In recent years “Weimar-talk” has been an important part of American political pundits’ toolkit. Soon after 9/11 it was common to regard George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” as a modern version of Article 48, the constitutional provision authorizing temporary suspension of democratic liberties in case things got too messy for Germany’s fledgling Weimar Republic. In 2007, Scott Horton, writing in a similar vein in Harper’s Magazine, wrote that Bush was “the Weimar President.” Five years later in AlterNet, Robert Cruikshank listed four ways (austerity, attacks on democracy, enabling of extremists, and right-wing and corporate dominance) in which “Weimar America” followed in Germany’s pre-fascist footsteps. As recently as October 2013, the “Weimar America” trope came up again, this time in an essay by John Judis in The New Republic. Judis argued that Tea Party Republicans had brought about a Weimar-like situation by worsening the country’s political paralysis in the shutdown crisis and encouraging more radical movements from the Right and Left.
For these writers and many others, Weimar was and remains a metaphor for failure—and not just any old failure but rather the super-sized variety: the end of Weimar gave way in 1933 to Adolf Hitler. More than the symbol of an inability to master the complexities of modern democratic decision-making, Weimar, in this view, takes on the qualities of an existential disaster, the mother of all political failures, whose consequences go well beyond a lost election or bungled policy.
While I sympathize with these commentators’ critical urgency and recognize the threats to which they point, I find their use of historical analogy more troubling. My criticism is not that historical analogies are out of bounds for present-day political debate. Whether we like it or not, our political language is full of historical analogies, some of them effective, others not so much or even downright dangerous. But we ought to care how commentators and politicians use the past to defend or critique the present. What happens to contemporary Weimar-talk if we consider that many historians now find a lot to admire in the political culture of the Weimar Republic? Does a more positive spin on historical Weimar matter to our political discourse?
Weimar is the Thuringian city where Germany’s first democratic constitution was written in 1919. Berlin was awash in conflict in the months after World War I and comparatively sleepy Weimar offered parliamentarians a refuge for creating what became the most liberal constitution in Europe at the time. Thereafter came the historical roller coaster for which Weimar is well-known. First, there were four years of political violence that included Adolf Hitler’s failed “beer hall putsch” in Munich. Then came the “golden years” from 1924 to 1929, when the economy stabilized and “Weimar culture” became the symbol of both European high modernism (think Bauhaus or the plays of Bertolt Brecht) and a new popular culture of cabarets, cinema, and six-day bicycle races. Finally, there were the dark days from the US stock market crash of 1929 to late January 1933 when Hitler hoisted himself into the Chancellorship with help from conservative supporters in the right-wing parties, the military, and the inner circle around President Paul von Hindenburg.
The reasons given for Weimar’s alleged failure have been legion. The Republic was too radical, said some. It was too weak, said others. In the US and England in the decades after World War II, historians saw something sinister at the root of German political culture: Germans were psychologically hard-wired to follow a charismatic tyrant rather than to accept the messy world of parliamentary horse-trading. Still others pointed to more specific causes for Weimar’s collapse: the violent effects of World War I, the perfect storm created when a global economic crisis met a failure of political will, Hitler’s demagogic brilliance, the Nazis’ ruthless winner-take-all politics, the tragic split on the Left between Social Democrats and Communists. For most historians, Weimar culture was a grand thing, but its brilliance only shone an even harsher light on the Republic’s ignominious political demise. Sophisticated or simplistic, the historical arguments added up to the same thing: the Weimar Republic didn’t know what democracy looked like. Hardly the exclusive property of scholars, Weimar-bashing was a game politicians also liked to play. When West Germany was established in 1949, its political elite reminded everyone who cared to listen that “Bonn is not Weimar.”
Over the past two decades at least, historians of the Weimar era have done what they do best: dig up new evidence, re-assess the mountain of evidence already there, and strike out in new interpretive directions. The result has been transformative. In 1996, historian Peter Fritzsche wrote an article titled “Did Weimar Fail?” in The Journal of Modern History that became a clarion call for newer historical writing on the subject. Responding to more specialized scholarship, Fritzsche gave the much-maligned Republic new life by concluding with this sentence: “The coming of the Third Reich in 1933 was not so much verification of [Weimar’s] singular failure as the validation of its dangerous potential.” Since then, historians, especially those of a younger generation, have taken Fritzsche’s bon mot and fashioned it into a rough consensus. For them, not only did Weimar not fail; it also managed to develop a strong popular thirst for democracy that resonated out into the streets and tenements and even the suburbs.
A 2010 volume edited by three scholars from the University of Michigan (Kathleen Canning, Kerstin Brandt, and Kristin McGuire) entitled Weimar Publics/ Weimar Subjects well reflects the state of this re-assessment. Canning makes clear in her introduction that Weimar’s volatility should not overshadow its tremendous “capacity for innovation.” In one of the best pieces in the collection, German historian Rüdiger Graf addresses the problem of “crisis.” Crisis was literally everywhere in the Republic; people didn’t just read about it in the newspapers but felt it in their bones. Yet Graf maintains that most historians have failed to peel away all the layers of the onion, thereby missing something positive in the crisis mentality of the time. Weimar citizens also saw in economic or political crisis an opportunity to re-center their world around new values and identities. Even at the worst moments of crisis, writes Manuela Achilles in another piece, as when in 1922 the liberal Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau was assassinated in Berlin by anti-Semitic thugs, protesting citizens demonstrated their belief in an inclusive democratic culture. None of the contributors to the volume are unaware of the disasters that awaited Germans in 1933 and beyond; but all are convinced that we must not let the looming shadow of Nazism blind us to the democratic political potential of the new Republic.
Something else looms here as well: the dreaded “So what?” question. Even if Weimar’s democratic forces claim a moral victory in the historiography, the point may seem almost pedantic, something for the seminar room and not the “real world,” in the face of the utter horror that was to come. Historians can argue all they want, one might claim, but they cannot overlook what the pundits have gotten right: even during the best years of Weimar, an authoritarian politics constantly threatened the young Republic and finally dug its grave. Isn’t “breaking bad” a more fitting phrase to describe this history than a cautious “what if?” And aren’t the consequences still the same for drawing political analogies?
In a word: No. Recent Weimar-friendly research reminds us that the Republic should not be defined only by its demise, just as a person’s life cannot be defined only by her death. And taking this less teleological view of the Republic really does have far-reaching implications for current politics. It puts the focus on the Republic’s great potential, and on the contingencies of political history. What might have happened if Weimar’s political leaders had made different decisions? What if recovery from the Depression had been given more time, thereby delaying or even forestalling Hitler’s crisis-dependent accession to the Chancellorship? Remembering Weimar’s chances for success gives us an opportunity to use Weimar-talk in a more positive and innovative way.
Here’s an example: The broad democratic coalition that brought Barack Obama to the White House and then decisively re-elected him in 2012 can be regarded as the modern-day analogue (though on a much larger scale) to the potential that historians rightly see in the Weimar Republic. The parallel becomes doubly effective if we are cognizant that political coalitions, like historical analogies, are fragile things. Because Weimar’s democratic potential was diverted and then crushed in 1933, responsible and historically conscious Americans today should be aware of how crucial it is to defend what they have built. They face not only a President who has fumbled away some of the manifest opportunities presented him but also corporate and right-wing efforts to orchestrate a hostile takeover of the legislative process. But they have many resources as well, far more than did the democratically inclined citizens of the Weimar Republic. From the anti-Scott Walker Wisconsin protests to the Occupy movement, from feminist opposition to Republicans’ draconian anti-abortion legislation to attempts at re-imagining trade unionism at Wal-Mart and elsewhere, the possibilities are endless—and always in peril.
Weimar did not fail, and that matters to us. When we say “Weimar,” we ought not only to envision an antechamber to authoritarianism. Weimar-talk should not fall prey to one-sided interpretations and slippery metaphorical elisions. Weimar is as much about hope and anticipation as it is about a dusk that precedes the darkest night imaginable. Let that be the first phrase we learn when we speak Weimar.