In his first novel, The Spider’s Web, the Austrian writer Joseph Roth portrays Theodor Lohse, an unexceptional young man who returns from the First World War to find the Germany he fought for gone, and his place in the fledgling Weimar Republic superfluous. Resented by his family, scorned by women and with little in the way of a real profession, Lohse gradually loses himself in Germany’s burgeoning underworld of right-wing paramilitary groups, joining a secret Munich-based organization known simply as S-II. Though he is “gnawed by hatred for the socialists and the Jews,” Lohse is hardly an ideologue. In fact, the more he rises within the ranks of the right, the less its ideas and beliefs matter to him. Lohse is driven by pride and resentment, petty grievances and banal hatred. He is a young man “whose hopes had miscarried, whose courage had been buried, but whose ambition was eternally present to torment him.”
It is a testament to Roth’s prescience that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement are mentioned in the novel; The Spider’s Web was published serially in a Viennese newspaper in 1923, before the ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch that effectively made Hitler’s name. Living in Berlin at the time, and traveling widely throughout the country in his capacity as a journalist, Roth was well-placed to see the connection between the ascension of the Nazis and the thousands of young men like Lohse; men who had no real prospect of settling down anywhere, who returned from the front to a radically changing society that promised anything but peace and stability. Born of war, defeat and compromise, the new German republic was reeling from the effects of wartime rationing, material deprivation and the millions killed or wounded. The horrors of the Somme, the Marne and Verdun did not end so much as trickle back into whole towns, villages and cities, which had to accommodate the countless returning invalids, with their missing limbs and gashed faces, their damaged psyches and shell-shocked nerves.
It is little wonder that violence, too, should have followed them home. The armistice of November 1918 may have formally ended the war, but it did not end the fighting. In The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End (2016), the German historian Robert Gerwarth writes that more than four million people died as a result of armed conflicts throughout Europe in the first five years after the war, a number greater than the combined wartime casualties of France, Britain and the United States. Vicious cycles of civil war, revolution and counterrevolution meant that, between 1918 and 1923, the European continent was “the most violent place on the planet.” The large-scale industrial slaughter of the war was utterly disproportionate to what that had come before it. It brought about a sudden collapse in the value of human life. How could the sight and knowledge of so much death, for causes so hideously absurd, fail to alter society’s attitude toward existence? As Paul Fussell observed in The Great War and Modern Memory, the British had known so little of debris before the war that they still put an accent over the e.
From the very beginning, Weimar society was characterized by fissures of profound distrust and disillusionment, a mood Joseph Roth expertly evokes in The Spider’s Web, and which also permeated other fictional works of that time, like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or Ernst Haffner’s Blood Brothers. In Roth’s novel, young men deceive and conspire, often against each other; they beat, stomp and stab political rivals; they fling pickaxes and plant bombs and fire rifles into crowds. In one particularly horrific scene about two-thirds of the way through, Lohse participates in a violent counter-protest against left-wing workers that culminates in an attack on the Jewish quarter in Berlin:
White-bearded men hurry with flying coat-tails. Someone grasps Theodor by the knees. Someone whining for mercy. Theodor kicks out with his foot. The whiner falls back into a stream of blood. Red flares up. Flames lick the windows. Smoke breaks out of falling rooftops. Men with iron bars cry: “Kill the Jews!”
Everyone is killing and being killed.
The scene could have taken place anywhere in Germany, where violence became a near-constant spectacle, with political murders numbering in the hundreds even before the high-profile assassination of foreign minister Walter Rathenau in 1922. In Munich, to give just one example, the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic led by a ragtag group of literary bohemians was overthrown in May 1919, when a wave of violent reprisals that became known as the White Terror crashed on the city. So-called Freikorps troops, led by Franz Ritter von Epp and Ernst Röhm (who would later become commander of the Nazi Storm Troopers), carried out a vicious display of the brutality and organizational might of the far right. Hundreds were arrested, tortured or summarily shot. The writer Gustav Landauer was kicked half to death and then shot, his body dumped in a washhouse. The communist Eugen Leviné was captured, put on trial and later executed. The left-wing playwright Ernst Toller went into hiding only to be arrested a few weeks later, his life spared at the last when a few prominent writers, including Thomas Mann, intervened on his behalf.
