Before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Germany experienced its ‘roaring 20s’ through a parliamentary democratic system—the Weimar Republic. Weimar Republic 101 article series aims to introduce some of the key themes and debates in the historiography of the Weimar Republic, from its inception in 1918 to its death in 1933. The final article of the Weimar Republic 101 series continues the discussion from chapter five on the reasons for the Republic's collapse, this time expanding on the people's loss of faith in the democratic system. This final chapter includes a broader discussion of the consequences of crisis on democracies, an uncomfortable conversation for the world's democracies today, who are in the midst of economic and public health crises.
Weimar Republic 101 is divided into six chapters:
Weimar Republic 101: The collapse of a democracy
Understandings of Weimar Germany are framed by its well-known collapse in 1933 when Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor and executes his brutal totalitarian dictatorship. It is not useful to view Weimar as having a fixed path towards destruction, but it is important to consider the reasons for its collapse. In this final article, we look at how Germany's transitional society after World War I bred feelings of insecurity among the population that eventually corroded the democratic system. We also explore how the image of Weimar is a spectre to today's democracies amid increasing polarisation, economic crises and the unprecedented events of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The Weimar Republic was a fifteen-year democratic system that existed in Germany after World War I and before World War II. The forces that contributed to the collapse of Weimar democracy extended beyond the economic pressures of the Great Depression that gripped Germany during the Republic’s final years. Indeed, Storer (2013, p. 199) comments that Weimar studies have taken a ‘cultural turn’ in recent years, blurring the lines between the political, social, and cultural histories of Germany after World War I. Preceding articles in this 101 series have aimed to participate in this ‘cultural turn’. For example, when looking at the avant-garde art that was born out of the Republic or when looking at the role of women in Weimar society, this series has been attentive to how we can free ourselves from dichotomies of political and cultural life and integrate our understanding of Weimar history. In this respect, it is useful to consider the ‘moral collapse’ of Weimar focusing on the cultural factors that contributed to the fall of the democratic system.
In line with this ‘cultural turn’, Gerwarth (2005, p. 120) recognises the “psychological consequences” of unemployment and the Great Depression, which led to “feelings of insecurity” among the Germans. On a national scale, this insecurity was realised in the country’s resentment towards the democratic government who had signed the Treaty of Versailles. The German people’s early dissatisfaction with the Republic has been discussed in more detail in the first article of this series. In this final article, we expand on the public’s resentment towards the Treaty to see how the feelings of insecurity facilitated the Nazi rise to power and the collapse of the democratic system. Gerwarth (2005, p. 143) identifies that “the public’s perception of Weimar democracy as a total failure” developed the potency of the idea of charismatic leadership. As leader of the Nazi Party, Hitler appealed to the German people’s anxieties, promising to “restore their [the German people’s] national honour” (Epstein 2015, p. 13). Applying Storer’s (2013, p. 199) rhetoric of focusing on the “signs, symbols, and myths in shaping Weimar politics and culture”, Hitler was able to turn the Treaty into a symbol for the loss of national pride, and his charismatic leadership was represented as the antidote to the country’s suffering after defeat in World War I.
When looking at Weimar’s collapse, there has been a shift from isolating certain groups, such as the Nazi Party, to be the cause of the Republic’s downfall. Henig (1998, p. 78) points to the cultural changes in Germany after World War I and the “impact of the war and of defeat on a deeply divided but rapidly modernising society”. Indeed, it is the modernising society that is said to be the cause for the German people’s insecurity and lack of a sense of belonging. The “mass society” theory argues that “industrialisation and modernity estranged citizens from each other…[and left them] searching for ways of belonging” (Berman 1997, p. 404). Hitler’s promise of restoring national pride appealed to the want for a sense of belonging. Berman (1997) explores Germany’s associational life as an explanation of how the democratic system collapsed. Associational life is taken to mean that citizens of a society participate in “clubs, voluntary associations, and professional organisations” (Berman 1997, p. 408). In Berman’s view, German citizens engaged in associations out of “frustration with the failures” of Weimar democracy, undermining the legitimacy of the democratic system to support its citizen’s needs.
