Are there lessons for the U.S. today from the breakdown of democracy in Germany in the 1930s?
By Roger Scher
We often turn to Germany in the early nineteen-thirties for lessons about what causes democracy to fail. Following the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, can Americans learn something from this history?
Some readers react strongly to such a comparison, so it is important to state up front that this essay is in no way meant to brand anyone on the American political scene today as similar to history’s most murderous totalitarian regime.
Still, it is useful to ask: is there anything the major actors in Germany at the time — especially the small “d” democratic parties — could have done to avoid the country’s dive into fascism?
Germany had democratic institutions at the time — in place since unification in 1871 — including a parliament, political parties, elections, and the courts. These institutions had existed for many years alongside the powerful monarchy and an assertive military. It was a mixed system of democracy and authoritarianism, that morphed after World War I into a fledgling democracy.
The obvious lesson for the U.S. from the German case that we can state up front is: that democratic parties (small “d”) must work together in order to carry out the nation’s business and guarantee democracy’s success. The political parties in Germany at the time that were committed to democracy should have acted to fix the nation’s problems and exclude extremists from government.
American democracy today is a lot stronger than Germany’s of that era. Legitimacy is intact due to broad popular support for democracy, honed over two centuries of practice, improvement and increasing inclusion. The rules and practices of politics have generally been effective, evidenced by last year’s massive Covid-related economic stimulus agreed across party lines. Yet politics in America have become polarized and gridlock is common, both symptoms of the disease that afflicted Germany in the early nineteen thirties.
Germany after World War I
Building democracy was difficult in Germany given its history. For centuries at the center of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts, Germany in 1914 launched an aggressive war against its neighbors and lost. A harsh peace was imposed, including debilitating reparations, and its political institutions were remade. Rules of proportional representation resulted in a fragmented multi-party system, while polarization between communists and militarists put politics on a knife’s edge. Although the monarchy was swept away after the war, the army general staff was held intact by deception, while former soldiers joined private paramilitaries that backed right-wing causes.
The democratic parties (small “d”) that led post-WWI Germany — especially the popular center-left Social Democrats (SPD) — were stigmatized for making peace with the war’s victors, undermining the legitimacy of democracy itself. Economic shocks over the decade after WWI — including hyperinflation, bank failures, and unemployment over 30 percent — drove popular anger and support for extreme solutions.
Yet, it was still possible to avert a democratic breakdown. The democratic parties — including the SPD, the Catholic Center Party, the center-right German People’s Party, and the German liberals — formed coalition governments throughout the period. Such a coalition came together as a result of the 1928 elections, backed by a sizable majority in the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament). However, in 1930 these parties allowed the coalition to fail because they could not work together, making it Germany’s last democratic government until 1949.
The chancellor (or head of government), Hermann Müller, the SPD leader, resigned in March 1930 due to a dispute in the coalition over how to combat the Great Depression. The SPD wanted to expand unemployment benefits, while the Center Party and the People’s Party pushed for austerity.
With the coalition at an impasse, the SPD asked President Hindenburg, the former wartime general, for the power to govern by decree in the emergency, and he refused. Fears that the SPD, which was committed to democracy, was really a stalking horse for the anti-democratic Communists, due to the the party’s Marxist roots, drove the actions of conservatives, including the president.
By contrast, the center-right People’s Party had been willing to work with the SPD. This was a result of the charismatic leadership of the party’s chief, Gustav Stresemann, who had been Germany’s foreign minister and won the Nobel Peace Prize for the Locarno treaty with France. He died in 1929, and the People’s Party moved to the right and became uncooperative.
What followed was a three-year dance into fascism. The Center Party, which had fewer than half the number of seats in the Reichstag than the SPD, but had produced more chancellors, led a short-lived minority government. It was opposed by the SPD, which kept most legislation from progressing through the chamber.
Fresh elections were held in September 1930. The SPD lost seats, while the Nazi Party surged to become the second largest party in the chamber, as voters deserted other right-wing parties. After gridlock triggered another election in 1932, the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag. Consequently, more than half of the body’s seats by then were held by parties committed to democracy’s destruction — the Nazis and the Communists.
