What's Tony Thinking

Whiffs of Weimar in the Air?


Reader Bill Bumpas asked me to comment on a recent op-ed from the German writer Jochen Bittner which carriers a warning from Germany’s Weimar Republic (1918 – 1933). Bittern compares the “stab-in-the-back” myth created after Germany’s loss of World War I to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign following the 2020 election.

Here’s Bittern on what happened in Germany after the decisive German loss in World War I.

“One hundred years ago, amid the implosions of Imperial Germany, powerful conservatives who led the country into war refused to accept that they had lost. Their denial gave birth to arguably the most potent and disastrous political lie of the 20th century — the Dolchstosslegende, or stab-in-the-back myth.”

Germany hadn’t lost the war at all, according to the “Stab” myth. The surrender wasn’t necessary. What really happened, as the “stab-in-the-back” lie would have it was that Germany had been betrayed from within by socialists and Jews.

The “Stab-In-The-Back-Myth” had no more evidence or truth behind it than Trump’s “Stop the Steal” does today. But that didn’t matter. Acceptance grew during the difficult Weimar years making Germans susceptible when Hitler fanned the flames of grievance and desire for revenge and targeted the alleged culprits, leftists and Jews.

Does the parallel hold up? Yes and no.

Yes, both are big-time attempts to deny reality and build on a sense of grievance. Moreover, Stop the Steal is a fabrication, or let’s just call it what it is — a lie — that seems, astonishingly, to be growing in strength, again as did the German fabrication during Weimar.

Bittner notes the incredible percentage of Republicans who are apparently buying Trump’s allegations that the election was stolen from him. “A staggering 88 percent of Trump voters believe that the election result is illegitimate, according to a YouGov poll. A myth of betrayal and injustice is well underway.”

Even if you are skeptical about polls, this is very worrisome. It means you’ve got a huge block of people in the U.S. willfully buying bullshit, though that’s not exactly new. What will the effect of such a large number of angry, disaffected people be on the new administration, not to mention the country in the years to come? Yes Biden won, but we are definitely not out of the woods.

That said, there are also ways in which the two situations are different. Germany had no tradition of democracy. We have a long tradition that has been tested these last four years and again in this election. While it would be foolish to imagine that our democracy is beyond peril — it is not — it is far stronger than that of the fledgling Weimar Republic. Moreover, Germany’s post-war economy was in ruins. Ours, while damaged by huge inequity, is basically strong and should re-bound after COVID.

Still, Bittner is not the first to look to Weimar as a cautionary tale. On November 13, Andrew Sullivan raised the specter in his Weekly Dish column. Here’s Sullivan:

“I’ve referred to this process of accelerating illegitimacy before as a Weimar dynamic. By Weimar, I don’t mean a direct parallel to the 1920s and early 30s in Germany. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that nightmare. I mean rather a democracy where the center is always much weaker than the extremes on both sides, where democratic procedures lose legitimacy with the public at large with each election cycle, where street violence supplements debate with the connivance of elites, where propaganda replaces information, and where all the energy is destructive.

“I mean a conservatism that keeps surrendering to right-radicalism, because it no longer believes in the liberal project writ large. I mean a liberalism so lacking in conviction that it is  incapable of standing up to the woke left.”

“Trump did not start this. He is in many ways a product of it. But Trump has intensified this crisis in ways no one else could have — and the woke have responded in kind. He has, in this, a near-demonic skillset.”

To my mind the key sentence is this one: [By Weimar dynamic] “I mean a democracy where the center is always much weaker than the extremes on both sides . . .” That has been the direction here in the U.S. for some years now as various forces amplify the extremes, allowing them to punch above their weight.

Biden was elected — and it now seems clear he was the only Democratic candidate who could have won — because of his moderation, decency and experience. Will it be enough? Will a centrist be able to stand against what the historian Richard Hofsteder called, “the paranoid style in American politics.” It’s not a new phenomenon. But like a virus it flares up every now and again. Now, it is raging as surely as is the COVID virus.

On Saturday in her “Declarations” column in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan recalled the way Maine’s Senator, Margaret Chase Smith, stood up to Joe McCarthy in the 50’s, calling out the scoundrel as the real anti-American in the room. Though Noonan waits to throw her punch to nearly the end of the piece, you know it’s coming. She lands it in the last paragraph.

“What are we saying? When history hands you a McCarthy — reckless, heedlessly manipulating his followers — be a Margaret Chase Smith. If your McCarthy is saying a whole national election was rigged, an entire system corrupted, you’d recognize such baseless charges damage democracy itself. You wouldn’t let election officials be smeared. You’d stand against a growing hysteria in the base. You’d likely pay some price. But years later you’d still be admired for who you were when it counted so much.”

I spent the rest of Saturday trying to imagine not just if someone would step up now as Margaret Chase Smith had then, but if there was anyone who could even qualify for the job today?

It needs to be a Republican who has both clout and integrity. Seems like a shallow pool.

The fact that it’s so hard to imagine who today’s Margaret Chase Smith might even be suggests we may not be as far from Weimar-like dangers as we’d like to think.

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