Prussia`s role during the Weimar Republic

Seminar Paper, 1999

11 Pages, Grade: 84%

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Prussia's role during the Weimar Republic

By: Malte Göbel

Date: December 2, 1998

Course: HIS317, Germany in the 19th and 20th Century

In historiography the German state during the time of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) is often referred to as a "democracy with an expiry date" or a "democracy without democrats". Prussia, the largest of the German federal states, on the other hand, is seen as the opposite - the "democratic ... solid rock"1 and "bulwark Prussia".2 This is a contradiction. The purpose of this essay is to examine this contradiction.

Firstly I will focus on the development of Prussia regarding the position it had during the Weimar Republic with respect to the results of German Reichstag and Prussian Landtag elections. Further, I will compare the Reich constitution and the Prussian constitution in reference to the way the governments were elected. Moreover, the behaviour of the parties in Reichstag and Landtag will be compared to each other, and I will touch upon the leading personalities of the Prussian politics.

Finally I will point out that Prussia was indeed more stable than the Reich, but that, due to differing accompanying circumstances explained in this essay, it was by far more easier for Prussia to be stable than for the Reich. I

During the time of the Kaiserreich 1871-1918 Prussia was the leading German state. The German unification was made possible by Prussian military victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1871). The Prussian king, Wilhelm I, became German emperor, and the Prussian prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, the driving power behind the German unification, became German chancellor. Prussia and Germany were governed in personal union by the same men.

The loss of the First World War in 1918 resulted in the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II and in a change of the political system in Germany. Monarchy was replaced by democracy, both on federal and state levels. At the same time,

German and Prussian administrations were separated, and both formed their own governments.

The Versailles Treaty meant a great loss of inhabitants and land for Prussia.

All the territories which Germany had to hand over to its neighbours were parts of the Prussian state, resulting in a loss of 1/6 of its pre-war area and 1/10 of its pre-war population. 3

But still, Prussia was by far the biggest of the German federal states in the Weimar Republic. Prussia had ca. 39 million inhabitants and an area of ca. 300.000 m2, which was 3/5 of the Reich population and 2/3 of the Reich land. The Prussian population equated France and England and outnumbered all other neighbouring countries, and the Prussian territory was larger than all German neighbours, surpassed only by France and Poland. 4 Regarding also the Prussian economic strength - it included the industrial centres of the Ruhrgebiet, Upper Silesia, Berlin and Prussian Saxony - Prussia still was a powerful state.

Using this power for the stabilisation of the German democracy was one of the major goals of the new Prussian government after the First World War, led by the Social Democrats (SPD). 5

In Prussia, as in Germany, elections to the national assembly in January 1919 gave the democratic parties a broad majority. 6 SPD, the catholic Center party (Zentrum) and the left-winged liberal German Democratic party (DDP) formed the so called "Weimar Coalition" in both assemblies. In the first Reichstag, elected in June 1920, the democrats lost their majority and never gained it back in the course of the Weimar Republic. The coalition of SPD, Center party and DDP never came back after 1922 (with the exception of 1928-30 under Reich chancellor Herrmann Müller, SPD, in a "Great Coalition" with the inclusion of the right-winged liberal German People's Party (DVP)). One main reason for this lies in the SPD attitude towards governing, which will later be discussed further.

Unlike in the Reich, the "Weimar Coalition" in Prussia proved so stable that it was even called the "Prussian Coalition".7 At the same time when the Reich had nine elections and 21 cabinets, Prussia needed only six elections and seven cabinets, of which two were in office only a few months (cabinet Adam Stegerwald (Center party), April 21 - November 1, 1921) or a few days (cabinet Wilhelm Marx (Center party), February 10 - 19, 1925). Moreover, three of the cabinets were under the same prime minister: Otto Braun (SPD) was the Prussian prime minister for the entire time from his appointment on March 29, 1920 until the "Preussenschlag" on July 20, 1932, 8 with the two above exceptions. His continuous government of the "Prussian Coalition" presents a political continuity that the Reich politics could never reach, and it is the reason why Prussia seemed so stable during those years in contrast to the Reich. So from this point of view, Prussia really seems to have been a "rock of democracy".

