There are four major points of similarity between Weimar Germany and “Weimar America” worth examining.
The policies of Chancellor Brüning enacted in 1930 after the onset of the Depression – cuts to wages, benefits and public programs – dramatically worsened unemployment, hunger and suffering.
So far, austerity in America has largely taken place at the state and local levels. However, the federal government is now working on national austerity plans, in the form of so-called “trigger cuts” slated to take effect at the end of 2012. In addition, there’s the Bowles–Simpson austerity plan to slash Medicare and Social Security benefits along with a host of other public programs; and the Ryan Budget, a blueprint for widespread federal austerity should the Republicans win control of the Congress and the White House in November.
2. Attacks on Democracy
From the beginning in 1919, large segments of the German public resented the politics of a newly democratic Germany, especially in the first five years, the time of hyper-inflation, the abortive Hitler putsch in 1923, and hundreds of political assassinations. Conditions stabilized dramatically and, as the economy improved, democracy gradually began to take roots – until the crash of 1929.
Democracy is far older in the United States today than it was in Germany during the early 1930s but the effect of money on politics and the power of corporate lobbying is considered an acute threat to democracy.
3. Enabling Extremists
Well before Hitler was made chancellor in 1933, leading conservatives and business leaders had concluded that their interests would be better served by something other than the democratic system established in 1919. During the 1920s, they actively supported parties that promoted anti-democratic ideologies, from monarchism to authoritarianism. Nazis were just one of the many extremist groups they supported during the Weimar era.
In the U.S. today, Tea Party activists are not Nazis. But with roots in the 20th century radical right, the Tea Party’s attack on the public sector, on labour unions, on democratic practices, and on people who are not white mark them as the extremist wing of American politics, and they bear many of the hallmarks that characterize fascist movements around the world.
4. Right-wing and Corporate Dominance
One of the most prominent German media moguls in the 1920s was Alfred Hugenberg, owner of 53 newspapers that reached a majority of German readers. The chairman of the right-wing German National People’s Party, Hugenberg promoted Adolf Hitler by providing favourable coverage of him from the mid-1920s onward. So did many others.
In the United States, one only needs to look at Charles and David Koch, Fox News and other right-wing funders and their media outlets to see the analogy. By funding right-wing politicians who promote austerity, undermine democracy and support extremism, they are active agents in the creation of Weimar America.
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Hitler’s assumption to power in 1933 was not inevitable. Had it not been for the Crash and the Depression he would have remained a marginal figure. He never won a majority of seats in the Reichstag in a free election. He achieved power by manipulation. A military putsch might have prevented it.
Similarly, in the U.S. today there is no inevitable outcome of the current crisis.
Sources: Robert Cruickshank in Atlantic Online, July 7, and The Weimar Triangle by Eric Koch