The ghosts of Weimar are back. Awakened by the rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe and beyond, they warn of the danger to democracy. The historical reference point evoked by these warnings is the collapse of the Weimar Republic followed by the Nazi dictatorship. The link between now and then seems unmistakably obvious: Democracy died in 1933, and it is under attack again today.
But history does not repeat itself.
Referring to the Weimar warnings is an often-used shorthand to conjure up images of Nazis on the march rather than presenting a sober analysis between the past and the present. This sometimes morbid fascination with the later years of the republic might work well in the movies. But it does not improve our understanding of current right-wing movements or our understanding of the complexities of 1930s Germany.
In fact, comparisons between the Weimar Republic and today reveal some striking differences. In 1918, the world emerged from the most devastating war ever. New political systems were introduced, and many of them, including that of Germany, were drastically different from those before. Confidence had to be gained in these democratic experiences, without having access to a history of past achievements. It’s fundamentally different today where noisy minorities use established democratic rights to express their aversion to certain policies.
The end of the Weimar Republic also has little in common with today. Unlike current heads of state, governments in the early 1930s had limited power to mitigate the impact of the economic and financial crisis, as evidenced by the dire consequences of the Great Depression. Moreover, the importance of the agrarian sector, which served as a springboard for Nazi integration into rural communities from 1928 to 1933, has no equal today.
âIf we want to learn from the past, we have to stop seeing Weimar as a historical model for the present. “
If we are to learn from the past, we must stop seeing Weimar as a historical model for the present. Like other periods, the Weimar Republic must be understood in the specific constellations of its time and without letting the knowledge of hindsight cloud our judgment. Rather than serving as an over-city model of political failure, the Weimar story strongly reminds us of the importance of individual action.
The alleged loopholes in the Weimar Constitution, for example the emergency decrees issued by the President of the Reich, only became problematic when they were used to dismantle the democratic system. This ultimately happened under anti-Republican President Paul von Hindenburg. The first President of the Reich Republic, the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, used the same decrees to ensure the survival of democracy in the face of political extremism in the early 1920s.
Even in January 1933, weeks and even days before Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Germany’s future might have taken another turn if those who made the political decisions had acted differently. Throughout its existence, Weimar democracy has been shaped and shaped by its contemporaries. Some were enthusiastic supporters of the republic, others vehemently against it, and many were between these two poles. The collapse of German democracy and the success of the Nazis were neither integrated into the political system nor entrenched in German society.
There is one important aspect of the rise of the Nazis, however, that deserves to be remembered today. Successful undemocratic forces do not enter societies from the outside, but from within. They are not external but integrated into localized structures that offer them platforms to share their points of view and convince others.
The first strongholds of the National Socialists were small towns and rural villages. Here, they integrated into local communities, joining sharp shooting associations as well as going out to pubs. Here, they normalized their presence long before the economic hardships of the Wall Street crash. Earning first the ear and then the support of influential local personalities allowed the Nazis to express their ideas throughout the country.
Weimar ghosts can go back to sleep. Donald Trump is not Hitler, the German right-wing AfD (Alternative fÃ¼r Deutschland) is not the new Nazi party and, unlike in inter-war Europe, the societies of Europe and the United States overwhelmingly supports parliamentary democracy. Democratic systems act, sometimes imperfectly, against extremist tendencies, and in most cases they can count on the support of the courts, the media and civil society.
The history of Weimar does not produce a user-friendly guide to avoidable errors for the present. But it helps us understand how and why contemporaries acted the way they did, and what perceptions shaped their decisions. Studying the Weimar Republic reminds us to recognize the power of the agency, and it serves us well beyond the past.