How Hitler’s Enablers Undid Democracy in Germany

The way the Nazis used “the politics of legality” to gain absolute power after a failed coup is an ominous lesson about the fragility of a republic.

The short-lived Weimar Republic—which spanned the years after Germany’s defeat in World War I until 1933, when Hitler came to power—has become a paradigmatic example of democratic collapse. That has brought it renewed attention at this moment in America, when democracy is under threat from illiberal, would-be-authoritarian forces. We should rightly be suspicious of facile comparisons, especially the casual use of fascism as an imprecise epithet, yet Weimar’s fate provides us with some instructive parallels and important warning signals.

During its first four years, Weimar was under constant attack—above all, from the Big Lie that the republic was a totally illegitimate government because it owed its genesis to a “stab in the back” delivered on the home front. According to this Big Lie, the German army had not been defeated on the battlefield in 1918—when in fact General Erich Ludendorff’s spring offensive was a gamble that ended in military disaster. Instead, the myth went, a cabal of “November criminals”—Jews, Marxists, democrats, and internationalists—had betrayed the country, subverted the war effort, driven out the kaiser, signed the shameful Treaty of Versailles, and imposed an un-German democracy.

Not just Hitler and the Nazis but the entire German right latched on to this message and promoted it. Two factors distinguished Hitler from the rest of the German right. First was his self-awareness and cool calculation in deploying the Big Lie. In Mein Kampf, published in 1925–26, he explained that “the masses  more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a little one,” and that even a propaganda claim “so impudent that people thought it insane” could ultimately prevail. Essential to the “stab in the back” conspiracy theory’s effectiveness were a simple appeal to the emotions, not the intellect, and its endless repetition without concession to contrary evidence. Commitment to the Big Lie, he realized, had to be total and uncompromising.

The second factor was Hitler’s decision to make the conspiracy theory the justification for violent action, moving rapidly from merely denigrating Weimar democracy to staging an outright insurrection. In November 1923, he instigated the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted local coup d’état in the Bavarian capital of Munich. Hitler hoped—and expected—that this would set off a chain reaction causing the Weimar Republic to implode; an authoritarian government could then take over.

The coup failed. Hitler was arrested and put on trial for treason. His defense strategy was to use the trial as a platform to amplify the Big Lie. In a spectacular example of shameless historical inversion, he claimed that the founders of Weimar democracy, not he, were the real traitors, the November criminals. The insurrectionist on trial was the true patriot. Bavaria’s conservative judicial system was sympathetic; Hitler served just nine months in prison, where he held court and received more than 330 visitors.

Most important, what both conservative politicians and a conservative judiciary in Bavaria failed to do was rid themselves of this dangerous agitator by expelling him from the country as an unwelcome convicted felon of Austrian citizenship. Instead, they—and eventually the old-guard establishment right throughout Germany—enabled his improbable political comeback.

Hitler’s lesson from the failed putsch was that he needed to pursue revolution through “the politics of legality” rather than storm Munich City Hall. The Nazis would use the electoral process of democracy to destroy democracy. As Hitler’s associate Joseph Goebbels said, the Nazis would come to the Reichstag, or Parliament, as wolves to the sheep pen. By 1929, the press empire of Alfred Hugenberg had embraced and even financed Hitler as a right-wing spokesperson, giving him nationwide exposure and recognition.

Then the Great Depression and the political discontent that followed opened the way for a Nazi surge. First, in 1930, the party achieved an electoral breakthrough that made it the second-largest group in Parliament. Less than two years later, it became the largest party in Germany, winning a plurality of votes (about 37 percent) by vacuuming up those of virtually everyone who had previously backed one of several center and right-wing parties. Despite this electoral triumph, the Nazis were blocked from an absolute majority in the Reichstag because voters for the Social Democratic, Communist, and Catholic Center parties did not, for the most part, succumb to Nazi blandishments.

This time Hitler attempted no coup, but he would not be denied what the German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher later dubbed a “legal revolution.” By January 1933, Germany’s old guard saw that they were not remotely competitive in any election without the Nazi base, and opted to have Hitler legally appointed chancellor (or first minister). But because non-Nazi conservatives still held eight of 11 cabinet positions in the new government, they persisted in their delusion that they could control him—or, as some might say in today’s parlance, that they could preserve the “guardrails” that would contain him. As Franz von Papen, the new vice chancellor and President Paul von Hindenburg’s favorite, smugly boasted that, far from being controlled by Hitler, “We’ve hired him.”

Weimar has bequeathed three distinct cautions for the political right of any era about what not to do in comparable situations: join in disseminating a Big Lie; take inadequate action and impose an inadequate penalty after a treasonous uprising; and cement an alliance between traditional conservatives and fascists. The next stage of the Nazis’ legal revolution of course had its unique characteristics and circumstances, yet the way Hitler’s faction benefited from the conservative establishment’s support, exploited constitutional vulnerabilities, and undermined political norms to subvert German democracy suggests some portents for American politics today.

The parallel may seem less direct, but is nonetheless ominous. Hitler was installed as chancellor without a majority in the Reichstag by the exemplar of the old guard, von Hindenburg. To do so, von Hindenburg exercised one of the emergency powers granted to him under the Weimar constitution (in this case, the power to appoint a minority chancellor when political polarization and gridlock meant that no majority government could form). The appointment gave Hitler the opportunity to transform the German political system from within.

Hitler soon prevailed on von Hindenburg to use other powers entrusted to the president. In short order, the freedoms of speech, press, and assembly were suspended. An extrajudicial power to arrest and detain people without trial voided normal due process, and this provided a legal basis for the Nazi concentration-camp system. In addition, non-Nazi state governments were deposed, and full legislative powers were vested in the chancellor instead of the Reichstag—in effect allowing rule by fiat. That enabled Hitler to disband labor unions, purge the civil service, and outlaw, one by one, opposing political parties. Within five months, Germany was a one-party dictatorship and a police state.

No such scenario looms in the U.S., although the speed of Weimar’s collapse is sobering. In 21st-century America, the threat of a “legal revolution” gutting democracy is visible only in a far more protracted and incremental manner, and on a variety of fronts. If U.S. democracy should fail, its ultimate successor will not be a Nazi-like dictatorship, nor will its leader be a Hitler-like dictator. Any post-democratic American future would reflect not only the nation’s specific past but also its sensibilities of this century—a very different time and place from interwar Europe. Unlike interwar fascism, which openly condemned parliamentary democracy, the current wave of ethnonationalist authoritarian populism in the West—dubbed “illiberal democracy” by the new darling of the American right, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—prefers to preserve elections as a legitimizing mechanism. The aim of this illiberalism is a “managed democracy” unchecked by an independent judiciary anduntrammeled by the inconvenience of real democratic accountability that comes through the hazard of electoral defeat and alternating parties in government.

The American political system has some built-in vulnerabilities to illiberal, antidemocratic actors—flaws that the Republican Party exploited even before Donald Trump took it over. Since 1992, Republicans have won the popular vote in a presidential election only once. But the U.S. Constitution has provided them with intrinsic advantages in the forms of the Electoral College and the Senate: Both bodies overrepresent parts of the country where Republicans are strong (less-populated states and areas) and underrepresent more Democratic-leaning localities (populous states and urban areas). As a result, the Democrats have to win the popular vote by a disproportionately large margin to prevail in either the Electoral College or the Senate.

The post-2010 gerrymandering of state legislature and U.S. House redistricting—executed with unprecedented precision through sophisticated data processing—has hugely exacerbated the problem. (Democrats are guilty of the practice too, but Republicans are unrivaled in the ruthlessness they’ve brought to the task.) The only electoral suspense in what should be toss-up states such as North Carolina and Wisconsin is whether Republicans can attain veto-proof supermajorities in state legislatures based on roughly half the popular vote. Supreme Court decisions gutting crucial parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have cleared the way for a host of voter-suppression measures. The purging of electoral officials and the Republican nomination of election deniers for governor and secretary of state in battleground states are even more ominous warnings. This pattern of GOP activity adds up to an effort to rule by executing a specifically American form of legal revolution.

