Democratization of Germany

Democratization of Germany
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  • 0:00 Democratization of Germany
  • 1:04 Transitioning to a Republic
  • 2:04 National Tragedy
  • 3:18 A Divided Country
  • 4:23 Reunification
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Germany is one of Europe's most powerful democracies, but that democracy is relatively new to the area. This lesson explains how universal suffrage really only started in the past hundred years, with some parts only gaining the right to vote in 1990.

Democratization of Germany

In the grand scheme of things, Germany is a pretty young state. England can trace its history back to 1066, while the French can go even further to the reign of people like Charlemagne and Clovis. However, modern Germany was founded in 1871 as the German Empire, an assembly of various smaller states, nearly all of whose citizens spoke German as their first language. Just as Germany took some time to come around to being a sovereign state, it also took some time to complete democratization.

After the founding of the Empire, Germany took some steps towards universal male suffrage. All men could vote for representatives in the Reichstag, one of the two houses of the German legislature. However, the Bundesrat, an upper house made up of the rich and other elites, had the power of veto. This, combined with the meddling of Kaiser Wilhelm II, ruler of Germany from 1888 until 1918, rendered the votes of the masses pretty meaningless.

Transitioning to a Republic

After Germany lost the First World War in 1918, the German Empire fell amidst protests against the regime that had gotten the people in the war in the first place. The day after the war ended, women gained the right to vote from the revolutionary councils that attempted to run Germany. These revolutionary councils gave way to the more stable Weimar Republic (named for the city of Weimar, where it was formed).

However, it wasn't until the next year, in 1919, that the Weimar Republic gave full suffrage to German women. In fact, the whole idea of a class-based system was done away with, and everyone over the age of 20 had the same vote. For ten years, the Weimar Republic was actually a time of great democracy. However, such a politically liberated time would not last for Germany. Unfortunately, the Weimar Republic proved to be weak, and within less than 15 years, it would be dismantled by a far more ruthless foe.

National Tragedy

The Nazi party began to gain power during the Weimar Republic's periods of weakness, and by 1933, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler held the office of chancellor, a very powerful position in the German government second only to the president. Hitler's rise to power may have started as democratic, but his consolidation of said authority began with the destruction of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

Within the year, he held absolute power and began consolidating his influence. Among the many other injustices inflicted on minorities from Jews to Gypsies was a loss of the right to vote. To be honest, it didn't matter much anyway, as practically everyone else had lost the right to vote. All real decisions were made at the highest levels of government, and to disagree with the sham elections occasionally held would have resulted in severe punishment.

Increasingly, the line between the Nazi Party and the German government blurred. It was hard to be involved in government and not at least pay very convincing lip service to the ideas of Nazism. Ultimately, with the Allied victory in World War II in 1945, this system was ended.

A Divided Country

However, peace for the German people was still years away. After the war, the country was divided into east and west by the Allied victors. French, British, and American forces occupied the western and southern parts of Germany, while Russian troops held control over the east. West Germany became a new republic with thorough political and economic connections with the West. Here, democracy flourished, as did the rights of people to vote.

In East Germany, however, the system came under the sway of Moscow. The totalitarian government of the Soviet Union limited the amount of political power that was available to the citizens of East Germany. Only candidates from the approved political parties were allowed to run for office, while those parties all had essentially the same platform. Meanwhile, the East German secret police, the Stasi, kept tabs on anyone - in government or not - who was deemed by the hardline Communists as having views out of line with those of the party. In short, the right to free suffrage was out of the question.

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