The ghosts of Weimar are back. Woken up by the rise of populist right-wing parties across Europe and beyond, they warn of danger for democracy. The historical reference point evoked by these warnings is the collapse of the Weimar Republic followed by the Nazi dictatorship. The connection between now and then seems indisputably obvious: democracy died in 1933, and it is under attack again today.
But history does not repeat itself.
Referring to the warnings of Weimar is a shorthand often used to conjure up images of marching Nazis rather than presenting sober analysis between the past and the present. This—sometimes morbid—fascination with the final years of the republic might work effectively in films. But it neither enhances our understanding of current right-wing movements nor that of the complexities of Germany in the 1930s.
In fact, comparisons between the Weimar Republic and today reveal striking differences. In 1918, the world emerged from the most devastating war experienced up to that point. New political systems were introduced, and many of them—including Germany’s— were radically different from those before. Trust in these democratic experiments had to be gained, without an available track record of past achievements. This is fundamentally different to today when noisy minorities use established democratic rights to express their dislike of certain policies.
The end of the Weimar Republic also has little in common with today. Unlike current heads of states, governments of the early 1930s had limited power to mitigate against the impact of economic and financial crisis as exemplified in the disastrous consequences of the Great Depression. Furthermore, the importance of the agrarian sector, which functioned as a springboard for Nazi integration into rural communities from 1928 to 1933, has no match nowadays.
“If we want to learn from the past, we need to stop treating Weimar as a historical blueprint for the present.”
If we want to learn from the past, we need to stop treating Weimar as a historical blueprint for the present. Like other periods, the Weimar Republic should be understood within the specific constellations of its time and without letting the knowledge of hindsight cloud our judgement. Rather than serving as an over-cited model of political failure, the history of Weimar strongly reminds us of the importance of individual agency.
Alleged shortcomings of the Weimar Constitution, for example emergency decrees issued by the Reich President, only became problematic when they were used to dismantle the democratic system. This eventually happened under the anti-republican president Paul von Hindenburg. The first Reich President of the republic, the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, used the same decrees to guarantee the survival of democracy when it faced political extremism in the early 1920s.
Even in January 1933, weeks and indeed days before Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, Germany’s future could still have taken another turn if those who made political decisions had acted differently. Throughout its existence, Weimar democracy was shaped and moulded by its contemporaries. Some were enthusiastic supporters of the republic, others vehemently against it, and many were in between these two poles. The collapse of Germany’s democracy and the success of the Nazis were neither built into the political system nor ingrained into German society.
There is one important aspect of the rise of the Nazis, though, that is worth remembering today. Successful anti-democratic forces do not enter societies from the outside, but from within. They are not external but embedded in the localised structures that offer them platforms to share their views and convince others.
The first strongholds of the National Socialists were small towns and rural villages. Here they integrated themselves into local communities, joining sharp shooting associations as well as pub outings. Here, they normalised their presence long before the economic difficulties of the Wall Street crash hit. Gaining first the ear and then the support of influential local figures allowed the Nazis to express their ideas in places across the country.
Weimar’s ghosts can go back to sleep again. Donald Trump is no Hitler, the German right-wing AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) not the new Nazi Party, and, unlike in interwar Europe, societies in Europe and the US overwhelmingly support parliamentary democracy. Democratic systems act, sometimes imperfectly, against extremist tendencies, and in most cases they can rely on the support of the courts, the media, and civic society.
The history of Weimar does not produce a user-friendly guide to avoidable mistakes for the present. But it helps us to understand how and why contemporaries acted as they did, and which perceptions shaped their decisions. Studying the Weimar Republic reminds us to recognise the power of agency, and this serves us well beyond the past.