The short-lived Weimar Republic—which spanned the years after Germany’s defeat in World War I until 1933, when Hitler came to power—has become a paradigmatic example of democratic collapse. That has brought it renewed attention at this moment in America, when democracy is under threat from illiberal, would-be-authoritarian forces. We should rightly be suspicious of facile comparisons, especially the casual use of fascism as an imprecise epithet, yet Weimar’s fate provides us with some instructive parallels and important warning signals.
During its first four years, Weimar was under constant attack—above all, from the Big Lie that the republic was a totally illegitimate government because it owed its genesis to a “stab in the back” delivered on the home front. According to this Big Lie, the German army had not been defeated on the battlefield in 1918—when in fact General Erich Ludendorff’s spring offensive was a gamble that ended in military disaster. Instead, the myth went, a cabal of “November criminals”—Jews, Marxists, democrats, and internationalists—had betrayed the country, subverted the war effort, driven out the kaiser, signed the shameful Treaty of Versailles, and imposed an un-German democracy.
Not just Hitler and the Nazis but the entire German right latched on to this message and promoted it. Two factors distinguished Hitler from the rest of the German right. First was his self-awareness and cool calculation in deploying the Big Lie. In Mein Kampf, published in 1925–26, he explained that “the masses … more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a little one,” and that even a propaganda claim “so impudent that people thought it insane” could ultimately prevail. Essential to the “stab in the back” conspiracy theory’s effectiveness were a simple appeal to the emotions, not the intellect, and its endless repetition without concession to contrary evidence. Commitment to the Big Lie, he realized, had to be total and uncompromising.
The second factor was Hitler’s decision to make the conspiracy theory the justification for violent action, moving rapidly from merely denigrating Weimar democracy to staging an outright insurrection. In November 1923, he instigated the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempted local coup d’état in the Bavarian capital of Munich. Hitler hoped—and expected—that this would set off a chain reaction causing the Weimar Republic to implode; an authoritarian government could then take over.
The coup failed. Hitler was arrested and put on trial for treason. His defense strategy was to use the trial as a platform to amplify the Big Lie. In a spectacular example of shameless historical inversion, he claimed that the founders of Weimar democracy, not he, were the real traitors, the November criminals. The insurrectionist on trial was the true patriot. Bavaria’s conservative judicial system was sympathetic; Hitler served just nine months in prison, where he held court and received more than 330 visitors.
Most important, what both conservative politicians and a conservative judiciary in Bavaria failed to do was rid themselves of this dangerous agitator by expelling him from the country as an unwelcome convicted felon of Austrian citizenship. Instead, they—and eventually the old-guard establishment right throughout Germany—enabled his improbable political comeback.