From time to time in the period just before the latest U.S. presidential election, one heard comparisons between the George W. Bush regime and Germany’s Wiemar Republic of 1919-1933. The gist was that W’s attempts to wield absolute power, fight hubristic wars and bankrupt a once prosperous country were reminiscent of the period in German history that set the stage for the rise of Nazism.
A brief study of Germany during Weimar and one can easily arrive at the conclusion that there is no serious comparison. Yes, W’s regime was monarchical and absolutist. But we were lucky enough not to suffer through everything Germany did in the pre- WWII days. Their reality was:
- war debt and onerous war reparations to foreign enemies
- Large trade deficits
- Growing household debt
- loss of resources (due to blockades)
- political agitation by Communists, Anarchists, National Socialists
- French and Belgian occupations of border areas
- national humiliation at the hands of enemies
- currency devaluation
- hyperinflation when the government started printing money with no assets to back it up
- labor unrest and strikes
- loss of faith in capitalism
- loss of faith in government
Okay, a lot of these look familiar but what is different is degree and context: Weimar Germany was still making a transition from monarchical rule to democracy, in itself a phenomenon fraught with risk and instability. Institutions were weak and few legitimate channels for public expression of discontent — as in true Parliamentary representation — existed. Germany was going through a geopolitical and socio-economic re-ordering on a massive scale. And it was doing it with the added pressure of economic collapse.
Oops. So that sounds eerily familiar too.
In fact, what concerns me is that we are still heading towards the shocks that will bring us close to Wiemar conditions. According to some points of view, as in Weimar Germany the U.S. is exhausting its economic defenses. Barack Obama has stated more than once that we are running out of traditional mechanisms for dealing with the economic
collapse crisis. The number of people on food stamps is rising; home foreclosures may double in 2009; unemployment is ratcheting up.
At what point in the downturn will social peace be threatened? As a director of a recent production of the Weimar-era “Threepenny Opera” written by the “hip hop artist of his age” composer Kurt Weill, and playwright Bertold Brecht, morality goes out the window when people have no choices on how to survive. And in France, recent reports indicate official concern over anarchist-type activity.
And then there’s that sense that we are not just dealing with a worse recession than normally seen, but with the need for a massive re-ordering of literally our way of living. Our current context is uncertainty — we have to grope our way in the dark and hope we are going towards the light — against a global backdrop of increased geopolitical tensions. Let’s see, will Iran take any action now that the Israeli Army is on the ground in Gaza, complicating our withdrawal from Iraq? Will India and Pakistan forge a peace or nuke each other? Will Barack Obama normalize relations with a post-Fidel Cuba or relive a missile crisis, this time with Putin’s Russia involved? How will global warming be a factor in how well we succeed in coming out of this?
So here’s another difference between then and now: technology. The Internet is still empowering groups and individuals and creating opportunity for political, entrepreneurial and creative expression. It is also a source of information. Lastly, it offers an infrastructure for forming community, which will be important in the age of austerity. This is why Net Neutrality must be preserved and why the Internet must stay free.
It will take more than technology to save us, but it could be one factor among a few that make a huge difference on how things turn out.