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On Contact: Collapse of Weimar Germany with Benjamin Hett

Chris Hedges talks to Professor Benjamin Hett about the collapse of democracy in Germany’s Weimar Republic and its descent into fascism – and which features of the collapse may be applicable to the democratic experiment in America. Hett is professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; his new book is ‘The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic’.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss how democracies die with Prof. Benjamin Hett. 

BH: The discovery that the really large scale cultivation of untruth and irrationality works as a political program.  I really worry not only about where that brings us right now but where that’s gonna take us down the road when other politicians realize just how much you can lie and it will still work.  The other point, and I think a parallel between that time and place and now, is the way in which the--what you might call the conservative establishment has calculated its relationship with the sort of the more radical right-wing alternative that Trump represents and that Hitler represented in Weimar, and how calculating that, you know, the establishment calculates that, well, this movement will float our boat, they will be the sort of electoral troops. 

CH: Leo Tolstoy wrote that, “Happy families are all alike.  But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.  So, too, with failed democracies.  There’s no one root to the disillusion of the open society but the patterns are familiar, whether in ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, or the collapse of democracy in Italy and the Weimar Republic in Germany that led to fascism.  The ills that beset Germany and Italy in the 1930’s are sadly familiar to us, a deadlock, an ineffectual political system.  The Caesar of national economies by international banks and finance capital that thrust larger and larger segments of society into a subsistence existence that obliterates hope for the future, an increase of nihilistic violence including mass shootings and terrorism, a rapacious militarism, and in choate hatred for the ruling elite that is mired in corruption while it mouths empty platitudes about liberal democratic values and the yearning for a cult leader or demagogue who promises vengeance, moral renewal, and return to a mythical past.”  Joining me in the studio to discuss how democracies die is Benjamin Carter Hett, Professor of History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and the author of “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic.”  So, let’s begin with the differences because there are profound differences between Weimar and where we are now starting just with the fact that Weimar, the democratic system, the Weimar Constitution, which was passed in 1919, essentially only gave a 15-year window into democracy, the trauma of World War I which affected, you know, the entire society, the violence in the streets.  Talk a little bit about how we’re not like Weimar.

BH: Sure.  The--you’re absolutely right.  The sheer scale of crisis in Germany in the 1920s and ‘30s really dwarfs anything that--at least in the Western world that we’re seeing today, I think we could start with the war.  I think I see in the books somewhere that really the answer to any question about the Weimar Republic is probably the First World War.  And it’s hard now to recapture, I think, because it’s so far back for us, just the sheer scale of the trauma of that war starting with the casualties.

CH: Was it two millions Germans?  Is that…

BH: It’s often cited as two million.  It’s actually more like 1.7 million killed.  But then several million more wounded and often carrying disabling wounds or certainly what we would today call PTSD.  And from a population of 65 million, which Germany was at the time, that’s an extremely big, you know, proportionate hit as far as the casualties go.  So right there, you’ve got a kind of trauma that, you know, is not to be experienced in Europe or America in our time.  And then you could go on from there to political turbulence.  The end of World War I had come with a revolution and a regime change in Germany, which was certainly not universally popular.  And there was a lot of hatred and resentment arising out of that.  There is economic chaos in several different forms.  You know, famously, there had been hyperinflation in the early 1920s.

CH: That was, what, in ‘23, was it?

BH: Yeah.  Reaching a peak in 1923.  And then of course by the end of the decade, you’ve got The Great Depression, kind of the reverse economic phenomenon of everything just ceasing up and slowing down.  And in between these, there were various kinds of political turmoil in the early ‘20s, coup attempts from right and left against the democratic state.  A few years of reasonable stability in the mid-20s, and then as you were alluding to at the outset, after 1929, again a rise in violence to the point that it could really be called a kind of civil war between right and left.

CH: And--but there are, as you point out in your book, some frightening parallels between where we are and what happened in Weimar.  So, let’s begin with the political dysfunction.  I think, if I remember from the book, chancellors had an average of, what, 18 months tenure or something.  Talk a little bit about how the political system ceased up in a very similar pattern to what we’re seeing in United States.

BH: Sure.  With the slight difference that there were many more parties of significance, not two, but really about six that mattered in the Weimar Republic, and many more smaller ones, but what happened over time was those six parties were all really based in particular social or demographic milieus and an alliance between them became very rigid.  And by the last few years of Weimar, by the end of the ‘20s and the early ‘30s, they were so sort of locked in their milieus that they really couldn’t work together.  They couldn’t, as we would say, reach across the aisle or reach across many aisles maybe.

CH: So you call it a negative majority.  Explain what that is.

BH: So the term “negative majority” refers to the fact that by the early ‘30s, the Nazis and the Communists, the two parties who were most dedicated to completely overthrowing the democratic system, had between them obtained a majority of seats in the parliament.  So obviously, that meant a majority of parliamentary seats were in the hands of enemies of that parliament and of the system it represented.  But they hated each other.  The Nazis and the Communists saw each other as their most important and dangerous enemies, so they could not work together.  So that, too, contributed to a deadlock, the fact that these antidemocratic parties were locked both in mutual hostility but also in control of the Reichstag.

CH: And so they resort, in particular Bruning, to rule by emergency decree, which you write, is fatal to democracy and we’re seeing exactly the same kind of process here.

BH: Yeah.  Because you couldn’t actually pass laws, or at least not many, through the Reichstag.  For a law to pass, the Nazis and Communists would have to agree on it.  Other than amnestying their political prisoners, there wasn’t much they agreed on.  So you couldn’t get economic management laws through the Reichstag so what Chancellor Heinrich Bruning did from 1930 to ‘32 was, as you said, do it really by what we would call executive orders, emergency decrees under the emergency powers provision of the constitution, which meant that he could really override the parliament.  And in effect, he and the President, von Hindenburg above him, they could function as a kind of dictatorship, passing all kinds of laws without any kind of democratic consent or any kind of check.

CH: Well--and we’re watching the same thing with Trump, but, again, as in Weimar, the stage was already set.  Obama used executive orders quite liberally.  Bush actually less.  But it’s the same kind of process with the same kind of deadlock, political deadlock.

BH: Right.  Yeah.  Earlier, left and center Social Democratic administrations had used these executive powers quite liberally in the early 1920s when they had power for much of the same reason.  So, it was, in a sense, a kind of…

CH: This was Ebert?  Ebert?

BH: Yeah.  So, it was--it was, in a sense, a kind of bipartisan, if you will, use of these powers.  But after 1929, these powers were being used in ways that the framers of that Constitution had not anticipated.  They had not seen the emergency powers as kind of the entire framework of an administration, which is what the political right was really starting to use them for from 1929 on.

CH: And it’s interesting in the book, which was new to me, Hindenburg comes off as a very dark figure.  Very, you know, an enemy of democracy.

BH: Yeah.  So, Paul von Hindenburg is one of the interesting and really important figures in German history of this time.  He had been the one real hero of World War I for Germany because he had…

CH: Although let me just interrupt because in your book, you write about Tannenberg, which was where they pushed the Russians back.  But you say that this was a complete--I mean you quote, I think a colonel or his underling, saying he had almost nothing to do with the victory, although he took all the credit for it.

BH: Right.  But the important thing is he took all the credit.  Tannenberg was this great battle at which the Russian advance into Prussia had been stopped.  And so this is a big deal for Germans, of course.  And Hindenburg had been the commander presiding over this.  Actually, not really effectively commanding but the important thing was he got the aura of it.  So, ever after, that battle was 1914, he lived 20 more years.  For all those 20 years, he had the aura of the hero of Tannenberg.

CH: Was like Petain?

BH: Yeah, very much like Petain, yeah.  And so that gave him a certain authority with all Germans, right, left, and center, he had this aura of the hero of Tannenberg.  And he became president.  He was elected President of the Republic in 1925, re-elected in 1932.  And in--he was there for in a very powerful capacity.  The President was a powerful figure in the Weimar Constitution because the President could name the chancellor and effectively create an administration.  So, Hindenburg was in a position to do this with his really two--always two goals, one is to protect his aura and his image, and the other was to try to steer the republic to a much more right-wing and authoritarian kind of government.

CH: And he loathed Hitler?

BH: He loathed Hitler.  That might be a little strong.  He certainly had only contempt for Hitler.  And you have to understand why, though.  It’s not the reasons that we might think of.  Hindenburg was a Prussian aristocrat, a field marshal, all of that is important.  Hitler was from the Southern German world, from Austria.  He had only made it to the rank of private first class in four years of service in World War I.  So there are sort of North German, there are class, and there are military rank prejudices at work here.  Hindenburg liked to call Hitler slightly geographically an error, the Bohemian Private.  He thought he had come actually from the Bohemian lines of Czechoslovakia.  But in any case, he had--that Hitler as south and that he was a private, and certainly not a Prussian gentleman.