Expanding on their thesis of associational life, Berman (1997, p. 402) explains the collapse of Weimar through the “weak political institutionalisation” of the democracy. Epstein (2015, p. 33) goes one step further to argue that the fall of Weimar democracy and the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party are two separate stories. Epstein argues that Weimar dissolved internally due to an unstable constitution. Indeed, the ability of the President to appoint the Chancellor without Reichstag approval, and the emergency powers of Article 48, which allowed Hitler to execute his dictatorial regime, do support the argument that the democracy had a weak constitution which was vulnerable to exploitation and collapse from within. Accepting Henig and Berman’s arguments that it was the transitional nature of German society after World War I that pressured Weimar to collapse, Epstein is correct to say that Hitler’s rise to power was not a cause of Weimar’s collapse, but a story that ran parallel to it.
Epstein’s argument that democracy can collapse from within, by its very constitution, is a troubling thought that has, in recent years especially, been at the forefront of the minds of political theorists, historians, and the public of Western democratic societies. In light of the Western financial crisis of 2008, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the polarisation of American politics, there has been a shift in how democracies like Weimar are understood. Harrington and Roberts (2012, p. 4) identify that Weimar’s collapse is “not a unique historical development confined to its time but a structural societal phenomenon” that is capable of returning to democratic societies. The political theorist John Keane (2010) has explored the term “Democide” to be used as the name for democratic self-destruction, in a way similar to how Weimar democracy eroded through its own constitution, enabling the rise of a totalitarian dictatorship (Chou 2012, p. 23). Explaining the collapse of democracy, Chou (2012 pp. 35-37) argues that Weimar was guilty of having “’too much democracy’” that promoted a “politics of disruption and change”, while at the same time, having “’too little democracy’”, because enabling acts are included in the constitution, for instance. Enabling acts in a democracy give special powers to leaders in an emergency. The question is, how long can the leaders make the emergency last and hold on to the special powers given to them?
In the Covid-19 pandemic, the question of how to protect civil liberties amid a severe health crisis has led to public anxieties over the loss of democracy. In some states of Australia, severe lockdown laws caused concern from domestic and international commentators on the state of Australia’s democracy. American journalist Conor Friedersdorf has called the lockdown restrictions “draconian” and raised the question: “how long can a country maintain emergency restrictions on its citizens’ lives while still calling itself a liberal democracy?” (Friedersdorf 2021). The question is such that the University of Sydney has developed a democracy policy paper entitled ‘protecting democracy during Covid-19’ that raises a discussion on how we can look at the signs of health and weakness in our democracies during the pandemic. While not overtly referencing Weimar, it is clear that there are parallels to be drawn between how Weimar collapsed and how Western democracies today could erode under extreme stress and crisis.
The image of Weimar has also been explicitly invoked to understand contemporary crises: Bessner (2017, p. 831) sees “the ghosts of the Weimar Republic [to] haunt the United States”. In the 2016 election, parallels were drawn between Trump and Hitler, with America understood as “fated to be overrun by right-wing reactionaries” like its spectre democracy Weimar. The more recent 2021 storming of the US Capitol Building is a violent representation of the severity of polarisation in American politics today. In light of the world’s contemporary crisis, it is reasonable to see how Weimar has “provided readily available models to which Americans could point to make sense of their present” (Bessner 2017, p. 833). The history of Weimar democracy continues to be important to study because of how prevalent it is as a heuristic device to understand the Western democracies today, and what they could look like tomorrow.
Germany's Weimar Republic continues to be an important period of history to study and understand. It is especially important to today's democracies that face threats from increasing polarisation and global crises. The collapse of democracy in Germany is best understood by looking at the transitional society of Germany after World War I, and the impacts that defeat in the war and the numerous economic crises had on the feelings of insecurity among the population. Weimar Germany is often seen as a brief, fifteen-year interlude in German history, a prologue to Hitler's rise to power—but it is owed more than this. Further studies should focus on how we can develop our understanding of Weimar as a dynamic time in German history, not as a fixed path towards destruction.
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