All around the Web, in print, and on radio comes the claim that America has entered its “Weimar” phase. Economic collapse, political paralysis, rampant homosexuality, a desperate, disoriented populace open to the ravings of a demagogue – that is the portrait we get of Germany between the end of World War I in 1918 and the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. That is where America is supposedly situated in 2016.
Yes, Weimar Germany ended badly, horribly so. But the America of today bears little similarity to Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. America is a society ripped through by gaping inequalities, but it is hardly in a state of economic collapse. It still boasts the world’s largest economy and it has recovered from the Great Recession far better than many others in the Western world. America is still a powerful country internationally, one that deploys its military at will, something that Germany, suffering under the strictures of the Versailles Peace Treaty, could never attempt. Yes, there’s political paralysis in Washington, yet it barely rises to the level of Weimar Germany, where over 20 parties were represented in the Reichstag and the country was governed by a presidential dictatorship for the three years prior to the Nazi takeover.
Moreover, commentators right and left, focused only on the negatives and the disasters that ensued – the Third Reich, World War II, and the Holocaust — leave out so much about the great democratic experiment that was the Weimar Republic. Germans had greater political freedoms than ever before. A vast program of public housing moved hundreds of thousands out of dank tenements into modern, light-filled apartments. Public health clinics sprang up all around the country, and many of them offered sexual counseling to a population that physicians claimed lacked fundamental knowledge about reproduction and the pleasures of the body and lived in sexual misery. Literature, philosophy, music theater and film all flourished, much of it new, edgy and experimental. Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time – these and much more are great markers of 20th century Western culture that we still read, view and hear with pleasure and profit.
The lessons to be learned from Weimar Germany are not the ones we hear and read about today. Weimar Germany did not collapse under the weight of its various crises. It was actively destroyed by a conservative elite – noble landowners, high-level state officials, businessmen, army officers – that chose to ally with the Nazi Party. As we watch the Republican establishment’s ineffectual flailings to stop Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that Weimar Germany’s old-style conservatives never really liked Hitler and the Nazis either. To them, the Nazis were too loud, uncouth, low class. But they admired Hitler’s nationalism, his promise to revive Germany’s great power status, his opposition to democracy, and his anti-communism. And they were either indifferent to or actively supported the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. ...