The Weimar Republic, the interwar government of Germany, was a democratic state formed in the aftermath of World War I in an extreme response to the centralized power of the Kaiser and Germany’s role in World War I. The sublime aspect of this ideology and its ultimate downfall that paved the way for Hitler was Article 48, which allowed the President of the Reich to suspend natural rights in favor of the safety of the Republic. The State of Emergency set in place by Article 48 is to some degree present in all democratic ideologies in the sense that it is another step in the continuing debate over executive and legislative power.
Prior to the end of World War I, Germany was still a fractured empire of various conflicting nationalities and was ruled by the fundamentally conservative (or opposing the democracies proposed by the Enlightenment) Kaiser Wilhelm II. Every leader of Germany prior to the Weimar Republic had had an influential amount of power in comparison to their cabinets when it came to political policy, and post-World War I Germany was a scene of political turmoil, from naval mutinies to attempted coups. In the midst of all this, the constitution of the Weimar Republic was formed, a document that changed the Reichstag from a group of princes from various states within Germany to a group of representatives elected by the proportion of votes their party received, which was an attempt to prevent the overtaking of the Reichstag by any one political party, as was the fear in the aftermath of World War I (Merriman 1083). From how the Weimar political system operates, two of its basic assumptions can be seen: both the greater power of groups than individuals, and the trustworthiness and capability of a leader to both protect and direct the actions of a republic.
The Weimar Republic was a democratic government formed in the aftermath of World War II and was reaction to the fundamentally conservative, consolidated power of the former Kaiser and Germany’s perceived aggression and fault for starting World War II (Merriman 733). The enlightenment ideals of individual rights and representative democracy were instituted to the degree that the President of the Reich was elected by a popular vote and seats in the Reichstag were won by a proportion of the overall vote (J Llewellyn et al). In comparison with other democratic states, it is more representational than even the United States in the mechanism of earning seats in the Reichstag and electing the President of the Reich by a popular vote. The last Reich President of the Weimar Republic was Adolf Hitler, who utilized the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic Constitution to legally overthrow the existing government.
Hitler is an infamous name throughout the world, and he owes his ability to seize power in large part to the provisions of Article 48, which can be construed as one of the weaknesses of the Weimar Republic Constitution. Because of the Weimar Republic’s formation in the light of the War Guilt Clause of the Treaty of Versailles, few were satisfied with the new democratic government and various coup d’etats occurred, such as a naval mutiny, the Kapp Putsch, and Hitler’s own Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler quickly rose to the head of one of the various political parties in Germany at the time- the National Socialist German Workers’s Party or the Nazis- and soon formed a paramilitary organization. In 1923, the Nazis attempted to overthrow the government but the attempt failed, and the event became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. In prison for the next year of his life, he wrote Mein Kampf, which outlined his belief in a supreme Aryan Race which required living space in Europe and that Germany had been betrayed by Jews and Communists during World War I. Hitler used the dissatisfaction with the Treaty of Versailles and the economic instability of Germany in the interwar period to gain popularity and be elected President of the Reich. In 1933, after the burning of the Reichstag building by a suspected Communist, Hitler declared a state of emergency and consolidated power further with the subsequent Enabling Act which ended restrictions on his power (Kagan et al. 727).
In terms of the Weimar Republic Constitution and the rise of Hitler, Article 48 stood as the ideology’s protector and downfall. Article 48 grants the declaration of the State of Emergency to the President of the Reich but places the ability to limit the length of the State in the hands of the Reichstag. This article is comparable to Article 14 of the French Charter of 1815 that gave rise to Napoleon. Once the states no longer have a say in the exception, they are no longer sovereign. This definition of sovereignty is founded on the assumptions of the natural law of princes and estates and how the State of Emergency refutes some of those assumptions.
The circumstances under which this sovereignty can exist consist of the state of emergency and all of its prerequisites, such as a peril that necessitates one person deciding what is needed for the ostensible continuation of the existing ideology. This is what is meant by “sovereign is he who decides the exception” (Schmitt 1). The exception in this case is an unpredictable peril for the nation, and in the case of Hitler the Reichstag fire was utilized as a reason to declare a state of emergency. In traditional democratic theory, every individual has the potential to decide the exception through the majority, and thus power is distributed throughout the populace and cannot be concentrated in any one person. Adolf Hitler’s use of Article 48 to subvert the distribution of power was a use of the law to transcend it. The individual with the power to suspend the law for the ostensible sake of the law; who is both given this power in part by the law yet is the sole person able to suspend it, is the sovereign. By necessity of the State of Emergency, the sovereign is given this power to ensure order and is therefore above and given the ability to suspend the law. In doing so, Hitler alone decided the exception and consolidated sovereignty into a single, human entity. The sovereignty granted to him by the law and consequent subversion of it was both a manifestation of the existing law and a complete elimination of it, resulting in Hitler’s political status having become a sublime object not definable by the ideology of the democratic state, under which the Weimar Republic was founded, but was also a product of this very ideology. This is the element of the sublime comparable to Marx’s “value” as applied to political power.
The circumstance under which this instability is permissible is in a situation that was not anticipated by the ideology, and therefore requires something outside the ideology to attempt to hold together the existing ideology and adapt it in order to assimilate the unanticipated into the ideology. This fits into the following definition of the Sublime.
