Speech by Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Ceremony commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Constituent Assembly in the National Theatre, Weimar

06.02.2009 - Speech

Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for a commitment to the common good at a ceremony in Weimar celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Weimar National Assembly. The Weimar democracy embodied Germany's entrance into a new cultural era – and was an example of how democrats assumed responsibility in the worst of crises.

-- Translation of advance text --

My distinguished friends Anke Fuchs,

Stefan Wolf,

Christoph Matschie,

and Carsten Schneider,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to start off by conveying my special thanks to the Director of the German National Theatre in Weimar, as well as my congratulations on the extension of his contract. The process leading up to your renewed appointment was far from straightforward.

Stephan Märki,

I am delighted that the National Theatre in Weimar will remain a venue for socially oriented and thought-provoking cultural events. And I think that today's ceremony is a good indication of these intentions!

No other period in German history has been judged so exclusively on the basis of its final throws as has the Weimar Republic.

“Bonn is not Weimar” was a book title that became a seminal phrase in the 1950s. A multitude of academic works have been written on this thesis, leading to its revival at the beginning of the new millennium in the updated form, ”Berlin is not Weimar.“

“Not Weimar” became the mantra used by the young democracy after 1949 to reassure itself that it was on the right path. But the thesis always was and remains founded on a negative interpretation of Weimar.

In my opinion, this negative interpretation is not entirely justified.

Bonn never could have been Weimar. For it was separated from Weimar by 12 years of terror, millions of deaths, and the annihilation of a culture that was without historical parallel.

In contrast to 1918, it was not just the regime that collapsed in 1945, but the entire state. In 1918 the Democrats took on the heavy, nigh impossible responsibility for the aftermath of a war that they had not caused.

After 1945, Democrats were again forced to take responsibility, and the vow “never again will we be gripped by Nazi ideology” has become part of our democratic raison d'être. But there was one major difference between 1918 and 1945: In 1945, the decision to create a democratic constitutional state, to decentralize authority, to protect basic rights and strengthen Parliament, was the sine qua non for the resurrection of any German state whatsoever.

The western Allies, above all the United States, guided, supported and helped Germany along this path. We should not forget that when we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the constitution, the Grundgesetz, this May.

Bonn – and Berlin – are not Weimar. This claim is based above all on a proposition which to me seems more than questionable. Namely the proposition that the Weimar democracy failed largely because of the errors in its constitution.

Of course, these design errors did exist, one of the worst being the undemocratic “fall-back constitution” that permitted rule by Presidential decree in national emergencies.

In my opinion, the idea that Weimar was doomed to failure has not illuminated our analysis of the underpinnings of democracy, but has instead distorted it. For it draws attention away from the responsibility that all democrats bear in any democracy.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example. Not long ago, a well-known polling organization unearthed an opinion poll from February 1949. According to this, most West Germans of the time were indifferent to the new democratic constitution. In 1955 some 30% of West Germans thought the Grundgesetz, the ”Basic Law“, was good. But it was not until Willy Brandt was Chancellor in 1972, that a majority, 52%, supported it.

Why am I emphasizing this? Because at the outset there was no guarantee that the democracy based on the Grundgesetz would succeed. Because these figures reflect a much bigger task than ”merely“ drafting the text of a good constitution. They highlight the confidence, the trust, that the people need to have in a democracy, they highlight the fact that democracy must be realized and practised in a society, and they highlight the democratic spirit that must be nurtured and strengthened.

This task – the responsibility of democrats for democracy – is just the same today as it was then.

Weimar was not condemned to failure from the start. The Weimar democracy, too, held the hope and promise of a free order in Germany. And that is why today, 90 years after the beginning of the Weimar National Assembly, it is still worth examining the democracy of the Weimar period.

Marie Juchacz, one of the mothers of the Weimar constitution, once put this political aspect of historical study as follows:

“As much as we should all like to stand in the present, it is important to examine the present in the light of the past and to be guided by all that was good therein.”

She continued, “Not in order to dwell in the past, but to look back from time to time in order to be prepared again for the future.”

Remembrance not thus as an act of nostalgia, but something we do for the sake of our common progress.

