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Weimar, 1919: Birth of Germany’s first democracy

  • January 19, 2019

“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

“Women: Same rights, same responsibilities — Vote Social Democrats,” reads this 1919 campaign poster

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

  • 8 pioneers in women’s rights

    Anita Augspurg (1857 – 1943)

    A feminist with an unconventional lifestyle, Anita Augspurg was determined to study law — even though women were not allowed to in Germany. She studied in Zurich and became the first doctor of law of the German Empire in 1897. However, it took 25 more years for women to be licensed to practice law in the country. The feminist movement activist left Germany when the Nazis took power in 1933.

  • 8 pioneers in women’s rights

    Hedwig Dohm (1831 – 1919)

    While it was widely believed at the time that gender roles were determined by biological factors, Hedwig Dohm was one of the first feminist thinkers to maintain that it was culture, socialization and education that imposed the patterns. She campaigned to allow equal access to education for boys and girls and was convinced that women’s employment was the path to independence and a free life.

  • 8 pioneers in women’s rights

    Louise Dittmar (1807 – 1884)

    While the constitution proclaimed by the National Assembly in Frankfurt in 1848 was based on democratic principles, it was an all-male domain. Women had no right of assembly, no suffrage and no right to work at the time. “Freedom for all is currently a widely discussed topic, yet the word ‘all’ seems to refer to men only,” wrote women’s rights activist and journalist Louise Dittmar in response.

  • 8 pioneers in women’s rights

    Agnes Schultheiss (1873 – 1959)

    Active in the city of Ulm (picture), Agnes Schultheiss was committed to social and political causes. In 1908, she founded the Good Shepherd association, which took care of young girls who were expelled from their families for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. “Act politically by educating through the press, by influencing men and above all by participating in the election!” was her rallying cry.

  • 8 pioneers in women’s rights

    Marie Munk (1885 – 1978)

    In 1930, the pioneering reformist Marie Munk became Germany’s first judge. “The more I study and practice law, the more I realize I feel my passion for freedom,” she once said. She, however, did not get to keep her position for very long. She was dismissed in 1933 because of her Jewish roots. She fled to the US in 1936.

  • 8 pioneers in women’s rights

    Elisabeth Selbert (1896 – 1986)

    Like most young girls at the time, she learned to embroider, knit and sew. No one could have predicted the political role she would late play. After she got married in 1920, she joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In 1948 she was elected to the Parliamentary Council, the body in charge of drafting the Basic Law. The council included 61 men and 4 women, among them Elisabeth Selbert.

  • 8 pioneers in women’s rights

    Hedy Lamarr (1914 – 2000)

    “Any girl can look glamorous, she only has to stand still and look stupid,” actor Hedy Lamarr once said. The Hollywood star, however, had way more to offer. At the beginning of World War II, the tech genius developed a radio guidance system that was later incorporated into Bluetooth technology.

  • 8 pioneers in women’s rights

    Mileva Marić-Einstein (1875 – 1948)

    Mileva Marić, who was born in Serbia, was the second woman to finish a full program of study at the Department of Mathematics and Physics at Zurich’s Polytechnic. No one knows how much she may have contributed to the first theory of relativity, but she was definitely Albert Einstein’s most important intellectual partner at that time, and they founded a family together.

    Author: Rayna Breuer (eg)

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.

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    Christian Schad, ‘Boys in Love’

    The exhibition at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt collects images from some of the most important issues of the Weimar era. Among the political debates that took place during that time was one regarding Article 175, a law dating back to 1871 which forbade homosexuality. A grassroots campaign from 1919 to 1929 sought to abolish the law and very nearly succeeded.

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    Otto Dix, ‘Woman with Mink and Veil’

    After WWI, Berlin grew to be the world’s third largest city and quickly gained a reputation for nightlife and hedonism that attracted people from around the globe — including prostitutes, injured war veterans and those looking to make an easy buck. The contrast of Ku’damm’s fur-clad matrons with the poverty of the tenement houses of the eastern districts was a common theme in the art of the time.

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    The expressionism of Otto Dix

    Otto Dix used simple materials to capture Weimar Berlin’s depravity. The World War I veteran vacillated between sketches like that shown above, “Pimp and Girl,” and disturbing recollections of wartime frontlines. The contrast served as criticism of the country’s inability to adequately grapple with its war past.

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    The extravagance of the Ku’damm

    Comprising 190 works of art by 62 different artists, the exhibition showcases the contrasts of the Weimar Era in its selection. This sketch by Dodo (born Dörte Clara Wolff), “Box Logic,” was created for the satire magazine “Ulk” in 1929 to highlight the lives of the wealthy who continued their extravagant lifestyles as anti-Semitism and economic depression severely shifted the mood in Berlin.

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    ‘Margot’ by Rudolf Schlichter

    Irmgard Keun’s novel, “The Artificial Silk Girl,” brought Weimar Berlin to life from the female perspective. Struggling to make ends meet while hopping between parties and prostituting herself while wrapped in a stolen fur, the narrator comments on her fellow women, noting: “There are clubs where women sit wearing stiff collars and ties, who are frightfully proud of being perverse.”

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    ‘Self-Portrait with Son,’ 1933

    Granted suffrage in Germany on November 12, 1918, women were emancipated as never before. That liberality was felt in many aspects of society, as women took on professional jobs and political debates on contraception, marital rights and prostitution. Artists like Kate Diehn-Bitt captured the New Woman in their works of social realism: urban, independent, self-confident, androgynous in appearance.

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    Jeanne Mammen captured Berlin in transition

    A central fixture in Berlin’s art scene was artist Jeanne Mammen, Berlin-born but raised in France before she returned to the German capital during World War I. Her sharp eye captured the city and its citizens in a time of great transition. In paintings like the 1926 watercolor “Ash Wednesday,” Mammen captured the era’s hedonism and bore witness to the liberality and excesses of the period.

