“Democracy Dies in a Variety of Ways”

A leading scholar on modern Germany says we’re not headed for Nazi Germany, but we’re also not headed anywhere good.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again rally in Great Falls, Montana, U.S., July 5, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again rally in Great Falls, Montana, U.S., July 5, 2018.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

As President Trump meets this week with the heads of NATO countries, it’s hard not to feel increasingly worried about the health of democracy. Indeed, over the past month, as the pictures and stories of children being separated from their parents near the border emerged, certain Americans even began to feel as if their democracy was slipping way—with some going so far as to make comparisons to the rise of fascism. Meanwhile, in Germany—which is now seen by many liberal Europeans, correctly or not, as a beacon of the free world thanks to Angela Merkel’s leadership—the government temporarily avoided a serious threat to its existence moving right on issues of migration and border control. While this may save Merkel’s government in the short term, it also marks a betrayal of so-called European values and will likely do little to stop the rise of the German far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which now sometimes places second in German opinion polls.

Because of all these things, I wanted to speak with Richard J. Evans, the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory and many other books about Nazi Germany, as well as the provost of Gresham College, London. As arguably the single greatest and most prolific historian on modern Germany and the rise of Nazism writing in English, Evans seemed like someone who could address these various strands roiling the Western world, and especially NATO’s two largest economies. An edited and condensed version of our phone conversation is below.

Isaac Chotiner: With the child separations and these images of kids in cages, there was a lot of talk about, “We’re heading for the Holocaust.” What’s the line between not drawing comparisons that don’t exist and not dulling yourself to real outrage? And can history teach us anything about that line?

Richard Evans: It’s easy to forget just how extreme and violent and vicious the Nazi dictatorship was. America is holding children in cages at the border, separated from their parents. The Nazis took children they thought of as mentally handicapped and gassed them. Tens of thousands of children, taking them from their families between 1939 and 1941. And to some extent that continued on after that with lethal injections. So that’s a different order of mistreatment.

And there again, you can say, “What characterized the Nazi’s seizure of power?” Well, Hitler was appointed as chancellor, but he turned his position as the head of a coalition government in which the Nazis were in the minority in January 1933 into a one-party dictatorship within six months by the use of mass violence on the streets. Literally hundreds of thousands of armed, uniformed storm troopers were arresting up to 200,000 of the Nazis’ opponents, Social Democrats and Communists. They were beating people up. They were murdering hundreds and hundreds of their opponents. They were physically intimidating the centrist parties until they forced them to dissolve themselves. It’s a kind of extreme violence that we have not seen in America, or indeed in other countries where you have heads of state who are no friends of democracy, like Erdogan’s Turkey, or Orbán’s Hungary, or the government in Poland.

It seems like you are shying away from thinking in historical parallels, let alone hard comparisons.

I think it’s very dangerous simply to think in historical parallels. There are what I might call echoes, but they are fairly faint echoes. We have to deal with the situation as it is now, and we have to recognize that democracy dies in a variety of different ways, and it’s not going to die in a coup d’état or through the use of mass violence on the streets. One of the problems, perhaps the fundamental problem of democracy today, is that the mass of the electorate, millions of people in the electorate, are disillusioned. Hitler only ever achieved 37.4 percent of the vote in a free election, but Erdogan, Orbán, and the Polish government, for example, have been elected by majorities of the electorate who approve of their policies. I know Trump lost the popular vote, but he was elected when it was clear that he was no friend of democracy. So that’s the situation we have to deal with. And that is: In some ways, democracy is dying bit by bit. It’s not going to be overwhelmed in some kind of violent seizure of power that happens in a few months.

So what’s scary now is that even though Trump is not Hitler, or whoever else is not Hitler, we do have to reckon with the fact that our democracies are in trouble because these guys all have more legitimate popular support than someone like Hitler did.

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I shudder to think what Dr. Goebbels would have done with the internet.

When I read your trilogy on the Third Reich, one of the things that stuck out to me was that Germany was just the loser of the worst conflict in human history up until that point, and the effect that that had on society. America’s had a bad war in Iraq, it’s had a financial crash, but nothing equivalent to what Germany experienced after the First World War, or what Italy experienced.

Yeah, fascism was a product of World War I. No question about that. World War I militarized politics. It introduced violence into politics. It delegitimized existing political systems in the countries that lost or felt like they’d lost. Then you have a Communist dictatorship emerge in Russia, eventually a Nazi dictatorship in Germany, a fascist dictatorship in Italy. It’s a different order of catastrophe from America.

But when you look back on the history of Germany or Italy or any country that descended into fascism, what do you actually think were the warning signs?

The warning signs now will be different from the warning signs then. The warning signs then were the brutalization and militarization of politics, leaders of political parties who had no scruples in ordering the murder or the beating up or imprisonment of their opponents. You had racial hatred of such an order that it led eventually to the murder of millions. And I include Italy in that, because although Italians were not by and large anti-Semitic, they certainly committed murder on a huge scale when they invaded Ethiopia in 1935 on racial grounds. And I think the fascist project was to remake human beings into a new kind of ruthless, hard, pitiless entity really, and to expunge humanitarianism from the political system and from people’s consciences.

If you want to look for warning signs in a leading politician, then that’s easy. You can say contempt for the judiciary and an assault on the independence of the judiciary, and the belief that government can control it, and government is above the law. You can see the warning sign when a leader wants to close down a free press, and that’s already happened to a large extent in Hungary. Opposition newspapers have been closed. The same thing happens in Putin’s Russia. And Mr. Trump has declared his hostility toward the press, but he doesn’t have the means to do it. He’s not able to close down the Washington Post or the New York Times as the Nazis closed down newspapers. You can see it in irresponsible and aggressive nationalist belligerence in foreign policy. Again, Hitler did not believe in international institutions. He got Germany out of the League of Nations. He regarded international treaties as pieces of paper that would be torn up when he wanted to. And again, you can see in Mr. Trump a certain amount of contempt for international institutions and the belief that America should leave them.

And then finally, I think, contempt for the truth. Goebbels was completely cynical about the truth. He said, All we need to do is to say the things that suit us. We don’t have to bother about whether they’re true or not. And if you bang away hard enough in propaganda and you repeat a lie, then people will start believing it. And I think that’s one of the most dangerous things we’ve seen from Mr. Trump.

So then to turn to Germany, how do you kind of situate this moment in German history? And do you think that it’s sort of on the cusp of something potentially dangerous or do you think that Germany still remains, in many ways, the most stable postwar European state?

Germany of course has now become the leader of the free world, or what’s left of it, so I think we all need to be concerned about what is happening there. The weight of the Nazi past lies very heavily on the German conscience. If you go to Berlin, the capital city, you’ll see memorials to the victims of the Holocaust right at the center of town and you can’t escape the past. Germans do feel a collective responsibility for the terrible events of World War II. I think Mrs. Merkel, in opening Germany’s borders to something like a million refugees, mostly from the Middle East and especially from Syria, was very mindful of the kind of historical obligations that Germany has. After all, there were many refugees from Nazi Germany, above all, Jewish refugees who found a place in other countries.

In Germany’s eastern and southern borderlands, there is opposition to Mrs. Merkel’s policy. Remember, East Germany was a Communist state up until 1989. Democratic political culture there is very shallow as it is in most other parts of Eastern Europe. The Communist dictatorship since 1949, the Nazi dictatorship, a brief interlude of Weimar Republic in the ’20s, and then an authoritarian political system under Kaiser. So they had very little experience of democracy, and you find that it’s in the eastern provinces, the former East Germany, that the far right, the so called Alternative for Germany, has scored the best results, 20, 25 percent in some areas. It’s not been anything as successful in the west where democratic political culture is more firmly rooted. So I don’t think we need to get too concerned about the Alternative for Germany. And of course you have to remember that there is a coalition government with the Social Democrats, the center-left party, who are fully behind Mrs. Merkel’s policy dealing with refugees, the relatively liberal policy. And the Greens are the same. If you add up the CDU, Mrs. Merkel’s party, the Social Democrats, and the Greens, you get an overwhelming majority in favor of a liberal policy toward migrants.

How does the AfD deal with the memory of the Second World War?

The AfD is split into two factions. There is a majority and a minority faction. The minority faction you could call almost post-fascist or post-Nazi. They want to draw a line under the past. They are bitterly opposed to the culture of memorialization that is so dominant in German political life. The majority of the AfD, I think, realized they were not going to get very far if that’s the line they take. So they accept the sense of German responsibility for the Holocaust, which is so firmly written into German political life. So it’s really only, I think, on the fringes that the AfD, if not apologetic for Nazism, certainly wants to forget about it.

What do you make of the way that the center right in Germany has tried to deal with the rise of the far right, and are there interesting historical parallels?   

Germany historically has always been a disunited country. So up until Bismarck unified the country in 1871, there were many independent, or at least autonomous states, of which Bavaria and Prussia were the largest. So Bavaria has a very strong consciousness of itself. You see blue and white Bavarian flags everywhere. They speak a different dialect from other parts of Germany. They are very strongly Catholic, whereas Germany is a majority Protestant country, especially the north, the center of Germany, and the east. So Bavaria is different in a number of significant ways, and Mrs. Merkel has to deal with that.

Also, it has been a historical phenomenon, looking at it historically, when the two biggest parties in Germany, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, center-right and center-left parties, have been in coalition government, that has twice now led to the rise of far-right parties in opposition, because there’s very little opposition, only small fringe parties really that are oppositional in the federal parliament. That happened in the late 1960s. You saw the rise of the neo-Nazis, really the explicitly neo-Nazi National Democratic movement, the NPD. And as soon as the SPD went into government and the CDU went out of government, then the NPD more or less disappeared.

And you’ve got it now. You’ve got a coalition government, a so-called grand coalition of the two big parties, and so that encourages the emergence of fringe parties not only on the right but on the left. So it is partly a consequence of the kind of constellation of parties in the German political system.

So then do you think that going into these coalition governments is a mistake?

I think the Social Democrats are mistaken to have gone into a coalition with the Christian Democrats. In the end, they didn’t really see any alternative. There would have been fresh elections, or Mrs. Merkel would have fallen, or there would have been a crisis in the political system. From the point of view of the Social Democrats, they’ve, I think, sold their soul. And of course, the right wing of the Christian Democrats, and particularly the Bavarian wing, are not happy with a coalition government in which Mrs. Merkel makes concessions to the Social Democrats, concessions to the left. And that encourages the emergence of the far right.

But I think we should not get too alarmed about the far right. It’s a phenomenon that’s happening all over Europe. You’ve got the hollowing out of the center of politics, and the strengthening of the far left and the far right since the economic crisis of 2008. But that’s much weaker in Germany than it is in some other European countries.