Eric Weitz: Historian Says Weimar Republic Holds Potent Lessons for Today

Historians in the News

Seventy-five years ago, Hitler came to power, ending the Weimar Republic. Did Germany's experiment with democracy between 1919 and 1933 ever stand a real chance? Eric Weitz, a US historian and author, has the answers.
On Jan. 30, 1933, Hitler was named German chancellor, spelling the end to the Weimar Republic -- Germany's convulsive experiment with democracy between 1919 and 1933. The period was dubbed the "Weimar Republic" by historians in honor of the city of Weimar, where a national assembly convened to write and adopt a new constitution for the German Reich following the nation's defeat in World War I. The Weimar Republic was marked on the one hand by hyperinflation, mass unemployment and political instability; on the other, by dazzling creativity in the arts and sciences and a legendary nightlife in Berlin.

Eric Weitz, chairman of the history department at the University of Minnesota in the United States, last year published an acclaimed book on the period: "Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy." DW-WORLD.DE spoke with him about the spirit of the time, the factors leading to the Nazi seizure of power and the lessons to be drawn from the Weimar Republic.

DW-WORLD.DE: One of the premises of your book is that the Weimar Republic should not be seen simply as a prelude to Nazi dictatorship but as an era in its own right.

Eric Weitz: It certainly should be seen as an era in its own right. The Weimar Republic was a wonderfully creative period. We should not constantly look back from the 12 years of the Third Reich to the 14 years of the Weimar Republic because the republic was a period of very important political, cultural and social innovation. We need to remember and value it in its own right. Every issue about the Weimar Republic, about life in Germany in the 1920s was intensely debated -- both at the high intellectual and artistic level as well at the level of politics and society....

What lessons can be drawn from the Weimar Republic? Implied throughout your book is the question of whether it is possible for contemporary democracies to succumb to neo-fascist forces in the same way that the Weimar Republic fell to the Nazis.

Present day Germany is a well-established democratic system. It gives me no worries whatsoever. To be sure there are some extreme right-wing groups that can be dangerous and the reaction against them is still a little slow sometimes. But these groups are marginal and Berlin is not Weimar.

My worries are more about my own country, the US, in the sense that the threats to democracy don't always come from abroad. The most dangerous threat may come from within. That was certainly the case in Weimar, especially in its last years. What worries me is when certain people or institutions mouth talk of democracy but in reality undermine the very practices of democracy. Of course the Nazis were never committed to democracy but they used the populist rhetoric that resonated with people. When that kind of populist rhetoric masks undemocratic practices, that's where I think we truly need to be concerned.

The analogy that does worry me greatly is when establishment conservatives make radical conservatives salonfähig or in colloquial English "acceptable in polite society." I think to a certain extent that indeed has occurred in the United States. When establishment conservatives go beyond the bounds of legitimate democratic discourse and constitutional provisions and make the program, the individuals and ideas of radical conservatives acceptable -- that's when we're in trouble.

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