Ten lessons from Weimar Silent Hyperinflation, Mistrust in the Government, Elections, and Rise of Radicalism

Since the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, Germans have been suspicious of the events of the early 1930s – the breakdown of the Weimar Republic and the emergence of Nazism.

Everyone should learn from that period now, when democratic countries around the world are facing major challenges and authoritarianism is on the rise.

The very First lesson
To begin, economic shocks (such as spiral inflation, depression, banking crisis, and, more recently, wars) are a source of concern for any government, at any time and in any location.

Because of economic insecurity and misery, people believe that any other government would be better than the current one.

The following is the Second lesson
In difficult economic times, the proportional representation system may exacerbate the problem.

If the country’s political situation is fractious, the proportional representation system will almost certainly result in the emergence of a shaky electoral majority, usually comprised of parties from the extreme wings, left or right, who want to destroy the “system,” but it is the only thing that unites them.

The general consensus on the Weimar experience boils down to the first two lessons.

And, far too often, each of these lessons is viewed in isolation, which can lead to dangerous complacency.

The first argument reassures people, leading them to believe that only a severe economic disaster can bring the political system to its knees.

The second, incorrect, reason convinces them that a democratic system without proportional representation is fundamentally more stable.

The lessons of the Weimar Republic will help us break out of our trance.

The Third lesson
Referendums are dangerous, especially when they are held infrequently and people are unfamiliar with them.

The National Socialists had all but vanished from the Weimar Republic by 1929.

However, thanks to a successful campaign during the difficult post-World War I reparations referendum, the party was resurrected that year.

The Fourth lesson
To put it another way, premature dissolution of parliament in cases where it is not required by law is a risky decision.

Even voting, which provides justification for more elections, could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of democracy’s demise.

In July 1932, the Nazis won the majority of votes (37%) in free elections, the conduct of which did not meet legal requirements: the previous election had taken place less than two years before, and the next one was scheduled for 1934.

The Fifth lesson
Constitutions are not always successful in protecting the system.

The Weimar Constitution was nearly flawless, written by the most lucid and moral experts (including Max Weber).

However, if unexpected occurrences (such as international political dramas or internal problems) are regarded as extraordinary circumstances necessitating mechanisms not contemplated by law, constitutional protection may soon be lost.

Such disasters can be manufactured artificially by democracy’s adversaries.

The Sixth lesson
Business lobbyists can play a shadowy, behind-the-scenes role in destabilising parliamentary arrangements.

And we all know that lobbyists are important today.

The Seventh lesson
When leaders disparage their opponents, democracies suffer.

Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau was assassinated in 1922, after being the target of a vicious, often anti-Semitic campaign by right-wing nationalists.

The Eighth lesson
The president’s family has the potential to be harmful.

Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was elected president of the Weimar Republic in 1925 and re-elected in 1932, despite his advanced age.

In the early 1930s, he developed dementia after a series of heart attacks, and access to him Oskar was limited to his frail, elderly son, Oskar.

Finally, the president stated that he was willing to sign any agreement presented to him.

The Ninth lesson
An insurgent faction does not need an absolute majority to control politics, even in a proportional representation system.

In July 1932, the Nazis received the highest percentage of votes ever (37%).

In the following elections, held in November of the same year, their popularity plummeted to 33%.

Unfortunately, the Nazis’ demise caused other parties to underestimate them and view them as potential coalition partners.

The Tenth lesson
Incumbent leaders can maintain power by bribing disgruntled masses, but this formula does not last.

The German state generously distributed community housing, provided communal services, agricultural and production subsidies, and maintained a large number of civil personnel during the Weimar period; however, all of these expenses were financed on credit.

Yes, the Weimar Republic initially appeared to be an economic miracle.

However, as the administration began to seek external assistance, Germany’s political situation deteriorated.

Other countries found it difficult to believe the German government’s warnings that if emergency aid was not provided, a political disaster would occur.

Even more difficult was convincing his supporters of the importance of defending Germany.

Countries that use a majority electoral system, such as the United States or Great Britain, are thought to be more stable than those that use a proportional system.

Democracy has been practised for longer in the United States and the United Kingdom, and there is a deeply ingrained culture of political correctness.

The lessons of the Weimar Republic will help us break out of our trance.

This post was written by Mario Bekes