|Reichstag Fire - the end of the Weimar Republic|
As has been noted a number of times on this blog, there are frightening parallels between what happened in 1930's Germany - and in Italy during that time period as well - and what we see unfolding both here in America and parts of Europe. Under the "conservative" label, would be fascists, right wing religious extremists and out right racists are rebelling against modernity and, most importantly, the rise of demographic groups they deem as "other" due to the targets' faith, skin color, and, in some cases, sexual orientation. Jochen Bittner, the political editor for the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, has a timely op-ed in the New York Times on whether or not the West, including America, are at a point akin to Germany on the cusp of Hitler's rise to power. Here are excerpts:
Germany’s slide into a popular embrace of authoritarianism in the 1930s offers a frame for understanding how liberal democracies can suddenly turn toward anti-liberalism.
Setting aside debate about whether the rise of Nazism was built into the German DNA, there were four trends that led the country to reject its post-World War I constitutional, parliamentary democracy, known as the Weimar Republic: economic depression, loss of trust in institutions, social humiliation and political blunder. To a certain degree, these trends can be found across the West today.
First, the history. The Black Friday stock-market collapse of 1929 set off a global depression. As bad as things were in America, they were even worse in Germany, where industrial production shrank by half in the following three years. Stocks lost two-thirds of their value. Inflation and unemployment skyrocketed. The Weimar government, already held in low esteem by many Germans, seemed to have no clue about what to do.
All this happened as traditional ways of life and values were being shaken by the modernization of the 1920s. Women suddenly went to work, to vote, to party and to sleep with whomever they wanted. This produced a widening cultural gap between the tradition-oriented working and middle classes and the cosmopolitan avant-garde — in politics, business and the arts — that reached a peak just when economic disaster struck. The elites were blamed for the resulting chaos, and the masses were ripe for a strongman to return order to society.
Some people today imagine that Hitler sneaked up on Germany, that too few people understood the threat. In fact, many mainstream politicians recognized the danger but they failed to stop him. Some didn’t want to: The conservative parties and the nobility believed the little hothead could serve as their useful idiot, that as chancellor he would be contained by a squad of reasonable ministers. Franz von Papen, a nobleman who was Hitler’s first vice chancellor, said of the new leader, “We’ve hired him.”
At the same time, even the imminent threat of a fascist dictatorship couldn’t persuade the left-wing parties to join forces. Instead of being conciliatory for the sake of the national interest, Ernst Thälmann, the head of the German Communist Party, branded the center-left Social Democrats the “moderate wing of fascism.” No wonder Hitler had an easy time uniting broad sections of the German public.
Are we at another Weimar moment now?
The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global recession were nowhere nearly as painful as the Great Depression. But the effects are similar. The heady growth of the 2000s led Europeans and Americans to believe they were on firm economic ground; the shattering of banks, real estate markets and governments in the wake of the crash left tens of millions of people at sea, angry at the institutions that had failed them, above all the politicians who claimed to be in charge.
In America and Europe, the rise of anti-establishment movements is a symptom of a cultural shock against globalized postmodernity, similar to the 1930s’ rejection of modernity. The common accusation by the “masses” is that liberal democracy has somehow gone too far, that it has become an ideology for an elite at the expense of everyone else.
Mr. Trump is no Hitler, but that’s not the point. Today, as in the 1930s, we are seeing the failure of the liberal mainstream to respond to serious challenges, even those that threaten its very existence.