Springtime for Weimar: Eduard Thony’s 1921 depiction of German decadence. Photo: © Granger/Shutterstock

Britain’s Reichstag Fire moment

Weimar warns us about what happens when politicians give up on their own parliaments—as one of our most distinguished historians argues in this exclusive essay
August 29, 2019

Democracy is in trouble. The optimism that swept the world in the wake of communism’s collapse has vanished. Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual World Democracy Index downgraded 89 countries, three times more than were upgraded. From Victor Orbán in Hungary to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, to Vladimir Putin in Russia to Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, strongmen are clamping down on civil freedoms and human rights.

In the United States, there are fears that democratic institutions are under threat, as President Donald Trump lambasts judges, stirs up violence among his supporters and bypasses Congress by issuing executive decrees. In Britain, at a moment of political emergency, a populist Tory prime minister has suspended parliament in order to push through a no-deal Brexit. In the face of this crisis, it seems worth asking what lessons history can offer to help those worried about the future of democracy.

Paradigms and parallels

A century after the founding of Germany’s Weimar Republic is a good moment to revisit the paradigmatic case of a democracy’s demise. The constitution inaugurated by an elected National Assembly meeting in the Thuringian town of Weimar on 11th August 1919 replaced the Kaiser’s authoritarian state, in which the monarch appointed governments, ministers were not accountable to parliament and civil freedoms were limited. Most Germans blamed this constitutional order, established by Bismarck in 1871, for the loss of the First World War, and it was overthrown in a largely bloodless revolution in November 1918.

The ensuing Weimar Republic was perhaps the world’s most democratic state yet—with free elections, voting rights for all adults (male and female), an independent judiciary, a free press, regional autonomy and elections by proportional representation. In the 1920 elections the parties that had brought the Republic into being won an overwhelming majority. It seemed as though nothing could go wrong.

Less than 15 years later, the Republic had given way to Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship. Centrally orchestrated propaganda had replaced the free press; all other political parties were dissolved; new Nazi courts had been set up; and all independent institutions bar the church and the army had been transformed into organs of acclamation for the Führer. New treason laws made even telling jokes about his regime punishable by death. Within six years, Hitler launched a world war that killed 50m people, including six million murdered Jews.

What can we learn from this sorry tale? Does it have any relevance for the condition of democracy now? At first glance, there are obvious parallels, not least with the UK: democratic institutions such as parliament and the press are widely distrusted; the political system is polarised. As in the Weimar Republic, there are rising physical threats against politicians, and the language of betrayal is back in vogue. The left is divided, and nationalism and nostalgia are in the air—in some circles the British Empire is being lauded just as the supposedly glorious medieval German Empire was in the 1920s and early 1930s. There are economic parallels, too, between the Depression and the long shadow cast by the financial crisis of 2008.

Then there is the phenomenon of “culture wars,” which can be relied on to rally the hard right. Hitler spoke for a lot of Germans when he condemned Weimar’s vibrant cultural scene as “degenerate”—this was a time of jazz, of films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, of Expressionist art and of the sexual freedom celebrated in novels like Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Conservatives were outraged at Weimar’s de facto abolition of the death penalty. Hitler didn’t stress family values and law and order in his propaganda for nothing.

A similar punitive conservatism can be seen in our own time. The Trump administration is currently making a show of restarting Federal executions. In the UK, a 2017 poll by YouGov indicated that over half of Leave voters thought that the death penalty should be brought back in post-Brexit Britain. There is a seemingly unstoppable movement towards restricting abortion in some US states, and an attack on LGBT rights is under way in many countries including Poland, Hungary and Russia.

Meanwhile, there are clear signs of the break-up of the post-war order, just as the League of Nations was effectively emasculated in the 1930s. Almost immediately on entering the White House, Trump began to launch verbal assaults on a global system that had lasted in its essentials since the Second World War. Declaring a policy of “America First,” he has pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. He has initiated an escalating trade war with China, pitting the world’s two largest economies against each other in a manner worryingly reminiscent of the tariff wars that did such damage in the 1920s and 30s.

