Eric Weitz: “The Promise and Tragedy of a Constitution: Weimar Germany, 1918-1933”
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Eric Weitz: “The Promise and Tragedy of a Constitution: Weimar Germany, 1918-1933”

October 8, 2019


[ Music ] [ Applause ]>>Kevin Butterfield:
Good morning, and welcome to the
University of Oklahoma. Thank you for joining us today
for our Teach In on The Strength and Fragility of Constitutions. I’m Kevin Butterfield, the
Director of the Institute for the American
Constitutional Heritage at OU. In a few minutes, you’ll
hear from OU President, David L. Boren, who will
introduce the first speaker for our wonderful event today,
author and scholar, Eric Weitz. But first, please join me in
thanking two tireless advocates for education, for our students,
First Lady, Molly Shi Boren, and President, David Boren. [ Applause ] And I’d also like to welcome a
special guest today, OU regent, Frank Keating, who served as
Oklahoma Governor from 1995 to 2003, and his
son-in-law, Ryan Leonard. [ Applause ] Now I’m pleased to share
with you just a bit of information before we
begin the day about the IACH, the Institute for the American
Constitutional Heritage, and the teach ins of years past. The Institute that I now
direct was established in September 2009 by
President Boren for the study of the U.S. Constitution,
its influences, its history. It’s an interdisciplinary
center for the study of American constitutionalism
that is housed in the Department of Classics and Letters and
is committed to ensuring that OU is a place where students can study
the ancient roots of law, self-governance, the historical
and ideological background of the American founding, the
development of civil rights in American history, the
relevance of the Constitution to contemporary debates
over justice and freedom. We’ve also created
freedom.ou.edu, an OU website featuring
hundreds of short lectures on constitutional law,
constitutional history, to make civic education
of the sort that we have today available
to anyone at any time. All of our programs are designed
to enhance civic education, not just for our students
here at OU, but far beyond. Five years ago in 2012,
and I remember it well, the ICH launched the
university’s successful Teach In series, drawing
audiences of thousands across the day-long events,
broadcast broadly on OETA, online, downloaded by tens
of thousands of viewers, and we’re able to
chart these things. We see people from
all across the globe. That first year, we had a teach
in on the American founding. In fact, our lunchtime
speaker today was one of our first speakers
at our first teacher, Professor Gordon Wood. We then had a teach in
on the Great Depression and the Second World War, the
Civil War, the American West, the First World War, and as
you know, this year’s teach in focuses on the strength and
fragility of constitutions. Today’s speakers will help to
broaden our understanding of how and why constitutional
democracies succeed and fail, historically and
in our own time. As you made your way into
the hall this morning, I’m sure you noticed
items on display. This exhibit, I Do Solemnly
Swear, The Fragility and Strength of the American
Presidency, is a joint exhibit with the Carl Albert Center,
the Western History Collections. These materials focus on how the
Constitution provides guidance in moments of crisis, in
the absence of leadership. Democratic checks and
balances have always managed to ensure smooth transitions
between administrations. However, no succession
has occurred without anxiety and uncertainty. You’ll see great things,
including a short letter of resignation from
Vice-President, Spiro Agnew. I encourage you to visit the
exhibit between sessions today. It’ll be out all day. I’m now pleased to introduce to you the longest-serving
president at a flagship university in the
United States, David L. Boren, who is now on his 23rd
year as President. We’ve all benefited
from his leadership. President David Boren is
now celebrating 51 years of public service to
our state and nation, and he and Mrs. Boren have given
so much to this university. President Boren is the first
person in state history to serve as governor, US senator,
and president of the University of Oklahoma. He was recently elected to
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of
the country’s oldest and most distinguished
honorary societies. Students know him not
only as the president but also as a teacher. He’s one of the few
presidents in this entire nation that teaches a course
every semester, and I’ll tell you
something everyone here at the University already knows. His service as president has
been marked with an emphasis on putting students first. He’s prioritized and fostered
a strong sense of community on all of our campuses. He’s strengthened