This was in the spring of 1919, just a few months after the war, at the very same time that the National Assembly was convened in Weimar to draft the constitution and the German delegation in Versailles witnessing the dictation of the peace treaty. In fact, on May 6th, the night before the speech of the German delegation, government troops in Munich shot and killed 21 members of a Catholic organization wrongly denounced as communist sympathizers. In vain did Munich’s leading writers sign a petition the next day encouraging all parties to renounce the violence and find a way toward “a fruitful future for the whole nation.”
Whenever I read about Europe in the years after the First World War, Germany in particular, it is the scale of violence that I find hardest to imagine. It was everywhere. Returning soldiers, believing the right-wing myth that the army had been betrayed by leftists at home, volunteered to join paramilitary groups like the Freikorps, some of whom were deployed by the government to crush revolutionary uprisings. Young men who had not fought in the war saw this as an opportunity to gain the frontline experience that had eluded them. As Roth writes in The Spider’s Web, “Students fired shots. Policemen fired shots. Small boys fired shots. It was a nation of gunfire.”
In his diaries, Thomas Mann describes working on the manuscript of The Magic Mountain as bombs explode and machine gun fire rattles in the distance. From the comfort of his villa in Munich’s Herzog Park neighborhood, he coolly records the chaotic fate of the Bavarian revolution as it unfolds (sometimes literally) just outside his doorstep. “All afternoon, strong cannonade and machine-gun fire,” he wrote on May 1, 1919. “Nevertheless I slept a little after a three-quarter-hour walk through the park at noon in windy, cold weather with gusts of snow.” During the upheavals of that spring, the conservative Mann feared being taken hostage by communists; three years later, he incurred the wrath of the nationalists by speaking out in defense of the embattled Weimar Republic, denouncing war as “the triumph of all that is brutal and vulgar.”
I have spent a great deal of the last two and a half years steeped in the literature of the Weimar period, partly because I’m writing a book related to it, but also because of the frequency and urgency with which Weimar history has been invoked since the 2016 presidential election. Long before November of that year, President Trump’s racism and demagoguery had earned him comparisons to Mussolini and Hitler, though it wasn’t until after he was elected that a more sustained attempt to understand him in the context of modern German history was made.
The most noteworthy intellectual proponent of this view is the acclaimed historian Timothy Snyder, whose widely-shared Slate essay “Him,” published in November 2016, drew a not-so-subtle comparison between Trump’s election and Hitler’s appointment to the Reich chancellorship. In a subsequent manifesto, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century (2017), Snyder claimed that “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” Focusing on “the politics of the everyday,” Snyder trains his readers in recognizing the little ways in which authoritarian leaders come to power, from “heedless acts of conformity” on the part of industry leaders or civil servants to the failure of ordinary citizens to speak up in defense of civil liberties.
Over the past four years, this view, or some version of it, has proved very durable. The American historian Benjamin Carter Hett, in his gripping account of Hitler’s rise to power, The Death of Democracy (2018), claims that, “in many ways, our time more closely resembles the 1930s than it does the 1990s.” In a recent article in Public Seminar titled “America’s Weimar Moment,” the journalist and intellectual historian (and my former professor at the New School for Social Research) James Miller warns Democratic voters against making the same mistake liberals and socialists made in Germany in 1933: allowing areas of disagreement to cloud our shared goal of preventing an authoritarian from winning the election. The Argentinian historian Federico Finchelstein, author of A Brief History of Fascist Lies, routinely glares into the void of Trumpist ideology and hears the menacing sound of fascism echoing back.
This spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the whole world to a standstill, the recourse to Weimar-era analogies only intensified. Here, surely, was Trump’s “Reichstag-fire moment,” as the philosopher Jason Stanley called it recently in the New Yorker—a national crisis that could be used as a pretext for broadening the federal government’s authority. “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total,” Trump said at press conference on April 13th, “It’s total.” In a sequence of events that by now has become lamentably predictable, legions of columnists, experts and news anchors immediately began warning about the government’s slide toward authoritarianism. And yet, at the same time, the federal government was being (deservedly) pilloried for its refusal to take responsibility for managing the crisis at all—repeatedly devolving authority to state governors and private companies—a fact that, as many have pointed out, is difficult to square with warnings of impending totalitarian overreach. Sometimes, it can seem we are watching the historians’ version of Waiting for Godot, in which the fascist menace is expected at any moment but never arrives.