Another country

So is history really repeating itself, or does the past remain a foreign country? Some of the parallels should not be pushed too hard. The legacy of the 2008 banking crisis is nothing like as severe as the slump of 1931-33, which left more than a third of the German workforce jobless, and meant that within the four years after 1928 the Nazis surged from scoring less than three per cent of the vote to become the largest party in the Reichstag. Moreover, even before the Depression, economic anxiety was haunting Weimar. The Nazis drew their support from all social groups, but above all from middle-class voters who had fretted about their finances ever since the hyperinflation of 1923. That crisis created a lasting insecurity that seemed vindicated when banks began to fail in 1931. The German middle classes were also terrified of communism, whose supporters put 100 deputies into the Reichstag in November 1932. After all, they knew what had happened to the “bourgeoisie” in Russia after the 1917 revolution: dispossession, imprisonment and murder on a vast scale.

The relative lack of comparable anxieties today constitutes one major difference between then and now, despite the attempts of conservative populists to stir up fears of leftist politicians such as Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. And while the downturn and austerity may have hit our society hard, both in the US and the UK, unemployment is now at historically low levels, even if the same can’t be said of Greece or Spain.

"Weimar's constitution contained the seeds of its own destruction"

Beyond this, the dangers of unconstrained international conflict are far lower than in the 1930s. Hitler and Mussolini glorified war, and they turned everything from the economy to the education system into an instrument of preparation for it. Warmongering has been a harder sell since the Second World War, and—above all—since the coming of nuclear weapons. No state today openly advocates war. It is sometimes used as a threat, including by Trump, but the military establishment would be deeply resistant to launching one and there is no sign of the public looking on the idea of a general war with anything but apprehension.

The belligerent mood of the 1920s and 1930s reflected the brutalisation caused by the First World War, something with no parallel today. Young veterans were everywhere in the interwar years, many of them traumatised by seeing their friends killed, and all of them used to handling weapons. The cult of military heroism in the media even infected many men who had been too young to fight in 1914-18, but were desperate to prove themselves against real or imagined enemies and so become heroes like their much-lauded elders.

The cult of violence sparked a wave of political assassinations in Weimar’s early years, directed mostly against the left. Even after this receded, it remained the case that every political party in Germany had its armed paramilitary wing—the Stormtroopers for the Nazis, the Steel Helmets for the Nationalists, the Red Front-Fighters’ League for the communists, even the Reichsbanner for the social democrats. By the 1930s, these mass movements numbered hundreds of thousands of largely unemployed young men. They beat up their opponents and broke up their meetings, marching through the streets to intimidate them. The level of political violence in the last years of the Weimar Republic was astonishing: in the first half of 1932, 84 Nazis were killed in street clashes with other armed groups, as were 75 communists. In the Prussian election campaign that summer, there were 105 violent deaths, and police counted 461 political riots with 82 deaths. This has no parallel in today’s democracies, for which we should be thankful.

Amid the street violence, potential power accrued to the German army. The 1919 Peace Settlement had clipped its wings, but it still far outgunned the paramilitaries. Eventually it wielded a strong influence over President Paul von Hindenburg, a lifelong military man—dropping not very subtle hints that it was prepared to launch a civil war to lever Hitler into office. By contrast, in most modern democracies, the armed forces are strictly subordinated to political control.

Brute force was essential for Hitler to convert his position as chancellor of a coalition government in January 1933 into that of the head of a fully-fledged one-party state by mid-July. During this time, he locked up some 200,000 communists and social democrats in makeshift concentration camps until they swore to forgo political activities. Over 600 were murdered by camp guards, Stormtroopers and SS men even according to official estimates. Yes, Trump’s migrant camps on the Mexican border are brutal and squalid. The left-wing congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has indeed described them as “concentration camps.” But, whatever else their purpose may be, they’re not designed to intimidate Trump’s political opponents into silence.

And while Trump has indulged racist violence—notoriously at Charlottesville in 2017—and encouraged his supporters to harass opponents at rallies, he does not systematically rely on force to achieve his political goals. In Britain, political violence has made a disturbing appearance in the form of the assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016 and physical attacks on Remain supporters, including MPs, not to mention threats of rape and murder issued over the internet. But it still has a long way to go before it reaches late-Weimar levels.

Hitler and Mussolini openly derided democratic institutions, but nowadays even the most anti-democratic politician declares him or herself a democrat. Would-be dictators in our own time might—as Trump has—indicate they would not concede defeat after a close election, on the grounds it might have been rigged. They don’t admit, however, that they think voting shouldn’t matter or that voters shouldn’t be given a free choice at the ballot box. And while they may hold the spirit of liberal democracy in contempt, they don’t openly repudiate its constitutional ground rules. Johnson claims that suspending parliament is a normal constitutional procedure.

