Can We Learn from Previous Collapses of Democracy?Roundup
tags: democracy, fascism
Katja Hoyer, an Anglo-German historian and journalist, is the author of Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.
How stable is democracy? This became a key question in U.S. politics in the aftermath of the events of Jan. 6. The voluntary abdication of people power in favor of strongmen in countries such as Turkey, Hungary and Russia has prompted similar questions.
By contrast, postwar German democracy appears rock solid. As we watch Angela Merkel’s long reign of 16 years come to an end following the elections in September, we marvel at the calm, even boring, nature of the transition of power in Germany. Yet, this picture is incomplete. By taking a longer view of German history, we see a rockier picture of democracy — one that may help us better understand its fragility in our time.
Before 1871, there was no Germany. The German “nation” — the idea that people across multiple states constituted one collective entity — only existed in the minds of intellectuals and the rising middle classes. Each of the 39 distinct German states in central Europe had its own ruler, all of whom were unwilling to compromise power and position for the abstract concept of national unity.
But when the fiercely conservative aristocrat Otto von Bismarck became prime minister of the largest German state, Prussia, September 1862, his kingdom was in turmoil. Popular nationalism mixed with rising liberal notions of democracy into a heady cocktail of ideas. The cry for monarchs to be yoked by an all-German constitution and, by extension, the will of the people eventually became too loud to ignore.
Democrats and liberals had long pushed for reforms and modernization, while the old elites clung to power. Bismarck, a known hard-liner and ruthless problem solver, was summoned to Berlin, Prussia’s capital, to help his king win the battle against the increasingly vociferous progressives.
Instead of resorting to bloodshed, however, Bismarck recognized that democracy could be harnessed to preserve the old regime within the construct of a new nation-state. A wave of revolutions had swept through Europe in 1848 and very nearly succeeded in toppling existing monarchical structures. Bismarck used the existential fear this caused among the nobility to push the notion of national unity. A series of Prussian war victories against Denmark, Austria and France made it clear who would lead any future German union.
And so, on Jan. 18, 1871, a troublesome child was born into the family of nation-states, a new German Empire made up of the 39 states, sitting uneasily in the center of Europe amid fragile alliances.
The German Empire of 1871-1918 was led by a kaiser, but he could not pass any legislation without the consent of a parliament elected through universal male suffrage. There were no barriers of social class, wealth, religion or ethnicity; all male citizens above age 25 were eligible to vote, making the first German parliament one of the most democratic of its age.
The country also had a fairly free press, which frequently aimed biting and witty criticism at the government. When cartoons in the satirical magazine Simplicissimus mocked Kaiser Wilhelm II to the point that he tried to have the editors arrested, it only served to increase the circulation of the publication. Even the monarch, whose position of power was affirmed in the new constitution, was helplessly exposed to public opinion.
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