Jochen Bittner MAY 31, 2016, New York Times
Hamburg, Germany — WE Germans can never escape the trauma of our recent
history. That has rarely been clearer than today, as we look around our
Continent and across the Atlantic. There are almost too many differences to
mention between what happened in the 1930s over here and what is going on
today. And it goes without saying that Donald J. Trump and Austria’s Norbert
Hofer are not Adolf Hitler. Still, Germany’s slide into a popular embrace of
authoritarianism in the 1930s offers a frame for understanding how liberal
democracies can suddenly turn toward anti-liberalism.
Setting aside debate about whether the rise of Nazism was built into the
German DNA, there were four trends that led the country to reject its post-World
War I constitutional, parliamentary democracy, known as the Weimar
Republic: economic depression, loss of trust in institutions, social humiliation
and political blunder. To a certain degree, these trends can be found across the
First, the history. The Black Friday stock-market collapse of 1929 set off a
global depression. As bad as things were in America, they were even worse in
Germany, where industrial production shrank by half in the following three
years. Stocks lost two-thirds of their value. Inflation and unemployment
skyrocketed. The Weimar government, already held in low esteem by many
Germans, seemed to have no clue about what to do.
All this happened as traditional ways of life and values were being shaken
by the modernization of the 1920s. Women suddenly went to work, to vote, to
party and to sleep with whomever they wanted. This produced a widening
cultural gap between the tradition-oriented working and middle classes and
the cosmopolitan avant-garde — in politics, business and the arts — that
reached a peak just when economic disaster struck. The elites were blamed for
the resulting chaos, and the masses were ripe for a strongman to return order
Some people today imagine that Hitler sneaked up on Germany, that too
few people understood the threat. In fact, many mainstream politicians
recognized the danger but they failed to stop him. Some didn’t want to: The
conservative parties and the nobility believed the little hothead could serve as
their useful idiot, that as chancellor he would be contained by a squad of
reasonable ministers. Franz von Papen, a nobleman who was Hitler’s first vice
chancellor, said of the new leader, “We’ve hired him.”
At the same time, even the imminent threat of a fascist dictatorship
couldn’t persuade the left-wing parties to join forces. Instead of being
conciliatory for the sake of the national interest, Ernst Thälmann, the head of
the German Communist Party, branded the center-left Social Democrats the
“moderate wing of fascism.” No wonder Hitler had an easy time uniting broad
sections of the German public.
Are we at another Weimar moment now?
The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent global recession were
nowhere nearly as painful as the Great Depression. But the effects are similar.
The heady growth of the 2000s led Europeans and Americans to believe they
were on firm economic ground; the shattering of banks, real estate markets
and governments in the wake of the crash left tens of millions of people at sea,
angry at the institutions that had failed them, above all the politicians who
claimed to be in charge.
Why, voters ask, did the government allow so many bankers to behave like
criminals in the first place? Why did it then bail out banks while letting car
factories go under? Why is it welcoming millions of immigrants? Are there
separate rules for the elites, defined by a hypermodern liberal worldview that
ridicules the working class — and their traditional values — as yokels?
In America and Europe, the rise of anti-establishment movements is a
symptom of a cultural shock against globalized postmodernity, similar to the
1930s’ rejection of modernity. The common accusation by the “masses” is that
liberal democracy has somehow gone too far, that it has become an ideology
for an elite at the expense of everyone else. Marine Le Pen, chief of the French
National Front, calls these normal folk “les invisibles et les oubliés,” the
invisible and the forgotten.
Of course this isn’t 1933. Democratic institutions are much more stable
today. But the power of nostalgia doesn’t depend on the times you live in. This
is why, for all the differences, we are indeed witnessing another 1930s moment
across the West.
It’s easy to say that people need to accept the new realities and work
toward feasible reforms — however true that is. And yet most mainstream
parties haven’t done even this, at least not in a compelling way. Instead, they
fight among themselves, and see the rise of demagogues as a solution to their
problems, not a threat to their nations. Mr. Trump is no Hitler, but that’s not
the point. Today, as in the 1930s, we are seeing the failure of the liberal
mainstream to respond to serious challenges, even those that threaten its very
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die
Zeit and a contributing opinion writer