At the end of 1999, Joshua Muravchik collected prognosticating from a century earlier for a column in the Wall Street Journal. In 1899, no one predicted intercontinental air travel, but the Detroit News imagined “submarine ships [that] will take us across the ocean without the horror of sea-sickness.” H.G. Wells thought wireless telegraph would force news dailies to compete with “hourly papers”; with the caveat that “no human being wants” that much news. We had at least an inkling of what was to come in science and technology.
In politics and world aﬀairs, Muravchik found us clueless. The Saturday Evening Post was convinced that trade would make war obsolete. The Atlantic foresaw a display of old military equipment as reminder of the “purpose [to which] much of the ingenuity of our people was formerly devoted.” The Boston Globe contended that, of all the nations of the world, Germany at the dawn on the new century was “probably the least corrupted by the lust of conquest.”
Today, we’re tied up in knots trying to figure what comes next. One side sees unraveling in Trumpian turmoil; the other, an opportunity for realignment between out-of-touch elites and an angry public. Across the West, voter ties to establishment parties are fraying. Norms and institutions are being tested.
I’m puzzling this through at year’s end with the help of a piece of history ordinarily dismissed, namely the experience of early 20th-century Germany. Indeed: today’s America is not Weimar, and Trump is not Hitler. We’re not going there. Yet Germany should remind us how God awful we can be in fully assessing a situation and seeing what lies around the corner.
There ought to be a powerful lesson in humility in this.
In early 1933, it was the view of diplomatic circles that, no matter what one thought of Herr Hitler, Germany’s new Chancellor would be contained by checks and balances. President Hindenburg, who commanded the loyalty of the traditional army, the Reichswehr, possessed the constitutional authority to dissolve the cabinet and dismiss Hitler at any time. And Hindenburg was no fan of the Nazis. He detested Adolf Hitler. The retired general field marshal referred in private to the Chancellor as “that Austrian corporal.” Of ten cabinet posts in the new government, only two would be held by National Socialists.
As for the Austrian corporal, he was staffed by inexperienced hacks, went an additional reassuring refrain. The first concentration camp was hardly menacing when it opened. Outside Munich, the internment facility—holding mostly a few hundred communists in protective custody—had been set up by a 32-year-old ex-chicken farmer turned Munich police chief named Heinrich Himmler. On top of all this the Sturmabteilung, the Storm Troopers, were becoming a tricky complication for Hitler. His longtime ally Ernst Röhm was greedily vying for control of the Reichswehr. The man with dreams of being Führer feared Hindenburg might replace the government and declare martial law.
I appreciate Erik Larson’s account of the period. In his 2011 book In the Garden of Beasts, Larson tells the story of William E. Dodd, the Chicago academic dispatched by Roosevelt as U.S. Ambassador to Berlin in 1933. The President apparently thought the presence of an erudite, enlightened American as top diplomat to the Third Reich might have a civilizing eﬀect. “I want an American liberal in Germany as a standing example,” Roosevelt told Dodd.
When he arrived in Berlin, Dodd’s staﬀ seemed lackadaisical. Senior foreign service oﬃcers would arrive late to work, or disappear during the day to play golf or hunt. Nor did Dodd himself sound any alarms in those early days. He believed he detected moderate factions in the ranks of the NSDAP. The Ambassador regarded Göring and Goebbels as “adolescents in the great game of international leadership.” The Hitler salute had been seen at first as a mere curiosity by Dodd’s diplomats.
Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, a vivid chronicler of the period, misread things, too. Zweig had befriended a general staﬀ oﬃcer named Karl Haushofer, whose erudition did not fail to impress. Haushofer had studied Japanese language and literature in Tokyo. His father had been a poet and professor. By 1933, Haushofer himself was a lecturer in political geography at the University of Munich.
In his 1942 memoir, The World of Yesterday, Zweig recalls his own initial sympathy for Haushofer’s ideas of how to restore Germany’s strength and national confidence after World War I. A journal of geopolitics Haushofer edited was thought by Zweig to be “concerned only with the play of forces in the co-operation of nations.” Zweig recounts:
I took the expression Lebensraum of nations, which I think Haushofer coined, in Spengler’s sense, as the relative energy, changing with the ages, which every nation once in its life cycle produces. And Haushofer’s summons to study the individual traits of the nations more closely . . . as calculated to draw nations closer together.
When later the Jewish writer discovered that Haushofer had become Hitler’s friend, he was shocked. “I could see no basis of intellectual relation,” Zweig reflected, “between a highly cultivated, cosmopolitan scholar and a rabid agitator who was mad on the subject of Germanism in its narrowest and most brutal sense.”
Ambassador Dodd turned out to be not half bad in breaking free of his illusions. In May 1935, he reported to State Department superiors that Hitler intended to annex part of Czechoslovakia, and all of Austria. He predicted Hitler’s alliance with Mussolini. In 1937, he resigned in frustration after failing to persuade Washington of how dire the situation was becoming.
In February 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte committed suicide in their home in the German-colonized town of Petrópolis, 40 miles north of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. “My inner crisis consists in that I am not able to identify myself with the me of my passport, [nor] the self of exile.”
In March 1945, Hitler’s intellectual mentor Karl Haushofer and his wife Martha took their lives—she by hanging, he by arsenic—in a secluded part of their property on a small lake called Ammersee in Bavaria, southwest of Munich.
So what, all this?
Jørgen Møller has warned in these pages that analogies with the weak and underdeveloped democracies of the interwar period are misguided and lead to gloomier conclusions than the evidence warrants. For one thing, “there are no parties of note [today],” writes Møller, “in any of the Western democracies that aim to introduce an alternative system to the democratic one. . . . This is not 1919, 1929, or 1933.” It’s true, and the rest of Møller’s analysis is compelling.
I’m not contesting his fine essay. Nor am I suggesting gloomy conclusions per se. Even after going to lengths here to remind us how lousy our forecasting capabilities tend to be, however, I admit—I’m now trying myself to look ahead just a bit. What I see is establishment parties struggling mightily, voter trust in elites eroding rapidly, and vacuums being created as a result. I smell democracy fatigue.
I’m concerned about the shape of a post-Trump America as much as I am the Trumpian moment itself. At a time when absolutism and certitude seem to carry the day in our political discourse, I’m becoming more interested in the things we do not know, in the questions for which we do not have answers, in those eternal and infernal blind spots that plague us.
How better to check ourselves than to keep thinking carefully of history gone awry?