Forced democratization?

Some lessons from postwar Germany

The postwar “democratization” of Iraq has often been justified by a comparison to the de-Nazification of Germany after the Second World War. However, the Allied postwar operation cannot be called an unqualified success, writes Heinrich August Winkler: the division of the country was the ultimate result of the Allied powers’ very different ideas of democracy. In West Germany, at least, the successful transition from liberation to freedom rested on the democratic traditions of the Weimar Republic. If the postwar developments are instructive at all, they are in showing that those who want to help other countries can at most help them to help themselves, writes Winkler.

Many count the ability to learn from history among the political virtues, and rightly so. But not every attempt to base political decisions on historical experience bears scrutiny. To justify going to war against Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush and American neoconservatives repeatedly invoked the example of Germany. They told the world that the “re-education” of Germans following the defeat and occupation of Nazi Germany in 1945 shows that the transition from dictatorship to democracy is possible by means of external military force. Is it correct to draw such a general conclusion from this particular case? Or was it specific historical conditions that made the democratization of Germany – or, more accurately, a part of Germany – into a postwar success story? This is the question to which I would now like to turn.

The democratization of the part of Germany occupied in 1945 by American, British, and French troops was not the first attempt to introduce Western democracy to Germany. The revolution of 1848 aimed to create a Germany that was both a nation state and a constitutional state. It failed because the establishment of unity in freedom exceeded the capacity of liberal and democratic forces at that historical juncture. By the end of the First World War, however, Germany had been a nation state and a constitutional state (albeit one lacking liberal principles) for almost half a century, and in the autumn of 1918 Bismarck’s empire was transformed into a recognizable parliamentary democracy. Unfortunately, the autumn of 1918 also marked the period when military defeat had become certain. The coinciding of democratization and defeat was one of the heaviest psychological burdens that the Weimar Republic would have to carry and it was one of the more deep-seated reasons why the first German Republic foundered in the storms of world economic crisis and was replaced by a dictatorship of extreme nationalism – the so-called “Third Reich”.

Traditionally, Germany belonged to the Western world. In the High Middle Ages, Germany helped implement the most fundamental forms of power separation – the separation of spiritual and temporal power as well as the separation of princely and corporative power. These were the two pre-modern forms of power separation that constituted the Latin West and distinguished it from the Byzantine East. Germany also made active, formative contributions to the two major emancipation movements of the Early Modern Period – the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Unlike France and England, however, Germany did not develop into a nation state directly out of these movements. State-building took place at the level of the prince-controlled territorial states rather than at the level of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, which until its dissolution in 1806 wanted to be something different and something more than a nation state.

Germany did not draw the same political consequences from the Enlightenment as France, England, and the young United States of America. The forces that held power in Germany up until 1918 forcefully rejected the ideas of representative democracy. During the First World War, the intellectual elite polemically contrasted the “ideas of 1789” with the “ideas of 1914”, the latter of which held that a strong and just authoritarian state must protect Germany’s inward-looking culture, its Kultur der Innerlichkeit, from the materialistic civilization of the democratic West. Thomas Mann’s 1918 “Observations of a Non-political Man” is the classic literary document of German protest against Western political culture. Mann soon distanced himself from this view, but many of his readers still clung to it, even after the end of the monarchy and the introduction of a parliamentary system.

For all that, the Revolution of 1918 to 1919 did not spell a radical break with Germany’s pre-democratic past. The reason for this lay mostly in the partial democratization that had already taken place in Germany long before 1918. Ever since Bismarck’s creation of the Kaiserreichin 1871, Germany had known a significant aspect of democracy in the form of universal male suffrage. It guaranteed German men a right to participate in legislation, even if they couldn’t vote for their political leaders. After the Kaiserreichcollapsed, there was only one way to go – towards more democracy: woman’s suffrage, the democratization of voting rights at the state and local levels, and the consistent implementation of a parliamentary government based on majority rule.

So as we can see, German democratization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was non-simultaneous (ungleichzeitig). The parliamentarization at the end of the First World War was preceded by the earlier introduction of universal male suffrage in the formative period of the Kaiserreich. The citizens of the first German democracy were accustomed to political participation via elections, not the accountability of their leaders to parliament. When the last majority-rule government of the Weimar Republic collapsed in the spring of 1930, Germany resorted to its “back-up constitution”, a semi-authoritarian system of emergency decrees issued by the Reich President. Starting then, the Reichstag as a legislative organ had less of a say than it did during the constitutional monarchy of the Kaiserreich.

It soon became apparent that the wheel of history could not be turned back without serious consequences. The de-parliamentarization galvanized antiparliamentary forces on the right and left. In the Reichstag election of 31 July 1932, National Socialists and Communists together received the majority of votes and parliamentary seats. The winner of the election was Hitler, who now led Germany’s by far strongest political party. Since 1930 he had been presenting himself as a champion of the political rights of Germans, while at the same time appealing to the widespread resentment felt toward Western democracy, which many associated with the victors. As a result, Hitler benefited more than any other politician from the Ungleichzeitigkeit(the non-simultaneous or asynchronic nature) of Germany’s democratization.

After coming to power in January 1933, Hitler was able to win the support of Germany’s educated classes by cultivating the myth of a new thousand-year Reich. In previous years, rightwing intellectuals from the “conservative revolution” had resurrected the idea of a supranational – one could even say, divinely-ordained – German mission, whereby the Reich was to become the European Ordnungsmachtand lead the Old Continent in its fight against Western democracy and Eastern bolshevism. In the medieval version of the legend, the Reich’s duty was to stop the rule of the Antichrist; Hitler exploited this myth just as much as its older version, where the Antichrist was a Jew. Still today, many underestimate the extent to which the Third Reich availed itself of political theology.