CH: Well, they underestimated him, as I think many people have done the Trump Administration.  But before we get into that, I want to talk about the economic collapse.  So, the Nazis are pulling 2.7% in 1928.  You have the 1929 crash.  And you have Bruning, who’s the chancellor, cater to the demands of the international banking system, and impose Draconian forms of austerity slashing unemployment insurance.  This is after 35% of the workforce has lost their jobs, mass dismissals in the civil service.  And this feeds both the Communist Party and the Nazi Party.  And you do a good job in the book of making distinctions about who those parties represent.  So perhaps you can also talk about that.

BH: Sure.  Well, let’s take that point because this is really important, I think.  The communists, there were two socialist parties in Germany, the mainstream social democrats and the communists who were more radical.  And they had a particular constituency, which tended to be unemployed and unskilled working class people.  Whereas employed…

CH: Urban, right?

BH: Urban, certainly urban.  Skilled and employed, and unionized working class people would probably a social democrat.  So the Communist constituency is in a sense the people who are most being hurt by the economic conditions of Weimar.  The Nazi constituency is very different.  It’s different geographically.  It’s at least like early adapters, if you will, of Nazism and the strongest supporters tend to be rural.  They tend to come from northern and eastern Germany and its rural areas.  They tend to be Protestant, that’s quite important in a country very divided between Protestant and Catholic.  And they tend to be middle class, maybe lower middle class, middle class.  So, the--what the Nazis succeeded in doing, there was a spectrum of German politics from the start of the Weimar Republic and indeed earlier, which was kind of the Protestant middle class realm of politics.  And there were a number of liberal and conservative parties that represented that milieu.  What the Nazis really succeeded in doing after 1929 was to sort of sweep all those other parties away and capture that milieu.  So what the Nazis have is the rural protestant middle class sort of constituency and the Communist have the urban, unemployed, unskilled working class constituency.

CH: How much would you draw parallels between red state, blue state in our own system?

BH: It’s quite a strong parallel.  There is a real dynamic of people in rural areas resenting the sort of social democratic, tinged democratic regime resenting Berlin, which to them seems to symbolize everything about this new system.

CH: And we should just throw in that Berlin was--I mean, Weimar gave the vote to women long before most other European countries.  Weimar was a cultural avant-garde, Otto Dix, and Kurt Vile, and openly gay clubs, and was it hirschfeld had the--but talk--and Berlin very much like New York.

BH: Right.  And Berlin really exemplifies all of that.  The modern art, the modern music like Kurt Vile and Brecht, and the Liberal-Progressive politics, strong gay rights movement, and as you said, gay--Berlin was notorious for its gay clubs.  All of this is--and it’s diversified German standards.  It’s a--it’s a migrant town in a way that most German areas are not.  And so it embodies to rural conservatives everything that they loathe about Weimar.  And so they’re, in a way, like New York just for American conservatives.

CH: Yeah.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about how democracies die with Prof. Benjamin Hett.

CH: Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the rise of fascism and how democracies die with Prof. Benjamin Hett.  So we were talking about Berlin before the break.  And that leads into the culture wars.  One of--the first book burning was the library of gay literature, which was cheered on by the German churches, Catholic and Protestant.  And Claudia Koonz writes “The Nazi Conscience” and I think captures that just kind of moral renewal, this purging of what are seen as decadent elements within the society has broad popular appeal and as in your book, the anti-Semitism is very--is not particularly palatable and is very toned down.

BH: Yeah, although it was sort of a complex package in a way.  It’s commonly observed and it’s true that the closer Hitler got to power in the early ‘30s, the less he talked overtly about anti-Semitism or made anti-Semitic appeals, but I think there’s an asterisk on this.  There was a dog whistle element here because there was a kind of package of beliefs which channelled the hatred of a lot of conservative Germans towards modern art, towards modern social movements on gay rights, women’s rights, political liberalism.  All of that could be sort of tied together with anti-Semitism, with the idea that somehow the Jews are involved in all of these undesirable modern trends.  So Hitler could sort of play on that.  He could evoke it without having to say it.  And so that remained as an effective appeal, particularly to his base.

CH: Which is what Trump does?

BH: Absolutely.  Yeah.

CH: So let’s talk about after the crash.  The inability of the ruling elites, Bruning and the--Bruning is what the--it’s the centre-right party.  I forgot the name of it.

BH: The Catholic Centre Party.

CH: Catholic Centre Party.  And then he’s allied with the Social Democrats, which was driving Hindenburg crazy.  But really, it is the inability of the ruling elites to deal with this economic crisis which I think again we have seen both a bipartisan inability to deal with our own deindustrialization and neoliberalism that creates space for these radical forces like the fascists and the communists.

