A liberal accord with Nazism?


HISTORY: Living with Hitler: Liberal Democrats in the Third Reichby Eric Kurlander, Yale University Press, 291pp, £25. The failure of liberals to vigorously oppose the Nazis shows how easily democracy can be destroyed in a time of economic hardship

MARCH 23RD, 1933, marked the day the Weimar Republic, arguably one of the most liberal states in history, ceased to exist. On that day, the German Reichstag “voluntarily” authorised a permanent state of emergency that would form the legal basis of the Nazi dictatorship. The infamous Enabling Law, passed with an overwhelming two-thirds majority, granted the recently appointed Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, the power to enact legislation without prior consent of the parliament. Only the Social Democrats voted against the law, despite the terror and intimidation they had experienced over the previous weeks. Their honourable defiance came at a high price. Shortly after the party’s chairman, Otto Wels, told the Nazi-dominated parliament that “you can take our freedom and our lives, but you cannot take away our honour”, he lost his German citizenship and was forced to leave the country.

NOT EVERYONE HAD the courage and determination to confront the Nazis in this way, and among those who voted for the Enabling Law were the last five remaining liberal MPs. What drove these liberals to effectively abandon the Weimar constitution which they themselves had helped to create? And how did liberal democrats survive under the Nazi dictatorship? These are the questions Eric Kurlander addresses in his stimulating new book, Living With Hitler. To be sure, many prominent Weimar liberals such as Albert Einstein, Heinrich Mann, or the Nobel Peace Laureate Ludwig Quidde, chose to leave the country after Hitler’s seizure of power. They knew they had no future in the New Germany. German-Jewish liberal intellectuals, in particular, fled the country in large numbers, notably to the US and to Britain. Others, less willing or able to pursue the often difficult and uncertain path into exile, chose to go into “inner emigration”, a complete withdrawal from public life. Although deprived of political office, the future first President of the Federal Republic, Theodor Heuss, and Germany’s leading feminist of the 1920s, Gertrud Bäumer, continued to live in Nazi Germany until the bitter end. As liberal members of parliament in 1933, both of them had voted for the Enabling Law. Yet foreign exile and “inner emigration” were not the only possible choices facing liberals in the Third Reich. Some former democrats, such as the president of the German Reichsbank until 1939, Hjalmar Schacht, and the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, even held important offices under Hitler, although they became increasingly marginalised when the Nazis consolidated their power.

In exploring the complex relationship between liberalism and Nazism, Kurlander makes a number of important observations: first, he argues that bourgeois liberals could live quite comfortably under Hitler. They encountered far less systematic repression and terror than the real or perceived enemies of Nazism: communists and socialists, or the allegedly racially inferior. As long as they remained politically inactive or indeed proved willing to collaborate with the new authorities, there was no need for the Gestapo to persecute them. Liberal democrats could be seen as misguided idealists, led astray by the evil influence of Jews.

Second, and perhaps more controversially, Kurlander insists there were certain ideological continuities between German left-liberalism and Nazism, continuities that made political accommodation, and in some cases outright collaboration, with the Nazis more attractive than one might expect. Even though most German liberals were horrified by the violent implementation of Hitler’s dystopian fantasies, Kurlander argues that there existed, at least initially, somecommon ground between both movements. He emphasises foreign policy – particularly the goals of revising the Treaty of Versailles and restoring German hegemony in central Europe – as an area in which liberals and Nazis could agree in principle. After all, one of the most prominent proponents of the geopolitical idea of a German-led economic sphere in central Europe was Friedrich Naumann, the first chairman of the German Democratic Party and author of the liberal imperialist manifesto, Mitteleuropa. Ever since the late 19th century, Kurlander suggests, German liberals had subscribed to völkisch ideas of ethnicity, an anti-universalist conception of national identity that differed substantially from British or French liberalism.

Kurlander’s argument that German liberalism was, in some ways, an “ideological and sociological antecedent” of Nazism, could be seen as an attempt to revive the old German Sonderwegthesis, the notion that Germany’s deviant path towards modernity explains the rise of Nazism. Such an interpretation, based on a rigid dichotomy between “universalist” western liberalism and its völkischGerman counterpart, will not convince everyone. The history of British and French colonialism, which bears strong structural similarities with the kind of German domination over central Europe that Friedrich Naumann and other pre-1933 liberals had in mind, raises the question of how different German völkischliberalism really was. Both in Britain and in France, liberals could be strong advocates of civil liberties at home while strenuously denying the same rights to their colonial subjects. British liberalism may have been universalist in rhetoric, but it was hardly so in practice. “Scientific” racism and the drive for economic exploitation of colonial peoples were a common pattern in late-19th- and early-20th-century European history, and certainly not a German peculiarity.

WHILE KURLANDER places great emphasis on the long-term continuity of liberal völkischideas, he tends to downplay the situational pressures that confronted liberal democrats in the early 1930s. Nazi terror and intimidation placed great pressures on liberal MPs whose refusal to pass the Enabling Law would have been no more than a heroic gesture without any real political consequences. More importantly, however, electoral support for liberal parties had virtually disappeared under the impact of the Great Depression. Not only in Germany, but in most of Europe, parliamentary democracy seemed an outdated model of political organisation. The future, so it seemed, belonged to the totalitarian ideologies of fascism and communism. If confronted with a choice between those two, liberals did indeed see greater commonalities with the Nazis than with the KPD.

Despite his overemphasis on long-term continuities, Kurlander is right in pointing out that the history of left liberals in the Third Reich has been ignored for too long. The story of German liberalism’s collapse in the wake of the Great Depression continues to be highly relevant. The failure of Weimar republicans to vigorously oppose the rise of Nazism demonstrates how easily a liberal democracy can succumb to a totalitarian movement, particularly at a time of severe economic recession when confidence in the values of liberalism and free-market capitalism is shaken to its very foundations.

Robert Gerwarth teaches Modern European History at UCD and is director of UCD’s Centre for War Studies (www.warstudies.ie)