Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bad Historical Analogies: The US is Not Germany in 1932

I must have read it a dozen times on social media and opinion pieces since the election, so I imagine you've seen it too: people saying, "America today is where Germany was in when Hitler was elected."

Historical analogy is a powerful tool, and seeing echoes of the present in the past is one of the illuminating things about studying history. However, it's at least as important to understand the differences between the past and the present as it is to see the similarities, and I think that in this case the differences are so great as to make analogies invalid.

Let's start with the bare bones of the story: In 1932 Germany was in the grips of the Great Depression. Hitler ran for the position of President against the incumbent, WW1 hero General Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler came in second with 35% of the vote. However, in the parliamentary elections that year, no single party won a majority of seats, and so Hitler's NSDAP (Nazi) party which had the largest number of seats formed a coalition government with another party, and Hindenburg was persuaded to appoint Hitler as Chancellor. (Hindenburg himself did not belong to a political party and had run on his war record.) The next year, in 1933, the Reichstag Fire gave Hitler a pretext to crack down on his political opponents and seize dictatorial power.

Chancellor Hitler and President Hindenburg in 1933

There are certain similarities which people have made much of: Leader known for holding big rallies drawing on dissatisfaction with the economy and accused of scapegoating ethnic minorities comes in second in the popular vote but gains power anyway.

One particularly inventive approach to hysteria pointed to contemporary reports of less anti-Semitic violence occurring than was feared when the Nazis first seized power, and thus drew the argument-from-silence type conclusion that if the Trump administration doesn't appear to be violently repressing minorities, that's when we really need to worry he's bad!

I'm not here to argue that Trump is going to be a good president (I think he'll likely be a lousy one) nor that his campaign hasn't been a center for anti-immigrant and at times racist behavior. There were very good reasons to oppose Trump. However, there have been a lot of bad world leaders who were not Hitler, and what is not appreciated nearly enough when people talk about how Hitler's rise "could happen here" is how much the rise of Nazi Germany was a product of its own very specific place and time.

The first and most important thing to understand about the German Republic of which Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 is that it was a very new and unstable republic.

The German Empire, its ancestor state, had existed only for 47 years from 1871 to 1918. The Empire fell as Germany struggled to avoid a catastrophic loss at the end of World War One, a war in which the country suffered nearly two million soldiers killed and four million wounded. Many civilians suffered malnutrition as a result of the Allied naval blockade which slowly strangled Germany's food supplies during the four years of the war, and the Spanish Flu pandemic then killed nearly half a million -- many of them children and the elderly. When the Western Front collapsed, sending the German Army, which had occupied Belgium and northern France throughout the war, reeling back towards its homeland, and the Imperial Navy which had been bottled up in port since the Battle of Jutland mutinied, the German leadership sought an armistice to end the war before their country was invaded. The imperial government (which the allies had hinted should go in order to make peace) collapsed, Emperor Wilhelm II went into exile, and a parliamentary republic was put together under the leadership of SPD (Social Democratic Party) leader Friedrich Ebert.

Formed as the country collapsed, the German Republic (or Weimar Republic, named after the city of Weimar) was conceived in political violence that it never succeeded in escaping during its life of just fifteen years. Prior to the war, the social democrats were the largest single party in Germany's parliament. However, as the empire fell, the radical left elements of the social democrats split off and tried to stage a communist revolution on the model of the Russian Revolution. The government, led by the non-revolutionary half of the SPD, was forced to rely on the unofficial, paramilitary Freikorps organizations of nationalist former soldiers to put down this communist revolution.

Remember, Germany had not gone through an orderly de-mobilization such as happened in Allied countries. The government had collapsed while millions of soldiers were still serving on both the Western and Eastern fronts. In the East (where Soviet Russia had sought a separate peace with Germany) the German army had been governing much of Poland and Ukraine for the last year or more. Many soldiers made their way home still armed, providing a huge number of potential fighters available to both sides of the brewing revolution if they could be persuaded to join. Meanwhile, the peace imposed by the Allies, designed to keep Germany from being able to start another European war, left the government with a very weak army and police force with which to try to contain the explosive situation.

Freikorps in Berlin, 1919

The Freikorps successfully put down a series of socialist/communists revolts during late 1918 and 1919, in the process killing (without trial and largely without consequences) the leaders of the radical socialists. However, having used paramilitary violence to put down the revolutionaries who had genuinely threatened the fledgling state, the leaders of the Republic had little ability to put the genie of political violence back in its bottle. The Freikorps predated the state, and it was not possible to repress them and other similar unofficial military organizations.

