WHAT U.S. DEMOCRACY CAN LEARN FROM THE GERMAN PAST

In hindsight: Democracy, even in stable and prosperous countries, depends on managing conflicts and confronting ongoing challenges.
German unification in front of the Reichstag in Berlin, October 3, 1990. Photo by Peter Grimm. Courtesy the German Federal Archive in cooperation with Wikimedia Commons. (Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183–1990–1003–400 / Grimm, Peer / CC-BY-SA 3.0).

by Paul Steege

The results of the recent Congressional midterm elections in the United States may have alleviated some of the anxieties that led the Atlantic monthly to ask in September 2018: “Is Democracy Dying?” This fall, nearly 117 million ballots were cast, the highest total ever for a midterm election. The 49.9 percent of eligible voters who chose to vote represented the highest participation rate in at least fifty years.

But the voting process also contained grounds for continued uneasiness. Allegations of voter suppression dogged Georgia’s Secretary of State who oversaw the voting in a race for governor in which he was also a candidate. In Mississippi and Florida, Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate and governor, respectively, managed to win tight contests despite comments that seemed to embrace the violent rhetoric of the South’s racist past. More recently, Republican state legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan have been seeking to limit the powers of their Democratic opponents who won races for governor and state attorney general. In the battle for the future of American democracy, it is clear that voting alone is not enough.

In part, U.S. anxiety about the current state of its democracy stems from a misplaced sense of having arrived at democracy’s end point. As Vaclav Havel reminded the U.S. Congress when he spoke to its members in 1990 — a speech that historian Melissa Feinberg cited during our recent Lepage Center event on global democracy — democracy is a process, a horizon to which we strive rather than a destination we reach. So, in an effort to assess the state of this journey, Americans might benefit from turning their attention to a state that over the last century has struggled more explicitly with the challenges to, and even destruction of, democracy: Germany.

When Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia, addressed the U.S. Congress in 1990, he reminded that democracy is a horizon to which we strive rather than a destination we reach.

Three days after the U.S. midterm elections, Germans marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first German Republic. On November 9, 2018, two days before an armistice ended World War I, a German Republic was declared — not once, but twice — in the German capital of Berlin.

On that day, following the abdication of the German Kaiser, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed a German Republic from the Reichstag, the German parliament building. A short time later Karl Liebknecht, a member of the Independent Social Democrats, who along with Rosa Luxemburg would soon establish the German Communist Party, proclaimed a socialist republic from the balcony of the Kaiser’s Berlin Palace. These dueling declarations underscored the fluidity of this revolutionary moment and laid down early battle lines along which the future of German democracy would be contested.

The German Republic proclaimed by Philipp Scheidemann at the Reichstag, November 9, 1918. Photography by Erich Greifer, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Social Democrats, under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert, who became the new Republic’s first president, feared a communist revolution, and allied themselves with right-wing paramilitaries. By the end of January 1919, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were dead, murdered by these soldiers who deployed extra-legal political violence in the name of defending the new republic’s legal order.

In less than a year, the same soldiers Social Democrats had called on to defend what became known as the Weimar Republic were denouncing its founders as “November Criminals.” They accused Ebert’s Social Democrats of stabbing the German army in the back. German Democracy and its proponents were denounced as instruments of the German Empire’s defeat in the First World War.

Five years to the day after the Republic’s chaotic founding, a fringe political leader named Adolf Hitler led an armed force in an attempt to seize control of the Bavarian government in Munich as a prelude to seizing control of Germany. Bavarian state police stood firm, killing 14 Nazi putschists and leading the New York Times to declare, “Munich putsch definitely eliminates Hitler and his National Socialist followers.”

The Nazi dictatorship emerged out of a democracy and was succeeded by a return to democracy in West Germany and a Communist dictatorship in East Germany.

But that would not be the last time that Germans would be called upon to defend their democracy. Less than a decade later, the Weimar Republic’s second President, Paul von Hindenburg, a Field Marshall during World War I and an early supporter of the “stab-in-the-back” myth, appointed Hitler chancellor, ushering in twelve years of Nazi dictatorship that only ended with Germany’s decisive military defeat in 1945. A return to German democracy came only after the Allied Powers defeated the Nazi state. The collapse of the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the western powers also played out in battles over the shape of that democracy. Especially in Berlin, heated electoral battles and struggles for power in the municipal government gave local shape to the emerging Cold War.

On December 4, 1948, more than 86 percent of eligible voters in West Berlin voted in municipal elections and gave the Social Democrats (SPD) a decisive majority in the city assembly. Less than a week before, Communist authorities in East Berlin has formed a new “provisional” city government, appointing as mayor Fritz Ebert, whose father had served as President of the Weimar Republic, beginning in 1919. This definitive split in the city’s administration came in the midst of the ongoing Berlin Blockade and two years after the October 1946 election had returned democratic government to Berlin for the first time since the Nazi seizure of power.

By 1949 these struggles over the shape of postwar Germany had hardened into separate states, a western-leaning Federal Republic of Germany, and the eastern German Democratic Republic, closely tied to the Soviet Union. For the next forty years, Berlin and Germany remained divided, the democratic western half defined in large part in terms of its opposition to the East German dictatorship that nonetheless used the trappings of democracy to legitimate its rule.

The beginning of the end for Communist East Germany came 71 years after the founding of the first German Republic when, on November 9, 1989, border guards opened the Berlin Wall and unleashed a political tidal wave that culminated in German reunification not quite one year later. The national holiday celebrating the current Federal Republic of Germany does not occur on November 9 but rather on October 3, the date on which reunification was finalized in 1990.

November 9th has a fraught history — in addition to the 1918 revolution and the 1923 beer hall putsch, it also is also the day of the 1938 pogrom targeting German Jews. It is thus unsurprising that Germany has opted to commemorate a date that signals the completion of the legal and bureaucratic process of reunifying Germany under a single democratic state. But that decision also conceals the degree to which democracy, even in a stable and prosperous place like contemporary Germany, depends on managing conflict and confronting ongoing challenges to human rights, individual freedoms, and civic institutions.

For Americans anxious about authoritarian tendencies inherent to modern democracies, November 9 remains an apt reference point. It provides a century of reminders of the need to struggle for and defend the democracies to which we aspire.

Paul Steege is associate professor of History at Villanova University and inaugural faculty director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest.


In fall 2018, the Lepage Center hosted two round-table discussion on histories of democracy. Listen to the conversations, watch the videos, or view takeaways from the events on the our website.