In 1924, Adolf Hitler sat in a prison cell after a failed attempt to take over the government and bring an end to the Weimar Republic in Germany. Hitler had rose as a leader of the National Socialist Party, or Nazi, and channeled the hatred and dissatisfaction of his followers against the government who he felt had betrayed Germany during the Great War and caused its defeat. Fuming in his jail cell in Bavaria, Hitler wrote of betrayal and his struggle to save Germany in Mein Kampf.  Hitler said in his book, “Millions of people now became clearly convinced that Germany could be saved only if the whole prevailing system were destroyed root and branch.”[1]This belief of an insidious System that was stifling the success of Germany did not come from Hitler’s imagination alone, or from the National Socialist Party. Anti-System ideology was common among most political parties and interest groups during the Weimar Republic, and antagonism towards the System contributed to the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler and the Fascist State of Nazi Germany. Furthermore, examination of the Weimar Republic’s political parties, Hitler’s anti-Semitism in Mein Kampf, and the philosophy of Carl Schmitt shows that Hitler’s use of anti-System terminology brought legitimacy to the Fascist State in Germany that he established with the fall of the Weimar Republic.


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Meaning and Function of Anti-System Ideology


Historian Benjamin David Lieberman defines the meanings and the function of anti-System Ideology as many-formed and anti-democratic beliefs that contributed to a nationalist counter myth during and after the fall of the Weimar Republic.  Lieberman argues that a conception of the System by Weimar political parties, most notably Hitler’s National Socialist Party, served as a significant function of political discourse and as a rhetorical shield. Furthermore, “the intersecting discourses of the System, despite enveloping parliament, political parties, and even, on occasion, capitalism, left a secure space for the state.”[2]

After its defeat in the Great War, Germany saw a collapse of the old-System under the Kaiser, and saw the rise of a new democratic system, that from the beginning obtained its legitimacy from Germany’s defeat and unfair conditions of surrender that was a product of the hated Versailles Treaty. The social construction of the System became synonymous with criticism of the Weimar Republic regarding corruption and conspiracy of a malevolent power behind the scene. This fear of conspiracy assisted in the formation of anti-System terminology which permeated throughout Weimar society, “In an era in which many Germans struggled to understand what they perceived as a rapid national political, economic, and social decline, anti-System terminology identified the culprits for Germany’s predicament.”[3]

In the fourteen years of the Weimar Republic, anti-system terminology was employed by many different factions, political parties, and interest groups. By the end of the Republic, the belief in a System that secretly controlled the government and threatened the ‘real’ Germany was commonplace among its citizens, even if the definition and identification of the System varied from Left to Right. What Germans saw as the System was distinguished from the concept of the German State and was a contributing factor to the advent of Hitler and the rise of the German Fascist state.

While the strongest opponents of the System attacked numerous institutions of the Weimar Republic, most favored a strong state. This is true for both the National Socialist and Germany’s Communist Party during the Weimar Republic. Both were opposed to the very functions of parliamentary democracy but believed in the need for a strong state that both provided for its citizens and expected complete and total loyalty of them. The System was seen as something enveloping the state and slowly suffocating it through corruption. Whether the System was capitalism, communism, globalism, or democracy, its function and broader definitions remained common among a politically splintered Weimar Germany. A brief examination of Weimar political parties and their relationship to anti-System ideology is in order.


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Social Democrats and the System


Yet, the presence of a generally held anti-system ideology does not indicate little support of the Weimar Republic and liberalism. Two political parties, the German Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party, opposed the violence and anti-Semitism of more radical groups. The German Democratic Party contained mostly Protestant, middle-class, white-collar, and educated members including Max Weber and Friedrich Naumann. The decline of the DDP correlates to the Decline and ultimate fall of the Weimar Republic. The DDP saw the most support and greatest votes total in 1919, but support for the party dwindled throughout the Weimar years.[4]

The Social Democratic Party contained liberal blue-collar members who were protestant, catholic, or Jewish. Working class women voted for the party in large numbers. The SPD fought for egalitarian goals and was the strongest opponent of anti-Semitism out of all Weimar political parties. The party saw strong support throughout the Weimar Period. From 1919 to 1932, the SPD received the most votes in national elections and held the largest legislative delegation.[5] Social Democrats drew special ire of Hitler as we can tell from Mein Kampf where he accuses the “Social Democratic gospel” of “poisoning the popular mind”[6] Hitler saw communism in the ranks of the SPD who he surmised controlled its members by only allowing the reading of “red” books and newspapers, and controlled organizing to “red” meetings only.[7]

Hitler believed that the large representation Social Democrats held in the parliamentarian body prevented representation of Germany’s actual citizens, saying “The national instinct of self-preservation made it impossible for me to welcome a representative system in which the German element was not really represented as such, but always betrayed by the Social-Democratic fraction.”[8]  The Social Democrats and other liberal groups became synonymous with “the system” to conservative and nationalist political parties.


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Conservatives and the System


German Nationalist People’s Party (DNVP) and the German People’s Party (DVP) represented a conservative faction during the Weimar years. Members of the DNVP were a mix of landowners, industrialists, craftsmen, white-collar, clerical, and some civil servants and farmers that followed the lead of wealthy landowners within the party. Militaristic and Anti-Semitic, DNVP was staunchly opposed to the republican government and the conditions of the Versailles Treaty that it was dependent on.[9]

The DVP was less opposed to working within the system and was more moderate in its nationalism and anti-Semitism than the DNVP and its members were protestant white-collar business owners.[10] For these conservative groups, the system was all at the same time socialist, Marxist, Catholic, and liberal. In 1924, during an election appeal against the Social Democratic leadership under Carl Severing in Prussia, the DNVP proclaimed, “Away with Severing, away with the entire System!”[11]

This perception of a formless enemy pulling the strings behind the curtain left the members of the DNVP and the DVP more susceptible to Hitler’s politics and conspiracy theories about Jewish control. As the DNVP became more hostile to the Social Democrats, it saw the SPD as a party full of Marxists. An analysis by Historian Peter Merkl of the response to a 1934 essay contest directed by sociology professor Theodore Abel for followers of the Hitler Movement reveals that “Some 9.4 percent of Abel’s respondents perceived the Weimar Republic as a Marxist-run System.”[12]


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Communists and the System


Its members consisting of working-class individuals and intellectuals, the German Communist Party (KPD) represented the radical Left during the years of the Weimar Republic. Despite being the enemy of conservativism and National socialism, the KPD shared an anti-system ideology.

The party was opposed to the very existence of the Republic and was antagonistic towards other Left-leaning parties such as the Social Democrats. Ultimately, the KPD wanted to emulate the government of Communist Russia in wanting a dictatorship, and was heavily influenced by the Comintern base in Moscow. The KPD grew more popular in the waning years of the Weimar Republic, especially among the growing number of unemployed during the Depression.[13]

To Germany’s Communists, the System took the form of a capitalist system, as it was somewhat common for Leftist parties to condemn the capitalist system in political discourse. In May 1928, KPD leader Ernst Thälmann painted a picture of a liberal capitalist system oppressing the German people and advocated for, “mass politics, against … the fraudulent policy direction of the parliamentary System, the politics of cow-trading, of ministerial horse-trading, of plundering the people and depriving the people of rights!”[14]

When the Great Depression hit Germany, among the despair of the German people, Communists were excited about the final collapse of the Capitalist System and the long awaited Proletarian Revolution that was supposed to follow. However, the KPD was also concerned that Hitler and the National Socialists would “steal away public support just before the long-awaited moment of triumph.”[15]


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National Socialists and the System


National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP-Nazi) was initially attractive to young men who had served in the military during the Great War and had trouble assimilating into Weimar society. Adolph Hitler took over the party in 1920, and through his leadership the NAZI party became broadly popular among the poor, the working-class, the middle-class, shopkeepers, artisans, and white-collar workers.[16]

The party released its 25 Point Program in February 1920 that spelled out its agenda and showe what discrepancies many of its members had with the System, and how they hoped to change it. The Party was militant in its nationalist fervor demanding “the unification of all Germans in the Greater Germany” as well as “land and territory for the sustenance of our people and colonization for our surplus population.”[17] The Nazi Party placed great emphasis on race as an identification for citizenship saying, “Only a member of the race can be a citizen. A member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed. Consequently, no Jew can be a member of the race.”[18]

Immigration, National Socialists felt, also posed a threat; “Any further immigration of non-citizens is to be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans, who have immigrated to Germany since the 2 August 1914, be forced immediately to leave the Reich.”[19] The party also took aim at capitalism, demanding a division of the profits of all heavy industries, the nationalization of all associated industries, and advocating for land reform as well. To accomplish these reforms, the Nazi party believed in a strong state where protections would be provided for citizens who in turn, are obligated to devote themselves physically and spiritually with the state so that “The activity of individuals is not to counteract the interests of the universality”[20]

The reforms listed in the Twenty-Five Points are a better resource for understanding what members found attractive about the National Socialist Party than the actions the party took as it grew in power. From the beginning of his involvement in the party, Hitler was more concerned on the techniques of mass mobilization than with reform programs.[21]

Among all factions that held and anti-System Ideology, the National Socialists used anti-System terminology most effectively to achieve power. Lieberman says that “Both in debates over the System and in other arenas of political competition, the Nazis sought to eliminate all opponents as parts of the System, while building foundations for a strong state.”[22] National Socialism opposed the liberal parliamentary system of the Weimar Republic, believing it was a product of the oppressing System. In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote, “There is no other principle which turns out to be quite so ill-conceived as the parliamentary principle, if we examine it objectively.”[23]

Hitler believed that politicians placed in power by parliamentarian government were grossly under qualified to effectively lead Germany. He sees incompetence in the System as a debasement of moral character as it forces individuals to pass judgment on questions for which they were not qualified to do so.[24] The National Socialist party declared as early as 1920, that they “oppose the corrupting parliamentary System of filling offices only according to the needs of the party and without regard for character or ability.”[25]

Nazi propaganda expert Josef Goebbels described the system in 1932 as “a way to govern under which hundreds of thousands of party-book officials without qualifications are in office.”[26] By taking part in elections, National Socialists sought to destroy the system from the inside. The movement’s previous attempt to seize control of the government by force during the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch failed, left Hitler in prison, and caused party leadership to rethink their strategies.

[Why did European nations turn to fascism in the 20th century?]


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Hitler and the Conspiracy of the Jewish System


For the Nazis and the Nationalist right, anti-Semitism often merged with feelings of anti-capitalism as the system began to take on a Jewish face in their collective imagination of the political structure of the System. Hitler and the Nazi’s pushed the myth that it was Jews who held power behind the façade of parliamentarianism, corrupting the German government and stifling the German State. In Mein Kampf, Hitler accuses the Jews of using democracy to control the System, saying, “the chief goal of the Jew was the victory of democracy, or rather the supreme hegemony of the parliamentary system, which embodies his concept of democracy.” [27] For Hitler, the survival of Germany was tied to the survival of the German race. Germany was weakened by the presence of foreigners and Jews that constantly threatened the nation by existing within it. Cultural decline came from, “a lack of consideration for the interests of the race to which one’s own nation belongs, or by the failure to recognize the danger that comes from allowing a foreign race to exist within the national body”[28]

Hitler’s Jewish conspiracy placed the Jews behind every conceivable threat and representation of the System that National Socialism saw as the enemy, especially Bolshevism and its promise of a world-wide proletariat revolution. The forces of globalism and communism merged with a system with a Jewish face, resulting in a belief of a global conspiracy by the Jews for world domination. Hitler writes in Mein Kampf,“ the international World-Jew is slowly but surely strangling us.” and expressed that he and the Nazis “had the courage to liberate themselves from the shackles of Jewish Freemasonry at least in one quarter of the globe and to set the forces of national resistance against the international world-poison.”[29] Hitler saw himself and the Nazi movement as a crusader against a world-wide Jewish threat and argued that a National Socialist Germany could prevent the collapse of nation states and the rise of a global communist takeover. He preached that, “Should one State preserve its national strength and its national greatness the empire of the Jewish satrapy, like every other tyranny, would have to succumb to the force of the national idea.”[30]


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Carl Schmitt and the Friend/Enemy System


How did anti-System ideology and terminology contribute to the rise of the Nazi State in Germany? The philosophy of Carl Schmitt can give us a greater understanding. Schmitt is a controversial figure as he quickly allied himself with the Nazi after Hitler came to power and became very influential in the Nazi regime, wherein he was called the ‘Crown Jurist’ of National Socialism.[31] Apart from Schmitt’s less favorable views on liberalism, as well as his anti-Semitism, Schmitt’s philosophical ideas coincide intellectually with the rise of Hitler and the Fascist state. Because Schmitt was present for the rise and fall of the Weimar Republic, and because he affiliated himself with the National Socialists, his philosophical ideas developed during this period provide a unique insider’s look into the formation of the Fascist state. It is possible to use Schmitt’s ideas in historical research without justifying his moral character, in a similar way to how historians seek insight by reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf

Schmitt argues that the one core component to the formation of political groups is that of the distinction between friend and enemy. The utmost degree of association with a political group is the willingness to fight and die with other members of one’s group, for the survival of the group, and the ultimate degree of dissociation of others as an enemy is the willingness to kill others for the simple reason that they are members of an antagonistic group[32]

According to Schmitt, whatever reasons for a group to distinguish another group as a credible threat to their own cannot be judged as immoral, as it is the right of individuals within the group to make the friend/enemy distinction.[33] In the anti-System ideologies of the Weimar Republic, political parties separated the System, which was corrupt and immoral, from the State. It was through the power of the State, that both Communists and National Socialists sought to alleviate Germany’s woes.

