Democracy is as Fragile Now as it was During My Father’s Time in Weimar Germany


Photograph Source: Daniel Lobo – CC BY 2.0

In Berlin in 1927, my father Claud Cockburn experienced a peculiarly depressing Christmas day when he shared his dinner with a dog. I was thinking about this last week as an antidote to gloom over the advance of the Omicron variant and the prospect of further restrictions on the way. Irritating complications hindering my family’s Christmas plans appeared trivial by comparison.

After leaving university, Claud had won a travelling fellowship from Queen’s College, Oxford, which he believed would give him just enough money, when supplemented by meagre journalistic earnings, to live in Berlin for a couple of years. But as Christmas approached at the end of the first year, he realised that he had miscalculated and, moreover, he had to feed not only himself but a dog left in his care by his girlfriend Berta who had gone to Vienna for the holiday period.

“It was a horrible Christmas for the dog,” Claud wrote later in his memoir In Time of Trouble, “because just at that time I had run entirely out of money and was living chiefly on expectations of a cheque from the United States that never came. To begin with, the dog fed fairly well because the butcher round the corner always had a pile of scraps – offal, bacon rind and the like – which he gave me free when I bought meat for myself.”

But on Christmas Eve, when everybody Claud knew had left town for the holiday, he found distressingly that he had only just enough money to buy a couple of drinks and some tobacco.

“Feeling very low mentally and morally, I went round to the butcher and told him that I myself was, of course, invited to go to eat my Christmas dinner with friends and therefore did not wish to buy anything for myself but was anxious that the dog should have a particularly good Christmas dinner. The kindly butcher made up an unusually large and nasty-looking parcel of scraps, which I took home and cooked.”

The dog watched the preparation of his Christmas meal with satisfaction. But the next day at noon, when he saw Claud carefully dividing the mess into equal portions and putting one half of it on his own plate, his disappointment and indignation knew no bounds. “At first, he watched me with an expression of sheer incredulity,” wrote Claud. “Then when he saw me actually digging my fork into that portion of his dinner which I had reserved for myself, he got up on his hind legs, with his forepaws on the table, and threw back his head howling in astonishment and despair.”

My father was good at telling funny stories about his frequent bouts of impoverishment as a young man in Germany and France in the 1920s. They served to raise his spirits at the time, as they did mine in less dire circumstances a century later.

But there is another far more menacing parallel between Weimar Germany, when my father was living there, and the state of Britain and America today. The comparison has often been made in the past, using the 15 troubled years of the Weimar Republic between 1918 and 1933 as a shorthand to suggest that a democracy is fragile and failing, and at risk of being replaced by authoritarian rule.

In Britain, a shambolic government stumbles as it vainly seeks to cope with crises which are partly of its own making. Boris Johnson is a symptom as well as a cause of a deeper rot in the British state. His inadequacy as prime minister was long concealed by two fallacies: these were that he had first “got Brexit done” and had then brought Covid-19 under control through mass vaccination. Only in the past few months has it become clear to the public that neither claim is true and that the Johnson government, mired in scandal and indecision, does not know how to deal with them.

Britain may resemble Weimar in terms of government incapacity and division, but it is in America that the stench of Weimar has become overwhelming. The great weakness of German democracy in the 1920s was that several political parties, many state institutions and a large portion of the public felt no loyalty to the republic, or believed in its legitimacy, or were prepared to defend it.

Much the same toxic pattern is now visible in the United States where democracy is facing a potentially terminal crisis, the gravity of which is frequently underestimated by non-Americans. What is happening does not fit in with their image of the US, whose divisions they usually underestimate. Donald Trump came closer than they – and many Americans – realise to reversing a free presidential election last year. Since then, the Trump-controlled Republican Party has been taking over the electoral apparatus in state after state to make sure they do not lose again in 2024. The mid-term elections in 2022 – when district boundaries will be gerrymandered in favour of the Republicans – will give them greater control of state legislatures and the appointment of electoral officials who oversee the counting of votes. This will help them to win swing states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona which they lost in 2020.

A conservative majority in the Supreme Court may well throw the final decision on electoral matters to the states, who will choose the winners pretty well regardless of the true popular vote. By rejecting the well-authenticated presidential election results, the Republicans are already following in the footsteps of authoritarian regimes and populist demagogues displacing democracy elsewhere in the world. Not even the founders of the Confederacy contested the validity of the vote for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, even though his election was the reason for their secession from the Union.

Another ominous similarity between America and Weimar is the legitimisation of political violence by Trump and his supporters, whose fanaticism is often fuelled by fear that they are being displaced by non-whites. “You’re the people who built this nation,” Trump told a rally, some of whom went on to storm the Capitol on 6 January this year. “And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you won’t have a country any more.”

As was shown repeatedly during his presidency, there is nothing rhetorical about Trump’s call to arms. America is more divided than at any time since the Civil War, with little sign that President Biden is capable of leading a counter-attack in defence of democracy. His appeals to national unity sound limp and disengaged from the reality of the threat. This is despite the fact that he may go down in history as the last freely elected president of the United States.

Claud returned to Berlin in January 1933 when he witnessed the final days of the Weimar Republic. He found that “Storm Troopers were slashing and smashing up and down the Kurfuerstendamm [the main avenue in the city centre], and there were beatings and unequal battles in the city streets”. He reflected that he was just the sort of anti-Nazi whom these same Storm Troopers might like to beat to death, and took the train to Vienna 24 hours before Hitler became Chancellor.

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