After Germany's catastrophic loss of World War I, its imperial government was replaced by a democratic parliamentary system on August 11, 1919. The so-called Weimar Republic lasted 13 years only to be dissolved by Hitler's authoritarian, fascist Nazi Party. The same five factors that undermined Germany's first experiment with democracy are present in the US today.
The economy failed . When Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, it surrendered 13 percent of its territory and agreed to pay billions of dollars in reparations. The economy was crippled. Then came the Great Depression of 1929. By the time Hitler seized power German unemployment exceeded 25 percent.
America's economy has also failed. The roots of our problem stretch back thirty years to the Reagan presidency when conservative economic ideology began to dominate American political discourse. Reaganomics produced a warped and brittle US economy, where more than two-thirds of our GDP was housing related: building, buying, and furnishing new homes or borrowing against existing homes in order to maintain a decent standard of living. When the credit bubble burst, the debt-based consumption model failed, taking down first the housing sector and then the entire economy, resulting in catastrophic job losses.
Conservatives circulated a big lie blaming the left . Many Germans believed signing the Treaty of Versailles was a mistake and Germany would not have lost the war but for a "Stab in the Back" ( Dolchtosslegende ) the capitulation of Jews, Bolsheviks, Socialists, and Weimar politicians.
American conservatives circulated a big lie blaming the collapse of the economy on the Obama Administration, insisting that only Democrats favored "bailouts" and aligned with Wall Street.
Ordinary citizens were demoralized . Germany had years of fighting between rightwing and leftwing paramilitary groups. There was an artistic renaissance that many Germans saw as a betrayal of traditional values. The rich and powerful became disenchanted with Weimar leaders and formed an alliance with leaders on the far right, hoping for national stability,
Americans are similarly demoralized. TIME political correspondent Joe Klein recently zigzagged across the US and found anger and anxiety, a pervasive sense of powerlessness, and the belief America has lost its way. There's an explosive growth of right-wing paramilitary groups. Many conservative Americans deplore the loss of traditional values and blame this on coastal elites and homosexuals. The rich and powerful have become disenchanted with Democratic leaders and formed an alliance with the far right.
The right gained power by serving the interests of three groups. In Germany these were: ordinary workers fed up with unemployment and social instability; capitalists who sought not only economic stability but also the furtherance of their interests; and conservative Christians who decried Weimar immorality.
The American right has regained power by fusing the energy of three groups: ordinary folks fed up with high unemployment and a Federal government they view as out of control; capitalists who seek a return to the low-tax, low-regulation era of Reaganomics; and conservative Christians who decry what they see as rampant immorality.
A demagogic leader emerged who gave voice to the inchoate rage . Seizing on the Dolchtosslegende , Adolph Hitler claimed Jews, Bolsheviks, Socialists, and other undesirables had betrayed Germany. He promoted racial superiority and developed a powerful propaganda machine. During his first years in power Hitler pursued a four-part program: elimination of unemployment; rearmament; currency stabilization; and resurrection of the middle class.
Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, and others compete as conservative demagogues. They claim America has been betrayed by Barack Obama and the cultural elite. Conservatives argue that "undesirables," such as homosexuals and illegal immigrants, have compromised American moral purity. US right-wing demagogues agree on a four-part program: elimination of unemployment by spurring business growth through tax reduction and reduced regulation; rearmament; currency stabilization by trade restriction; and resurrection of the middle class.
Writing in CAMPAIGN FOR AMERICA'S FUTURE, Sara Robinson notes that the TEA PARTY has attracted 35 percent of US likely voters and has many of the characteristic of Weimar-era Nazi sympathizers: "economic libertarians who worry about big government collectivist tyranny; Christian Right Conservatives who oppose liberal government social policies; Right-wing apocalyptic Christians who fear a Satanic New World Order; Nebulous conspiracy theorists who fear a secular New World Order; Nationalistic ultra-patriots concerned that US sovereignty is eroding; Xenophobic anti-immigrant white nationalists who worry about preserving the "real' America."
Two years ago few of us would have predicted the savage resurgence of the right, its terrifying transformation into the TEA PARTY. Now, as America teeters at the edge, we should all consider the lessons learned from the failure of the Weimar Republic.