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In Merkel’s Crisis, Echoes of Weimar

ullstein bild via Getty Images
General Kurt von Schleicher, who became the last Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, and his wife Elisabeth leaving a polling station after voting in federal elections, Germany, 1932

The recent setback to coalition talks in Berlin has heralded Germany’s most intractable political crisis in modern times. The deadlock created after the Free Democratic Party quit talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right bloc (composed of the Christian Democratic Party and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria) and the Greens has left only what the main protagonists have previously ruled out as unacceptable alternatives: for the chancellor to try governing with a parliamentary minority, and for the Social Democrats to agree to enter a “Grand Coalition” once again; or for Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to call new elections. Germany owes its difficulty to the results of September’s election for the Bundestag, in which a party of the nationalist far right won seats for the first time in decades.

For all the institutional safeguards in Germany’s postwar system, which were designed to prevent extremist parties from gaining seats in parliament, the September election results bear a distinct resemblance to the results of the September 1930 election for the Reichstag. Naturally, the ideologies of the parties of left and right in 2017 are different from those that contended in 1930, but the logic of the political divisions in the two legislatures is nevertheless similar. This can hardly be encouraging—either for the stability of any government or for the long-term health of Germany’s political culture. 

Anxious comparisons with the Weimar Republic are not new in German politics. In the mid-1950s, a Swiss journalist named Fritz Allemann reassured readers that West German democracy was robust when he coined the phrase “Bonn is not Weimar,” referring to the capital of the postwar Federal Republic in Rhineland. (Berlin became Germany’s political capital only after unification in 1990.) Despite some moments that disquieted Germans and foreign observers—the rise of the (neo-Nazi) NPD in the late 1960s, the attacks by the RAF terrorist group in the 1970s, and the anti-American, anti-nuclear policies of the Young Socialists in the early 1980s—Bonn was not Weimar.

Of course, Bonn was unlikely to become Weimar for many reasons. Germany had been occupied by rival superpowers (the US and the USSR), which divided it into rival states (East and West) and enrolled it in rival alliances (NATO and the Warsaw Pact). Its population was chastened by wartime devastation and losses; in the West its youth was enthusiastic for an American life-style, in the East for the glimmerings of a socialist future. And the new constitution in the West, which was established in 1949, eliminated potential institutional defects: unlike the Weimar constitution, there was no provision that permitted rule by decree in a declared emergency or in the case of parliamentary paralysis. The head of state of the Bonn republic was a president with far weaker powers than the Weimar president had had, and there was a requirement that, for any vote of no-confidence to be valid, the parliamentary majority had to have already agreed upon a successor as chancellor.

Owing to a reformed parliamentary system, which required parties to attain at least 5 percent of the popular vote in order to share in the distribution of seats, Bonn soon settled into an electoral competition between two major, inclusive parties, with a small group of moderate third-party members of parliament who could ally with either of the main parties to determine which would lead the government.

Bonn was not Weimar. But could Berlin, which retained the Bonn constitution after unification, become Weimar?

The 1930 election signaled the end of government by parliamentary majority in the Weimar Republic. Under the proportional representation system, the percentage of votes cast translated very closely into the percentage of seats won. Most dramatically, the Nazi Party’s parliamentary delegation expanded from a mere twelve seats after the 1928 elections to 107 in 1930—almost one-fifth of the 577-member Reichstag. The Communists won seventy-seven seats. Both of these parties were set on subverting parliamentary government, and no coalition could be built by the more moderate parties. The chancellor, Heinrich Brüning of the Catholic Center Party, managed to keep the government running only because the Social Democrats agreed to “tolerate” him—that is, they refrained from casting negative votes that would have placed him in an outright minority and would have forced new elections, with perhaps even worse outcomes. If Chancellor Merkel chose to attempt a minority government now, for it to function would require similar toleration by the Social Democrats; although such a government could not be toppled by negative votes alone, the resulting paralysis could force new elections.

