The Weimar Analogy

Comparing Trump's America to fascist Germany only fuels elites' antidemocratic fantasies.

Hans Speier (far right) with colleagues, ca. 1936–37. Digital Collections / The New School Archives

Comparing the recent American election to the doomed Weimar Republic has become pundits’ favorite pastime. In newspapers and on talk shows, commentators are quick to warn that the United States is going the way of 1930s German democracy. Donald Trump’s arrival on the political stage — not to mention his presidential win — has heightened fears that economic anxiety, right-wing nationalism, and paramilitary violence will once again mix into a gruesome cocktail.

A surge of op-eds and essays — in the LA Review of Books, the Huffington Post, and Der Spiegel, among others — warn that we live in “Weimar America.” Conservative politics, they claim, have become fascist and threaten to destroy democracy’s most basic institutions.

No one has taken the genre of reductio ad Hitlerum as far as Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who described Trump’s rise as explicitly following in the Nazi dictator’s footsteps. American liberals, he implied, should learn from the German leftists who failed to organize large-scale resistance to Hitler.

Like all historical comparisons, the one between a Twitter-obsessed reality-TV star and a genocidal dictator comes with its distortions, and some commentators have smartly questioned the Weimar analogy. Trump’s support, after all, comes in large part from postindustrial dislocation, a socioeconomic condition completely alien to the industrial, class-based, and war-traumatized Germany of the 1920s and 1930s. More substantially, Trump’s ideology — if one can call a smattering of contradictory claims a coherent ideology — excludes some of fascism’s classic features. Trump, after all, rarely invokes the language of blood and soil, the transcendental and rejuvenating experience of war, or explicit opposition to electoral institutions and politics. Different concepts — authoritarianism, “ur-fascism,” or old-fashioned American conservatism — do a better job of explaining the Trump movement.

The debate over whether Trump counts as a fascist may seem pedantic, but its consequences for progressive thought are anything but. When we see America as Weimar and Trump as Hitler, we risk repeating past mistakes.

This danger is best illustrated in Eric Weitz’s recent essay, which calls on liberals to resurrect “militant democracy.” This political theory, espoused by many thinkers who fled Nazi Germany, held that free nations must view all dictatorial movements as existential threats. Democracy, they argued, cannot coexist with the enemy; extremist radicals have to be actively destroyed. According to Weitz’s logic, our generation must embrace these sentiments to resist Trump’s fascist takeover.

It may be empowering to see oneself as part of the venerable tradition of antifascist resistance, but reviving militant democracy might end up working against progressive politics. Their analysis of the Weimar Republic made these anti-Nazi thinkers elitist and technocratic; they came to believe that democracy’s survival depends on restricting the people’s power and on forming an unelected, bureaucratic elite shielded from public scrutiny.

To understand how the democratic fear of fascism ultimately eroded democratic practice, we must return to militant democracy’s original theorists. Their story should give pause to anyone who sees their ideas as an answer to our contemporary dilemmas.

Power From the People

Karl Loewenstein and Hans Speier, militant democracy’s first and most influential theorists, best embody the transformation from liberal antifascism to elitist technocracy. At the beginning of their careers — Loewenstein as a liberal political theorist, Speier as a social-democratic sociologist — they were two of the Weimar Republic’s few good guys, powerfully defending democracy’s legitimacy against its authoritarian critics.

Not surprisingly, their agenda did not sit well with the Nazis, and Loewenstein and Speier fled Germany in 1933. From their exile in the United States, they resumed their pro-democratic campaign, but now with a crucial twist. Fascism’s triumph, they wrote, showed that democratic states had to transform into new, “militant” regimes, ready and willing to use whatever means necessary — including those used by fascists — to defeat their opponents.

Three insights founded Loewenstein and Speier’s project. First, they insisted that all free nations needed to recognize that they faced the same threat. Fascists were trying to take over not only in Berlin and Rome, but also in Amsterdam, Washington, and Rio. If successful, they would form a “Fascist International,” Loewenstein warned, “transcend[ing] national borders.”

Second, and more substantially, the two maintained that democracy’s weakness lay in the freedoms it granted its enemies. Democratic states, they noted, gave rights like free speech to every member of society, regardless of political affiliation. This naïve moralism, however, allowed antidemocratic activists to infiltrate political institutions, exploiting freedom in order to undo it.

Like some of today’s theorists, they grounded this argument in Weimar Germany. Hitler and his violent supporters, they explained, used democratic rights to undermine the republic long before coming to power. Loewenstein believed that “the mechanism of democracy” represented “the Trojan horse by which the enemy enters the city.”

Finally, and most importantly, fascism’s success demonstrated that the people could not be trusted to protect democracy. In moments of crisis, the masses succumbed to “emotionalism” and gave up their rights in favor of vague promises of future national and/or racial glory. The people’s embrace of demagogues’ blatantly unrealistic — if not outright idiotic — visions proved that ordinary folks had no real politics, just fantasies.

In Weimar, Speier remembered, he saw many people who were “Nazis today, who tomorrow became communists, or who were communists yesterday and had today become Nazis. This depended partly on chance, [partly on] where there was more beer or where there was more noise.” Democracy’s most glaring weakness, then, was its dependence on the masses’ capacity for rational thought, which was sorely lacking.

How, then, was democracy to be protected from its internal enemies? If the very people on whom democracy was supposed to rest willingly voted for liberty’s dissolution, how could democrats prevent another fascist wave? Loewenstein and Speier imagined a new kind of state that could respond to these threats. We had to reconstruct electoral regimes, they claimed, along elitist and “militant” lines.

The Secret State

At the heart of Loewenstein and Speier’s new theory lay the notion that democracy could only thrive if authority belonged to responsible experts. If the masses handed the sacred trust of self-government to dictators or refused to resist fascist regimes, then a small group of cool-minded technocrats must seize power in order to preserve democracy. Crucially, these experts must be empowered to act without public approval or even knowledge.

While neither Loewenstein nor Speier explained how to choose this elite — let alone prevent it from abusing its own powers — both believed that democracy’s survival depended on creating this epistocracy. As Loewenstein put it in 1940,

We should not impute to the leading men in our government dishonest or partisan motives. They are as responsible as we are, and they have the advantage of better insight and access to information which, for obvious reasons, must be withheld from the public. Democratic government does not mean that the amateurs interfere with the work of the experts . . .

Speier offered a similar sentiment in 1949, when he claimed

that a point has been reached in world history where some American leaders should consider themselves to be called upon to sacrifice secretly their own cherished [democratic] values in order to enable their countrymen to live with these values in the future.

The public, in short, must not be allowed to rule: only the expert technocrat could govern responsibly.

More than anything, Loewenstein and Speier focused on what was then beginning to be called national security. Economic planning, welfare programming, race, and gender — all key to fascism’s appeal — rarely appeared in their writings, which always centered on state violence. The two believed that the police and the military were the pillars of freedom. Democracies had to establish massive security apparatuses to track and neutralize threats at home and abroad.

If this vision appealed to their readers, it was partly because it deflected attention from the problems fascism claimed to solve. Democratic regimes worked just fine, the two émigrés held, and there was no need to reform capitalist economic policies or tackle their dependence on harsh class and social hierarchies. Free states only had to learn how to effectively suppress an ignorant public and defeat democracy’s existential enemies: first fascism, then communism.

Indeed, militant democracy proved amazingly adaptable, and scholars and politicians adopted it as a crucial tool throughout the redbaiting 1950s. In 1956, for example, the German Supreme Court outlawed communism and suppressed its organizations, arguing that they were identical to fascism; the justices proclaimed their ruling “an affirmation of ‘militant democracy.’”

While this elitist vision enjoyed considerable resonance in post-fascist Europe, it reached its apotheosis in the Cold War United States. As the rising American leviathan was awash in anticommunist anxiety, many liberals embraced Loewenstein and Speier’s belief that the emergent security state must be free from democratic accountability. This was the logic that undergirded the proliferation of vast institutions like the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, shrouded in secrecy from their inception. In both, self-appointed experts with no public accountability had free rein to enact aggressive policies, ranging from psychological warfare to political assassination.

Left-leaning scholars often attribute the deep state’s rise to imperial aspirations or to the pressures of capitalist expansion. Far too often they forget that, at heart, it was responding to fascism’s then-recent success. Democracy’s disintegration, especially in Germany and Japan, convinced a generation of liberal thinkers that democracy’s core problem was the demos itself.

Not surprisingly, Loewenstein and Speier found it easy to identify as both advocates of democracy and servants of the new American security establishment. Loewenstein helped coordinate massive surveillance and detention campaigns against “subversive” fascists and communists in Latin America, while Speier, serving as a consultant to the State Department and Psychological Strategy Board, promoted the destabilization of Eastern Bloc regimes.

The bitter irony, of course, is that the institutions that emerged from this kind of theory exacerbated, rather than mitigated, the threats they were supposed to quash. While xenophobia and racism remain critical to understanding populism’s appeal, the sense that people have no control over their own government and that too much power is concentrated in the hands of unaccountable elites also fuels popular outrage.

What is more, the institutions Loewenstein and Speier called for actually weaken democracy. Much of the anxiety surrounding the Trump administration stems from the enormous tools of state violence that are now under the executive branch’s unsupervised command. Loewenstein, Speier, and those who shared their vision never considered that technocracy could work both ways.

Beyond the Weimar Analogy

Seeing our own moment through the lens of the Weimar Republic, then, comes with considerable peril. To be sure, Trump and some of his supporters are keeping its resonance alive. It is impossible not to object to his consistent undermining of democratic norms or the barrage of white-supremacist calls for violence and racial discrimination. The appearance of the Nazi salute makes this comparison even harder to resist.

It is equally difficult not to wonder, as Jamelle Bouie recently did, if Trump supporters, who either embrace or tolerate intense bigotry, do not fall beyond the scope of democratic engagement. According to liberals like Bouie, calling Trump and his supporters fascists is not only honest but also recognizes that there can be no dialogue, only confrontation, with the enemy.

Condemning fascism, however, is not a productive progressive agenda. The political value of such a strategy is limited, as the Clinton campaign recently learned; but more importantly, as Loewenstein and Speier’s project shows, it can easily become a dismissal of democratic principles, treating the public as a force to be avoided rather than engaged.

If anything, Trump’s disturbing victory provides the Left with the opportunity to reject technocratic politics and the close collaboration between the government and economic elites. Rather than retreating into “militant democracy,” progressives should build viable coalitions, commit to distributionist policies, and address the needs of the many.

In the process, we should retire the Weimar analogy. Historical comparison can be useful, but it would be even better to develop a new way of confronting the problems that we face.