3 lessons from two books: Weimar Germany and Berlin In Lights
Germany faced a Nazi coup in 1923, tried to move on, and ended up completely decapitated by 1933. America has reacted to its coup even less than Weimar Germany and is somehow expecting different results. I say this not as a prediction but a warning. America today is in the calm before Der Stürmer.
It's important to remember how much time passed between Adolf Hitler's failed putsch and Germany's failed democracy. Ten long years, some of them good. American is in those strange twilight years now. The fascists seem gone, the government seem good enough, things seem stable. But things are not stable. The reforms are not good enough. The fascists are not gone.
Instead, fascism is picking away at their democracy, chattering away across their media, and just waiting in the wings. One violent shock, one change of power is all it takes. When the other side decides they don't want to take turns anymore, suddenly the game changes. Now the fascists only have to be lucky once. Now the forces of democracy have to be lucky every time.
Americans would be wise to learn from history, because it's rhyming hard. These are three lessons from the books Weimar Germany by Eric D. Weitz (a history) and Berlin In Lights by Harry Kessler (a diary). The resonance is terrifying.
If your democracy includes people that want to destroy it, pretty soon it will be destroyed. In Weimar Germany, the forces of democracy tried to govern with antidemocrats. It did not work out well.
1.1) What is antidemocracy?
Note that I'm saying antidemocrats and not fascists. The historian Weitz doesn't actually blame Hitler. He blames the entire right wing, including many of Germany's military, industrial, and intellectual elites. These are people who worked within a democracy, but fundamentally didn't believe in it. They came from an authoritarian tradition, and authoritarian they remained. In the end, these people handed the Republic to Hitler on a platter.
In the beginning, the right wing jumped into bed with the socialists (the Social Democratic Party) to get away from the communists. At no point, however, did they actually believe in democracy. When things cooled down they just jumped into bed with the Nazis. Then the Nazis lit the bed on fire.
Weitz's point is that you cannot govern with people like this. In his view the Social Democrats should have broken the right wing's power immediately. This is the vital lesson for America today.
There is no negotiating with 'modern' Republicans, the party has gone completely feral. They're no longer partners in a democracy, they're antidemocrats. And note that isn't new, America was violently authoritarian until the 1960s, the Nazis actually studied them. Americans do not have hundreds of years of democratic tradition to protect them, they have hundreds of years of white supremacy. American democracy is very young and very fragile, and Democrats have to treat this as an existential threat.
There's no bipartisanship here, Republicans are fighting to kill democracy and Democrats have to fight for their lives. Today 53% of Republicans believe that the election was stolen, and they're quite ready to steal it back. This is their version of the German 'stab-in-the-back' myth.
Even worse, 23% think the government is run by Satanic pedophiles. It's literally the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion again. The blood libel that Hitler used against the Jews. The Republican party has become completely antidemocratic, antisocialist, and racist. Why would history play out any differently today? They'll break the whole Republic unless they're stopped. Should the Democrats arrest Republicans? I'll discuss that at the end, but I fundamentally don't know. The first step is to just see how bad the problem is.
American Democrats keep trying to negotiate with the Republicans like there's someone home, but nope, they've gone full Nazi. While the Democrats are politely not using their majority in the Senate, Republicans are pushing through over 250 voter suppression bills in 43 states. They're taking control of elections. The Democrats are playing to tie, and the Republicans are cheating to win. While Hitler worked within an electoral system, the Republicans are subverting America's already shitty elections; the most basic foundation of democracy.
This is why you can't let antidemocrats into your democracy. They'll tear it apart, brick by brick. This is the first vital lesson from Weimar Germany.
1.2) Who are antidemocrats?
For a look at who the antidemocrats were, lets zoom in a bit and look at a daily diary from the time. Harry Kessler was a rich, art-loving elite, living it up in Berlin at the time. His published diaries cover 1918-1937 and they're fascinating. He's having dinner with Einstein, dirty dancing with Josephine Baker, reluctantly selling a priceless Seurat. He was elite AF but he was not an antidemocrat, antisocialist, or racist. But he did have dinner with them. For example, Friedrich Nietzche's blister of a sister:
This is written in 1925, but Kessler knows things are going to get fucked up. He knows the devil will get their due. There was a real revolutionary moment in 1918 and while the democratic left got some big reforms (ending the monarchy, working hours, unemployment insurance) it wasn't enough. The elites used democracy to water down reform, electing fossilized military elites like Paul von Hindenburg, eventually leading to austerity policies and complete misery. Note also that post WWI circumstances were unbelievably shitty and people didn't know austerity was bad, it's likely that nothing would have worked, we'll get to that. The socialists at least wanted to try.
But "philistines" like Frau Nietzsche didn't care. They didn't want to seize the revolutionary moment, they wanted everyone to shut up so they could pass the foie gras. They wanted to return to a status quo which was great for them but complete shit for everyone else. And so they happily delayed the inevitable. In the end the revolution came anyways, just a fascist one instead of a communist one. As Kessler said,
"Farewell progress, farewell vision of a new world which was to be humanity's conscience money for the criminal war. At long last, until the day the butcher arrives and demands his toll, it is going to be possible once more to live cosily as a stuffed sheep or gorged goose."
