History rhymes

Populism, migration and echoes of the Weimar era

Ebert parade 1800 x 1103px
Election of Germany’s first Weimar-era president, Friedrich Ebert, in 1919. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When the AfD entered the Bundestag, people’s doubts resurfaced about the stability of German democracy. The history of the Weimar Republic, with its shameful end to the country’s first republican democracy in 1933, scarred the collective conscious. We are economically robust, environmentally aware, pro-European peaceniks with a generous welfare system. But there’s still a question mark hanging over our democratic credentials.

Typically, new political parties emerge from social change and the problems it brings. Are populist movements then rooted in the politics of democratic parties? Let’s take a look at the Weimar Republic, named for the Thuringian city where the first constitutional assembly was held in 1919. Despite losing World War I, the stress of regime change (the abdication of the Hohenzollern imperial dynasty), and the humiliating peace treaty of Versailles, Germany’s fledgling republic scraped through major crises such as hyperinflation in 1922-23 and France’s occupation of the industrial Rhineland.

The first and most important lesson we can take from the Weimar government’s collapse is to keep the economy and labor markets stable, even under difficult international conditions. Often, the financial dangers — from the Wall Street crash of 1929, to the global financial crisis that followed Lehman Brothers’ meltdown nearly 80 years later — originate in the United States. But these global issues aren’t what’s driving the German political debate, but a symbolic sideshow issue that’s a particular concern in Bavaria: immigration. Don’t some parties learn anything, especially from their own history?

Cumbersome democracy

Some countries have been more successful than Germany in surviving big economic shocks. One reason may be that here, the crisis after 1918 hit a middle class already ravaged by war. Then, within a few years, the working classes, small business people and pensioners lost their jobs, savings and assets. The country was practically in a state of civil war.

And, of course, the national shame caused by the harsh Treaty of Versailles was never forgotten. But it was the cumbersome structures of democracy, with their time-consuming consultations and difficult compromises, that led citizens to demand strong leadership. Comparatively, in the US, President Roosevelt, who under the American constitution had almost monarchical powers, was in a better position to deliver this.

Leadership, even in a parliamentary democracy, presupposes that constitutional structures and regulatory systems allow leadership. But the Weimar era made this almost impossible. As many as 17 parties were involved in decision-making. Chancellors who didn’t have a majority had to resign. This lead to a succession of 20 different governments over a period of 14 years.

Under today’s regulations, with the 5-percent hurdle for German parties to enter the Bundestag, and a no-confidence vote rule that allows the chancellor to stay in office until another is elected, Adolf Hitler probably would have never risen to power. Weimar politicians had discussed such precautions, but could not implement them. Fear of enabling too much power at the top kept Weimar governments weak.

Leave it to the majority

But nowadays, we see some echoes of the Weimar era in the political landscape. It took Germany nearly six months to form a government; the last Bundestag was unable to reform the electoral law despite a two-thirds majority. And lawmakers ignored Bundestag President Norbert Lammert’s warning to avoid a bloated lower house. So after the last election, the number of Bundestag seats ballooned to 709, an all-time high. And shockingly, the upper house, the Bundesrat, rejected the federal government’s efforts to make it more functional by introducing simple majority voting.

Yet democracies with majority voting rights have better chances of surviving, unlike under the Weimar government. Majority voting make election results clearer and the formation of governments easier — but in 1968 the SPD-led government refused to introduce the system for tactical, short-term reasons.

We live in a time of profound upheaval. And it would be wrong to hold democratic politicians solely responsible for the consequences of this change, as the populist AfD does. But as society and politics become increasingly polarized, even more trouble may lie ahead. We should do much more to create the political stability this country needs.

Berlin is not Weimar, to quote an old book title. But as Mark Twain worryingly said: History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

To reach the author: columnist@handelsblatt.com.

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