Weimarisation of politics

Daniel Lazare sees striking parallels between pre-Hitler Germany and America today

Is the US nearing its Weimar moment?

At first glance, any such analogy seems over the top. The Weimar Republic was born amid imperial defeat, revolution and civil war - a period that began when sailors mutinied in the Baltic port of Kiel in November 1918 and did not end until the suppression of the Munich Soviet Republic the following May. After that, Weimar lurched from crisis to crisis, as the economy weakened and left and rightwing militias fought pitched battles in beer halls and the streets. It finally gave up the ghost when Hitler took power in January 1933 and inaugurated the Third Reich.

None of which is remotely the case in the United States. Rather than some recent upstart, the United States is the oldest major republic in the world - one that has not suffered a major defeat since Vietnam and has been a model of Gibraltar-like stability (not counting the odd riot or insurrection) for a century and a half. Where German political parties increasingly deserted the republican fold from the mid-1920s on, America’s Republicans and Democrats cannot stop praising the constitution and the flag. In contrast to the massive class conflict that shook Weimar to the core, America also has no working class parties and hardly even a trade union movement to speak of, now that organised labour is down to just six percent of the private-sector workforce. If anything, America would seem to be the anti-Weimar - the country least likely to resemble the Germany of the 1920s.

Yet the parallels are impossible to ignore. Republicans and Democrats may not have paramilitary wings the way German parties did during the interwar period. But that has not stopped a burgeoning independent militia movement from springing up in recent years - one with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 active members armed with the latest high-powered military ordinance.1 While hardly at Weimar levels, violence is growing. On August 25, a 17-year-old militia member named Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two Black Lives Matter supporters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and wounded a third. Four days later, Antifa supporter Michael Forest Reinoehl shot to death an ultra-rightist militia member named Aaron Danielson in Portland, Oregon. A week after that, hundreds of white and black militia members converged on Louisville, Kentucky, where BLM supporters have been protesting nearly non-stop since the police murder of a black emergency medical technician named Breonna Taylor on March 13.

The two groups somehow passed one another by. But if a clash had occurred, the consequences could have been deadly, since both were armed to the teeth. “I’m not going to bring a knife to a gunfight,” Nadia Ford, a black grandmother carrying two handguns and an assault rifle, said. “We’ve tried peaceful for years upon years, and it has gotten us nowhere.” White militias, no less heavily armed, waved American flags and pro-Trump banners and chanted, “USA, USA”, as they marched through the city. ITV News described the display as “a brazen show of strength with an unmistakable message that there are new sheriffs in town”.2

This is very Weimar too, as is a growing predilection on the part of the state apparatus for the radical right. In Germany, the relationship was wide open. Military officers were monarchist and hence anti-republican to the core, while conservative judges made it a point to punish leftists to the hilt, even as they let off hundreds of ultra-right murderers with at most a slap on the wrist.3 But similar signs are now evident in the US. Minutes before Kyle Rittenhouse opened up on BLM supporters, police officers offered bottles of water to him and his militia friends, telling them, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.” When Rittenhouse approached a line of police vehicles with his gun in hand after the shooting, cops ignored him and allowed him to continue on his way.

Events in Portland showed a similar bias. Danielson, a member of a group calling itself Patriot Prayer, was a Trump supporter, while Michael Forest Reinoehl - the former professional snowboarder who shot him - described himself as “100% Antifa all the way!” Initially, the US justice department said that the FBI and US marshals service shot and killed Reinoehl when he drew a gun, as they tried to arrest him outside a Portland apartment complex on September 3. But, six days later, a local clergyman named Nathaniel Dingess, who witnessed the killing, issued a statement through his lawyer, saying that Reinoehl was only holding a cellphone and that police opened fire without warning: “Officers shot multiple rapid-fire rounds at Reinoehl before issuing a brief ‘stop’ command,” the statement said, “quickly followed by more rapid-fire shooting by additional officers.”4

Minutes earlier, Trump had demanded to know why Portland police had not arrested Danielson’s “cold blooded killer”, tweeting: “Everybody knows who this thug is. No wonder Portland is going to hell!” Afterwards, he told Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News: “This guy was a violent criminal, and the US marshals killed him. And I’ll tell you something - that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.”

Extra-judicial killings are likewise redolent of Weimar, where imprisoned leftists were routinely shot, “while trying to escape”.5


Finally, there are the constitutional parallels. As one might expect of a regime that arose out of a counterrevolutionary alliance between conservative Social Democrats and ultra-right military and paramilitary forces, the Weimar constitution was an ungainly mix of democratic and authoritarian elements, with a Reichstag based on strict proportional representation and a president who, thanks to the notorious article 48, was free to suspend democratic rights and declare a state of emergency whenever “public order and security are seriously disturbed or endangered”.

