The History of Democracy: Exploring the Weimar Republic's Fall from a Modern U.S. Perspective

Aug 26, 2020

In the third installment of "The History of Democracy," Tracy Ross and Dr. David Pizzo, Murray State professor of history, return to the Weimar Republic. Pizzo explains mainstream conservatism in Germany in the 1920s and '30s and the infighting that ultimately led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. He also draws comparisons between the deeply-rooted polarization of the late Weimar Republic and the modern U.S.

After a lengthy pandemic-related hiatus, "The History of Democracy" resumes in Germany towards the end of the Weimar Republic. "Obviously Germany in 1932, '33, is not America in 2020. Analogies and comparisons are just that, comparisons. There are a lot of important differences...but I still think there are patterns you can see," Pizzo begins. "In the German case, I think some of these comparisons are not particularly flattering and rather scary, but I think this kind of stuff is important."

"[The Weimar Republic] was the successor state to the German empire. That was a state that was born in social revolution. This terrible treaty, the Versailles Treaty, that was proposed on them -- the Weimar Republic never really managed to shake any of that in a lot of ways." The struggles from which the Weimar Republic was created led to a sense of national illegitimacy. "The right in Weimar had this notion of [being] stabbed in the back."

"The November criminals, as [the right] called them -- essentially a bunch of leftists, socialists, feminists, pinkos of all sorts -- betrayed them, stabbed them in the back, destroyed the state, and created this illegitimate offspring that was the Weimar Republic," Pizzo continues. "Initially, that was a fairly small minority that believed that. Even in the first election, the Weimar Coalition got 78% of the vote. But unfortunately, because of some other problems, the number of people grew over time. Weimar always had this problem of being a 'democracy without democrats.' The Germans were habituated in some form to democratic behavior -- the Kaiserreich [German Empire]...that existed before from 1870 to 1918. The party system in the Kaiserreich tended to be pretty fractious. Weimar inherited that. Overall, Weimar was very polarized politically -- not unlike the modern U.S."

"You had the right, which became ever more bitter and ever more radical. It itself fragmented into a traditional right and a Nazi right. The left was also fragmenting between the communists and the socialists (which were much more mainstream). The left and the right were pulling further and further apart. The middle of Weimar just vanishes essentially by the early 1930s. That polarization was not just at the level of voting. A lot of people in Weimar, particularly after the depression, felt that globalization really betrayed them and was corrupting them. The right generally, to some degree, felt like they were in this revolt or desperate attempt to hold back the flood of global forces that were destroying German identity and German autonomy. That's a thing a lot of Americans in 2016, and probably 2020 also, could identify with for better or for worse."

"In our minds, when we talk about Weimar going away...we go straight to Hitler and the Nazis," Pizzo says. In actuality, the Weimar Republic's bigger problem was mainstream conservatives who "essentially bury Weimar before Hitler even sets foot in the door." Parallels can be drawn between conservatives of the modern-day U.S. and late '20s Germany. Pizzo explains an argument that was presented to him. "A prominent politician from Kentucky...a mainstream right politician, the gravedigger of American democracy...he's playing a role not unlike Hindenberg and his entourage in terms of allowing the far right to suck all the air out of the room and use the traditional right as a fat suit, if you will, to put on and crush their way into power."

The Nazis, or the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, were a much younger movement [than the traditional German right]. "They were far more radical," Pizzo continues. "They had some vaguely socialistic elements, though ultimately, they believed in a socialist race rather than class. They absolutely despised all Marxist movements. The Nazis were feeding on widespread discontent with the economy, hatred of the Versailles Treaty, [and] the hatred of the Weimar system itself. They always said 'we're not a party, we're a movement.' By '32, the Nazis had [been] eaten up at that point. Well over a third of the electorate were voting Nazi, which made them the largest party in the parliament."

"That in and of itself is not what brought Hitler to power. Hitler was not elected, per se. Essentially, Hindenberg's entourage starts trying to wear Hindenberg down to convince him if [he] wanted to crush the left, [he] would establish a dictatorship with a veneer of popular legitimacy, [and] these Nazis are the way to do it. Hindenberg wasn't really a big fan of Hitler; indeed, a lot of conservatives didn't like Hitler's style. They didn't like his incivility. They thought he was coarse and uncouth. They agree with him on a lot of ideas...crushing the [communist party]...destroying civil unions...over time, they really sort of wear [Hindenberg] down."

Worn-down politicians and legal scholars slowly started to accept the idea of Hitler as Führer, even when doing so blatantly went against their previous ideologies and ethos. "Carl Schmitt was one of the most famous legal scholars in the country [and] had been opposed to the Nazis [in the beginning]. He is absolutely fine with the destruction of the Prussian state in the summer of '32. He [would eventually] coin the idea of the Führer Principle -- the Führer's words trump written law -- which is just nowhere in the constitution. [Schmitt] says, 'well, there are some things higher than the constitution.' This is the most important lawyer in the county. A conservative, an old school conservative, that because of his desire for an end with war rather than war without end decides it's in the reasonable best interest of the state to support [the Nazi regime]."

When Hitler gained chancellorship in 1933, the Nazis held only three cabinet positions. "The rest of the cabinets was conservatives, and they were 100% confident that they could control [Hitler]. Essentially, they were going to use him as a chainsaw to destroy the left, and when they were done with him, just put him back in the box and have themselves a nice, comfortable, "normal" right-wing dictatorship. I think you know the punchline. That is not what happens. By 100 days later, these conservatives are either completely sidelined -- a few of them are actually murdered -- but most of them just kind of come around. Including Hindenberg himself, who, shortly before he dies in 1934, decides Hitler is the best thing since sliced bread. The best chance for Germany to redeem itself and to rise from the ashes. Any notion they had of a constitution or legality, which I would argue they already abandoned by '32, they're absolutely done with it by mid-'33. Without that mainstream right-wing support and all of those respectable conservatives adding their voices to the Nazi chorus, none of this would've happened."

"As Mark Twain said, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme." I think I myself can appreciate some elements of Weimar, like the right's hatred of press. The whole idea of Lügenpresse [lying press]...absolutely has been resurrected in the current moment -- this hatred of journalists, the fact that journalists are literally attacked at events across the country. That was a thing that I hadn't quite grasped."

"I think Hitler, we write him backwards. We sort of picture him as this towering, omnipotent figure -- which he certainly was by mid-'34 -- [but] it's not really who he is in the late '20s, early '30s. He's viewed by a lot of people, I think by most Germans, as kind of a buffoon. Sort of stupid. He's a blowhard. Yes, he's a radical...but surely he doesn't mean it seriously. They really didn't take him as a serious threat and thought he was just sort of a blowhard that was going to blow over. That reading really paralyzed a meaningful response not just by mainstream Germany or the press, but also by the conservatives. In some ways, I think they took him even less seriously and thought he was going to be a malleable puppet that they could put on like a glove and use the way they wanted to."

"That sort of not taking him seriously and being caught up in analyzing his discourse or how uncivil he was, or look at this gaffe he made, or look how inconsistent he is...none of that mattered to his supporters at all. The fact that Hitler was sort of a cipher...kind of a zero...a non-person in many ways...meant that anyone could put whatever they wanted and read whatever they wanted out of him. That's what people did, including his enemies, to the detriment of the entire republic's survival," Pizzo concludes.