Meanwhile, the paramilitaries of these two groups were battling it out in the streets. In 1933, Hindenburg, after scheming to form coalitions with the Nazis, signed over to Hitler what he wouldn’t give to the SPD — the power to rule by decree.
Hindenburg had one last card he could have played to prevent a Nazi takeover — military dictatorship. This could have been announced as a temporary necessity to solve the economic crisis and kneecap the extremists, committing the country to new elections at some point in the future. Admittedly, it would have been a democratic breakdown, but could potentially have averted worse and been temporary. Hindenburg, who had proved for decades that he lacked the depth to understand the forces of history, even though he always found himself at the center of them, died in 1934, leaving Germany at Hitler’s feet.
Another lesson from this episode has to do with the wider world. If there is anything the world has learned over the last last hundred years, it is that global crises are only thwarted through international cooperation. In Germany’s hour of need in 1930, when banks were failing and the currency collapsing, the other great powers, notably the U.S. and U.K., failed to implement a financial rescue. Had the IMF been around then, it would have done so.
German banks were highly indebted to foreign banks, due to the tangled web of reparations, war debts, and bank lending. The great powers, in one of history’s great blunders, stopped the flow of credit to Germany, relegating the country to economic ruin, triggering a contagion effect that brought down their own economies, and leaving Germany at Hitler’s feet.
What are the lessons for the U.S. from this period?
Small “d” democrats must act. When democratic parties fail to work together to discharge the nation’s business, authoritarians are ready to oblige. Germany’s SPD emerged after 1890 as the country’s largest party, and remains today its center-left establishment, like U.S. Democrats. The SPD failed to use its success at the ballot box during the pre-Nazi period to produce a consensus against extremism. They opposed their coalition partners at critical junctures and dug in on ideological positions.
Other parties failed to work with the SPD. The SPD’s strong electoral support over four decades, rooted in the working classes, was one of the few stable aspects about German democracy. Yet the SPD never could achieve an absolute majority. They depended on other parties, which sadly never perceived their own success, and that of their country, as aligned with the SPD. When the Great Depression struck, the coalition parties did not act. So, the electorate swung to the Nazis.
U.S. Democrats today will control all federal institutions but the courts. They must act decisively. Democrats and Republicans cooperated in the Global Financial Crisis that began in 2008 by approving a massive bank rescue. They must reprise that performance to confront today’s challenges, including the pandemic and economic hardship. The Biden administration is off to a good start, with cabinet confirmations, executive orders reversing many of Trump’s errors, and a $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan. President Biden has made a credible call for unity. His administration must also take the lead by supporting aggressive prosecutions of the perpetrators of political violence.
Economic and social issues must be addressed in a bipartisan fashion. Relief for the German people from the Great Depression never arrived. In America, the negative impacts today of globalization and technological change on certain regions and classes of workers must be confronted boldly and prudently. This could let some air out of the balloon of Trump’s right-wing movement of the aggrieved.
The Democrats should adopt a whole-of-government approach to restoring American competitiveness, which has been slipping relative to other advanced countries. They must roll out policies that reduce inequality by providing adjustment assistance, education and job training, and health care. Once the Covid crisis ends, a medium-term plan to cut budget deficits is essential in order to ensure that America’s finances are sound and the country does not head into a financial crisis. Strategic planning, led by government and partnering with the private sector, which is international best practice, should be implemented. Such strategic planning should be run out of the White House.
The objective would be to fix America’s weaknesses — including a deterioration in education and social outcomes, rising carbon emissions, and dysfunctional politics. It would preserve its strengths, such as free markets and innovative businesses. The country would find a level of taxation that can mobilize resources for sustainable and equitable economic growth, without sacrificing the nation’s pro-business, low-tax climate. Such a course correction — relief in the near term, reform for the long term — could command a bipartisan consensus. It pulls together both center-right and center-left policy themes — pro-business and fiscally prudent, while reducing inequality.
Size the far-right movement, track it, and assess its ability and intent to use violence. Germany’s politicians underestimated and misunderstood the Nazis. In the early thirties, Nazi paramilitaries were instrumental in democracy’s demise, through violence, intimidation and assassination.
