Three days out from the German election, and I’m now in Germany – in fact in Weimar, the small central German city that gave its name to the first German republic, which lasted from the collapse of the empire at the end of the First World War until it was destroyed from within by Adolf Hitler in 1933-34.
Weimar has been a frequent reference point in the last year or so, as the far right has returned in force to the western political stage. But while there are important lessons in its failure, it’s also worth keeping in mind the successes of the second republic (although no-one ever calls it that): the German Federal Republic that has lasted to the present day.
Its success is twofold. In its first period it showed that a stable and peaceful German democracy was possible. In its second period, following the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, it succeeded in absorbing and transforming the former communist east – and incidentally showed that the democracy was not just an artifact of western military occupation.
As Dirk Kurbjuweit pointed out a month ago in Der Spiegel, “Compared to the United States, Germany is a calm, balanced entity, stable and centrist. That’s precisely the goal that the authors of Germany’s constitution had in mind and it’s now possible for us to say they were successful.”
Part of the achievement is Germany’s reluctance to boast of it: hence the almost apologetic tone of Kurbjuweit’s piece, and of the many other comparisons of Angela Merkel with Donald Trump.
A few decades ago, the political immaturity and incompetence of the Germans was a byword in the west. A country whose cultural and intellectual achievements were so remarkable seemed nonetheless unable to govern itself without becoming a menace to its neighbors. Now, however, the boot is on the other foot.
But this year, German democracy feels more than usually besieged, with the rise of the far-right anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD), against the background of continued support for the far-left party known simply as the Left.
That’s what brings uncomfortable echoes of Weimar: the first republic was doomed when the Nazis and Communists between them won a parliamentary majority and, although bitter enemies, co-operated to make the country ungovernable.
AfD and the Left are still a long way short of that; polls suggest they may perhaps garner 20% between them. More importantly, each is but a pale shadow of its forebear. AfD are very unpleasant people, but they are not literally Nazis and their agenda does not run to the destruction of democracy. And the Left, while it includes the heirs of the brutal rulers of East Germany, is much more a grab-bag of anti-capitalist activists than a serious totalitarian movement.
Perhaps more importantly still, there is as yet no sign that the two would work together in any way. Yet here most of all Weimar stands as a warning. One of the most disturbing trends in the last year has been the convergence in many places of the interests of far left and far right, ranging from the neutrality of many of Bernie Sanders’s supporters in the Trump-Clinton battle last year, down to the refusal of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France to endorse a vote against Marine Le Pen.
Even Joseph Stalin realised, too late, that the refusal of the German Communists to make common cause with the democratic parties against Hitler had been a tactical blunder of the first order. But the lesson still needs to be learned again.
The positive lessons of Weimar, as usual, are harder to discern. We know what went wrong; we cannot know for sure what would have worked instead. In particular, we still have no algorithm to determine when it is safe to try to bring an extremist force within the tent, and when (as in 1933) it is a recipe for disaster.
Some extremist parties just seem irreconcilable; AfD in its current incarnation (although not as it appeared in 2013) is such a beast, as was the KPD in 1933. But others are not, and bringing them into a junior partnership can sometimes draw their sting – as François Mitterand did with the French Communists in 1981, and as Austria’s conservatives did with Joerg Haider in 2000.
The German Social Democrats faced this choice four years ago, when co-operation with the Left would have given them (including the Greens) a parliamentary majority. They chose not to take that track, and let Merkel continue in office rather than bring the Left within the pale.
We will probably never know if that was the right decision or not, and if the polls are right then the opportunity will not be offered again. But the broader problem of how to deal with extremism, German or other, is unlikely to go away.