Loopholes in liberal democracy

Little attention is paid, however, to the vulnerabilities lurking in those ground rules. That is a mistake. In the 1930s, these rules gave openings to politicians who wanted to wield undemocratic power. As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels remarked: “It will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes that it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed.” Weimar’s constitution was certainly democratic, but it also contained the seeds of its own destruction. In the wrong circumstances something similar could also turn out to be true about Britain’s uncodified constitution, thanks to the potential to exploit dusty features of our governance such as the royal prerogative, used now to prevent parliament legislating on the greatest issue of the day.

The problem with the Weimar constitution wasn’t proportional representation. Like German society, the German electorate had been divided along lines of class and religion since Bismarck’s time, and Weimar’s party system simply reflected this. A first-past-the-post system would have made little difference. Far from coalition governments being weak, individual ministers like Gustav Stresemann managed to be effective because they continued in office from one ministry to the next—nine, in his case.

The real constitutional problem lay in the powers of the president, directly elected for a seven-year term, a fact that gave him a legitimacy independent from that of the national parliament. Weimar’s president could invoke Article 48 of the constitution and rule by emergency decree. Weimar’s first president, the social democrat Friedrich Ebert, used Article 48 on no fewer than 136 occasions in the Republic’s unstable early years, including to depose legally elected state governments, and to approve retrospectively death sentences carried out on communist insurgents in the Ruhr Red Army in March 1920. This set an ominous precedent.

Hindenburg, elected after Ebert’s death in 1925 and re-elected in March 1932, had no real commitment to democracy, which he eventually sought to roll back. After the collapse of the Republic’s last genuinely democratic government in 1930, he appointed the conservative financial expert Heinrich Brüning to lead a new administration, but he was unable to get backing for his austerity legislation in parliament, and so had to rule by emergency decree, using the powers granted to the president under Article 48.

Meanwhile, as uniformed Nazi and communist deputies disrupted the Reichstag by chanting slogans at each other, the legislature met less and less often: a hundred days a year on average from 1920 to 1930, only 24 days in total between March 1930 and July 1932 and only three days altogether between July 1932 and February 1933. The legislature had become paralysed.

The long spells where the assembly didn’t sit left power concentrated in the hands of a few men around the president. Chancellor Brüning, and his successors Franz von Papen and Kurt von Schleicher, lacked popular legitimacy: the conservative parties’ voters had almost all decamped to the Nazis and none of these men had a mandate from the electorate. Thus the clique around Hindenburg sought to gain the appearance of popular support by co-opting the Nazis into the government. The clique’s aim was to legitimise the attempt to roll back democracy and restore the pre-war authoritarianism of the Kaiser—if not the Kaiser himself.

On 30th January 1933, this conservative clique finally thought it had achieved its goal when Hindenburg appointed Hitler head of a coalition in which the Nazis were a small minority and conservative nationalists like Papen, the deputy chancellor, held most ministries. Looking down on the socially inferior Hitler, the aristocratic Papen foolishly told a friend: “Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak.”

It was to Hitler’s advantage that nobody apart from his own followers took him seriously. An upstart from Austria with a comical moustache and a funny accent, he didn’t fit the image of a normal politician. Trump and Boris Johnson may not be upstarts in the same way—far from it—but it is striking that neither possesses the gravitas the electorate used to expect of its leaders. Many voters are amused by these showmen. And in Britain, many lend Johnson (and perhaps the equally convention-defying Nigel Farage) support because they imagine, as many German voters did in the early 1930s, that they will do whatever is necessary—including breaking the rules of politics—to resolve the crisis into which the nation has got itself, in Johnson’s case bypassing the elected representatives of the people.

But if Hitler’s rise teaches us anything, it’s that the establishment trivialises demagogues at its peril. One disturbing aspect of the present crisis is the extent to which mainstream parties, including US Republicans and British Conservatives, tolerate leaders with tawdry rhetoric and simplistic ideas, just as Papen, Hindenburg, Schleicher and the rest of the later Weimar establishment tolerated first Hitler and then his dismantling of the German constitution. He could not have done it in the way he did without their acquiescence. Republicans know Trump is a charlatan, just as Conservatives know Johnson is lazy, chaotic and superficial, but if these men can get them votes, they’ll lend them support.

Weimar’s democracy did not exactly commit suicide. Most voters never voted for a dicatorship: the most the Nazis ever won in a free election was 37.4 per cent of the vote. But too many conservative politicians lacked the will to defend democracy, either because they didn’t really believe in it or because other matters seemed more pressing. As for rule by emergency decree, few people thought Hitler was doing anything different from Ebert or Brüning when he used Hindenburg’s powers to suspend civil liberties after the Reichstag Fire on 28th February 1933. That decree was then renewed all the way up to 1945. In this sense, democracy was destroyed constitutionally.

The lesson seems to be that to prevent the collapse of representative democracy, the legislature must jealously guard its powers. Can we rely on that happening today? It doesn’t help that the British parliament, as was its counterpart in Weimar, has become more or less paralysed on the most important issue of the day. As in Weimar, the only majorities are negative ones—against, for example, Theresa May’s Brexit deal as well as, so far at least, every available alternative.

With parliament gummed up, the great danger is of MPs giving up on themselves. By proroguing, Johnson signals his contempt for MPs, and his readiness to ride roughshod over their objections to a no-deal Brexit, a policy almost nobody voted for in 2016. His aim is clearly to deny parliament the time to force him to request an extension before the current 31st October deadline—so that, whatever the Commons thinks, the UK then leaves the EU by default: hence the five-week prorogation, unprecedented since 1945. There have been signals, too, that a potential vote of no-confidence could be shrugged off with contempt. If that were to happen, parliamentary democracy would truly be in trouble in this country. This is Britain’s Reichstag Fire decree moment.

Anti-politics of the people, by the people

The ground rules of democratic politics in many countries, including Britain and the US, are more in danger than they have been at any time since the early 1930s. Nevertheless, not all is lost. Democracy isn’t quite, yet, experiencing a Weimar-style meltdown. In the UK, judicial independence is far better established than under Weimar, despite media attacks on judges as “enemies of the people.” Even though Trump is remaking the American bench at an alarming rate—as Dahlia Lithwick wrote in these pages this summer—this remains true in the US too. The separation of powers enshrined in the US constitution also gives congress some security from a wayward president: he cannot threaten to suspend it in the way that a determined British prime minister can use the royal prerogative to suspend parliament.

In both countries, democratic political culture, for all its weaknesses, is much more firmly rooted than it was in interwar Germany, or for that matter in contemporary Turkey, Hungary, Russia or Venezuela. And however bitterly divided the left can seem to be, the splits went far deeper in Weimar. The communists and the social democrats won more votes between them than the Nazis in the Reichstag elections of November 1932, but they could not stop Hitler’s rise to power. The communists had been instructed by Stalin to concentrate their fire on the social democrats, whose forces had, after all, murdered the communist leaders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in 1919. Their aim was also to destroy Weimar democracy and create a “Soviet Germany.” By contrast, the 21st-century left is by and large committed to representative democracy, which opens up the possibility of collaboration between its different wings, though in Britain at present, with Corbyn at the helm of the Labour Party, it’s hard to see that happening.

A failed democracy?

For all the disturbing echoes, we are not reliving the 1930s. Strongmen like Orbán or Jair Bolsonaro (and those like Trump who seem to want to emulate them) don’t need violence to achieve their goals. They have been elected into office, not necessarily by masses disillusioned with democracy—voters, in other words, who are waiting for someone to start giving them orders—but by those who believe that the democracy we’ve had is a sham: that politicians do not listen to the common people, and that elites control everything.

It’s only after they’ve been elected that men like Orbán begin to dismantle the very system that brought them to power—muzzling a free press, attacking independent courts, even seeking to overturn election results they don’t like (as we’ve seen recently with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul’s mayoral contest). The drive of Trump’s Republicans to impose onerous voter registration rules in the US, designed to depress turnout by African-Americans and others, also reveals an alarming contempt for basic democratic values. So too does the determination of Johnson and Dominic Cummings and their unelected, hard-right government to force through a disastrous no-deal Brexit without parliamentary approval and against the wishes of the majority of the population.

None of this seems to dent populist politicians’ popularity with their own base. In the UK, Johnson’s policy is single-mindedly directed towards winning back the voters who have defected from the Conservatives to the Brexit Party, after which, following a no-deal Brexit, he will go to the country and be elected as the man who took Britain out of the EU. A divided opposition with an unpopular and ineffective leader will, he calculates, be easy prey at the hustings.

The Weimar Republic was a failed democracy, but in the 21st century, democracies fail in different ways. We can’t expect a direct re-run. But there are certainly echoes, even if they are not yet audible to most voters. By the time we hear them, we may no longer be in a position to do anything about it.

Richard Evans’s latest book is “Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History” (Little, Brown). This is an edited and updated version of the Gresham College Provost’s Lecture, delivered on 18th June