11 August is Constitution Day! The Weimar Republic celebrates?

Michael Kunzel | 9 August 2019

National holidays help forge a sense of collective identity. As well as marking the Kaiser’s birthday, the German Empire also celebrated the Day of Sedan on 2 September to commemorate the victory in 1870 over France. These dates had lost their relevance in 1919, and so the young German Republic had to pick a new public holiday. Medals and coins reflect the events of their time, as Michael Kunzel (a numismatist at the Deutsches Historisches Museum) illustrates through the example of the Weimar Republic.

In the Beginning, There Were Elections!

The German Empire’s fate was sealed on 9 November 1918. With the war lost and Kaiser Wilhelm II having abdicated and fled the country, a new republic was proclaimed. Or, rather, two proclamations were made in quick succession: one for a parliamentary republic, pronounced from the Reichstag by Philipp Scheidemann (1865–1939), another for a free socialist republic, declared by Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919) from the Berlin Palace. The following day, the Council of People’s Deputies formed a provisional government, which approved the Armistice and agreed to hold elections. Suffrage was extended to include all women and anyone aged twenty and over.

Election turnout was correspondingly high. The 423 newly elected deputies, including 37 women, took their seats at the National Assembly, which from 6 February convened at the National Theatre in Weimar, as the situation in Berlin was still far from stable. These political developments also inspired the medallists’ art. Tapping into an acerbic style already well established among critics of parliamentary democracy, medallist Karl Goetz (1875–1950) mockingly depicted deputies at the National Assembly in Weimar as clamouring fishwives. By contrast, the sculptor Carl Ebbinghaus (1872–1950) provided a more optimistic take: a serene image of parliamentary calm, accompanied by the motto:

Now act, in time of peace, as the hour requires you to
(Goethe: Faust, Part 2, c. 54).

« 2 of 2 »

Parliamentarians Presented with a Souvenir of Their Work

On 31 July 1939, the draft Weimar Constitution was passed on its third reading: 262 deputies voted in favour, 75 against, and 84 abstained. The bill was signed into law on 11 August 1919, and came into legal force three days later. It was felt that this momentous occasion should be commemorated in a fitting manner, and so the decision was taken to mint a medal. The sculptor Heinrich Waderé (1865–1950) was awarded the official commission for the design. Waderé decided to use classic republican imagery: a female head and the fasces (a symbol of the Roman Republic). The model for the profile portrait was Marie Juchacz (1879–1956), a deputy from the democratic socialist SPD Party, who on 19 February 1919 became the first-ever woman to give a speech in the German parliament. In June 1920, parliamentarians each received the bronze medal featuring Juchacz’s portrait. The same portrait appeared on a banknote issued by the Reichsbank in 1923, shortly before hyperinflation reached its absolute peak.

The Finnish Republic Enquires after Germany’s National Holiday

When the Finnish Foreign Ministry enquired in November 1919 about the date of Germany’s national holiday, the debate as to whether it should fall on May Day or Constitution Day was still very much ongoing. The decision was eventually made in 1921: Constitution Day on 11 August was declared the national holiday, to be celebrated as ‘the day democracy in Germany was born’. The task of organizing the holiday was entrusted to the incumbent Reichskunstwart (national guardian of art), a position held from 1921 by Edwin Redslob (1884–1973). The first celebrations in 1921 were rather academic in character and modest in scale. In the years that followed, however, they became more elaborate – featuring official gatherings and open days at the Reichstag, military parades, processions, sporting events, and fairs. However, these events did little to increase the holiday’s popularity.

Every Purse to Contain a Constitution Day Coin

Since coins filter through to every section of the population, the idea soon came about to mark the new national holiday with a commemorative coin. Minted in 1922, the ‘Constitution Coin’ was also an opportunity to present the public with a new symbol of German statehood – a Reichsadler (Imperial Eagle) for the modern age. With more than 50 million examples in circulation, the coins passed into the hands of the entire population. However, German currency lost so much value during the period of hyperinflation that most of the commemorative coins re-issued in 1923 were never released. It wasn’t until the Weimar Republic’s 10th anniversary in 1929 that the next batch of commemorative coins – silver 3 Mark and 5 Mark coins known as ‘Hindenburg Thalers’ and ‘Constitution Thalers’ – became common currency. The coins’ design became the focus of a press campaign so hostile that the artist responsible wrote to government officials, stating that reactions to the commission had left him with ‘…really no choice but suicide’. However, the journalists’ ire was directed towards the government’s progressive art policies; the coins merely provided an opportunity to launch a public broadside.

Sport, Unity of the Nation

The Weimar Constitution abolished all medals and honours, with the exception of those awarded for sporting achievements. Sports events were a central component of the events held on Constitution Day and were followed by large sections of the population. Winners were awarded the Presidential Prize (created in 1924), one of the few official honours conferred by the Weimar Republic. Linking the prize to significant national events proved to be something of a propaganda coup. The first opportunity to showcase the Weimar Republic in this manner came in June 1930, when the medal was minted to commemorate the end of the decade-long occupation of the Rhineland by France and Belgium. This was followed in 1931 and 1932 by nationwide commemorations marking the centenaries of the respective deaths of two towering figures from German history: the political reformer Heinrich Friedrich Karl Reichsfreiherr von und zum Stein (1757–1831), and the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1932).

« 2 of 2 »

Epilogue

Festivities, coins, and prizes could only go so far in making the national holiday more widely accepted. Constitution Day on 11 August was never accepted as a national public holiday by every state in the republic. Every attempt to make the holiday legally binding failed to pass the parliamentary legal committee. After the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933, Mayday, Harvest Festival, and Remembrance Day all became public holidays.

Literature

• Rößner, Alf: Demokratie aus Weimar. Die Nationalversammlung 1919, Weimar 2015.
• Schellack, Fritz: Nationalfeiertage in Deutschland von 1871 bis 1945, Frankfurt/Main et al. 1990.
• Steguweit, Wolfgang u.a.: Die Medaille und Gedenkmünze des 20. Jahrhunderts in Deutschland (Die Kunstmedaille in Deutschland 14), Berlin 2000.
• Welzbacher, Christian: Der Reichskunstwart. Kulturpolitik und Staatsinszenierung in der Weimarer Republik 1918-1933, Weimar 2010.
• Würtenberger, Thomas: Symbole der Freiheit. Zu den Wurzeln westlicher politischer Kultur, Vienna et al. 2017.