Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy:
Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic
(Henry Holt & Co)
Benjamin Carter Hett’s title, The Death of Democracy, may sound similar to several recent works addressing the contemporary decline of liberal democracy throughout the world, including of course in the United States — the most obvious example being Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s highly regarded How Democracies Die. Hett’s sub-title better captures the focus and scope of his work: it is an account of how Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party (officially, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) were able to undermine the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-World War I experiment in liberal democracy, and achieve power in the turbulent 1930s. To be sure, there are snippets here that may send readers back to the present.
Hitler “lied all the time” (p.38), Hett writes. Like most “basically ignorant people,” Hitler had a complex about “not needing to learn anything” (p.53), and routinely voiced scorn for intellectuals and experts. The Nazis found their strongest electoral support – their “base” in today’s lexicon – in rural Protestant areas of the country. Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, advocated building a “thick wall around Germany . . . a protective wall” (p.109; but with no indication yet to surface that he promised that Poland would pay for the wall). For the most part, however, Hett, a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, leaves to his readers the option of drawing lessons for our era from his account of Germany’s post-World War I experience.
The sobering story of Hitler’s ascendancy has of course been retold frequently, but Hett tells it concisely and well. He does so by breaking the story into two general chronological parts, 1914-1929 and 1929-1934. The first, 1914-29, is a macro-account that includes World War I and Germany’s defeat, the vindictive Versailles Treaty, and the turbulent decade of Weimar politics that followed, when extremists of left and right threatened to undermine the fledgling republic. Yet, Hett reminds us, up until the Great Depression intervened toward the end of the 1920s, the Weimar Republic somehow managed to find its footing.
The second part, 1929-1934, delves deeply into the background behind the Nazi ballot box insurgency in legislative elections in 1930 and 1932 that led Weimar President, World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, on January 30, 1933, to appoint Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor — the head of the Weimar executive branch, roughly equivalent to a Prime Minister within Weimar’s parliamentary democracy. Hett details the frenetic maneuvering of key Weimar personalities in December 1932 and January 1933 to persuade the aging Hindenburg, then 85 years old, to take the fateful step of appointing a man to run the Weimar government whom he had always distrusted and disdained. The appointment, Hett emphasizes, was “constitutionally legitimate” and “even democratic” (p.3) under the 1919 Weimar constitution.
Each of he book’s eight chapters begins with a “real time” anecdote that paves the way for the historical narrative that follows. The first constitutes a powerful scene-setter: the burning of the Reichstag, Weimar’s legislative chamber, on February 28, 1933, one month after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor. The Nazis portrayed the fire as the opening act of a Communist uprising that provided a pretext to invoke emergency powers, marking that February 28 as the “last night of the Weimar Republic, the last night of German democracy” (p.3). The final anecdote, the introduction to the book’s last chapter, involves the “Night of the Long Knives,” June 30, 1934, when Hitler eliminated much of the potential opposition to his regime. The six other chapters also begin with real time anecdotes that add spice to the book’s straightforward, narrowly focused yet engrossing historical narrative.
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Hett observes at the outset that Hitler’s Germany is “unique among all regimes in human history in at least one respect: serious historians are unanimous in judging it a catastrophe with no redeeming features. There is no other regime, not even the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, that can claim such a dubious distinction” (p.8). But the agreement ends at this point, he indicates. Historians and intellectuals continue to grapple with the question how and why civilized Germany, with its abundant contributions to European culture, descended into the barbarism of the Third Reich. No single answer suffices to explain how the land of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms wound up in the hands of Hitler and Himmler.
Like many analyses of Weimar’s downfall and Hitler’s ascendancy, Hett begins with Germany’s loss in the First World War. It is no exaggeration, he writes, to say that the “answer to all questions about Weimar lies somewhere in the First World War” (p.11). Weimar Germany never developed a “general social consensus on why the war had been lost or how to respond to the postwar settlement” (p.32-33). Hett returns repeatedly to a comparison between August 1914 and November 1918 that found its way into right wing mythology in the post WW I era: the purported unity that bound the country together in August 1914, when Germany sent its soldiers off to what was considered a noble cause, versus the disunity of November 1918 when, according to the mythology which Hindenburg helped foster, German troops on the battlefield suffered a “stab in the back” from elites in Berlin and elsewhere, far from the front lines — with “elites” always of course encompassing Jews. More than any other political party, the Nazis were able to convince the voting public that they could recreate the spirit of 1914 and expunge the stab-in-the-back “betrayal” of 1918.
