“What a memorable day!” wrote a middle-class Hamburg housewife in her diary on Jan. 30, 1933. She had just watched the parade of torch-bearing storm troopers celebrate Adolf Hitler’s assumption of power in Germany.
Frau Solmitz did not, however, extol only Hitler. She waxed melodic about Hitler’s cabinet, in which there were just three Nazis. All the others were upstanding conservatives, men like Franz von Papen, the aristocratic former chancellor and leader of the Catholic Center Party, and the career bureaucrat Constantin von Neurath, who was named to head up the foreign ministry. These were experienced men, reasonable men. They would contain Hitler’s excesses. After four years of economic depression and political paralysis, 14 years since the humiliation of the Versailles Peace Treaty, decades of an overweening Jewish presence in German public life, it was time for a new beginning. It was time to make Germany great again.
In the end, a small clique of businessmen, estate owners, bankers, high-ranking civil servants, and army officers prevailed upon the president, Paul von Hindenburg, to name Hitler chancellor of Germany. For these traditional conservatives, the Nazis were uncouth, low class, and undisciplined. Yet these same conservatives made a political bargain with the Nazi party. Developed over the 14 years of the Weimar Republic, the bargain was created and then sealed through a common political language of utter disdain for the Republic, contempt for Jews, opposition to the Versailles Treaty, and hostility to democracy and socialism.
Historical analogies are always fraught. No serious political movement today in the West is anything like the Nazi party. But the process by which traditional and radical conservatives came together through a common language carries numerous warning signals as we experience the surge of right-wing populism from Poland across the continent, on to the United Kingdom, and across the ocean to the United States.
Americans often say that the German people elected Hitler to power, but that is not accurate. The highest vote the Nazis received in a free election came six months before the seizure of power. In July 1932, the Nazis won 37 percent of the electorate. That represented a significant proportion of German voters, to be sure, but it was far from a majority. In a parliamentary system, as Germany was, 37 percent doesn’t get you to power. In the next election in November 1932, their tally declined to 33 percent. In autumn 1932, it would have been reasonable to think that the Nazi wave had crested and that Hitler and the Nazi Party were on the decline. In fact, Hitler and his supporters feared as much. In the end, the conservative elite saved the Nazis from the political wilderness.
There was nothing inevitable or predetermined about the Nazi assumption of power. It was the result of a conscious political decision by traditional conservatives made in a time of crisis when Germany wallowed in depression and the political system lay paralyzed.
The conservative elite had its roots in the churches, Protestant and Catholic, and in the old tradition of state service in a monarchy and an authoritarian, lord-of-the-manor practice that they then carried over, helped along by the new industrial bourgeoisie, to Germany’s highly productive industrial economy. These traditionalists hated the very idea of democracy, but they understood that there had to be limits to state power, and they shied away from rampant, excessive violence. They also understood that human beings are imperfect and prone to error and that the essential Nazi hubris was the belief in the perfectibility of the race.
Yet the traditionalists struck a deal with the Nazis on Jan. 30, 1933, one they reconfirmed many times during the 12 years of the Third Reich. The accommodation between traditional and radical conservatives began to take shape even before the end of World War I, before the Nazi party even existed. It was a bargain shaped by a shared political language.
Already in September 1918, two months before the signing of the armistice that ended the hostilities of World War I, 10 months before the proclamation of the Weimar constitution and the formal founding of the Republic, the infamous stab-in-the-back legend was underway. Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the two officers who led the Supreme Military Command and effectively ruled Germany dictatorially in the last two years of the war, shifted the blame for Germany’s defeat away from the military (and themselves, of course). The army had remained upright and upstanding, the army had never been defeated in the field, so they claimed. Germany had been betrayed at home by socialists and the Jews; that was the only reason Germany had to sue for peace.
It was a nasty, dirty game, and highly potent politically. Hitler used the stab-in-the-back legend to great effect; traditional conservatives—including Hindenburg though not Ludendorff, who later dallied with the Nazis—also found the rhetoric highly appealing. After all, the representatives of the revolutionary government of the winter of 1918-19 had signed the armistice; the representatives of the Weimar Republic signed the Versailles Treaty. Those who had initiated and led Germany into the disastrous war remained nicely shielded from any responsibility. The Dolchstoßlegende marked the first moment of the political alliance between the traditionalists and the myriad radical conservative groups, including the Nazis, who quickly emerged after WWI.
