Superficially, one might see the resemblances between Weimar and the US:
- the concern, even hysteria, over supposedly inhuman enemies
- polarization in society
- economic insecurity
- sense of wounded nationalism
- dizzying movements within the culture
- distrust of government
But even more apparent is the crucial difference between the two:
- the acceptance of Constitution itself
This is crucial because, in Weimar, large portions of the polity never accepted the constitution, never accepted the republic.
Part of this was due to, as I mentioned, the post-abdication government’s acceptance of the Armistice, and of the signing of the hated Treaty of Versailles: the German public couldn’t believe it had lost, and considered the harsh terms of the Treaty unjust. That the loss of territory, control over industrial regions, and, of course, reparations, made economic recovery difficult only heightened the skepticism toward a government which had apparently allowed all of this to happen.
Not everyone felt this way, of course. While liberal parties never managed to hold a majority in the Reichstag after 1920, the Social Democrats, the German Democratic Party, and the Catholic Center Party did hold significant chunks of parliament throughout this period, with various liberals holding the chancellorship as well.
But even had the Constitution been configured differently—the chancellor was appointed by an elected president, he was not simply the leader of the majority party or majority coalition in the Reichstag—it’s difficult to see how the republic could have overcome the irreconcilable differences in the polity itself.
Germany was divided between the reactionaries (those who wanted to restore the monarchy), the conservatives (ranging from nationalist-bourgeoisie to militarists), and liberals (social democrats, liberal-bourgeoisie); tucked in amongst these were Catholic interests, which tended toward conservatism (fear and loathing of the left) but which also appreciated the chance to participate in governance; the Communists, which by the 1920s subordinated themselves to Moscow; and various fascist groups, which had almost no role in government but which fought and killed in the streets throughout the decade.
Finally, after 1925 and with the election of Hindenburg, the republic’s president was a man who loathed the republic.
But it wasn’t just the politicians and the parties (many of which had paramilitary arms which regularly engaged in violence), but the institutions of the state itself were cool to the republic. The civil service was thoroughly conservative, as was the judiciary as well as the army. Bureaucrats, judges, and military officials rarely attacked the republic directly, but they never accepted it as legitimate; in the case of the judiciary, they would often sympathize with rightists who were brought before the bench, and raising a “patriotic” defense was often the ticket to either acquittal or a lenient sentence.
So, for example, none of the surviving conspirators in the assassination of Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau served more than five years, and only one of the conspirators involved in the Kapp putsch served any time at all.
And, most famously, the man at the head of the beer-hall putsch in Munich, one Austrian corporal named Adolph Hitler (he didn’t become a German citizen until 1932), not only wasn’t deported, he was given free rein to speechify in court, and given only a five-year sentence in ‘fortress incarceration’—of which he served only a year.
The US polity is at least somewhat polarized (there is some controversy as to how much), but one touchstone for pretty much everyone is the Constitution: everybody who is anybody says they love it.
We don’t all love it the same way, of course, but does anyone think that the assassination of the Secretary State would lead to a sentence of less than 10 years? That the attempted armed overthrow of a state government (with the announced intention to overthrow the federal government) by a non-citizen would lead to prison term of merely 5 years? and that he’d be out after a year? and not deported?
In fact, for as violent a society as the US is, our violence is, largely, non-political. This hardly makes it benign (especially when perpetrated by officials of the state, i.e., the police), but neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have paramilitary wings and their members tend not to participate in assassination attempts of political figures.
Furthermore, when someone is killed for political reasons—say, a doctor who performs abortions—most political leaders will distance themselves from the act itself (even if they do express sympathy for the motive). Just as if not more importantly, prosecutors, juries, and judges tend not to wave away such murders.
In other words, whatever the problems with our republic, most citizens, most elected officials, and most of the members filling the institutions of government, nonetheless accept the structure of the government.
I am very critical of elected officials (say, some Republicans) who suggest that other elected officials (say, some Democrats) are illegitimate, in no small part because attacks on the existence of the opposition in government is an attack on the legitimacy of the government itself—a dangerous proposition for any member of government to take. But even with Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” and the birther conspiracies and Mike Huckabee’s intimations that the president is some kind of traitor (Jesus FUCK, Huckabee!), I have no doubt that any attempt on the life of the president, members of his Cabinet, or of anyone running for president would be met by near-universal condemnation.
(Yeah, near-universal: there will always be those who celebrate assassination, and some of the public condemners might be private celebrators, but it would be understood by all that public glee at the murder of a public official punches one’s ticket to the fringe.)
Which is to say, as much as folks may dislike the government, it’s probably not going too far to say they’d dislike the violent overthrow of that government even more.
To be continued.