To Americans, the finer points of parliamentary systems are, quite literally, foreign territory. So the recent German election results, murky and confusing to begin with, seem even murkier and more confusing to us Yanks.
One thing is clear, though: the elections have resulted in at least a temporary hiatus in which there is no real victor, and a jockeying for position in which no viable coalition has yet emerged. Jim Rose (via Willism’s Carnival of Classiness) has as lucid (and entertaining) an explanation of the German situation as I’ve seen. And Will himself offers an analysis of the German equivalent of a Red/Blue split in the election–in this case, a Pink/Pinker split–that clearly follows the old West/East lines of Germany’s literally divided years.
Why does it matter? It doesn’t bode well for the US or Europe if Germany continues to postpone decisions. As Will points out, and as David Frum has written:
German voters have just elected a parliament that will not address the country’s most important problems, that cannot make strong decisions and that will put off until tomorrow actions that desperately need to be taken today. That’s bad news for Germany’s five million unemployed. It’s bad news for Europe as a whole, slumped in economic malaise. And it’s bad news for North Americans, who are facing a future in which the democracies of Europe will matter less and less–and an aggressive and possibly hostile China will matter more and more.
About seventy years ago, the German parliamentary system faced a similar situation in which no party had emerged as leader and coalitions were hard to form. What was the result? Nothing less than the rise of Hitler.
No, I’m not suggesting that a new Hitler is about to emerge from the German stasis. In fact, one of the few encouraging signs in this election was that support for the neo-Nazis (whose strongest support is in the former East Germany, by the way) seems to have shrunk, and it was very small to begin with (I want to note that, in a masterful piece of understatement, the article says that the German far-right has mainly lacked a single charismatic leader since 1945).
Most of the many complex conditions that came together in a dance macabre to bring Hitler to power are–fortunately for us and the world–not present in the current crisis. But one condition definitely is, and that’s an election in which there is no clear winner and shaky coalitions must be formed.
It’s often forgotten that, although Hitler came to power through legal means, he and the Nazis did not do this by receiving over 50% of the votes; they were still a minority party at the time. The Nazis’ ascension to the leadership of Germany was the terrible fruit of an election in which their actual share of the vote was almost exactly that of today’s two leading parties in Germany: 36%.
What appears to my inexpert eyes to be an excellent summary of Hitler’s rise to power can be found here. Knowing what we now know about Hitler, it is a tremendous and bitter frustration to see how lucky he was in being the beneficiary of a number of unlikely events which happened to come together to allow him to grab power, and how unlucky we all are that they did so:
Between 1931 and 1933, vicious power struggles would break out between rival political parties. The power brokers in these struggles were Hindenburg and Schleicher. The problem during this period was that no party even came close to achieving the majority required to elect its leader Chancellor. Coalitions were either impossible to build, or were so transient that they dissolved as quickly as they formed. Ambitious leaders from every party began maneuvering for power, striking deals, double-crossing each other, and trying to find the most advantageous alliances. Hitler himself would ally the Nazis to the Nationalist Party. “The chess game for power begins,” Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary. “The chief thing is that we remain strong and make no compromises.”
In 1932, hoping to establish a clear government by majority rule, Hindenburg held two presidential elections. Hitler, among others, ran against him. A vote for Hindenburg was a vote to continue the German Republic, while a vote for Hitler was a vote against it. The Nazi party made the most clever use of propaganda, as well as the most extensive use of violence. Bloody street battles erupted between Communists and Nazis thugs, and many political figures were murdered.
In the first election, held on March 13, 1932, Hitler received 30 percent of the vote, losing badly to Hindenburg’s 49.6 percent. But because Hindenburg had just missed an absolute majority, a run-off election was scheduled a month later. On April 10, 1932, Hitler increased his share of the vote to 37 percent, but Hindenburg again won, this time with a decisive 53 percent. A clear majority of the voters had thus declared their preference for a democratic republic.
However, the balance of power in the Reichstag was still unstable, lacking a majority party or coalition to rule the government. All too frequently, Hindenburg had to evoke the dictatorial powers available to him under Article 48 of the constitution to break up the political stalemate. In an attempt to resolve this crisis, he called for more elections. On July 31, 1932, the Nazis won 230 out of 608 seats in the Reichstag, making them its largest party. Still, they did not command the majority needed to elect Hitler Chancellor.
In another election on November 6, 1932, the Nazis lost 34 seats in the Reichstag, reducing their total to 196. And for the first time it looked as if the Nazi threat would fade. This was for several reasons. First, the Nazis’ violence and rhetoric had hardened opposition against Hitler, and it was becoming obvious that he would never achieve power democratically. Even worse, the Nazi party was running very low on money, and it could no longer afford to operate its expensive propaganda machine. Furthermore, the party was beginning to splinter and rebel under the stress of so many elections. Hitler discovered that Gregor Strasser, one of the Nazis’ highest officials, had been disloyal, attempting to negotiate power for himself behind Hitler’s back. The shock was so great that Hitler threatened to shoot himself.
But at the lowest ebb of the Nazis’ fortunes, the backroom deal presented itself as the solution to all their problems. Deal-making, intrigues and double-crosses had been going on for years now. Schleicher, who had managed to make himself the last German Chancellor before Hitler, would eventually say: “I stayed in power only 57 days, and on each of those days I was betrayed 57 times.” It’s not worth tracking the ins and outs of all these schemes, but the one that got Hitler into power is worth noting.
Hitler’s unexpected savior was Franz von Papen, one of the former Chancellors, a remarkably incompetent man who owed his political career to a personal friendship with Hindenburg. He had been thrown out of power by the much more capable Schleicher, who personally replaced him. To get even, Papen approached Hitler and offered to become “co-chancellors,” if only Hitler would join him in a coalition to overthrow Schleicher. Hitler responded that only he could be the head of government, while Papen’s supporters could be given important cabinet positions. The two reached a tentative agreement to pursue such an alliance, even though secretly they were planning to double-cross each other.
Meanwhile Schleicher was failing spectacularly in his attempts to form a coalition government, so Hindenburg forced his resignation. But by now, Hindenburg was exhausted by all the intrigue and crisis, and the prospect of civil war had moved the steely field marshal to tears. As much as he hated to do so, he seemed resigned to offering Hitler a high government position. Many people were urging him to do so: the industrialists who were financing Hitler, the military whose connections Hitler had cultivated, even Hindenburg’s son, whom some historians believe the Nazis had blackmailed. The last straw came when an unfounded rumor swept through Berlin that Schleicher was about to attempt a military coup, arrest Hindenburg, and establish a military dictatorship. Alarmed, Hindenburg wasted no time offering Hitler the Chancellorship, thinking it was a last resort to save the Republic.
On January 30, 1933, Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor.
It’s too long to quote more here, but please read the whole thing. It is of particular interest today to note the role that terror played in Hitler’s further consolidation of power–basically, he intimidated the opposition into cooperation through violence and the threat of violence.
In the end, when Hitler was trying to get the two-thirds majority he needed to abolish the Reichstag and become dictator under a ruling meant to give a leader increased powers during a national crisis, he used terror tactics quite worthy of today’s “insurgents”:
In attempting to secure the votes, the Nazis made heavy use of terror, blackmail and empty promises. The Social Democrats adamantly refused to vote for the Enabling Act, but Hitler was able to win crucial support from the Catholic Center party, by lying to them about future concessions. On March 23, 1933, the Enabling Act came up for a vote. Nazi storm troopers encircled the Reichstag, and legislators had to pass through a ring of tough-looking, black-shirted Nazi thugs to enter the building. While legislators considered the vote, they could hear the storm troopers outside chanting:
“Full powers — or else! We want the bill — or fire and murder!”
To paraphrase Churchill: they were offered a choice between the bill, and fire and murder. They chose the bill, and they got the fire and murder as well.
As did we all.