Saturday, May 22, 2021

From the Archives: Democracy is recovering, 1931

By John Jones
Spy Foreign Correspondent

It was a near thing, but in the end democracy won out and seemed certain to prevail.  

America, 2021?  Hard to say, but we were referring to our coverage of Germany, 1931.

In that era, we depended on our colleagues at The New York Times for on the spot coverage of developments in Weimar Germany, and here's what our readers learned from August 11:

A musical program featuring unemployed musicians?  Sounds damned jolly to us!

The Times dispatch went on to note (in the Spy's tersely edited account):

Finance Minister Dr. Hermann Dietrich said that his hopes for dealing with the economic and political crises facing Germany have “been strengthened for Germany by the proof which the last weeks have furnished of the stability of the republic when endangered, the Germans proved better citizens than had been imagined.”

The Spy's ace Telegraph Editor incorporated a second Times report into its piece:

German Counsel General O.C. Kiep declared in a radio address yesterday that Germany “will overcome the present crisis by the discipline and energy of her own efforts and the cooperation of those who friendship and confidence shall not have been misplaced.”

And they lived happily ever after!

A careful reader of the Spy's report could hear a few discouraging notes.  First,

The entire Berlin police force was on riot duty throughout the day, in view of the Communist threats to disturb the celebration of Constitution Day and to kill several police officers whom they had named in handbills.

But good news – the Antifa [Surely, Communist? – Ed.] effort to attack the police didn't amount to much.  Now the civil authorities in Germany could relax, having nothing else to worry about!

But what was that bit in the Times about ruling by decree because the legislative branch of the German Government had been paralyzed, forcing the German Government to rule by executive order, uh, decree?   That sounds like a threat to democracy.

Earlier that year, certain parties had declared a policy of 100% opposition to the Government's program and had even tried to bring the legislative branch to a halt with performative obstruction:

That perpetual whining victim routine never works.  They'll probably next try to cut aid to unemployed workers!
Just to show how the well-informed German public reacted to these desperate shenanigans, less than two months later, one of the offending parties was kicked out of the government of the State of Thuringia:

As a result, in April 1931 the state's National Socialist party base fractured when confronted by the anti-government antics of the party's leaders:

It could happen here too!  Just ask Liz Cheney.

And of course some might say it's a bad sign when a major political party has fallen completely under the control of a single individual, but as long as that party says it's committed to lawful conduct and not to extra-legal nonsense like claiming that the fair and lawful election it lost was rigged, there's nothing to worry about:

Fortunately, there's no way to engage in “unauthorized speculations” as to what the Republican Party will do if it gets back into power, because it did not even adopt a policy platform in 2020.  Instead it pledged obedience to the Former Loser Grifter, thereby cleverly saddling him with responsibility for “all that the party as such does or omits to do.” 
To be fair, some white men with columns in the New York Times have speculated about the parallels if any between Weimar Germany 1931 and America 2021.  Here's Roger Cohen back in 2015, before the reign of the Former Loser Grifter:

“We’re going to be so tough and so mean and so nasty,” Donald Trump says in response to the San Bernardino massacre. People roar. He calls for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” People roar. “People want strength,” he says. People roar. His poll numbers go up. Pundits, even the longtime guru of Republican political branding, Karl Rove, shake their heads.

Trump is a clown. No, he is not. He is in earnest. And he’s onto something. It is foolish not to take him seriously. 

....The Weimar Republic ended with a clown’s ascent to power, a high-energy buffoon who shouted loudest, a bully from the beer halls, a racist and a bigot. He was an outsider given to theatrics and pageantry. He seduced the nation of Beethoven. He took the world down with him.

We're not always fans of Mr. Cohen's pensées but when he's right he's right.

For a completely different but not unexpected take on the same topic, albeit one that's totally wrong, who better to turn to than the boy no one would have lunch with in Winthrop House, Ross Douthat, who approaches the comparison of Weimar 1931 to Washington 2021 after watching a German telenovela:

Let's get one thing out of the way first: “Babylon Berlin” was pretty riveting viewing as long as you overlook its modest implausibilities, like whether a German hooker could really become a police officer in 1931, or any other year.

But let's see what lessons Ross draws from his TV and whatever history his research assistant pulls down from Wikipedia:

Then the final thing that’s striking about Weimar’s world compared to ours is the sweeping institutional and cultural strength of the nationalist right. Indeed if anything the show underplays this power: It portrays a right-wing German military eager for a coup and conservative industrialists eager to support it, but the potency of right-wing ideas in the intelligentsia and the German university hasn’t really been depicted; the lone student character so far is an idealistic Communist.

Yeah, the nationalist right doesn't have any power here, unless you consider that one of the two major political parties is in thrall to, and willing to excuse any violent anti-democratic excesses of, the Former Loser Grifter. Or you consider the anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) domination of powerful states like Prussia [Surely, Texas? – Ed.], Florida, and Georgia by hard-right Republicans.  Or the web of plutocrats secretly financing it all.  Or the captive non-news media supplying bigoted incitements to violence 24/7.

He does point to one modest difference:

Ross still remembers how lonely it felt
to be a conservative at Harvard

Yes, conservatives have Fox News and talk radio, the Republican Party has its business-class support and Trump had Michael Flynn and the MyPillow C.E.O. and Jerry Falwell Jr. But our generals are mostly allergic to politics and the military’s most recent political intervention was a counterstrike against a critique from Tucker Carlson.  

His counterexample of the military Tweeting snark back at hatemonger Tucker Carlson is ridiculous, but there does seem to be some nonpolitical professional ethic at work at senior levels of the military that we hope makes it a less active participant in the destruction of democracy than was the case in Germany. On the other hand, we still don't know why the military refused to protect and then defend the Capitol against invasion and insurrection.  If you're confident it would do so in a future Republican Administration, you're naive enough to want to know what Ross Douthat thinks about f***in' anything.  

There are of course also great differences in economic conditions between Germany of 1931, already poor and soon to suffer in the Great Depression brought about by stupid rich white Republican men, and the current boom, caused by a Democratic President and Congress willing to spend what it takes to revive a pandemic-stricken economy.

But we've seen that “economic anxiety” isn't what drives anti-democratic white supremacists in the United States.  It's good old-fashioned bigotry and fear of loss of unearned white privilege.  If the better economy leads swing voters to stay home because they don't feel any personal need to protect the American political system, the economic good times could bring on very bad democratic ones.

The most telling and frightening parallel between the two cultures is the choice that rich white men made when confronted by a democracy that demands they pay some taxes and surrender a crumb of their privilege, and a dictatorship that lets them hold on tight to their pelf and their sense of entitlement.  In both 1930's Germany and 21st century America, they voted their billion-dollar economic anxieties, and we saw the results over the last four years.

Could it happen here?

It already did. 

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