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By Timothy Snyder
THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic By Benjamin Carter Hett Illustrated. 280 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $30.
We ask about the rise of the Nazis from what we think is a great distance. We take for granted that the Germans of the 1930s were quite different from ourselves, and that our consideration of their errors will only confirm our superiority. The opposite is the case. Although Benjamin Carter Hettmakes no comparisons between Germany then and the United States now in “The Death of Democracy,” his extremely fine study of the end of constitutional rule in Germany, he dissolves those comforting assumptions. He is not discussing a war in which Germans were enemies or describing atrocities that we are sure we could never commit. He presents Hitler’s rise as an element of the collapse of a republic confronting dilemmas of globalization with imperfect instruments and flawed leaders. With careful prose and fine scholarship, with fine thumbnail sketches of individuals and concise discussions of institutions and economics, he brings these events close to us.
The Nazis, in Hett’s account, were above all “a nationalist protest movement against globalization.” Even before the Great Depression brought huge unemployment to Germany, the caprice of the global economy offered an opportunity to politicians who had simple answers. In their 1920 program, the Nazis proclaimed that “members of foreign nations (noncitizens) are to be expelled from Germany.” Next would come autarky: Germans would conquer the territory they needed to be self-sufficient, and then create their own economy in isolation from that of the rest of the world. As Goebbels put it, “We want to build a wall, a protective wall.” Hitler maintained that the vicissitudes of globalization were not the result of economic forces but of a Jewish international conspiracy.
Hett, a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, sensitively describes a moral crisis that preceded a moral catastrophe. If Jews were held responsible for what happened in Germany, then Germans were victims and their actions always defensive. Political irresponsibility flowed from the unfortunate example of President Paul von Hindenburg. He was famous as the victor in a battle on the Eastern Front of World War I, even though the credit was not fully deserved. Hindenburg could not face the reality of defeat on the Western Front in 1918, and so spread the lie that the German Army had been “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Socialists. This moral weakness of one man radiated outward. Once Hindenburg won the presidential elections of 1925, Germany was trapped by his oversensitivity about a reputation that would not withstand scrutiny. He believed that only he could save Germany, but would not put himself forward to do so, for fear of damaging his image. Without Hindenburg’s founding fiction and odd posturing, it is unlikely that Hitler would have come to power.
As Hett capably shows, the Nazis were the great artists of victimhood fiction. Hitler, who had served with German Jews in the war, spread the idea that Jews had been the enemy within, proposing that the German Army would have won had some of them been gassed to death. Goebbels had Nazi storm troopers attack leftists precisely so that he could claim that the Nazis were victims of Communist violence. Hitler believed in telling lies so big that their very scale left some residue of credibility. The Nazi program foresaw that newspapers would serve the “general good” rather than reporting, and promised “legal warfare” against opponents who spread information they did not like. They opposed what they called “the system” by rejecting its basis in the factual world. Germans were not rational individuals with interests, the reasoning went, but members of a tribe that wanted to follow a leader (Führer).
Much of this was familiar from Italian Fascism, but Hitler’s attempt to imitate Mussolini’s March on Rome failed. When Hitler tried a coup d’état in 1923, he and the Nazis were easily defeated and he was sentenced to prison, where he wrote “Mein Kampf.” In Hett’s account, the electoral rise of the Nazis in the late 1920s and early 1930s had less to do with his particular ideas and more to do with an opening on the political spectrum. The Nazis filled a void between the Catholic electorate of the Center Party and a working class that voted Socialist or Communist. Their core constituents, Hett indicates, were Protestants from the countryside or small towns who felt themselves to be the victims of globalization.
Did the Nazis come to power through democratic elections? In Germany in the 1930s, as elsewhere, elections continued even as their meaning changed. The fact that the Nazis used violence to intimidate others meant that elections were not free in the normal sense. And the system was rigged in their favor by men in power who had no use for democracy or for democrats. The Nazis were by no means the handmaidens of German industry or the German military but, as Hett argues, both businessmen and officers formed lobbies in the late 1920s that aimed to break the republic and its bastion, the Social Democrats. They tended to confuse their particular interests in lower wages and higher military spending with those of the German nation as a whole. This made it easy to see the Social Democrats as foreign and hostile.
In a similarly titled book, “How Democracies Die,” the political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky have recently argued that the killers of democracy begin by using the law against itself. Constitutions break when ill-motivated leaders deliberately expose their vulnerabilities. Certainly this was the case in Germany in 1930. President Hindenburg was technically within his rights to dissolve the Reichstag, name a new chancellor and rule by decree. By turning what was meant to be an exceptional situation into the rule, however, he transformed the German government into a feuding clique disconnected from society. Governments dependent upon the president had no reason to think creatively about policy, despite the Great Depression. Voters flowed to both extremes, to the Communists and even more to the Nazis. The Nazis took advantage of an opportunity created by people who could destroy a republic while lacking the imagination to see what comes next.
When elections were called in 1932, the purpose was not to confirm democracy but to bring down the republic. Hindenburg and his advisers saw the Nazis as a group capable of creating a majority for the right. The elections were a “solution” to a fake crisis that had been, as Hett puts it, “manufactured by a political right wing that wanted to exclude more than half the population from political representation and refused even the mildest compromise.” It did not occur to the president’s camp that the Nazis would do as well as they did, or that their leader would escape their control. And so the feckless schemes of the conservatives realized the violent dreams of the Nazis. The Nazis won 37 percent of the vote in July, 33 percent in a November election, and Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. A few weeks later, he used the pretext of the arson of the Reichstag to pass an enabling act that in effect replaced the constitution.
Hindenburg died in 1934 believing that he had saved Germany and his own reputation. In fact, he had created the conditions for the great horror of modern times. Hett’s book is implicitly addressed to conservatives. Rather than asking how the left could have acted to stop Hitler, he closes his book by considering the German conservatives who aided Hitler’s rise, then changed their minds and plotted against him. Following the recent work of Rainer Orth, Hett says that the Night of the Long Knives, the blood purge of June 1934, was directed mainly against these right-wing opponents.
The conclusions for conservatives of today emerge clearly: Do not break the rules that hold a republic together, because one day you will need order. And do not destroy the opponents who respect those rules, because one day you will miss them.
An earlier version of this review misstated the year of Hitler’s attempted coup. It was 1923, not 1924.