Now look at America today. Billionaires became more billious during the pandemic. Rich people are buying NFT art for millions of dollars. Many people are happily working from home and talking about dining out again. But hundreds of thousands of people have died. Millions of families are destroyed. People are still hungry and suffering. There was a moment for revolution and all they got was 'reconciliation' from an elected government.
Kessler recalls talking to the artist George Grosz about what the democratic left didn't get. People didn't want technocratic change and procedural gridlock. They wanted actual change because their lives sucked.
Today the US government is so crippled that the Democrats have a majority and cannot pass a majority-vote bill. All they can pass is a basic pandemic relief bill (essentially hygiene), but they certainly cannot set or deliver on any higher goals. All they can do is claw back a status quo which was already shit for people, so they just delay the inevitable. The rich and comfortable might live like stuffed sheep or gorged geese now, having staved off the leftists with Biden, but the butcher will have his day.
1.3) How does antidemocracy work?
Now enough of the geese. Let's talk of the butcher. Besides everyone else fucking themselves, how did the Nazis fuck the world?
The Beer Hall Putsch
Honestly, it sounds like a joke. A Bavarian politician, a general, and police chief walk into a bar. Hitler walks in, fires a gun, and asks them to form a government. That's exactly what happened. The beer hall putsch didn't work so Hitler and Luddendorf marched on city hall, where they got shot at and he fled. The Nazi Party was banned the next day and Hitler was arrested the day after. Compared to America accountability, it was lightning fast. But it wasn't enough. What went wrong? How did Germany go from failed coup to failed democracy in just 10 years?how did the conservatives betray him?
In short, they let Hitler back in. The democratic government made the same mistake with the rabble right that they made with the rich right. They did not break their power when they could. They could have crushed the Nazis as they happily did the communists, but gave Hitler a one-year book retreat. So Hitler adapted and learned, and he joined the democracy when he got out. He joined it to break it, and he was smarter than the socialists. He would use the rich right, but he'd never trust them again.
The Storming Of The Capitol
America has had even less consequences for its capitol coup and so they're even more fucked. Trump is just in Twitter jail (which isn't jail) and the Republican Party isn't banned, lol. They're allowed to vote down any investigation and try to suppress voter rights across 43 states. Far from being banned from office, they're running for the offices that control elections. Hitler had to build a political party from scratch. Trump just lobotomized one, and it already controls a majority of states.
The geese are well and truly plucked.
Breaking democracy from the inside
As Weitz said, "The Nazis would use the freedom of the press, assembly, and speech that Weimar offered to build a mass following, and the electoral system to win."
American fascists are already further along. They already have a mass following (Fox News, Facebook) and they already have control of most state governments (and thus the electoral system). The other vital similarity is that neither the Nazis nor the national Republicans do any productive work. They just use their government offices to make the country ungovernable.
America is already "ungovernable through normal parliamentary mechanisms." Because the Democrats have crippled themselves with the filibuster, they can't even pass a bill by majority vote. They keep talking about bipartisanship, but the Republicans "never had any intention of working productively within the system." The Democrats are playing to tie while the Republicans are cheating to win. The goal is to keep their base in a state of constant agitation, leading to the seizure of power. This is straight out of the Nazi playbook.
While the Democrats are trying to cooperate to use power, the Republicans are competing to take it. These are very different things. Biden is trying to play 3D chess while his opponents are trying to flip over the board and beat him to death with it. These are very different games.
Just as the Nazis promised to make Germany great again, Trumpists are still promising to make America great again. The first step, of course, is to make it unlivably worse. The coup might seem like a joke, but left unchecked, the coup plotters will eventually make democracy a farce.
2) Flooding The Zone With Shit
Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon called this strategy "flooding the zone with shit." As he reportedly said, "the Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."
Weitz saw the same problem in Weimar Germany a hundred years ago. In fact, it was so important that it's the final warning of his book.
Today on Fox News, face masks, Dr. Seuss books, and 'the war on Christmas' are magnified into existential crises. Opinion writers use national platforms to whine about being cancelled. They complain about 'critical race theory' as the greatest threat to the nation while people are actually hungry, sick, and dying, while black people are actually executed in the streets. It's a farce. No democracy can endure this barrage of bullshit. It breaks a society down.
It's tempting to dismiss this as sheer idiocy, ignored by any thinking person, but it's popular. Fox News is the most watched station. Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino are the most popular pages on Facebook. And God knows what your parents are forwarding on WhatsApp. They really have flooded the zone with shit, and it works. It makes democracy exhausting, and it primes everyone for authoritarianism. At least then everyone would just shut the fuck up.
This is the last paragraph of Weitz's book (spoiler alert). He wrote this in 2007, before America got so completetely fucked up. It's his final warning.
Our diarist Kessler experienced this degradation of discourse in his flat. The concierge (like a building manager) and his wife would periodically just walk out into the street and scream. Once Kessler went to a free speech meeting and came back to find the wife in the courtyard, literally shaking her fists at the sky.