By the summer of 1932, the aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, was persuaded to replace Brüning with the reactionary aristocrat Franz von Papen, who promised to secure a workable conservative majority. Instead, in July elections, the Nazis won 230 seats, about a third of the parliament, and the Communists won eighty-nine. Together, the hard right and the hard left constituted a majority of the Reichstag, but they were dedicated to opposing each other and any other possible combination of parties. The Weimar Republic descended into the final half-year of its existence shorn of any parliamentary legitimacy. Another Reichstag election, in November 1932, in which the National Socialist vote actually receded, gave hope that the party might break into factions or lose its appeal. But on January 30, the right-wing coalition convinced President Hindenburg to appoint as chancellor Adolf Hitler, who would supposedly be restrained by conservatives in his cabinet. Hitler called new elections for March 1933, in which the Nazis won nearly 44 percent of the votes, and he soon passed an Enabling Act that authorized five years of dictatorial rule. In the long crisis of the Weimar Republic, the Nazis’ electoral breakthrough of 1930 and the parliamentary paralysis it created led directly to the prewar collapse of German democracy.

Looking past the specific ideologies of the parties involved, consider the divisions of the two legislatures of 1930 and 2017. As the pie-charts below indicate, they are remarkably similar when broken down into five major divisions, which I have designated with Roman numerals I through V. In both elections, the centrist parties in groups II, III, and IV lost much of their previous strength, while the extremes gained power.

Mike King

On the far left and far right in 1930 (see I and V) were the ascendant anti-system parties, determined not to cooperate with the others. Today’s left-wing party, Die Linke (the Left), is the heir of both the East German Socialist Unity Party and leftist defectors from the West’s Social Democrats. To be fair, Die Linke is not the type of anti-system party that Weimar’s Communist Party was, but its East German origins have made it largely a pariah, considered untouchable as a coalition partner for a national parliamentary majority. If the far right continues to gain seats, potential mainstream partners may have to reconsider their distaste for dealing with Die Linke in order to form a majority coalition.

On the center left (II), the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of 1930 had been the party in the Weimar Republic most committed to maintaining democracy, whether by sharing power—as it did during 1919–1921, 1923–24, and 1928–30—or in opposition when out of power. Its descendant, today’s SPD, has played a similar part in parliamentary politics. In 1930, the centrist parties (III) were the Catholic Center Party and its ally, the autonomous Bavarian People’s Party. Today’s equivalents are Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), whose more conservative deputies exert significant leverage over the CDU as a whole. 

Category IV covers a group of parties, diverse and changing in their ideological commitments. In the Weimar Republic, they included the so-called German State Party, the sad remains of the previously powerful German Democratic Party, which was committed, like the SPD, to the republican experiment, but which had, by 1930, shrunk to a few members. Category IV also included the reduced German People’s Party (DVP), which comprised many centrist industrialists and had been important as the party of Gustav Stresemann, the foreign minister who had maintained economic and foreign-policy stability but died in October 1929. The DVP’s participation was essential for the “Great Coalition” of 1928–1930, which had included the SPD, but that grouping broke apart over the issue of unemployment insurance, thus provoking the elections of 1930. Category IV also includes a group of “middle-class” delegates from the Economic Party that originated with elements of society, such as small-business owners, professionals, and shopkeepers, that had suffered from the effects of the dire inflation of 1921–1923, as well as some self-declared Christian populists. From 1924 to 1928, German republicans surely hoped that the National People’s Party, until 1930 the major party on the right, would work with these center-right parties, for it did participate in a conservative majority. But by 1930, the DNVP was under the control of Alfred Hugenberg, a reactionary press baron who was prepared to cooperate with Hitler and subvert parliamentary government.

The similarity between the results of 2017 and those of 1930 is striking. On the left (group I), Die Linke; in group II, the modern SPD, hangs on despite having lost ground disastrously; in the center (III), the transformed Christian Democrats with their more conservative Bavarian allies, have also suffered significant losses; on the right, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has achieved a startling electoral breakthrough. This is not to claim that the AfD is neo-Nazi, even though some members have demonstrated anti-Semitic tendencies, and a number of neo-Nazis have joined their ranks.

