The Franke Bookshelf

July 4, 2019

by Mark Franke

Benjamin Carter Hett. The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic. (Henry Holt and Company, 2018).

The most fascinating book I read in high school was William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany.” I chose it due to my awakening love for military history but I was most affected by Shirer’s story-telling of how the Nazis connived to gain power and then ruthlessly consolidate it. One lesson I learned only over time upon reflection is that the road to power in a modern democracy can be exploited cynically by those with no commitment to republican government other than as a means to an ultimate aim of despotism.

Shirer’s account of the collapse of the Weimar Republic was confusing to me back then, and to some extent still is. The more I study it, the more I see modern parallels, but more about that later. And continue to study it, I do. The most recent Weimar history to grab my attention is “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic” (Henry Holt and Company, 2018) by City University of New York professor Benjamin Carter Hett. A caveat for this journal’s readership: Hett views the period through left-leaning glasses. He bemoans the failure of a viable center-left coalition, a failure he blames on the machinations of conservatives of every stripe more so than policy or organizational flaws in the liberal-left parties. Still, he provides us with an engaging history of Germany’s increasing inability to forge stable parliamentary coalitions.

The National Socialist German Workers Party, its official name that tells much about its hodgepodge ideological foundations, found its vote-getting space in rural and Protestant enclaves that were conservative by nature and therefore attracted by neither the Catholic Center party nor the business-oriented conservative parties. These voters were worried about the liberal Social Democrats and their more extreme left-wing political allies. Hett does an admirable job of relating these voters’ reaction to increasing political and economic globalization. They decried Germany’s being held to second-class status through trade agreements and, above all, a reparations system tied to an impossible gold standard condemning Germany to heavy international borrowing to meet payments. Add to this a refugee crisis created by the redrawing of international borders at Germany’s expense as well as the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The result was a fracturing of the coalition politics essential to the parliamentary system.

Hett has his heroes and villains, and there is never any doubt which is which. Heroes include chancellors Gustav Stresemann and Heinrich Bruning, both leaders of left-oriented coalitions. Villains include general-politician Kurt von Schleicher, a Machiavellian-type figure if ever there was one, and especially Reich President Paul von Hindenburg, who is characterized as dim-witted, vainglorious and delusional, more concerned about his military reputation than the good of his country. Rather harsh in my opinion but not without some validity.

The two or so years leading up to Hitler’s assumption of the chancellorship on Jan. 30, 1933, is as confusing as it is gloomy. Nothing seemed to work for the Germans as nearly everyone was determined to bring about the collapse of the Weimar constitution. Since no party could come close to a majority in the Reichstag — the Nazis’ highest vote total barely reached 40 percent — parliamentary cabinets were impossible. This allowed President Hindenburg to appoint a presidential cabinet that would govern by decree, a tactic he used to keep the Nazis out of power as long as he could. Conservatives worried that Nazi votes would go to the Communists while liberals dreamed of resurgence by the Social Democrats. One thing was clear: There would be no moderate coalition formed among non-extremist parties since they didn’t have the votes even if they would consent to working together. (Makes one long for an Electoral College, does it not?)

One of the ironies of the period is that the Nazis achieved power when it appeared the party was in an irreversible descent into irrelevancy. State elections showed declining votes, the party’s coffers were nearing bankruptcy and a revolt among the left-wingers in the Nazi party was underway. What saved the Nazis was a local election in the smallest state in the Reich, Lippe, that allowed them to put on a last-gasp campaign. It worked, and the Nazis were back in the national arena rather than falling into obscurity. I don’t think Hett gives this by-election enough emphasis. I much prefer the treatment given by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr.’s “Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power: January 1933.” What if this election had not been called? An intriguing counter-factual scenario, that.

But history is full of what-ifs. It appeared that Germany was on the cusp of civil war or unconstitutional presidential rule according to Hett, and it escaped this dilemma by Hindenburg’s acquiescence in allowing the Nazis into the cabinet. Hett brings out an interesting point about how the Nazis used the threat of impeachment and prosecution of President Hindenburg to batter down his reluctance to treat with Hitler, called by Hindenburg “that Bohemian private.”

Looking backward, how could this have happened? Hett begins each chapter with a historical vignette of some form of violence against an anti-Nazi person or group, usually pulled from the left. He is adept at recounting Nazi strategies to upset the republic: street demonstrations, business boycotts, shouting down opposition speakers, vilifying opponents, mass demonstrations, etc. In fact it was one such demonstration outside the Reichstag that cowed non-Nazis to vote for the Enabling Act of 1933, legislatively burying republican government once and for all. Is there a lesson in this for our time?

Hett says it best: “Thinking about the end of Weimar democracy in this way — as the result of a large protest movement colliding with a complex pattern of elite self-interest, in a culture of aggressive myth-making and irrationality — strips away the exotic and foreign look of swastika banners and goose-stepping Storm troopers. Suddenly, the whole thing looks close and familiar.” I would bet, though, that he sees the modern-day threat coming from a different end of the political spectrum than members of this foundation.

One last nit to pick: Hett frequently uses the term liberal to describe the moderate left wing in Weimar but sometimes it appears to me that he is really speaking of liberalism in the context of historical western civilization. Perhaps he sees them as one and the same. I certainly don’t.

Recommendation: Not the best treatment of this era but still worth the read.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.


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