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    Political tension: ‘Weimar Carnival’

    In “Berlin Alexan­der­platz,” Alfred Döblin wrote of a vibrant capital city in upheaval as he documents the life of Franz Biberkopf. In it, and in paintings like that by Horst Naumann above, the rise of anti-Semitism, militarism and National Socialism came into full view. As Döblin wrote: “He has seen the para­mil­i­tary troopers, the young men, and their leader, too, that is some­thing.”

  • Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic

    Georg Scholz, ‘Café (Swastika Knight)’

    “Splendor and misery in the Weimar Republic” seeks to make clear just how the foundation for societal and economic advancements that we might take for granted today were laid during what many recall fondly, though not altogether accurately, as a decade of decadence. The exhibition runs through February 25, 2018 at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.

    Author: Courtney Tenz

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.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    ‘Songbird of the German women’s movement’

    Author Louise Otto-Peters (1819-1895) is a pioneer of Germany’s women’s movements. At the age of 24, she called for more female participation in decision-making and co-founded with other suffragists the General German Women’s Association (Allgemeiner Deutscher Frauenverein) in 1865. The activist also wrote poetry and novels, earning her the “songbird” nickname.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    Helene Lange fought for equal opportunities

    Girls didn’t have easy access to education in Germany at the end of the 19th century. The women’s movement of the late 1890s aimed to emancipate girls and women through schooling. Teacher and feminist Helene Lange (1948-1930) was a leading figure in this movement; she also founded different women’s suffrage groups.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    Mother of the ‘proletarian’ women’s movement

    Activist Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) fought for stronger representation of women in trade unions, women’s suffrage and abortion rights — already aiming to abolish the controversial Paragraph 218 of German criminal law, which remained an activists’ issue well into the 1970s. And finally, she also contributed to establishing International Women’s Day.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    Anita Augspurg and her women’s group

    Anita Augspurg (left) and her associates didn’t care much about social conventions. Augspurg lived together with her girlfriend, and they both wore men’s cloths and short hair. As a lawyer, she fought for women’s suffrage (granted in Germany in 1918) and the rights of prostitutes. Augspurg’s association participated in forming international women’s networks.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    Backlash during the Nazi era

    The Nazis rejected emancipatory movements. Women were expected to stick to their traditional role as wives and mothers; the Nazi party promoted an image of women that had previously been dispelled by activists. In the eyes of the Nazis, women’s rights groups had been created by Jews or Communists and needed to be suppressed.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    ‘German woman! Help too’

    For several years under Hitler, German women’s fundamental role was to bear as many children as possible and raise them with Nazi values, in order to help maintain the “Aryan race.” Women who were particularly successful in this regard were honored with the Cross of Honor of the German Mother (“Mutterkreuz”). However, this changed once the war started, as women were needed in the workforce.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    Post-war reconstruction

    With the end of World War II in 1945, German women came to play an important role in the reconstruction of the war-torn country. They not only helped remove debris, but also made their voices heard in politics. New women’s associations picked up the work that had been stalled in 1933, aiming to achieve equal rights for women.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    The pill: a new form of freedom

    In 1961, birth control pills became available in Germany. At first, they were only prescribed to married women — officially against menstruation pains. But the pill quickly became widespread, and strongly contributed to the sexual emancipation of women in the late 1960s.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    Feminists from the student movement

    The 1968 West German student movement fought not only to reform universities, but also against authoritarian structures and for sexual emancipation. However, the leadership of the movement was male-dominated; feminist activists went their own way. The banner on the right reads “Emancipation = Class conflict” — the influence of Marxist theory nevertheless remained strong for them too.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    1971: ‘We had an abortion!’

    In Germany, abortion was a criminal offence until the 1970s. Following the sexual revolution of the late 60s, activists demanded the abolition of Paragraph 218 that outlaws abortion. In 1971, the magazine Stern published the names of 374 women admitting they had an abortion. The law was reformed in 1976, and several times since, legalizing abortions under certain terms.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    An eloquent fighter: Alice Schwarzer

    A pioneer of Germany’s feminist movement, Alice Schwarzer founded in 1977 the country’s first feminist magazine, EMMA, which avoided all glamour and tackled political issues. Schwarzer remains a controversial figure in the country, but she has also driven important debates that led to necessary changes for women.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    Freedom in purple overalls

    In the mid 1970s, the West German women’s movement also took on a new symbol — purple overalls, usually worn by workmen. Today, it is hard to believe how many restrictions were still imposed on women at the time, especially married ones. It was only in 1977 that wives in West Germany were entitled to gainful employment without the authorization of their husband.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    Indescribably feminine!

    When German punk lady Nina Hagen released her debut album in 1978, she triggered both criticism and enthusiasm. A woman at the top of a rock band? Socially critical texts using plain vulgar language? A woman masturbating in front of a camera during a TV show? No other woman came to symbolize female freedom and liberty to that extent. Nina Hagen became a cult figure.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    A new awareness

    Women’s voices grew stronger as they started founding associations for lesbians, women lawyers and peace activists. With the ecologist Green Party, feminism made it into Germany’s parliament. Even the conservative Christian Democrats followed suit by appointing a woman as a minister. It took until 1997, however, to outlaw marital rape.

  • Women’s movements in Germany — a long history

    No end in sight

    Although women’s movements have achieved some of their goals, a lot still remains to be done. Men still dominate Germany’s parliament and big companies. Men still earn more money for the same job as women. And they still misuse their positions of power by sexually harassing or abusing women. Chances are that the #metoo movement founded in October 2017 will remain busy for some time to come.

    Author: Silke Wünsch (ad)

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