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 essayby Richard J Evans / August 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…