In my last post in this series about Weimar Germany and the Reconstruction South I discussed how military defeat led each of these societies to undergo political and cultural revolutions that ushered in new forms of enfranchisement or expression. These new developments, however, all depended on a system that did not have wide acceptance from elites in the aftermath of defeat in each society’s previous war (the American Civil War and the First World War). Lacking extensive popular support, these new societies, along with their nascent civil rights and democracy, collapsed.
First, the breakdown of democracies in both the Reconstruction South and Weimar Germany were catalyzed by economic depressions in 1873 and the infamous Stock Market Crash of October 1929. Within the United States, the Panic of 1873 led to mass unemployment and was followed by a tepid recovery; this panic began to shift Northern voters’ attention away from the problems with the KKK or other terrorist organizations in the South and toward the consequences of rapid industrialization. By 1876, voters largely abandoned Reconstruction, as evidenced by the Democratic Party winning the popular vote in that year’s presidential election. Even as Southern white Democrats engaged in massive fraud and intimidation to deliver their states’ Electoral College votes to the Democratic candidate, Northern political leaders shifted their focus and agreed to end Reconstruction, clinching the Presidency for the Republicans but abandoning their Black voter base in the South.
For Weimar Germany, economic upheaval paved the way for a series of Fascist parties to blame the entirety of Germany’s woes on its democracy and consistently discredit the democratic process while holding up a yet-undefined program for autocracy as a new hope. In large measure, this worked and right-wing parties slowly gained followers and political clout, eventually coalescing under the mantle of the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis) and the demagogue who led them.
What is even more fascinating and gut wrenching, however, is that the swift fall of democratic society in the Reconstruction South and Weimar Germany were both facilitated by political lies manufactured soon after each nation’s military defeat. During and especially after Reconstruction, Confederate veterans and “Southern heritage” organizations presented the Civil War as an honorable joust between North and South and monumentalized Southern military accomplishments in the Civil War with statues, holidays, parades, and festivals. They essentially wiped away the role slavery played in the war’s inception and carefully choreographed how the war was remembered so that Reconstruction was only ever thought of as a time of failure and “misrule.” Inserted into these messages was the implicit (or explicit) idea that emancipation was a mistake and the misrule of Reconstruction was due to the fact that Black men had political power. With such a pervasive myth intoxicating all of American society, Southern governments, “Redeemed” (as they were called) from the folly of Reconstruction, could create new laws that stripped Black Americans of their civil and political rights and institute a reign of terror over Black people. It is no coincidence that some of the most brutal episodes of racial violence in American history happened after Reconstruction, a horrifying history commemorated in harrowing detail at the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial to the victims of lynching in Alabama today.
In Weimar, the lie the Nazis told was constructed and widely embraced even before Hitler rose to power. This lie presented German defeat in the First World War as a result not of losses on the battlefield but of treason by Jewish “internationalists,” Communists (who were often coded as Jewish in propaganda due to the high number of Jews in the Communist Party), and Socialists on the home front. Nevermind that German forces were routing back towards the Rhine in November 1918, or that it was the German navy and army that initiated the mutinies which led to the Kaiser’s abdication and the Armistice; instead, the Nazis and their right-wing allies were so vehemently opposed to a democratic society that they used the scapegoat of racial and ethnic hatred to exacerbate long standing prejudices against Jewish people. The results of this, of course, were not only the Jim-Crow-esque Nuremberg Laws of 1935, but also the incrementalization of the Holocaust, culminating in the Final Solution at places renowned for their infamy: Chelmno, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz.
In every sense, both the Reconstruction South and Weimar Germany were undermined by the large factions of their citizenry who refused to support democratic government and who were animated by prejudices against minority citizens. As those people–Black Americans in the South and Jewish people in Germany (and later all of Europe)–became the scapegoats of their political programs, the reactionary governments of the Jim Crow South and Third Reich were able to strip them of their rights, dehumanize them, and attack their inherent dignity in new and terrifying ways. While the scale of such violence in Nazi Germany clearly surpassed that of the American South in terms of raw numbers and global impact, the premise that these two societies’ experiments with democracy were built and then collapsed under similar social, economic, and political circumstances remains relevant. History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes, and the tragedies of Reconstruction and Weimar Germany certainly carry the chords of promise, crisis, mendacity, and horror that we should all pay close attention to in the modern world.