Monday, December 22, 2014
On Weimar Metaphors
The last few days are proof that we are often ruled by capricious events. On Saturday the protest movements against police brutality and the legal system's failures managed to shut down the massive Mall of America in Minnesota. Just as those movements were showing their continued strength, an unhinged assassin shot his girlfriend in Baltimore, then drove to Brooklyn and murdered two police officers in an ambush. The forces of reaction and authority wasted no time exploiting this awful event by blaming it on protestors and mayor Bill de Blasio. In a particularly galling display of contempt, New York police officers literally turned their back on the mayor, a man who was accused by their union to have "blood on his hands."
Soon afterward I saw people I follow on Twitter and friends on Facebook likening the current situation to Weimar Germany. As a scholar of German history, I thought I'd talk about this. While those invoking Weimar don't come right out and say it, I wonder if they are thinking of the exploitation of violence by the NYPD to condemn their opponents is akin to the Reichstag Fire, but don't want to reference Nazis directly because of Godwin's Law or something. While I find that allegorical link a little much, there are some ways we can recall the history of the Weimar Republic that are fruitful for analyzing our current, tumultuous moment.
Weimar was an attempt to establish a democracy in a very new nation (united only since 1871) that had previously been an oligarchic autocracy and that had recently undergone a traumatic defeat in a war that killed two million of its young men. This was a tall order, and the Republic barely survived a wave of crises from 1919 to 1923, including multiple Communist revolts, a military coup, hyperinflation, the occupation of the Rhineland by the French army, and Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch. Between 1924 and 1929 it managed to attain a degree of stability and prosperity, but that came crashing down with the Great Depression. Well before Hitler took power in 1933, Germany had already ceased being a real democracy after president Paul von Hindenburg began ruling by decree in 1930. When people mention "Weimar" I assume they mean the late period, when Communists and Nazis fought each other in the streets.
Where I see a linkage that the non-historian might not is in the divided nature of Weimar society and American society today. 1920s Germany was a place of massive cultural changes, where young women in the cities began living more independent lives, where marriage ages rose and birth rates declined (spurring fears of the decline of family values), and old elites suddenly lost their prestige and power, among other things. The Weimar Republic represented these changes, among others, and was thus hated and resented by those who preferred a hierarchical, traditional society.
The forces of reaction thought of the Weimar government as illegitimate, and still held plenty of power, especially in military and judiciary. This helps explain why Hitler could attempt to overthrow the German government in the Beer Hall Putsch, but serve less than three years in prison. The Nazis weren't the first or only group to claim Germany had only lost the war because it had been "stabbed in the back" by Leftist elements. The adherents to the Republic were un-German traitors in the eyes of its opponents. The Social Democrats were the political party most committed to maintaining the Republic, and thus reviled by reactionaries and nascent fascists. They were also attacked hard by Communists, seeing Social Democrats as selling out the revolution for their part in suppressing worker revolts in the early Weimar years. By the time the Nazis gathered a plurality of the vote in 1933, a majority of voters were casting their votes for parties committed to destroying the Republic.
I think we can all agree that the American political and cultural landscape today is as polarized as it has been in quite some time. Politics and culture have also intertwined to the point that progressives and conservatives don't watch, read, or listen to the same things. Conspicuous gun ownership has become a Rightist fetish, and in some corners of America Fox News is ubiquitously blared in public spaces. Those on the Left tend to find these things abhorrent. While there is a strong regional flavor to these deep differences, the Red State-Blue State model obscures as much as it reveals. For example, New York City is supposed to be the bluest of blue territories, yet former mayor Guiliani has blamed African-Americans for the police violence used against them, and the NYPD has used inflammatory rhetoric against the current mayor for daring to criticize them. They, like the Fox-devoted aging Boomers in my hometown view progressives in power as illegitimate, an abomination to be destroyed. The unhinged manner in which the Republican Congress has dealt with Democratic presidents in recent decades (impeaching Clinton and engaging in unprecedented insults and obstruction against Obama) shows this.
There is a sense that those on the Left and Right no longer see their political opponents as people who hold different ideas, but as entirely different kinds of people completely. The racial dynamics of political devotion today, where the Right is extremely White and engaging in White identity politics against a much less White opposition, has a lot to do with this, much more so than the pundit class would ever dare to admit. I can certainly see in this intense division, where the side on the Right questions the very legitimacy of the government, echoes of Weimar. Of course, such situations have appeared elsewhere in history, notably in France in the same era, when opponents of the Leftist coalition used the slogan "Better Hitler Than Blum." Much the same could be seen in Chile in the early 1970s, too. Things didn't end too well in any of these scenarios. This makes me fearful, especially in a country where the police and military are two of the most trusted institutions. It can't happen here? Don't kid yourself.