- The Ghosts of Weimar:The Weimar Analogy in American Thought
the ghosts of the weimar republic (1918–1933) presently haunt the United States. In manifold news articles and opinion pieces, pundits and thinkers from across the political spectrum wonder whether Donald J. Trump's election indicates that the United States, similar to Weimar before it, is a democracy in decline, fated to be overrun by right-wing reactionaries.1 One historian of fascism has even published a bestselling book that provides lessons, drawn from the European past, on how to resist tyranny (Snyder 2017). Eighty-four years after the first German democracy collapsed, it continues to maintain a hold on the American imagination.
Recent scholarship has explored the impact the Weimar Republic had on postwar culture, politics, and society in both the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany (Ullrich 2009; Greenberg 2014; Strote 2017; Bessner 2018). However, no one has yet analyzed the ways in which US thinkers, both native- and foreign-born, used the Weimar analogy as a means to understand their present. This article redresses this gap by examining three historical periods in which the Weimar analogy informed how Americans thought about their world: the 1930s–1950s; the 1960s–1970s; and 2016–2017. Throughout these years, the Weimar analogy served diverse functions; it was at various moments an inspiration for action, a warning about the dangers of mass unrest, and a derided example of immature historical thinking. [End Page 831]
The goals of those who employed the analogy differed in the eras under discussion. In the first two periods—the 1930s–1950s and the 1960s–1970s—the primary intellectuals who deployed the analogy were older exiles from National Socialist Germany. These individuals argued that democratic politics should be rooted in institutions (whether state or para-state), an elite relatively disconnected from public opinion, and normative values that restricted extraparliamentary action. In the 1930s–1950s, exiles used the Weimar analogy to create institutions that realized their political vision; in the 1960s–1970s, they used it to delegitimize the anti–Vietnam War student protest movements, because to these older exiles the students' extraparliamentary strategy reflected a profound disdain for normal democratic politics and thereby threatened American democracy. In contrast to the older exiles, however, younger exiles and thinkers born outside Germany rejected the analogizing of the students with the Nazis because they either agreed with the students' critiques of US foreign policy or believed that the United States was more resilient than Weimar Germany and would not fall prey to an extremist threat.
In 2016–2017, the intellectuals who embraced the Weimar analogy did so in order to inspire Americans to resist what they considered a potentially fascist regime. According to the analogy's advocates, Donald J. Trump was very similar to Adolf Hitler, and ordinary people needed to prepare themselves to oppose an emergent authoritarian state. Despite the passionate entreaties of the analogy's promoters, however, most scholars maintained that, despite his authoritarian instincts, Trump was not technically a fascist. However, the tenor of intellectuals' rejection of the Weimar analogy in 2016–2017 significantly differed from that of the 1960s–1970s. Whereas in the latter era intellectuals scorned the Weimar analogy because they had a positive faith in American democracy, recently thinkers have spurned the analogy mainly for technical reasons. Simply put, the rejection of the Weimar analogy in 2016–2017 was less robust than it was in the 1960s–1970s, which indicated a general loss of trust in American institutions, politics, and governance. [End Page 832]
There were several reasons for the Weimar analogy's continued popularity. (Indeed, its repeated use suggests that it should be placed alongside the Munich analogy as one of the foundational analogies of modern American thought [for the Munich analogy, see Khong 1992, chap. 7; and Logevall and Osgood 2010]). First, it was brought to the United States by a remarkable generation of intellectual exiles. The influence of this exile cohort, which included luminaries such as Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and Leo Strauss, encouraged admiring US thinkers to adopt the analogy as their own. Second, the sheer horror of the atrocities committed by the Nazis made them the...