The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic
by Benjamin Carter Hett
Henry Holt, 2018
Hunter College history professor Benjamin Carter Hett, author of two memorably insightful previous books on Nazi Germany (Burning the Reichstag and Crossing Hitler) continues in his latest work to conduct a lean, eloquent, and heavily-sourced inquiry into mechanics of the Hitler state. Specifically, in The Death of Democracy, he's concerned with the beginnings of those mechanics, the moment-by-moment specifics of how the Nazis managed to take over a stable, advanced Western democracy in the bright light of modern history.
It's a familiar story but no less chilling for that, and as Hett stresses, there's no comfortable escape in saying that any part of the story was a surprise. “There was nothing the Nazis did in the years after 1933,” he writes, “that was not prefigured in their rise to power.
Shrewd observers could see what was coming: 'Dictatorship, abolition of the parliament, crushing of all intellectual liberties, inflation, terror, civil war,' wrote the novelist Friedrich Franz von Unruh in 1931 … Hitler 'starts from the recognition that there must be a new war,' added the sharp-eyed liberal politician Theodor Heuss, who missed nothing of the Nazis' embrace of irrationality, either. Unruh was wrong about only one thing: that Hitler's seizure of power would be greeted by millions of determined opponents. For this, tragically, the Weimar Republic's reality deficit had grown too large.
The Death of Democracy is a remorseless autopsy of that “reality deficit.” Old government leaders like Paul von Hindenburg saw the dark charisma of demagogues like Hitler or Goebbels, dimly recognized its uses, but failed completely to see the dangerous power of the forces these men represented. As Hett points out, the Nazi “code word” for the old Republic was “the system” – and “it was a short step from this contempt for 'the system' to the belief that a providential leader could lift the nation out of its soulless dead end.”
That providential leader was a grifter and an opportunist, an aggrieved paranoid with a pointed vision – his country's future and his own personal future, melded together. But as The Death of Democracy makes clear, Hitler couldn't possibly have acted alone. To be lords of Germany, Hett writes, “the Nazis needed others to act: voters to support them, conservatives to offer an alliance, Hindenburg to open the gates of power.”
This is clear, fast-paced history, and of course it's heavily laden with implicit warnings. The last two years have seen aggrieved paranoids with autocratic yearnings stepping forward in politics all over the world, and the lesson of the Weimar Republic is that the systems such people challenge are always weaker than they think they are. The Death of Democracy demonstrates in detail that the death of such systems are often assisted suicides.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.