Such an approach might not be considered valid by the historians among you. But I am not here as a historian. I am here as a politician. And just as history is the material from which artists mould their works, it is for politicians like myself an instrument to help us better diagnose the present and mould the future. For us, it is thus also about active remembrance, about bringing history to bear on our present-day lives.

Weimar in February 1919 represents an important moment in the history of our emancipation and democracy.

It was the first democratically elected constituent assembly in our history;

it gave women the right to vote, it legalized trade unions, institutionalized collective bargaining, introduced unemployment insurance and workers' rights of participation, to mention but a few of its achievements.

Weimar was Germany's entry ticket into the community of democratic nations and its admission card to the modern cultural age. To the modern age of enlightenment, free thought and freedom of action, to 20th century culture and a modern legal order.

And we should remember this, especially in light of the present crisis – modern Germany, today's Germany, is not only and not primarily a technological giant and economic wunderkind. If that were the definition of ”modern“, the German Empire was also modern.

But the modernity of that period was no more than a partial modernity, which valued only economic freedom. It had not yet realized the value of political freedom within a democracy and for the health of a democracy.

Therefore I would like to stress – with one eye on the current debate in the media and with every respect for our industry and businesses – that we must not reduce celebrations of our constitutional and democratic history to a sponsoring spree. 90 years since the Weimar constitution, 60 years of the Basic Law and 20 years since the fall of the Wall are all anniversaries that require us to reflect on history in quite a different way.

Talking about Weimar in 1919 also – and perhaps above all – means talking about how democrats assumed responsibility in the worst of crises.

The burden of a lost war was shouldered by the men and women of the National Assembly. A war that the democrats had not started. A war that had claimed the lives of countless million young men on the battlefields of Europe and had led Germany to military and social collapse.

But the National Assembly was not only confronted with the collapse of a social and military order.

This objectively difficult situation was aggravated yet further by the hate-driven reluctance of the old military and ruling elite to accept that their dreams of playing a major role on the world stage had been shattered.

The war and the collapse of the society they knew had poisoned great numbers of young soldiers, above all young officers. They became the biggest enemies of the new order, and the ”Dolchstoßlegende“, the myth of the stab in the back, was their propaganda coup.

In addition, society was also split by the associations and groupings who pursued a revanchist brand of nationalism or who formed the “Völkische Bünde” whose racism was based on social Darwinism, from Ludendorff's “Tannenbergbund” to the “Stahlhelm – League of Frontline Soldiers”. This mix threatened the Republic from the right. And many of those involved in these groups, both members of the old elites and new right-wing populists and extremists, ended up some years later on the Nazis' side.

This anti-democratic tide was the greatest threat to the Weimar Republic, as Kurt Sontheimer has shown particularly well.

But the Republic was attacked not only from the right, but also from the left. It was primarily the Communists' armed uprising in January 1919 that forced the freely elected members of the Assembly to leave Berlin and seek refuge in Weimar.

And it was one of the Weimar Republic's most fatal errors that the Government decided to let loose its enemies from the right, the paramilitary Freikorps, to fight this revolt by its enemies on the left. The assassination of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht by Freikorps soldiers was a token of things to come.

But this should not blind us to the fact that the Communists fought the Weimar Republic and its brand of social democracy until the bitter end. They not only unleashed the 1919 crisis, but as the Weimar era progressed, also increasingly became Stalin's lever in German politics. The Communists considered the Social Democrats to be their prime enemies, and treated them accordingly. This contributed in no small part to the rise of the NSDAP (Nazi Party).

The Republic's enemies from both left and right gave the young democracy a battering. And it was this calamitous collaboration between representatives of a defeated order and populists and extremists from both sides that ultimately destroyed the Weimar Republic.

All the more reason to duly respect and honour the courage and self-sacrifice of the Weimar democrats, of the men and women from the Zentrum, the SPD and the liberal DDP, who struggled and suffered for the first democracy on German soil.

These men and women demonstrated a sense of responsibility in the face of crisis which is still exemplary to us today.

They did not get carried away by their own rhetoric, nor were they cowed by other's; they neither exploited voters' fears nor contributed to them. What they did was to draw up and put into practice a free and modern order. They assumed responsibility for the country's democratic order – and in this they remain examples to us all!

