Posts Tagged ‘Weimar Republic’

Stopping Hitler

July 29, 2019

If you had a time machine, would you go back in time and kill Hitler before he became the Fuhrer in Germany? Perhaps you could kill him while he was a homeless artist in Vienna, or arrange to have him shot during World War I. If murdering a person, even Hitler before he committed his atrocities seems wrong, perhaps you could arrange for his parents never to meet. Surely a world in which Adolf Hitler was never born would be a better one.

I would not go back in time to kill Hitler if I had a time machine. I don’t think that killing Hitler would make that much of a difference. Hitler was far from being the only radical, anti-Semitic nationalist living in Germany at the time, and it is likely that if Hitler had not been there someone worse might have seized power. Perhaps someone who actually listened to his generals and won the war.

Probably every country has any number of potential Hitlers living in it at any given time. Usually, these people are cranks who organize minuscule political parties and rant about their eccentric political views. In ordinary times, such people have no chance of obtaining any power. To stop Hitler, we would have to consider what conditions in Germany allowed someone like Hitler to seize power and if those conditions could be changed.

I don’t think that there is much question that World War I created Hitler. If the war had never occurred, Hitler would have remained an obscure artist, living hand to mouth. The economic and political turmoil that followed Germany’s defeat and allowed a demagogue like Hitler to flourish would never have happened. To stop Hitler, we must stop World War I.

But how? It would not be so simple as preventing Gavrillo Princep from assassinating Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand. That assassination was the spark that set off the powder keg that was pre-war Europe, but the powder keg was already there. If the assassination of Franz Ferdinand had not occurred, something else would have been the spark.

I think the root of the problem in pre-war Europe was Germany. This is not to say that the German Empire was solely, or even primarily responsible for the war, every one of the combatants bear at least some of the blame, but the ultimate cause of the tension and uncertainty that made a general war in Europe, if not inevitable, at least highly likely was Germany. To understand why Germany was a problem, we must briefly recall some German history

Unlike countries like England or France, Germany did not emerge from the middle ages as a unified nation-state. Instead, Germany remained a conglomeration of states of various sizes from free city-states to small feudal states to large kingdoms like Prussia and Austria. All these German states were part of the Holy Roman Empire, to be sure, and owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Emperor never had much power outside his personal territories and as time passed, the Holy Roman Emperors had less and less authority until the Holy Roman Empire became an empire in name only, with the various states gaining almost complete independence, until the farce was ended with the abdication of the last Emperor in 1806.

The Holy Roman Empire

After the Napoleonic Wars, German patriots began to call for German unification, generally based on the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. This did not suit the rulers of the various German states, who preferred to retain their power and privileges, and the German liberals were not very successful. After the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, it became clear that Germany would not be united as a federation of liberal states, but through blood and iron. The autocratic and militaristic Kingdom of Prussia took up the cause of German unification and under the leadership of its able chancellor, Otto von Bismark, Prussia led an alliance of German states in successful wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-1871).

German Unification

After this series of victories, it was easy for those states not already affiliated with Prussia to join together in the new German Empire, and on January 18, 1871, Bismark proclaimed the foundation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace at Versailles, with his master King Wilhelm I of Prussia becoming Kaiser Wilhelm I.

This new central European power disrupted existing European balances of power and German military and economic might frightened the other powers. This might not have led to disaster if Germany had been led by wise leaders, who could calm the tensions of a rising Germany, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but leaders of Germany were not wise or disposed to calm the fears of its neighbors.

Wilhelm I had not been particularly enthusiastic about the project of German unification. He was a patriotic Prussian, proud of his kingdom’s conservative, autocratic traditions and he did not want to see Prussia absorbed into a liberal Germany. Bismark, himself a conservative autocrat, assured the King that the German Empire would be a greater Prussian Empire, and while he had to make some concessions to German liberals, such as a constitution providing for a legislature elected by universal male suffrage, permitting political parties, etc, Bismark made sure that all the real political power in the new empire stayed with the Kaiser and his chancellor.

Wilhelm I’s son, Frederick was far more liberal than his father. He was married to Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Victoria, and the husband and wife were agreed that the British system of constitutional monarchy was the best system of government. This did not please either Wilhelm or Bismark, and the two conspired to keep Frederick from any position of state that wielded any real power.

