In recent months, the German Weimar Republic has been increasingly used as an analogy to the current political moment in the United States. Some have labeled former President Donald Trump's supporters as fascists, while a recent editorial in the New York Times described their refusal to accept the legitimacy of Biden's election victory as a modern 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. What better way to express the fear that the American republic is in danger and that political violence will become more widespread in the streets than to compare the situation today with the most famous historical example of a "failed" democracy ceded to fascism?
There is nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from the past, of course, as long as we remember that Weimar's ultimate downfall was far from inevitable and that Hitler's rise to power was due to specific historical circumstances. (At least until late 1929, when the effects of the worst economic crisis in modern history were compounded by the federal government's decision to introduce strict austerity policies, the Nazis were only a marginal group in German politics.)
Without wanting to belittle the problems the United States faces today, however, it is important to recognize how America's current state still does not compare to Germany's in the 1920s and early 1930s. Some of these differences exonerate the United States – others should serve as warnings.
For one thing, democracy has much deeper roots in America in the 21st century than in Weimar. While Germany was the first highly industrialized country to disenfranchise women, many high-ranking officials, judges and military officials were at best ambivalent, if not downright hostile, to democracy. In the United States, Congress prevailed against mob violence today, judges (including Trump-appointed Supreme Court candidates) dismissed his legal objections to the presidential election and a new president was 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 was damaged both domestically and internationally, but it survived.
It is of course impossible to say what would happen in the event of a great global recession comparable to that of 1929. Would the 70 million people who voted for Trump be further radicalized? Will Americans have to live with extreme polarization for the foreseeable future?
At least in this respect Weimar can offer some lessons. The first lesson is that it is fatal for conservatives to believe that they can play with the fire of right-wing extremism without getting burned. Trump is not Hitler, but his deliberate right-wing mobilization has made the Republican Party dependent on voters that include militant nationalists, Holocaust deniers, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists – in short, people who want more than just another government.
The storming of the Capitol by these groups has been compared to Hitler's infamous coup in the beer hall on November 9, 1923. At that time, Hitler and his armed supporters marched from a beer hall in Munich towards the city center. His plan was to overthrow the Bavarian government before marching into the capital, as Mussolini had successfully done in Italy in 1922. However, the coup was crushed 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.
Nazi members during the coup in the beer hall in Munich on November 9, 1923. Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Riot police are pushing back a crowd of US President Donald Trump's supporters after storming the Washington Capitol on Jan. 6. Roberto Schmidt / AFP via Getty Images
Hitler failed because, like the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, he had challenged the existing order without the appropriate support from the state bureaucracy or the senior employees of the police and the military. It would take a fundamental rethink 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 January 6th, like the coup in the beer hall, only marked the beginning of the rise of the extreme right? After all, militant right-wing nationalism as a political force will not go away in American life. The question is how will Republicans deal with Trump's legacy and his most fanatical supporters. As early as 1923, German elites and conservatives were divided on how to position themselves vis-à-vis the Nazis. While the Bavarian Conservatives (the Bavarian People's Party) severed all ties with Hitler, this was not the case with the German People's Party (DNVP). When Hitler began to get some success at the ballot box after the Great Depression, many conservatives continued to believe they could instrumentalize the far-right party for their own ends, as Trump tried to do.
This strategy turned out to be a disaster. In 1933, 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 the 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 painfully underestimated the Nazis, just as Italian Conservatives had underestimated Mussolini 10 years earlier.
The GOP, and Americans in general, must take a much tougher stance on those who threaten their democratic institutions. In January 1933, the largest democratic party in Germany, the SPD, did not use its strongest weapon against the Nazis – a general strike. This policy had already been successfully pursued in 1920 when General Erich Ludendorff staged the Kapp Putsch in order to be thwarted by unions and civil servants. In 1933 the SPD feared – perhaps rightly – that such a step would spark a terrible civil war that democracy supporters would likely lose without the support of the armed forces.
After the horrors of World War II, the Federal Republic of Germany reinvented itself as a defensive democracy – a “well-established” defense 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, the shocking scenes at the Capitol show that extremists could potentially pose a real threat to democratic norms and rule of law, even if the armed forces have shown no sign of joining extremists. Armed uprisings against the Biden government remain a clear possibility in the future. However, they must fail if the defenders of democracy remain vigilant and determined.
A second lesson from Weimar is that the struggle for truth is important. Hitler's rise to power and the decline of democracy in Germany were aided by the Nazis' ability to create and disseminate "alternative facts". This fake news played a central role in Hitler's propaganda, even when the Democrats repeatedly insisted it wasn't true, from the myth of the stab in the back to tales of conspiracies by the Jewish world designed to undermine Germany. In the early 1930s, Weimar's supporters lost the battle for the truth when Hitler successfully convinced many voters that democracy was an un-German form of government imposed on the country by the victors of World War I and was unable to End depression.
There is no doubt that Hitler would have loved social media. He has always been interested in using the latest technology – radio and film in particular – to spread his alternate truth. The reach of social media and its ability to bypass the quality control and fact checking offered by reputable news outlets has accelerated the ability to spread conspiracy theories unfiltered. A recent article in the Washington Post said Trump made more than 30,000 factually false or misleading statements during his presidency. With this in mind, it will be important, as Biden said in his inaugural address, to "reject a culture in which facts are manipulated – and even produced".
Disinformation and conspiracy theories – including those about "rigged elections" – pose a major threat to democratic institutions and processes. Regaining confidence in democracy will be the central challenge in the years to come. It can definitely be the deciding factor whether the American republic experiences a real “Weimar moment”.