Unlike our two party system, the German Republic has many political parties vying for seats in the legislature. Some parties did not acknowledge the government as legitimate, and both nationalist and communist parties had paramilitary wings which engaged in street fighting and intimidation. These were revolutionary parties, and the purpose of their paramilitary wings was to engage in revolutionary violence. Hitler and the then-tiny Nazi party attempted to stage a coup, the Beer Hall Putsch, in 1923 but they failed and Hitler ended up serving time in prison, where he wrote Mein Kampf. On release, Hitler pledged to abide by the democratic process rather than seizing power illegally (a necessary condition for the Nazis being allowed to participate in politics and for Hitler to be allowed to make speeches in public.) However, the Nazi party still maintained a paramilitary arm, the SA.

Just ten years into the turbulent existence of the German Republic, the global markets crashed in 1929, ushering in the Great Depression, which hit Germany hard. Revolutionary parties, both nationalist and communist, gained power and the fragile majority government of the centrist parties fell apart. In the 1930 elections, the Nazis captured 18% of the vote and became the second largest party in the parliament. This was the background to Hitler's 1932 race for the presidency against President Hindenburg, and to his appointment as Chancellor in January 1933 as leader of a coalition government after two elections failed to give any one party a majority. A month later, Hitler took advantage of a communist arsonist's destruction of the Reichstag building to use both the state police and his own paramilitary organization to attack and jail his communist political opponents, and win even more parliamentary seats in yet another parliamentary election in March 1933. (Another difference between parliamentary systems such as that of the German Republic and our own is that new elections of parliament could be called frequently in an effort to secure a parliamentary majority. The US with its two party system and regularly scheduled elections is not in danger of having three elections of increasingly fevered pitch in just nine months in an attempt to secure a stable government.)

Even so, however, Hitler didn't have a majority of parliament. He at last attained dictatorial powers by first having all the deputies representing the Communist Party arrested, then sending his paramilitary SA forces into the building where the parliament was meeting and, virtually at gunpoint, getting a vote for the Enabling Act, which gave him the ability to pass laws without the consent of the Reichstag for four years even if those laws violated the constitution. Needless to say, with Hitler now in absolute control, that power was never allowed to expire. Within the first few months other parties were outlawed and their leaders imprisoned or executed. Hitler then purged his own party leadership to centralize control, turned his party's paramilitary organization into an official state organization separate from the existing police and military, and consolidated absolute control. Hindenburg died in August, 1934 and the office of President was allowed to die with him. The German Republic no longer existed.

So let's run down the things which characterized the German Republic in 1932/1933 and Hitler's rise to power:

- The country itself was new and unstable.

- The country originated in catastrophic military defeat and its origins had normalized the use of large scale political violence (as in, barricades, machine guns and artillery in the streets -- not burning a few cars during a protest).

- Several significant political parties, both nationalist and communist, rejected the very existence of the state and endorsed revolutionary violence. This was perhaps one of the biggest factors in "normalizing" Hitler and his party in the German Republic: since multiple parties endorsed violence over abiding by free elections, many people felt they needed to side with one anti-democratic party in order to counter the other anti-democratic parties.

- A parliamentary system with many political parties led to frequent elections held in times of national emergency as no one party or coalition could hold a stable government together.

- Hitler's political party included a significant paramilitary wing which could be used to murder rivals and conduct street warfare against other parties.

- Having seized partial control of the government, Hitler used the state to outlaw a major rival party and jail a significant number of members of the parliament in order to tilt a vote in his favor.

- He then brought his own party's armed, paramilitary wing into the legislative session in order to force his will through at the point of a gun.

As I would hope this list makes clear, although we've just been through a divisive election and our president elect is someone whose wisdom and good will we have good reason to question, the situation in our country is pretty much nothing like that in Germany at the time of Hitler's rise to power. People need to stop saying that it is. They're needlessly scaring themselves and others, and they're also further corroding our already divisive politics by claiming that our situation is "just like" the rise of Nazi Germany.

Do we need to be vigilant and guard our freedoms? Yes, now more than ever. But please, understand the real historical circumstances which allowed someone like Hitler and a party like the Nazis to take total control of a state. Understand it, learn from it, and do not make panicky false analogies.


Rebekka said...

Thank you for this fresh breeze of sanity!

Agnes said...

History is only useful to teach us about life if we do know our history. False analogies and evoking fear is extremely harmful. Thanks for the rational and instructive essay.

Silence Dogoode said...

"anti-immigrant and at times racist behavior." How is it anti-immigrant to be against the illegals in this country? How is it racist to state that some people of color, whatever that means, commit crimes against other citizens?

Cminor said...

Excellent as always. Though it's hard to quantify I'll add national character to that list. One thing we learned (often the hard way) while living there was the extent to which Germans will snap to attention in the face of a display of authority. It's trained into them from a young age and reinforced by society. (The ethos behind the anti-nazi movements fascinates me--there were some counterculturalists!)

One of the things that keeps me sane (perhaps a little too sane--realistically I know we could succumb to totalitarianism) is reflecting that trying to get 300 million Americans to fall into lockstep on anything would be an impossibility.

Anonymous said...

So interesting! Thanks very much, Darwin.

- Finicky Cat