March 28, 2023

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Home » Content » Why we must remember the years of the Weimar Republic
History never repeats itself following the same script. Does our current situation resembles in some way to those turbulent 1930’s in Germany?

Fernando Vallespin

JUL 28 2019 – 00:00 CEST

Weimar is a small town on the land of Thuringia, very close to others with obvious Marxian resonances, such as Erfurt or Gotha, or the Hegelian Jena. At the end of the 18th century, when it barely had 6,000 inhabitants, it was inhabited by the two great German writers, Goethe and Schiller. There also spent a large part of his life the musician Franz Liszt. And, as if it had a magnet to attract geniuses, it was in this same place that F. Nietzsche died in the summer of 1900 and where the architectural movement of the Bauhaus came to light.

Over time, Weimar stopped being associated exclusively with a German population of fortunate artistic and cultural past, to end up becoming a great metaphor, the epitome of the failure of parliamentary liberal democracy. Not in vain, what was born as the product of an optimistic impulse of national and democratic regeneration ended in the darkness of Nazism. That is why, when we talk about the “Weimar syndrome”, we are referring to the tensions that threaten to jeopardize the stability of liberal democracy; tensions caused mainly by the revitalization of populism and the illiberal turn, when not authoritarian, that can be seen in some parts of Europe.

The big question is if today we are, in effect, facing something that has an unquestionable family resemblance to this interwar period or if we are taking things out of proportion. History never repeats itself following the same script, but neither do we need to fall into fascism or conventional Nazism to produce what Juan Linz studied under the heading of the “bankruptcy of democracies”. In fact, there is a whole line of research that seems to gloat over the abyss. Books with titles such as ‘How democracies die’ (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt), ‘The road to non-freedom’ (Timothy Snyder), ‘How democracy dies’ (David Runciman) and many others who alert us against the danger of neopopulism participate in this syndrome. And the fact that it even has a popular dimension is easily understood when you see the sales success of ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, by Hannah Arendt, after Trump’s victory. Not surprisingly, the main thing described here is how the fall in Nazism could occur. The fear is understood; what is no longer so clear is that we always have to look back at Weimar as if it were the inevitable point of reference.

One hundred years of Constitution

The next July 31 will be a century since the new Constitución de la República de Weimar.Constitution of the Weimar Republic was approved. It bears this name because it was drafted and approved there, in its then immortal National Theater, before whose entrance there is a beautiful statue of Goethe and Schiller entwined. It was the first democratic constitution of the still young Germany, and this habit, that of giving the republics the name of cities -a little like ours with that of Cadiz- has remained present since then in this country. After the war, people started talking about the Republic of Bonn and, after the unification, about the Republic of Berlin. With the new Constitution, the German Reich took the form of a republic and organized itself as a modern parliamentary democracy. It was not much use. The contradictions of the period introduced it in a spiral of economic, social and political crisis that ended as we know.

That a society so sick as to end in Nazism produces such an amount of intelligence is a great mystery

Apart from the fascination for such a tragic end, what gives this period such a special appeal is the very strong contrast between those crises and the extraordinary flourishing of arts, literature and thought, a true Germanic golden age that also extended to neighboring Austria. To it belong writers such as Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, Bertolt Brecht or Kurt Tucholsky, privileged witnesses of the time. But also painters (Paul Klee or George Grosz, for example), architects (not only those of the Bauhaus School) or filmmakers (Fritz Lang, the author of ‘Metropolis’, or J. von Sternberg, whose ‘Blue Angel’ enthroned Marlene Dietrich). And since we already in thinking, how not to remember Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, Benjamin. Or the Austrian Wittgenstein.

That a society so seemingly ill as to end up in the grip of Nazism produces such an amount of intelligence, variety of avant-garde and vital innovations is one of the great mysteries of the period. For this reason, its failure as a democracy has been sought in psychosocial causes: the humiliation of national sentiment by the treaty of Versailles, and war reparations –economic: hyperinflation and the subsequent crisis of the late twenties; and social: inability of the State to provide adequate social coverage to the most needy.

We will see the most properly political causes right away. Let’s stop in the economy, because Weimar’s case was brought up again on the occasion of the 2008 crisis. Paul Krugman himself wrote an interesting article in The New York Times at the same time where he feared Weimar’s repetition in Greece. This added to the many voices that usually establish a linear relationship between economic crisis and democratic collapse. In fact, a standard interpretation to seek the success of Nazism starts from these same premises. Hyperinflation, first, and subsequent deflation would have sunk the middle classes, who were withdrawing their support for the republic and gradually integrated into the Nazi party. Note that the downward mobility of this social sector is one of the explanations we use to explain the current boom in populism. But this does not quite convince because the intensity of the economic deterioration -spectacular in Weimar- matters. Or because in some countries where populism has become strong -Poland, for example-, they have rarely fared better economically.

There is no democracy without liberalism; or without social protection

No, neither Weimar nor populism could just be explained without resorting to political factors. Even more so in the case of the shabby republic, because it would soon become an extraordinary laboratory in which three different visions of what would be access to modernization operate. The Marxist, more or less inspired by the Soviet model; the liberal parliamentarian preached by the “Wilsonian moment” of 1918 and the example of the political orders of the most advanced countries, and the national-authoritarian one, favored in principle by the Wilhelm establishment, which would soon change in the fascist / Nazi vision of a people as a homogeneous mass that is diluted in the will of the Führer. Weimar institutions corresponded to the second model, but broad sectors of their political class as well as citizens did not really believe in its principles. Recall that, as soon as it was born, the Weimar Government had to face authentic Marxist revolutionary processes, such as the revolt of the Spartacists in Berlin or the elimination of the Republic of the Bavarian Councils, of Soviet inspiration. And there was also the difficulty of integrating the old Wilhelm ruling class, who never really believed in democracy and naively would later rely on Nazism as a controllable instrument to achieve its objectives.

The same cannot be said of our democracies. In them their legitimacy is unquestioned, even by populism, although for this it would be necessary to favor the plebiscitary-participatory dimension over the “liberal” mechanisms of power control or dilute the pluralism behind a concept of catch-all people. Its objective is to practice an identity policy that presses towards national homogenization and convert political polarization into its main hallmark. But, today, they do not resort to violence or rely on ideological mass movements similar to those in interwar Europe.

Weimar’s problem, and this is reminiscent of our days, is that little by little, confidence in the ability to reach a minimum of governance capable of straightening the social-economic situation on the part of the different governments began to be diluted. Apart from the size of the underlying problems that were accumulating, the clumsy presidential interferences of Hindenburg, the extreme fractionation of the party system and the continuous mass mobilizations of different signs caused a permanent destabilization that affected the same legitimacy of democracy. And, as was warned by some of the leading theorists of the time, that process forced us to counteract multiform illiberalism with the claim of republican values ​​as an essential normative support. Without a democracy with aspirations for social justice, as Hermann Heller pointed out, it would end up breaking, and this evidence served as an inspiration for the post-war “social-democratic pact”. By the way, the term “illiberal democracy”, today so widely used, was first used in this context by Wilhelm Röpke in the early thirties.

The Bonn Constitution would later take good note of its many deficiencies in institutional construction and bet for what Löwenstein described   as “militant democracy”. But from Weimar’s experience, it also extracted its obsession with budget deficits and the demonization of inflation. What sets us apart from Weimar, no doubt, is that we learned to learn from the disaster. Hopefully its so much invoked example will contribute to exorcise it altogether.


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