Germany seeks to reclaim Weimar Republic from fascism that followed

Taking stock of dark and light legacy of a first experiment in democracy 100 years on

Germany's far-right populists are on the rise, as are random, violent street killings. People are dizzy with the potential – and danger – of new mass media. And, all over Berlin, posters have gone up for the Moka Efti orchestra.

What sounds like an episode of the crime drama series Babylon Berlin, shining a light on the dingy corners of the interwar German capital, is, in fact, Berlin 2019.

A century ago, on August 14th, the so-called Weimar Republic came into being after the constitution drafted and agreed in the city of Goethe was formally adopted.

Germany’s first experiment in democracy collapsed 14 years later, triggering nearly six decades of fascism, war, division and peaceful unification. But now, before gearing up to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germans are taking stock of the dark and light of their Weimar legacy.

The challenge of this centenary: to try to look at the history without the benefit of hindsight.

At a recent centenary celebration in Weimar, President Frank Walter Steinmeier insisted the Weimar Republic was more than a "one-way street", an inevitable slide towards economic chaos, Hitler's Nazi "barbarity" and six million Holocaust dead.

“We should no longer view the Weimar Republic only from its end,” said Steinmeier.

‘Turning point’

It was in Weimar that delegates gathered from February 1919 to draft Germany’s first democratic constitution, after the war defeat, the collapse of the German monarchy and bloody battles for power on the streets of the capital.

Steinmeier insisted the Weimar constitution was a “turning point in German history” that, at its best, enshrined human rights and, at its worst, left ajar a door to the instability that aided Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

Across a very different Germany, the interwar republic is being celebrated – even reclaimed – from the shadow of the subsequent fascist dictatorship

For chancellor Angela Merkel, the lesson of Weimar is that "every generation must once again struggle for democracy". With populist leaders on the rise around the world, her remark was no empty turn of phrase.

The 1919 constitution was a landmark, giving German women the vote for the first time. Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, in his first address as president, told Germans that the constitution gave citizens "direct rights of referenda, legislature, also as referee when the political forces fight . . . all of this is more strongly institutionalised than in any other constitution".

But the same document also handed considerable powers to the president, foresaw no threshold to enter parliament and permitted the suspension of rights under vague “emergency” powers. These flaws – combined with swingeing reparation costs and external economic shocks from the 1929 Wall Street crash – overwhelmed the political system.

After 13 years of street battles – with the police, the communists and other enemies – the Nazis came out on top in 1933 elections, secured power and began dismantling the very constitution that helped them to power.

Now, across a very different Germany, the interwar republic is being celebrated – even reclaimed – from the shadow of the subsequent fascist dictatorship.

Weimar, the city of the republic’s birth, is championing its other legacy from the same era: the progressive Bauhaus school of design that can still be seen in everything from Ikea to the iPhone.

Exhibits from era

Berlin’s Historical Museum (DHM) has put on a landmark show of 250 exhibits from the era showing how modern and forward-thinking the first German democracy was. Visitors can explore a modern fitted kitchen; plans for new apartment blocks with air and light-filled courtyards to counteract TB rampant in older blocks; and family planning pamphlets urging young people to “not go blindly into marriage”.

The new medium of radio features prominently with recordings of discussions by guests including the physicist Albert Einstein that capture the buzz of the new medium – and its accelerating effect on contemporary society.

The lesson from the republic's failure is that successful democracy requires compromise that serves all

Pride of place is given to Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, who founded an institution in Weimar-era Berlin researching the complexity of human sexuality – until the building and its research were destroyed by the fascists.

The recent success of Babylon Berlin has sparked an explosion of interest in the Weimar era and the real-life band from Babylon Berlin’s fictional Moka Efti club is on tour.

The highlight of each concert is singer Severija Janušauskaite, who appears in the show as drag-loving Russian countess Svetlana Sorokina, delivering her hypnotic rendition of the song Zu Asche, zu Staub (To Ashes, to Dust).

For Berlin museum director Raphael Gross, the lesson from the republic's failure is that successful democracy requires compromise that serves all. Failure on this front, with a nod to modern-day politics, opens the door to populist dictatorship of strong leaders and easy answers to complex problems.

“Part of democracy is being aware that however much one is convinced of one’s own position, nobody can be as confident of the truth as if they were God,” he said.

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