In his book The Death of Democracy (De Populist) historian professor Benjamin Carter Hett explores one of the great questions in all of human history: what caused the fall of the democratic Weimar Republic and the rise of totalitarian Nazi Germany? This book is not only a chilling story about the past, but it also contains a warning for the future. Political historian Ewout Klei, deputy editor of the online magazine Jalta, talked with Benjamin Carter Hett about his newest masterpiece.
In your book you made some hidden references to Donald Trump. You wrote about the (Jewish) refugee crisis during and after WWI and about the remark of Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels about ‘building a wall’. Can you compare the populist movement of Donald Trump, especially the Alt-Right movement, with the national socialist movement? Or the Völkische Bewegung in general? Are the democratic institutions of the United States threatened by the presidency of Donald Trump? How strong is the democratic political culture of the United States, in comparison with Weimar Germany?
This is where I would quote Mark Twain, who supposedly said “History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” The right wing populist movement now, in the United States and elsewhere, is not an exact replay of the Nazi movement or any other völkische groups of the Weimar period. But there are disturbing similarities. Today’s groups are responding to the same conditions as did the Nazis – a global economy and rapid technological change creating bad conditions for many people, a pervasive sense of personal and national humiliation, and an unprecedented level of global migration. As for the United States, without any doubt the political culture and the democratic institutions of the United States are stronger than were those of Weimar Germany. But I fear that Trump is doing great harm to our political culture, and will continue to do great harm to it – above all through the active cultivation of racial hatred, and the utter contempt for truth and rationality.
For the Nazis modern Turkey was an inspiration, because the Turks lost too in WWI but Kemal Atatürk rebelled against the treaty of Sèvres and ‘cleansed’ Turkey of the Greek and Armenian minorities. Also the Armenian Genocide, committed by the Ottoman Empire during WWI, inspired the Nazis. But was it the other way around too? Did Nazi Germany inspire Turkish nationalism? And what about today? Can you compare the aftermath of the failed Turkish coup of 2016 with the aftermath of the Reichtag Fire? Or is Erdogans crackdown of the Gülen movement more like the Night of the Long Knives? And does Erdogan want the same power as Hitler?
I don’t claim to be any kind of an expert on Turkey or Erdogan. I think the Nazis’ impact on Atatürk’s Turkey was minimal, which we see for instance in the fact that Turkey wisely stayed out of the Second World War. It is telling, too, that Turkey is where Hitler sent his former Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen as ambassador, after Austria, Papen’s former post, ceased to exist as an independent state. Papen was an establishment conservative, not a Nazi. As for Turkey today, I think the crackdown of 2016 looks more like the Reichstag fire aftermath than the Night of the Long Knives – Erdogan is using a bogus threat coming from outside his movement as a reason to crack down, in the same way that the Nazis used the Communists. The Night of the Long Knives was more complex, as the victims of the crackdown came from within the government and even from within the Nazi movement. The other thing, of course, is that in 2016 there really was a coup attempt in Turkey, although of course seemingly a very incompetent one. One thing we all agree on, despite the ongoing controversy over the Reichstag fire, is that in Germany in February 1933 there was no coup attempt at all.
Three or four years ago I read Eine Jugend in Deutschland, written by Ernst Toller. This book is a telling story about the Bavarian Soviet Republic and its fall. The edition I read did have a lot footnotes. To my astonishment, in these days leftwing political terrorists were condemned to death and executed, but rightwing terrorists only get a few years in prison. Was the rightwing bias of the German judiciary not one of the biggest problems of Weimar Germany? And did that make Germany not a true democratic state, with the rule of law? Is our conception of Weimar Germany perhaps too optimistic?
The idea that the justice system in Weimar Germany undermined the Republic because of its consistent right wing bias is an old idea that is very largely a myth. I wrote a couple of earlier books that deal directly with this issue. The myth rests on accounts by people like Toller, who, however interesting he was, was hardly an objective observer of the judicial system. In fact if you really look at the evidence you see that by the middle of the 1920s the German courts had settled down and become substantially more democratic in their practice, as had all other aspects of German life. A distinguished American political scientists once wrote “The Supreme Court of the United States follows the election returns,” and the same kind of thing happened in the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s, especially in the very democratic state of Prussia, which was 2/3 of the country at that time. Of course, it also followed that as Germany started to swing away from democracy after 1930, the courts followed that political trend too. But the point is, the courts followed, they did not lead.
Dutch legal scholar Bastiaan Rijpkema wrote his Ph.D.-thesis Weerbare Democratie (Resilient Democracy). How do you think you can make democracies more resilient? Sso they can defend themselves against populism and antidemocrats like Erdogan and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban? And what are, in your opinion, the strongest pillars of democracy?
I think if you look at what happened in Western Europe between about 1945 and 1975 you see the answer: social and political policies that aimed at spreading the wealth, “raising all boats” as we say in the United States. The widely-shared economic growth after the Second World War anchored democracy in a Europe that had almost completely abandoned it in the interwar years. I think it is no coincidence at all that as the division of wealth in western societies (and in places like Hungary) becomes more and more unequal, we see these authoritarian movements rising. Certainly the United States has, for forty years and entirely through its political system, drastically shifted wealth upwards: virtually all the economic growth of the last 40 years in the USA has gone, not just to the top 1%, but to the top 0.1% of the income tree. That’s how you get Trump – it’s that simple.
There is no substitute for citizen engagement – if we want a better society we have to get engaged and work for it, and we have to question and criticize the things we are told by those in power.
Since I am talking here to someone from the Netherlands, I would like to add one of my favorite recollections, that touches on these points.
In the summer of 1990, as German re-unification was in the process of happening, I was traveling through Europe and spent a week or so in Amsterdam. I was staying at a youth hostel (I was 24 at the time). In the hostel I got to be friends with a young man my age who was from West Germany. One day we went to a bicycle shop to rent bicycles to ride somewhere outside of the city. At this shop you had to hand over your passport as security for the bicycle. I went first. At the time I was traveling on a Canadian passport, reflecting my upbringing in Western Canada. The bicycle shop owner was probably about 50 – old enough to have memories of the Second World War. He looked at my passport and smiled, and said something about the Canadians who had liberated the Netherlands at the end of the war. Then my friend handed over his passport and the owner’s smile vanished immediately.
“Oh, that country,” he said, and after a pause, “I see it’s getting bigger again.”
I always laugh when I think about this, but I think that kind of skepticism, that learned wariness about threats to freedom, is the thing we all need to have these days.
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