The past is a kind of screen upon which each generation projects its vision of the future.1
If history repeats itself, then this time tragedy promises to occlude any farce. Weimar, the brief decade-long interlude during the 1920s, replaced Germany’s constitutional monarchy with a fully representative democracy, only to be replaced by a brutal fascist regime. At both ends, universal suffrage was key. At the beginning, Weimar solidified the new parliamentary regime with voting. This, for the first time, included women and instituted a system of equal suffrage to replace electoral outcomes that had been weighted previously in terms of gender, wealth, corporate standing, and hereditary status.
At the end of Weimar, however, universal suffrage became the means through which the extreme right gained legitimacy and force. Fascism, racism, and xenophobia, when not openly embraced by conservatives, were increasingly tolerated by means of the electoral process. Not just in Germany, but elsewhere in Europe, elections facilitated fascist success, even though governmental domination often required a coup to complete the process.2 Nowadays, the United States, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, India, Turkey, and the Philippines follow this same progression in which elections lead to electoral restrictions and electoral corruption.
Weimar during the 1920s, nonetheless, also represented an unprecedented unfolding of artistic creation and individual freedom. Within the creative arts, there was dada, Bauhaus, cabaret, collage, experimental poetry, fictional realism, abstraction, expressionism, and much more.3 Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, Thomas Mann, Vicki Baum, Heinrich Mann, Kurt Weill, Alma Mahler, Helene Weigel, George Grosz, Fritz Lang, are only a few who eventually fled Germany for the United States and whose work continues a century later to impact cultural expression.4
Along with innovative expressions of creativity came an unfolding of personal freedoms. For women, there were new modes of individual expression centered on hair styles and clothing culturally ensconced in the flapper. For men in particular, anti-homosexuality laws were loosely enforced and gay meeting places, especially bars, proliferated. All this crystallized in the nightclubs and cafes that collectively became known as cabaret.
How do these two aspects of Weimar fit together—the liberatory and the repressive, the new freedoms and the new barbarism? Today, the rise of the “alt-right” coincides with unprecedented levels of acceptance for alternative sexual practices and gender expression. Alongside gay marriage and other legal freedoms recently accorded to the the LGBTQIA community, there has been a proliferation of white supremacist and fascist groups: gay white supremacists, anti-anti-Semitic Hitlerites, neo-Confederates, white separatists, anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klaners, cop-killing survivalists, and paramilitary groups disguised as veteran associations and hunting clubs, all of whom may or may not share a common set of values and priorities.
For reasons somewhat unclear, liberal democracy, when pushed to its logical extension in terms of actual, and not just hypothetical, equal rights for all, also generates social forces that call for its own curtailment. Even more, illiberalism, rather than functioning as part of the status quo, becomes a dynamic factor under conditions of economic pressure. This was true during Weimar. Fascist groups first emerged during the early 1920s when Germany was battered with reparations from its role as a combatant during World War I. During the Great Depression of the early 1930s, German fascism, now united into a single movement, took control of the country.
Whereas an expansive world economy was once said to “lift all boats,” the economic stagnation that has typified the last few decades has created a zero-sum game, in which a small and elite sector of society benefits only if everyone else remains stuck where they are. A flourishing economy may calm all competitors, but today’s alt-right pits one group of the disadvantaged—e.g. those whose economic status has declined in recent years—against those who have never been fully admitted. This situation of victim versus victim also characterized Weimar, except that Jews and Gypsies (to use terminology then current), rather than Mexicans and Muslims, were the preferred targets.
During Weimar, the far-right was splintered into dozens of locally-based groups, each ideologically-driven. There were community protection squads, combat leagues, militaristic youth organizations, military associations for war veterans, bands that referred to themselves as Werewolves or as the Steel Helmets, and an assortment of paramilitary formations, many of which had regional and national affiliations, sometimes with one another and sometimes with established political parties. Volatility was inherent, given the fractured and hierarchical nature of organizations that could not guarantee their own existence and competed viciously for survival. Violent clashes between groups were also inevitable, an outgrowth of the intense competition for funds (and fundraising) and members. That they could not agree on the road to power—coups, elections, or some combination of the two, created an environment in which leaders and followers turned over rapidly. Dramatic splits within groups occurred in helter-skelter fashion, as did attempts to unify the separate organizations. This is precisely the situation which reigns within the alt-right in the United States today.
Because the fascist groups were small and marginalized, they were prone to demonstrative acts. This was part of their appeal to underage hooligans, sexual harassers and rapists, petty criminals, sadists, and street brawlers. The radical right underworld was reserved for men.5 Each picked from a menu of detested issues, institutions, and peoples: anti-communist, anti-socialist, anti-liberal, anti-homosexual, anti-Semitic, anti-migrant, anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, anti-Russian, anti-British, anti-Black, anti-African, anti-Asian, anti-Romani/Sinti (gypsies), anti-Eastern European, the list was endless. This partly explains why established politicians, no matter how fascistic themselves, kept their distance. Witness Donald Trump, who both applauds the alt-right and also marginalizes its presence within his cabinet since it offers little compared to the power he has amassed as head of state.
But this also speaks to a major difference between then and now. Fascism during the 1920s was a mass movement involving tens of thousands of individuals, besides the passive support they accrued by means of elections. Trump, on the other hand, was an accident. He was simply the most popular among the splintered array of candidates within the Republican Party, who was then pitted against a weak campaigner who controlled the Democratic Party apparatus but not the hearts and minds of the party’s peripheral supporters.
What remains unclear at this date is Trump’s long-term significance. Is he merely the right-wing’s false prophet who repulses larger portions of the electorate than are attracted to his fascistic impulses? A prelude to increasing economic and political frustration that the radical right is positioned to take advantage of? A result of a strong executive branch that did not exist during Weimar and which makes a modern mass-based fascist movement redundant? Or are popular and populist movements hemmed in by a police and surveillance state so powerful that they have little chance for success, let alone developing into a mass movement? These are some of the known unknowns that stand before us.
The nature of fascist violence has changed dramatically since the 1920s, in keeping with the evolution of society in general. Back then, targeted shootings supplemented the random attacks on Jews, other religious minorities, and leftists of all persuasions. Assassinations were aimed at left-wing and liberal politicians, judges, and well-known journalists and intellectuals. Today’s right has not yet achieved this level of sophistication, rooted as it is in indiscriminate (yet deliberate) mass shootings. Formal ideologies are not the motivating factors, the way they were during the 1920s. Nonetheless, even when a lack of political affiliations and mental illness characterize the shooters, their choice of victims is quite deliberate: black parishioners at a prayer session, gay men at a disco, members of a Jewish community center, and the group whose slaughter most traumatizes the population at large, school children. This time around, outcomes rather than intentions define the politics.
These killings reflect contemporary realities: the overproduction of weapons, lax gun laws, and a surveillance state already so prevalent that almost all levels of pre-planning are thwarted beforehand or quickly crushed upon appearance. When enough resources and personnel are committed to the matter, the authorities can track almost any deed (witness, for example, the Boston Marathon bombers, who were identified and located within a matter of days). The “lone wolf” is the result; gruesome attacks that for the assailant result in immediate death, suicide, or jail time with either a life sentence or eventual execution. The killer becomes a martyr.
As new obstacles to the radical right materialize, as with the rekindling of a left-wing within the Democratic Party, killings may become more targeted. Besides the violence directed at random individuals because they represent one of the groups so hated, like Blacks or queer people, individuals who can push the system to act against the free-ride that democracy otherwise accords the far right may be the new focus.
Aggression is on the rise nationally and internationally, notwithstanding the constant peace negotiations and treaties that seemingly calm the situation. Who recalls the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact to ban war, signed by fifteen nations at first, including the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Italy, Germany, Poland, and Japan, or the Soviet–Polish and German-Polish Non-Aggression Pacts of 1932 and 1934? And of course, the Hitler-Stalin Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, which came as a great relief to most everyone. Peace was at hand. Everywhere, peace conferences and peace negotiations became a prelude to war, a means to gain time for nations not yet ready for total commitment.
When the popular preference for authoritarian regimes is strong enough, coups are not necessary. Elections suffice. During Weimar, fascism remained marginal until it emerged as a vehicle of protest, as a means to signal dissatisfaction with an economy that grew slowly and a deadlocked political apparatus. But fascism also learned to never let go. Once power was achieved, the means to retain power was to cannibalize the system that had aided its rise; in other words, the fascists learned quickly that gains could unravel when subjected to new rounds of elections. What universal suffrage helped giveth, universal suffrage could taketh away.
To refer back to Carl Becker’s quote, the past as a mirror of the future now appears before us.
- Carl Becker as cited in James M. Diehl, Paramilitary Politics in Weimar Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. ix.
- See: Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957 ).
- See: John Willett, Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety, 1917-1933 (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
- See: Jean-Michel Palmier, Weimar in Exile: The Antifascist Emigration in Europe and America (London: Verso, 2006).
- See: Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies, Vol. 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), and Vol. 2: Male Bodies - Psychoanalyzing the White Terror (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1989).