The Weimar Constitution and its “Father” Hugo Preuss

Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss' contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic

The collapse of monarchic rule following the defeat of Germany in World War I and the revolution of November 1918 gave rise to a new and almost completely unknown political order in Germany: democracy. The nascent political forces understood the need for drafting a new constitution that would suit the democratic regime and prevent the aristocracy from obtaining any political power.

The assembly of the German people that gathered in the city of Weimar included a special committee for drafting a new constitution. Members of the committee were jurists with an expertise in constitutional law and legislation.

The committee’s discussions continued for a number of months, until the new constitution was approved by the general assembly in Weimar on August 11, 1919. One of the permanent members of this committee who also served as its chairman for several months was the Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss (1860-1925). His contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Preuss presented the first draft of this important text and considerable portions of it became part of the final version, approved by the representatives of the general assembly. For the first time in German history, a constitution was passed that included basic civil rights.

Among the many innovations that Preuss suggested in his draft was a new internal division of Germany, necessitating the dismantling of Germany’s historical states, including the largest state of Prussia. This suggestion was unacceptable to the more conservative assembly representatives, but it anticipated the future, since the idea was carried out in the prevailing political reality after 1945, with the founding of the new German state.

Hugo Preuss was born in Berlin to a family of merchants, studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg, and completed his doctorate at the university in Göttingen. He decided to devote himself to academic research, and joined the faculty of the University of Berlin as a “private lecturer” (a special status of senior lecturer without a position but with teaching obligations). He remained in this uncomfortable position for 15 years, since Jews were not awarded the status of professor unless they agreed to convert to Christianity for this purpose. While conversion was not a formal legal requirement, in the minds of German academics it was still required. Only with the establishment of a private trade school in Berlin in 1906 was Preuss hired as a professor of law.

Beginning in 1895, Hugo Preuss became a member of the Berlin City Council. In 1918 he became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party DDP, where Walther Rathenau was a member as well. From 1919 to his death, Preuss was a member of the Prussian parliament, yet he also served as Interior Minister of the Weimar Republic. He resigned from this post in protest when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. In this treaty, Germany relinquished its sovereignty in certain areas and committed to paying hefty reparations to the Allies. Preuss’s resignation as minister brought about an absurd situation: the signature of this brilliant jurist does not appear at the bottom of the constitutional text, though most of it is his brainchild; the constitution was approved only after he had stepped down.

In 1949, when German jurists drafted the “Basic Law” of West Germany (instead of a formal constitution, which Germany lacks to this day), they used the Weimar Constitution as a basis for their work. Considerable portions of the original constitution migrated to the “Basic Law,” though certain articles that proved to be ineffective or even dangerous to democracy and state stability were amended.

Ultimately, it should be recalled, Hitler established his reign of terror based on article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which enabled the revocation of basic civil rights as well as human rights when state security was at risk, a provision that the Nazis exploited for their own interests.

The Journal “Rimon” – “Milgroim”

The first Jewish journal devoted to art

Logo of "Rimon" Publishing House, 1922. Design: Tobias Schwab

In early autumn of 1922, the premier issue of “Rimon”, the first Jewish journal devoted to art, was published. The Hebrew-language readership, which until then had been accustomed to various journals and literary collections printed on cheap paper with cramped lettering, was stunned by the exceptional quality of this innovative journal, not only in terms of its content – serious articles dealing with all aspects of Jewish art – but also from its excellent typographical quality, the fine paper on which it was printed and the abundant colorful, eye-enchanting illustrations it incorporated.

The driving force behind Rimon was a small circle of Russian Jews, headed by historian Mark Wischnitzer and his wife, art historian Rachel Bernstein-Wischnitzer. In late 1921, the couple joined a group of Russian-Jewish émigrés in Berlin. They presented the idea of publishing a Jewish art journal to their friend Leopold Sew, a Russian-Jewish intellectual who was visiting Berlin from Paris, where he had fled after the revolution. Sew was excited by the idea and referred the couple to Eliahu Feinson, who belonged to a group of Jewish-Russian capitalists who supported Hebrew publication projects. Feinson enlisted with fervor in the publication of Jewish art books, and provided the necessary funding for commencing the work. His name appeared on almost all publications of the company as one of its three directors, alongside Dr. Mark Wischnitzer and Alexander Kogan, two of the great Russian publishers who had come to Berlin during this period, and were involved in the production of one of the most esteemed journals to be published in both Russian and German, “The Firebird” (“Jar-Ptiza”).