A significant difference with Weimar Germany, where Hitler started a new party and gradually made its growing base the indispensable ally of vote-starved establishment conservatives, is that Trump dispensed with the need to build his own movement by swiftly dispossessing America’s establishment conservatives of their existing party. After his hostile takeover of their political franchise, he expanded the Republican base in new ways and secured the presidency. Small numbers of Never Trumpers left the party, but most rank-and-file party operatives accepted that they had no future outside a Trump-led GOP. The price of being a Trump Republican was obsequious submission to a cult of personality and unembarrassed acceptance of a post-truth web of lies and conspiracy theories. That now includes, of course, the Big Lie of the stolen election.

During Trump’s presidential term, his conservative enablers in the Republican Party nursed an illusion that they could maintain the guardrails and constrain his worst instincts. Clear now, as Jonathan Rauch recently argued, is that no one will even be there to try in a second Trump term. Judging by the appointments he made, or tried to make, in the last months of his first term, if he runs again and is elected, he will surround himself with absolute loyalists. Despite the failure of the “Stop the Steal” attempted coup of January 6, 2021, which briefly shocked traditional Republicans, their hopes for a successful legal revolution in 2024 continue to bind them to Trump and his base.

Compared with Hitler’s national-socialist ideological fixations, which led to brutal dictatorship, war, and genocide, Trump’s preoccupations seemed mainly to involve attention, adulation, and fundraising. But the twin humiliations of Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020 and the failure of the insurrection he fomented have raised the stakes. They have cemented the connection between Trump’s obsession with the myth of a stolen election and the long-term project of transforming American democracy into a managed system of entrenched minority rule. In the immediate postelection period, Trump and his inner circle plotted to create fake electors, pressured state election officials to “find” the necessary votes to reverse the outcome, and ultimately instigated the January 6 insurrection. More broadly, 147 congressional Republicans voted against certifying Biden’s election, and 17 Republican state attorneys general joined a suit to overturn the election results in four battleground states; the party then rallied together to condemn and withdraw support for Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for daring to expose the Big Lie.

The GOP has now embraced an accelerated strategy of legal revolution to control the outcome of future elections. This fall, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Moore v. Harper, which concerns the power of the judicial branch in North Carolina to protect the state constitution’s guarantee of free and fair elections by overturning a gerrymandered congressional redistricting map. The state-court ruling was stayed so that the Supreme Court could hear arguments and rule on the claims of the “independent state legislature doctrine,” according to which the elections and electors clauses of the Constitution vest sole authority in state legislatures to determine the manner in which federal elections are held and presidential electors selected (absent any specific mandate of federal law passed by Congress). A ruling in favor of the independent state legislature doctrine would leave gerrymandered state legislatures in total control over federal elections, unchecked by any other branch of state government.

Hitler and his conservative allies in Weimar Germany started with many overlapping goals, but once he had seized absolute power, those allies became dispensable. They were either cast aside or forced to commit to unquestioning loyalty. In contrast, traditional Republicans have had a reprieve, since the 2020 election defeat and Trump’s failed putsch, to rethink and adjust their position. Yet they also continue to need their leader’s base to stay politically relevant.

Just as von Hindenburg and the rest of Weimar’s old guard chose complicity with Hitler’s Big Lie, dooming Germany’s interwar democracy, today’s Republican faithful are going along with Trump’s Big Lie, which casts Biden’s Democrats as the November criminals of 2020 and Trump himself as the patriotic defender of American freedom. America is not Weimar, Trump is not Hitler, Republicans are not Nazis, yet the fate of this republic hangs in the balance.

All Rights Reserved for Christopher R. Browning

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