By Robert A. Vella
After the First World War, Germany was a shaken country. The war had burdened the German people with great hardships. The defeat had triggered intense political and cultural divisions within the nation. The retributive Treaty of Versailles, and later Great Depression, caused an economic downturn rife with unemployment and impoverishment. This social instability was a breeding ground for political radicalization. Very quickly, the fascist far-right and the communist far-left rode a wave of populist discontent and battled each other for supremacy. The political center (i.e. the Weimar Republic) had come under siege from both sides.
The fascists won this bloody conflict under the banner of the Nazi Party. But, it was how they won that Americans need to be reminded of now. Although the specific circumstances which led to Germany’s social instability then are different than that of America’s today, the political radicalization and cultural polarization of the two countries are very much the same.
In Germany’s presidential election of 1932, incumbent Paul von Hindenburg (who ran as an independent) won 53% of the vote compared to 36.8% for the Nazi Adolf Hitler. This was a resounding victory by any measure, but it masks the political reality in Germany at that time. The anti-Weimar (i.e. anti-establishment) parties subsequently constituted a majority in the Reichstag (i.e. lower house of the legislature), and the Nazi Party became the largest political party. Consequently, Hindenburg was under extreme pressure to cave-in. He finally did so in January 1933 by appointing Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.
In March 1933, Hitler moved the Reichstag and Reichsrat (i.e. upper house of the legislature) to approve the Enabling Act – a constitutional amendment granting autocratic powers to the Chancellor and his Cabinet. The act was signed by Hindenburg on the same day it passed through the legislature. Germany had become a dictatorship within the span of two months.
In comparison, the centrist Democrat Hillary Clinton won 48.2% of the vote in the U.S. 2016 presidential election but lost the deciding electoral college 227-304 to the right-wing populist Republican Donald Trump who won 46.1% of the popular vote. This popular vote split is more a reflection of America’s two-party system (which marginalizes minor political parties), and the percentages would be quite different under Weimar’s party-list system (which included any party on the ballot garnering over 60,000 votes in preliminary elections). Therefore, the percentage of the German population who constituted Hitler’s base supporters then is probably equivalent to the percentage of Americans who constitute Trump’s loyal base now – approximately one-third of the populace.
What functionally enabled Hitler’s rise to power was Hindenburg’s reluctant acquiescence to the nationalist fervor of Nazism. What functionally enabled Trump’s rise to power was the GOP establishment’s reluctant acquiescence to his brand of nationalism. It can be said in both cases that each were fully aware of the potential danger, but acted as they did regardless. In essence, political pragmatism trumped ethical principles.
Weimar Germany was a constitutional republic, and so is the United States of America…