A sublime object is an entity that breaks an observer’s ability to rationally quantify and explain its qualities of existence within their own paradigm. Such instances are often required by an ideology in order to function, even as they undermine its basic premises. Sublime objects often also require a shift or a revamping of the ideology in order to incorporate it. One such example of a sublime object that both supports, breaks, and changes an ideology that can be seen in history is the State of Emergency. The State of Emergency is a situation in which a government grants powers to a single individual and suspends supposedly fundamental rights in extreme circumstances ostensibly in order to facilitate rapid decision making of which a legislative body is incapable (Schmitt 6).The state in which these leaders’s power, one of which is Hitler’s position, can be considered to exist within a sublime state respective to the ideology, this power is both given to them by their existing ideology but also allows them to overtake their ideology.
The sublime potential within the Weimar Republic is this State of Emergency, a state in which the protection of individual rights is subverted in favor of the safety of the republic. This occurs when the ideology encounters an outside element that it cannot incorporate, or in the case of a democratic state a situation in which the constitution does not account for. In this case, a case often characterized by a perceived or actual threat, power is given to a single person to protect the republic and the ideology as a whole. In doing so, the person lawfully acts outside the law in favor of the law itself (Schmitt 7). This paradox is what defines the sublime element of the Weimar Republic and the democratic state. Democracy attempts to eliminate the power of an individual in favor of the whole, but in doing so requires a single person to make decisions that the populace is either too slow or too uninformed to make. The state of emergency by definition requires a democratic state as a baseline to break from, just as democracy requires a state of emergency as a fail-safe for the ideology itself.
Within the state of emergency in itself, a pseudo-monarchy exists in the sense that for all intents and purposes, the person given power under the state of emergency has all rightful power but it has been given to them legally.
The state of emergency is limited within the ideology itself in that the person given power is only given that power for a time specified by the democratic government under which they were given power. This power however is by definition outside the law in the sense that the power itself is the ability to act outside of the law, allowing the sovereign to decide how long they stay in power. Once this decision is made, the former democratic government no longer holds any power in comparison with the sovereign.
In the case of the Weimar Republic, Hitler exploited the weakness of the Weimar Republic, the fear of communism, the anger directed generated by the War Guilt Clause of the Treaty of Versailles, and Article 48 to gain power. He used his position as democratically elected President of the Reich and lawful use of Article 48 to solidify his power as dictator. The state of emergency was called in response to the Reichstag Fire, which was blamed on the Communists and allowed Hitler emergency powers. These were limited by the Weimar Constitution through time limits set by the Reichstag, but because Hitler used his emergency powers to pass the Enabling Act he was able to half-legally suspend the time limits. His ability and choice to legally suspend the limits of the Weimar Republic constitution demonstrate his lawful breakout from the laws of the Weimar Republic. This is what the use of the state of emergency can look like in practice, and how it can be used to change and reconstruct the previous ideology. The democratic Weimar Republic constitution was never legally abolished, but it was rendered irrelevant by Hitler’s power as the sovereign.
The ideology in which Hitler operated under prior to holding supreme power under the state of emergency was the ideology of the democratic state. The democratic state holds that government should be based on the will of the populace, the will of the populace is vested in the will of the majority, and that its citizens are equal in their representation. The Weimar Republic of Germany provided for the establishment of the legislative body elected by the people, the Reichstag, and the Chancellor that was appointed by the directly elected President of the Reichstag. The Reichstag held the primary reification of the principles of a democratic state as outlined by the Weimar Republic’s Constitution. The state of emergency of this ideology as expressed within the law itself was Article 48, which stated that the Reich President is allowed to use armed forces and the suspension of rights in the event of an insubordination of a German state in order to restore order. This article serves as the rational base within the ideology of the Weimar Republic for the sublime object of Adolf Hitler as a dictator, or sovereign ruler.
The powers given to Hitler under Article 48 were outside the law and the ideology of the democratic state in that they suspended the fundamental rights that a democratic state is founded on for the purpose of the protection of the state. The ideology of the democratic state was formed in direct response to the sovereign powers held by feudal lords and kings. The debate between the sovereign and democracy can be seen in this sense as far back as the Magna Carta, the first known limit on sovereign power, which required the King to consult the lords before levying taxes. Suspension of the fundamental rights that were formed during the Enlightenment, from which the modern democratic state was developed, undermines the basic assumptions of fundamental rights and limited power. This undermining of the ideology is what causes actions under Article 48 to be unlawful.
Although the State of Emergency can be seen as unlawful, especially in the case of the Weimar Republic, it can also be seen as functioning almost wholly within the ideology itself. Because the State of Emergency is a codified law with restrictions given by the democratic government, the executive can be seen to never break any laws. As mentioned before, the Weimar Republic Constitution was technically in place throughout Hitler’s reign. This state of emergency, regardless of whether it is considered to be within or outside the law, is present in every democratic ideology either implicitly or explicitly. Even in modern day, the debate over executive and democratic power can be seen. The extent of presidential power in the United States, both executive privilege and what military actions can be taken, are issues that still face the country today. The debate over national security is also related because of its relation to the suspension of individual rights in exchange for security. Although not quite as extreme, the undercurrents of the state of emergency can still be seen in modern politics.
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty,
George Schwab (trans.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005
http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/docpage.cfm?docpage_id=4860 (Source for The Constitution of the German Empire of August 11, 1919 (Weimar Constitution))
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Weimar Reichstag”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed 5/11/16
Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe From the Renaissance to the Present. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. Print.
Kagan, Donald et al. The Western Heritage Revised AP Edition. United States: Pearson Education, 2016. Print.