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United States. Office of the US High Commissioner for Germany / Germany's parliament in action; the September 1949 debate on the government's statement of policy

Introduction,   pp. 5-6 PDF (266.4 KB)

Page 5

Like yesterday's headlines, political orations do
not as a rule remain news for any length of time.
Yet there are occasions when parliamentary debates
illuminate the political complexion of a country
and highlight the problems confronting it.
Such an occasion was the Plenary Debate on the
Policy Statement of the newly-formed German
Federal Government, carried on by the spokesmen
for all political parties in the Bundestag iat Bonn
in September 1949. Both Statement and Debate
are still of topical interest since they provide a
comprehensive roundup of political programs,
temperamnents and methods of approach on the
right, in the center and on the left. They show
us how the issues that agitate Germans today are
reflected in the views of their political leaders.
True enough, such keynote speeches are made with
one eye on the gallery and the folks back home,
in Germany as elsewhere. Yet even promises and
demands impossible of fulfillment at this time help
the observer to evaluate the personalities and
parties that were the choice of the people of
Western Germany in the elections of 14 August 1949.
Those were the first free elections for a national
parliament in seventeen years. Just over a century
before, the middle-class revolution of 1848 had
culminated in the election of a National As-
sembly. Germany's first democratic parliament as-
sembled in Frankfurt, but its high-minded
liberalism soon proved ineffectual in coping with
the entrenched forces running the country. By
1849, these forces were again in the saddle. After
a united Germany had been formed in 1871, a new
national parliament, the Reichstag, was elected in
direct and secret suffrage by men over twenty-
five. The electoral system was based on single-
district majority vote. Dealing with such strong-
willed rulers as the "Iron Chancellor" Bismarck
and later Emperor Wilhelm II, it was a restraining
and democratizing influence even when it came off
second best.
In November 1918 the Emperor was deposed and
a democratic republic proclaimed. In its Article 22
the new Weimar Constitution provided for a Reichs-
tag elected on the basis of proportional representa-
tion by direct, universal and secret ballot of both
sexes over twenty. In the first ardor of the
Republic's prime, the Reichstag was its democratic
powerhouse. But when the Nazi vote soared from
1,075,000 in 1928 to 6,400,000 in 1930, while the Com-
munists boosted their total from 3,250,000 to
4,600,000 in the same period, the two groups,
united in their common hatred of parliamentary
democracy, made a mockery of the parliamentary
process. As the economic depression deepened,
radicalism swept the country. By 1932, the National
Socialists had again more than doubled their vote,
to 13,750,000, while the Communists reached
5,300,000; together these two held half the seats in
the Reichstag. They abused its privileges and
prerogatives and frustrated all constructive work.
Nazi and Communist tactics so undermined the
structure of democratic government that it col-
lapsed before the goose-step of Hitler's cohorts.
Four weeks after Hitler's accession to power the
Reichstag building in Berlin went up in flames.
The conflagration and the propaganda campaign
unleashed by it were part of the Nazi campaign
of terror and intimidation. A week later, on 5
March 1933, the last Reichstag worthy of the name
was elected. When it approved the "Enabling Act"
on 24 March 1933, it signed its own death warrant
and wrote finis to German democracy. One by one,
all parties were eliminated; by July 1933 only the
Nazi Party remained. The Reichstag lingered on,
leading a sort of phantom existence. When it met
at long intervals, the deputies listened to a Hitler
speech, then ratified government measures unani-
mously. But the outer trappings of a functioning
parliament remained and the Reichstag "deputies",
mostly local Nazi bosses and hangers-on, drew
full deputy's pay.
With the German collapse in 1945, this sham
"parliament" vanished. Under military occupation,
representative councils to give the German people
a voice in the determination of their own affairs
began to be elected at local level in early 1946.
Gradually, elections were held at county level,
then, for the most part in 1946 and again in 1948,
at state (Land) level.
The failures of both the Moscow and the London
Conferences of the Council of Foreign Ministers
in 1947 demonstrated the impossibility of reaching
an agreement with the Soviet Union on the political
and economic unification of Germany, which had
been called for by the Potsdam Agreement. In
view of the deterioration of the general political
situation and of the Western German economy,
which had been financed since the beginning of the
Occupation at great cost to the U. S. and U. K. tax-
payers, the U. S., U. K. and French Governments
were thus forced to revise their position. In the
"London Agreements" of 1 June 1948, the three
Occupation powers and the Benelux countries re-
solved to establish a Federal Government in

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