Sick as I've been these last couple of months, I did get one thing done that I'd been meaning to do. Quite a while back I asked my "brain trust" to recommend a good overview text on the Weimar Republic period in German history, and everybody agreed on Richard Evans The Coming of the Third Reich, volume 1 of his trilogy on the rise, rule, and fall of the Nazis. I finished it a while back, and I have to agree with the many reviews that I've seen that this is the essential book to start with, the one that made sense out of everything else I've read about Weimar Germany before and since, by supplying useful historical context. Many thanks for the recommendation, those of you who suggested it.
Now, here's why I cared. I came by my fascination with the subject of economics when I had a teacher who was at least as good at explaining complex topics as I am, my Economics and Political Science teacher at the fundamentalist pseudo-prep private high school I was sent to against my will. The year was 1975, and especially for conservatives, the word "Weimar" was in the air, a lot. The US was still being hammered by economic sanctions from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Our ability to do anything about it was crippled entirely by the hammering our military took in Vietnam, and the hammering our budget took under the Johnson and Nixon administrations' "Guns and Butter" refusal to raise taxes, sell war bonds, or cut any other governmental expenses to pay for that losing war; they instead maxed-out our national ability to borrow, from anywhere, and left the resulting mess to Presidents Ford and Carter to clean up, neither of them shining examples of economic or political competence. The net result was double-digit unemployment, even by the heavily politicized, massively under-counted official rate, plus double-digit inflation and a Dow Jones Industrial Average in the low to mid 3 digits, and both political parties' leading candidates were telling us that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. And because the combination of high inflation and high unemployment is rare, the comparison that economists were nervously talking about was not to the Great Depression, but the far more sinister comparison to the Great Inflation that most experts cite as the most important cause of the rise of fascism and the end of democracy in Germany. The question was being very seriously asked, when I first started studying economics in the mid to late 1970s: were we heading towards Weimar America?
Here's the story my social-conservative Moral Majority charter member economics teacher, and other right wing economists of the time, were telling us to help us understand what they were afraid of. Weimar Germany, they told us, was hampered from the start by strong labor unions and a Socialist majority in their parliament. Those bad socialist economic policies, combined with the years of crushing and intolerably high reparations they were being forced to pay after World War I, combined with a total collapse of family values and a rise in public displays of sexual perversion not seen since the Roman Empire, so wrecked the Germany economy that the currency became worthless, people stopped working, and eventually people turned to Hitler in hopes of freeing the government from having to listen to labor unions, to free Germany from reparations, and to crush the sexual deviants that were destroying the Germany family and the German worker's ability to work. Yep. That's what I was told. But over the years, I've learned that there wasn't a single word of truth in that whole account. Labor unions were no stronger in Germany than anywhere else, and weaker than they were in Britain in the same time period, and they didn't collapse into fascism. Sexual "immorality" was no more blatant in Germany than it was in Paris, and barely more than it was in New York City, and neither France nor the US suspended democracy in a fascist revolution. And, and here was the big eye opener for me, Germany never paid the reparations, except for one token payment; the rest were funded via direct financial aid from, or open-ended loans by, the USA, which had opposed reparations from the beginning. So knowing those things, you can understand my curiosity when I wanted to find out: how, then, did the Great Inflation happen in Germany? How, then, did democracy die in Germany? And could those same conditions, that same situation, happen the same way here?
Let me massively speed up and oversimplify Evans' well-documented, definitively researched conclusions. Even with economic support from the US, Versailles Treaty reparations were enough of a drag on the Germany economy that there was pretty substantial inflation. Nothing unprecedented, and not all that much higher than elsewhere on the continent, but somewhat high nonetheless. Well, when they were dictating the terms of Germany's surrender, France insisted on a guarantee that they wouldn't be paid back in devaluated currency; they reserved the right to claim very nearly all of Germany's pre-war level of annual coal production. In 1923, they demanded the reparations be paid in coal. But the German mining industry had not yet recovered to pre-war levels; if nothing else, far too many workers were dead or still crippled from the war. Rather than accept that excuse, the French raised a foreign legion of black soldiers from French Algeria and invaded and conquered the German coal-mining and industrial states of the Ruhr river valley, and ordered their African troops to round up every able-bodied man, woman, or child and force them at gunpoint to mine coal until the reparations were paid, shooting anybody who refused to work, and anybody who spoke out against the invasion. The German people responded with a general strike, and this time, the level of national outrage was high enough that it stuck.
But a general strike in the Ruhr was no small deal. Over the preceding decades, Germany had basically dismantled most of its farm economy, retooling their whole economy around fabled German engineering and German manufacturing efficiency, exporting fine tools and heavy machinery to the US and to eastern Europe in exchange for food and to the Middle East in exchange for oil. With the Ruhr valley shut down, unemployment in Germany jumped instantly to over 50%, and German exports dropped to very nearly zero. As the last bits of food in the country were bid on by increasingly desperate people, the mark became essentially worthless; what good is paper money if it can't buy food? By the end of the six month general strike, by the time the US bullied France into withdrawing, only two things were keeping anybody alive in Germany: remittances from German expatriates in the US, and sexual tourism. Everybody who had family elsewhere begged them for cash. If you didn't have family outside the country to do that for you, then one or more of your family members had no choice but to head to a tourist city outside the Ruhr and compete with other equally desperate people for a share in the foreign sex-tourism business, children and pregnant women and mother/daughter acts and straight men competing with each other for the privilege of having sex with Arab oil sheiks or French "sophisticates" or British "gentlemen." Remittances and prostitution brought in hard currency that could be traded to black marketeers, who smuggled that money out of the country and food in, so if a family member suddenly and mysteriously had food, you didn't ask questions. You just quietly hoped that they'd gotten money from a friend overseas in the mail, and pretended not to think about any other ways they might have gotten it.
