No, this is not Washington, D.C., Jan. 6, 2021. This was Munich, Nov. 8, 1923. The instigators did not come to Munich to support a president who was voted out of office. They did not gather in front of the nation’s seat of power, but rather started their rally in a beer cellar where a young Adolf Hitler seized control after silencing the politicians and the crowd assembled there with a pistol shot to the ceiling. Obviously, the circumstances surrounding the storming of the U.S. Capitol are very different from those of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. But Germany during the 1920s offers crucial lessons for us today about how democracies become imperiled.
Germany’s democracy was young, but the majority of the population stood behind it in the early 1920s. Yet, humiliated by defeat in World War I and plagued by an unprecedented economic crisis, a growing minority resorted to lies and conspiracy theories, such as the stab-in-the-back myth, which blamed scapegoats like Jews and socialists rather than the military for losing the war.
It was these lies that resonated with Hitler and his followers. They hoped to establish authoritarian rule first in Munich and then in Berlin to restore Germany‘s military strength. But first came the fight against the enemies within. During the night of unrest, the insurrectionists took numerous Social Democrats as hostages, destroyed the offices of the Social Democratic newspaper and broke into many houses of Munich’s Jews. This night represented the first confrontation with the life-threatening horror of Nazi terror — to the day 15 years before the November pogrom known as Kristallnacht.
In the end, the Beer Hall Coup failed. The governor of Bavaria and his closest aides, threatened by the guns of the insurrectionists, initially gave assurances that they’d be hands off. But when morning broke they retracted those statements and after some hesitation got to work suppressing the putsch. Even as 2,000 Hitler supporters began to march to one of the city’s main squares, authorities forcibly stopped them in the center of the city. Fifteen of Hitler’s supporters, one civilian bystander and four policemen lost their lives.
Hitler himself was injured and fled to outside of Munich, where he was arrested two days later. He and some of his associates were put on trial and sentenced to five years of confinement for treason. But Hitler’s claims that he was a strongman who would clean up the political mess and march to Berlin to make Germany great again won him many sympathies among the deprived masses, conservative politicians, business elites and even within the judicial system. He received a mild sentence, was freed after a few months and relaunched his political career. Ten years later he was Germany’s strongman.
What at first blush looked like a failed coup proved successful in the long run because of a justice system that was blind in its right eye and conservative political leaders who fueled the myths that Hitler had tapped into, planted the seeds of political polarization and discredited the legitimacy of elected officials. These leaders were also convinced that they could use Hitler and his mass movement as a vehicle to stay in power, even though they despised him and looked down on him as an upstart. His vice-chancellor, Franz von Papen of the Catholic Center Party, famously claimed he and his moderate cabinet members would keep Hitler and his Nazi troops in check. Von Papen lost this game and so did all the other enablers who made Hitler’s rise possible. But they didn’t decisively move to squelch his movement during the 1920s when they had the opportunity.
This history highlights how the real risk to American democracy came hours after order had been restored in the U.S. Capitol when seven U.S. senators and 138 members of the House of Representatives voted to sustain an objection to Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, giving credence to the lies that nourished the mob’s anger. Further to date, Vice President Pence and members of the cabinet have stood by without invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from power. By doing so, they enable the president — who initially doubled down on lies about the election in subsequent videos and tweets — to cause additional harm to the nation, including his ability to pardon more of his supporters and spread more lies. Even many of those Republican elected officials who during the last days of this presidency have distanced themselves or expressed disgust with the president’s deeds, only a few weeks ago fought to keep him in office for another four years.
The historical example of Germany is often, perhaps too often, invoked. But rarely has it been so close to our reality as it is today. Germany was at a political crossroads in the 1920s. It could have remained a vibrant democracy, but for many reasons it became a dictatorship. The United States, with its long democratic tradition stands on much firmer ground, but since Jan. 6, we can no longer ignore the abyss that has opened up before us. As in Germany, here too, responsibility for the situation lies with those who either passively stood by or those who actively enabled the rise of a political monster.
The lessons of history are clear: Those who precipitated and carried out the attempted insurrection — including President Trump — must face swift and severe consequences for their actions. Further, those willing to ally with Trump, thinking they could contain him, need to see the errors of their way. Enabling the spread of lies and conspiracy theories, as well as the rise of unfit individuals, poses an existential risk to a democracy. On Wednesday, Americans avoided the worst potential consequences. As the German example warns us, however, knocking down an insurrection does not yet mean winning the fight for democracy. This fight will go on until our politicians learn the crucial lessons from the past.