William Hastie, the first African American to serve as a federal judge, asserted, “Democracy is a process, not a static condition. It is becoming, rather than being. It can easily be lost, but never is fully won. Its essence is eternal struggle.”
If democracy is never “fully won,” then we have a great responsibility to be vigilant fighters in that “eternal struggle.” Looking to the past provides valuable lessons about the ways individuals and societies have met these struggles with resilience, courage, and determination. We also, however, must encounter and confront reflections of our own frailties and liabilities as human beings.
Studying the Holocaust delivers haunting and frightening insight into the implications of losing that battle. As we draw lessons from history to inform and navigate us through the present, we can ask the essential question: what leads to the collapse of a democracy?
There is much for us to learn from the disintegration of the Weimar Republic; and when we teach our students about the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, how do we distill and convey these lessons in a way that give us insight into human behavior? How will we construct lessons that avoid painting this destructive transition as if it was inevitable?
To focus only on a strong-armed dictator and the violent intimidation of paramilitary groups is to miss the greater range and complexity of individual decisions and actions that includes active collusion and self-interest, conformity and consent, and remaining a bystander in the face of attacks on neighbors. Perhaps we have the moral luck of being born in a different time and place - the privilege of not having to make the difficult decisions and navigate the harrowing circumstances that Germans did in the 1920s and 1930s.
Or perhaps we too are engaged in a similar struggle with the spirit and substance of democracy, wrestling with some of the same cyclical trends that undercut faith in one’s government and in each other: a politics of resentment, a sense of defeat and waning national prestige, rumors and conspiracies, increasing polarization and a breakdown in civil dialogue, the manipulation of fears about safety and security, questions about the accuracy of information, and an increase in nationalism coupled with growing suspicions and attacks on vulnerable communities.
In the 1920s, democracy was brand new to Germany, recently born after the end of World War I. It suggested great promise in expanding constitutional rights, ushered in cultural shifts, and even seemed able to weather economic crisis. And yet, by the end of the decade it was under fire and at great risk. There were many who believed democracy weakened the country and they sought the return of national prestige and power they believed only strong, autocratic leaders could restore. After only fourteen years of the democratic experiment, progress was not only halted, but systematically and rapidly unwound. Possibly most fascinating, in the early years of the Nazi regime, it was done with some sensitivity to public opinion and a careful campaign to win the consent of German citizens.
Weimar Germany presents a complex - and relevant - social and political case study. It was marked by sharp, contrasting moods – excitement met with fear, creativity coupled with anxiety. Artist George Grosz took descriptive note of the tension in the public realm: “Even the capital of our new German Republic was like a bubbling cauldron. You could not see who was heating the cauldron; you could merely see it merrily bubbling, and you could feel that heat increasing.”
At our Democracy at Risk Forum on October 28th, we’ll be taking a closer look at the “bubbling cauldron” of the Weimar Republic, as well as the rapid dismantling of democracy that occurred after the appointment of Hitler as chancellor. We’ll also look closely at the decisions of individuals at the time and try to understand what motivated them to consent and conform to changing standards and increasing violence in their communities and country. We hope you will join us as we explore lessons from the Holocaust about what it takes to sustain a healthy democracy.