How a Democracy Becomes a Dictatorship

The Spanish writer, George Santayana warned,

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

He enjoins us to recognize the echoes of painful history and do what we can to prevent its repetition. Though history is cyclical, we can never anticipate how recurrence will manifest. Recurrence is never identical.

It is our unfortunate nature to project evil onto others, as if we are not somehow capable of it ourselves. We are indeed vulnerable to a path that begins with fear and intolerance and leads to hatred, marginalization, and murder. There was nothing unique about Germans that allowed for the rise of Nazism in the 1920s and early 1930s.

In the bleak aftermath of W.W. I, Germans created the Weimar Republic, a constitutional democracy with free elections and the rule of law. Nazis rose to power as a malignancy within the Weimar democracy. A plurality of Germans voted for the Nazi party and Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 through legal parliamentary processes. Germany, a modern and enlightened society also brought us Hitler and the Nazis.


In 2016, New York Times columnist Jochen Bittner noted four conditions that doomed the Weimar democracy and allowed for the rise of the Nazis:

  1. loss of trust in institutions
  2. social humiliation
  3. political blunder
  4. economic distress

Though not identical, these conditions exist again today. 

Three generations ago, in a time of economic anxiety, cultural quarrels, and political polarization, Germans hoped, and Hitler promised, to “make Germany great again.”  Ordinary citizens responded to Hitler’s appeal to fear, populism, xenophobia, nationalism, bigotry, and scapegoating. He promised that his law and order, authoritarian ideology would save Germany from its decline at the hands of “the other.”

Hitler’s anti-democratic campaign depended on inaccurate historical analysis and outright lies to mobilize a vulnerable population. He threatened the judiciary, demonized the press and developed a propaganda campaign of savage efficacy. Cheap radios, Volksempfänger (People’s Receivers) spread Nazi propaganda to every household, much the way social media, e.g. Twitter, does now.

In the 1920s the early Nazis were marginal extremists, Hitler a “buffoon,” “a pathetic dunderhead,” “a half-insane rascal.” In the 1924 and 1928 elections, with the economy thriving, the Nazis won 3% and 2.6 % of the vote respectively.

Hitler persisted. When the economy tanked with the Great Depression he continued articulating ordinary Germans’ fears, their frustration and rage at having been left behind by a ruined economy, betrayed by the elite and politicians, threatened by Communists, by Jews, Slavs, Romany, immigrants, by a degenerate culture, by women making free choices. He gave voice to Aryan supremacy and their fear of “the other.” In exchange, the German people – ordinary, fundamentally decent people no different than you and me – would shortly give Hitler the reins of a dictatorship that would carry out the Holocaust. This was the time to act, to resist.  Civil passivity allowed the Nazis to flourish. The Holocaust began with Weimar’s tragic failure – before a single Jew was murdered.

With the 1929 Great Depression, Hitler’s message suddenly became popular. In 1932 with 1/3 of Germans unemployed, Hitler won 37% of the presidential vote – a 2nd place finish. That same year the Nazi party received 33% of the vote for seats in the Reichstag. Hitler was now a force to be reckoned with. Right wing powerbrokers believed they could manipulate him for their own ends and they installed him as Chancellor in January 1933.

James Madison, our 4th president, warned, “Tyranny arises on some favorable emergency.”  One month after Hitler became Chancellor, the Reichstag was set afire, maybe by a lone, deranged Dutch anarchist or by the Nazis themselves – we will never know. But the burning of the Reichstag was the “favorable emergency” that allowed Hitler to establish the Nazi dictatorship.

Hitler blamed the Communists for the fire, labeled them terrorists, suspended civil liberties and began mass arrests. By March 1933 the first concentration camps were established for political prisoners. At Hitler’s urging, President von Hindenburg enacted the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended basic rights and civil liberties and allowed detention without trial. The decree was legal under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, a poison pill granting Germany’s president dictatorial powers in a time of emergency or legislative gridlock.

One week after the fire, in the election of March 5, 1933, the Nazi party won 44% of the vote. Three weeks after this election, Hitler's government brought The Enabling Act to a vote in the newly elected Reichstag and President von Hindenburg signed it. The Act — officially titled the "Law to Remedy the Distress of People and the Reich"— gave Hitler's cabinet the power to enact laws, even ones that deviated from the Weimar Constitution, without the consent of the Reichstag for four years. The Third Reich was born. 

We hear echoes of this history today with the resurgence of fear, intolerance, scapegoating, and xenophobia. Weimar’s demise is a warning about democracy’s fragility. Many elements are in place for us to re-live a version of that time, of democracy’s catastrophic collapse. Now is the time for a dedicated civil opposition to alter the outcome, before a “favorable emergency” allows an authoritarian regime to cripple democracy.

As a physician and scientist I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories. I believe in evidence-based science. Our 242 year old democracy is strong. By contrast, Weimar was Germany’s first attempt at democracy – a fragile newborn. But our longevity and strength does not immunize us against catastrophe.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a champion of human rights and friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., said of the Holocaust, “Some are guilty, all are responsible.” Our charge is to manifest this deeper sense of responsibility. Responsibility for every silence, every deferred response. Each one of us is, to some extent, a bystander. “Never again!” is too facile a response if not augmented with deeds. And democracy is too precious. 

Let us learn from this history. We have been down this road before and it ended badly. 

Jack Mayer is a Vermont author and pediatrician. His historical fiction, BEFORE THE COURT OF HEAVEN is inspired by the history of how Germany’s Weimar democracy became the Third Reich.