Democracy once produced a monster, so what's to stop history repeating itself?

by Sir Ian Kershaw / 26 April, 2008
Painting of Adolf Hitler.

Could something like it happen again? That is invariably the first question that comes to mind when recalling that Adolf Hitler was given power in Germany.

With the world now facing such great -instability, the question seems more relevant than ever.

Hitler came to power in a democracy with a highly liberal constitution, partly by using democratic freedoms to undermine and then destroy democracy itself. That democracy, established in 1919, was a product of defeat in war and revolution and was never accepted by most of the German elites, notably the military, large landholders and big industry.

Troubled by irreconcilable political, social and cultural divisions from the beginning, the new democracy survived serious threats in the early postwar years and found a semblance of stability from 1924 to 1928, only to be submerged by the collapse of the economy after the Wall Street crash of 1929.

The Nazis' surge in popular support (2.6% of the vote in the 1928 legislative elections, 18.3% in 1930, 37.4% in July 1932) reflected the anger, frustration and resentment - but also hope - that Hitler was able to tap among millions of Germans. Democracy had failed them, they felt. Their country was divided, impoverished and humiliated. Scapegoats were needed.

Hitler at the Nuremberg Rallies. Photo/Corbis/Tranz

Hitler at the Nuremberg Rallies. Photo/Corbis/Tranz

It was easy to turn hatred towards Jews, who could be made to represent the imagined external threat from both international capitalism and Bolshevism. Internally, Jews were associated with the political left - Socialist and Communist - which Hitler and his followers blamed for Germany's plight.

Increasingly, Hitler seemed to a good third of the German electorate to represent the only hope of putting the country back on its feet, restoring pride and bringing about national salvation. By 1930, it was effectively impossible to rule Germany without Nazi backing. But while Nazi electoral gains could block democracy, they were insufficient to bring Hitler to power.

From 1930 onward, therefore, the German state was locked in stalemate. Democratic forms remained, but democracy itself was in effect dead, or at least dying. The anti-democratic elites tried to broker solutions, but failed against Hitler's intransigence.

Ultimately, because he could find no other authoritarian solution, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as head of government, or chancellor, on January 30, 1933. What followed led to disaster for Germany, for Europe and for the world.

These distant events still have echoes today. In Europe, in the wake of increased immigration, most countries have experienced some revival of neo-fascist movements. Not so long ago, Serbian nationalism, inflamed by President Slobodan Milosevic, set off war and ethnic cleansing within the Continent.

Schoolgirls greet Hitler, who was appointed coalition leader even after losing 34 seats in 1932. Photo/Corbis/Tranz

Schoolgirls greet Hitler, who was appointed coalition leader even after losing 34 seats in 1932. Photo/Corbis/Tranz

Today, too, skilful politicians have proved adept at using democratic structures to erect forms of authoritarian rule. In Russia - increasingly flexing its muscles internationally again - President Vladimir Putin has gradually moved the country in that direction. Venezuela, under President Hugo Chávez, has also showed distinct authoritarian tendencies, although these have been at least partly blocked through his defeat in the December referendum to change its constitution.

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has turned democracy into personal rule, ruining his country in the process. In Pakistan, democracy largely provides a facade for military rule, even if President Pervez Musharraf has now put aside his uniform. Most worryingly, perhaps, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has used populist support in a pluralist system to push Iran into a hazardous foreign policy, although he does remain formally sub-ordinate to the "supreme leader," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. None of these examples, however, poses a close parallel to what happened in Germany in 1933.

Neo-fascist movements in Europe can certainly terrorise minorities. And they have had success in stirring such resentment about immigrants that mainstream political parties have taken account of the swell of feeling. However, short of some unforeseeable eventualities - like major war or, perhaps less unlikely, another meltdown of the economic system - neo-fascist movements will remain on the fringes of politics. And none of these parties can today conceive of preparing for a war of conquest.

A Czech, unable to restrain her misery, salutes Hitler. Photo/Corbis/Tranz

Elsewhere, there are nasty forms of authoritarianism - and there always will be. But neither in their acquisition of power nor in their use of it do modern authoritarian rulers much resemble Hitler. International organisations and institutions that did not exist in interwar Europe - the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund - also provide barriers to the sort of calamity that engulfed Germany.

Moreover, democracies under pressure can still pose obstacles to creeping authoritarianism. Putin will leave office as president next month, thus avoiding breaching the constitution (although as prime minister and now party chairman of the dominant political party, United Russia, he will probably effectively retain power), while Chávez has been forced (maybe temporarily) to give up his ambitions of becoming a president for life.

Mercifully, what happened in Germany in 1933, and its aftermath, will remain a uniquely terrible episode in history. What took place then reminds us even so of the illusory assumption that democracy will always be a favoured choice of a population torn apart by war, facing enormous privations and burning with resentment at national humiliation through perceived foreign interference. It also reminds us of the need for international co-operation to restrain potential "mad dogs" in world politics before they are dangerous enough to bite.

Sir Ian Kershaw, a professor of modern history at Sheffield University, is the author of Hitler, the Germans and the Final Solution.

This article was first published in the April 26, 2008 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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