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Weimar, 1919: Birth of Germany's first democracy

January 19, 2019

In 1919, German women voted for the first time — in an election that was to play a pivotal role in the country's history. It came on the heels of the disastrous Great War and the year before Hitler formed the Nazi party.

Women's suffrage campaigners advocating for their candidate in January 1919, ahead the first election in which German women could vote
Image: picture-alliance/AdsD/Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

"For the people, by the people," declared Social Democrat politician Philipp Scheidemann on November 9, 1918, from a Reichstag balcony in Berlin. He was proclaiming the founding of the republic, if only a provisional one at first. A vote took place two months later, on January 19, 1919. In between, a caretaker government led by Friedrich Ebert, chairman of the Social Democrats (SPD), oversaw the transition from monarchy to parliamentary democracy.

It came at the cost of thousands of lives — revolutionaries who fought in a civil war. Among the victims were Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, founders of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). They were murdered four days before the election. Germany's first democracy was born under ominous conditions. Germany's SPD-dominated provisional congress dissolved itself in December 1918 to make way for the first free, fair, direct and open general elections.

Read more: Germany marks 100 years since Luxemburg-Liebknecht murders

1919 German election ad
"Women: Same rights, same responsibilities — Vote Social Democrats," reads this 1919 campaign posterImage: AdsD der Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Women vote for first time

Women had finally gained the right to vote, and the voting age was lowered from 25 to 20. The SPD's hope for an absolute majority went unfulfilled, instead taking first position with 37.9 percent of the vote. They formed a coalition with the Catholic Center Party and the liberal German Democratic Party (DDP).

The KPD boycotted the election, seeing it as a betrayal of the revolution, and therefore had no representation. However, Rosa Luxemburg is said to have tried to persuade her party not to boycott. She did not believe communist victory would be swift, as many of her followers did, the historian Marcel Bois told DW.

"Luxemburg recognized that the SPD would remain the strongest element in the worker movement,"he said.

Read more: The SPD: Germany's oldest political party

Worker movement inspires

Luxemburg is said to have advocated for participating because an election campaign is the place to take part in debate. The SPD and Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) partially profited from the KPD's absence. The right-wing liberal German People's Party (DVP) and German National People's Party (DNVP), each critical of the new republic, together received just 15 percent of the vote.

"Most of Germany went red," Bois said, pointing to the SPD's widespread wins. USPD did well in Germany's industrial center, while the Center Party fared well in Catholic areas, namely Germany's west and what is now Bavaria. Meanwhile, parts of the republic's eastern areas trended towards the nationalist and anti-Semitic DNVP.

Weimar: The interwar era

The national assembly met two weeks after the election, on February 6. However, it did not convene in Berlin, but rather in the central, much smaller city of Weimar, which was considered safer than the still . The new parliament consisted of 423 representatives in all, including 37 women. Although Weimar would come to be known for its place in cultural, literary, and architectural history, lend its name to the interwar government, and become mythologized by the Nazis in particular, Bois does not see the location itself as having been a fateful one. "Political developments to come, I believe, would have a much greater impact," the historian said.

Read more: The Weimar Republic — a pivotal era and more than 'Berlin Babylon' cliches

The biggest of them was the birth of the National Socialist German Workers Party — the Nazis — founded by Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1920. Against the backdrop of a global economic depression, the party grew within ten years from a sideshow to a major political force. Its electoral victory in 1933 led to the downfall of the Weimar Republic, but the Nazi party benefited from the liberal constitution drafted by and voted on by the first elected national assembly in summer 1919.

Separation of powers

Like today's modern German government, power in the Weimar Republic was divided among the legislature, executive and judiciary. The big difference was that the Weimar-era office of the president had far more power than does today's German presidency, which since 1949 has been a largely ceremonial post. That structure allowed Paul von Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor in 1933; it is just one of several lessons today's German democracy has learned from its first failed attempt.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.