Democracy Abolishes Itself – The Case of the Weimar Republic

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Mass demonstration in front of the German parliament (Reichstag) against the Treaty of Versailles (source: Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

At the end of the First World War, Germany was in a state of chaos. The country had been defeated, the Kaiser (Emperor) had abdicated, poverty was widespread, riots and civil unrest created fear and instability. No one knew who would take over the reins of power after the collapse of the imperial government.

The political vacuum was filled in November 1918 when the leaders of the Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, abbr. SPD) and of the left-wing Democrats formed a Council of People’s Delegates. It was headed by Friedrich Ebert, a moderate politician who rejected the idea of a Soviet-style revolution and advocated the establishment of a parliamentary democracy (see Richard J. Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich, 2004, pp. 78-79). In early 1919 the Council announced a general election to choose the representatives for a Constituent Assembly.

The elections came at a time when the possibility of a Bolshevik-style revolution loomed on the horizon. The moderate leadership of democratic left-wing parties was a welcome alternative to violent upheaval and Communist dictatorship. The SPD, the Centre Party and the left-wing Democrats won the majority of the votes and their delegates met in 1919 in the city of Weimar. In July of the same year they promulgated a new Constitution, which was largely based on the previous imperial Constitution but contained several fundamental changes. Continue reading

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Democracy, Mob Rule, Dictatorship: The Problem of Freedom in Ancient Athens

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The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After World War II democracy began to be viewed in the West as the best possible form of government. However, a history of democratic states shows that freedom is not something to be taken for granted. Democracy is not simply “freedom for all” or “the will of the people”. It is a complex, delicate machine, a system of rules, institutions and checks and balances that can work harmoniously but can also swiftly degenerate and collapse. It appears that pro-democracy public discourse often ignores the difficulties and the inherent fragility of democracy, while anti-democracy discourse all too readily denies its benefits.

History, far from being a discipline detached from reality, can teach us that democracy should never, not a single day, be taken for granted, and that one should not rely on a too simplistic concept of freedom. Many democratic or semi-democratic states, such as ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, the Italian city-states of the Middle Ages, Revolutionary France, the Weimar Republic, the Republic of China, the Russian Federation, only to name a few, failed to keep the promise of freedom for all and ended up in failure. Most of them not only collapsed, but were succeeded by despotic regimes.

The fragility of democracy had already been noted by the ancient Greeks, who by their own experience and observation knew that no form of government is eternal and inherently stable.

In the present article (which will be divided in three different chapters) we shall briefly analyse three cases in which democracy destroyed itself: the ancient Athenian democracy, the Weimar Republic, and the Republic of China. Afterwards we will show why parliamentary democracy, despite limiting citizens’ freedom, has achieved stability by creating a middle way between direct rule by the people and rule by leaders.

The Contradictions of the Athenian Democracy

In his History of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) the Greek historian Thucydides narrates that shortly after the beginning of the conflict the Athenian statesman Pericles held a speech to commemorate the fist citizens who had perished in the conflict. The definition of democracy formulated in his funeral eulogy is one of the most impressive testimonies to the unique form of government established by the ancient polis: Continue reading