academic standards and improved retention. In fact, during his tenure,
OU has year after year, had the highest academically
ranked the student body in state history, a record
we just keep breaking year after year. Just last month, OU achieved
an all-time record freshman to sophomore retention
rating, students that come back for a second year of 92.1%, ranking OU among the top
universities in the nation. President Boren consistently
advocates for the needs of the University,
enabling it to grow. He’s initiated more than
30 new academic programs in his time here. He’s raised more than $3
billion in private support, provided funding for dramatic
fellowship opportunities. A number that completely
shocked me when I saw it, he’s increased the number
of endowed faculty positions at this university from 105
when he began to 564 now. One of our speakers, when
he arrived yesterday, help me do the math on that. That’s a 537% increase. It took me a while
to do the math. He helped me. Thank you, Johan. [ Applause ] He’s quadrupled the number of scholarships available
to students, as well. Even in a difficult fiscal
environment for higher education at the university,
we have continued to witness incredible
generosity from our alumni, from our friends,
our supporters, all of this a direct result of
President Boren’s commitment to maintaining OU’s tradition
of excellence in education. Since 2004, over $300 million in scholarship funds have been
raised to benefit students. Thanks to his dedicated
leadership, OU is the remarkable
institution that it is today, with an impact reaching
across the state, nation, and the world. Please help me in welcoming
OU President, David Boren. [ Applause ]>>David L. Boren:
Oh, thank you. Oh, thank you very much. [ Applause ] Thank you very much. Thank you. [ Applause ] Thank you very much. You’re going to spoil me. We’re so glad that all of
you are here this morning, and I want to thank Kevin
Butterfield for his kind words, and also, as we were
talking, Kevin reminded me that after the Institute
was established, he was the first faculty
member we recruited to be part of the core faculty for the
Institute, and now, of course, as the director of the
Institute, as he has been for several years, and
I want to thank him for an outstanding job. Let’s thank Kevin
again for his work. [ Applause ] Well, this is a special
day, indeed. It’s hard to believe this is the
sixth time we’ve come together to talk about pivotal
moments in American history. As has been said, we
can’t remain great if we do not understand
how we can became great in the first place. The strength of our country. How we overcome adversity
in the past. Today’s subject is of
particular importance, and it’s an indication of
how much all of us need to understand and be
familiar with all aspects of our history and our heritage. We’re very fortunate
in this country. When we think back about our
founding, and we think back about the first few
years, and we think about over 200 years of, with
the exception of the Civil War, tremendous stability in this
society, which continues today. That society continues because
we’re a nation that values at the core of our beliefs,
the statement of law, which of course, is our founding
document, the Constitution. Other countries have
had constitutions. Our first speaker is going
to focus upon the fragility and the failure of
one constitution. How did the Weimar
Constitution fail and allow Hitler
to come to power? It’s very clear that just
because we have a constitution, doesn’t mean it will last. It doesn’t mean that it
will continue to protect us. Documents cannot
protect themselves. Documents can only be
protected by loving, caring, and informed citizenry. We are all, in essence, the
foot soldiers who assure that our constitutional form
of government will continue, continue to provide that
stability, continue to provide that protection of
individual rights. How did we get started
on that path? Why aren’t we a country
like many others, where a popular personality
or a dynasty, for example, continued for several years
before it was disrupted? One person who made sure that that didn’t happen
was a remarkable man, George Washington. I think sometimes we
don’t fully, fully, really understand the
role that he played. We know that he was
commander of the troops. We know that he gained
immense popularity by being the successful leader
of the effort, military effort, to gain our independence,
but what else did he do? He had a very keen understanding
that he should not be the center of the future of this country. Indeed, he was unanimously
elected president twice. The only person to be unanimously
elected and reelected. He agreed to serve a second
term, not because he wanted it for his own political ambition,
but because he wanted play — it was a very conscious
action by him. He wanted to play a role
in changing the allegiance of the people away from George
Washington, the popular figure, and focus the allegiance
and love of the citizens, the confidence of the citizens,
the belief of the citizens in a constitutional
form of government, which was established. He was very conscious of what
he was doing all the time. And he made a remarkable
contribution to this country by making it a main tenant of
what it means to be an American, to support and believe in
the Constitution and fight to keep the Constitution strong, and that has provided
the stability for this country ever since. So we owe him so much, and we
have to realize that if it’s to continue, it is now up to us. It’s up to us to not only
support the Constitution, defend the Constitution
whenever it’s challenged. We must be ourselves
students of the Constitution. We must understand its language. We must be really ready
to be the foot soldiers for the Constitution, and
that requires information. That requires knowledge
about it, about its history, about its formation, and
about what it actually says. And so we’re reminded today,
as we focus this conference on the fragility and strength of
constitutions, the strength has to rest with all of us
if it’s to be preserved. So that’s why it’s
very important for us to take time today to study
this important subject. It’s critical to our future. It’s critical to our nation. It’s critical to the
continued well-being and strength of our society. So we’re so glad that all
of you could be here today and join us on this occasion. We’re very proud of the
fact that the University of Oklahoma is one of the
few schools in the country that actually gives a
degree centered around study of the American Constitution. I’m sorry to tell you that
only 8% of the colleges and universities in the country,
only 8%, require a single course in American history or
American government, in order to receive a degree,
and I’m proud to tell you that the University of Oklahoma
is definitely in that 8%, and it should be 100%, and I hope we’ll fight
the day when that happens. [ Applause ] Our first speaker today is
Eric Weitz, who will speak on the promise and tragedy
of the Constitution, Weimar, Germany, 1918 to 1933. Professor Weitz is the former
Dean of Humanities and the Arts at the City College of New York. He was on the faculty
of the University of Minnesota and
St. Olaf College. Trained in modern German
and European history, Professor Weitz has also worked in international
and global history. His most recent books Weimar,
Germany, Promise and Tragedy, was first published in 2007. It’s already had its second
edition, and next year, it will be published
in its third edition, as we celebrate the one
hundredth anniversary of the Weimar Republic. He is currently completing A
World Divided, A Global History of Nation States and Human
Rights since the 18th Century. He is a frequent lecturer in
public and academic settings. He’s written and lectured on
international human rights, the Holocaust, the
Armenian genocide. Since 2006, he’s
edited a book series with Princeton University
Press, Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity. We are indeed fortunate to
have him here with us today, and for him to speak on the
subject of great interest to us, and as we learn lessons
from what happened with the Weimar Constitution,
which apply to the preservation of our own Constitution. Please welcome Professor
Eric Weitz. [ Applause ]>>Eric Weitz: Thank you
so much, President Boren. I’m thrilled to be here. This is a shame to say, the
first time I’ve ever been in Oklahoma, but I’ve already
seen that there are many, many good reasons to come back. I don’t think I’ve ever
seen or heard of a president of a university receiving
a standing ovation. So that was quite a lovely
moment to see the support that President Boren
has among all of you, and I’m sure much
wider in the state. In the 1920s, Germans lived in
the most democratic conditions that they had ever experienced or that they would
ever experience again until the 1960s. The Weimar Constitution, which
was proclaimed in August 1919 and from which the Weimar
Republic was founded is a key reason for the great expansion
of democratic practices, democratic beliefs in the 1920s. The Constitution, like so many
others, proclaimed the people as the sovereign entity of
the nation, not the royalty, not the Emperor who had
been recently forced to abdicate, Kaiser Wilhelm II. the Constitution elaborated a
whole set of democratic rights that the population enjoyed. It established equal rights
for all citizens, equal rights for men and women,
proclaimed freedom of speech, the inviolability of the home. Proclaimed the family as a
core institution of society that needed to be
protected by the state, supported by the state. All of the democratic
provisions that run through the American
Constitution, that run through many, many other constitutions
around the world. And Germans took to that
opening with alacrity. They ran with the promises
of the Constitution. They felt freer and sought
then to use that freedom to establish new programs, new reforms throughout
German society. This was a democracy that was
lively, sometimes raucous. Oftentimes more raucous than
what we would really want. It’s not like it was all polite
deliberation in Parliament, but it was also a place where
people engaged with one another. This is Potsdamer Platz
in Berlin in the 1920s, and you see people
in a coffeehouse. I love coffee houses in Berlin
and other European cities. Here engaged in conversation. You see people out
on the street. You see the new signs
of modern urban life with the trolley behind it. The automobiles. People walking. People coming and going. That was a part of democracy,
the liveliness of it, the public engagement
in all sorts of arenas. For women, they were out in
society on a much greater level than they had ever been before. Certainly, more so than
before World War I. Germans celebrated,
in the 1920s, the new, modern life that was
opened up to them, to a significant degree,
by the Constitution. Here you see Columbus House by the German architect,
Erich Mendelsohn. And here you see a very, kind of traditional German building
from, I don’t know when. Probably from the 18th century. Now Columbus House is a dramatic
statement that we are modern. We are progressive. Architecturally, it
was made possible by the new technologies,
the new materials available to architects and engineers
and planners, namely I beams, steel for construction, plated
glass, reinforced concrete, which allowed architects
to design buildings with the structural elements
moved to the core center, opening up the possibilities. You see the band of windows,
and I’ll show you another slide in a moment, and it shows
something very similar. The band of windows that
opened up the interior, if you’re working
in the building, to streams of daylight. Whenever there’s
daylight and Germany. There’s not much
in the wintertime. It’s dark and gray and cloudy
all the time, but at least in the spring, summer, and
fall, you get some sunlight, and it’s also a statement
outside. It is, in a sense, a
metaphor for democracy. Openness, transparency,
light, out in the public. A very, very strong
statement of the modern world that many Germans believed they
were creating in the 1920s. Leisure time, as well. Here you see Germans
at play on a weekend. That is the famous [inaudible]
Wannsee on the western side of Berlin looking
across the Wannsee. And here in the 1920s, Germans,
many for the first time, working people,
lower-middle-class people, had access to the lakes, the
picnic areas, the beaches. They had access, again, partly
because of technologies. Because since the
turn-of-the-century, trolleys, trains had opened
up the further areas from the inner core of the city. Part of the social measures of the Weimar Republic
included reducing the workday from the prewar 14-hour
workdays six days a week to an 8 or 8-1/2-hour day
5-1/2-hour work week. that was an enormous
progressive advance. It’s not related, perhaps, to
the text of a constitution, but it expresses the sentiments of democratic, of
a freer society. All that became available
to Germans in the 1920s. Here, some of you
probably know this, the classic Bauhaus
Building, the Art and Design School founded in
Weimar in 1919 by the architect, Walter Gropius, and here
you see, again, these plates of glass that symbolized
openness and transparency, that are connected to
the actual politics of the Constitution
and democracy. Here also by Erich Mendelsohn,
the Schocken Department Store in the city of Chemnitz,
which is actually one of my favorite buildings,
because the bands of glass are just phenomenal. I mean, what we take as
a sort of everyday forms of architecture are
being pioneered here in the 1920s, and
public housing. In the inner cities of Germany,
the great industrial power that Germany became, the
inner cities were full of the worst kinds of
tenements, barracks, really, with courtyards,
internal courtyards, so that the poor people
lived inside, in courtyards, with virtually no
sunlight whatsoever, and the model among architects
and city planners and reformers in the 1920s was
light, sun, air. And that’s huge expanse of
public housing developments, built in the 1920s,
which provided just that. They also provided gas and
running water and plumbing, new to many, many people in the
1920s, a great, great advance in their living conditions. Before World War I, women in
