by Jens Kruse
IN MARCH OF 2017, I gave a presentation at Orcas Center, in which I described a series of events that transformed the German Weimar Republic of 1919–1933 into Hitler’s Third Reich, asking the implicit question, “Could something like that be occurring here in the United States?” In order to answer that question, I examined what was happening in the early months of the Trump administration that did — or did not — resemble the events of 1932 to 33.
Now that this administration is entering the rearview mirror, a month after election day, it is a good time to reassess those questions and try to determine whether U.S. democracy was equal to this challenge where Weimar Germany was not. And is it stronger or has it been weakened during the past four years?
Our first impression might well be that democracy survived and may even have gotten stronger during that period. Since 2017, two national elections have occurred, and both have produced results that can be seen as corrections to the 2016 results. In the 2018 mid-terms, the House of Representatives became controlled by the Democrats, producing at least some possibility for oversight of the executive branch. In the recent presidential elections, Joseph R. Biden was elected president with the same electoral-college vote count as Donald J. Trump won in 2016 — and with more than a 6 million popular-vote advantage. A record number of U.S. citizens voted in the midst of a pandemic, in defiance of multiple attempts to suppress their votes. By all accounts the 2020 election was secure, free, and fair.
So these results and circumstances seem to suggest that, in spite of the last four years, U.S. democracy is still alive and well. But our norm-breaking president has not accepted the results, has not conceded, and — at least until very recently — was sabotaging the transition process. What may at first glance seem like a petulant refusal to admit that he has lost is, in fact, highly dangerous.
To understand why that is true, it is again instructive to look at the example of the Weimar Republic.
The WEIMAR REPUBLIC, the first fully democratic German state, lasted only about 15 years. The young republic struggled with tremendous difficulties throughout its short life: near civil war-like conditions during its teething years in the aftermath of World War I; economic and political crises caused at least in part by the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty; and hyperinflation. Large segments of the German population and society viewed the republic as illegitimate and yearned for return to a monarchy or other autocratic form of government.
The Weimar Republic realized some economic and political stabilization in the mid and late 1920s, accompanied by a remarkable cultural flowering. But the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the subsequent world economic crisis imposed catastrophic economic and political consequences on Germany.
Here I would like to focus on one particular aspect of history that contributed greatly to the republic’s destruction. I was reminded of this aspect by a segment of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program on CNN on Sunday, November 15.  He told viewers of a disturbing historical analogy between the Weimar Republic’s originsand our current historical moment. At the end of World War I, two German military leaders, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, spread the lie that Germany had been on the verge of winning the war — that it had not in fact lost, but rather had been betrayed by a conspiracy of Communists, Social Democrats and Jews. This myth became known as the Dolchstosslegende, the myth of the stab in the back. Even though there was no evidence for it whatsoever, this myth was believed by many Germans during the Weimar Republic and festered throughout its existence. The myth was exploited by the Nazis, contributed greatly to their rise, and eventually helped them gain power and establish Hitler’s dictatorship.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff, after August 1918 at the latest, knew full well that the war was lost. But they wanted to avoid the taint of responsibility for that loss. So they tasked a centrist politician, Matthias Erzberger, with the armistice negotiations. They then testified to a parliamentary committee that the German military had been “stabbed in the back.” This conspiracy theory — initially concocted for the narrow purpose of deflecting from their responsibility for the loss and maintaining their reputations — soon became the rallying cry of right-wing and conservative parties. These parties, including the Nazis, used this myth to delegitimize the new democratic republic that had been created in the wake of the lost war and the revolution that followed.
As Benjamin Carter Hett, whose book The Death of Democracy Zakaria cited in his segment , writes:
The idea that the democrats were responsible for the lost war, and that the Treaty of Versailles was the fruit of a democratic conspiracy against the army — a ”stab in the back” — thus began as a lie that the military high command used to excuse its own conduct of the war. Nationalists picked it up to delegitimize democrats. Democrats tended to respond, as the historian Jeffrey Verhey writes, with “that tone of disbelief rational people feel when faced with profound irrationality.” Yet millions of Germans believed in the stab in the back anyway. They didn’t care if it was rational. It fit their deeper ideological outlook, perhaps even their psychological needs. They wanted to believe it. [p. 32]
So a lie that was born with the purpose of retrospectively explaining away the loss of the war quickly morphed into a myth that the Nazis, enabled and supported by conservative and nationalist parties and politicians, could employ to delegitimize and destabilize the young republic. From their earliest days the Nazis used the myth in their speeches and in their messaging. In their telling, the first German democracy was a creation of Social Democrats, Communists and Jews. The politicians who had created it were not opponents but enemies: traitors and criminals.
Using this blatant lie, the Nazis gained power in the German Parliament, or Reichstag. In the July 31, 1932, elections the Nazis doubled their strength and became the largest party in the Reichstag with 37.4 percent of the vote. In the November 6, 1932, elections, their percentage fell to 33.1 percent. And in the March 5, 1933, elections, the Nazis — after Sturmabteilung (Storm Trooper) terror in the streets — won 43.9 percent of the popular vote, enough to form Reichstag majority with another nationalist party.
On March 13, roughly six weeks after President Hindenburg had appointed him Chancellor, Hitler established the “Reich Ministry of Volk Enlightenment and Propaganda” under Joseph Goebbels. With this tool at his disposal, and with the skillful use of the new technologies of radio and film, Goebbels and the Nazis repeated and spread the Big Lie until a large segment of the population took it to be the truth.
IF WE SUBSCRIBE TO THE ADAGE that “history does not repeat but it does, sometimes, rhyme,” we can understand that historical analogies do not always work. But it is hard to avoid the insight that the history of the Weimar stab-in-the-back myth holds lessons for America in its current presidential transition.
News outlets have amply documented that Trump’s presidency has been characterized by, among other things, a torrent of thousands of lies — exceeding 20, 000 a few months ago. He has in practice proceeded according to the Goebbels playbook: if you tell lies often enough, many people will begin to accept them as truth. He has used the audiences, and the attention, of his 90 million Twitter followers and of Fox News and other right-wing media outlets to spread his lies. From the earliest days of his presidency, he has tried to delegitimize legitimate news sources, even calling journalists “enemies of the people.” He has tried to undermine facts and truth, aspects of public discourse without which democracy cannot function.
But in the weeks running up to the November 3 elections, and even more so since then, Trump has invented his own “stab-in-the-back” myth. He has tried to establish, without evidence, that his loss to Joe Biden was not a loss, but instead a betrayal — that his victory was stolen from him by a rigged election and voter fraud. His attempts to overturn the results of the election have failed miserably in courts. But this myth will — especially if Trump remains in the public eye for the next four years and runs for president again in 2024 — do incalculable damage to Americans’ trust in our elections. Already polls indicate that large majorities of Republicans think that the 2020 election was rigged, and that victory was stolen from Trump. As Hett noted about conservative, nationalist Germans in the Weimar Republic, the current stab-in-the-back myth fits “their deeper ideological outlook, perhaps even their psychological needs.” Trump supporters want to believe it.
Donald Trump may be promulgating a Big Lie that the election was rigged, that Democrats have been trying to steal it, and that Biden “appears” to have won only because of “illegal” votes, mainly because his fragile, narcissistic ego cannot contemplate the idea that he is in fact the loser. But the consequences of this “stab-in-the-back” myth extend far beyond satisfying his emotional needs. More than 74 million Americans voted for him, most of them believing everything he says, no matter how false it may be. For them, this election is illegitimate, and will only become more so between January 20, 2021, and the next presidential election in November 2024, especially if — as has been speculated — Trump will establish his own TV outlet and spews his propaganda to his followers daily.
IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER that the Nazi Party never received a majority of the votes — unlike Joe Biden, who garnered 51 percent of the U.S. popular vote in the 2020 elections. They received less than 44 percent of the German vote on March 5, 1933, under conditions of severe duress that curtailed the vote against them and thus maximized the percentage in favor.
But no matter, by then the ”stab-in-the-back” myth had delegitimized the democracy of the Weimar Republic with such a large number of its citizens, that not only the Nazis, but also the right-wing and nationalist parties wanted to abolish democracy and replace it with a dictatorship. To that end, with the acquiescence of President Hindenburg and the support of conservative and nationalist parties, Hitler was named chancellor on January 30, 1933. His right-wing enablers said that they had “hired” him and thought that they could control him.
But Hitler began dismantling the Weimar democracy almost immediately. The decisive step came after the Reichstagsfeuer (the Reichstag fire) on February 27, 1933, which he used, on March 24, 1933, as an excuse to pass the Ermaechtigungsgesetz (the Enabling Act), giving him full dictatorial powers. All parties except the Social Democrats (the Communist Party had by then been banned) voted in favor — and, in fact voting themselves, and German democracy, out of existence.
The United States has fortunately not (yet) experienced the equivalent of the Reichstag fire. As we try to learn lessons from the history of the Weimar Republic, it is clear that there are many differences from our historical moment. But we should not conclude that we may become less vigilant about the dangers to U.S. democracy. For there are, disturbingly, many similarities, too: the torrent of lies, the disregard of facts and science, the decay of truth, the delegitimization of the free press, and — last but not least — the assault on U.S. citizens’ confidence in the accuracy and legitimacy of our elections in the form of Trump’s version of the stab-in-the-back myth.
1. Jens Kruse lecture, “Does the Late Stage of the Weimar Republic in Germany Hold Lessons for the Current Moment of the American Republic?”:
2. Fareed Zakaria’s November 15, 2020, GPS program:
3. Kruse review of Hett’s The Death of Democracy inThe Orcasonian:
This book is available in the Orcas Island Public Library.
4. New York Timescolumnist Bret Stephens also recalled the German stab-in-the-back myth on November 23, 2020: