Ghost of Weimar Looms Over German Politics

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The failures of the 1930s suggest Angela Merkel’s struggle to form a coalition will end sooner or later.

Across the cobbled square in the city of Weimar where Germany’s national assembly met in 1919, plans to mark that first, stumbling attempt at a democratic government have taken on greater significance in recent weeks.

The new center for events dedicated to the short-lived Weimar Republic is due to open in 2020, but it’s already a timely reminder of the past as the country struggles with political gridlock and the rise of the far right.

The upheaval that preceded World War II and the need to avoid any repeat have cast a long shadow since Chancellor Angela Merkel was re-elected in September with no obvious coalition partner. While no-one is predicting a return to fascism, the unexpected threat of instability at the heart of Europe’s biggest economy has alarmed business and political leaders alike.

“We couldn’t have imagined that the issue of the danger to democracy and the Weimar Republic would become so contemporary,” Weimar’s mayor, Stefan Wolf, said at his office overlooking a square flanked by the 16th century St. Peter and Paul Church.

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Photographer: Photographer: Patrick Donahue/Bloomberg

The historic echoes reflect Merkel’s tarnished election victory and Germany’s slipped halo as Europe’s anchor of liberal stability. But Weimar also serves as a powerful reminder of Germany’s sense of collective responsibility to ensure the lessons of the descent into Nazi dictatorship and war are learnt by each new generation. 

The current dilemma stems from the erosion of support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc and the Social Democrats, which have governed together for eight of her 12 years in office. As backing for the two main parties ebbed, a wrench has been thrown into coalition-building, with the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany a prime beneficiary: it swept into parliament for the first time last year with almost 13 percent of the vote.

The Social Democrats, who saw their support plunge during tie-ups with Merkel, initially ruled out a return to government. Merkel is seeking to break the deadlock in a new round of talks this weekend to convince them to rekindle their alliance for the good of the country.

The appeal for responsibility helps to explain the public skepticism that greeted the Free Democratic Party’s decision to pull the plug on talks with Merkel, ending a four-week effort to form a multi-party government. FDP leader Christian Lindner blamed intransigence on the part of others, but his party and personal ratings have taken the biggest hit in polls since. 

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According to a detailed account in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,  Merkel invoked Weimar to her party colleagues, reminding them of the reasons for the collapse of the grand coalition under Chancellor Hermann Mueller in 1930 in an attempt to steel them for compromise.

Former Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, now Bundestag president, also recalled the need to remember the lessons of the Weimar Republic, whose collapse led to Adolf Hitler ramming through dictatorial powers three years later. “Too much polarization — meaning a competition for who’s the best anti-fascist combatant — ultimately only strengthens the right,” he said in an interview with Die Welt published on Dec. 27.

Authorities in the eastern German city have been converting what is now the Bauhaus Museum into the Haus der Weimarer Republik. The failed republic, now synonymous with hyperinflation, running street battles and political assassinations, began after the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918. It ended with the rise of the Nazi dictatorship in 1933.

Mayor Wolf sees the parallels in today’s need for political stability. As a Social Democrat, he personally feels opposition would be better for his party. “But I fear at the moment there is no other alternative for Germany,” he said.

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Stefan Wolf poses for a photograph in his office on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.

Photographer: Patrick Donahue/Bloomberg

Less than a 10 minute walk from Wolf’s office, the iconic statue of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller presides over a teeming ice-skating rink next to a Christmas market on a chilly December day. Adjacent is the city museum that houses a long-term exhibition on the Weimar Republic.

Alf Roessner, the museum’s director, shows off a collection of World War I Prussian helmets, portraits of leaders including the republic’s first president, and images of the black-red-gold tricolor that was first adopted as the national flag in Weimar.

Having grown up in communist East Germany and taken part in protests before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Roessner said he’s particularly attuned to the lessons of Weimar and the value of democracy and stability.

“What we’ve learned is that democratic education is important,” he said over coffee at the museum. “You have to recognize that democracy doesn’t simply fall from the sky.”

— With assistance by Tony Czuczka, and Alan Crawford



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