Another point of view, however, reveals a different image. Comparing the results of the elections to the Reichstag and the Landtag, one can not see great differences (see table 1). The democratic parties in the Landtag had always about only two percent more votes altogether than in the Reichstag. If the vote for the Bavarian People's Party (BVP), which can be regarded as the Bavarian branch of the Center party, 9 is added to these results, we get an even more astonishing image: The Reich percentage of the "Weimar Coalition" even outnumbered their percentage in the Prussian Landtag.

However impressing these numbers might be, things are not this easy. The BVP was in fact far more right-winged and conservative than the Center party, and often refused to support the democrats in the Reichstag. Furthermore, it has to be asked whether the Reichstag can be compared to the Landtag. It cannot - the conditions for the forming of the governments were very different in both cases. On the one hand the constitutional backgrounds were different, and on the other hand parties behaved differently in Reichstag and Landtag. II

The personal union of German and Prussian head of states was ended when the political system was changed into democracy. The new German constitution from August 11, 1919 handed rights over to the federal government that previously belonged to the state governments: taxation, economic policies, and foreign affairs were all now decided at the Reich level.10 While this was a reason for continuous unrests in the Reichstag, it was one major stabilising factor for the federal states' policies. Big political questions, from fulfilling the peace treaty to social policy, hardly affected the state level policies. The caucuses in the Landtag were only concerned with administrative questions, where it was easier to come to a consent. Public opinion was not as interested in these issues so that decisions or concessions that might have been unpopular could be made.11

Otto Braun's long time in office compared to the short-lived Reich cabinets had not only political reasons but also was due to the electoral system. The Reich constitution divided the power into three parts: head of state (Reich president), executive (Reich cabinet) and parliament (Reichstag), of whom the president was the most powerful. The authority of the chancellor depended on his position in this triangle of power.12 He was appointed only by the Reich president, while the Reichstag was not forced to confirm his appointment. Only in the first years of the Weimar Republic a positive "vote of confidence" was customary, yet it was not explicitly demanded for by the constitution. Later cabinets, who could not be sure of a supportive majority in the Reichstag, dealt with this problem by replacing the "vote of confidence" with a "vote of tolerance", which was more more likely to find a majority in most cases.13 Thus, cabinets that were tolerated by a majority of the Reichstag could come into power, but at the same time lack a majority supporting their policy. This happened e.g. when the SPD chose to tolerate a minority cabinet, but still refrained from supporting the Brüning (Center party) cabinet in 1930. They did this in order to prevent a middle-right coalition and because of considerations for the coalition in Prussia, which might have broken if the SPD offended the Center Party in the Reichstag.14

The Prussian prime minister, however, was elected by the Landtag. So in contrast to the Reich chancellor he needed a majority in his parliament to be elected. If there was no absolute majority at a first ballot, a second ballot took place between the two candidates who had the most votes in the first ballot. This made it possible for a prime minister to be elected by a relative majority, which could be a minority of the entire number of votes.15 This resulted also in short-lived cabinets (e.g. Stegerwald or Marx, s.a.), but it still has to be pointed out that the Prussian prime minister's appointment depended on the parliament and not on a single person outside the Landtag - there was no head of state analogous to the Reich president. The parties in the Prussian Landtag had to work together and find a candidate without waiting for the head of state to appoint it.


On the Reich level, one main problem for forming the government was that the parties of the "Weimar Coalition" (SPD, Center party, DDP, and possibly DVP, then called "Great Coalition") pursued the same foreign policy, but had different opinions in economic and social policies. The other possible coalition, the "Bürgerblock" (Center party, DDP, DVP, and DNVP (German National People's Party, a right-winged, monarchist, and conservative party)) found consent in interior policy, but had an unresolvable disagreement concerning foreign policy.16 So there was no coalition on the federal level that could pursue the same foreign and interior policy at the same time. Generally, governments were comprised of minority cabinets of the middle parties (Center party, DDP, DVP). They had to seek their majorities either on the left or on the right.

Important at this stage is to point out the role of the Social Democrats.

Although they were the strongest of the democratic parties in the Reichstag, the SPD only took part in a few coalitions and preferred to stay in the opposition, occasionally supporting the democratic government, but not taking part in the power. This unwillingness of taking responsibility is one of the major features of the Weimar Republic and stands in contrast to the attitude of the SPD caucus in the Prussian Landtag. Carl Severing, Prussian interior minister for many terms, took the view that the SPD should try to take part in as many governments as possible in order to build up the social republic.17 This was also supported by prime minister Otto Braun, who in 1932 urged his party to take part in an all-democratic government against Hitler.18 Ernst Heilmann, Social Democrat caucus leader in the Prussian Landtag, described this as "The night creates strange sleepmates".19

This view was obviously not shared by the Social Democrats in the Reichstag. They felt defensive about participating in the Reich government because they feared that the concessions they would have to make to potential coalition partners would alienate party-members who persisted in pure socialist views and drive them into the arms of the German Communist Party (KPD).20 A view on the consistence of the Social Democrat caucuses in Reichstag and Landtag of 1920/21 helps to explain the SPD's unwillingness to take part in the Reich government and shows further significances. About 40% of the deputies of the Reichstag SPD caucus were already deputies in the pre-war period. They had learned their political work in a time when there had been no possibility for the SPD to take part in the government. They were accustomed to opposing and criticising state and government - they were just not used to being in power. Furthermore, about one third of the deputies were either editors or authors which meant that their tendency was to criticise and comment on political issues more than to work together towards political goals. They presented a continuous element of unrest in the Social Democrat Reichstag caucus.21

The Landtag caucus of 1921, however, shows a totally different image: Of the 114 deputies, only four had belonged to the Prussian state parliament ("Abgeordnetenhaus") before 1918.22 All other deputies were new to this job and not caught in the psychological tradition of parliamentary opposition. Only 1/9 of the deputies were editors or authors, most of them (about 3/5) were former functionaries from unions and the SPD. They were used to leadership and to showing discipline and solidarity. Pragmatists rather than ideologues dominated the state's political scene.23

Furthermore, the actions of the SPD Landtag caucus were not controlled by a party body. The Reichstag caucus was supervised through the national party conventions, but on the state level there was no equivalent. The Landtag caucus could - up to a certain point - make their own policy and act more independent from the party line.24

Another difference that made it easier for the parties to cooperate in the Landtag was the parties' ability "to work together to get things done"25 - the parties seemed to be less extreme in the Landtag than in the Reichstag. Ernst Heilmann, the party's parliamentary leader in the Landtag, was part of the extreme right wing of the SPD, and a majority of the caucus belonged to the right wing as well.26 Things in the Center party were similar: it was more leftwinged in the Landtag than in the Reichstag.27

Apart from bigger party connections one also has to take a look at the people who led the parties on the Prussian level. Their ability to work with each other proved to be another stabilising element for the state and the government. The outstanding politician of Prussia in the Weimar era was without a doubt Otto Braun.28 Born in Königsberg (East Prussia) in 1872, Braun was proletarian in origin (his father was a cobbler). He learned to be a printer and later became editor of Social Democrat newspapers in Königsberg and Berlin until he was elected deputy for the Prussian provincial parliament, the "Abgeordnetenhaus", in 1913. Braun was pacifist and antimonarchist, and "Prussian to the core".29 After the war, Braun belonged to the first and the second Prussian cabinet as the minister for agriculture until he was appointed prime minister on March 29, 1920. He remained in this office with two small exceptions (s.a.) until he was dismissed through the "Preussenschlag" on July 20, 1932. Due to his governing style and the length of his government he was called the "red tsar of Prussia",30 and a "pillar of the German democracy" by the French foreign minister Aristide Briand.31 Braun did not like to stand in the limelight of public opinion and preferred to deal with his issues in a direct, pragmative way. Often he took unconventional solutions into consideration, which especially in the last years of the Weimar Republic went against official SPD party line and alienated Braun from the other party leaders.32 Otto Braun's right hand was Carl Severing, minister for interior 1920-21, 1921- 26, 1930-32. Together they formed an energetic team, and what one of them lacked in political skills was provided by the other. Their cooperation was also called the "Braun-Severing System". Severing's biggest task as minister for domestic issues was to bring republican sympathisers into the Prussian civil service. For this he was admired by the supporters of parliamentary democracy and hated by those who longed for a return to conservative, authoritarian rule. 33

Essential for the smooth functioning of the coalition in Prussia was also the leadership of the caucuses. In Ernst Heilmann, a lawyer and publisher, the SPD had a skilful head of caucus. His political skills helped him lead the caucus and deal with most of the problems. More than that, he was a friend with Joseph Hess, who was influential in the Center party caucus and head of the caucus 1930-32.34 Through their friendship they helped the Prussian coalition partners to avoid possible dangers.


The "stability" that the Prussian state is entitled with does not refer to stable majorities given in the Landtag. The consistencies of the Landtag and the Reichstag differed only slightly. Prussia's stability derived from the fact that the coalition under Otto Braun remained in office for a long time. This made inner reforms, fostered by Carl Severing, possible, in contrast to the Reich. Prussia's stability resulted mainly from the independence of Prussian politics from the Reich's politics. Because of its status as a German state, Prussia did not have to deal with some of the major problems that made the Reich unstable, and it was easier for the Landtag party caucuses to find compromises. However, the Prussian stability could not cope with the economic crisis and prevent Germany from falling under the rule of Hitler.


- Craig, Gordon Alexander. The end of Prussia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

- Ehni, Hans-Peter. Bollwerk Preussen? Preussen - Regierung, Reich-Länder- Problem und Sozialdemokratie. Bonn: Verlag Neue Gesellschaft, 1975. · Einers, Enno. Das Verhältnis von Preussen und Reich in den ersten Jahren der Weimarer Republik (1918-23). Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 1969. · Hentschel, Volker. Preussens streitbare Geschichte 1594-1945. Düsseldorf: Droste, 1980.

- Hömig, Herbert. Das preussische Zentrum in der Weimarer Republik. Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1979.

- Huber, Ernst Rudolf. Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1798. Die

Weimarer Reichsverfassung. Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln, Mainz: Kohlhammer, 1981.

- Huber, Ernst Rudolf. Dokumente zur deutschen Verfassungsgeschichte.

Deutsche Verfassungsdokumente 1919-1933. Third ed. Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln: Kohlhammer, 1991.

- Kaiser, Andreas: "Preussenschlag 1932" in: Denkmalsbesetzung. Preussen wird aufgelöst, ed. Andreas Kaiser. Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1982. · Kolb, Eberhard. Die Weimarer Republik. Third ed. München: Oldenbourg, 1993

- Möller, Horst. Parlamentarismus in Preussen 1919-32. Düsseldorf: Droste, 1985.

- Orlow, Dietrich. Weimar Prussia 1918-25. The unlikely rock of democracy.

Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

- Orlow, Dietrich. Weimar Prussia 1925-33. The illusion of strength. Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.

- Schulze, Hagen. Otto Braun oder Preussens demokratische Sendung. Eine Biographie. Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Wien: Propyläen, 1977.


I think you've done a lot of conscientious work to improve the depth of your research and sophistication of your argument here, so that the final result is

more satisfying than your first essay. The organization is better, the writing is

better, and the whole argument ist more original. In particular you seem to

have grasped what I meant by having to provide more "meat" to the bare

"bones" of your argument. Your electoral analysis in this paper is just one

example of the improvement; your use of Huber is another; the range of issues that you consider in leading to your conclusion is a third. To be sure, you will of course be aware that improvement is possible in your English writing. Pay attention to paragraph division, sentence structure, and so on. But here too, a dramatic improvement is evident over your fist essay. Ilearned a lot from your paper, and tried to reflect my critical and appreciative) engagement with your thesis in my marginal comments. I hope you can continue to demonstrate the same analytical sophistication, and originality, in your exam answers next





1 From a Social Democrat campaign pamphlet issued before the December 1924 Prussian state elections, cited after and used as the title by Dieter Orlow, Weimar Prussia 1918-1925. The unlikely Rock of democracy (Pittsburgh, 1986), p. 10.

2 "Bollwerk Preussen", Hagen Schulze, Otto Braun oder Preussens demokratische Sendung. Eine Biographie (Frankfurt/M., München, Wien, 1977), p. 856, and Hans-Peter Ehni, Bollwerk Preussen? Preussen - Regierung, Reich-Länder-Problem und Sozialdemokratie (Bonn, 1975), title.

3 Volker Hentschel, Preussens streitbare Geschichte 1594-1945 (Düsseldorf, 1980), p. 322.

4 Andreas Kaiser, "Preussenschlag 1932" in: Denkmalsbesetzung. Preussen wird aufgelöst, ed. Andreas Kaiser. (Berlin, 1982), p. 337.

5 Schulze, pp. 562f.

6 All figures on German and Prussian elections and consistence of cabinets refer to Ernst Rudolf Huber, Dokumente zur deutschen Verfassungsgeschichte. Deutsche Verfassungsdokumente 1919-1933 (Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln, 1991), p. 668ff.

7 Eberhard Kolb, Die Weimarer Republik (München, 1993), p. 162.

8 "Preussenschlag" is a euphemism for the dismissal of the Prussian government through a presidential decree (art. 48 of the Weimar constitution) by chancellor Franz von Papen on July 20, 1932.

9 Ernst Rudolf Huber, Deutsche Verfassungsgeschichte seit 1798. Die Weimarer Reichsverfassung (Stuttgart, Berlin, Köln, Mainz, 1981), pp. 205ff.

10 Orlow, Rock, p. 9.

11 Schulze, pp. 384ff.

12 Schulze, pp. 384ff.

13 Huber, Reichsverfassung, pp. 329ff.

14 Schulze, pp. 644ff.

15 Huber, Reichsverfassung, pp.746f.

16 Kolb, pp. 72ff.

17 Ehni, p. 46.

18 Schulze, p. 772.

19 "Die Nacht schafft sonderbare Schlafgesellen." Cited after Schulze, p. 388. Heilmann said this in the fall of 1921 when he voted in favour of a Great coalition including the DVP, what he first had rejected, in order to remain in power.

20 Orlow, Rock, p. 7.

21 Schulze, pp. 386f.

22 Due to the Prussian three-class suffrage the Social Democrat caucus was small.

23 Schulze, pp. 386f.

24 Schulze, pp. 387ff.

25 Otto Braun, cited after Orlow, Rock, p. 8.

26 Dietrich Orlow, Weimar Prussia 1925-33. The illusion of strength (Pittsburgh, Pa., 1991), pp. 14ff.

27 Orlow, Illusion, pp. 16ff., Hömig, pp. 279ff.

28 On Otto Braun's biography see Schulze.

29 Gordon Alexander Craig, The end of Prussia (Madison, 1984), p. 72.

30 "Preussens Roter Zar", Schulze, p. 475.

31 "Säule der deutschen Demokratie", cited after Hentschel, p. 325.

32 On plans for cooperation with Brüning see Schulze, pp. 644ff., with Schleicher see Schulze, pp. 772ff.

33 Orlow, Illusion, pp. 67f.

34 Schulze, pp. 388ff.

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Prussia`s role during the Weimar Republic
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