“The Weimar Years”, a year by year history of Germany from 1919 to 1933, by Frank McDonough, published last month, could not be more timely.
It describes the fall of a democracy, in one of the most sophisticated societies in the world, and its replacement by a violently authoritarian regime built around one man, Adolf Hitler.
Hitler said he intended to come to power by legal means, but he stated openly , before he came to power, that he would not shrink from the use of illegal methods to hold onto power.
“When our party emerges victorious by legal means, a new Supreme Court will replace this one, and the criminals of November 1918 will find their reward . Then heads will roll”.
This language is not dissimilar to the “retribution” being promised now by Donald Trump.
The so called “criminals of November 1918”, referred to by Hitler, were the democratically elected German politicians who signed the Treaty of Versailles, ending the state of war that had existed between Germany and the Allies.
A completely unrealistic view of the balance of power obtaining in November 1918 was lodged in German public opinion. Germany had been , comprehensively, militarily, and economically defeated by then. But the High Command, led by Field Marshalls Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, persuaded the public that it was the politicians who wanted to give up , and that the soldiers were able and willing to continue.
The second part was simply not true. German military capacity was exhausted.
It would have been better if the allies had insisted on unconditional surrender and full occupation as in 1945.
The inter war democratic politicians in Germany were talented leaders who, in other circumstances, could have been very successful. Stresemann and Erzberger stood out.
Improvements were made in unemployment insurance. But paralysis in parliament, and hate filled rhetoric, meant that the President had to pass key legislation by Presidential decree.
German inter war democracy faced major challenges over reparations to the allies. These led to paralysis, and that necessitated rule by decree , which slid into dictatorship.
It is not impossible that similar paralysis might evolve from the divisive debates that we will soon face over the related costs of ageing societies (pension inequalities, immigration, healthcare costs etc.)