To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest there are no grounds for the analogy between our own times and Weimar Germany, or that the current administration does not behave in ways that can sometimes be described as either fascist or authoritarian. Much of the resentment towards globalization and cultural pluralism that we see today does indeed recall the invective aimed at the Weimar Republic by nationalists and conservatives during the 1920s. So too does the centrist-bashing that has become a mark of pride on both sides of the political spectrum. (In The Death of Democracy, Hett rightly notes that the Communists hated the Social Democrats as much as, if not more than, they hated the Nazi Party). The electoral successes of right-wing politicians in the United States, Britain, Poland, Hungary and Italy, moreover, have gone hand-in-hand with a disturbing uptick in right-wing political violence across the world. On March 15, 2019, a young Australian man killed 51 people in two consecutive attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, after allegedly posting a right-wing manifesto on the message board 8chan. On August 3, a gunman in El Paso, Texas shot and killed 23 people after publishing a similar manifesto citing the Christchurch shooting as inspiration. Just this past February, a right-wing extremist killed nine people in a hookah bar in Hanau, Germany. Clearly, right-wing extremists feel emboldened by the current political climate.
But are these scattered violent incidents enough to warrant a comparison to the right-wing violence of the Twenties and Thirties? One of the most crucial failures of the Weimar Republic was the failure of its courts to uphold and defend the constitution. Court judges and state prosecutors tended to side overwhelmingly with right-wing offenders; the Kapp Putsch of 1920, for instance, in which right-wing nationalists attempted to overthrow the government, resulted in just a single conviction. In 1924, Adolf Hitler was sentenced to only five years in prison for high treason for instigating the Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923, though he wound up serving little more than twelve months in a comfortably furnished cell where he was free to entertain his many visitors and even dictate the first volume of his autobiography, Mein Kampf.
The impunity with which so many right-wing militants were able to commit acts of political violence has no real analogue to our present moment. The perpetrators of the Christchurch and El Paso shootings mentioned above have both been arrested, and now face the likely prospect of a lifetime’s imprisonment. (The Hanau shooter killed himself before he could be arrested). Other right-wing terrorists, such as Dylann Roof and James Alex Fields, Jr. will never set foot outside a federal prison ever again, and can hardly be said to have enjoyed any kind of leniency on the part of the American judiciary.
Similarly, and despite the presence of right-wing crackpots hoarding guns and supplies for various apocalyptic scenarios, the COVID-19 crisis in the United States has so far proved mercifully nonviolent. As of this writing, the scattered protests by right-wing voters demanding an end to the coronavirus restrictions have received major media attention, but so far produced few results. (Which is not to say that they couldn’t; it remains a serious concern that so many citizens in this country own military-grade weapons.) Even so, Trump’s support for the protests—they are, ironically, protests against his own government’s guidelines—have been widely interpreted as yet another attempt by the president to foment chaos and violence.
The German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger has argued that every historical analogy is ambiguous. “For whoever rejects this analogy,” he writes, “history becomes a pile of meaningless facts; for whoever accepts it at face value, leveling the specific differences, it becomes aimless repetition, and he draws the false conclusion that it has always been this way and the tacit consequence that, therefore, it will always remain so.” There probably is no way to avoid this paradox, yet the problem with analogies to Weimar Germany is that they are often designed to be anything but ambiguous. The specter of fascism is invoked, not for the sake of nuance or knowledge, but with the explicit purpose of rousing us from our political complacency. It is meant to instill fear and panic, to inject a sense of existential threat into our politics. If we don’t do something now, fascist dictatorship and ethnic cleansing is just around the corner. This helps explain why it is always the Weimar Republic that is invoked and not, say, Franco’s Spain, Perón’s Argentina or any number of other fascist or neofascist regimes. The Weimar analogy works as a rhetorical sleight of hand, absolving the historian of having to do the argumentative footwork that would be necessary if a more accurate and less familiar analogy were used.
The point is not that historical analogies can never be useful. The historian Peter E. Gordon, in a recent essay in the New York Review of Books supporting the comparisons some have made between the periods, writes that analogies can allow for “a more expansive appeal to the political past.” Historical understanding, he argues, “involves far more than mere empiricism; it demands a readiness to draw back from the facts to reflect on their significance and their interconnection. For this task, analogy does crucial work.” Though Gordon is more sympathetic to the analogy between the contemporary right and German fascism than I am, he is correct that historical memory is neither stable nor strictly factual. As with any kind of narrative-making, there is always some fiction involved. The use of narrative, interpretation and imagination is, as Gordon points out, not a weakness but rather a strength of historical analogy.
But can “historical understanding” really be advanced by analogies that are so clearly meant as political messaging? In a more recent essay written partly in response to Gordon, also published in the New York Review, the historian Samuel Moyn argues that historical comparison is not primarily an attempt at understanding but “a political act to be judged successful or not.” In judging the Weimar analogies, he contends that they have been ineffective, so far showing little ability either to “sap the legitimacy” of the current administration, or to “help [its] victims.” Even if they could be judged successful as political acts, however, it seems such objectives would be at odds with doing justice to the messy human realities that underlie the comparison. Indeed, if understanding those messy human realities—what it felt like to live at the time—is the goal, we would do better to spend less time comparing historical documents, and more reading novels like The Spider’s Web.
“National socialism was a phrase like any other,” thinks Theodore Lohse at one point in The Spider’s Web. And later: “What was socialism? A word.” Lohse is not a true believer; and neither the deliberations of the German National Assembly nor the humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles mean much to him. He is a young man afloat in an uprooted world, a peripheral, even minor, character in Germany’s fascist milieus. In Munich, when Lohse sees the publicity that is showered on Adolf Hitler, he becomes resentful: “The newspapers spoke of Hitler every day. When did one see Theodor’s name?”
What matters most to Theodor Lohse is the war. It is the single most important and meaningful event of his life, as indeed it was for many thousands of men like him. Disillusioned by the defeat and dismemberment of the German Empire, fed up with the ineffective and dysfunctional parliamentarism of the Weimar Republic, the postwar generation fought a civil war in the streets and beer halls of Berlin, Hamburg and Munich, as communists, anarchists or right-wing nationalists. Paramilitary groups offered uniformity, direction and a much-needed sense of belonging; they freed men like Lohse from having to think for themselves and lifted them out of their small, inadequate lives. “Violence was like a drug for such men,” the historian Richard Evans writes in The Coming of the Third Reich. “Often, they had only the haziest notion of what they were fighting for.”
Without the First World War, Nazism is inconceivable. This is the reason I find analogies between our own circumstances and those of Weimar Germany so difficult to sustain imaginatively. The collapse in the value of human life, the destruction of existing social structures, the moral vacuum that followed—even as we live through an ongoing pandemic that will undoubtedly have long-lasting consequences, most of us today cannot be said to have undergone anything like that.
At the same time, we should heed Gordon’s warning not to let the past become unknowable and remote. The Spider’s Web, even as it shows us how radically different life in Weimar Germany is from contemporary America, shows us the meaning and fulfillment that Lohse finds in war and destruction, the exaltation that comes from acting on forbidden impulses and the hatred and violence that play ever at the edges of civilization. To see the relevance of such a depiction for our own time, no analogies are necessary.
Early in The Spider’s Web, Lohse and his immediate superior in S-II, Klitsche, murder Günther, whom they suspect of being a communist spy infiltrating their ranks. Klitsche kills Günther with a pickaxe, and the sight of blood spurting from the dying man’s forehead transports Lohse back to the war: “An infinite frenzy of red surrounded Theodor. He had seen and heard this red in the war, it roared and screamed as if from a thousand throats, it flared and flickered like a thousand furnaces.” In this frenzy, Lohse inexplicably kills Klitsche with the same pickaxe. It is the only moment in the novel in which, for a moment, Lohse feels completely fulfilled:
This frenzy of red came from within Theodor, filling him, bursting out of him, making him feel weightless, so that his head seemed to float, as if it were filled with air. It was like a weightless, crimson jubilation, a triumph which lifted him up in a floating frenzy which was death to his gloomy thoughts, and liberation for his soul which had been buried and concealed.