The upsurge of racist attacks in Germany has got commentators and politicians
worrying about a possible rerun of the violence that preceded the Nazi seizure
of power. Rob Knight finds a hidden agenda behind the renewed debate about
the Weimar era
Return to the Weimar Republic?
Suddenly everybody in Germany seems to be talking about the spectre of the
Weimar Republic. The current situation has been widely compared to the violent
last days of the government, founded in the town of Weimar in Thuringia,
which was killed off by Hitler's ascent to power in 1933.
In November 1992, a few hundred egg-throwing anarchists disrupted a march
against racist violence led by Germany's president Richard von Weizsäcker
in Berlin. Speaking from behind a wall of riot police, von Weizsäcker
compared the actions of the anarchists and the spate of racist attacks by
right wingers to the street violence which characterised the latter days
of the Weimar Republic. Weimar, he said, failed 'not because there were
too many Nazis so early on, but because there were so few democrats for
The president's warnings echoed those of former chancellor Helmut Schmidt
of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). When an immigrant hostel was attacked
last year at Rostock, Mecklenburg, Schmidt said that 'one can only compare
what is going on with 1933'. After the racist murder of Turkish immigrants
in November, the leader of Germany's Jewish community, Ignatz Bubis, warned
that 'if the democratic parties do not come to a consensus quickly, then
Weimar is not far away'. Responding to the same attacks, chancellor Helmut
Kohl felt obliged to insist defensively that 'there could be no comparison
An obsession with the past has been a central feature of German politics
for some time. Now, however, the historical debate has broadened out from
the Hitler years themselves, to focus on the unstable Weimar era during
which the Nazis rose to power.
The Weimar republic years (1919-33) coincided with a deep crisis in German
society. Defeat in the First World War had destroyed the authority of the
old order, symbolised in the abdication of the Kaiser. By 1923 there had
been three serious attempts at working class revolution in Germany. They
failed, and Weimar was left to stagger on as an example of capitalism at
its most fragile.
The economic consequences of Germany's defeat were roaring inflation and
economic depression, which further destabilised society. The crisis of Weimar
prompted the growth of mass parties both on the left and the right; supporters
of the pro-Stalin Communist Party and of Hitler's National Socialists clashed
openly in the streets. Weimar finally fell after Hitler became chancellor
in January 1933 and set about stamping out all opposition.
Investigating an obsession with the past often sheds light on the concerns
of the present. The current preoccupation of German politicians with Weimar
is a case in point. The fearful talk of a possible return to the dark days
of the twenties and thirties illustrates three connected aspects of German
First, the renewed debate about Weimar reflects the insecurity and incoherence
of the German ruling elite. Second, it represents an attempt to deal with
that problem of legitimacy by reinforcing the postwar consensus against
'extremism' in Germany. And third, the discussion of Weimar is part of a
broader trend towards the rewriting of German history. Let's look at these
German political life is undergoing a major transformation. Reunification
and the emergence of Germany as the leading power in Europe have sent a
seismic shock through German society. The dramatic changes of the past few
years have undermined apparently sacrosanct beliefs about many things: the
constitution, asylum policies, the EC, foreign policy and the economy. The
sense that things cannot go on in the old way is pervasive, but nobody seems
sure what new direction Germany should take.
Today's political debates in Germany have a curiously fraught and negative
character, which does not correspond to Germany's enhanced position in the
world. Many commentators have blamed this general uncertainty on the weakness
of the established politicians and parties, whose stock has fallen considerably.
In recent elections, fringe groups, mainly from the right, have increased
their support. It is this sense of a loss of authority within the ruling
elite which has encouraged comparisons with Weimar.
Yet the problems facing Germany's rulers today are very different from those
of the past. The Weimar governments were weakened by the legacy of defeat
in the First World War and the impact of the interwar depression. The German
authorities are now in an altogether more favourable position. German capitalism
is the undisputed economic power in Europe, the linchpin of the EC and the
emerging leader of a regional political bloc. It has no serious competitor
in Europe and can look ahead with reasonable confidence to a long period
of Continental hegemony.
So how can we account for the crisis of confidence in ruling circles, a crisis
on such a scale that it has led to speculation about the return of Weimar-style
turmoil? The key is to be found in the end of the Cold War, and the collapse
of the anti-communist ideology which had held (West) German society together
After the Holocaust
After defeat in the Second World War, the German ruling classes were forced
to dissociate themselves from their traditional beliefs of authoritarian
conservatism and nationalism, because of the connection between these ideas
and Nazism. After the partition of Germany and the onset of the Cold War,
the German elite dressed itself in new colours, as a champion of democracy
and enemy of Soviet tyranny. Anti-communism became the defining ideology
of the postwar West German regime.
A system built upon anti- communism can work only as long as there is a
credible communist threat. The end of the Soviet Union means that there
isn't one. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the reunification of Germany
have created the conditions for the assertion of German power in Europe.
Yet, ironically, by removing the sting from anti-communist politics, these
developments have also undermined the identity and authority of the German
establishment at home.
The current trial of Erich Honecker and other old Stalinist leaders from
the East bears eloquent testimony to the importance of anti-communism to
the German authorities. The fact that the government has put sick octogenarians
in the dock indicates its desperation to squeeze the last drops from the
anti-communist consensus. It also shows that anti-communism is near to the
end of the road.
Extremists v moderates
The end of anti-communism has created an ideological vacuum in Germany.
In the absence of any clear idea of what to do in the future, the first instinct
of politicians is to look to the past. There they have found another period
of confusion and change in Germany, which seems to have some superficial
similarities with the current crisis. By comparing the present situation
to the dark days of Weimar, the German elite reveals its own sense of panic
At the same time, however, the spate of comparisons with Weimar also represents
an attempt to manage some of the problems caused for the German authorities
by the end of the Cold War. By emphasising the threat of Weimar-scale 'extremism'
from both left and right, the authorities urge all 'moderate' Germans to
support the government in its time of adversity.
Late last year the German press carried statistics released by the German
secret service showing the number of acts of violence committed by left
and right-wing activists. After the anarchist intervention in the Berlin
demonstration, leading politicians attacked 'extremists' of both left and
right for disrupting German society as they did during the Weimar period.
The attempt to link together 'Red terror' and Nazism under the banner of
extremism was a constant theme of German politics during the Cold War. The
recent Weimar scare stories are a renewed bid to depict the authorities
as besieged by extremists of left and right, to consolidate support for
the parties of the German establishment, and to bolster the authority of
the German state.
The race issue demonstrates how this process works. By posing as the moderate
face of German politics, the Christian Democratic government of chancellor
Kohl can demand support from anti-racists. Meanwhile it continues to pursue
the very anti-immigrant policies which have created the racist climate in
the first place. At the same time that the German government was deporting
thousands of refugees, 350 000 anti-racists joined the government-led demonstration
against the far right in Berlin.
In its use of the extremism issue, the Kohl administration has been assisted
by the calls from anti-racists for firm government action against the far
right. Kohl answered these demands in November by banning the small Nationalist
Front (approx 130 members). That act helped to boost his authority as an
enemy of extremism. It did nothing to help immigrants in Germany who are
threatened by government-sponsored racism. Nor will such an increase in
state powers be of any help to the left, who are in danger of being the
next targets of the state campaign to rid Germany of 'extremists'.
The reinforcing of the consensus against extremism is also reflected in the
way that the Social Democratic opposition has accommodated to government
policies on race. The SPD has accepted the line that immigration has caused
the growth of the far right, in which case combating the right means cutting
immigration. By changing its policies on asylum in this way, and making
important concessions to government policies on other issues, the SPD has
joined a de facto grand coalition with Kohl's Christian Democrats.
The final aspect of the debate about the spectre of Weimar is its use in
rewriting German history. As part of its project of reforging a strong national
identity, the German elite has tried to reduce the stigma of its Nazi past
by equating the atrocities of that era with comparatively trivial modern
examples; so, for instance, president Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia becomes
as bad as Hitler. The comparison between current events in Germany and the
last days of Weimar fits into this pattern.
There is clearly a problem of racist violence in Germany today (as in all
European countries). But it cannot be equated to the fascist terror created
by the Nazi Party's razor gangs. Weimar encapsulated the economic and social
despair, the violence and the brutality of capitalism in its naked state.
By comparing that situation with the actions of a few hundred egg-throwing
anarchists and small gangs of skinhead thugs today, the German authorities
are minimising what Weimar really meant.
Worse, through the trick of association they are shifting the blame for
the crimes of the past on to a few extremists, and obscuring the real cause
of what happened under Weimar - the crisis of German capitalism. In this
way, the German elite continues to wriggle off the hook of history.
A Nazi mess
When an Asian family is firebombed in Britain, the news is unlikely to get
far beyond the pages of the local press. When Turkish families are firebombed
in Germany, it makes headline news on BBC TV and gets splashed across the
British tabloid papers.
The British media and politicians love to talk about the resurgence of 'Nazism'
in Germany. It gives them an excuse to remind us about the Second World
War yet again, and to emphasise the moral superiority of the United Kingdom
over the reunified Germany. The message is that these Germans might wear
suits and act civilised now, but underneath they're jackbooted Nazis just
The focus on German Nazism acts as a distraction from the problem of racism
in Britain. Hostility to immigrants and refugees is just as much a part
of the British way of life as of German society. It is estimated that there
are 70 000 racial incidents in Britain a year - about one every five minutes.
Going on about Nazis also obscures the fact that, in both countries, the
underlying cause of race hatred today is the same: it stems not from the
influence of German history nor of genetic deformity, but from the impact
of government policy. In particular, the avowedly anti-Nazi governments
of Helmut Kohl and John Major have each created an anti-immigrant climate
at home by campaigning for tighter controls on asylum for refugees.
Focusing on the problem of German Nazis can even serve to make racial prejudice
worse in Britain. Hostility to all things German is a potent source
of narrow-mindedness and bigotry in British politics. 'By endorsing the
Daily Mail mentality', as we said in November, 'the British disease
of Kraut-bashing helps to create a poisoned political atmosphere in which
all manner of racial and chauvinist ideas can readily breed.'
The British obsession with German Nazis is a dangerous fixation for those
who want to challenge racism. It misses the point about the real source
of race hatred on both sides of the Channel. And it gives ground to the
argument that Britain is somehow more cultured, more civilised than German
This kind of national conceit is not only nonsense. It also endorses the
very same Little Englander values which are turned against black people,
refugees and immigrants in Britain at least once every five minutes.
There is no contradiction between being a fierce critic of German Nazism,
and a fierce supporter of the British nationalism which underpins domestic
racism. That is why top Tory right-wingers will join in the denunciations
of fascism over there, while at the same time backing the antiimmigrant
Asylum Bill over here. With anti-Nazis like that, who needs jackboots?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993