The Role of Civil Society in the Rise of Nazism
The Weimar Republic was a name given to the Federal Republic and semi-presidential representative democracy established from 1919 to 1933 in Germany to replace the imperial form of government. The official name of the state was “German Reich” (Deutsches Reich). “The Weimar Republic was a bold experiment” (Weimar Republic, web source) since it was the first democratic government in Germany’s history. The new constitution for the German Reich was written in 1919 in a national assembly in Weimar. It “attempted to blend the European parliamentary system with the American presidential system” (Weimar Republic). There was no monarch, instead there was a president whose power was limited by the Reichstag. The president appointed a Chancellor who “led the government of ministers from within the Reichstag” (The holocaust explained, web source). The freedom experienced during the Weimar Republic led to artistic innovation and experimentations. Germany was at the center of developments in film, the visual arts, architecture, theater, and music. But on the opposite side of democracy, innovation, and freedom lay the opposing forces of the conservative side of society. Weimar society had a “rigid class separation and considerable friction among the classes” (The Weimar Republic, web source). Class distinction included the aristocratic landowners, the middle class, the working class, and the lower classes. “Tradition and the civil and criminal codes were still strongly patriarchal” (The Weimar Republic, web source) and this contributed to disputes regarding gender issues, equality between the sexes and the role of women in the Republic. Political parties in the Weimar Republic represented the interest of the different sectors of society, depending on the class, occupation and religion. They possessed very narrow bases of support based on the different ideologies, which made compromising very difficult. During the Weimar years
political institutions were weak and this often led to instability, disorder, and violence. Economic problems and an ineffective political system led the German people to “throw themselves into clubs, voluntary associations, and professional organizations out of frustration” (Berman, 1997, 402). In her article, Civil Society and the Collapse of The Weimar Republic, Sheri Berman states that the conventional wisdom regarding the sustainment of a democratic government considers civil society a crucial and key element to make democracy work. Alexis de Tocqueville and neo-Tocquevilleans as Robert Putnam argue that a flourishing civil society always has beneficial effects on liberal democracies. It is the purpose of this paper to explain how, following Berman’s argument and contrary to conventional wisdom, the Weimar Republic’s flourishing civil society helped to further fragment German society, undermined the democratic system and helped to bring the Nazi party into power. This paper will first explore Weimar civil society, and the stratification of the different classes. It will then explore the different political parties and their different bases of support. It will briefly explain neo-Tocquevillian theories, and it will then show the key role of civil society in the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the consequent rise of the Nazi Regime.
During the two decades following the adoption of the constitution by the new German Reich in 1871, "Germany was at a historical turning point, poised between a traditional agricultural existence and industrialized modernity" (Berman, 1997, 409). The tension between these two sectors stimulated the formation of many organizations. Patriotic societies, sports and reading clubs, neighborhood associations were joined in large numbers. Heavy industry, small business, and white collar groups formed their own organizations reflecting their particular interests. Weimar Germany had a rigid class
separation. "Aristocratic landowners looked down on the middle and working class Germans and only grudgingly associated with wealthy businessmen and industrialists" (Weimar Society, web source). The middle class looked down on the factory workers and constantly battle to preserve a higher status over the working class. Members of the middle class actively participated in associations through which political influence, social identity and economic advantage could be achieved.
During the years between 1924 and 1929, the Weimar Republic saw improved living standards, stability and economic security. The democratic government implemented plans to control the hyperinflation crisis. With the aid of foreign loans and a growing industrial production a number of social reforms were implemented. Services like unemployment welfare and housing assistance, benefited the young, the aged and the unemployed. But the increase in production and better wages for industrial workers did not fare well with the middle class of managers, bureaucrats, bankers, clerks and white-collar professionals. Unemployment remained high for the middle class and in most cases members of the middle class did not qualify for the benefits of the social reform. This increased the resentment of the middle class or Mittelstand who felt that the system was favoring the working class at their expense and fueled their antisocialist sentiment. The lack of a strong and efficient political party representing the interest of the Mittelstand "drove many citizens looking for succor and support into civil society organizations" (Berman, 1997, 414) which were highly organized and vertically fragmented. The agricultural sector and German farmers were devastated after the War, and continued to struggle during the Weimar years.
During the time of the Weimar Republic there were about forty different political parties and they were generally based on class, occupation, and religion. The parties on the left supported progressive taxation, government social welfare programs, labor unions, and equality for women. They favored greater government involvement and control of business and industry. They were less militaristic and less nationalistic than the parties on the right. The two parties on the left were the Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD). The German Communist Party was supported by radical workers and a small group of radical intellectuals. The KPD was opposed to the existence of the Weimar Republic and favored a "Russian style dictatorship" and had a "strong feminist agenda" (Weimar Political Parties, web source). The Social Democratic Party (SPD) represented the interest of blue-collar trade union skilled workers and more progressive white-collar workers and intellectuals. It attracted large number of Protestants and women from the working class. The Social Democrats were strong supporters of the Republic. The Social Democratic Party received the most votes from 1919 to 1932.