I would like to mention just three of these people by name.

First of all, Friedrich Ebert, because he represents a certain political type, which I believe is still worth imitating.

Ebert was a steadfast, rational man. As a politician and as President of the country. Where just shortly beforehand the Imperial family strode the stage with pomp and pride, raising themselves above the people, now stood the trained saddlemaker from Heidelberg as the people's highest representative. For many this was a sight that made them proud. That gave them hope for a more just society and confidence that they too could rise up by their own efforts.

Ebert was no revolutionary. He was a reformer. He had no time for political bragging or populist headline-hunting. Restraint and dispassioned discourse coupled with determination were for him the expression of the democratic ideal. An ideal that put the common good above individual or party interests and which in its political realization foreshadowed the ideological development of the SPD and its move away from Marxist orthodoxy.

For this ideal he was virulently attacked by both sides. The extreme left branded him a traitor to the masses. And the right-wing enemies of the Republic considered him a traitor to his country. And it is most revealing of the anti-democratic sentiments that were widespread among the elite throughout the Weimar period that in 1924 the German courts did not protect him from this slander!

I have already mentioned Marie Juchacz. She is on my list to represent all the women who, thanks to the newly passed rules on women's suffrage, were for the first time ever able to play an active role in democracy in Germany. And, as a Social Democrat, I would like to add that she also represents the two-stage creation of the National Association for Workers' Welfare: post-1919 and following her time in exile in 1949.

The third name I wish to mention is that of Liberal politician Hugo Preuß. He drafted the constitution, drawing from the entire legacy of bourgeois democratic and social democratic thought.

In this tradition there is not only our freedom from the state, but also a freedom to do something for the state, which links in with our responsibility for the common good and social justice.

This, too, is something we should recall more closely in the face of the current crisis.

Radical market ideology has meant that the question of a social order and social justice has been sidelined in the past years. All the more reason for us today to try to design a more just order for the future. Markets, and in our century these are global markets, need clear rules. And these rules must be drawn up and backed up by democratic means. Otherwise justice and accountability will suffer.

Responsibility in the crisis means something else, too: Democratic freedom is not inevitable, it does not come automatically. It must always be won and strengthened anew.

Anyone who claims that the failure of the Weimar Republic was a historical necessity is not just undervaluing this part of our democratic history.

They are also failing to recognize the essence of our political freedom. Political freedom entails the risk of failure as well as the opportunity for progress, the chance that something new and better can be created wherever there are people ready to assume responsibility for it.

The failure of the Weimar Republic was thus no historical necessity, no inescapable disaster. There were simply too many people who used the freedom inherent in a democracy to undermine it.

And too few fought to protect civil rights. In the end, the Social Democrats stood alone.

Why am I stressing this?

We should not forget this past when we are confronted with the thoughtless comments of the “bourgeoisie” in political discussions today. We should do much more to remind ourselves and others that all pro-democracy and pro-republican parties represent the interests of all politically thinking citizens.

Democracy can only work if there are people who have confidence in their own abilities and opportunities. If this confidence is lacking – and this remains true today – the democratic order will not survive.

Wherever this democratic self-confidence exists, the people are on a level playing field with the politicians. They may not always agree with every single decision, but they will in general consider political decisions to be their business.

People have to work for democracy. It does not come of its own accord, and it does not endure of its own accord. It needs to be nurtured, practised and protected.

To this end, a critical but respectful attitude to its processes and institutions is important. As is the suppression of populist impulses in political and public discourse and in political positioning.

This in particular is something we must avoid today. We constantly have to fight to win the respect of democrats and to find the strength to assume responsibility in times of crisis. And nothing undermines a democracy like the insidious effect of populism from the left or right.

Where this is present, it does not take much to endanger the democratic order. By way of example, I would like to mention a debate from a few years ago, in which Arnulf Baring called for a revolt against the allegedly ”bankrupt and degenerate“ party system.

Such language it not just inimical to democracy. Precisely because language is the main tool at the disposal of politicians, such words can in the long-term undermine the legitimacy of democracy.