The options for forming a stable majority today are few. Until last week, the Social Democrats (II) insisted that they were unwilling to enter a new Grand Coalition, which, in postwar politics, has meant a coalition with the Christian Democrats (III), whereas in Weimar it signified a ministry that also included the People’s Party (IV). Even if the modern SPD were to overcome its differences with Die Linke and with the Greens, the coalition would not command a majority in the Bundestag. At the same time, though, Merkel’s effort to seek a majority from the centrist parties of group IV has failed. 

In the current situation, group IV includes both the Greens, who started out on the left a generation ago but now represent a party of reformist professionals and middle-class supporters with a leader of Turkish origin, and the Free Democrats (FDP), who were once allied with the SPD but now seem dominated by free-market and anti-welfare conservatives. The attempt to reconcile these two parties in an alliance with the CDU to form a so-called Jamaica Coalition (because the party colors—CDU’s black, the Greens’ green, and FDP’s yellow—are those of the Jamaican flag) failed because the FDP’s conditions proved too steep. The Free Democrats’ leadership apparently calculated that a very conservative stance will enable them to win Alternative voters in any new elections. The FDP’s rightward evolution, along with the Alternative’s rapid rise, has made these parties the new spoilers of a moderate conservative solution.

To be clear, Berlin is not Weimar—not least because there is no provision in the postwar constitution allowing rule by decree. Either this legislature or one created by new elections, which none of the larger parties wants, must somehow form what promises to be a fragile coalition. The Bonn constitution of 1949 was designed to assure the centrist stability of German politics. Under the evolving conditions of a united Germany, however, it has yielded something close to the voting pattern of the late Weimar era.

Today’s groups I and V seem to lack the totalitarian longings that animated their 1930s forebears, the Communists and National Socialists. The new groups are not out to destroy the second German republic, which has proved remarkably durable for sixty-eight years. Decades of postwar liberal-democratic governments have provided a powerful experience of political stability. Nonetheless, the parties of both the far left and the far right see themselves as victims: Die Linke represents those in the former East Germany who feel they lost out in unification; members of the AfD, which also draws its main strength from the states of the old German Democratic Republic, see themselves as threatened by immigrants, above all by Muslim immigrants, and by cosmopolitan elites—characteristics shared by populist movements throughout Europe and the United States. 

Critics of Weimar stigmatized the republic as “the system.” Neither the left nor the right today claims to be “anti-system” regarding its own republic, but both are anti-system in their hostility to the European Union. Constitutional order in Europe today is not limited to countries; it includes the webbing of nations within the EU. In their animus toward Brussels, which they see as an institution that allows a deracinated cosmopolitan elite to suppress legitimate national communities, today’s far left and far right are indeed hostile to what we could call a pan-European order of liberal constitutionalism. 

Their ultimate impact on both Germany and Europe is hard to calculate. German unification has brought a new element of unpredictability to the country’s electoral politics. Although the reappearance of Groups I and V in the party spectrum is partly an effect of the refugee crisis and the eurozone’s economic difficulties following the 2009 financial crisis, it is also a legacy of unification. The left would be easier than the right to integrate into normal politics, but an SPD tucked back inside a Grand Coalition will find if hard to undertake the necessary outreach. The electoral threat from the AfD will compel all parties to devise more stringent refugee policies; this may indirectly reinforce Germany’s reluctance to relax its fixation with maintaining the export-based strength of its economy, which has contributed to the continuing crises of the eurozone.

Although Germany’s democratic institutions do not seem in immediate danger, US politics shows how the quality of politics within a democratic constitutional framework can become coarser and less tolerant. We do not know the final destination of the populist forces unleashed in recent elections. Perhaps new elections will reveal that the results of 2017 were a straw fire, destined to flare brightly but quickly burn out. No historical analogy can predict what outcome lies ahead, but the Weimar comparison reminds us that democratic institutions are not immune from resentments, demagogy, and polarization.