World War II is regarded as the deadliest war in history, showing the abominable consequences of totalitarian regimes and establishing global tensions that still exist today. The war ended more than 70 years ago, and yet political scientists still theorize about what caused a democratic country like Germany to descend into authoritarianism. Over time, history books have increasingly emphasized the injustices committed by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Benito Mussolini, causing us to place complete blame on three individuals rather than the institutions and support that allowed them to gain such power.
The relationship between cause and effect is essential to social science; if we were investigating the cause of the Holocaust, we might take an agentic approach and point toward the Nazi Party. However, determining the cause of Weimar Germany’s democratic decline calls for a more structural approach and an in-depth look at how factors like the Weimar Constitution contributed to the republic’s demise.
1. Weimar Germany was doomed from the get-go.
Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, the international community wasted no time developing a new state. In this haste, Friedrich Ebert of the Social Democratic Party was thrust into the position of the first-ever President of the Weimar Republic in 1919. The country’s new semi-presidential system meant that Ebert had more power than a typical Head of State — power which he used to issue numerous executive orders and appoint two chancellors during his six-year tenure. Despite the blurred line between where the president’s power ended and the chancellor’s began, German democracy appeared relatively stable between 1919 and 1932, embracing policies of universal suffrage and a system of checks and balances that made Germany more liberal than any of its neighbors. Considering the state’s appearance of stability, where did things go wrong?
2. Hitler’s rise to power was a symbol of institutional weakness.
If you’re familiar with the United States’ “elastic clause” you may recall that it grants extraneous power to Congress for carrying out federal responsibilities. Where the Weimar Republic failed, however, is in the elasticity of Article 48 that allowed the president to “suspend civil rights and operate independently in an emergency.” Without executive restraints or any clear definition of “emergency,” Hitler extended this power and passed the Enabling Act of 1933, which formally suspended democracy in Germany by transferring all political power to himself. Article 48 was likely drafted with the assumption that it would be used benevolently in the case of legislative standstill, but its ambiguity paved the path for any ill-intending leader to dismantle German democracy as easily as Hitler did.
3. Charisma and connections go a long way.
With a weak constitutional foundation, economic turmoil from the stock market crash, and a dissatisfied electorate, democratic backsliding was largely inevitable for Weimar Germany. Hitler simply played the waiting game as he built up public support and found the right time to attack his prey. By 1932, the Nazi Party controlled a majority of legislative seats, and one year later, a revolutionary became a dictator. How did he get so far? With empty promises, anti-communist sentiments, and more than a decade’s worth of networking, Hitler established trust between himself, the administration, and the citizenry. When he rose from appointed chancellor to self-appointed führer, Hitler ushered in a complete transformation of Germany from a proportionally-represented democracy to a one-party state with significant help from Article 48. When he first gained power, it was believed that the administration would “never permit a dictatorship to be established,” but these words are often said before many autocrats rise to power, showing the unpredictability of such downfalls. In their piece, How Democracies Die, political scientists Levitsky and Ziblatt present warning signs of democratic erosion and suggest that party elites play a substantial role. Still, in the case of the Weimar Republic, the classification of mainstream and anti-mainstream parties was constantly changing, allowing authoritarian candidates to slip through the cracks. Whether it was Hitler or someone else, the Weimar Republic was left vulnerable and unfortified from its creation, allowing a charismatic and well-connected leader such as Hitler to take advantage.
Above all, it is crucial that we learn from the mistakes of the Weimar Constitution and study the potential legislative ambiguities in our own systems that could place power in the hands of a similar oppressor. In recent years, US Presidents have been criticized for overuse of executive orders under the National Emergency Act, which poses a threat to American democracy. This concept has been described as a necessary evil, but one that is strikingly similar to the route that Hitler took to gain power. The implementation of proper checks and balances remains one of the most important factors of a stable governmental foundation. Though Weimar Germany had positive trends of liberal democracy, as do many countries, those factors meant nothing when accompanied by the constitutional loophole that allowed for executive aggrandizement and the eventual downfall of the republic.