BH: Right.  I think, in fairness, there was no government in the Western world in 1929 that knew what to do about the Depression because the economic recipes that they had just did not work on a crisis of this scale and they all had to sort of figure that out as they went along, so Bruning is not unique in that.  That said, there was another element with Bruning that his number one goal was to get Germany out from under the reparations payments, which the Treaty of Versailles after World War I had imposed on Germany.  And to do that, Bruning calculated that he needed the economy in Germany to be particularly bad so he could make the case to the British and the French that we can’t go on making these payments because look what it’s doing to our economy.  So he actually--Bruning avoided several chances he could’ve taken to make the economy function better and to mitigate the unemployment and everything else.  He passed those by because he wanted to kind of cultivate the bad economy to get out from under the reparations.  And in doing that, that then created the economic conditions which, as you said, gave oxygen to the most extreme movements which seemed to be the ones that had the energy and the new ideas to solve this economic problem.

CH: Let’s talk about the assault on truth, because, again, that’s another parallel to our own society.

BH: Right.  So Hitler was very--oddly, he was honestly candid about his assault on truth.  There’s a famous passage in Mein Kampf where he sort of--it’s somewhat indirectly but he praises the idea of using the big lie and big lie advisedly.  He says there’s no point in a politician telling a little lie because people will see through that.  But if you just tell whoppers all the time, the average person will not be able to sort of take on board that a politician would really lie on that scale, so they will believe it.  And even if it somehow gets, you know, unpacked and corrected, a residue of that big lie will remain.  And this is Hitler at his sort of cunning political strategist best, I think.  This is the thing that most people would say he understood quite well how this kind of dynamic works.  And the Nazis were very, very direct about the way in which they were cultivating untruth and cultivating irrationality.  I think sort of near…

CH: Goebbels is quite--I mean, for all of his amoral vacuity, he certainly was brilliant.

BH: Goebbels was very, very clever.   He was a PhD in literature.  He was a smart guy and a very, very able intuitively skilled propagandist, which is why he got the job of being the Nazi Party’s propagandist, and then later when they were in power, the minister of propaganda, a new thing in Western countries to actually have that so explicitly.

CH: Let’s talk about the Nazis themselves because they’re--they have a buffoonish quality to them.  I mean, Hitler doesn’t speak proper German.  He had never held political office.  He’s, I think as you point out in your book, an actor, maybe a better actor than Trump, but Trump’s also an actor, comes out of 12 years on The Apprentice.  And that buffoonish quality that I think we see in figures like Hitler or Hess or the others around him also we see in Trump, but it led the German elite to really underestimate the damage that they could do.

BH: That’s exactly right.  There was a sort of buffoonish quality to many of the Nazis.  I mean, some just were straight out dumb folks, there’s no doubt about it.  Hitler was not, but he was perceived as that by many people because he came from a humble background.  He didn’t have a lot of formal education.  He didn’t always speak grammatically correct German.  And so the elites underestimated him.  They did not--it would not enter into the minds of someone like President von Hindenburg or his one-time chancellor Franz von Papen that they, as aristocratic gentlemen, army officers and so on, could possibly be bested by this vulgar Austrian or Bohemian private…

CH: Well, von Papen’s quite open about using, manipulating.  I mean, they’re quite--the hubrises.

BH: Yeah.  I mean, when Hitler comes into power, he comes into power basically in a deal orchestrated by Franz von Papen with Hindenburg with him.  He had a good relationship that Hitler would become chancellor, Papen would be vice chancellor.  And what Papen and Hindenburg and really everybody else in politics are assuming is that they as, you know, aristocratic gentlemen, can manage this vulgar buffoonish demagogue and, of course, what they’re not seeing is the cunning and ruthlessness of this man.

CH: Well, you see a similar situation with Trump.  I mean, all the people like Mattis and others who perhaps entered the government with some sort of gravitas are gone.

BH: Yeah.  Similar with the difference that I think certainly Hitler had a cunning and ruthlessness that goes beyond what Trump has, but there is so much similar dynamic of what’s been called adults in the room and the adults in the room didn’t do very well with Hitler and they don’t seem to be doing very well with Trump either.

CH: What--when you look at the Trump administration, what is kind of the flashing red light for you that you saw in Weimar if you had to pick, you know, one or two of the elements of the current American government that you find most dangerous given your study of Weimar, what would they be?

