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Opinion: Is America today like Germany after WWI?

The differences are stark, but a number of trends deserve our attention

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan.6.
Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. The United States today is much different from Germany after the First World War, but there are similar trends worth noticing.
Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

On Sept. 16, I walked to the Lincoln Memorial, whose restored white columns stood out against the gathering clouds. I climbed the stairs of this secular American sanctuary, whose singular message, etched above the resolutely seated Lincoln, reads, “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

I then strode past the reflecting pool, crossing the street to meander around the Washington Monument with its elliptical stone pathway, and approached the U.S. Capitol.

A handful of people sauntered beneath the graying dome. It is suspected that passengers on Flight 93 saved this structure from being toppled 20 years ago. Likewise, valiant law enforcement officers prevented its more figurative foundations from being undermined during more recent disturbances.

Besides attentive Capitol officers and the temporary fence surrounding the building’s perimeter, there were few signs of Sept. 18’s impending march, intended to memorialize the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

This walk, taken within sight of an American memorial and legislative institution, which respectively invoked the ideas of unity and the rule of law, called to mind the oft-repeated, though less frequently observed historical injunction by George Santayana: “Those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

History doesn’t repeat itself, exactly; but there are patterns that loosely mirror events and trends that may be meaningful in futurity. We can exhale, then, before I compare our day to the events leading up to World War II.

The differences between the present-day United States and Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War I are stark. While we are emerging from a pandemic and its associated economic and physical ravages, Germany had just lost a world war, been saddled with steep wartime reparations, and had fallen into political disarray with the demise of Wilhelm II’s empire.

By the time of the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, which brought open conflict to an end, a British naval blockade in the North Sea, as well as unruly German sailors, forced Wilhelm II to abdicate and reduced the empire that Otto von Bismarck had built to rubble.

The days immediately following the armistice were pivotal for Germany’s future. Soviet sympathizer Rosa Luxemburg launched a revolutionary insurrection that failed to bring about a worker’s state but did push together the center-left Social Democrats and the country’s reeling industrialists.

Having fended off an ensuing military challenge from former soldiers, German constitutionalists convened in the town of Weimar to draw up the outlines of a republic. While the Social Democrats proposed a worker-friendly state with benefits rarely extended in the rest of the industrial world, Germany’s business interests took a wait-and-see attitude.

Hyperinflation, foreign occupation and scapegoating of the moderates who had accepted war guilt — mainly in an effort to put the withered nation on international standing among fellow nations — discredited the idealism of the Social Democrats and eroded public support for a strong civil society based on citizen participation and a belief in legislative legitimacy.

While these conditions are very different than the discord we see in the United States today, there are a number of trends that deserve our attention, particularly in an age when traditional structures of power are maligned on various fronts and the outcomes of political action (i.e. elections) are called into question.

Historian Sheri Berman has written about the implosion of civil society during Germany’s initial failure with republican democracy during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933).

She makes two insightful observations. First, it wasn’t that the machinery of governing had failed per se, but instead that public faith in the parties had waned. In Berman’s words, “These parties came to be seen as the tools of big capitalists and financial interests, and the ideal of the people’s party faded as the traditional parties of the middle and right seemed to be run by and for an unrepresentative elite.” In other words, rank-and-file Germans felt that their representatives were not responsive to their needs.

Second, Berman notes, it’s not that Germans were apathetic about politics. Instead, when they lost faith in mainstream political institutions, they turned to organizations outside of the traditional political arena, including groups like the National Socialists, who were ready to mobilize citizen discontent into political rage that would bring a “cultural” institution to mainstream power.

As Berman writes, “As voters abandoned traditional ... parties during the 1920s and then grappled with the ravages of the Depression, a political vacuum opened up in German politics, a vacuum that offered the Nazis a golden opportunity to assemble an unprecedented coalition.”

Did the Sept. 18, 2021, march at the Capitol threaten the Union held together by Lincoln, as well as the commendable political actions of fair-minded citizens throughout the United States?

In retrospect, they made little noise beyond the next day’s headlines. But, societies that lose trust in the traditional mechanisms of governance and turn to radical solutions — on any end of the political spectrum — imperil public faith in the rule of law and the integrity of its institutions.

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University and current faculty director-in-residence at the university’s Washington-based Barlow Center.