In Secret Hitler, a government is formed by a President and their appointed Chancellor if both candidates are approved by an absolute majority of the players. If a majority of the players votes “ja!”, the candidates are then elected and form the new government. To enact legislation, the President draws three tiles from the policy deck, discards one, and passes the remaining two to the Chancellor. The Chancellor then discards one and places the last tile face-up on the board.
Remember in the introduction I mentioned the Weimar Republic was an unorthodox creation? One main reason is that its system of government is one of the first semi-presidential systems in history, where there is both a President as the head of state and a Prime Minister—in Germany’s case, a Chancellor—as the head of government.
The Reichspräsident (“President of the Reich”). Note that though the word Reich is commonly associated with “empire,” it denotes more of the meaning of a “realm.” Deutsches Reich remained as the official name of the German State from 1871, the proclamation of the German Empire at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, passing through the Weimar Republic, to 1945, the dissolution of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. This Deutsche Republik (“German Republic”) that existed from 1919 to 1933 is now commonly known as the Weimar Republic because its constitution was adopted by the National Assembly convened in the city of Weimar on August 11, 1919.
The President was elected by the German people (surprisingly with universal adult suffrage, years ahead of democratic nations like the United Kingdom, France, or the United States), serving the term of seven years, and could be reelected (Constitution of the German Reich 1919, Article 41, 43). As the head of government, the President represented the German State in international relations. He had the authority to declare war and make peace, sign alliances and treaties with the approval of the Reichstag (Article 45). He had the power to appoint and discharge government officials (Article 46). He held the supreme command over the armed forces (Article 47). Also, the President was obliged to sign legislation passed by the Reichstag into laws (Article 70).
In the game, the President is granted new executive powers with each Fascist policy enacted. This is a fair representation of the office of the President in the Weimar Republic as it was an extremely powerful position acting as a substitute for the Kaiser in the former German Empire. In addition to the power that I listed above, the President had the authority to appoint the Chancellor and their cabinet—represented in the game with the ability to nominate their Chancellor candidate—but also the authority to dismiss the Chancellor; neither required the majority approval of the Reichstag (Article 53). The President also had the power to unilaterally dissolve the Reichstag and hold new elections (Article 25), represented in the game with the power to call special elections.
Beyond that, written in the Constitution there was the infamous Article 48, which stated that the President may take “measures necessary” to restore law and order, even suspending civil rights, if public safety is threatened. The wording here was incredibly vague and did not define what kind of power could be granted to the President and what level of emergency for it to be applied. The article was interpreted to grant the President the power to issue “emergency decrees” (Notverordnungen) as laws that bypass the Reichstag. The Reichstag was allowed to counter such power with the right to revoke the decree with a majority vote, but that power was rarely used in practice by the Reichstag due to their concern over the President’s order to dissolve the Reichstag. Article 48 enabled the President to overtake the legislative power from the Reichstag without their consent, crippling the checks and balances between the President and the Parliament. Such power granted under Article 48 was abused in the last years of the Republic, where the Chancellors and their cabinets relied exclusively on the President’s emergency decrees to promulgate legislation without the support of the Reichstag.
In addition, Article 48 was heavily utilized by Hitler and the Nazi Party to take over the government after his appointment as Chancellor in 1933. Article 48 allowed the suspension of civil rights, including the rights to habeas corpus, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, privacy to communications, and the restrictions on searches and confiscation of property. This was used by the Nazi Party in the Reichstag Fire Decree in 1933, allowing them to target and arrest members of the KPD. Such power is partially represented in the game by the presidential power to investigate loyalty.
In the game, the President can also be granted the power to execute a player. Obviously, the power of execution was not legally granted under the Constitution; but its historical basis, the act of assassinations of political opponents was ordered by Hitler and carried out by the SS at the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 to remove political rivals and consolidate power.
I would also like to point out that unlike the game, the President of the Weimar Republic did not actually have veto power over legislation despite all other executive powers he possesses. Once the bill was passed by the Reichstag, the President would be required to sign it into law or present it in a plebiscite (with an interesting root from the Latin word plebiscitum, a law (scitum) enacted by the people (plebs) in the Public Assembly during the Roman Republic) to the German people (Article 73). The veto power was held by the Reichsrat (Article 74), the upper house of Weimar’s bicameral legislature representing the German states like Prussia, Bavaria, and Saxony that were united under the German Federation. The Reichsrat played an insignificant role in the Weimar Republic, so this is perhaps the only time it will be mentioned here.
I apologize for using the term “Reichstag” numerous times in this post without formally explaining what it was. As one of the most vital institutions of the Weimar Republic, the Reichstag is not explicitly represented in the game; I suppose you can interpret the group of all players as the Parliament. And unlike the game suggests, where the President and the Chancellor are responsible for enacting policies, the Reichstag was the main legislative body of the Weimar government.
The Reichstag was composed of representatives elected by the German people (again with universal suffrage) with the term of four years (Article 23), though it was often shortened by the dissolution of the Reichstag and early elections called by the President. Like I mentioned before, the Reichstag was responsible for proposing bills (Article 68), which then are debated and can be passed by a simple majority of votes within the Reichstag (Article 32) and signed into laws by the President. Although the President represented the State in international affairs, all decisions—war, peace, alliances, treaties—required the approval of the Reichstag. The Reichstag also held power to demand the resignation of the Chancellor and the cabinet ministers through passing a vote of no confidence.
As I introduced in the previous section of this post, there were numerous parties represented in the Reichstag. The number of members in the Reichstag also fluctuated across elections. The reason for it will be explained later.
With the context of the Reichstag, we can finally have the proper introduction of the office of Chancellor. The title Reichskanzler (“Chancellor of the Reich”) dates back to the German Empire, first held by the famous “Iron Chancellor” Otto Von Bismark in 1871. The office was carried on to the Weimar Republic.
Appointed by the President, the Chancellor and their ministers formed the cabinet (or “Reich government,” Reichsregierung) as the chief decision-making body of the Weimar Republic (Article 52). This differs from the game where the government is formed by the President and the Chancellor. As the head of government, the Chancellor presided over the cabinet and conducted its affairs (Article 55). The Chancellor also determined the general course of policies for the government. Following these guidelines, each cabinet minister led their respective administration independently (Article 56). All legislative proposals from the ministers would then be brought to the cabinet for discussion and be decided with a simple majority of votes (Article 57, 58).
I have previously mentioned that the Chancellor could be dismissed by the President. I have also mentioned the Chancellor could be forced to resign by the Reichstag through a vote of no confidence. This made the Chancellor accountable to both the President and the Parliament, also known as a president-parliamentary system.
Since the Chancellor required the confidence of the Reichstag to govern, the position was ideally held by the leader of a party or a coalition that controls the majority of seats in the Reichstag, in which the Chancellor would form a majority government. Also because bills were passed by a majority of votes in the Reichstag, having a majority government allowed the government to pass almost any bill they propose. However, due to the complexity of Weimar’s political landscape, no single party had ever achieved an absolute majority in Reichstag until the NSDAP in the November 1933 election after banning all opposing parties. Various coalitions were established in order to form a government with the majority support of the Reichstag. The aforementioned Weimar Coalition of SPD, DDP, and the Centre Party, for example, formed the government in March 1920 with Müller of SPD as Chancellor and ministers from the three parties filling up the cabinet. When a majority coalition was not reachable, a minority government could also be formed. The Weimar Coalition lost the majority in the election of 1920 and Müller’s cabinet resigned as a result. A new center coalition of DDP, DVP, and the Centre Party formed the new government under Chancellor Fehrenbach, with only 37% of the seats in Reichstag.
Unlike the rulebook of the game, the Weimar Constitution did not determine the term length of the Chancellor. Thus Chancellor could theoretically stay in office indefinitely if their party or coalition retained the majority in the Reichstag. Since the federal election was held every four years if not called early, the Chancellor and their new government should be able to last the duration of four years. However, through the entire history of the Weimar Republic, no Chancellor served more than three years. This reflects one critical weakness of Weimar’s democratic system: its political instability.
The limited executive power, the constraints from both the President and the Reichstag, and the short “life span” of the office all made the Chancellor a relatively weak role. I believe this is also true in the game as the Chancellor is limited by the President. If given two fascist or liberal policies by the President, the Chancellor is left with no choice but to enact the one. If given a choice with both a liberal and a fascist policy by a liberal President, a liberal Chancellor would enact the liberal policy to prove his loyalty; a fascist Chancellor would either be forced to enact the liberal policy to gain trust, which helps the objective of the liberal team, or risk to put down the fascist policy and start a dispute with the President, exposing himself as a potential fascist. So then, how did Hitler become the dictator through being elected as Chancellor? This is a good question to keep in mind, and we will attempt to answer it in the second part of the series.