Lessons from Hitler’s rise to power

Benjamin Carter Hett’s THE DEATH OF DEMOCRACY: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic is a month-by-month account of the politics of the years leading up to the Nazi conquest of power in Germany.

Hett described how Hitler went from 2.8 percent of the popular vote in the 1928 elections to 37.6 percent in 1932,  how he leveraged Nazi voting strength to make himself chancellor by legal means in 1933 and how all pretense of legality ended in the “night of the long knives” in 1934.

That was when Hitler destroyed all remnants of legality by simply ordering the execution-style murder of his opponents, including dissidents in the Nazi party.

Adolph Reed Jr. said in an Interview that Hett’s book is not only good in itself, but it throws light on contemporary U.S. politics.  In fact it does have lessons for the present-day United States, although not in a straightforward or obvious way.

A number of European countries, following defeat in World War One and with middle classes threatened by powerful Communist movements, became right-wing dictatorships.  Fascist Italy led the way.

Germany followed a different path.  A Communist revolution was crushed by a government supported by Social Democrats.   Socialists then joined forces with the Catholic Center Party and moderate conservative parties to form a democratic government.

The democratic coalition worked for a number of years.  The economy recovered.  Inflation was curbed.

Germany became a model for democratic socialism.  Labor unions were powerful.  The government provided compulsory wage arbitration and a strong social safety net.  Homosexuality and abortion were legal.

But, like today’s USA, Weimar Germany struggled with the issue of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

One big issue Weimar Germany had in common with the present-day USA was the question of globalization vs. economic nationalism.

The governing coalition accepted the need to pay reparations for Germany’s supposed guilt for starting World War One and to back their currency with gold.  Both were seen as the price of participating in the world economy.

The right-wing nationalists, including the Nazis, objected to these policies because they denied Germany the means to pay for rearmament and a large army.  They also objected to globalization on principle.  The Nazis wanted to end reparations, abrogate international trade treaties, limit foreign trade and make Germany as self-sufficient as possible.

The refugee crisis was another big issue.  An estimated 1.5 million refugees entered Germany between 1918 and 1922.  Most of them were Germans from former German territory in France and Poland, and many were refugees from Bolshevik Russia, but a lot of them were Jews.

Many Germans worried about their country’s inability to secure its borders. The Nazi position was to expel all refugees and also all Jews, refugees or not.

Weimar Germany had its own version of identity politics, which however was based on social class and religion rather than race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.  By identity politics, I mean politics based on an affirmation that your own group is good and other groups are bad, rather than politics based on getting what you and your group want.

The identity group to which the Nazis and other right-wing nationalists appealed were the rural and middle-class German Protestants.  The American and British image of Weimar Germany is based on Berlin, but more than a third of Germans lived in villages of fewer than 2,000 people.  Rural Protestants tended to be highly religious, respectful of authority and nostalgic for the Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm.

The typical rural Protestant German thought the new Germany was dominated by Catholics, Jews, Marxists and moral degenerates.  As a bulwark against this wickedness, they eventually turned to Adolph Hitler, in spite of the fact that he was an urban foreign-born radical who was nominally Catholic.

There also was a conflict of interest between urban and rural, as in most countries.  The urban workers wanted low food prices;  the farmers wanted high crop prices.  But this might have been worked out if not for their mutual hatred and contempt.

One feature of German politics with no U.S. parallel was that the principal political parties all had paramilitary auxiliaries that engaged in street fighting.  They included the Communist Red Front Fighters League, the Social Democrats’ Iron Front and the right-wing German Nationals’ Steel Helmet, among others.

Benjamin Carter Hett

The Nazi Storm Troopers (aka the SA or brownshirts) were the most ferocious.  They moved into Communist neighborhoods in Berlin and through raw force gained control of the streets.  Violent clashes between Nazis and Communists dominated the headlines and crowded out discussion of deeper issues.

The Nazis claimed that their willingness to kill and be killed for political objectives entitled them to respect that law-abiding politicians did not deserve.

The world financial crisis, which began in Germany in 1928, broke apart the democratic coalition.  Rather than borrow to maintain a social safety net, Center Party Chancellor Heinrich Bruning cut social services.  He encouraged wage reductions to keep German industry competitive.  He believed that the economy would recover on its own, but this didn’t happen.

The Social Democrats remained in the governing coalition because of their commitment to democracy, but as a result they lost support.

Eventually the more conservative members of the governing coalition listened to the industrialists and militarists, and tried to form a government without the Social Democrats.  This meant that they had to bring the extreme right-wing nationalists into the government in order to form a majority.

The Nazis meanwhile became the principal right-wing nationalist party.  The establishment parties distrusted Hitler and the Nazis, but bringing them into the ruling coalition was the only way to keep the Social Democrats out.

What few people understood before the Nazis came to power was how different they were from other parties, including other anti-semitic anti-democratic nationalist parties inside and outside Germany.

Many politicians lie.  But the Nazis appeared to have no concept of the difference between truth and falsehood, which is something else.  For them, truth was whatever they willed it to be.

Hett quoted one Nazi speaker as saying he didn’t want higher bread prices, he didn’t want lower bread prices and he didn’t want unchanging bread prices.  What the Nazi wanted was “National Socialist bread prices”—whatever that might be.

The other thing about the Nazis was that they rejected any limitation by laws or rules, including laws they made themselves.

There’s a school of thought called “critical legal studies” which, as I understand it, contends that all structures of law are also structures of power, operating to benefit certain people and oppress others.  But there’s something worse than unjust laws, and that is raw power exercised outside any law.

I put down the book with a feeling of great respect for the Social Democrats and others who stood up against Hitler even after his victory appeared inevitable, knowing that the likely consequences were death, torture or the concentration camp.

Benjamin Carter Hett ended the book with the remark that few Germans in 1933 could have foreseen what came next.  “We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”


The Sudden Death of a Democracy: Historian Benjamin Carter Hett on the Fall of the Weimar Republic, an interview for the History News Network.

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9 Responses to “Lessons from Hitler’s rise to power”

  1. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    Good piece! It sounds like a book worth reading. It does make one wonder about our own country. But much has changed in the world since then. It’s hard to know how it could play out now.

    The kind of society that made possible Nazi corporatism, as with New Deal corporatism, no longer exists. It was a world in which there were many organizations in society that were quite powerful, a time when there were numerous local third parties and political groups (KKK, German Bund, farmers’ cooperatives, fraternal orders, volunteer firemen associations, populist organizations, etc). Third parties, for example, regularly won local elections and even won national elections.

    The idea of corporatism was to get all of these diverse and competing organizations under the control of one authority. Americans today are much more isolated. We no longer live in a society of those old school organizations that were immensely influential. Even the violence we see today tends to be by loners, certainly not militant arms of parties. The old school corporatism is no longer necessary. Authoritarianism is threatening again, but it will almost certainly take new form. Reactionaries, in particular, are adaptable to changing times.

    Another difference is demographics. There isn’t much of a rural population left in the US. Most of Trump’s support came from the urban middle class, not the rural working poor. The average Trump supporter is only lower middle class, but still they are wealthier than the average American. It seems their motivation for supporting Trump is not that they are in a lower position in society but that they fear they might fall into the lower class, if the economic situation gets worse.

    I’m not sure what that demographic difference might mean going into the future. It potentially creates another kind of sociopolitical dynamic. That is maybe seen by Trump himself, a unique variety of media star turned dictator wannabe… actually, I’m not even sure he wants to be dictator, as any kind of attention to him is good attention.

    Germans turned to Hitler because he offered a vision and a solution. And for what it’s worth, Hitler did reform the economy and did rebuild the infrastructure, genuinely made Germany great again for a time. Trump hasn’t really done anything and, according to polls, most of his supporters never expected him to do anything he promised. I’ve speculated that electing Trump president was the equivalent of throwing a hand grenade into a bunker, a very different kind of motivation.

    It’s good to study history, in order to not repeat it. But it’s tricky. It never repeats quite the same each time. It will require immense insight to see how history applies to the present. I sense much is different, even as much is the same. Not that I know what to do about it. Simply being informed of history, though, is a good start. Most Americans aren’t even basically informed. Even the living memory from firsthand accounts of Americans having fought the Nazis is quickly dying away. I get the sense that such past events are no longer real to many Americans.


    • philebersole Says:

      I appreciate your thoughtful comment. Just one quibble about your remark about third parties.

      Although third parties dominated state politics in Wisconsin and Minnesota during the 1930s, nobody but a Republican or a Democrat has been elected President of the U.S. in the past 150 years, because our electoral system is designed

      Germany under the Weimar Republic had proportional representation, a reform that is often urged for the United States, because it ensures representation to all parties above a certain modest threshold of votes.

      Would the Nazis have won under the winner-take-all system that we have in the USA? Very likely, but maybe not.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Benjamin David Steele Says:

        What do you think about the fracturing of society? And what kind of authoritarianism do you think might come out of it?

        Authoritarian leaders of the past such as Hitler were grand visionaries and builders of social orders. But narcissists like Trump are more like wrecking balls.

        Why that difference in who gained power then and now? We know what Hitler led to. But what will Trump lead to?


      • philebersole Says:

        You ask a deep question whose answer would require a complete blog post or maybe a book.

        Benjamin Carter Hett wrote that European countries were vulnerable to fascism as a result of military defeat and a rising Communist movement, and that Germany was pushed over the edge by a financial crisis that began in 1928.

        I think those conditions are likely to appear in the USA when the dollar collapses. The fact that the dollar is the medium of world trade helps to prop up the U.S. financial markets and also enables the government to finance the world’s most expensive military establishment.

        Those conditions will vanish when the world turns away from the dollar, which I expect to happen all at once rather than gradually. The USA would suffer a military collapse and a financial collapse. The door is open for a “stab in the back” meme such as existed in Germany as the U.S. is suddenly at the mercy of more powerful and solvent nations.

        But such things are not necessary for authoritarian right-wing government in the USA. All that is necessary is for things to continue in the same direction they’ve been going for the past 20 or 30 years.

        I can remember when conservatives worried about “creeping socialism”—a gradually increasing dependence on government. I worry about “creeping fascism”—the growing acceptance of undeclared war, preventive detention, warrantless surveillance, torture, arbitrary power of all kinds.

        All a dictator would need to do is to ratchet things up a little.


  2. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    Here was my basic thought. The world seems so much more fractured now. The levels of anxiety and desperation are much higher. This is exacerbated by society becoming more globalized, at the very moment climate catastrophe looms.

    My sense is a lot of people feel more powerless than ever before. More hopeless and cynical. It’s a potent brew. The kind of authoritarianism that will form out of this might be unlike anything we’ve seen before. Read about the Nazis and then imagine something far far worse.


  3. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    By the way, I hope you don’t think I’m disagreeing with you. Not at all. I realize there has been miscommunication between us in the past. And it occurred to me that my comment here might once again come across as critical or something, even though not intended. I merely was throwing out some tangential thoughts inspired by your piece. I hope you’ll accept them in that spirit. My mind tends to go in tangents. I’m sorry about that.


    • philebersole Says:

      No need for you to feel regrets on my account. I feel sorry for misinterpreting your earlier comments and making you feel your comments were unwelcome.

      It would be very foolish of me to have a web log with a comments section, and then be upset by somebody writing a critical comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Benjamin David Steele Says:

        I’m very aware that my way of communicating, at least online, rubs some people the wrong way. One time, I tried to reach out to a regular commenter on my blog with some self-deprecating humor. He thought I was ridiculing or mocking him and got angry. He never spoke to me again.

        I find miscommunications online are so common as to be humorous at times. And I realize that I’m maybe more prone to miscommunication than some others. Decades of chronic depression has put an edge to my way of interacting that can come off negatively.

        As with most people, I communicate better in person. My dry, dark, and strange sense of humor, along with wandering tangential thoughts, also are more grounded in face-to-face conversations.


      • philebersole Says:

        Yes, I learned through 40 years of working on newspapers that many, and maybe most, readers are unable to understand irony, satire or parody.


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