Iam Kershaw: How Democracy Produced a Monster

Could something like it happen again? That is invariably the first question that comes to mind when recalling that Hitler was given power in Germany 75 years ago last week. With the world now facing such great tensions and instability, the question seems more obvious than ever.

Hitler came to power in a democracy with a highly liberal Constitution, and in part by using democratic freedoms to undermine and then destroy democracy itself. That democracy, established in 1919, was a product of defeat in world war and revolution and was never accepted by most of the German elites, notably the military, large landholders and big industry.

Troubled by irreconcilable political, social and cultural divisions from the beginning, the new democracy survived serious threats to its existence in the early postwar years and found a semblance of stability from 1924 to 1928, only to be submerged by the collapse of the economy after the Wall Street crash of 1929.

The Nazis’ spectacular surge in popular support (2.6 percent of the vote in the 1928 legislative elections, 18.3 percent in 1930, 37.4 percent in July 1932) reflected the anger, frustration and resentment ”” but also hope ”” that Hitler was able to tap among millions of Germans. Democracy had failed them, they felt. Their country was divided, impoverished and humiliated. Scapegoats were needed.

It was easy to turn hatred against Jews, who could be made to represent the imagined external threat to Germany by both international capitalism and Bolshevism. Internally, Jews were associated with the political left ”” Socialist and Communist ”” which was made responsible by Hitler and his followers for Germany’s plight.

Read the whole opinion piece from last weekend.

Posted in * Economics, Politics, * International News & Commentary, * Religion News & Commentary, Europe, Judaism, Other Faiths, Politics in General

9 comments on “Iam Kershaw: How Democracy Produced a Monster

  1. AnglicanFirst says:

    Populist politics and and increasingly centralized and authoritiative government threaten American Democracy.

    The ability of modern American politicians to gain the vote of our citizens by simply repeating plasant adjectives and adverbs without being forced to discuss issues in detail will be our downfall.

    When we elect presidents and senators because they utter pleasant platitudes, we are doing more than mindlessly casting our votes.

    We are potentially throwing away our very freedom.

  2. RedHatRob says:

    An excellent film that will help the English-speaking viewer to understand some of the appeal of Hitler’s program (and his accomplishments), the gradual awakening of the German people to the gruesome reality of what the Nazi government was doing, and the brave few who actually actively resisted and spoke out against the Nazi government is the recent German production of Sophie Scholl: The Last Days. Its in German with English subtitles, but easy to follow. Sophie and her older brother Hans founded the White Rose movement among students at the University of Munich. In 1943 they were arrested for distributing an anti-Hitler flyer, tried, and executed. They can be accurately described as German Christian martyrs, and the film points this out without belaboring their Christian convictions. I have written a lengthier review here: [url=http://redhatrob.wordpress.com/2008/02/08/sophie-scholl/]Review of Sophie Scholl by Rob Shearer[/url]

    Christians should ask themselves, “What would I do?”

  3. carl says:

    It was not just democracy in Germany that was responsible for turning Hitler loose on the world. If the French had moved one division in response to Hitler’s re-militarization of the Rhineland, Hitler would have been toppled from power. But the British and French stood by as Hitler methodically re-armed, and re-established Germany’s position in Europe. And they did so because neither democratic country had the stomach for war. They decided instead to hope against hope that the beast wasn’t after all a beast, or perhaps the beast might be a tame beast that wouldn’t leave its yard. Or perhaps the beast could be walled in. Anything was considered better than the risk of facing the beast down.

    The real lesson for democracy is not to be found in war-ravaged and impoverished Berlin. It is to be found in gutless Paris, and complacent London. They had the power to stop the whirlwind before it started. But they just couldn’t muster the will to do so. And they almost consigned Western civilization to dust and ashes for their failure to get up off the couch. It is almost metaphysical proof of the existence of a merciful God that Hitler lost that war. Otherwise, I do not see how he managed to snatch defeat from imminent victory.


  4. Harvey says:

    “Peace in our time..” – Chamberlain. Some of the history I read decades ago seemed to indicate Hitler was shaking in his boots when he started to cross the Czech border. He could have been stopped right then with little effort.

  5. Irenaeus says:

    Hitler took power in a republic loathed by many of its citizens. Germany had entered World War I—and came close to winning the war as late as the summer of 1918—at the instance of anti-democratic hardliners led by Kaiser Wilhelm II and the likes of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

    Those generals and their reactionary allies propagated the Big Lie that the German army had not lost on the battlefield (as indeed it had by Nov. 1918) but had been stabbed in the back by democratic politicians. German reactionaries never reconciled themselves to the fall of the monarchy, much less to the Treaty of Versailles. Had the politicians been savvy, they would not have taken power until the top generals had admitted defeat.

    The punitive Treaty of Versailles made matters worse. It discredited the first truly democratic government in Germany history. The Allies could have fostered German democracy; instead they made it bear the punishments earned by right-wing militarism. French and British policy during the 1920s and early 1930s made matters worse. That policy remained punitive as long as Germany remained democratic—but switched to spineless appeasement as soon as Hitler took power.

    Right-wing hostility toward republican government ultimately led even democrats to seek safety behind anti-democratic figures like Hindenburg, who installed two anti-democrats as chancellor: first von Papen, then Hitler.

    Some aspects of Germany’s 1919 “Weimar Constitution” were naive, such as requiring parliamentary elections every two years. But this was not primarily a case of democracy undone by democratic means.

    PS: The Nazis (although they were to become very popular) never won a majority of the votes in a free election.

  6. Irenaeus says:

    The NYT story has two evocative woodcut-style images of Nazi atrocities. Well worth seeing.

  7. Dave B says:

    The other problem was Germany’s inflation rate prior to Hitler’s riese to power helped fuel Hitler’s popularity. The Germans just printed money to pay the World War I debt leading to incredible inflatonary pressure for the people of Germany. The political parties had armys that battled in the streets at night. It was pretty close to economic and social anarchy. Hitler and his brown shirts restoring economic and social order were very welcome.

  8. Irenaeus says:

    Dave B [#7]: You’re right that economic factors gave Hitler a huge lift. U.S. loans had helped keep Germany going during the 1920s. But with the collapse of the U.S. banking system in 1932-33, U.S. banks called their loans, Germany suffered a huge capital outflow, and German unemployment soared. Hitler came to power as unemployment peaked at 25%. Hitler derived a huge, lasting political boost as unemployment then declined.

    Hyperinflation, although also taking a major toll on Germany, had ended by 1923.

  9. libraryjim says:

    For those who say it can’t happen here — it can. Germany is proof that every Democracy needs to watch their back!