Time Frame: 1933
Primary Causes: Economic decay, ineffective political system, failed war,ideological extremism
Outcome: Establishment of one-party dictatorship, mass killings of political opponents and targeted minorities; war; defeat; occupation and separation of country
While the destruction of the Weimar Republic did not immediately result in state collapse, it did represent the overthrow of a constitutional order, and furthermore, it ultimately set the stage for wars that led to Germany’s defeat, occupation, and bifurcation. The establishment of the Third Reich is therefore a useful case study for the collapse of a modern nation-state. Unfortunately, there are significant parallels between the contemporary United States and circa-1920s Germany, and these parallels are likely to grow more pronounced throughout the coming years.
Over a decade of hardship and chaos preceded Adolf Hitler’s assumption of ultimate power in Germany. The loss of territory and harsh financial reparations imposed on Germany following the First World War set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power. Tens of millions of Germans (somewhat understandably) felt that they were unfairly punished by the war’s victors, not for any specific aggression outside the norm of the other combatant states, but rather because they were on the losing side. Hitler scapegoated these disasters experienced by the German people on “subversive” internal elements, primarily German Jews and Communists.
Post-war hyperinflation was the main factor that caused Germans to lose faith in the Weimar Republic, creating the conditions that allowed growing support for ideological extremism and the fall of the regime. Burdensome war reparations, high government debt, and an official desire to boost exports and prevent mass unemployment contributed to the rapid deterioration in the German Papiermark’s value. During the worst periods of inflation prices of essential goods increased over one billion-fold. Pensioners and government workers were left utterly destitute. Numerous formerly well-to-do women resorted to prostitution to survive. Many foreigners – including those from Germany’s war-time foes – flocked to Berlin to take advantage of the rock-bottom exchange rates. A strong sense of panic and humiliation pervaded German society. The process of instituting a new national currency and stabilizing the prices from 1923-24 was also extremely painful, as it was accompanied by a sudden rise in unemployment.
The Nazis and other extreme nationalists were not the only radical opposition to the Weimar order. Socialists and Communists, inspired by the Bolsheviks in Russia, launched an uprising in Berlin in early 1919 mere months after the establishment of the post-war Weimar Republic. Nationalist, right-wing, and more mainstream elements cooperated to crush the revolution in its infancy. Later on in the Weimar years, the Communist Party of Germany ran candidates for elections while also maintaining a paramilitary organization that sometimes clashed with police and various fascist groups. The dual political and armed struggle by the German communists mirrored the efforts of the Nazis and their extreme nationalist predecessors during the Weimar years.
Indeed, it is notable that Hitler used the pretext of Communist radicalism to ultimately seize power. While historians debate if Communist agents really set fire to the German parliament in early 1933, or whether the entire incident was a false-flag attack, the Nazis quickly used the incident to launch mass arrests of Communists (and additional opponents labeled as Communists) and otherwise expand their power. Hitler and his followers were successful in this gambit largely because of the very real fear of Communist revolution among many rich and powerful Germans, along with large segments of the middle class who would otherwise not support Nazism. Millions of Germans looked at the actions of the Soviet Union and feared the consequences of a left-wing revolution, so much so that it blinded them to the – at the time – more abstract potential for mass suffering and terror from reactionary nationalists.
Scapegoating Jews was another major factor in Hitler’s rise and the subsequent crimes of the Nazi government. Hitler blamed German Jews, along with “international Judaism” more generally, for sabotaging Germany and her allies during the Great War. Jews were a convenient target during a time of nationalistic fervor and economic hardship. They had their own customs, clothes, and names distinct from “normal” Germans. Additionally, for various historical reasons* Jews were demographically overrepresented among wealthy businesspeople, within higher education, and other fields associated with a system seen as corrupt and decadent. Hitler associated Jews with German’s defeat and post-war hardships, stoking anger and setting the stage for later atrocities.
What could a Reichstag Fire look like in the United States? First, it would be preceded by severe economic hardship. Average material conditions in the United States would need to decline obviously and rapidly, most likely through widespread unemployment, terrible inflation, or some combination of the two factors. As economic suffering intensified, various groups would blame the crisis on a fundamentally broken system, and advocate some form of revolutionary change. Some of these would-be revolutionaries may scapegoat minorities, foreigners, or other specific identifiable demographic elements. Street fighting, assassinations, sabotage, and other acts of violence would further deteriorate systemic stability and undermine the legitimacy of the government.
Secondly, the leader or party seizing power via Reichstag Fire would invariably blame ideological enemies for the crisis. Enactors of a successful American authoritarian coup would need to justify their actions by blaming “dangerous radicals” who seek to undermine and destroy the country. A would-be junta could blame leftist revolutionaries or right-wing radicals to take power, provided such elements inspired sufficient fear in enough of America’s population and political elite. Potentially, “mainstream” political elements could even seek to impose authoritarian rule by citing the perceived danger of both left-wing and right-wing radical threats (real or imagined).
What would an American fascist movement from reactionary nationalists look like? Such a force would need scapegoats, and there are several plausible demographic candidates. America has a long history of blaming African Americans for our problems. While organized anti-black populism may intensify, it would be extremely difficult for a potential Nazi-like movement to treat African Americans (around 12% of the US population) like Hitler did the Jews (who were less than one percent of the population in 1933). Hispanics also probably have sufficient demographic heft to avoid any successful attempts at overt, officially-mandated exclusion and oppression. Reactionary fascism is probably a greater threat to Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, who could be associated with a hostile foreign power in the event of war. Jewish Americans may also be scapegoated and targeted, for similar reasons as they were by the German Nazis.
A successful national coup by old-school revolutionary Communists or socialists seems much less likely in America. Our corporations are too powerful. America’s workers would need to overcome regional, cultural, and ethnic divides to present a sufficiently united revolutionary front. However, such an outcome may become increasingly feasible if economic conditions continue to decline. Rallying the masses by blaming the unaccountable rich and their corrupt affiliates in government is a viable path to political power when the people are unable to afford basic necessities.
* During the Middle Ages most major European governments prohibited Jews from owning land; these prohibitions effectively forced many Jewish people into skills-based trades and mercantile efforts. Some Jewish communities also served as an economic bridge facilitating trade between Europe and the Middle East. A theological focus on learning scripture may have also boosted Jewish literacy rates above contemporary averages. Similar trends can be seen in, for example, the Jain community in India: their theological interpretation of strict nonviolence prohibits observant Jains from farming (because agriculture kills worms and insects). Many Jains therefore became merchants, and Jains are currently, on average, significantly wealthier than Indians from other religious communities.
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