How bad did it get? We don't know. That's not a hand-wave, that's a sentence that should shock you to the core: the Germans were so shell-shocked by starvation that they, of all people, stopped keeping records. Towards the end of the general strike, German newspapers were estimating the combined death toll from starvation, suicide, and murder by Algerian troops at 140,000. That's very probably an inflated figure, a propaganda claim aimed at garnering US sympathy. Evans argues, somewhat uncertainly, that the few personal daily diaries we have from that year don't show people going to as many funerals as that high of a death toll would suggest. But on the other hand, he also admits, none of those diaries are from the Ruhr valley area, where the suffering would have been the worst. What we do know from those diaries is that long, long before the French occupation and the general strike were over, your average German was eating maybe one meal every other day, was too starved to think and almost too starved to move, counting themselves lucky every time they did eat, and feeling degraded at being that happy for so little. Once the general strike and the occupation were over, the government zeroed out the currency, issued new currency, put people back to work, and far faster than you would think possible, things returned to normal.
Interestingly, democracy in Germany didn't die of the Great Inflation. It lasted for another ten years. And in Berlin, in particular, the legacy of of a summer of rampant prostitution wasn't crippling shame, but a fairly widespread tolerance for sexual themes in art, theater, and music that had been unthinkably obscene before the Great Inflation. Many Berliners alive during that time remembered the 10 years from 1924 to 1933 as almost a golden age. No, the irony is that it wasn't the Great Inflation that killed democracy in Germany; it was the Great Depression in the US, which wiped out German savings that were invested in US stock market scams and which eliminated American banks' ability to lend money still needed for reconstruction to the Germans, that ended freedom and democracy in Germany. Even though the effects were far lighter the second time, the German people could withstand one such shock, but not two of them.
So, could it happen here? It's hard to imagine a collapse so thorough that unemployment reached 50% and US exports hit zero. It's theoretically possible, but really incredibly unlikely. If it did happen, we would have one advantage Germany didn't have. We've shut down an awful lot of agriculture over the last couple of decades to import cheaper vegetables and beef from Latin America, but even so, we're still very nearly self-sufficient in food. Or would we? American agriculture is entirely dependent on oil, and not only are we not self-sufficient in oil (obviously), but, no matter what lies the American oil industry tells you, there is no way we could produce enough oil in this country to fuel even just the agriculture industry and the shipping of food from farm to table. No matter how stable the US dollar has historically been, if food and fuel run out because our exports stop completely, Weimar-like levels of hyperinflation are far from impossible.
As I mentioned a while back, the last time unemployment got above 20% in the US, we faced three semi-credible attempts to overthrow the government. On the other hand, those attempts all failed, and that's perhaps less surprising than it could be. America's supreme Founding Father and Germany's supreme Founding Father were very different people, and they left us with radically different traditions. George Washington made all his army officers swear the Oath of Cincinattus. He sent them home immediately after the Revolutionary War, committing us as a nation to always demobilize our army between wars. Just as importantly, he intentionally stepped down while still popular, after two terms, to cure us of any temptation to elect a strong man for life. Otto von Bismark, on the other hand, elevated the King of Prussia to the Kaiser, the Caesar, of a new Holy Roman Empire, emperor for life, and set him up with a large and permanent army as the permanently most prestigious and most powerful branch of the new government. On the other hand, over General (then President) Eisenhower's objections and fervent warnings, we trampled all over one half of George Washington's legacy; as with Germany under the Kaisers, our army is now our largest permanent branch of government, too. But we don't remember a military dictatorship under a hereditary strong man as our golden age (quite), and we do retain our tradition of regular change of executive.
In the first years after World War I, the Germans also did something else that I don't think that we'd do, and it was very bad for democracy. Unemployment was high, veterans benefits were inadequate to the number of crippled and shell-shocked vets trickling back from POW camps, and the police were not back to anything like full numbers. So, to address all of those problems, all seven or eight of Germany's political parties set up their own private militias, paying veterans' paychecks out of party member dues: first to protect their campaign rallies, then to protect neighborhoods in which their party held the majority, and then ultimately to fight in the streets in several small civil wars. Somehow, even if the Democrats do split between the Reform Democrats and the Blue Dog Democrats, even if the Republicans split between the Evangelical Republicans and the Conservative Republicans, I just can't see all of them plus the smaller political parties going so far as to create their own uniformed armies, nor can I see the American people or their police, however strained and underfunded, letting them descend into armed factional warfare. Also, while racism is alive in America, but I can't even imagine Mexicans being scapegoated the way that Jews were leading up to and during the Third Reich; even Lou Dobbs and Glen Beck can't whip us up into the kind of murderous hunger for Mexican blood that several German political parties were able to excite against the Jews. At least, I don't think they can. And remember, when democracy died in Germany, it was less than 20 years old, not more than 200.
So, in conclusion, American democracy has safeguards, cultural and historical and political, that the Germans prior to American occupation and reconstruction never had. My impression is that, contrary to all the warnings I was given back in the 1970s and contrary to the casual way some people (myself included) throw around the term "Weimar America" all too loosely, we can probably remain pretty confident that it won't get that bad and that, being Americans, even if it did get that bad it wouldn't necessarily, or even likely, turn out the way it did in Germany a decade after the Great Inflation. However bad it gets, I remain more convinced than ever: it's not going to get that bad.