Today in America, people gleefully share pictures of gallows and talk about the Clintons and Biden being secretly executed. The Nazis only ever polled around 37%, you don't need many people, just a fanatical minority. America is already there. These are your parents on Fox News and QAnon. Plenty of people are wandering onto WhatApp and screaming.
Fifteen percent of Americans agree that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,”... Republicans (28%) are twice as likely as independents (13%) and four times as likely as Democrats (7%) to agree. (PRRI)
American liberals (right wing in any other country) laugh this off, but it's no joke. This is an existential threat. It's not just that democracy doesn't work in Congress, it doesn't work anywhere. The zone is flooded with shit. This is an open invitation to authoritarianism to 'clean up' the mess they made. This isn't stupidity, it's strategy. That is the final warning from Weimar Germany (the book). It only takes one more thing for everything to end.
3) Violent Shock
Even despite widespread antidemocracy and flooding the zone with shit, the Nazis still never won majority support. In fact, before the Great Depression, Germany had a 'Golden Era' and the Nazis almost disappeared. They needed a third element to actually take power. Good luck for them meant bad luck for the country. And the Weimar Republic was supremely unlucky.
Firstly, the Republic was born into shock. They didn't start World War I, but they had to sign the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, and deal with all the reparations and bullshit.
Then there was constant external pressure from France and Belgium actually invading them, and everyone demanding money. But the Republic survived even that. Then came unbelievable hyperinflation in 1923 (they printed a 100-trillion-mark note), obliterating the middle class, but they somehow survived that. But then the Great Depression hit, and that was it. The government collapsed in 1930.
At this point "divided on every key financial and political issue, the Reichstag fractured into an unworkable institution." President Hindenburg invoked emergency law and turned a right wing Chancellor into a dictator, ruling by decree. This was the real end of the Weimar Republic. It just took Hitler three years to put it out of its misery.
The point here is that people trying to destroy a government can just fuck shit up and wait for an opportunity. The people trying to fix it have to be right everytime. The Nazis just prepared and waited for something like the Great Depression, and then their moment came.
In America the Biden government seems stable in its technocratic impotence, but they're just a few violent shocks away from disaster. The Republicans just have to wait for something terrible to happen, and it will. This is the ultimate tyranny of time. Shit happens. The center cannot hold. Things fall apart.
Then Trump or Tucker Carlson or whoever can emerge and put the filibustered government out of its misery. This is exactly what happened in Weimar Germany. It took 10 years from failed coup to failed democracy. America has plenty of time. Like I said, the fascists only have to be lucky once. They just need one more turn to end the turn-taking. The democrats have to be lucky every time.
And so it ends. This article I mean, not the story. America's story is yet to be written, but they say that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Americans are the most proudly ignorant people on Earth, so they're probably fucked.
Things may seem chill now with Biden, boring even, but remember the 10 years Germany had between coup and the final coup de grace. Remember that not seeing your enemies doesn't mean they've disappeared. And remember that democracy is not going to save you. Democracy is just a tool, like a screwdriver or a wrench. You can use it to fix stuff, or you can use it to beat someone to death. The tool doesn't care. The Weimar Republic was an experiment in democracy, and democracy was ultimately its undoing. America is heading the same way.
The question is how to avoid this fate. That, I'm afraid, I don't know. Should Biden arrest Republicans and ban the party? Would enough social programs address people's problems? Or is this just a fatal flaw in democracy itself? Should they try communism? It's entirely possible that there was nothing the Weimar Republic could have done to avoid disaster. Sometimes Shiva the Destroyer just has to destroy, but at least they tried. Germany met their fate on the road they took to avoid it. My point is just that Americans aren't even trying. They're just driving off a well-marked historical cliff, blind.
I say all this as a warning, not a prediction, and certainly not a prescription. Read a book, or at least a screenshot. This is all known. You can't share a democracy with antidemocrats. It doesn't work. You can't allow them to flood the zone with shit. You will end up flooded with shit. You cannot weather external shocks with internal enemies. They will use them to take over. That's history. I don't know how to write a different future, but the past is written, and the present rhymes. If Americans keep going their young democracy will fall. It's just a matter of time.
Weimar Germany (Buy/Borrow) by Eric D. Weitz (2007)
Berlin In Lights by Harry Kessler (Buy/Borrow) (first published in 1971)
- Throughout this piece I have rhetorically implied that electoral democracy is an abstract good, but it isn't, it's just good relative to Nazis. Liberal democracy is not some magical or final form of government. We have to imagine better and 'just defending democracy' is not nearly enough.
- I have also discussed similiarities, but Weimar Germany and America are also very different. America is not beset by external enemies and they can print money without much inflation. They can spend their way out of many problems and are not nearly as fucked as Germany was, they're really just fucking themselves.
- There's a lot more in the books. I highly recommend reading them. I found them through the Five Books recommendation website. The website is free, but I donate to it happily.
- If you've read this far, I invite you to sign up for a paid subscription for this newsletter. It's also free, but I'm happy if you pay.