Embracing Democracy: The Storming of the US Capitol and the Positive Lessons of Weimar GermanyRoundup
tags: Nazism, Weimar Republic, German history, Capitol Riot
Andrew I. Port teaches history at Wayne State University and is the former editor of the journal Central European History. He is the author of Conflict and Stability in the German Democratic Republic, and is currently finishing a book on German reactions to post-Holocaust genocide.
For the past four years, many have wondered when Donald Trump would finally have his “Have-you-no-sense-of-decency?” moment. That was, of course, the memorable rebuke uttered by attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, just after Joseph McCarthy’s insinuation that one of Welch’s colleagues had ties to a Communist organization. The tense exchange took place during the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings and resulted, almost overnight, in the Wisconsin senator’s abrupt fall from grace.
Trump’s behavior as candidate and later as president might have prompted, on any number of instances, a similar rebuke from his supporters—from his cruel mocking of a disabled reporter to his recent onslaught against the integrity of the last election. It is true that many fellow party members and conservatives castigated candidate Trump for behavior they found offensive and outrageous. A large number of them nevertheless became his most ardent supporters after his electoral victory in 2016. Critics roundly accused these men and women of making a deal with the devil, and they waited in vain for some transgression on Trump’s part that would finally serve as a deal-breaker. But none came—until January 6, 2021, when irate protestors, incited by the president, stormed the United States Capitol, hoping to use force and intimidation to disrupt the certification of Joe Biden as president-elect. Since then, many of Trump’s closest political allies have started to jump his sinking ship. Even Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell indicated in the aftermath of January 6 that he was open to impeachment.
Pundits and historians have predictably sought historical parallels for the events of January 6. The usual suspects come from the pantheon of infamous dates associated with the Third Reich, no surprise given the popularity of pointed comparisons between Trump and Hitler and dire warnings about impending fascism. November 9, 1923, for instance: the day of the failed Beer Hall putsch, Hitler’s inauspicious debut on Germany’s national political stage. Or February 27, 1933, the day the German parliament went up in flames—and with it, German civil liberties and the rule of law.
But there is an earlier date in modern German history that may provide a more appropriate analogy, as well as a guide to future developments here in the US: June 24, 1922, the day that Walther Rathenau, the foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, was assassinated in a posh section of the German capital.
That Saturday morning, a group of assassins gunned down the prominent German politician and industrialist, who had just left home on the way to the office. Though Rathenau died almost immediately, his brutal death resulted in an unexpected twist: a second chance for the Weimar Republic itself. The assassination was one of several hundred carried out by the extreme right over the preceding year, beginning with the murder of Matthias Erzberger, a prominent Catholic politician who had signed the armistice ending World War I. The wrath of the extremists focused primarily on Jews and other “November Criminals” like Erzberger, whom they wrongly blamed for the country’s recent defeat. The country’s wartime military leaders, who had a fast and loose relationship with the truth, encouraged such misconceptions in order to deflect attention from their own grave failings.
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