Cover of the Russian art journal The Firebird, 1921. Design: Sergei Czokhonin

Despite the defeat of Germany in World War I and the lack of political stability that characterized it in the years that followed, the publishing industry recovered rapidly and continued to be among the most progressive and advanced in the world, as it had been in the past. The spiraling inflation in the Weimar Republic at the time severely damaged the local industry and economy, but on the other hand, it gave owners of foreign capital the possibility of producing published materials at a high standard for a very low cost.

Between 1921 and 1923, over thirty different Hebrew publishing houses were active in Germany, many of them in Berlin. These publishing houses succeeded within a very short span to print hundreds of Hebrew titles of a quality unprecedented in the world of Hebrew publishing of that time. During this period, Jewish-German publishers, like their German colleagues, were in the throes of a deep economic crisis. In contrast, the state of Jewish immigrants from Russia was radically different. Most of the financial institutions of the Zionist Movement were located in the United States and Britain. The philanthropists who provided the funding for many Russian refugees to stay in Germany conducted business outside of the Weimar Republic. The small sums (in terms of the dollar or sterling) that were sent regularly to Jewish immigrants in Germany were thus sufficient to enable them to live respectably. Therefore, despite the ostensibly low status of Russian Jews in the Weimar Republic as immigrants and refugees with no legal standing, they had a tremendous advantage over their local German-Jewish brethren.

Emerging from the multi-lingual reality that characterized the society of Jewish-Russian immigrants in Germany was the idea to publish, in parallel to the issues of “Rimon”, a Yiddish edition called “Milgroim”, which like the Hebrew word “rimon,” means pomegranate. Some of the articles on art appeared in identical form in both language editions, while the literary component was different. Although “Milgroim” is one of a long list of Yiddish journals founded by the literary hub of Eastern-European Jews in Berlin at the beginning of the 1920s, it is completely unique in character due to the visual language through which it communicated to its readership.

Cover of an issue of “Milgroim”, 1922, by Böhm and Baruch
The similarity between the twin journals in Hebrew and Yiddish, “Rimon” and “Milgroim”, published by the Wischnitzers, and the Russian journal published by Alexander Kogan, is not only in the covers notable for their bold colors. Like Kogan, the Wischnitzers also viewed the Middle Ages as the “golden age” of art as a source of inspiration, and this can be readily discerned not only typographically (the shapes of the Hebrew letters drawn from those appearing in Ashkenazic and Sephardic Hebrew manuscripts) but also in other motifs in medieval folk art, as well as in the revival of additional motifs that were typical of early manuscripts and printed materials.
Overall, between 1922 and 1924, seven titles were published by the “Rimon” publishing house, some of them in three and even four languages (a total of twelve books), in addition to the six editions of the “Rimon” journal and six additional editions of its Yiddish corollary “Milgroim”. In 1924, following the halting of German inflation and the stabilization of the mark, the economic conditions that enabled the inexpensive publication of books no longer existed, and this original publishing house came to an end, like many of the Hebrew publication establishments that emerged – and disappeared – during this brief and intensive period.
Cover of the first issue of “Rimon”, 1922. Design: Ernst Böhm and Francesca Baruch

German Inflation 1919-1923

Prices rose to absurd sums: at the end of the period of hyper-inflation, in the fall of 1923, a loaf of bread cost many billions and to send a single postcard from Munich to Prague required stamps worth 36 billion marks

Inflation is the devaluation of a national currency due to a rise in the prices of commodities on the national market, often resulting from the rising price of imports. Mild inflation exists in every modern free economy, and is not considered a worrisome phenomenon, as long as it remains at a low rate. However, if, for political or economic reasons, inflation deviates from tolerable levels to the extent that it has a severe negative impact on the standard of living of many citizens, the phenomenon takes on the attributes of a socio-economic disaster, that also spurs a political disaster when the nation begins to seek individuals on whom to assign responsibility for the economic collapse.

The greatest inflation in the history of Germany occurred mainly from 1919-1923, but in fact it had already started in 1914, with the outbreak of WWI. When the war began, the German governments increased the money supply in order to cover the soaring costs, initially of the war itself, and afterwards, of the heavy reparations that the Allies had imposed on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. One means of increasing the supply of money was the issue of war bonds purchased by many citizens. At the same time, it was decided to cut the linkage between the German mark and the price of gold, a connection that existed at the time in most advanced nations. The result was an expanding gap between the value of gold-based currency (the gold mark, which was actually in use until the end of the days of the German Empire) and paper currency, which could be printed in almost unlimited quantities. Flooding the market with printed money rapidly lowered its value, so that the prices rose disproportionately, while the real wage of salaried workers fell sharply. At the same time, loans and debts lost their value by the same proportion. This was precisely the goal of the German government after the end of the war: to lessen the burden of the reparations and to demonstrate the weakness of the German economy to the allies.

This situation took its toll on the daily life of most citizens. The rise in prices that the consumer was required to pay was not matched by a rise in wages. Since wages rose more gradually, it was more difficult to keep up with the high prices. On payday, employees hurried to reach the stores before the exchange rate of the mark vis-à-vis the dollar which was usually even lower than it had been a few days earlier. Prices rose to absurd sums: at the end of the period of hyper-inflation, in the fall of 1923, a loaf of bread cost many billions and to send a single postcard from Munich to Prague required stamps worth 36 billion marks (see photo). In such a situation, the central bank ceased investing in the design of bills and in their printed elements since it was not worthwhile to produce counterfeit bills, all of the graphic markings that were meant to serve as obstacles to counterfeiting, and some bills were even only one-sided. Often, a denomination – higher than the specified original bills – was overlaid onto existing bills that had not yet entered the money cycle. There are photographs depicting children who had cut out kites from galley sheets of bills that had become obsolete.

In November 1923, the inflation reached a peak: one dollar was worth 4,200 billion German marks. It was clear to all that this trend could not go on. Eventually, a change of government in Germany brought an end to the inflation, after it had achieved one of its main goals: reduction of the debts that were burdening the German coffers. From November 15, 1923, the currency was replaced: instead of the worthless Papiermark, the Central Bank of Germany presented the new mark (Rentermark). In the international arena, the German government reached an understanding with the Allies in the framework of the Dawes Plan, according to which German reparations were adjusted to the country’s economic ability. Following this, the German economy recuperated over the coming years, but millions of citizens lost their capital, which had been deposited in savings plans.

Our display item shows a 50 million mark bill, part of the Means of Payment and Banknotes Collection of the Archives Department of the National Library. This bill was issued in July 1923, just a few months before the inflation peaked. Based on this bill’s physical condition we can conclude that it was heavily used. Originally, the reverse side of the bill was left blank, but in our sample, an informal nationalist, anti-Semitic printing was scrawled on. As in many moments of crisis throughout history, the period of inflation was a time to cast blame for the eradication of private wealth: the anti-Semites were convinced that the “rich Jews” bore all of the responsibility.

Translation of the rhymed lines:

Like the fungus
and the lichens
on the oak’s trunk
The Jew thrives
on mankind’s trunk
Where Jews live in comfort
The majority remains
in poverty’s grip

Architecture in the “International Style” (Bauhaus) in Eretz Israel

When architect Walter Gropius established in 1919 the Bauhaus art school in the city of Weimar, Germany, he had, it can be assumed, grand plans, but no way of predicting that the tradition born with the establishment of this school would change the face of the world of architecture and in the design of many useful products.