The Weimar Republic is often seen as merely a prelude to the Third Reich. But that reads back into the past Germany’s later history. The Republic certainly suffered numerous crises and had a fragile character. Amid the chaos, Germans experienced the most democratic order they had ever known; a vibrant, thriving culture; and social improvements like public housing and public health clinics, which often dispensed sex and birth control advice. Many spheres of life largely closed off to Jews, like the universities, opened up; women obtained greater educational and professional opportunities.
Weimar, in short, represented a great moment of democratic reform, cultural efflorescence, and sexual experimentation. It was everything that conservatives, traditional and radical, hated. The choice words they used in common for the Republic marked another step on the road of their accommodation. Schieberrepublik, schmährepublik, räuberrepublik, judenrepublik, and, perhaps the ultimate pejorative, das system—profiteers’ republic, abusers’ republic, robbers’ republic, Jew republic, the system—all served to delegitimize Germany’s democratic system and all those associated with it, including liberals, socialists, and Jews. The “respectable” right-wing press propagated the terms of defamation, as did the radicals in their newspapers and propaganda broadsides. Priests and pastors thundered the terms from the pulpits. By the end of the 1920s, the new media technologies—amplified sound, radio, and film—made it possible to spread the language far and wide, as did the innovative political tactics of the Nazis, who agitated in neighborhoods and villages where no previous political parties had ventured.
Then there was the “Versailles Diktat,” the dictated Treaty of Versailles. Probably the only political issue on which all Germans could agree was their distaste and dislike for the treaty that ended WWI. Certainly, the harsh terms the Allies imposed upon Germany were unwise. Most important, they severely hampered the democratic system that France, Britain, Italy, and the United States should have done their utmost to foster. Instead, the Allies handed ammunition to the enemies of the Republic, which also helped seal the bond between the traditional and the radical conservatives like the Nazis.
Traditional conservatives were by and large genteel anti-Semites. In the Weimar period, they tended not to share the murderous tendencies of the Nazis (though that would change over the course of the Third Reich). But they didn’t particularly like Jews, and they thought the Jewish presence in German public life overbearing and distasteful. Germany, in the common view of the Right, radical and conservative, faced an überfremdung, a flood of foreigners, Jews in particular, who exercised a degenerative influence on the German people and German society. The “Jewish spirit,” the “Jewish threat to the national character,” the “degenerative Jewish race,” Jews as the embodiment of “finance capital” as opposed to productive German capital—all this marked the language that joined the traditional as well as the radical Right.
On the one side were Germans, supposedly rooted in place, exemplars of moral rectitude, intelligent and productive. Across the divide, beyond the pale, were Jews: lacking a state of their own, they were everywhere and nowhere, predators and exploiters who despoiled Aryans. The ultimate sin, which the Nazis propagated so effectively, was to associate Jews and communism, the rootless, cosmopolitan Jew with the place of the Soviet Union.
On all this the old conservative elite and the Nazis could easily agree, even though the Nazi solution to the problem would prove more far radical than anything the traditionalists had imagined.
Which brings us to the current right-wing populist surge all across Europe and the United States. Certainly, real grievances exist that have created support for the Right. As one report after another recounts, many communities have been hard hit by globalization. The factories rust away, the jobs available are low-level, low-paying service positions. Inequalities have risen everywhere, most obscenely in the United States. Even Germany has developed a two-tier labor market, one segment well-protected and well-paid, the other comprising temporary and part-time workers who have little access to the country’s vaunted social welfare programs and high wages. In the United States, commentators have suddenly woken up to the fact that the elite in both parties is well-heeled, well-situated, and out of touch with the economic dislocation experienced by so many people.
And yet there exists the odd, uncomfortable fact that Western societies are notably well off, and many right-wing populists are by no means destitute. Even Denmark and Austria, each a paradise of comfort and well being, each harboring excellent school systems and extensive social welfare networks, have witnessed a right-wing surge. The much-touted report that the average Trump supporter earns $70,000 a year—not great, perhaps, but certainly not bad and significantly above the U.S. poverty level—marks further evidence that the discontent that feeds right-wing populism goes far beyond economics. In fact, economics is probably not the primary factor.
