The Shadow of St. Paul’s Church (Der Schatten der Paulskirche)


Republic is form, democracy is content. An aristocratic republic is worse than a democratic monarchy, which is actually a contradiction in itself, so I would say directly, “Democratic republic!” Ludwig Simon in St. Paul’s church, 19th June 1848.

There is a slender book which is hated by reactionaries like no other: the Weimar constitution. And people only trouble to hate something which has power. Does the constitution of the German Empire have power, our friends would ask us? Then haven’t you complained incessantly for the last two years  that the constitution isn’t worth much, that it is crudely disregarded by the reactionary parties and a recalcitrant civil service which will not submit to the changed circumstances? We owe an open answer to this question. We have made no secret of the fact that the democratic spirit of the constitution has not yet prevailed, by a long way, that open and hidden obstruction is trying to make each and every one of its articles ineffective. We know that there are broad strata on the right and the left who never mention the result of Weimar without derision or an angry comment, and we will continue to say so in the future. But there are things which, even in their apparent passivity, exercise a strong influence, and which you may wish the devil would take, but you can’t deny. Germany has come a long way in these last two years, with lots of difficulty. Parties have sprung up and collapsed, turmoil has marched through the country in all sorts of forms, but in the middle of the confusion, there was one source of reflection and orientation: this slender book which contains all the political awareness and political experience which the German people had been missing for fifty years.

It is not sacrosanct. It has not retained the coherence of the initial draft by Hugo Preuß. It is the result of months of negotiations between parties, not divine revelation. Nevertheless, enough remains of the of the perspicacity and will of the man who had the combined ignorance of the whole country against him when he published his first sketch. Of course the constitution has opponents, it is a thorn in the side of a lot of people, but nobody even mentioned the previous one. In the end, not even the opposition noticed it. It was an official matter. It was an object for thought experiments in faculties of law. The thing about the new constitution which cannot be suppressed by the limitations of individual participants, is the attempt to express the best social moral trends of modern society in short, concise statements. Even if some of it dries up in time, even if economic and political necessity require deletions or modifications here and there, the articles 109 to 118, which define the basic rights and duties of German citizens, are a political education program for decades to come. Every national constitution has two sides: it summarizes the current situation, and sets targets for the future. A combination of realization and  incentives are its harmonious essence.

There are often complaints about the lack of idealistic impetus of the formulations, it is compared unfavourably with the vigour of the declaration of human rights, or the heroism of the American declaration of independence. The recent German document undeniably suffers by such comparisons. It contains no great call to carry its audience away, it doesn’t appeal passionately to hearts and minds, there is no inner melody. But it is not lacking in character! And aren’t these unintentional lacunae typical of the belated German revolution? But this constitution does strive for the essential. It tries to rescue the fundamental consensus that existed at the time, from the conflict between forces, the turmoil of passions, which followed the collapse, and build on it. So the first article comprises the two sentences:

The German empire is a republic.
National sovereignty resides in the people.

In the meantime, the counter-revolution has slowly and stubbornly gained ground, Kapp-Lüttwitz have tried to launch a preemptive coup, monarchical-reactionary demagoguery has spouted rivers of drivel. But does even one of these belated heroes dare to assert that these two sentences which stand rightly at the beginning of the new constitution, were not the general conviction of the people at that time? They were, and that is why the gentlemen either kept a dignified silence, or were even themselves republicans for a while. Despite all other disruption, the republic and popular sovereignty were the clear will of the German people. This consensus no longer exists. The terrible economic, social and political consequences of defeat in the war are only now becoming completely apparent, and as so often, the resulting anger is directed more against the medicine than against the illness and those who caused it, and just those who claim, in their torrent of empty phrases, that the Germans are the chosen people, help to ensure that the idea of a unified people cannot be filled with life. It’s here that the constitution has a great role to play, it is an element of unification, it throws the term ‘unpatriotic’, the worst accusation in the Wilhemine vocabulary, onto the rubbish heap. It prevents the inevitable party and class struggles from getting out of hand, and is a serious admonition to those who are playing with the dangerous idea of a „bourgeois block“, which would split Germany in two. Overcoming class was the best tradition of bourgeois democracy. If it abandons it, it would show that it carries its own death within itself. It is no coincidence that Hugo Preuß, the creator of the constitution, is now fighting this disastrous madness with passion and courage.

We prefaced this statement with a quotation from a speech by a democrat and republican in 1848. We realize that the demands of the old National Assembly have been formally fulfilled, but we also know that there is a long way to go to fill them with life. The German people lost one revolution. If a second one occurs, it would be the beginning of eternal night. The looming shadow of St. Paul’s church lies over us late grandchildren.

Published in: OssietzkySpiegel Ossietzky Reflection Reader


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