When studying history, we sometimes gaze too much on the actions of the individuals and neglect the will of the people. It was the Athenian citizens who voted for the conviction and execution of Socrates; it was also the German people who voted Hitler and the Fascist Party to the position that allowed them to seize power. Thus, we should not ignore the election procedures and results in the Weimar Republic. Besides their important consequences, Weimar’s elections are conducted in fascinating electoral systems. Let’s look away from the old and boring first-past-the-post voting (FPTP) and the two-party system, and check out some alternatives.
In the game, an election is conducted each round through all players voting either “ja!” or “nein!” on the proposed government composed of the President candidate and the Chancellor candidate. The election session is arguably the most crucial in the game as it provides valuable information about the players through their voting patterns. In the Weimar Republic, since the President had a term of seven years while the Reichstag was elected to serve for four years, they are determined in two separate elections: the presidential election to elect the President, and the federal election to elect representatives in the Reichstag which its result can indicate plausible Chancellor candidates.
Weimar’s Presidential Election used a two-round system (also known as runoff voting) with a twist. In the first round, eligible voters vote for a single candidate of their choice. If there exists a candidate who receives an absolute majority (more than 50%) of votes, that candidate is elected President. If no one had an absolute majority of votes, a second round of the election would be conducted. In most two-round systems, only the top two candidates of the first round can enter into the second round. In Weimar Germany, however, all candidates, even those who did not stand in the first round of the election, are allowed to participate in the second round. As in the first round, voters would vote for the candidate of their choice in the second round. The candidate who receives a plurality (more votes than any other) of votes is elected President.
1925 Presidential Election
Let’s use the presidential election in 1925 as an example. This was the first out of two presidential elections during the Weimar Republic. The first president of the Republic, Friedrich Ebert, was not elected by the public but elected by the National Assembly in 1919. Ebert died in office in February 1925, right before his term ended. The first round of the presidential election was scheduled on March 29, 1925.
All the major political parties ran with their candidates. Coming in first was Karl Jarres of the DVP backed by a conservative partnership of DVP and DNVP, receiving 38.8% of the votes, though not enough to win him the election. Otto Braun of the SPD received the second most votes with 29%. Wilhelm Marx of the Centre Party received the third most with 14.5%. Next was Ernst Thälmann, leader of the Communist Party, with 7.0% of the votes.
Since no candidate obtained an absolute majority of the votes, the second round of the presidential election was needed. The right-wing faction, now with the addition of the Bavarian People’s Party, regrouped and selected their best candidate to stand in the second round: Paul Von Hindenburg, a war hero from the Great War, the former head of the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, OHL) of the imperial German army in the later stages of the war. Born in a Prussian noble family, Hindenburg served in the Prussian army since 1866 and witnessed the birth and the rise of the German Empire. He was a hardcore nationalist and monarchist, detested the new Republican government, and believed that the German Army was backstabbed by the German people (“stab-in-the-back theory”, Dolchstoßlegende), who betrayed the supposedly victorious German army by overthrowing the monarchy and setting up the Republic in the November Revolution. Nonetheless, Hindenburg remained as a popular war hero during the Republic era and stayed away from politics as an independent.
Though initially reluctant, Hindenburg accepted the nomination after attaining the consent to run for President from the exiled Kaiser Wilhelm II. On the other side, the center and the center-left wing joined forces and gave support to the Centre’s nominee Wilhelm Marx in order to defeat the right-wing alliance. Ernst Thälmann, in typical KPD’s fashion, refused to collaborate with the SPD and decided to stand again in the second round.
The second round of the election was held on April 26. Hindenburg defeated Marx with a narrow margin, receiving 48.3% of the votes over Marx’s 45.3%. Though not an absolute majority of the votes, Hindenburg won the presidency with this plurality. Some have argued that if Thälmann had withdrawn from the second round, Wilhelm Marx could have beaten Hindenburg in the election with the additional votes from the Communists.
It is also worth noting that the Nazi Party—or what was left of it—did also participate in this election. The Nazi Party was officially banned after their failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, and the remaining members formed the National Socialist Freedom Movement (NSFB) with other far-right groups in 1924. The Nazi Party was refounded in February 1925 after the release of Hitler from prison right before the election. General Erich Ludendorff, the second-in-command to Hindenburg during the Great War, was persuaded to run as the far-right candidate in the election. In the first round, Ludendorff received a humiliating 1.1% of the votes. The party gave support to Hindenburg in the second round.
Let’s briefly examine the strengths and weaknesses of the two-round system. The issue of tactical voting in the first-past-the-post system, where a voter votes not according to their sincere preference but rather for one of the leading candidates as a vote for a less popular and thus less likely-to-win candidate is ineffectual, is reduced in the two-round system. This is because the existence of the second round as the final stage allows the voters to vote for the candidates they truly desire in the first round. The two-round system also reduces the problem of spoiler effect, where similar candidates split votes among them thereby decreasing the chance of any of them winning, because the two-round structure allows parties and candidates to adjust and consolidate in the second round. However, the two-round system is not completely immune to these problems, as the voters and the candidates would still need to consider how the outcome of the first round will determine who will advance into the second round. Alas, the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem shows that no electoral system that chooses a single winner is “perfect.” The two-round system also suffers from practical problems including the cost and voter fatigue due to the dual rounds of voting. (Another huge advantage in a usual two-round system, where only the top two candidates can enter into the second round, is that the winning candidate will be guaranteed to have the support of the absolute majority. This is not true in the case of Weimar’s presidential election, as more than two candidates are allowed to participate in the runoff.)
Going back to the 1925 Presidential election, electing a President who does not agree with the Republican system and value is… not ideal. It is true that during his presidency Hindenburg never openly violated the constitution. But it is also undeniable that Hindenburg abused the power granted through article 48 to bypass the Reichstag, and he later appointed Hitler as Chancellor and gave him the free rein to seize power which doomed the Republic. Hindenburg would run for President again in 1932, but this time no longer as the conservative candidate but rather with the support of the moderates and the left-wing as the only candidate capable of defeating Hitler. It is, however, not because his stance or platform had changed. We will discuss the election of 1932 in length in the second half of the series.
The other election in the Weimar Republic was the federal election held to elect members of the Reichstag. Weimar federal election was conducted using the party-list proportional representation system. In each of the 35 constituencies, voters vote for their party of choice on the ballot of a list of parties with a predetermined sequence of candidates to be elected for that constituency under each party. The seats in the Reichstag would be distributed proportionally to the number of votes each party received. Atypically, there was no electoral threshold, the minimum share of votes needed to win representation in the Reichstag. For every 60,000 votes a certain party received in a constituency, its candidate would be allocated a seat in the Reichstag according to the order of the sequence of the candidates on the ballot. The leftover votes from each constituency would be combined at the end to create extra seats in the Reichstag for every additional 60,000 votes. This was the reason why the size of the Reichstag fluctuated across elections. This proportional representation system with no electoral threshold was also the cause of Weimar’s complex and diverse political landscape.
1930 German Federal Election
I had promised to talk about the 1930 election at the beginning of this post so here we are. First, let’s introduce the political landscape in the latter half of the 1920s, the so-called “Golden Age” of the Weimar Republic marked by social stability and economic recovery. The federal election of 1928 saw the largest growth in the left-wing, with the SPD gaining 22 seats and receiving almost 30% of the votes and the KPD adding 9 extra seats. And like I’ve mentioned before, Hermann Müller of the SPD was able to form a government with a working majority in the Reichstag under the Grand Coalition of SPD, Zentrum, DDP, DVP, though not without opposition and conflict of interest coming from all parties.
Then the Great Depression arrived with the Wall Street Crash in October 1929, and the already unstable Grand Coalition began to crumble apart. The German economy that heavily relied on loans from the United States disintegrated and the unemployment rate jumped drastically. Unable to reach an agreement over the issue of unemployment insurance with the conservative side and thus lacking the support he needed in the Reichstag, Chancellor Müller turned to President Hindenburg asking him to use the power of emergency decree granted under Article 48 to pass his budget without a concession from the Reichstag. Hindenburg refused, and Müller resigned in March 1930. Hindenburg then appointed Heinrich Brüning of Zentrum as the Chancellor, forming a minority government. When Brüning’s measures were confronted with strong opposition in the Reichstag, Hindenburg dissolved the Reichstag in July 1930 and called for a new election hoping to provide the support needed for Brüning’s government.
The election was held on September 14, 1930, and yielded unexpected results. The Nazi Party rose to prominence, winning 18.3% of the total votes—a nearly 16% jump from the last election. Also benefited by the disillusioned public, The KPD on the other extreme received 13.1% of the votes. Former Chancellor Müller’s party SPD sustained the greatest loss, losing more than 5% of the votes, though it still remained as the largest party in the Reichstag. The other mainstream conservative parties also suffered losses from Nazi’s success, with the DNVP and the DVP losing 7% and 4% of the votes respectively. Brüning’s Centre Party’s own position remained virtually the same, maintaining 11% of the votes. This early election that was supposed to generate enough support for Brüning’s government completely backfired, and now Brüning had no hope of forming a majority government without the help of any one of the anti-Republican parties – NSDAP, KPD, or the DNVP.
The consequences of this election were colossal. Brüning stayed in office as the Chancellor, but his administration would have to rely extensively on Hindenburg’s emergency decrees granted under Article 48 and the toleration from SPD in fear of another election that would aid the rise of the extreme parties. This pattern of presidential cabinets that depend solely on presidential decrees rather than the backing of the Reichstag to promulgate bills would be found in all subsequent chancellorships in the remaining years of the Weimar Republic. Another pattern that would continue was the rise of popularity of the Nazi Party in elections, culminating in the election of November 1933 where the Nazi Party obtained all 661 seats of the Reichstag, a mere facade of democracy that had lost all its functions.
Finally, let’s review the party-list proportional representation system. The most significant advantage of proportional representation is that it perfectly reflects the will of the people. 30% of the votes for a certain party in an election will grant that party approximately 30% of the seats. Under proportional representation, the political landscape would not be dominated by the two main parties—a result that is often provoked by plurality systems like FPTP, and the voices of the minority parties would be properly represented. Wasted votes, those that have no effect on the outcome of the elections, are greatly reduced as every vote can contribute to the result, which can encourage higher voter turnout. Yet party-list proportional representation also introduces numerous problems. The party-list voting method, where parties have their pre-selected candidates to fill in the seats for each constituency and the voters vote for the preferred parties rather than the candidates, makes the link between the voters and their elected representatives weaker. (A problem that single transferable votes (STV) or mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) can solve. And I will refrain myself from talking about them now.) Moreover, the inclusion of minority parties spurs the emergence of extreme ideologies and peculiar splinter parties; the multipartism created by this system leads to the extensive need of coalition governments and thus compromises. We can observe both in the case of the Weimar Republic, the former in the rise of extreme parties like KPD and NSDAP as well as narrow local parties like the Bavarian People’s Party, the latter in Weimar Coalition, Grand Coalition or other coalitions formed in every single Reichstag from 1919 to 1928. Thus, its proportional representation system with no electoral threshold for the Reichstag election has been cited by many historians to be an inherent factor for the fractionalization and polarization of Weimar’s political climate, its persistent political instability, and its eventual downfall.