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Death of Democracy: Warnings from the Nazi Era

Germany’s transition from democracy to dictatorship occurred with such furious speed in the 1930s that it still raises the question, “How could this happen?” In order for Adolf Hitler to stand on the world stage — first as Germany’s chancellor in 1933 and later as its dictator in 1934 — a certain kind of scaffolding had to first be constructed. Hunter College Professor Benjamin C. Hett surveys that platform piece by piece in his new book The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic.

In the wake of World War I, Germans had difficulty making sense of the country’s precarious economic and political position. As a result, many turned to conspiracy theories, which Hitler exacerbated. “The key to understanding why many Germans supported him lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world,” Hett writes.

Additionally, conservative politicians and strategists working to advance their agenda played an equally culpable role in Hitler’s ascendancy. They planned a “cross front” or a “political coalition that would unite seemingly deadly adversaries” in order to maintain power. When Hitler was called upon by Germany’s then-president Paul von Hindenburg to take on the role of the chancellorship in 1933, it was, in part, because he’d been selected by conservative politicians who believed they could use his popularity to their advantage. They may have thought they controlled Hitler, but as Hett writes, it was quite the opposite.

Readers might draw parallels between the points Hett makes and the ways in which Donald Trump came to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Although Hett never mentions Trump, conspiracy theories and populist rhetoric also played a role in his rise to power.

“For a democracy to work, all parties have to acknowledge that they have at least some minimal common ground and that compromises are both possible and necessary,” Hett writes. “By the 1930s, however, there was very little of this spirit left as German society grew ever more bitterly divided.” In contemporary politics as well, failure to compromise amid stark political divisions remains an issue.

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The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic
Henry Holt and Co., 2018

Work By
Benjamin Hett (Professor, History) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools
Hunter College The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
“How Did the Nazis Gain Power in Germany?” (The New York Times) “A Bone-Chilling Look at Hitler’s Rise” (GC News)

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