I would like to mention one last way in which the responsibility and modernity of the Weimar democrats were exemplary. The city of Weimar was chosen as the venue for the National Assembly not only because of its distance from the unrest in Berlin, but also because its very name stood for the values and concepts of classicism and humanism. Using the word ”Weimar“ immediately established a link to a tradition, a past, that was clearly distinct from the horror of the war years, from authority and oppression.

The word “Weimar” made it clear that the speaker wanted to draw on the strength of German culture to point the way out of the crisis. Ebert himself, in his opening address here 90 years ago, referred to this idea. In my opinion his words have lost none of their validity. He called on us, and I quote,

“Not to waver or falter [when tackling the major challenges], but to stride ahead with practical action, clear of vision and firm of step! For if you are of an uncertain disposition in uncertain times, you will magnify the ills and perpetuate them ever further. But if you adhere to your sense of right and wrong, you will shape the world.”

That is just as true today as it was then!

However, Weimar does not just embody the culture of classicism, but – as I mentioned earlier – the Weimar democracy also embodies Germany's entrance into a new cultural era. I need only mention Walter Gropius, who moved to Weimar in 1919 and who is commemorated by a plaque in this very building. The Bauhaus is a powerful symbol of this culture of modernity which tries to radically redesign social processes and even ways of life, to give new form to the quest for a new democratic reality.

It would of course be nonsensical and presumptuous to attach too much importance to the nexus between the cultural achievements of those years and the political conditions of the young Republic. That is not the issue. But nor should we conceal the fact that the politics of the time, especially in Prussia, fostered this cultural flourishing and tore down the old barriers.

For the fine arts, for the new mass medium of film, for opera, theatre and political cabaret, the repeal of the Imperial censorship rules cleared the way for a boom in many fields that had lain fallow far too long.

The cultural flourishing of the Weimar Republic transcended boundaries, both geographical and ideological. Dadaism was just at home in Paris, the capital of Germany's “archenemy”, as in Cologne. Moscow hosted its first German art exhibition back in 1924. Culture and science – and this is true in our modern democracy, too – contributed greatly to making Germany a modern and cosmopolitan place.

Another point needs to be made, one that I touched on briefly above. As Egon Erwin Kisch once said with bitter irony, “I am German, I am Czech, I am a Jew – what can possibly happen to me?”

The Nazi reign of terror provided the ghastly answer. Buchenwald is only a few kilometres away from Weimar.

It is thus all the more important to me in this context to underscore the flourishing of German-Jewish culture that occurred in the Weimar Republic. And, as a Social Democrat and with a view to the many anniversaries this year, I would like to say that, in my mind, one of the major achievements of the social upheaval of 1969 was that it enabled German-Jewish culture to return to Germany. It enabled its revival following its annihilation under the Nazis and the indifference of the Adenauer era.

I am delighted that Max Raabe and Stephan Israel have been able to join us today. They very much personify this revitalization of Weimar traditions.

I would like to conclude by giving voice to two wishes:

The first is a wish that relates to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall and the 60th anniversary of our Basic Law, both of which we will mark in 2009.

Weimar failed because it was a democracy with too few democrats, too few democratic ideals and too little democratic engagement.

The Federal Republic of Germany has succeeded so far because democrats have been active. They have taken a stand against racism and anti-Semitism, against the enemies of democracy and for the common good. They have come together in civil society organizations and associations, in foundations and trade unions – and last but not least, in the political parties.

This is the lifeblood of our democracy, and my wish is that we proclaim this from the rooftops.

I have a second wish, too.

When you enter this building, you can't help but notice how small the plaque commemorating Walter Gropius is, and how large the painting of the Empire is. And yet the Weimar National Assembly embodied a key moment in the history of democracy and emancipation in Germany and Europe.

The fact that we live today in what can be called a successful democracy is due to traditions that can be traced back, albeit with many breaks and setbacks, to the Hambach Festival of 1832, the Paulskirche assembly in Frankfurt (1848), the Constituent Assembly in the Weimar National Theatre, and on through the Basic Law and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I think this should be brought to the public's attention here more prominently than it is at present. We should commemorate the German National Theatre as a place where history happened. Together with the members of the German Bundestag, I will campaign for this building to be honoured and preserved like the Paulskirche as one of the cradles of our democracy.

Thank you very much.

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