Summary: Our institutions look strong, able to carry us through both tough times and internal dissention. But they are just “paper bullets of the mind.” They failed in Weimar. We should pay attention to the signs that they will fail us, too.
Worry about our institutions imploding from internal attack, not external attack.
We trust our institutions to carry America over rough patches. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, power-mad and corrupt presidents (e.g., Nixon), and periods of extraordinary social stress (e.g., wars and depressions). Reading Martin van Creveld’s powerful new book, Hitler in Hell (a memoir), reminds me of a disturbing lesson from history — one familiar to the Founders. A nation’s survival depends on its people because its institutions are little more than illusions — concepts given form in our mind, consensual hallucinations.
The Weimar Republic survived many terrible crises during the 1920s. Germany had fair elections in November 1932, and the regime looked strong. The Nazi Party got 30% of the vote, the Social Democrats got 20%, and the Communist Party got 17%. What happened next is amazing, even 85 years later. It was even more so to the German people as it happened.
- 30 January 1933 — Hitler sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, forming the “Reich Cabinet of national salvation.” His coalition had a narrow majority in the Reichstag.
- February 27 — The Reichstag burns down. Like 9/11 and the anthrax envelopes in 2001, it created a fearful public allowing the government to act beyond the usual limits.
- March 9-11 — The Nazis overthrow the Lander governments. These states were powerful in the Weimar federal structure and independent of the national government.
- March — The Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA, the “brownshirts”, their paramilitary) destroys the Communist party apparatus, killing its leaders or imprisoning them in the new concentration camps.
- March 23 — Amidst Nazi violence against its members, the Reichstag passes the Enabling Law making Hitler a de facto tyrant.
- May 2 — The Nazis destroy Germany’s labor unions (which were among the strongest in the world), arresting their leaders, confiscating their assets, and disbanding them. Their members did nothing. No protests. No strikes.
- May 10 — The Nazis seize the assets of the Social Democratic Party and arrested its leaders (those who did not flee Germany or serve the Nazis). Its members — and the other parties and the public — did nothing. No protests.
In six months the major institutions of the Weimar Republic were blown away like dust. They were not destroyed so much as brushed aside with little violence or bloodshed. Weimar’s institutions surrendered without a fight to an unpopular minority party (the Nazi’s share of the popular vote dropped 15% in the November 1932 election from the its level in the July election.
I don’t understand how this was even possible, let alone how it happened. Scores of books describe what happened, but do not well answer the more difficult question of “why”.
Are America’s institutions of today much stronger tha Weimar’s?
Political institutions are just “paper bullets of the mind.” No matter how formidable they are on paper, they have power only if they live in people’s hearts. Surveys show that is no longer true for America. We don’t know what the Constitution says. Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions poll shows a multi-generational crash in our confidence in the Republic’s institutions.
Our institutions look robust. But Weimar’s institutions looked strong in January 1933. Weimar floundered and sank from a combination of the Great Depression, Weimar’s ruinous response of austerity to the crash, and the Reichstag Fire.
Our situation has, of course, few similarities to Weimar 1934. But the question of institutional strength is eternal, a challenge everywhere and always. How might the social and political institutions of the United States withstand such a high level of stress? Our political parties are already weak, with little credibility among our citizens — and even their members. Trump’s election shows the hollowness of our political system. , as does voter turnout (low vs. most of our peers, far below the levels of the 19thC, very low and falling in Congressional elections). Worst of all, perhaps we are the weak link in our regime.
Let’s hope we are lucky and don’t encounter powerful storms, as did Weimar. But whatever happens, remember we are responsible for America. It is ours to keep or to lose! For suggestions about things you can do to help see this post about ways to reforming America – steps to new politics.
For More Information
- de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile.
- A great philosopher and statesman comments on the Bush-Obama tweaks to the Constitution — by Edmond Burke.
- George Orwell sends us a note, giving some perspective on our situation.
- Thomas Jefferson saw our present peril. We should heed his warning.
- Rome speaks to us. Their example can inspire us to avoid their fate.
- We’re drifting towards tyranny, again. Jefferson describes our first brush with tyranny.
- America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.
To learn more about the next Republic.
The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic by Eric Posner. He advocates smiling while we slide to tyranny, and console ourselves with illusions. See this from the publisher. …
“Ever since Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. used ‘imperial presidency’ as a book title, the term has become central to the debate about the balance of power in the U.S. government. Since the presidency of George W. Bush, when advocates of executive power such as Dick Cheney gained ascendancy, the argument has blazed hotter than ever. Many argue the Constitution itself is in grave danger. What is to be done?
“The answer, according to legal scholars Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule, is nothing. In The Executive Unbound, they provide a bracing challenge to conventional wisdom, arguing that a strong presidency is inevitable in the modern world. Most scholars, they note, object to today’s level of executive power because it varies so dramatically from the vision of the framers. But there is nothing in our system of checks and balances that intrinsically generates order or promotes positive arrangements. In fact, the greater complexity of the modern world produces a concentration of power, particularly in the White House.
“The authors chart the rise of executive authority straight through to the Obama presidency. Political, cultural and social restraints, they argue, have been more effective in preventing dictatorship than any law. The executive-centered state tends to generate political checks that substitute for the legal checks of the Madisonian constitution.”