Followings the conclusion of World War One, many Western European countries, with the former authoritarian elite now weakened, were able to embrace liberal democracy. Yet mere two decades later, from these same countries, history would see the decline and end of democracy and the rise of the most brutal totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. The most infamous of all in this period of democratic breakdown would be the rise of Nazism in Germany.
While the failure of democracy to take hold in other countries such as Spain and Russia could be explained by the prevalence of an unequal and underdeveloped agrarian society, Germany was a country with high development, high density of civil society and urbanization with a relatively large middle-class, factors that would otherwise be highly favorable to democracy. However, one factor set Germany apart from other industrial powers like Great Britain and the United States and it was that democracy in the country wasn’t good for business and it was due to the conscious effort of both the industrialists and large landowners that democracy became undermined, to be replaced with Nazi totalitarianism.
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The Capitalist-Junker Alliance
The survival of democracy in Great Britain and the United States and its demise in post-WW1 Germany can be explained by the dynamics of class relations within their respective societies. In Great Britain and the United States, the Capitalist class was often at odds with the agricultural elites in such areas as trade protectionism, labor control and state intervention. However, in Germany, they found common ground on these very same issues. Thus, while it was in the interest of the liberal capitalists in US and UK to ensure that political rights remained accessible to the ordinary people as means to undermine the power of landed upper classes, in Germany, on the other hand, the liberal capitalists joined the landed elite in exercising exclusion of political rights to the masses.
The contrast of interest of the Capitalist class in the UK and US with that of Germany’s can be explained by the divergent socio-economic factors between them. Germany was a relative latecomer in terms of industrialization and unlike the more laissez-faire domestic economies of Great Britain and the United States, Germany’s industrialization had been facilitated by heavy state intervention and guarded against foreign competition through generous tariffs and trade barriers. Furthermore, where the US and UK could reply on captive markets in Latin America and Asia for raw resources, for Germany, lacking colonies and surrounded by competing powers, being cut off from imports of raw materials were an ever-present danger. Lastly, the economy of Germany, unlike the US and UK, was dominated by heavy industries and employed a high degree of labor suppression as a means to keep costs competitive. On this basis, it was in the interest of the country’s elite to favor authoritarianism and imperialism so to secure access to resources, keep labor movements suppressed and prevent the dangers of foreign competition.
The alliance between the capitalists and the landed elite (the Junkers) in Germany was further strengthened with the latter’s control of the state, being dominant in the military, bureaucracy, and the judiciary. Thus, for the Capitalist class in Germany, alliance with the Agrarian elite presented not just a marriage of convenience in that their commercial interests aligned but that they also needed them for their own survival and welfare. Defeat in WW1 only temporarily weakened this alliance and when it began consolidating again in the interwar period, it was only a matter of time before authoritarianism would once again dominate German politics.
The bourgeoisie entered the agrarian alliance not from a lack of “political self-confidence”, but as the best means of securing certain political goals. The indifference to further “parliamentarization” came less from any pre-industrial tradition of authoritarianism, than from a rational calculation of political interest in a situation where greater parliamentary reform necessarily worked to the advantage of the left. Likewise, it made perfect sense for German capitalists to refuse the “just” demands of the working class, once a given level of private economic power and monopoly organization bequeathed it the ability to do so. — Geoff Eley, The Peculiarities of German History
The Threat of Socialism and Support for Fascism
For the state, having been captured by the Capitalist-Junker Alliance, rising support for socialist parties among the working poor was an ever-present threat, not only because of the socialists’ strong opposition to labor suppression but that they presented a very real danger to their very existence as a privileged class. With the socialists having succeeded in neighboring Russia with much bloodshed, the German elite was concerned with a repeat of such a brutal event in their country. Fascism provided a viable as a counter-ideology to socialism. Both ideologies filled the gap of collectivist needs that the more individualistic liberalism failed to accommodate. In times of great uncertainty, such as during an economic crisis, collectivism triumphs individualism in mass sentiments.
However, whereas socialism was pluralistic and materialistic, fascism was exclusionist and expressionist. Thus, for the elite, it proved to a viable alternative to rally the frustrated poor behind, fill their collectivist sentiments while safeguarding the elite’s material interests and survival. Though elements of the state didn’t explicitly support Hitler, their neutrality and even sympathy towards him was crucial to his success. Consider the extremely light sentence Hitler received for what amounted to high treason against the state for example or the reluctance of the police or the military to stem violence carried out by far-right groups.
The Great Depression and the Rise of the Nazis
The onset of the Great Depression was the catalyst that sped up the breakdown of democracy in the fragile German republic and gave rise to support for Authoritarian politics, on both sides of the political spectrum. The economic crisis greatly shrank the middle class and devastated the working class, sections of German society erstwhile most supportive of democratic politics.
The election of the pro-authoritarian nobleman Franz von Papen as Chancellor in 1932 confirmed this reality. Papen’s government, supported by the big business elite, immediately began to roll back labor rights and social welfare reforms, suspended the Prussian Landtag and drew up plans to revise the constitution towards a more authoritarian direction. Papen himself would be instrumental in the rise of Hitler. In 1933, he along with other prominent politicians, industrialists, and members of the business community forced the German President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Chancellor despite the Nazis being a minority in the cabinet.
The German elite, of course, assumed that they could control the Fascists and use them for their ends. This proved to be a miscalculation on their part. The monster they unleashed, once it had acquired power turned upon its own benefactors. Papen himself would soon become marginalized by Hitler after the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, during which the Nazis killed some of his closest allies. Once in control of the state apparatus, Hitler and the Nazi party would systematically wipe out their opposition, starting with the Communists, then the more moderate Social Democrats and finally everyone else. Within a year, Hitler would successfully manage to create Germany into a one-party totalitarian state.