The installation of FDP politician Thomas Kemmerich as Minister President of the German state of Thuringia has been widely registered as a moment of profound historical significance. This is hard, at first sight, to square with the basic fact at the centre of the furore, namely the democratic election of a comparatively obscure liberal parliamentarian to head up a regional political assembly. Indeed, given the identities of some of the people in power in Europe right now, one might think it a matter for considerable relief.
Yet to anyone who knows a little modern German history, the uproar is not hard to comprehend. The sight of conservative and liberal German politicians – representatives of political traditions that have been mainstays of the post-Nazi democratic polity established in 1949 – collaborating with a party led locally by acknowledged fascist Björn Höcke to oust a socialist opponent has had many of us reaching for analogies with the late Weimar and early Nazi years. Many, including myself, reached instinctively for that notorious image of Adolf Hitler bowing before President Paul von Hindenburg on the Day of Potsdam on 21 March 1933.
Not everyone was persuaded, and some, clearly, were thoroughly unimpressed:
As far as this chap’s specific assertion is concerned, well, he may have a point, and it is not for me to argue. But I think he is missing a rather more important one, which is about the purpose of comparative thought, its role in historical learning, and its uses for democratic citizenship.
Because although, self evidently, Thomas Kemmerich is not Hitler, comparative historical thought is not a game of Spot the Difference. The image matters because it symbolizes like few others the problematic relationship of the German (and we might say: European) conservative tradition both to fascism and to democracy itself, and that is what is actually at stake here. The Day of Potsdam matters, likewise, not as a direct correlate of the installation of Kemmerich as Minister President. It matters, rather, as a key moment in a long, complex process of usurpation of power, against the background of an even longer, and even more complex process whereby the German Right was made, unmade, and remade through the 1920s and 1930s, with all the consequences that we know about.
As I have argued here before: such images matter, fundamentally, because they enable us to put our fingers on some bigger questions. At what point do qualms over differences of political opinion and style crumble before the instinctive desire for power? How far does hostility to the organized Left, with its promise of mild Social Democratic redistribution, trump a fundamental commitment to keeping the forces of fascism at bay? What are the processes whereby fascist political formations insert themselves into the national conversation, and how do they shift that conversation onto their terrain? Once the parties of the ‘bourgeois centre’ have started relying upon the support – tacit or explicit – of far Right parties what is the price to be paid, and by whom?
Once again: the history of the Weimar Republic asks us to ponder questions that matter not just in the German instance. What role do structural and cyclical economic crises play in the collapse of democracies? What are the processes whereby established voting behaviours disintegrate, and how are new political formations constituted? How do inherited habits of nationalist and racist thought shape popular responses to moments of crisis – perceived and real? What role do new media play in the naturalization of far Right ideologies? What are the processes whereby radical nationalist ideologies attain the mantle of ‘common sense’, and racist hostilities are acknowledged by politicians as ‘legitimate concerns’ to be pandered to? Again: who pays the price?
As Richard Evans rightly argued in a thoughtful recent piece responding to our current moment of democratic crisis, democracies die in different ways at different times. In that sense, the Weimar Republic clearly does not supply all the answers. But it certainly teaches us what questions we should be asking, and it certainly provides an apposite starting point for the CDU and the FDP to reflect on their choices. In that sense, the image of Hindenburg and Hitler represents a powerful warning, and one that belongs firmly in the current political conversation.