The parties on the right were nationalistic and supported large military. They were opposed to social welfare, labor unions, and progressive taxation. "They favored an economy directed by industrialists and landowners with large states. They were antisemitic and favored traditional roles for women." (Weimar Political Parties, web source). The German Nationalist People's Party (DNVP) attracted Protestant landowners and industrialists. It also received support from civil servants, white-collar clerical and retail sales workers. The National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) or Nazi Party, was also at the extreme right. Its principal speaker and leader was Adolf Hitler. It
attracted young veterans unable to reintegrate to civilian society, the lower middle class, artisans, and white-collar workers. Antisemitism was at the core of the Nazi ideology.
The parties in the center were the most moderate of the political parties. The German Democratic Party (DDP) represented the Protestant middle class, such as lawyers, doctors, and liberal academics. The party was supportive of the Republic. The Catholic Center Party (Z) represented the interests of the German Catholics and it had a left-liberal wing and a right-conservative wing. "The Center Party was vital to the stability of the Republic". (Weimar Political Parties, web source). The German People's Party (DVP) represented the Protestant middle class of small and middle-sized businesses and white-collar workers. The People's Party was closer to the parties on the right. It lacked the support of the rural workers the Nationalist had, and it was less extreme in antisemitism. Sheri Berman quotes Alexis de Tocqueville in his warning that if society is to remain civilized and democracy to survive "the art of associating together must grow and improve" (Berman, 1997, 403). Neo-Tocquevillean theories argue that civil society is key in the development of the legitimization of democracy and that "mass society" leads to the disintegration of democracy. The theory of "mass society" tries to explain the reasons why people, in a greatly industrialized, highly bureaucratized, impersonal society, participate in social movements based on the assumption that the movement offers them a sense of belonging. The social scientist William Kornhauser argues that people in impersonal societies feel isolated and alienated from one another. Social movements, like the Nazi movement, take away the feeling of isolation by offering a sense of belonging. According to this theory, "the key reason for the collapse of the Weimar Republic was its status as a classic mass society" (Berman, 1997, 404), and it suggest that Hitler was able to attract large numbers of people because they were "alienated individuals who lacked a wide range of associational membership and saw in the NSDAP a way of integrating themselves into a larger community" (Berman, 1997, 404). This theory implies that if German civil society had been stronger, the Weimar Republic would not have collapsed.
In contrast with what neo-Tocquevillean theories would predict, the flourishing associational life in Germany did not help legitimize the democratic government. It is not accurate to label the people in the Weimar Republic as a "classic mass society". Civil society in the German Reich during the 1920s and up to 1932 was highly active and organized, but for civil society to have a positive effect in the democratic system, political institutions must be strong and responsive to the demands of the population. The political and economic context drastically changed after the American stock market crashed in 1929 resulting in a disastrous economic world depression. "This development added to Germany's economic hardship. Mass unemployment and suffering followed." (The Weimar Republic, web source). People grew increasingly frustrated with the failures of the national government and political parties to control the situation. Middle-class groups became suspicious of liberal and conservative parties as they were seen as "the tools of big capitalists and financial interests." (Berman, 1997, 416), and "as the Great Depression spread throughout Europe, Germany found itself with weak political institutions and a fragmented but highly organized civil society" (Berman, 1997, 416)
As voters became disillusioned with the traditional bourgeois parties, the NSDAP, or Nazi party, started to exploit the dense network of civic organizations recruiting highly skilled activist and infiltrating their members into bourgeois organizations such as sports clubs, occupational associations, and student fraternities. The Nazi party oriented its appeal towards the middle class attracting bourgeois "joiners" with leadership skills and strong social ties. "Civil society activists formed the backbone of the Nazi's grassroots propaganda machine" (Berman, 1997, 420). The propaganda the NSDAP designed made them "seem sympathetic and responsive by contrast with the elitist and out-of-touch liberals and conservatives" (Berman, 1997, 421), which gave the Nazi party the legitimacy and the massive support it previously lacked. The NSDAP also decided to attract the agricultural sector, or peasantry, focusing "on the particular demands of rural inhabitants" (Berman, 1997, 422). Having focused on the neglected groups of German society, infiltrated every social and political area and eliminated the competition, the Nazi party was able to create an "effective political machine and a true-class coalition" (Berman, 1997, 424). Having failed at gaining power through force, Adolf Hitler was able to infiltrate the institution he wanted to destroy by legally gaining power through elections and in 1932 he was named Chancellor.
Weimar Germany had a rigid class separation. Aristocrats looked down on the members of the middle class and working class. The bourgeois middle class looked down on the working class and lower classes. Different political parties based on class, occupation, and religion had very narrow bases of support and represented the interest of each fragment of German society, making compromising very difficult. As political institutions grew weak and ineffective, the people actively turned to civic associations, specially the middle bourgeois class who felt the working class was benefitting at their expense. The NSDAP propaganda targeted the neglected sectors of society and was able to unify the distinct subcultures or communities under one cross-class political coalition. Contrary to neo-Tocquevillean theories, the active civil German society did not help legitimize the democratic system, in fact, when faced with weak and unresponsive political institutions, the highly mobilized German civil society helped to undermine the legitimacy of the democratic Republic and had a key role in bringing the Nazi party to power. As Berman points out: "Had German civil society been weaker, the Nazis would never have been able to capture so many citizens for their cause or eviscerate their opponents so swiftly" (Berman, 1997, 402).
- Sheri Berman, "Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic," World Politics, Vol. 49, No. 3 (April 1997) pp. 401-29.
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