How big is the right-wing movement of the aggrieved activated by Trump? Is it organized? Will it dissipate like right-wing violence seemed to do following the murderous Oklahoma City bombing in 1995? Will it outlive Trump and become a permanent fixture of the G.O.P.? If so, who will lead this sharp right turn — Cruz, Hawley, Jordan, or someone more pernicious?
The FBI and outside organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, actively assess the threat of domestic terrorism and hate groups. This needs to be beefed up, both through government outlays and donor support of outside monitors.
Regulatory pressure on social media to counter extremism, police political advertising, and detect and close down disinformation campaigns is needed. Legislation should be considered to increase the responsibility of internet platforms for user-posted content. The potential for political violence in the U.S. is substantial, given that the country has more firearms per capita than anywhere in the world, homicides per capita are the highest among advanced countries, and social media empower terrorists to organize and act quickly. Left-wing extremist violence should likewise be sized and tracked.
Institutionalists must take back party leadership from the populists; truth in politics must be restored. Violence put the final nail in democracy’s coffin in Germany, but the Nazis were only able to take power because they won at the ballot box. The loss of Republican Senate seats in Georgia and recent polling indicate that Trumpism is an election loser. Will Republicans reach this conclusion?
Republicans must also restore truth in politics. The lie that helped catapult the Nazis to power — that the German Army would have won WWI, but for the “stab in the back” on the home front, especially by the SPD and the Jews — ensured that democracy in Germany failed. Similarly, the lie of the “steal” of the 2020 election must be dispelled by Republicans.
The question of whether the G.O.P. will resume its role as the nation’s responsible party of the center-right remains open. This role for the German People’s Party did not outlive Stresemann. Likewise, the G.O.P. cannot rely on only a few responsible leaders, like Mitt Romney. More party leaders must step up. America sorely needs a robust center-right party in order to keep the policy debate vigorous. Perhaps something like what Angela Merkel has forged in Germany today should be the goal.
Centrist, cross-party coalitions are indispensable. In 1930, Germany’s coalition partners stalemated over stimulus versus austerity. Moderate Democrats and Republicans must avoid this. Will the Democrats be riven by divisions between progressives and centrists, unable to form alliances with Republicans? Will House leaders implement rules changes proposed by the Problem Solvers Caucus that empower centrist coalitions? Will the Congressional “gang” approach be resuscitated? Will America’s political parties tackle gerrymandering of election districts and campaign finance excesses that increase polarization?
Democrats should avoid initiatives that exacerbate polarization, such as increasing the number of justices on the Supreme Court or passing an unaffordable Medicare for All in the near term. They should send lawyers into the courts to take on “money as free speech” rulings, such as Citizens United and Buckley vs. Valeo. Greater transparency of campaign finance data should be required, for example, as a condition of obtaining federal contracts. Other actions that promote centrist outcomes and eliminate voter suppression should be pushed — such as open primaries allowing independents to vote and improving mail-in voter access.
“No lie can live forever,” asserted Dr. King in his speech at the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
Dr. King’s point is true. But, he also noted that lies should not be allowed to fester, as lies about race were allowed to do, which has made the struggle back to truth long and painful. Republicans need to take the lead on this. Dispel the lie of the “steal” now. But both parties — and the media — should do the hard work to restore truth in politics.
America’s political parties must find common ground. While the shocks that hit Germany and other countries in the thirties were more extreme than today’s shocks thus far, the Biden administration must act quickly. The pandemic cannot be allowed to morph into another global financial crisis. “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes” is a quote attributed to Mark Twain. But, let us also add: and history can unfold in unique ways. We are the masters of the latter.
S&P Global, April 2, 2020, Research Update: U.S. ‘AA+/A-1+’ Sovereign Ratings Affirmed; Outlook Remains Stable, p. 2
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August
Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War, ch. 7
John Maynard Keynes, the Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1920
E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1919–1939
See “Understanding the Prussian-German General Staff System,” by Christian Millotat, 1992, pp. 43–45, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, at https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a249255.pdf
International Political Economy, Lairson & Skidmore, Third Edition, pp. 60–63
Charles Kindleberger, The World in Depression, 1929–39, Chapter 14, “An Explanation of the 1929 Depression,” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 291–308
William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich