Weimar’s Lessons for Biden’s America
Hitler’s first coup attempt failed—but German democracy broke down anyway. Here’s how the United States can avoid the same fate.
In recent months, Germany’s Weimar Republic has been increasingly invoked as an analogy to the present political moment in the United States. Some have described former President Donald Trump’s supporters as fascists, while a recent editorial in the New York Times labelled their refusal to accept the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory as a modern-day version of the “stab-in-the-back” myth— the legend that “internal enemies” caused Germany’s defeat in the First World War.
The temptation to make these comparisons is understandable. How better to express the fear that the American republic is in danger, and that political violence on the streets might become more widespread, than by comparing today’s situation to the best-known historical example of a “failed” democracy that ceded to fascism?
There is, of course, nothing wrong with seeking inspiration from the past, as long as we don’t forget that Weimar’s ultimate demise was anything but inevitable and that Hitler’s rise to power was owed to very specific historical circumstances. (At least until late 1929, when the impact of the worst economic crisis in modern history was magnified by the German government’s decision to impose strict austerity politics, the Nazis were no more than a fringe group in German politics.)
Without wanting to belittle the problems that the United States is facing today, however, it’s important to recognize the ways that America’s current predicament still isn’t comparable to Germany’s in the 1920s and early 1930s. Some of these differences are exonerating for the United States—but others should serve as warnings.
For one thing, democracy has much deeper roots in 21st-century America than it did in Weimar Germany. While Germany was the first highly industrialized country to enfranchise women, many senior civil servants, judges, and military figures were at best ambivalent, if not outright hostile, to democracy. In the United States today, Congress has prevailed over mob violence, judges (including Trump’s own Supreme Court appointees) have rejected his legal challenges to the presidential election, and a new president has been inaugurated.
The damage Trump has done to American democracy is considerable, but the past four years have demonstrated the resilience of American institutions, laws, and the Constitution. American democracy has been damaged, both domestically and in terms of its international prestige, but it has survived.
It is impossible to say, of course, what might happen in the event of a major global recession comparable to that of 1929. Would the 70 million people who voted for Trump be radicalized even further? Will Americans have to live with extreme polarization for the foreseeable future?
In this respect at least, Weimar can offer some lessons. The first lesson is that it is fatal for conservatives to think that they can play with the fire of right-wing extremism without getting burned. Trump is no Hitler, but his deliberate mobilization of the far-right has made the Republican Party dependent on voters who include militant nationalists, Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists—in short, people who want more than just a different government.
The storming of the Capitol by these groups has been compared to Hitler’s infamous Beer Hall Putsch on Nov. 9, 1923. Back then, Hitler and his armed followers marched from a beer hall in Munich towards the city center. His plan was to overthrow the Bavarian government before marching on the capital, as Mussolini had done successfully in Italy in 1922. But the coup was put down by Bavarian police who killed 16 of Hitler’s supporters and injured a dozen more in the process. Hitler himself was arrested and served nine months in prison.
Hitler failed because he—not unlike the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6—had challenged the existing order without relevant support from the state bureaucracy, or the senior staff of the police and military. It would take a fundamental rethinking of his strategy, an alliance with the old elites, and an unprecedented global economic crisis for Hitler to take power in Germany 10 years later.
But what if the events of Jan. 6, like the Beer Hall Putsch, only mark the beginning of the rise of the far-right? After all, militant right-wing nationalism as a political force in American life will not disappear. The question is how the Republicans will deal with Trump’s legacy and with his most fanatical supporters. Back in 1923, German elites and conservatives were similarly split over the question of how to position themselves vis-a-vis the Nazis. While Bavarian conservatives (the Bavarian People’s Party) cut all ties with Hitler, the German National People’s Party (DNVP) did not. Once Hitler started to chalk up some success at the ballot box in the wake of the Great Depression, many conservatives continued to think that they could instrumentalize the far-right for their own purposes, just as Trump has attempted to do.
This strategy turned out to be a disaster. In 1933, the grizzled German president, Paul von Hindenburg, was convinced by his conservative friends that they could use Hitler’s growing popular support for their own agenda by “framing” him as a puppet chancellor of a coalition government in which the conservatives would call the shots. They believed that they would “ride Hitler like a horse”—only to find out within weeks that they had woefully underestimated the Nazis, just like Italian conservatives had underestimated Mussolini 10 years earlier.
The GOP and Americans more generally will need to take a much tougher stance against those threatening its democratic institutions. In January 1933, the largest democratic party in Germany, the SPD, failed to use its most powerful weapon against the Nazis—calling a general strike. This policy had already been pursued successfully in 1920, when General Erich Ludendorff staged the Kapp Putsch only to be thwarted by labor unions and civil servants. In 1933, the SPD feared—perhaps rightly—that such a move would trigger a terrible civil war, one which the supporters of democracy were likely to lose in the absence of support from the armed forces.
After the horrors of World War II, the Federal Republic of Germany reinvented itself as a wehrhafte Demokratie—a “well-fortified” defensive democracy whose constitutional court has repeatedly banned extremist political parties and groups, while the German armed forces are no longer a state within the state. In the United States, even if the armed forces have shown no sign of siding with extremists, the shocking scenes at the Capitol demonstrate that extremists could potentially pose a real threat to democratic norms and the rule of law. Armed insurrections against the Biden administration remain a distinct possibility in the future. Yet they are bound to fail, if the defenders of democracy remain vigilant and determined.
A second lesson to be learnt from Weimar is that the battle for truth matters. Hitler’s rise to power and the demise of democracy in Germany were aided by the Nazis’ ability to create and spread “alternative facts”. From the stab-in-the-back myth to narratives about Jewish world conspiracies designed to undermine Germany, these fake news stories played a central role in Hitler’s propaganda even if democrats repeatedly insisted that they were untrue. In the early 1930s, the supporters of Weimar lost the battle for truth as Hitler successfully convinced many voters that democracy was un-German form of government, imposed on the country by the victors of World War I, and incapable of ending the depression.
There is no doubt that Hitler would have loved social media. He was always keen to use the latest technologies—notably radio and film—to spread his alternative truth. The reach of social media and its ability to bypass the quality control and fact-checking offered by serious news outlets has accelerated the ability to spread conspiracy theories unfiltered. A recent article in the Washington Post stated that Trump had made more than 30,000 factually false or misleading statements during his presidency. Against this background it will be vital, as Biden said in his inauguration speech, to “reject a culture where facts are manipulated—and even manufactured.”
Disinformation and conspiracy theories—including those about the “rigged election”—are a major threat to democratic institutions and processes. To regain that faith in democracy will be the central challenge in the coming years. It may well be the deciding factor in whether the American republic experiences a real “Weimar moment” down the road.
Robert Gerwarth is a professor of modern history at University College Dublin and director of the Centre for War Studies. He is the author of The Vanquished: Why The First World War Failed to End.