so many cities would haul coal or haul wood up and down,
sometimes, four, five, six flights in the
tenements, just to cook. Just to keep the tenement warm. They’d also go down to a
street pump and haul water up. These kinds of provisions, the
kinds of things we all take for granted so much, that
Germans take for granted today. They were in innovation
in the 1920s. They’re associated with
the Weimar Republic. They’re part of the Democratic
efforts of the republic. And here, one of my favorite
buildings, which I have to say, they lacked a bit of knowledge,
because this building, the Einstein Tower, started to
crumble as soon as it was built. They didn’t quite realize how
much rebar they had to put to reinforce the concrete. It started to crumble. It had been redesigned. This was the result of a
very significant renovation in the mid-1990s. It’s the Einstein Tower. It is set among very
traditional German buildings. It’s a scientific park in
Potsdamer outside of Berlin, and it was built in an effort
to prove the relativity theories that Einstein had just
so recently published. Never quite managed that, though
there are laboratories in it. But in the way it soars upward,
situated in a grove of trees, it symbolizes the search for
knowledge, the search for — the recognition of science, the support for scientific
explanations. It, too, was a part of the
very progressive nature of the Weimar Republic and
the Weimar Constitution. So what I would like to convey
to you is actually much the same as what Professor Boren
said in his last remarks. That constitutions are
absolutely critical, of course. They establish the
skeleton, the framework for democratic practices,
but they are also important because they percolate
through society. They percolate through
the culture. It’s not just the texts. It’s not just the provision
that says, for example, the home is inviolable, that says Germans have a
right to free expression. They can publish what they wish. They can express their
opinions wherever. They can set up a
soapbox on a street corner and express their opinions. It’s the way in which
the meaning of a constitution
percolates through society that makes it so important. Both of those factors, the text
itself, the exact provisions, as well as its cultural impact. That’s all the good part
of the Weimar Constitution. President Boren gave the
game away already by saying, in the end, of course, the
Weimar Republic collapsed. This was a highly
fragile democracy. The Constitution itself, not so
much, but the democracy itself, highly fragile, highly
contested. The constitution was born
in revolution in 1918-19, and born out of World War I,
the war that Germany lost. So for some Germans, those
origins made it tainted from the very beginning. I’m taking you back in time a
little bit, a few years back. In the fall of 1918,
September, October, the two leading generals who
essentially were running Germany as a dictatorship in the
last two years of the war, went to the Kaiser,
threw up their hands, and said, we have nothing left. We don’t have more men
to put into the army. We don’t have resources. Yes, our armies are still in
the field in France, in Russia, but we do not have the
resources any longer to bring Germany to victory. I mean, truth to tell,
Germany had lost the war in September 1914,
four years earlier, when it’s troops had been
stopped on the Marne in France. Then four years of
incredible human destruction for all belligerents continued until the generals
finally recognized that Germany could
not bring this war to successful completion. And then ensued, in
September and October, 1918, a series of diplomatic
messages back and forth between the German government
and President Wilson, and President Wilson proved
to be less accommodating than the German generals
had imagined, than the Kaiser had imagined. They thought they could
negotiate as equals, but in fact, they
were the losers, and Wilson was very
clear about that. In late October, almost at
the end of the month, 1918, sailors in the northern port of Kiel were told to
stoke the boilers. The German Navy had done little
except destroy American shipping across the Atlantic, which
brought the United States into the war, submarine warfare. It had tried one big battle
against the British Navy that it had lost in 1915. The British had strung
up a naval blockade. So the Navy had really
done little except, again, to bring the United
States into the war, one of the dumbest decisions
of many stupid military and strategic decisions. Well, at the end of
October 1918, everyone knows that the war is coming
to an end, and no soldier or sailor wants to be the
last person to die in a war, especially in a war that you
know your side is losing. The sailors mutinied. They refused to stoke
the boilers. They did not know, and we
don’t know exactly to this day, whether their officers,
and by this point, there was complete antipathy from the rank-and-file
sailors towards their officers. Rank-and-file sailors
had terrible food, barely enough food, while
their officers ate very nicely, thank you, in a mess with
tablecloths and all that. So there was some deep-seated
hostility towards their officers, and they didn’t know
whether their officers were going to take the ships
out to sea and scuttle them in some last-minute heroics, or
whether they were going to try to actually run the
British blockade, which they had successfully
managed in four years of warfare. So the sailors said no. They mutinied. And they set off a revolution
in Germany, and over the course of the winter of 1918-19,
Germany is engulfed in a virtual civil war. Workers went on strike
countless times. Sailors, after this
first mutiny, were joined by rank-and-file
soldiers, who refused to follow orders. Everywhere in factories, in the
Army, in the Navy, councils, soviets, councils
were established. These are rank-and-file,
democratic organizations. Workers would take
over factories. Sailors would take
over their units. They would make decisions
very democratically. This is democracy in action. Again, raucous democracy. Sometimes brutal. Sometimes a hated foreman
was thrown down a mine shaft. Sometimes a hated officer
was thrown off a bridge. So one shouldn’t have a
completely romanticized view of what this kind of
democracy entails. And there were leaders in
the social Democratic Party, in the Liberal Party, and
the Catholic Center Party, who were trying to manage the
transition to a more stable, more regular democratic order. And those political
parties and representatives in the middle are pretty much
successful over the course of the winter of 1918-19 in suppressing the more radical
forms of revolution and trying to steer Germany to, you
know, what we would call — what would be recognizable
to us as a liberal — liberal small case, liberal
democratic order with elections, representative organs,
political rights. The Weimar Constitution — it’s
called the Weimar Constitution because when elected delegates
met in Berlin in January 1919 and chose a committee to
draft the constitution, Berlin was engulfed
in civil war. So the drafters of the
constitution decamped from Berlin to Weimar, which
was more stable and safer. So they helped, and it was. And they set about drafting the
constitution there in Weimar and ended up with a very
successful democratic document. All during this time, while
the drafters are writing the constitution, while civil
war is raging in Germany, something else is going on
of tremendous significance, which many of you no doubt know. That is, the Paris Peace
Conference, to bring World War I to a final conclusion. The Armistice had been signed
on the day we still celebrate, November 11, 1918, but
that was an armistice, the cessation of hostilities. A final treaty still
had to be worked out. President Wilson came to France,
the first sitting president to travel abroad during
his tenure as president. He was feted; he was
celebrated everywhere he went after he landed, the ship
landed in Chambord in the North of France, and he made his way
down to Paris and Versailles. The Germans, meanwhile, while
they’re drafting a constitution, while they’re trying to resolve
the very chaotic situation at home, are thinking
that, again, why they were thinking,
I don’t know. They should have known better. Are thinking that they will
be treated as co-equals. Instead, in April 1919,
the representatives of the German government,
the Foreign Minister and the League are summoned. They are summoned to Versailles. When they reach the
French/German frontier, they are transferred to a train which creeks along very
deliberately at 5 miles an hour, so that the German
representatives can see the destruction that, and the
allies’ terms, had been caused, and they had been caused,
by the German army, and its invasion of France. When they get to Versailles,
there are delegation of 240 man. Their luggage is literally
thrown into the courtyard of the hotel, and
then they are there. Their aides have to spend time
rummaging through this mountain of luggage to figure out
who’s suitcase’s who. That was the first signs that things were not
going to go well. Things were not going to go
well, and you can imagine, the delegates start getting a
little bit worried, and indeed, they are summoned, and they
are delivered the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty, and the delegation is
literally in shock. The news travels immediately
via telegraph to Berlin. The German newspapers
are incensed. The populations is incensed. They ask for time. They’re given some few weeks,
but the Allies are not going to negotiate and
moderate the terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty. There’s calls in
Germany to renew the war. There’s other kinds of craziness
like that, because, in fact, the Allies would have
then occupied Germany. I’m telling you all this,
because it is directly related to the fate of the
Weimar Constitution and the Weimar Republic. Infamous Article 241, which
these are the provisions of the treaty that
Germany had to sign, stated that Germany was solely
responsible for the war, and we can debate about whether
that’s true or not, accurate or not, but that was the
provision, and the article right after that then said
that Germany would have to pay reparations but
did not specify an amount. So Germany was forced to sign
a treaty in which it accepted that it was guilty, the sole
party guilty for the outbreak of the war, and it had to accept
the fact that it would have to pay reparations with no idea
how great that bill would be, and ultimately, it
would be very large. If other things had not
happened, The Great Depression, World War II, if other
things had not intervened, Germany would still have been
paying us reparation bills from World War I in the 1990s, by the final negotiations
later on in the decade. The point of all this is that the Allies should
have been a lot smarter. You don’t burden a
fragile democracy with yet another enormous burden
that the republic would have to bear the responsibility for. When the Armistice was
signed on November 11, 1918, it was not the generals,
it was not the Kaiser. The Kaiser already
abdicated and in Holland. They did not sign the Armistice. Those who were responsible for
the war, but the representatives of the new Democratic
government sign armistice. Similarly, on June 28, 1919,
it was not the generals. It was not the old government
that had brought Germany into war on August 4, 1914,
who signed the peace treaty. It was the democratic
government. Throughout its history, the
Weimar Republic was burdened by the charge that it had
sold out the interests of the country, because it was
they who signed the treaty. More than that, the infamous
stab in the back legend, which begins already
before the end of the war, begins with the leading
generals expressing it, the claim that Germany had
never lost the war in the field, but it was traders at home. Jews and socialists, who had
undermined the popular will and had been the cause
of Germany’s defeat. It was a very powerful
political slogan that ultimately the Nazis
would make great use of. So the Versailles Peace Treaty
is just the first of the burdens that the republic had to carry. What we get — I should
have shown that before. We also get, in the 1920s,
great creative artwork. That’s by the German artist,
Hana Hirsch, photo montages, a new form of artistry in the
1920s, and this is a photo of German troops returning home. You can see they
don’t look as happy as they looked on
August 4, 1914. They look rather bedraggled. You can see in the background
a man on crutches, bandaged. A defeated Army on the way home
is never an uplifting sight. And the evidence of the
war, the tragic human cost. Not only the over 2 million
men who died in the war. The women who worked 14-hour
days seven days a week in the war munition factories,
but also the war wounded, and this is a very typical site. Every German town,
every German city, you would see this in the 1920s. So the legacy of the war
is present politically, and the burdens that the
republic had to carry from the Versailles Piece
Treaty is also present in everyday life encounters that
people had, just on the streets. And then the economy actually
recovered initially more rapidly than anyone had projected. The Germans do —
soldiers come home. You have the demobilization
process. It’s hugely difficult,
but soldiers do come home. They make it home. They get put back to work. It’s a few short
years of recovery and then comes the
hyperinflation of 1923, an inflation that has the scale
of which has rarely been seen. There are other countries
that have gone through hyperinflations,
Brazil, Argentina, a few others, but in this case, at the
depths, or the heights, depending on how you do it, one dollar could get you
12 billion German marks, 12 billion German marks. People who have savings
accounts find their savings, the worth of their savings,
totally obliterated. People who live on pensions
can barely find enough to eat. We have stories of farmers in
Holland crossing the border and buying up whole herds of
cattle for almost nothing, because the Dutch
currency was still solid. Anybody who was paid in dollars
or in pounds sterling could live like a king or queen
in Germany in 1923. School teachers,
professors were living on fairly fixed governmental
salaries are reduced to near-pauper status, and in
hyperinflation, you can’t plan. It’s impossible to plan how you
and your family will live out. It doesn’t make sense to
start a career or buy a house. You can’t make any
calculations in this kind of extraordinary financial
chaos and financial uncertainty. And here we have, and we
have many photos like this, men with all those pieces
of luggage are filled with German marks, and they’re
going down to the bakery to buy a loaf of
bread with that. Or they’re going to the shoe
store to buy a pair of shoes. The prices of goods would
change sometimes hourly. If you look at a bakery, there
would be one price for a loaf of bread in the morning. In the afternoon, it would
be something different. So again, you can’t calculate. Buy bread in the
morning, you’re better off if you do in the morning. It’ll be more expensive
in the afternoon. And the democracy
was such, again, highly democratic
constitution, but a constitution that also enabled the fracturing
of the political order. In 1919, at the founding
of the republic, we had six major political
parties in Germany. Not great, but six
is manageable. Here we have the Right
Wing Veterans Organization, The Stahlhelm, marching. Here we have Communists
marching. Here we have the
German National Party. It says [German spoken]. “We hold firmly on
the word of God. Elect the German National
Party, with, of course, a very, very traditional
image of a grandmother in her grandchild
reading the Bible. An image that resonates with
some segment of the population. And here we have a
communist political poster, “The flame of revolution
may not be extinguished. Therefore, elect the
Communist Liste 4.” So between here and here, there is essentially
an unbridgeable gulf. An unbridgeable gulf. A gulf but no constitution
can manage in and of itself. Or here we have the three
parties in the middle trying to maintain the middle. This “Through sacrifice
and work to freedom. Elect the Center Party.” Which is the Catholic Party. In the back, you can
see the Rhine River and the Cologne Cathedral. Or here, the Social Democrats. “Women, equal rights,
equal responsibilities. Elect the Social Democrats.” And here, by the time we get into the late 1920s,
posters for Hitler. After the hyperinflation, Germany had four
or five good years. I won’t take you
through the mechanism by which the currency
was stabilized. Germans went back to work. The economic situation
improved from 1924 to 1928. If we look at electoral
statistics, we can see a move back
toward the center in 1928, back toward the five or six more
or less liberal, again liberal in the European sense,
committed to the democracy, committed to the republic,
and in 1928, if you looked at those statistics,
and on the basis of the most recent agreement to
settle the reparations claims, you could think that, okay, maybe this thing is
really going to work. Maybe there’s enough economic
stability now, enough prospects for the future that democracy
will become more firmly rooted in Germany. And then, bam, comes
the great depression, which moves from the United
States so quickly to Germany, and in such a devastating
fashion to Germany. Worse impact than even
in the United States, worse than anywhere
else around the world, and then the political system
fragments even more so. In the 1932 elections, we have
24 parties running for office, and nearly 20 of them
will get representation in the parliament. Germany had a proportional
voting system on the basis of the
constitution. Proportional voting is much more
democratic in a formal sense than our winner-take-all
system, because everybody, as long as you hit the
hundred 150,000-vote threshold in Germany in the
1920s and 1930s, you are party would
have representation in the parliamentary body. So it’s more democratic,
but it also tends to greater fragmentation. And it was, of course, the
Nazis in the end who would take in so many of those
splinter parties and become the dominant
voice of the radical right, and it was the Nazis who
would then destroy the Weimar Republic. In closing, I can only echo
President Boren’s comments. Constitutions are critically
important documents. Again, they establish
the framework for the Democratic
conditions under which we live, but they cannot resolve
everything. And the constitution, which on
paper, I mean, there’s debate about this after World
War II, but on paper, I think it’s a fine
constitution. It didn’t have a
starting preamble. That would have been nice. You know, no great, glorious
words like the Declaration of Independence, but in the
text of it, it was fine. It works. But it could not
by itself manage these deep, deep social and political
divisions. In the end, constitutions
are only as good as the people who live them. Thank you. [ Applause ]

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