In 1936, following the Nazis’ violation of the Treaty of Locarno, diplomat Sir Austen Chamberlain noted in a speech, “[A] member of the Diplomatic Body in London…told me that there was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ There is no doubt the curse has fallen on us” (Chamberlain, 1936). For those of us who study rhetoric, especially political rhetoric, it seems our world is similarly, interestingly cursed.
One promising answer for meeting the “interest” of our times is coalition-building—facilitating alliances among groups with shared goals. While the potential benefits of coalition-building are undeniable, however, they contain within them an inexorable tension. By definition, coalitions bridge differences between partners who disagree. As Karma R. Chávez (2011) demonstrates, members of different groups in a coalition may even “view the other group as a threat” and refuse to “acknowledge the overlap of the two groups […] or the similarity between the demonization they experience” (p. 13). Coalitions come together despite their differences, but the differences don’t disappear, and coalition partners may begin to see each other as enemies if their differences obscure their shared objectives.
Coalition-building is particularly important in the United States at the moment. Former-President Donald Trump’s administration illuminated a profoundly committed antidemocratic movement in the US, particularly in the Republican party. Opposition to democracy has been a fringe element in conservative circles since at least the 1930s (Richardson, 2014), but following Obama’s 2008 election and the rapid emergence of the Tea Party/Freedom caucus, antidemocratic populism surged in the Republican Party (see Belew, 2018; Berlet and Lyons, 2000). In the past decade, it has taken over the mainstream of the Republican Party and become an existential threat to American democracy (Klein, 2020; Packer, 2020)—a point that became all too clear when Trump supporters breached the Capitol to prevent the certification of electoral votes on January 6, 2021. Following Trump’s profoundly destructive presidency, liberal, progressive, and other left-leaning groups are hoping to push the country toward a more just and equitable future. Given the intransigence of the Republican Party and the diverse constituencies of the Democratic Party, coalitions are not only inevitable but obligatory. In these “interesting times,” it is especially important to pay attention to the goals and challenges entailed in coalition-building.
I contend that historical comparison can help bring those goals and challenges into relief. In the past several years, frequent comparisons people have made between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump (see, e.g., Ben-Ghiat, 2016; Best, 2016; Caplan, 2016; O’Grady, 2015; Rosenfeld, 2019). While we should not blithely accept Trump/Hitler comparisons, many of which are specious, there are useful parallels between our moment and interwar Germany. One of the ongoing debates among historians is whether a more durable left-wing coalition in post-WWI Germany could have prevented the Nazis from coming to power. I can’t resolve this question, but I contend that the failed anti-Nazi coalitions highlight challenges for left and left-leaning coalition-building in a damaged democracy. In particular, interwar history teaches us that a primary goal of coalition-building in the pursuit of social justice has to be the protection and strengthening of processes and procedures that allow deliberative democracy to persist. In what follows, I look briefly at the formation and collapse of the interwar coalitions in Germany and draw some lessons from this historical example for US politics in the 21st century.
The Weimar bugaloo
The Weimar Republic in Germany officially lasted from the end of WWI to when the Nazis took power (1918–1933). Weimar’s politics were endlessly complicated. At different times during the Republic, according to historian Paul Bookbinder (2020), “there were more than thirty political parties on the ballot although only about six commanded substantial voting blocs” (n.p.; see also Hett, 2018, pp. xvii–xix). By design, Weimar politics were coalition politics.
The specific details are not especially important for my purposes, but it is useful to know that at least half of Weimar’s major parties were ideologically antidemocratic, preferring various forms of dictatorship. The most committed anti-democracy parties were on the far left (the Communists) and far right (the nationalists, particularly the Nazis). The center-left Social Democrats were the most powerful party for a time and staunch supporters of democracy, and a number of centrist and right-leaning parties were willing to support democracy, even if they didn’t prefer it. In 1923, the main centrist parties joined what was called the Great Coalition to ward off challenges from the left and right. In 1930, for complicated reasons, the Great Coalition collapsed. In its wake, Germany technically remained a democracy but became functionally a dictatorship. Three years later, Hitler became Chancellor, and less than a year after that, Germany’s democracy was obliterated.
The relationship of Weimar’s leftist parties in the five or so years before Hitler came to power is particularly enlightening. There were two main leftist parties—the KPD (the German Communist Party) and the SPD (the Social Democrats)—and they shared much in common. Both were organized predominantly around labor rights—unions, social safety nets, business regulation, and so on; both identified as socialists and were predominantly secular, anti-nationalist, and anti-militarist; and both championed greater freedoms for women, gays and lesbians, and transgender people. Where they parted ways, however, was around the ability of the Weimar Republic to secure workers’ rights. The KPD supported a Communist revolution on the model of Russia’s dictatorship, whereas the SPD was committed to parliamentary democracy.
The KPD and the SPD should have been natural allies because they agreed on most of their goals and values. They only disagreed significantly on the best methods to achieve those shared goals, but that source of disagreement was decisive.
Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, Social Democrats prioritized preserving democracy and thwarting the Nazis. To that end, the SPD compromised a number of their ideals around labor protections in order to partner with centrist and pro-business conservative parties. The Communists were not impressed, and they made it known. Partly out of bitterness at the KPD and partly out of self-preservation, the SPD “sharpen[ed] the antagonism between themselves and the Communists just at the time when a united proletarian front, offering the last hope of salvation from fascism, was the order of the day” (Winkler, 1990, p. 209). In 1931, there was even a schism within the SPD between centrist and left-wing elements because the party leadership committed to their centrist and conservative partners over their leftist adherents.
For their part, the Communists saw the SPD—particularly its bourgeois elements—as their main enemy. KPD leaders thought if they could take down the SPD, they had the upper-hand on the Nazis—the only other party that purported to care about workers—so they focused their ire on the Social Democrats. The KPD accused the SPD of being “social fascists” who were effectively indistinguishable from the Nazis. KPD leaders even suggested the SPD might be worse than actual fascists because their compromises with centrists and moderates smoothed the way for fascism. In at least one instance, the KPD collaborated with far-right parties against the SPD when in 1931, the KPD participated in a campaign “initiated by the right-wing parties and the nationalist Stahlhelm, a move whose only objective was to bring down the SPD-led coalition government” (Winkler, 1990, pp. 216–217).
Even in this brief history, it should be clear that antagonism among left and left-leaning political parties in Weimar was catastrophic for the state and both parties (see Mommsen, 1989). They refused to work together to achieve their shared goals, and in the long run, thousands of KPD and SPD members were jailed, killed, or banished once the Nazis came to power.
In the first volume of his landmark Hitler biography, Ian Kershaw (1998) writes, “Without the self-destructiveness of the democratic state, without the wish to undermine democracy of those who were meant to uphold it, Hitler, whatever his talents as an agitator, could not have come close to power” (pp. 322–323). For the majority of the Weimar Republic, the Communists actively sought to undermine Weimar democracy, even to the point of hurting their own cause to hurt the SPD. Meanwhile democracy’s champions, the Social Democrats, actively antagonized the Communists when they might have fostered goodwill. They helped poison the possibility of a left-leaning, social justice-oriented coalition; meanwhile, their coalition with conservative, pro-business parties fell apart when the SPD pushed too far in support of labor unions. The possibility of a social justice coalition collapsed under the weight of shared hostility among groups that largely agreed with one another’s goals and values. To be sure, the bitter divisions between the KPD and SPD were not responsible for Hitler’s ascension, but their inability to build common cause undermined any chance they had to prevent the Nazis’ rise and advance social change.
Back to the future
Given the complexity of the historical events I’ve been describing, we should be careful about drawing comparisons or definitive conclusions, but there are some lessons worth contemplating. For one, when coalitions break down, power is not destroyed—it shifts, and some groups actively pursue such shifts. That’s why the SPD’s centrist coalition broke down—their pro-business partners abandoned democracy in order to shift power away from labor. By the time that happened, the SPD and KPD were so embittered that their differences were insurmountable and a leftist coalition was off the table. Power shifted to the fascists. Second, advocates of social change can profoundly damage their own goals if they ignore existential threats to the system in which social justice is protected. The SPD and KPD shared social justice goals, but all hope for positive social change disappeared with the collapse of the Republic. Third, a possible—even probable—outcome of any-means-to-an-end politics is disaster. In the case of German leftists, their animosity toward one another, their refusal to compromise with people they largely agreed with contributed to the most monumental destruction of social justice and equality in the 20th century.
The United States in 2021 is not Weimar Germany. For one, Donald Trump lost the Presidential election. His exit from the presidency was violent and caused further damage to American democracy, but he failed to destroy it. Additionally, the antidemocratic elements on the left are much less prevalent than the ones on the right. Democracy is a shared value within the Democratic coalition, and the Democratic coalition is not irreparably damaged. Although there are, and have long been, divisions among left and left-leaning groups, their differences have so far been surmountable. Nevertheless, contemporary antidemocratic echoes that hearken back to Nazi Germany should be enough to keep us on alert.
In a healthy democracy, disagreement is desirable. Difference, deliberation, and compromise are signature values of democracy, a point rhetoricians are keen to proclaim. Coalitions break down, but a healthy system makes it possible for old coalitions to reform and new coalitions to spring up. Conversely, the Weimar example highlights the potential—even catastrophic—dangers of coalitions breaking down in the face of creeping fascism. When the system is weak, the natural tensions in coalition-building become further stressed. If the Weimar comparison teaches us anything, then, it’s that when fascists are ascendent, coalition-building needs to focus centrally, if not exclusively, on strengthening democracy’s institutions and systems. For all the problems with American democracy, and there are plenty, it is a system in which positive social change and social justice can advance by degrees when it is healthy. Making a healthy system, then, must be the goal that coalitions are built around in the coming months and years.
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Ryan Skinnell (he/him/his) is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and an Assistant Writing Program Administrator at San José State University. He teaches writing and rhetoric at every level of the undergraduate and graduate curriculum and has published extensively in academic and non-academic outlets on topics ranging from demagoguery, fascist rhetoric, and political discourse to American education, bureaucracy, and graduate student mentoring. He is currently working on a book about Hitler’s rhetoric.