The effect was to sideline an increasingly fragmented parliament, as power shifted to a rightwing cabal around president Paul von Hindenburg, an ex-general, who had served as virtual dictator during the war and who was now aged and befuddled, but no less authoritarian than ever. Hindenburg’s election in 1925 was seen as “a big step away from Weimar democracy in the direction of the restoration of the old monarchical order”, according to the historian, Richard J Evans.6 But the real rupture occurred five years later when a Grand Coalition government consisting of Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party collapsed under the impact of the New York stock-market crash, and Hindenburg opted to go it alone. Writes Evans:

Although few realised it at the time, this marked the beginning of the end of Weimar democracy. From this point on, no government ruled with the support of a parliamentary majority in the Reichstag. Indeed, those who had president Hindenburg’s ear saw the fall of the Grand Coalition as a chance to establish an authoritarian regime through the use of the presidential power of rule by decree.7

With the army exercising growing influence behind the scenes, Hindenburg appointed Heinrich Brüning - a former lieutenant and staunch monarchist - as chancellor. The slide into Nazism could only intensify.

America offers a different route to what may ultimately turn out to be the same end. At first glance, the US and Weimar constitutions could not be more unalike. Where one is a progressive-reactionary mash-up, the other is simply an 18th century mess that is growing more decrepit by the decade. America’s fabled checks and balances have given way to a generation of political gridlock, while the inauguration of a minority president via an ancient constitutional mechanism known as the electoral college resulted in years of Capitol Hill warfare over alleged Russian collusion.

The second amendment, which dates from 1791, is no less destabilising. Its 27 words - “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” - have been endlessly parsed. But where the consensus was once that it guaranteed no more than a right to join the part-time reserve army known as the US National Guard, opinion has shifted since the late 1980s, when legal scholars concluded that it guaranteed an individual right to own guns as well.

This seems reasonable, given that a musket hanging over a humble fireplace was a near-universal symbol of freedom among 18th century Anglo-Americans. But if the new interpretation did not singlehandedly cause the militia movement to take flight, it was certainly part of the process. The result decades later is an Afghan-style profusion of assault weapons, costing as little as $800 each. In April, heavily-armed militia members crowded into the Michigan state capitol in Lansing carrying signs depicting nooses, Confederate flags and the slogan, “Tyrants get the rope”. As state lawmakers donned bullet-proof vests in response, Trump tweeted that “these are very good people” and that Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, should “make a deal”. On May 6, gun-toting demonstrators showed up to escort a black state legislator into the same building. Three days later, armed protestors descended on Raleigh, North Carolina, one of whom was equipped not only with a pair of pistols, but an AT4 rocket launcher too.8 After Trump tweeted on May 11 that Pennsylvanians “want their freedom now”, hundreds of protestors, many of them armed, descended on Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state capital, as well.

And so on ad infinitum. The more Americans exercise their constitutional right to arm themselves to the hilt, the more violence spreads - and the more fury and revenge spread with it. Underlying it all is a growing sense of breakdown as the election nears. While no-one knows what November will bring, predictions of chaos are growing amid fears that America’s antiquated voting system will collapse under the weight of as many as 80 million mail-in ballots. Roger Stone - the long-time Republican dirty trickster, whose 40-month sentence for witness tampering and lying to Congress was commuted by Trump in July - issued a startling call to arms on September 10. Calling on Trump to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, he urged him to arrest Bill and Hillary Clinton, former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Tim Cook of Apple and “anybody else who can be proven to be involved in illegal activity”.

“The ballots in Nevada on election night should be seized by federal marshals and taken from the state,” he said. “They are completely corrupted. No votes should be counted from the state of Nevada if that turns out to be the provable case.” He added that if the Daily Beast, the anti-Trump news site owned by Hollywood mogul Barry Diller, “is involved in provably seditious and illegal activities, their entire staff can be taken into custody and their office can be shut down. They want to play war? This is war.”

Ordinarily, someone like Stone would be dismissed as an isolated nut. But with Trump refusing to say if he will accept the election results, while simultaneously accusing Democrats of engaging in massive cheating, these are not ordinary times.

Yes, the differences with Weimar are significant, but the similarities are more and more striking, as the American crisis deepens. The US is evidence that liberal bourgeois society does not need the threat of a revolutionary working class to lapse into authoritarianism. After years of economic crisis, political polarisation and constitutional decay, it is perfectly capable of doing so on its own. If Trump makes it through November, the US may well enter a Hindenburg-Brüning stage of rule by emergency decree.

After that, no-one knows.

  1. nytimes.com/2020/09/11/us/politics/veterans-trump-protests-militias.html.↩︎

  2. youtube.com/watch?v=Re8jUhGOZu4.↩︎

  3. RJ Evans The coming of the Third Reich New York 2004, pp135-36.↩︎

  4. oregonlive.com/crime/2020/09/witness-says-officers-never-gave-commands-before-firing-at-michael-reinoehl-outside-wa-apartment.html.↩︎

  5. RJ Evans op cit p160.↩︎

  6. Ibid p82.↩︎

  7. Ibid p247.↩︎

  8. nbcnews.com/news/us-news/anti-lockdown-protesters-carry-weapons-north-carolina-sandwich-shop-n1204081.↩︎