“The Democratic Party,” wrote the late Walter Laqueur, was “liberal and slightly left-of-centre in outlook, progressive but not too much so, in favour of reform but afraid of going too far. . . . They had quite a few professors among their leading supporters and also some bankers and industrialists, but for the majority of academics . . . [it] was quite unacceptable.” Bourgeois parties “are never militant, almost by definition”—and the “Democratic Party was perhaps the least militant of all.”
Central to its impotence, Laqueur believed, was “the mood of an activist younger generation.” An “unthinking, aimless radicalism,” which “preferred drums to speeches and parades to long and inconclusive discussions,” could “turn left or right or lead nowhere at all.” Not just on college campuses: “Contempt for ‘the system,’” its “vested interests, cliques, and party caucuses,” permeated the middle class. Leftists “attacked the Republic and all it stood for as something that was rotten through and through,” while conservatives thought “‘the system’ so corrupt that any political order that succeeded it would be an improvement”—even as they complained (correctly) that “the left was anti-patriotic.” Both sides “were unhappy, though for different reasons, with . . . the existing state of affairs.” “There was not the slightest willingness to take each other’s point of view seriously, let alone to compromise.”
That, at any rate, is how Laqueur saw Weimar Germany with the benefit of hindsight.
America is not Weimar. We have not lost a World War or been forced to pay war debt; we’ve had 250 years of democracy, not 25; Trump isn’t Hitler, and Biden, whatever his faults, isn’t calling for communism. There is street violence, but a lot less of it—for unlike Weimar, we do not generally let paramilitary groups supplant the police, Seattle’s “autonomous zone” being the exception that proves the rule.
But the exceptions are mounting. In Portland, protestors attempted to create an autonomous zone of their own by barricading the area with stolen property and blocking the exits of a nearby police precinct; “going to burn the building down,” one man threatened. In Minneapolis, a precinct actually did burn down after it was set ablaze by “demonstrators,” two of whom (both white) were subsequently charged. In Kenosha, riots claimed two lives and several more city blocks, which were “indistinguishable from a war zone” by the time the dust settled.
And throughout the country, from New York City to Chicago to Washington, DC, shootings have surged alongside looting—in some places, by over 400 percent—destroying lives and livelihoods in their wake.
On its own, this would hardly warrant comparison with Weimar. Crime and violence are as American as apple pie, and street fighting, though aesthetically German, has plenty of precedent in the U.S. What recalls interwar Germany is not the chaos itself, but the way it has been excused, even encouraged, by those notionally in a position to stop it—many of whom seem ambivalent about whether the republic it threatens deserves defense. Examples of this excuse-making include, but are not limited to:
- The true but trivial claim that the protests have been “mostly” peaceful.
- The argument, made by a Pulitzer-winning New York Times journalist, that “destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence.”
- A widely-circulated essay, written during the Ferguson protests of 2014, that defends looting as a “righteous,” attention-grabbing tactic in the fight against white supremacy. (The author subsequently elaborated her arguments in a controversial interview with NPR.)
It is telling that, despite reaching the same conclusion, these excuses all contradict one another. If violence were extraordinarily rare (1), there would be no reason to deny its status as violence (2), or to defend its tactical value (3)—whereas if looting weren’t violent, if it didn’t disrupt or endanger life, its attention-grabbing power would be extraordinarily diminished. The contradictions suggest that elite alegality isn’t rooted in any specific principle, but rather a kind of inchoate radicalism: a vague, burn-it-down impulse increasingly common across the political spectrum, whose ends are drifting farther and farther apart. If the 2016 election seemed to confirm the existence of “asymmetric” polarization, the 2020 tumult suggests that polarization can only remain asymmetric for so long.
And as the symmetries grow more apparent, the shadow of Weimar grows longer still. Much has been made—too much—of what are ultimately very weak parallels between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. But though Trump’s America looks nothing like Nazi Germany, it has developed echoes of the Republic from which Nazism arose—echoes that implicate the left no less than the right. Weimar was not, as is sometimes suggested, a good society beset by bigots and bad luck. It was a febrile, dysfunctional culture in which few voters, and even fewer elites, believed in the Republic they eventually dissolved. We often hear about the perils of “bothsidesism,” of treating “fascists” and “anti-fascists” as equivalent threats. Yet in the collapse of Weimar Germany, both sides played an important role.
To be fair, Weimar didn’t have a whole lot to work with. One of the things it did not have—or rather had stolen—was a well-defined founding. Officially, it began outside the German Reichstag on November 9, 1918, where the Social Democratic minister Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the birth of the Republic. But unofficially, it began at Hohenzollern Palace two hours later, when the communist leader Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a Republic of his own—the first of many such putsches by Germany’s leftmost wing. The repeated attempts to overthrow the government, and the fact that the Social Democrats, like the communists, claimed to be committed Marxists, made it easy for the right to blame instability on the left, and for the masses to associate that instability with Weimar's socialist architects.
But many republics, including ours, had violent foundings. What made Weimar special, as the historian Detlev Peukert put it, was that it “was not marked by an event that served as an old-fashioned but politically unifying . . . moment in national history, along the lines of the American Declaration of Independence.” It had two competing proclamations, two rival origin stories, which meant that there was “no legitimizing founding ritual” to sustain “active commitment to the new order.” Germans did, of course, debate which story was the true one. That it was debated at all both signaled and intensified a profound lack of legitimacy, an open wound ripe for infection.
These disagreements—less about facts than about symbolism—did not mean collapse was inevitable. (Weimar survived the 1920s, after all.) But they did mean that there were few common reference points to rein in polarization, and more chances for insurgent ideologies—never mind actual insurgents—to gain steam.
Weimar had no shortage of radicals; centrists, on the other hand, were a dying breed. The intelligentsia fell roughly into one of two camps: leftists who hated everything about Germany, from its culture to its constitution; and rightists who hated the constitution because it was insufficiently German—which is to say, insufficiently authoritarian. The last group dominated the universities, whose reliance on public funds did not dampen their rancor toward the Republic. In fairness, those funds hadn’t stopped the academic job market from cratering after WWI, which meant that even the best-credentialed thinkers were often precariously employed. With few prospects in the existing system, the intellectual class saw little reason to defend it, and had an easy time rationalizing its destruction. The upshot was that college-educated civil servants typically hated the Republic they were serving, as did judges, policymakers, and educators. Ditto artists, journalists, and playwrights, though these professions skewed left.
Beyond their shared anti-Republicanism, all that the two sides had in common was their contempt for one another. The left derided the right as backwards-looking and chauvinistic, while the right derided the left as self-hating and unpatriotic—all of which, it must be said, was true. Kurt Tucholsky, Weimar’s leading leftwing satirist, complained that “the German spirit was poisoned almost beyond recovery,” and that “German democracy [was] a facade and a lie.” “There is no secret of the Germany army I would not hand over readily to a foreign power,” he bragged in 1931, a boast that did not exactly endear him to the people who took power in ‘33. Those people, of course, were just as Tucholsky described them: irredeemable, backwards bigots whose deaths could not come soon enough.
But the Nazis never won more than a plurality of the vote—and most conservative elites were not Nazis. (Indeed, several became their victims.) What united the right was not a particular political program, but a general sense of grievance against the far left and republican center, distinct groups it would often synonymize. Marxism, modernism, liberalism—these were all shades of the same thing, corruptions of the old order. An equal but opposite elision occured on the left, with the communists calling everyone to their right—including the Social Democrats—fascists, an unfair charge that many leftwing intellectuals nonetheless echoed. The result of these stereo-stereotypes was threefold.
First, they exacerbated Weimar’s crisis of legitimacy. If the Republic lacked a founding ritual, the elites were in no hurry to invent one; rather, the “center” was so widely anathematized that it effectively didn’t exist. In one case, the communists even endorsed a Nazi referendum to overthrow the Social Democratic government in Prussia, on the theory that social democracy was a greater threat than National Socialism. Status attached to radicalism, so most status-seeking individuals sought to subvert the Republic, lest they be viewed as supporting it. If you “liked” Weimar, you were either anti-German or anti-worker—and who wanted to be one of those? It should go without saying that each side also saw the other as illegitimate, which made compromise and crisis-management more difficult. And since crises were chronically mismanaged, skepticism of the Republic seemed chronically rational.
So did polarization. The second consequence of mutual antipathy was that each side came to resemble—and thus to justify—the other’s caricatures. Germany really did have an authoritarian, militaristic streak; that’s why Tucholsky’s comment about its “poisoned” national spirit drew blood. The German left really was contemptuous of the German people; that’s what made it such an easy target for the right. But these half-justified perceptions could also lead to a kind of complacency. “Tucholsky and his friends thought that . . . the Social Democrats were the most reactionary politicians in the world,” Laqueur mused. “They sincerely believed that fascism was already ruling Germany . . . until the horrors of the Third Reich overtook them.” An imagined dictatorship thus gave way to a real one—in part because Weimar’s imagination got the better of it.
Third, by coding everyone as either a Nazi or a commie, the political culture laid the groundwork for political violence. If the Social Democrats were really fascists, as the communists claimed, the Social Democratic Reichstag was already a dictatorship, impossible to resist through peaceful means; whereas if they were Bolsheviks, or even Bolshevik sympathizers, preserving order would paradoxically require insurrection—a “conservative revolution,” in which the overthrow was overthrown. Hence the famous paramilitary groups—Freikorps and Sturmabteilung (SA) on the right, Red Front and Antifaschistische Aktion (“antifa”) on the left—who fought for control of Weimar’s streets.
The streetfighters themselves were not terribly ideological: “[T]he Communist leadership,” one historian notes, “was chagrined to discover...that material on the ‘Foundations of the Class Struggle’ and the ‘Materialist and Idealist Worldview’ produced far less interest” among its militia “than military-political instruction, weapons training, and jujitsu. . . . [T]hose most interested in fighting were often the least interested in ideological niceties.” As a result, many communists became Stormtroopers, and many Stormtroopers became communists, switching sides whenever theirs seemed insufficiently militant.
But because elites had ideologized the violence, there was no non-polarizing way to address it. When the Social Democrats did crack down on riots, such as those in Berlin in 1929, the ensuing bloodshed just radicalized everyone further, such that any act of centrist self-assertion was effectively self-defeating. Liberal parties, such as the German Democrats, fell in the polls; illiberal ones, including the communists and the Nazis, rose.
Then again, without a crackdown the rioting could have morphed into a coup—perhaps from the left, but more likely from the right, whose pitch to restore order the petite bourgeoisie would have backed. Once violence entered the polarization cycle, it was more or less inevitable one pole would win.
Sensing this inevitability, the Social Democrats had a choice: move far enough left to appease the communists, risking a civil war that they would probably lose; or work with the illiberal but numerically dominant right, in the hope of keeping its worst elements at bay. Understandably, they saw the latter as the lesser of two evils. We know what happened next.
What we don’t know is the counterfactual. It’s possible that a united left would have defeated the Nazis without succumbing to Stalinism. But given Stalin’s influence over the German Communist Party—and the fact that, under his instructions, the Party spent more time attacking the center-left than the far right—it’s a stretch. To reach a detente with the communists, the Social Democrats would have had to embrace the full-scale abolition of private property, and the oppression needed to achieve it. A Soviet satellite might have been less bad, all things considered, than the Third Reich, but that’s like saying the Stasi would have been “less bad” than the Gestapo.
And while there probably would have been no Holocaust without Hitler, “probably” is the appropriate qualifier. In Weimar, anti-Semitism often functioned as a symbol for anti-Republicanism; since the communists strove to be more anti-Republican than the Nazis, they naturally strove to be more anti-Semitic, too. Communist newspapers alleged that the NSDAP was in fact a Jewish plot to crush the revolution. Jewish merchants (a double slur) were accused of selling Hitler postcards for personal profit. “We’re the real anti-Semites,” the communists claimed, promising to end Jewish influence over film and finance. Their Soviet patron, which had its own history of violent Jew hate, would have happily helped them.
There is thus an element of moral luck in the way we remember Weimar. It was the Nazis, not the communists, to whom the Social Democrats “sold out” (because the communists were hankering for civil war). It was the Nazis, not the communists, who ultimately dissolved the Reichstag (after the communists set fire to it). It was the Nazis, not the communists, who slaughtered 6 million Jews (even though the communists had accused the Nazis of being insufficiently anti-Jewish). In other words, it was the Nazis who were the greater of two evils—but only because they got the chance to be.
And insofar as the communists enabled the Nazis—at the same time, of course, that the Nazis enabled them—they were indispensable to Weimar’s tragic fall.
Much of this, the self-loathing and the street violence in particular, resonated with Americans who lived through the 1960s. Some compared New Left anti-Americanism to Weimar anti-Republicanism; others, the polarization of Congress to the polarization of the Reichstag. But these comparisons were forced. For one thing, American leftists claimed to be redeeming American democracy, and valorized (parts of) the American tradition; German communists made no such claim. For another, America's economy was strong, with rising incomes and low unemployment; Weimar’s, to put it mildly, was weak.
The deeper difference, however, was that the counterculture was just that—a revolt against a basically pro-America establishment, a not-so-silent majority of businessmen, religious leaders, and journalists who, when push came to shove, pushed back. Civil rights went mainstream; black nationalism did not. Professors dabbled in radical theory; middle school teachers did not. Peaceful protests elicited sympathy and social change; violent ones, as the political scientist Omar Wasow has shown, spurred tough-on-crime backlash. And no major newspapers debated whether 1776 was our true founding—that would obviously be crazy.
Fast forward to 2020. The 1619 project, which “aims to reframe the country’s history” around the year the first slaves arrived in the colonies, has already been incorporated into several K-12 curricula. Just 39 percent of Americans under 30 say the founders were “heroes,” according to a nationally representative poll; the rest say “villains” (31 percent) or “it depends” (20 percent). Foundational aspects of American culture—individualism, property rights, the rule of law—are anathematized as “whiteness” by school districts, city governments, national museums, and even The Department of Homeland Security. Mainstream magazines air calls to abolish the constitution; the DC City Council recommends removing the Washington Monument. Young people, who were already struggling before COVID, have few reasons to buy into the system, and even fewer to buy a house. And a group that calls itself “Antifa” is attacking police officers and mobbing mayors, while rightwing “citizen soldiers” patrol—and shoot up—the streets.
Concerning as both groups may be, committed communists and fascists remain rare in American life. Far more common are accusations of communism and fascism, which, as Tucholsky et co. discovered, have a centrifugal logic of their own. Ironically, the tired comparison between Trump and Hitler is itself evocative of the period that preceded the latter, to a greater degree than anything done by the former. On one level, the promiscuous use of “fascism” delegitimizes the legitimately elected head of state, and the 63 million people who voted for him. But on another, the term can paradoxically produce complacency about the legitimacy crisis that it escalates—for if fascists are already in power, it is hard to imagine how things could get worse. As Weimar’s left learned the hard way, things can always get worse.
The right may soon learn the same lesson. Having been denied cultural and certain forms of political power, since 2016 it has taken an increasingly radical turn. Michael Anton’s “Flight 93 Election,” Sohrab Ahmari’s “Against David French-ism,” Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement, and other popular pro-Trump tracts all defend breaking present norms in the service of reestablishing older ones—what the Claremont institute’s Matthew Peterson calls an American “re-founding.” Re-founding is not revolution per se, and some older norms would be better (and more authentically liberal) than their successors.
But the embrace of norm-breaking carries with it two intrinsic risks: first, that the left will follow suit and harness the breakdown for its own ends; and second, that the breakdown will make way for a much less liberal, much more radical right, which does not seek re-founding so much as regime change.
Neither risk is purely hypothetical. The most disturbing manifestation of the first has been the breathless talk of a color revolution against Trump, prettified by Resistance rhetoric and justified in terms of Trump’s own antinomianism; the most disturbing manifestation of the second has been the open call for a counter-revolution against liberalism itself, which, in the eyes of some postliberal theorists, is no less oppressive than the Soviet Bloc.
“Revolution” is their term, not mine. Patrick Deneen, whose 2018 Why Liberalism Failed proved hugely influential on the intellectual right, recently tweeted a list of “revolutionary” conservatives who “seek an advance out of liberalism … with the aim of making a genuine conservatism possible.” Included on that list was Adrian Vermeule, who supports the creation of a Catholic theocracy in North America, and Yoram Hazony, who flirts with the integration of church and state. Deneen himself has said that the Founders did “not foresee … that their atomistic philosophy would act as a solvent on our civic institutions,” even as he’s criticized corporate America for its “faux-patriotism,” and the anti-patriotic wokeness to which it’s given way. Whatever one thinks of these sentiments, there is clearly a tension between them: if the founding philosophy of our country has made genuine conservatism impossible as Deneen suggests, why should conservatives treasure our founding heritage, or respond with outrage to its detractors? Why should they shy away from radicalism, if the rot begins at the beginning?
Characteristic of conservative revolutionaries is a vagueness about what comes after the rot’s removal. With the possible exception of Vermeule, most post-liberals seem unable or unwilling to articulate a positive political blueprint that reconciles modern realities to pre-modern mores, beyond cheerleading things that disrupt the former. The same could be said, almost verbatim, of the rightwing intellectuals in Weimar, whom Laqueur described thus:
Many of them were not ‘conservatives’ in the traditional sense, for what was there to conserve? ... Since they had no alternative to capitalism and had no idea how a modern society could be run without industry, their critique [of the system] was necessarily vague … [and] ‘purely destructive’.… They were most eloquent in their attacks on liberalism, but they had little to offer of their own.
That negativity did not translate into support for Nazism, which remained a fringe position among German intellectuals. But it both reflected and reified the radical climate that made Nazism viable, while at the same time discrediting the guardrails that might have kept Bolshevism (Nazism’s useful foil) in check.
And the conservative revolutionaries of our own time may be playing a similar role. They are not fascists, their ideas don’t command wide support, and, given America’s libertarian lineage, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. They are, however, a bellwether of radicalization, a sign that the right’s commitment to constitutionalism has atrophied alongside the left’s. And—insofar as ideas have consequences—they are also agents of that atrophy, supplying the mimetic material that serves to justify and accelerate it.
You can debate which role, bellwether or creator, best describes postliberalism vis a vis our current crisis of legitimacy. My money is on “bellwether,” though by Deneen’s own lights the case for “creator” can’t be ruled out, since his whole project assumes that “philosophy” can act as an institutional solvent, a catalyst for unforeseen unravelings. Either way, it’s evidence of conservatism’s anti-conservative turn, which bears some similarities (some) to the Weimar-era right.
The political avatar for that turn won’t be with us much longer if polling trends hold. But the revolutionary impulse, whose roots predate Trump, will remain and possibly intensify under Biden. Which means that instead of just pushing back against progressivism, the right may begin to push in new, non-liberal directions, away from the norms and understandings that permit the peaceful management of diversity.
So, unlike the 60s, you have a dynamic in which both sides are behaving like radicals, in which the establishment isn’t yelling “stop,” and in which oikophobia is more evenly distributed, relative to its Boomer-era baseline. Taken individually, none of these differences would warrant Weimar analogies. But taken together, they suggest that we are closer to the precipice than we realize—or, as the historian Peter Gay limned Weimar, that we are “dancing on the edge of a volcano,” oblivious to the fiery depths below.
And in this dance, each side is performing as the other expects. The right, accused of racism and authoritarianism, has thrown its support behind a birtherist who won’t say if he’ll concede the election. The left, accused of lawlessness and thought control, has simultaneously condoned riots and defrocked dissidents, outsourcing its Orwellian ambitions to the institutions that it rules. Intellectual conservatism, accused of abandoning liberal democracy, produces scathing jeremiads against liberalism; academic leftists, accused of abandoning America, pen paeans to cop-killers.
That is to say: Each side rationalizes the perceptions of its enemies, which makes the dance difficult to disrupt.
Amplifying this difficulty is the fact that moderates really do face a choice about the lesser of two evils. If you believe (as I do) that four more years of Trump presents an unacceptable risk, you have an incentive to support a man whose party parrots the rhetoric of critical race theory—a favorite foil for the Trumpian right. If you believe (as some of my friends do) that critical race theory is even more dangerous than Donald Trump, you have an incentive to support a man whose vileness and incompetence carry their own costs, one of which is the further derangement of his opponents.
Case in point: roughly a third of both Democrats and Republicans now say there is some justification for political violence, a fourfold increase since 2017. The depressing statistic highlights the speed and symmetry of polarization, the breakdown of norms needed to channel it, and the potential for polarization to get much worse—for as Weimar’s Social Democrats discovered, the response to political violence can easily feed the resentments that stoked it, begetting more violence in return.
On and on, self-sustaining and self-justifying, until both sides are so radical that Trump v. Biden seems quaint by comparison.
It won’t necessarily feel like we’re on the volcano’s edge. Should Biden trounce Trump as pollsters and pundits are predicting, the next four years may well be calmer, in relative terms, than the four that preceded them. So it felt to many Germans between 1924 and 1929, as Weimar’s domestic conflicts cooled to a simmer. Radical parties lost votes, the economic situation stabilized, the putsches paused, and street violence subsided, in what many thought was a period of normalization. But the stability proved deceptive, a smokescreen for the deeper divisions gathering steam. Intellectuals, bureaucrats, and other bourgeois stakeholders remained resolutely anti-Republican, as did their Bolshevik critics, and by the early 1930s, what once seemed to be stabilization looked more and more like sclerosis, a grueling cycle of radicalization that had hallowed out liberalism from within.
Thus the danger of a return-to-normalcy discourse in our own case: Moderate as Biden is, he stands little chance of stopping progressivism’s leftward drift, to which Trump was both a reaction and an impetus. Nor is there any reason to believe a second Trump term won’t polarize us further still, even if no single year of it proves quite as chaotic as 2020.
And without widespread respect for our civic heritage, there will be scant institutional ballast to constrain either pole. So if one of them wins a decisive victory over the other, the result could be a regime with truly tyrannical edge—not a dictatorship of the proletariat, not a redux of the Third Reich, but a form of despotism all its own, peculiar to the dialectic this dark year has brought to light.
Since America is not Weimar, and it is the left rather than the right that controls the culture, I suspect our own despotism (if it comes) will end up being woke instead of trad. The Nazis always had one crucial advantage over their totalitarian competitors: National Socialism, unlike Bolshevism, drew on distinctively German antecedents. The militarism, the racialism, the rightwing bureaucratism were not imports so much as intensifications, heightened forms of an inherited cultural tendency. Bolshevism, on the other hand, took shape in Russia, and had few institutional forbearers in Germany. The American situation is almost the opposite: Conservatism, in both its nationalist and postliberal forms, is borrowing heavily from European traditions that have no American precedent, while the left has simply leaned into its Puritan, Protestant roots, substituting the wokes for the WASPs. That gives progressivism a home field advantage in our emergent culture war; so far, it doesn’t seem to have squandered it.
But I could be wrong. And the lesson of Weimar is that it may not matter much who’s right. Regardless of which side is more “moral” in a Kantian sense—regardless of which has better intentions, loftier aims, or fewer, less serious sins—the fact remains that both are hollowing out the center, both are enabling their own charlatans, and both are baiting their opponents to up the ante, only to double down when they do take the bait.
Should the spiral end in a tyranny of left or right, in other words, the victims will bear some responsibility for their tyrants. And the tyrants will be able to say, truthfully, that their victims might not have been any better, thus reinforcing the regime.
This sort of cause-and-effect framework can seem harsh, even heartless. But we make a grave moral error in ignoring it. In 1919, one year into Weimar’s short-lived life, the German sociologist Max Weber gave a talk titled Politics as a Vocation, in which he outlined two moral systems the statesman must navigate: an “ethic of conviction,” which demands that he pursue justice; and an “ethic of responsibility,” which demands that he consider the consequences of his doing so. In at least some cases, Weber suggested, the second imperative trumps the first. Social justice is all well and good, but it does not justify burning down the Reichstag—or, one might add, the Minneapolis police station.
Needless to say, Weber’s compatriots did not get the memo. The ethic of conviction dominated left and right alike, until it pushed Weimar over the volcano’s edge. What they lacked is what we presently need: an ethic of responsibility to temper our convictions. The only way we’ll avoid the flames is if both sides rediscover it.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe