Should the Germans Have Free Elections?

As the Allies planned the fate of postwar Germany, questions about the country’s political institutions abounded.

Background: As the tide of war turned in 1943, the Allies started to plan for a postwar world, including a postwar Germany. The question of Germany’s choice of government was especially relevant as some blamed the country’s last democratic government, the Weimar Republic, for Hitler’s rise to power.

After World War I and the fall of the German monarchy, the country adopted a new constitution in 1919. It declared Germany to be a democratic parliamentary republic with a legislature elected under proportional representation and based around a president, a chancellor, and a parliament or Reichstag. While more democratic than many other political systems on paper, the Weimar Constitution was plagued by serious weaknesses: Article 48, for example, the so-called Notverordnung (emergency decree) provision, gave the president broad powers to suspend civil liberties with an insufficient system of checks and balances (something Hitler did after the Reichstag fire). The use of a proportional electoral system without thresholds to win representation led to a system of splinter parties (more than 30 different groups were elected to the Reichstag in the late 1920s), which in turn prevented any working coalitions and made governing impossible.

The two biggest problems of the Weimar Constitution, however, were its lack of legitimacy with extreme political parties on both sides vowing to abolish the new system and some staging violent coups, and the economic misery brought by war debts, reparations imposed by the Versailles Treaty, and of course the Great Depression, which pushed people toward these very political parties.

It is true that the Nazi Party won 37.7% of the electorate in the July 1932 election, becoming the largest party in the German parliament. It had two million fewer votes in the November 1932 elections and Hitler reluctantly agreed to a coalition with conservatives who in turn pressured the president of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, to use the power he had to appoint a chancellor who didn't have the support of the Reichstag. Hitler was appointed chancellor on January 30, 1933. After the Reichstag fire of February 27, the Nazi leader indefinitely suspended a number of civil liberties. In the following months, Hitler continued violence against political opponents, imprisoning and disenfranchising left-wing party members. When Hindenburg died in August 1933, Hitler combined the positions of president and chancellor and all governmental power lay in his hands. The last multiparty election of the Weimar Republic, and the last multiparty all-German election for 57 years, took place on March 5, 1933.

How do you think the average American responded to this February 1944 poll?

What Happened: Like the Americans answering this February 1944 poll, the Allies debated what to do with Germany’s future political system. In a series of conferences, the Big Three (Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Truman after April 1945) negotiated the terms of postwar Europe and agreed that Germany should be demilitarized and undergo denazification. Several plans were proposed over the years, including the Morgenthau Plan, which advocated harsh measures to ensure Germany could not go to war again. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, the Allies signed the Declaration of Liberated Europe, which stated that all nations previously under German control would have a democratic government. Germany, however, would be divided into four zones of occupations.

After the war, tensions continued to rise with the Soviet Union in the wake of the implementation of the Marshall Plan followed by the Berlin Blockade. The division of Germany appeared more or less to be a fait accompli and the need for a strong, economically independent and democratic Germany became imperative for the Western powers who slowly gave Germans more economical and political autonomy.

The Frankfurt Documents of July 1948 authorized the state (Laender) presidents in their zones to draw up a constitution of a West German federal state. On September 1, 1948, the Parliamentary Council of 65 representatives of the state legislatures was established to draft a constitution for West Germany. The Western powers in April signed the Occupation Statute, in which they agreed to recognize self-government in West Germany. Shortly after the ending of the Berlin Blockade, on May 23, the Basic Law (Grundgesetz), was formally approved on May 8, 1949. With the signature of the Allies, it came into effect on May 23, 1949, four years after the unconditional surrender of Germany. That the Allies allowed, even pushed, for the creation of a new German state so soon after the war was a by-product of the Cold War.

Written by Germans mindful of avoiding the mistakes of the Weimar Republic, the Basic Law was not a constitution and had not been adopted by the German people through election. Not until May 1955 would the Federal Republic have "the full authority of a sovereign state." Meanwhile, the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), with East Berlin as its capital, was established in the Soviet Zone on October 7, 1949.

The country had its first all-German election on December 2, 1990.


WWII Polls

Public opinion polls give us unique insight into America in the WWII era. Each week, historians from the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy work with the archives of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University to explore what Americans believed and how they felt about events and people related to the WWII years.

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Christelle Le Faucheur

Christelle Le Faucher, PhD, is a Research Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. She came to the Institute in 201...
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