Frederick III

 

The old Kaisar couldn’t live forever, and when he died on March 9, 1888, it seemed that the German Empire would take a liberal turn under its new Kaisar Frederick III. There was just one problem. Frederick III was already dying of cancer of the larynx when he succeeded to the throne. Frederick was Kaisar for just ninety-nine days before he succumbed to his illness, clearing the way for his own son, Wilhelm to succeed him as Kaisar Wilhelm II.

Wilhelm II

Politically, Wilhelm II resembled his grandfather, Wilhelm I, rather than his more liberal father. Both Wilhelms prized the conservative Prussian values of autocracy and militarism and had no use for democracy in any form. In personality, however, Wilhelm was very different from his namesake. While Wilhelm I had already gained many years of experience in governing before becoming King of Prussia and later German Emperor, Wilhelm II was young and inexperienced when he ascended the throne. The older Wilhelm was a kindly gentleman who lived a spartan life and left the business of government to Bismarck. Wilhelm II was brash, boisterous, erratic, and impulsive. He tended to be impatient and changed his mind often. He quite likely had some form of attention deficit disorder. Unlike his grandfather, Wilhelm II insisted on ruling the German Empire himself, and it wasn’t long before Bismarck was obliged to resign as chancellor.

This was not a good idea. Wilhelm II’s aggressive manner and imprudent, saber-rattling public statements tended to frighten the other European powers, already alarmed by Germany’s growing economic and military power. Bismarck had been careful not to give the European powers cause to unite against Germany. Wilhelm II was not so careful and eventually, Germany found itself surrounded by enemies. Bismarck had tried to keep the peace in Europe after winning the Franco-Prussian War. Wilhelm II was more reckless. Kaiser Wilhelm’s impulsive nature and inexperience at statecraft led Germany, and Europe to disaster.

What if Frederick III had lived? He was only fifty-six when he succumbed to cancer. Had he survived he could easily have lived into his eighties. Both his father and son were long-lived. Frederick III could have been Kaiser into the 1920s, giving him plenty of time to turn the German Empire into a more liberal direction. If Kaiser Frederick III had died in 1920, he might have left Germany a constitutional monarchy with a strong emphasis on individual liberty. Germany might have shed its Prussian military culture and been a pillar of stability in the center of Europe. The expensive arms race that preceded the Great War need not have occurred and the War itself might have been avoided. Kaiser Wilhelm II would have ascended the throne as a mature and experienced leader in his sixties, hemmed in by constitutional safeguards and perhaps content to be an elder statesman. Adolf Hitler would be an unknown and forgotten painter. It would be a better world.

So there you have it. If you happen to possess a time machine, here is what you need to do to stop Hitler, without killing anyone. Just go back to Germany around 1887 with a cure for cancer, somehow convince Prince Frederick and his court that you are not crazy, and give the prince your cancer treatment. Easy.

The Rise of Adolf Hitler

June 8, 2016

In my last post, I described how this internet meme was particularly ignorant because Donald Trump is not anything like Adolf Hitler and the social and political circumstances of Weimar Germany is nothing like contemporary America.

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It is also ignorant because the creator seems to know next to nothing about the rise of Adolf Hitler. The conventional idea about the rise of Hitler is that he was swept into office by a tidal wave of popular enthusiasm. That is certainly the story told by Nazi propagandists who were eager to cast Hitler as the embodiment of the Aryan racial will. The truth is somewhat different. Hitler gained power in Germany by taking advantage of certain features of the Weimar constitution which made it possible for someone like him to seize power and of the foolishness and timidity of his opponents who consistently underestimated him.

For most of the 1920’s the Nazis were very much a fringe party in German politics. Although a great many Germans essentially agreed with Hitler’s ideas about Jews, Aryans, the Versailles Treaty, and other matters, the Nazis seemed to be too lawless, violent, and, well, extreme, to appeal to the German middle class, especially after the hyper-inflation of the early Weimar years had ended and Germany shared in the general prosperity of the roaring 20’s. The Nazis were lucky to get 3% of the vote, when they were allowed to run at all. The Nazi Party was actually banned in many parts of Germany after the Beer Hall Putsch and because of the violent antics of the SA Stormtroopers.

This changed after the stock market crash of October, 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression. Germany was as hard hit by the Depression as every other industrialized country and as the German people became increasingly desperate, they were more willing to listen to people thought extreme only a year before. In addition, the increasing strength of the German Communist Party among the working class frightened many members of the middle class, who feared that a Communist victory would lead to a Soviet style dictatorship. Many Germans came to believe, perhaps rightly, that Hitler was the lesser evil.

In the September, 1930 Reichstag election the Nazis won 18.25% of the vote, going from 12 to 107 of the 577 seats, making them the second largest party in the Reichstag. The third largest party was the German Communist Party which had won 77 seats. Germany was in the peculiar position of having two of the largest political parties in its parliament dedicated to overthrowing the government and unwilling to join any coalition or participate in the cabinet. Both the Nazis and the Communists tried their best to disrupt the functioning of the government both in the Reichstag and in battles in the streets. Curiously, this policy of disruption helped rather than hurt the Nazis. With the quasi-military discipline of the SA and their well organized rallies, the Nazis were able to give the impression that they were the only people who had their act together in a nation that was falling apart.

The incumbent Chancellor, Heinrich Bruning, had the support of President Hindenburg and was able to put together a coalition composed of his Catholic Center Party and some other conservative parties. Bruning did not have a majority, however, and it became increasingly necessary for the president to use his emergency powers to permit the government to continue to function.

Hindenburg’s seven year term was set to end in 1932. Hindenburg was 84 years old and did not really want to serve a second term as president. He only decided to run for reelection because he feared that Hitler, who he detested, might be able to defeat any other candidate. The first round of the presidential election was held on March 13, and Hindenburg won, but with only 49.6% of the vote, necessitating a second round which was held on April 10. This time, Hindenburg won with 53% of the vote. Hitler was second with 36.8%.

Bruning’s government fell on May 30 and Hindenburg appointed Franz von Papen to be Chancellor. Papen had almost no support in the Reichstag, even from his own Catholic Center Party which regarded him as a traitor, but he did have the full support of President Hindenburg and using Article 48, was able to rule as a virtual dictator. Papen lifted Bruning’s ban on the SS and SA and indicated that he was willing to work with Hitler and the Nazis. This appeasement worked about as well for Papen as it later would at Munich, Hitler would not cooperate or join in any coalition unless he were named Chancellor. New elections were called for July 31.

In the July 31, 1932 election, the Nazis got 37.27% of the popular vote, the most the Nazis would ever get in a fair and free election. This was enough to get them 230 seats in the Reichstag, out of the total 608, making the Nazis the largest single party. The Communists were third with 89 seats, so the majority of the members of the Reichstag now belonged to parties dedicated to overthrowing the Weimar Republic. This made forming any coalition impossible and Papen continued to govern with the use of presidential decrees. Papen was not popular either in the Reichstag or with the German public and in September 1932, he was obliged to have Hindenburg dissolve the Reichstag and call for new elections on November 6.

The Nazis lost seats in this election. They got only 33.09% of the popular vote and dropped to 196 seats in the Reichstag. The Nazis were still the largest party, but it seemed as though they were beginning to lose momentum to the Communists who now held 100 seats. The party treasury was depleted and it is possible that if another election had been called within the next few months, the Nazis would have lacked the resources to maintain their position. However, the Nazis were to be saved by good fortune and the weakness of their opposition.

Papen resigned as Chancellor and was replaced by his defense minister, Kurt von Schleicher on December 3. Schleicher proved to be incapable of governing and resigned on January 23. Meanwhile, Papen had approached Hitler, proposing to convince President Hindenburg to make Hitler Chancellor in return for Papen being Vice-Chancellor. Hitler agreed and Papen was eventually able to persuade a reluctant Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor on January 30, 1933.It might seem to unwise for Papen to allow a dangerous demagogue like Hitler to have any position of power and Papen may be justly condemned for enabling Hitler’s rise to power, but Papen believed that Hitler would be in a weak position as Chancellor. The Nazis did not have a majority in the Reichstag and only held only three posts in the eleven member cabinet, the Chancellorship and two relatively unimportant posts. Hitler did not possess, as Papen did, the confidence of President Hindenburg. Hitler would be a figurehead, useful for rallying the masses behind the government’s policies, but contained, while Vice-Chancellor Papen would be the real power, or so he thought.

Hitler had no intention of being contained. What Papen and others did not understand was that Hitler did not wish to become Chancellor only to work within the system. He planned to overthrow the Weimar Republic. Hitler’s experience in the Beerhall Putsch had taught him that it was useless to fight a revolution against the power of a modern state. Instead, Hitler planned to use the German state to make his revolution.

The Reichstag had been dissolved when Hindenburg had appointed Hitler Chancellor so new elections were called for March 5, 1933. These latest elections were held in the wake of the Reichstag fire on February 27. Although the Nazis probably didn’t start the fire, as many suspected, the Nazis quickly made use of the arrest of a deranged Dutch Communist to instigate a national panic of an imminent Communist revolution. The next day, President Hindenburg issued the Decree for the Protection of the People and State, granting Hitler emergency powers to deal with the supposed insurrection. Hitler did not ban the Communist Party and any other opposition to the Nazis but they were harassed and their leaders arrested. The Nazis and their allies were backed by the full power of the state by the next election and the Nazis got 43.91% of the popular vote giving them 288 out of 647 seats in the Reichstag. The Nazis still did not have a majority, even though they were in control of the electoral process and had used the Brownshirts to provoke violence on the streets and at opposing parties’ meetings. The Nazis formed a coalition with the German National People’s Party and with the support of the Catholic Center Party was able to pass the Enabling Act, giving all legislative power to the Chancellor on March 24, 1933.

Hitler quickly established a totalitarian dictatorship over Germany, outlawing all political parties except for the Nazis and imprisoning anyone who dared to oppose the new order. By the next elections in November 1933, the Nazis won in a landslide 92.11% of the vote gaining all 661 seats in the Reichstag. Considering that the Nazis were the only party permitted to run and it was hinted that voting against the Nazis, or refusing to vote at all might have unpleasant repercussions, the surprising thing is that 7.89% of the German voters actually submitted blank ballots in protest.

The 86-year President Hindenburg died on August 2, 1934 and Hitler arranged to abolish the office of President and assume its power in his own person as Führer and Reich Chancellor. The Weimar Republic was over and the Third Reich had begun.

Trump is not Hitler, We are not Weimar

June 6, 2016

I am normally a strong advocate for freedom of speech and naturally I oppose the censorship of any type of speech no matter how offensive it may be. I would like to make one exception to this rule. I think that anyone who compares any American politician to Adolf Hitler, or any other totalitarian dictator should be punished, perhaps with a flogging. There are no figures in American politics that are even remotely like Hitler and such a comparison is not only ridiculous but an insult to those people who really have suffered, or are presently suffering under the rule of a dictator.

According to some, Donald Trump is the latest incarnation of Adolf Hitler.

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This is simply ignorant. The political system and social conditions of Germany’s Weimar Republic in the 1920’s and 30’s were very different from the circumstances in twenty-first century America. While the creators of the Weimar Republic intended to form a liberal, democratic republic, there were certain aspects of the German constitution which made it easier for a potential dictator like Hitler to seize power than is the case in the United States. Also, Hitler did not gain power in Germany in quite the way that is popularly believed. Hitler did not become the Führer by being swept into power by a vast popular movement. Rather, Hitler was made Chancellor as a result of a backroom deal with politicians who thought they could use him.

The government of the German Weimar Republic was a multi-party parliamentary system. The German parliament was bicameral with the lower house, the Reichstag, having considerably more power than the upper house, the Reichsrat. The Reichsrat represented the various federal states of Germany and was largely advisory. The members of the Reichstag were elected by universal suffrage, using the principle of proportional representation. Voters voted for national party lists of candidates and each party received the number of seats in the Reichstag proportional to its share of the national vote. This system encouraged the formation of small, splinter parties since a party could appeal to a small segment of the population and still get seats in the Reichstag.  Because of the large number of parties, each seeming to want to turn Germany in a different direction, it proved to be difficult to form lasting coalitions with the result that the Reichstag became ineffective, particularly after the Great Depression began.

The leader of the Reichstag and head of the cabinet was the Chancellor. He was the head of government and the one responsible for getting legislation passed. The head of state was the President, who had considerable power of his own. He was the head of the armed forces and could dissolve the Reichstag, leading to new elections within sixty days. Under Article 48 of the constitution, the president had the power to rule by decree in an emergency. Article 48 was one of the tools Hitler used to seize absolute power in Germany though the last president of the Republic, the aging war hero Paul von Hindenburg also used Article 48 extensively as the Reichstag proved increasingly unable to act. In a sense then, Hitler did not create a dictatorship in Germany so much as step into a dictatorship already made.

 

The political and social circumstances of the late Weimar Republic and the twenty-first century United States couldn’t be more different. Elections in the United States use the single member, first past the post system. Each Congressional district elects one Representative, with whoever gets a plurality of the vote gaining the seat. Every state elects two Senators, but no state elects both its Senators in the same election and again whoever gets the most votes wins. The presidency is a little more complicated because of the electoral college, but the same principle applies. This system tends to empower a majority at the expense of the minority since the candidate with 50.1% of the vote wins and the 49.9% who voted for the other candidate may feel disenfranchised. This system also has the effect of encouraging large, broad-based political parties and coalitions since a political party needs to appeal to a majority at least in some regions in order to get any seats in Congress. This first past the post system makes it very difficult for any third party to gain power since, unlike a proportional system, they cannot get any power unless they outright win an election. This makes it very unlikely that a fringe party like the Nazis could get anywhere in American politics. A would-be Hitler would have to run as a Democrat or Republican, and he would have to persuade the majority of American voters to elect him, something the Nazis never managed to do in Germany.

Even if a Hitler managed to become president, it doesn’t seem likely that he would make himself into a dictator. The constitution contains no provisions for a president to assume emergency, dictatorial powers and I think that a president who made an overt attempt to declare himself Führer would meet with a lot more opposition than Hitler had. Remember that a great many Germans detested the Weimar constitution as something imposed upon them by the “November Criminals” who surrendered Germany at the end of World War I. A large number of Germans, perhaps a majority, felt that the Weimar government was somehow illegitimate, and Hitler wasn’t the only one calling for its overthrow. I do not think that a candidate who openly proposed scrapping the American constitution in favor of a socialist dictatorship would have much support. Certainly none of the current presidential candidates are calling for the government to be overthrown. Bernie Sanders may call himself a socialist, but he is quick to add that he is a democratic socialist who wants to expand the welfare state, not a revolutionary who is going to impose a Hugo Chavez style dictatorship. Donald Trump may have only the vaguest of notions about the constitutional separation of powers, but he isn’t saying he wants to be the Führer.

Hitler came to power in the midst of the Great Depression, the worst economic climate of the past century. We are not currently even in a recession. It may be true that America’s recovery from the last recession has been rather lackluster but the economy is nowhere near as bad as it was then. There are people who have been displaced by the processes of globalization and advancing technology, but their plight is not even close to the suffering of the Great Depression. The United States has not recently lost a war in which a generation had been decimated and we have not had a humiliating treaty with crippling reparations imposed upon his. America in 2016 is simply not an environment in which a Hitler is likely to thrive, nor is Donald Trump anything at all like Hitler in ideology, politics, or mannerisms. As I said before, this internet meme is simply ignorant.

 

Create Your Own Money

November 16, 2012

There was a post in the Democratic Underground which generated quite a lot of amusement in Conservative circles a couple of weeks ago. Put simply, the poster believed that since the government can print money, it can never really go broke. Here is the post.

Let’s say that you have the ability to print your currency using your computer printer, and every merchant accepted your printouts as a valid exchange for goods and services. You need to pick up your dry cleaning? You printout a $20 bill and your cleaners hand over your garments without question. Same would be true for your mortgage, groceries, car note, etc. Your creditors even accept your printouts as payment on your debts.

Given this, how can you ever be broke? Answer, you cannot be broke. The U.S. government is not in debt simply because it can create currency to pay off the debt, and our creditors gladly accept our currency as payment on our debts. You see, the world needs our dollars because the world needs oil, and in order to buy oil, you need dollars, which means that the world needs to stockpile dollars, and that means that the U.S. can print all of the money that it wants without incurring massive hikes in interest rates to attract lenders.

So, why the hue and cry about America being broke? Simple. The elites in this country need to create a defcit and scarcity crisis in order to dissuade the public from voting for increased social spending on things like a universal health care program, better education, better benefits for SS recipients better infrastructure, etc. You cannot argue against the logic nor the need for these programs, but you can argue that you cannot pay for them. Additionally, more social spending means that the public is not as dependent on corporate America for their economic survival. For example, if you have universal healthcare, you don’t have to take a job just for the health benefits. If you have a generous Social Security program, you don’t have to invest in the market.

To be fair, the majority of responses to this display of economic illiteracy correctly pointed out that the large scale printing to money to pay the country’s debts would lead to hyper-inflation, with many using Weimar Germany as an example. That is all true, but I think it is worth exploring why this is the case. In doing so, perhaps we can clear up some misperceptions about money and the national debt.

To begin, those pieces of green paper you have in your wallet are not actually worth anything. I am not some crank urging you to go put and buy gold and silver. Gold and silver are not worth anything by themselves either. What you actually do when you buy something at a store is exchange some good or service you possess for a good or service at the store. When you go to work and get your paycheck, your employer is trading its goods and services for the labor and skills you give it. Bartering is rather cumbersome for all but the simplest of economic activities so in order to facilitate all of this trading, people have invented money. All money is therefore, is simply a method of keeping score, or a medium of exchange.

There are two others uses for money which are a little beyond the scope of this post, but which I have to mention in passing. One is money as a unit of account, that is a way of expressing how much a good or service is worth compared to other goods and services. It makes more sense to refer to prices in dollars or euros than terms of varying goods. The third use of money is as a store of value. This means that money can be used to store wealth. You know that the dollars in your pocket will still be worth something next week and can be easily traded.

It doesn’t actually matter what is used as the medium of exchange. It could be gold or silver, or candy bars, cigarettes, leaves, sea shells, or anything. It is better, however, to use something that is not consumed, and does not go bad. Bananas would not be very useful as money because you might get hungry and eat your savings. Also, bananas go bad after a couple of days. The medium used should not be too common or too scarce. Leaves from trees would also not be very useful. Anyone could go out into the woods and get a windfall. Gold and silver have generally been the most common substances used for money since they do not corrode easily and are scarce enough to be considered money. Most countries in the world today use fiat money. That is the government says a dollar is worth a certain amount.
If you pay for something with counterfeit money, you are cheating the other person. You are trading their goods or services with something worthless. Governments cannot actually counterfeit money, since they are the ones creating it, but they can devalue the currency which has almost the same effect. If a government prints large amounts of money without any addition to the total goods and services produced by the nation, then each individual unit of currency, a dollar bill, for example, represents less and less actual value. The total amount of wealth in the system, so to speak, is divided among more dollar bills. When this happens, each dollar bill is worth less and less, leading to inflation. If the US government printed $16 trillion dollar bills and used them to pay off the national debt, it would, in effect, be cheating its creditors.

Now, you might be thinking, “So what? Who cares if we rip off the lousy Chicoms.” Well, the fact of the matter is that despite all of concern about China owning the US, the truth is that the Chinese government only holds about 8%  of the national debt. Most of the debt is owed the the citizens of the United States, through treasury bonds held in retirement accounts, mutual funds, banks and state and local governments. The Social Security Administration holds about 19% of the debt in the Social Security Trust Fund. If the federal government tried to pay off its debts in hyper-inflated dollars, most of the small investors, who were counting on a return on their investment would be ruined. Larger creditors, including foreign governments could well refuse payment in worthless dollars and insist on being paid in euros, or gold. The rest of us would experience the joys of triple or quadruple digit inflation.

The point I have been trying to make in this long post is that money is not the same as wealth. Money represents wealth and wealth cannot be created from nothing.  If you or the government just prints a dollar bill, you are not creating wealth, you are only spreading existing wealth among more money. Sorry, but we can’t print our way out of our debts.

 

 


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