Residential building in Tel Aviv, Frischman Street, 1930s (Archives Department, TMA 5249)

What began as a new idea – the training of artists in a far-reaching integration of theory and practice and the training of artisans – became a widespread worldwide concept, based on the principal of combining simple design with high functionality. Although this school existed for only 14 years and trained only a few hundred graduates, it is considered to this day the cradle of the avant-garde in fine and applied modern art.

Although at Bauhaus instruction was offered in a wide range of arts and crafts, the focus was always architecture, not only because of the profession of the institution’s founder and director of nine-years, Walter Gropius, but also because of his firm convictions. In his view, all of an artist’s skills should be focused on building as an all-encompassing expression of art as a whole. Gropius succeeded in recruiting first-rate avant-garde artists as lecturers: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lionel Feininger, Oskar Schlemmer, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy and others.

The modern and avant-garde atmosphere in Bauhaus was ultimately not suitable to the quite conservative environment in the city of Weimar, and the institution therefore moved to Dessau, several dozen kilometers north of Weimar. It was in Dessau that Walter Gropius built the famous Bauhaus building and the series of Meisterhäuser – homes for lecturers, which exist to this day and are considered gems of this style. Design of the buildings was related to the artistic ideas of the school, and set standards that can be found in the construction of many buildings to this day.

Following the growing influence of the Nazis in the Dessau city council beginning in 1932, the school moved a second time, taking up its final residence in Berlin, until ultimately closing in 1933. The last director was the famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Until the closure of the Bauhaus school, its graduates succeeded in disseminating its ideas among a community of modern architects and artists, such that the familiar design style was copied even from architects who never studied at this institution. The Nazis were opposed both to the ideas of Bauhaus as well as to its international atmosphere. Closure of the institution in 1933 was therefore the anticipated consequence of the political changes. Lecturers, students and graduates of the school fled to other countries and continued in this manner to spread Bauhaus’s modernist concepts throughout the world.

Rechavia neighborhood, Jerusalem, during its construction. Archives department, TM 8° 791

The name “Bauhaus” spread quickly even beyond the borders of Europe, and among its students were no small number of citizens of other countries, including students from the Land of Israel. In addition to the four architects who came from Palestine to study at Bauhaus (Shlomo Bernstein, Munio Gitai-Weinraub, Shmuel Mestechkin and Arieh Sharon), a sizable number of Bauhaus graduates or architects and artists influenced by it arrived in (or returned to) Palestine: Erich Mendelsohn, Richard Kaufmann, Genia Averbuch, Mordechai Ardon, Isaac Rapoport and others.

With the activity of these artists, and mainly that of the architects among them, a characteristic building style was created that can be encountered to this day in Israeli cities and even on kibbutzim. The strongest manifestation of this style is in Tel Aviv’s “White City”, which features the largest group of buildings in the International Style in Israel: some 4,000 different structures can today be found in Tel Aviv, for example in the area of Dizengoff Street, Bialik Street and Rothschild Boulevard. This collection was declared in 2003 a World Heritage Site (by UNESCO).

Buildings of this style can be found in other cities as well, including Jerusalem (the Rechavia neighborhood, the Hadassah Hospital at Mt. Scopus, Villa Schocken, Beit Ha-Ma’alot, and others) and in Haifa. The Rechavia neighborhood was planned by the German-Jewish architect Richard Kaufmann, who was also responsible, inter alia, for planning the Tel Aviv’s “White City” and Kibbutz Nahalal. Shmuel Mestechkin shaped the face of many kibbutzim, mainly through their dining halls, such as Kibbutz Na’an, Mishmar Ha-Emek, Mizra, Yad Mordechai and others. The influence of the International Style on architecture in Israel was so tremendous that even to this day we plan and build buildings that have distinctive features from the repertoire of the International Style.

Mt. Scopus and Hadassah Hospital during its construction, 1938. Photo: Zoltan Kluger, Archives Department, TMA 507.2

Rechavia neighborhood, Jerusalem, view of Villa Schocken, 1938. Photo: Zoltan Kluger, Archives Department, TMA 507.2

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