Instead, the right-wing sensibility in the Western world is largely cultural in nature. It is directed against those identified as foreigners, even when they are third-generation Germans, French, or Britons, whose families may have hailed from Turkey, Morocco, or Jamaica. Race is also a factor, but not exclusively so. Many of those deemed “foreign” are of darker hues than the native-born, but the Brexit vote was also directed against Poles, Lithuanians, and other Europeans who could travel and settle freely in Britain as citizens of other European Union countries. The surge in refugees coming to Europe in the past year and a half has certainly exacerbated the hostilities against foreigners, but the sentiment existed well beforehand.
Donald Trump and his European analogues express a deep contempt for foreigners, or those whom they deem to be foreigners. Sometimes the language is coded and comes across in polite terms. At other moments, it is virulent. The political language that they speak enables the creation of a broad-based right-wing populism. “Respectable” members of society in Poland, France, or the United States hear the coded language and nod their heads in approval, while those on the far right, prone to violence, respond affirmatively to the more virulent rhetoric.
Trump, like many other right-wing leaders, plays both sides of the rhetorical street (as Hitler did as well, and masterfully so). His comments about Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, judges with Hispanic roots as biased, and Muslims as inherently dangerous display his open racism. He implies that only white men are upstanding citizens; only they can be objective and be trusted to implement the law. “America First,” he rails, a seemingly reasonable slogan with which many people could agree. Trump seems blithely unaware of the tainted history of the term, which goes back to the isolationists, Nazi sympathizers, and anti-Semites of the 1930s and ’40s. “Make America Great Again” is also code that plays well. Trump conjures up the 1950s, a wonderful decade for some in America, but certainly not for African-Americans, who remained subject to Jim Crow legislation and violence of the worst sort in the South as well as the North, nor for Hispanics, who suffered all kinds of discrimination.
In Europe right-wing populists advance a similar language. “Flood of Foreigners Means Genocide,” runs one hyperbolic placard from the nationalist far-right political group PEGIDA, meaning, of course, the genocide of Germans. The name of the group is itself overheated and expressive of its bedrock hostility to immigrants: PEGIDA stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicization of the West. Closely associated with the group is the Identity movement, somewhat innocuous-sounding but situated on the radical fringe and demanding a state that promotes “German identity.”
France’s National Front evinces the same mix of polite, general slogans that many French men and women could support along with more bald-faced remarks openly hostile to immigrants, or, more accurately, those deemed immigrants even though many are second-, third-, and even fourth-generation citizens. “A national defense to protect France and defend the liberty of the nation,” “Security, the first liberty,” “For an effective justice,” “[For] ecology [and] animal protection” are slogans drawn from the National Front program, and they could be espoused by almost any French political party. But the program also descends into more openly hostile and aggressive phrases, such as “Stop immigration, reinforce French identity.”
Republicans in the United States continue to dance around Trump, many unable to decide whether their party should back such an obviously incapable, self-aggrandizing, and racist candidate for the presidency. A few individuals, like Sen. Lindsey Graham and New York Times columnist David Brooks, have been highly critical of Trump and have refused to throw their weight behind him. But by and large, Republicans have moved into Trump’s camp, Paul Ryan perhaps the most prominent among them. They bemoan the fact that they can’t control him, but they don’t have the courage to separate themselves from a candidate with substantial popular support.
The Republicans who have sidled up to Trump are correct in this regard: They can’t control him. And they shouldn’t expect power to moderate him. University of Chicago legal scholar Eric Posner recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he described what Trump could do with the executive power he will possess if he is elected. In a phrase: He can do a whole lot in regard to foreign and immigration policy and the naming of people to the federal judiciary. Ours is a presidential system, and despite the difficulties Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had with Congress and the Supreme Court, presidents wield enormous power. In possession of that power, Trump will be fully capable of shredding the constitution from within, as the Nazis did.
Today’s Republicans and similarly-minded figures in Europe are like the conservatives who put Adolf Hitler in power: delusional about their influence, playing dangerously with the structures of our democracy. Few Republicans in the United States are willing to follow Sen. Graham on the “exit ramp,” as he termed it, from the Trump highway. And much of the reason lies in the fact that Trump’s political language is only more blatant than what many Republicans have been saying for decades.
That is the lesson from the right-wing populist upsurge in Weimar Germany, which culminated in the Nazi assumption of power. The political language of fear and hostility directed at “foreign” elements (never mind the fact that many and even most of those so-called foreigners had been residents and citizens for generations) enables moderate and radical conservatives to come together. The moderates make the radicals salonfähig, acceptable in polite society. That is the real and pressing danger of the current moment.
Eric D. Weitz is Distinguished Professor of History at The City College of New York. He is the author ofWeimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy.