It was spring of 1920, and troops were marching on Berlin. Conservative officers, who had helped the Weimar Republic defeat communist insurgents, were now turning on the politicians who led the country. Paramilitary units occupied the capital, forcing panicked leaders to flee. They declared Wolfgang Kapp, a minor civil servant, the new chancellor of the German Reich. It was neither the first nor last time that the radical right would menace the young democracy.
The coup, known as the Kapp Putsch, quickly collapsed. Government leaders from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) called for a general strike — that is, for every adult in the capital to take to the streets, stop working and thereby paralyze the military government. Electricity halted, newspapers shut down, the bureaucracy closed its doors. The strike worked: A few days later the putsch was over.
You might expect that after an unsuccessful coup its leaders would have been arrested, tried and punished. But you’d be wrong. Many of the military conspirators were let off, and the parliament passed an amnesty law later that year. Few of those brought to trial were actually convicted by Weimar’s notoriously conservative courts.
The Weimar Republic, Germany’s first experiment with democracy, was a frail creature. After all, it collapsed into Nazism only 14 years after its creation. But what you might not know is that Germany’s judges were deeply complicit in the republic’s demise. While we tend to think of courts as the guardrails of democracy, in 1920s Germany they were among its most implacable and insidious enemies. And their role in the rise of Nazism holds an important lesson for us as we confront a radically conservative Supreme Court that seems intent on undermining our own democracy today.