BH: That would be a long list but I’ll keep it--I’ll try and edit it a little bit.  So I would say the first might be the point we touched on a moment ago which is the discovery that the really large scale cultivation of untruth and irrationality works as a political program.  I really worry not only about where that brings us right now but where that’s going to take us down the road when other politicians realize just how much you can lie and it will still work.  The other point, and I think a parallel between that time and place and now, is the way in which the--what you might call the conservative establishment has calculated its relationship with the sort of more radical right-wing alternative that Trump represents and that Hitler represented in Weimar and how calculating that, you know, the establishment calculates that, well, this movement will float our boat.  They will be the sort of electoral troops with which we could get our agenda.

CH: They’re the useful idiots?

BH: Yeah, exactly.  They’ll help us get our agenda passed and we can kind of manage them.  This is exactly what the Hindenburgs and the Papens thought about Hitler.  And it didn’t go well with Hitler and I don’t think it’s going so well in our current situation.

CH: Well, they’ve taken over.  I mean, the useful idiots have taken over, which is exactly what happened in--after 1933.

BH: Yes, exactly.

CH: Let’s talk about the military because it was--the army played a powerful role in Germany as a political role.  The American military is also completely unchecked, has 20--more the budget--the discretionary spending for the military is massive.  And what do you see in terms of the similarities between the militarism in the--in Weimar and the militarism in the United States?

BH: I actually think there, there’s a pretty significant cultural difference.  I don’t think that--although as you say certainly the armed forces get a lot of budget in our system, I don’t think they have the kind of cultural prestige and cultural capital that the army did in Germany in that era.  It’s--we have to sort of really think our way back to a time where, you know, they used to say of the army and the Weimar Republic and later in the Third Reich, too, that it’s the state within the state, it’s the thing which too many people represents the state in its kind of purest and most honorable form and oddly in a pure non-political form.  The officers in Germany deeply internalized that feud, but so did many civilian Germans as well, which lent them a real clout, I think a real political clout much more than our military people have in our system.

CH: Let’s talk about the Centre, the Social Democrats.  Let’s call them, you know, basically the Democratic Party.  Maybe a little more enlightened on the Democratic Party.  It slowly, in this process, shrinks and shrinks and shrinks.  I can’t remember the dates of the elections.  Was it 30 or something?  But there was a constant diminishing of the political centre, which we’ve also seen in the United States.

BH: Yeah.  And in Europe these days, too.

CH: And in Europe.  What is the cause of that?

BH: That’s sort of--that’s one of the really big and important questions without any doubt.  The Social Democrats in Weimar, as you say, they would correspond roughly to maybe sort of the left or the Democratic Party here today.  They have a real dilemma and I think you have to feel for their dilemma.  They are--they are really the architects of Weimar Democracy.  They are the people responsible for the revolution that created it.  They’re largely responsible for the constitution.  It’s really their system.  And they’re the only ones who are heart and soul committed to it.  And they see all the crises besetting that system by 1930 and 1932 and they’re in a dilemma.  And the dilemma is, you know, the only viable way to stop Hitler seems to be to back quite conservative figures like Chancellor Bruning or President von Hindenburg.  And they decide that’s the lesser evil that backing these people, who are actually actively hurting the working class constituency of the Social Democrats, that’s still better than opening the door to Hitler.  So the Social Democrats for a couple of years are really working with these very conservative but centrist figures.  But what that does is kind of sap the morale of their voters and also themselves and it’s a very disillusioning process because they’re sort of--they’re in a way betraying the things that they believe in and the people that they’re supposed to represent.  So I think that’s--you know, and their remedies are clearly not fixing the depression.  So all of that I think tends to sap their electoral support, though not absolutely.  I mean, you could read it that it’s sort of remarkable that even in March of 1933, the last even partially free election, the Social Democratic vote still holds up at about 20% which is in the German system in that time still a significant…

CH: But that’s a far cry from where they were?

BH: Well, in the first election, they had 38, but they slipped after that.  It’s not a lot below where they had always been.  I mean//

CH: But that’s exactly like the Democratic Party.  Increasingly beholden to Goldman Sachs and Citibank and, again, you know, their base kind of withers away in a very similar kind of process.

BH: Yeah, I think--I think probably it’s a little more complicated with our Democrats today, although I’m certainly--I don’t claim to be a scholar of current American politics, but I think the base--the base of the Democrats is a little more divided probably than the base of the Social Democrats was in the ‘30s.

CH: Right.  Thank you very much.  That was Prof. Benjamin Hett speaking about his new book, “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and The Downfall of the Weimar Republic.”

BH: All right.  Thank you.

CH: All right. 

Thanks a lot.