Hett also follows other analyses in emphasizing how between 1929 and 1933 conservative political elites came to accept Hitler and his unruly followers as a necessary bulwark against what it perceived as the existential threat of Bolshevism. Authoritarian by disposition and at best only weakly committed to democratic principles, conservative elites reached the conclusion that if a violent Bolshevik uprising were to be averted on German soil, they had “no choice but to find a way to work with Hitler — to use him and his movement” (p.234). Those who pushed for a role for Hitler in the Weimar government did so notwithstanding their doubts about the Nazi leader and his party, remaining confident that he could be controlled from within – a strong candidate for history’s most catastrophic miscalculation.
But if neither of these points of emphasis could be considered groundbreaking, less conventional is Hett’s view that Nazism is best understood as a reaction to “globalism,” by which he means the liberal, capitalist order emanating from Great Britain and the United States, an order based on free trade, the international gold standard and, for Germans, onerous war reparations payments. After harnessing superior wealth, resources and power to defeat Germany militarily during World War I, Britain and America continued in the post-war era to define the world in which Germany had to operate. It was a global order that no German could control, a “way of keeping Germany tied down and harmless” (p.108). More than anything else, Hett argues, the Nazis were a “nationalist protest movement against globalization” (p.106), even if that term was not in use in the 1920s and 1930s.
Germans could accept the hegemony of Anglo-American globalization and try to make it work to their advantage. Or, “against all odds and perhaps against all reason, they could rebel against it. This was the fundamental foreign policy choice that faced the Weimar Republic throughout its existence” (p.33). Accommodation to the liberal capitalist order was the reflex of Germany’s democratic parties and politicians, whereas rebellion was the path of the nationalist right. Among the nationalist groups choosing the path of rebellion, the Nazis offered the most radical approach. They maintained that Germany could “cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, with no imports, exports, or foreign investment” (p. 109). Hitler’s frequent invocation of Germany’s need for lebenstraum, living space, in the east should be seen in this light, Hett argues. Hitler’s “entire program was fundamentally directed to making Germany economically self-sufficient by conquering the Soviet Union” (p.114).
The Nazis and Germany’s other political parties trolled for votes within the framework of the 1919 Weimar constitution. That instrument created what Hett terms a “state-of-the-art modern democracy,” establishing a “scrupulously just proportional electoral system” (p.7) that depended upon coalitions and compromises among Germany’s diverse range of political parties, with small and marginal parties having outsized n influence. The constitution also offered protection for individual liberties, voting rights for women, and express equality between women and men. But Weimar democracy operated in conditions that were “hardly promising: a catastrophic lost war and a hated peace settlement, followed by extraordinary political and economic turbulence” (p.73). The Weimar Republic witnessed top-level political instability throughout its fourteen years, with thirteen chancellors and twenty-one different administrations. Yet, despite unfavorable odds, the Republic survived and even flourished in the latter portion of the 1920s, thanks in no small measure to the instrumental work of Gustav Stresemann, Germany’s Foreign Minister from 1923 up until his death in 1929.
Stresemann’s tenure at the Foreign Ministry marked a period when Germany “shed its pariah status and returned to its place as a respected and important force in European and world politics” (p.57). During Stresemann’s tenure, Germany joined the League of Nations and obtained significant debt relief. Weimar Germany’s integration into the international community in the 1920s under Stresemann presents a “forceful reminder that the Republic was not doomed from the start, contrary to another persistent myth” (p.73), Hett writes. At the time he died in 1929, Stresemann was convinced that Hitler and his party represented the most dire threat to Germany’s reintegration into the international community.
Hitler’s rise as force to be taken seriously in Weimar politics coincided with Stresemann’s years as Germany’s Foreign Minister. The polar opposite to Stresemann “in every important way” (p.54), Hitler led the so-called Munich Beer Hall putsch in 1923 that sought to overthrow the Weimar government. After serving only a few months in prison for what amounted to an act of treason, Hitler emerged as a national celebrity. He and his Nazi confederates spent the next several years building the party at the grass roots level. Between 1925 and 1929, Nazi party membership increased from 25,000 to about 180,000. Hitler by then was convinced that his party could come to power only by peaceable means.
The Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed dramatically increased unemployment and bankruptcy rates across Germany, enhancing the appeal not only of the Nazis on the political right but also of the Communists on the left. A potent force with some 360,000 party members by the early 1930s, the German Communist Party was “just as dedicated as the nationalist right to overturning the democratic system” (p.74). The Communists consequently refused to engage in political coalition building with the Social Democrats, Germany’s strongest democratic party which, like the Communists, drew its base from the urban working classes. The Communists hated no party, Hett observes, maybe not even the Nazis, more than the Social Democrats, whom they considered “not just enemies . . . [but] traitors” (p.65). Stalin’s German auxiliaries, he notes ruefully, “could, and did, frustrate efforts at forming a united left that might have kept the Nazis from power” (p.113).
The Communists had their own paramilitary forces, much like the Nazis’ SA (or Brownshirts), and conflicts between the two were rampant throughout much of Germany as the 1920s came to a close. By the early 1930s, conditions in major German cities “came close to a state of civil war” (p.127).
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The second half of the book zeroes in on the maneuvering that took place between 1929 and 1933, as Weimar conservatives wrestled with the recurring question: what to do with Hitler and his Nazi party, increasingly successful at the polls at a time when economic conditions were worsening and civil war was threatening. The lead roles in what amounts to a “palace intrigue” tale belong to three men: Franz von Papen, Kurt von Schleicher, and President Hindenburg. Papen served as Chancellor from May to December 1932, and as Hitler’s Vice Chancellor from January 1933 into 1934. Schleicher served as Defense Minister in 1932 and as Germany’s last Chancellor before Hitler, from December 1932 to January 1933, but was at least equally influential out of government.
Hett describes Schleicher as arguably the “most important actor in the last five years of the Weimar Republic” (p.81). Before becoming Defense Minister, Schleicher served as a sort of lobbyist for the army and, from behind the scenes “made and unmade chancellors and administrations” (p.12). He was a “champion manipulator and intriguer, always creeping from door to door, whispering in important ears. . . [He was] calculating, manipulative, and often dishonest” (p.81). Papen, a career military officer and devout Catholic, had an aristocratic air, “smooth, urbane, and always elegantly tailored” (p.146), but was considered an intellectual lightweight who lacked gravitas and expertise in policymaking.
The Nazis’ string of successes at the ballot box began before Papen’s chancellorship, in the fall of 1930, when they exceeded their own expectations by winning 107 seats in the Reichstag with 18.3% of the vote, compared to 12 seats and 2.6% of the vote in 1928. In sixty years of German national elections, Hett notes, no party had ever risen so far so quickly as the Nazis in 1930. The equally anti-democratic Communists also realized substantial gains. Then, in July 1932, the Nazis won another stunning electoral victory in legislative elections, earning 37.3% of the vote and 230 Reichstag seats. Although not a majority, the Nazis became by a wide margin the Reichstag’s largest party. The Communists were the only other major party to gain seats. The success of anti-democratic parties on both the left and right, Hett writes, was an “unsurprising product of the dramatically worsening economic situation since 1931 and of growing German anger at uncontrollable global forces” (p.150).
The Nazi electoral successes convinced Schleicher that they would be “ideal foot soldiers” in coping with the civil unrest that was threatening to engulf the country. But he was “not so foolish that he wanted the Nazis to have any real power. His strategy always ran simultaneously on two tracks: trying to find a way to use the Nazis, if they could be used, but preparing to fight them if they could not be. It probably never occurred to him that he might be outmaneuvered in his own devious game” (p.93).
In May 1932, Schleicher convinced Hindenburg to appoint Papen as Chancellor. Schleicher arranged for himself to become defense minister in the new administration and “imagined he would be the real power in the cabinet,” with Papen serving as “his puppet” (p.147). Papen’s cabinet, dubbed the “Barons’ cabinet,” was more right wing and socially elite than any of its predecessors. Papen’s most dramatic lurch away from democratic constitutionality and the rule of law came through what was known as the “Papen coup,” a national takeover of most of the functions of Prussia, Germany’s largest and most influential constituent state where the Social Democrats were the dominant party. Papen himself became special “Reich commissar” and head of the Prussian government. He defended this move as a preventive action against a communist insurrection. Hett characterizes the maneuver as a “decisive coup in the coffin of German democracy” (p.150), comparing it to an American president simultaneously removing the governors of New York and California from office and taking over their functions.
Hett’s narrative reaches a dramatic crescendo in its account of the fateful and frantic months of December 1932 and January 1933, centered around a flurry of meetings in which Papen, Schleicher and Hindenburg searched for an appropriate role for Hitler and the Nazis, with Hindenburg’s son Oskar, a contemporary of Papen and Schleicher, often in attendance. Hitler consistently refused any role in the government but the chancellorship and, throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg just as consistently opposed Hitler’s appointment to that position..
In the first such meeting, on December 1, 1932, when Papen proposed that Hindenburg appoint Hitler as Chancellor, Schleicher countered by proposing himself as Chancellor. Hindenburg wavered, then determined to give Schleicher a chance to find the best way forward. Two days later, Schleicher, stepping out fully from his long years in the political backroom, was sworn in as the chancellor. Schleicher would “try his luck at a broad coalition, his last, desperate effort to bring political stability on right-wing terms without civil war” (p.161).
