Did Hyperinflation Doom the Weimar Republic?

Historians/History


Mr. Weitz is Distinguished McKnight University Professor of History at the University of Minnesota and author of Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton, 2007).

Everyone loves to throw around the Weimar metaphor.  Google some variant of "Weimar" and one quickly enters the nether-world of crazy conspiracy theorists and scary neo-Nazis.  "Weimar America" is where Jews rule the media and control everyone's thoughts.  Or it's a land that went off the gold standard (anyone remember that?) so hyperinflation and fascist police are just around the corner.  It's a place that has abandoned Christianity, or it's a country whose inept president is just marking time for the dictator in the wings.  It's the prelude to the "Neo-con Reich," the Apocalypse and Second Coming, or the Nazification of America. 

Refine the search a bit -- add, say "Condoleezza Rice" to "Weimar" and "America" -- and things get a bit saner, but not by much.  Newsweek columnist Michael Hirsch says that Iraq is "the most powerful example of democracy's drawbacks since the Weimar Republic."  Pat Buchanan thunders against an "affluent Weimar America" that celebrates sex and destroys Christian values. A Janet Jackson dance routine (no, not the wardrobe malfunction one) that evokes goose-stepping Storm Troopers becomes a metaphor for the decline of America.  And the Secretary of State conjures up Weimar not for America, but for a Russia in dangerous disarray.

Crazy or sane, left or right, these analogies all picture Weimar as nothing more than a conflict-ridden, sex-crazed epoch moving inexorably toward totalitarian dictatorship.  Somehow, in some undefined way, a quantum of crisis became a stress-load that the political system could no longer bear.  Too much sex or too much unemployment or too many Jews, and bamm! -- system collapse.

Slight problem here:  that is not how the Weimar Republic ended and the Third Reich began.  Weimar did not collapse.  It was deliberately murdered by a coalition of establishment conservatives and the extreme right.  High government officials, bankers and factory owners, pastors and priests, army officers, old-line aristocratic landowners, some well-placed intellectuals -- those were the establishment conservatives.  They were well-situated in powerful institutions like the state bureaucracy, the church hierarchies, big business, and universities, and they disposed of great resources.  Yet they whined incessantly because the democracy had limited (though certainly not destroyed) their powers in the revolution that followed World War I and established the Republic.  They were anti-democratic, anti-socialist, and anti-Semitic, if less rabidly so than Adolf Hitler and his cronies. 

The Nazis were different.  They were a hodge-podge of the disenchanted and the disaffected, who found purpose in life through the powerful, virulent rhetoric of Hitler and the promise of a grand national and racial revival.   But this movement never could have come to power under its own steam.  In the summer of 1932, the depths of the Great Depression in Germany, the Nazis won 37.4 percent of the vote -- a large chunk, to be sure, but not a majority.  After that, it was downhill for them all through the fall of 1932.  In the next election, their toll slid to 33.1 percent.  The Nazi party was in disarray and even Hitler's authority was being challenged by dissidents.  Adrift with internal bickering, the Nazis were rescued by the establishment conservatives around the inept and semi-lucid president, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, who named Hitler chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.  Amid economic depression and political paralysis in a Republic that had been, in its best days, a beacon of social reform, the establishment types fostered an authoritarian counterrevolution.  Ultimately, they got far more than they had bargained for, but for the most part, they stayed the course, all the way through war and genocide and even the utter destruction of Germany, because they, too, hated democracy, despised Weimar's creative and emancipatory spirit, and disliked Jews.

German has a good word for all this:  "Salonfähig," meaning, colloquially, making someone acceptable in polite society.  That's what the establishment conservatives did with Hitler and the Nazis.  And that is the real Weimar lesson:  when establishment conservatives play with the extreme right, draw them into the political system, make their ideas acceptable, then democracy is truly in danger.