor Preuss's first draft of the constitution had been adopted, would have carried their point.

Under the old regime the Federal Council was supreme, though, as already mentioned, that supremacy was in practice exercised by the King of Prussia through the chancellor.  The Imperial Secretaries of state were mere organs of the Imperial Chancellor.  Now there is an Imperial Government with ministers who in all essentials are independent of the Council of Empire (Reichsrat).

The members of the Imperial Government have the right to attend the sittings of the Reichsrat, over which one of them is to preside.  The sessions of the Reichsrat, unlike those of the old Federal Council must as a rule be public.  The Reichsrat, it is true, can initiate legislation, for the Imperial Government is bound to submit its legislative proposals to the Reichstag.

The popular assembly, the Reichstag, also has the power of legislative initiative, and so has the electorate itself.  In the case of the electorate, the demand for a legislative measure (which must first be formally drafted) must be supported by at least one-tenth of the registered electors.  If the Reichstag thereupon passes the measure without alteration, no further plebiscite is required.  Otherwise, it would appear (Article 73, section 3), a general plebiscite on the measure has to be taken.

The Reichsrat may hold up a measure which has been passed by the Reichstag.  In that case the measure goes back to the Reichstag and, if no agreement is attained, the president of the empire may within three months order a plebiscite.  If he does not decide to take this course the measure lapses.  If, however, a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag maintains the bill, the president must either within three months promulgate the measure as law or must ordain a plebiscite (Article 74).

These arrangements, it will be seen, represent a great curtailment of the powers of the state governments in the initiation and control of legislation.

The only other points in the constitution which space permits to be dealt with here are the articles which define the position and powers of the president. President Ebert was elected by the National or Constituent Assembly.  The constitution provides that the president shall be chosen by the whole German electorate, but a law has first to be passed in order to regulate the mode of election.

The president takes in the new constitution the place which the German Emperor occupied under the old regime, but his powers are, naturally, much more limited.  He is to be elected for seven years, but may be re-elected - how often the constitution does not say.

Before the expiration of his period of office he may be deposed by a plebiscite on the initiative of a two-thirds majority of the Reichstag (Article 43).  If the plebiscite results in the rejection of the proposal for deposition, the president is to be regarded as re-elected for another seven years.

Like the emperor under the old regime, the president is to be the representative of the empire in its international relations, but, unlike the emperor, he is subject to the decision of the Reichstag in the matters of the declaration of war and the conclusion of peace (Article 45).  He has the supreme command of the armed forces of the empire, and he appoints and dismisses the officials of the empire and the officers of the army and, presumably, of the navy, although, by the way, there is no mention of a navy in the whole constitution.

All dispositions and ordinances of the president, including his control of the army and of military appointments, require the signature of the Imperial Chancellor or of the minister whose department they concern.  These ministers thereby take responsibility for the president's acts, a responsibility which does not merely, as under the old regime, necessitate the delivery of a speech in the Reichstag but entails the minister's resignation, if the Reichstag expresses its want of confidence in him (Article 54).

The president of the empire, the chancellor, and the ministers can be impeached at the instance of the Reichstag before the future State Court of Justice.  But, as has been pointed out by German critics, and as, indeed, the constitution expressly states, they can be brought to trial only on the charge of having "culpably infringed the constitution or a law of the empire."

The Bulows, the Bethmann-Hollwegs, and the Michaelises would have got off scot free.  It was their acts of policy, not breaches of the constitution or of the laws, that wrought the damage.

In examining the prerogatives of the German President it is interesting to speculate upon the loopholes which the constitution might afford for establishing a dictatorship or restoring the monarchy.

In this connection it is important to note that after having, on the second reading, adopted an article proposed by the Independent Socialists for the permanent exclusion of all members of the former ruling families from candidature for the presidency, the National Assembly on the third reading rejected this article - by 198 votes to 141.

Unfortunately, there is no adequate report of either of the debates available.  There must have been some interesting discussion of the possibility of a restoration.  The decision of the Reichstag was probably dictated by the consideration that all Germans are in future to be equal before the law, and that the exclusion of the princes would establish an inequality.

The ex-Emperor's sons and grandchildren, as is well known, are allowed to live in Germany without incurring any disabilities.

The president's control of the army, it has been noted, is subject to the responsibility of the chancellor or the war minister, expressed in their counter-signature of his ordinances.  But, in the event of civil disorder, he can apparently act at once on his own initiative, "if necessary with the help of the armed forces" (Article 48).

He can also, in the same emergency, suspend a number of articles of the constitution which guarantee the liberties of the citizen and freedom of speech, writing and public meeting.  It is true that he must "without delay" inform the Reichstag of the exceptional measures which he has adopted, and that the Reichstag may demand that these measures should be abandoned.

Yet it is conceivable that, if a president secretly cherished reactionary aims and were supported by the bulk of the army, he might go far in achieving his object before the Reichstag could intervene.  A German MacMahon, or Louis Napoleon, might wrest the constitution to his own ends.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VII, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Prevalent dysentery among Allied soldiers in Gallipoli came to be referred to as "the Gallipoli gallop".

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