The State was on their side, but the System was not. If Schmitt’s argument of the friend/enemy distinction is applied to anti-System ideology during the Weimar Republic; the rise of a Fascist state, one that was to stand against an unseen conspiratorial conglomerate of liberal communist Jews, makes logical sense. Additionally, Schmitt critiqued liberal states which he believed failed to distinguish friend from foe, thereby leading to political stagnation by extending rights to those who do not belong in a political nation.

To Schmitt, the concept of the State presupposes the concept of the political, meaning that laws and constitutions stand second to the power of a sovereign within a state. Schmitt argues that in order to prevent such political stagnation that, “A sovereign dictator, acting in the interstices between two periods of positive constitutional order, must homogenize the community by appeal to a clear friend-enemy distinction, as well as through the suppression, elimination, or expulsion of internal enemies who do not endorse that distinction.”[34] It is to Hitler that Schmitt owes credit for acting in the name of the Sovereign to establish a strong state that distinguished between friend and enemies when the Weimar Republic fell in 1933.


Conclusion

The Weimar Republic’s legacy amounts to a case study for democracy and remains as a crucial subject if we are to effectively examine the strengths and weaknesses of our modern liberal governments. The role of anti-System ideology and the rhetorical use of its terminology among political parties played an influential role in the fall of the German democracy in 1933, and examination of hostile attitudes towards the system brings more understanding into the rise of the Fascist State.

We can see by using the philosophy of Carl Schmitt, that the liberal parliamentary system of the Weimar Republic had transformed into an enemy in the imaginations of the German people. This enemy appeared in different forms to different people. Communists saw a capitalist-System, conservatives saw a communist-System, and Hitler and the Nazi party merged different images of the System together with anti-Semitic views.

Furthermore, we can see how Hitler distinguished the Jews as the enemy of the German people, which brought surreal justification to the slaughter of millions during the Holocaust. In many ways, the Weimar Republic is a distant mirror to our current tumultuous times as a resurgence of white nationalism, fears over immigration and citizenship status, and authoritarianism may be appearing throughout Europe and the rest of the free world.


Bibliography

Suggested Reading

Sources Cited

  • [1] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Kindle Edition), 285.
  • [2] Benjamin David Lieberman, “The Meanings and Function of Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 59 no. 2, 1998, pp. 367-368
  • [3] Ibid, 358.
  • [4] Political Parties, Weimar Republic, FacingHistory.org.
  • [5] Political Parties, Weimar Republic. FacingHistory.org.
  • [6] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 28-29.
  • [7] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 28-29.
  • [8] Ibid, 43.
  • [9] Political Parties, Weimar Republic, FacingHistory.org.
  • [10] Political Parties, Weimar Republic, FacingHistory.org.
  • [11] Lieberman, Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic, 359-360.
  • [12] Lieberman, Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic, 360.
  • [13] The Weimar Republic, Political Parties, FacingHistory.org.
  • [14] Lieberman, Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic, 363.
  • [15] Lieberman, Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic, 373.
  • [16] The Weimar Republic, Political Parties, FacingHistory.org.
  • [17] Nazi 25-Point Program, 1920.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Nazi 25-Point Program, 1920.
  • [21] Robert O. Paxton, Europe in the 20th Century 5th ed. (Boston, MA: Cengage, 2011), 190.
  • [22] Lieberman, Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic, 374-375.
  • [23] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 46.
  • [24] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 48.
  • [25] Lieberman, Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic, 358-359.
  • [26] Lieberman, Anti-System Ideology in the Weimar Republic, 359.
  • [27] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 138.
  • [28] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 143.
  • [29] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 199-200.
  • [30] Hitler, Mein Kampf, 267.
  • [31] Lars Vinx, “Carl Schmitt”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/schmitt/.
  • [32] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) 32–33.
  • [33] Lars Vinx,”Carl Schmitt”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • [34] Lars Vinx,”Carl Schmitt”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.