The 19th Century Also Provides Some Lessons

Many observers who want to come to grips with what is going on in our times look to the 20th century for guidance. In many ways I think this is warranted. Take for example the ideologies that are subsumed under the heading of the “alt-right.” I would say that most of them are just a resurrection of views that were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, more so in continental Europe than in the US. Maybe those were never gone, only sidelined and dormant.

Still, in many ways I also think that the focus on the 20th century can mislead. One easy miss is that everybody is looking for a guy with a little moustache who barks. Another is to imagine the challenge as Stormtroopers who march in the streets. Surely, there are the Richard Spencers of the world who are only too happy to provide the expected visuals and soundbites. Especially in the US, I think there is a perception that if you were teletransported to Germany circa 1933 it would have been easy to spot the danger: follow the swastikas. With 20/20 hindsight, of course. The problem was, though, that many people in Germany could not see it, people to be sure who were not initially National Socialists and who even had their quibbles with the party, eg. because it came across as too brutish and uncouth for them.

The weird thing is that I would think many Germans perhaps a hundred, seventy-five or even fifty years before would have understood it much better. To give you one example: In the late 1870s, there was a first wave of political anti-Semitism in Germany. It had the tacit protection of Bismarck who found it useful against the Liberals whom he hated to the core. There were some particularly aggressive anti-Semites like Wilhelm Marr or Ernst Henrici whose rhetoric came close to that of the National Socialists. Still they were a tiny fringe. Mostly it was Conservatives who embraced anti-Semitism as a tool to boost their electoral prospects and as a battering ram against Liberalism.

The reason the Conservatives found anti-Semitism attractive was that there was indeed underlying prejudice against Jews in the population. However, since the middle of the century, there had been kind of a consensus that as a modern nation you had to get over it. That didn’t mean the prejudice went away, but that it was not palatable in public discourse.

Some people, and by no means a few, understood early on what the danger was. Eugen Richter (1838–1906) who was the editor of the original “Freisinnige Zeitung” had something of a crystal ball. In his “Sozialdemokratische Zukunftsbilder” published in 1891, and later rather freely translated into English as “Pictures of the Socialist Future” (available online), Richter predicted the horrors of the 20th century with uncanny precison down to the “Schießbefehl” of the GDR, the order to shoot those who wanted to escape from Socialism. But he was also prescient when it came to the endgame of anti-Semitism. He made this remark on November 22, 1880, which came in the course of a debate in the Prussian Abgeordnetenhaus (lower house of parliament) on the anti-Semitic movement at the time (my translation):

Sirs! The whole movement has by all means a similar character in relation with its ultimate goal, in relation with its method, as the Socialist movement. That’s what matters. The small gradual differences recede completely into the background, that is precisely the perfidious thing about this whole movement that while the Socialists only turn against those with property in an economic sense, here racial hatred it nurtured, in other words something that the individual cannot change and which can only be ended by killing [totschlagen] him or deporting him across the border. That’s exactly what the Socialists lack in this regard. Don’t you just see that the movement undermines the public order also for this reason much more so than the Socialist movement?

To understand the context of this statement, you have to know that the Social Democrats were thorough Socialists then who wanted to nationalize the whole economy and who had a modus operandi of attacking especially the Liberals with brute force. The party had been effectively outlawed in 1878 with support of the Conservatives whom Eugen Richter addresses here. He and his party had opposed the “Sozialistengesetz” (Socialist Law). So his point is that the Conservatives support a movement that is even worse than another movement they wanted to outlaw because it undermined the public order. Unfortunately Eugen Richter’s analysis turned out to be once more clairvoyant.

The onslaught of the anti-Semites at the time was stopped. Their candidates on a Conservative ticket failed to conquer the six seats for Berlin in the 1881 Reichstag (national parliament) elections despite massive support by the government. Eugen Richter’s Progress Party beat them back. Still what happened was that the previous consensus broke down. By the 1890s, many were no longer ashamed to flaunt their anti-Semitic views that would have been ostracized in the 1870s. A general moral and intellectual decay set in that would bear evil fruit half a century later.

My point here is that the 19th century is much closer to our time than the 20th century that went to the extremes. There were a handful of riots against Jews in some remote locations around 1880, one in Berlin, but those were eventually suppressed by the Prussian government that was otherwise in bed with the anti-Semites. As far as I know no one was killed. So all this looks rather harmless compared to the 20th century. Bismarck who had been ambiguous, but effectively dogwhistling, discarded the anti-Semites after the elections of 1881. It took a decade for them to regroup, but then the second wave of political anti-Semitism, which was even uglier, hit a society around 1890 that was far less resistant than a decade before.

Over time, first a fringe, then ever larger parts of German society got off track. I don’t mean this even mostly regarding anti-Semitism which in retrospect looks like the main point, but in many other ways. So it was not accidental that people in the 1930s fell for Hitler or were unaware of the danger. It was perhaps a string of bad luck that the National Socialists came to power in 1933, but something of this kind was long in the making. It could have developed differently, maybe more like in Austria with an authoritarian, but comparably restrained regime. However, things were up for grabs for quite some time.

I will write more about this long-term decay from the 1870s on to the end of the century. One aspect is a “pipeline to the right” that has similarities with what we see these days. It does not involve so much the Conservatives who were basically always reactionaries, but the National Liberals whom Eugen Richter also addresses. In 1880, they were still on the fence. A large part of them opposed the anti-Semites, often even in no uncertain terms, but you could also see anti-Semitism creep into other parts of the party. They never became committed anti-Semites as a whole, many remained critical. That’s unlike the Conservatives who in their Tivoli program of 1892 adopted an anti-Semitic plank in their platform.

The interesting part here is that the National Liberal Party when it came into being in 1867 was rather consistently liberal in a classical sense. However, over the next two decades it drifted ever more to the Right. Those were not always the same people, many left the party in frustration. In 1887, the National Liberals finally aligned with the Conservatives and Free Conservatives who had been reactionaries from the get-go. I will tell that story in another post, which is also an installment in my series that started with “Libertarianism and Representative Democracy.” Don’t expect any simple parallels, though, a lot is different. Still I think there are also many things that are not that far removed from what we see today.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store