Throughout most of the two month period, Hindenburg found the “very idea of having as his chancellor the man he called ‘the Bohemian private’ an outrage” (p.154). As late as January 26th, Hindenburg told a friend that Hitler was “at best qualified to be his postal minister” (p.177). But the following day, Friday, January 27, 1933, the Reichstag forced Hindenburg’s hand when senior Reichstag leaders from all parties agreed to hold a session the following week to vote no confidence in the Schleicher government.
Schleicher saw the appointment of Hitler as the only way out. Hindenburg still didn’t agree, and Schleicher and his cabinet resigned rather than face the no-confidence vote. It was only on the following day, Saturday, January 28, 1933, that Hindenburg reluctantly agreed that no other constitutional solution appeared possible other than to form a government under Hitler’s leadership. Schleicher would serve as Vice-Chancellor, part of a strong “counterweight against National Socialist predominance” (p.178). Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor the following Monday, January 30th.
Schleicher, Papen and their associates sincerely believed, Hett writes, that the presence of conservatives in the cabinet, along with the authority of Hindenburg and, in the last resort, the army, “would surely keep Hitler on the straight and narrow” (p.182). But as a result of Papen’s 1932 “coup” against the Prussian government, the key Prussian ministries were now part of the national government. Hitler arranged for Hermann Göring to be named Prussian interior minister, placing the Nazis in control of the powerful Prussian state police.
From the beginning, the Nazis struck out at anyone who might be a Nazi opponent. Hindenburg signed a decree on February 4, 1933, giving the police wide powers to break up political meetings, ban associations, and shutdown media outlets. The Nazis spent much of February 1933 awaiting a Communist coup that never materialized. Then the Reichstag fire occurred, six days before the country was to vote in another round of legislative elections. There is still no consensus, Hett indicates, whether the Nazis themselves started the fire. There is a consensus, however, that Marinus van der Lubbe, the 24 year old Dutch citizen apprehended inside the Reichstag at the time of the fire, could not have started it by himself.
The Nazis immediately characterized the fire as an act of political arson, the opening act of a Communist uprising. On the morning following the fire, the cabinet passed and Hindenburg signed an executive order known informally as the “Reichstag Fire Decree,” which “tore the heart out of the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic” (p.187). The decree cancelled freedom of speech and assembly, the confidentiality of post and telegraphic communications, and freedom from arbitrary searches, arrest and detention. The decree became the “legal foundation for Hitler’s twelve-year dictatorship” (p.187-88), in effect the “Constitution” of the Third Reich. In the course of the next four months, in a “remarkably fast and relentless process of consolidating power” (p.206), most other guarantees of liberty and the rule of law were swept away.
Hett’s narrative finishes in the summer of 1934, first with the June 30th “Night of the Long Knives,” in which Hitler eliminated the sources of opposition and potential opposition to the Nazi regime. Hitler contended that he had squelched a percolating plot among his rowdy SA storm troopers, an argument that Hess considers a pretext for Hitler to strike against his more dangerous enemies within the conservative establishment. In large part because of the genuine unpopularity of the SA, the Night of the Long Knives “restored a good deal of the regime’s popularity within Germany – and the conservative resistance was shattered” (p.230).
Hindenburg, long the most influential and perhaps most resistant among Germany’s conservative elite, sent Hitler a telegram praising his “decisive intervention,” through which his Chancellor had “nipped all treasonous machinations in the bud” and “saved the German people from great danger” (p.229). Schleicher was among the victims of the June 30th purge, killed by Nazi assassins in his home. Papen, unlike Schleicher, had been plotting against Hitler but was spared after writing a groveling letter to Hitler complementing him for his “soldierly decisiveness” in “saving the fatherland from an enormous danger” (p.230).
Hindenburg died a little more than a month later, on August 2, 1934. He went to his grave “serene in the belief that his good name had been secured by Hitler’s success in overcoming the political divisions of the early 1930s” (p.235). Hitler took over immediately the powers of the presidency. No one could ever replace the esteemed war hero, Hitler explained to the German public, and the office of the president itself was therefore abolished. Hitler assumed the formal title of “Führer and Reich Chancellor.” All members of the armed forces and all civil servants were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler personally. Hitler’s’ hold on power was “now complete, and all efforts to control or ‘tame’ him had decisively failed” (p.231). From Hindenburg’s death in August 1934 onward, “the switches were set for war – a war to overcome the global economic dominance of Great Britain and the United Sates and to make Germany an economic superpower by seizing a massive land empire in eastern Europe” (p.231).
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Whatever one’s views on parallels between Germany in the early 1930s and the United States in the current era, everyone who values democracy should have an understanding of the case of Weimar Germany. Benjamin Hett presents that intricate case meticulously — and often chillingly.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 19, 2019