The situation in 1945 was almost entirely different than that in 1918. After the First World War came neither a societal nor an ethical break with the past. The Kaiserreich’smilitary leaders, high-level bureaucrats, judges, academic teachers, industrialists, and large landowners were able to carry over their influence safely into the Weimar Republic. Although the most important documents implicating the political and military leaders of the Kaiserreichhad been known since 1919, a self-critical examination of the Kriegsschuldfrage– the question of war guilt – did not take place. On the contrary: in reaction to the Treaty of Versailles and its war-guilt clause stipulated by the Allies there emerged the fanciful view that Germany bore no specific responsibility for the war. This Kriegsunschuldlegendejoined forces with another legend, the notorious Dolchstoßlegende– the claim that, by failing to adequately support the war, unpatriotic forces at home effectively stabbed fighting troops in the back, thus precipitating German defeat. These legends were among the most powerful weapons used by rightwing Nationalists to attack the Weimar Republic.

After Germany’s unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, such views still found an audience, but that audience represented only a small portion of the population. For the vast majority it was evident that Nazi Germany had initiated the Second World War, and it was evident that their defeat was a result of Allied military supremacy. The Second World War, unlike the First, ended with Allied occupation. Except for those areas under Polish or Soviet administration, the occupation encompassed all of pre-1938 Germany. There were no German representatives who could speak for the entire population of the four occupation zones, there were no national parties and, most important, there was no German military. The leadership of the Third Reich that had survived the Zusammenbruchwere forced to stand trial at an Allied tribunal. All other Germans had to undergo a “denazification” process, in which they were classified as “offenders”, “lesser offenders”, “fellow travellers”, or “exonerated.”

One cannot call denazification a success. For one, its implementation by the Western occupying powers was inconsistent. Though the British and the French were more generous than the Americans, even the Americans tempered their judgment during the course of the Cold War. In the end, the young Federal Republic of Germany reintegrated most of the former Nazis to avoid creating a reservoir for radical rightwing protest. Another problem was that many of the reforms introduced by the occupying powers did not endure. The liberalization of the crafts code (Handwerksordnung) and public service law ordered by the Americans and the British, for example, was either revoked or never went into effect to begin with. What is more, while important reforms failed, others were prevented. The American occupying power rejected the socialization of key industries provided for by the constitution of the state of Hessen because it ran counter to the principle of free enterprise.

Of the “old elites”, only one group was eliminated completely: the aristocratic estate owners east of the Elbe, a group who after 1918 had stood in almost unanimous opposition to the first German democracy and did much to bring about its downfall. The large landholdings east of the Oder-Neisse line fell to Poland; those of northern East Prussia went to the Soviet Union. Any estates in the Soviet occupation zone were appropriated during the 1945 land “reform”, the majority of which were then transferred to expelled farmers from Polish or Soviet administered areas in the East. For its part, the Western occupation zones had nothing comparable with the Junker estates east of the Elbe. The land reform and the loss of the eastern territories created a deep caesura in Germany’s social history. The powerful elite who had, for centuries, made their mark on Germany literally had the ground cut from under them.

The expulsion of the Germans from the eastern provinces of the German Reich as well as from Czechoslovakia and Hungary cannot be simply characterized as an instance of Soviet or Stalinist methods. It is true that the systematic removal of Germans was a logical consequence of Stalin’s plan to annex northern East Prussia and shift the territory of Poland toward the West; but it must also be remembered that the United States and Great Britain had given their general consent to this radical solution at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. In internal talks, Roosevelt and Churchill based their position on a historical precedent: the exchange of minorities between Greece and Turkey stipulated by the January 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.

In the Potsdam Agreement of August 1945, the Soviet Union, the USA, and Britain jointly agreed that the transfer of Germans to Germany should “be effected in an orderly and humane manner.” Yet the presence of this “saving clause” had no mitigating effect. By August 1945, millions of Germans had already fled, or had been forced, into the four occupation zones, and those not yet displaced were afforded no effective protection by the Potsdam Agreement. The expulsion of Germans in 1945 and after amounted to an Allied-sanctioned form of ethnic cleansing. Its deeper cause lay of course in Germany: it was Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich – its policies of exploitation and oppression, deportation and genocide – that destroyed the basis for peaceful coexistence among Germans and non-Germans in eastern central Europe.

The Potsdam Agreement sounded clear-cut about the political future of occupied Germany, but it wasn’t. The occupation was supposed to eliminate German militarism and Nazism and “to prepare for the eventual reconstruction of German political life on a democratic basis and for eventual peaceful cooperation in international life by Germany”. Yet the problem was that the Western powers and the Soviet Union held opposing views on democracy. As the Hamburg constitutional jurist Hans-Peter Ipsen put it in 1949, “Cuius occupatio, eius constitutio“, or, “he who occupies, his constitution.” Ipsen’s formulation – a modern take on the policy of “cuius regio, eius religio” famously proclaimed in the 1555 Peace of Augsburg – concisely captures the difference in development between Western and Soviet occupation zones. The Potsdam Agreement tried to give the impression of an Allied consensus, yet in reality such a consensus did not exist.

Liberation from Nazi dictatorship did not translate immediately into freedom. This applied to divided Europe in general and divided Germany in particular. The success of the Western Allies and the American policy of democratization in Germany had many causes. The military defeat and occupation of Germany allowed for a break in continuity more fundamental than the one in 1918. The establishment of a democracy in West Germany was also facilitated by the absence of a Junker class. West German society had a stronger bourgeois tradition than society east of the Elbe.

At least as important in establishing democracy in West Germany was the change of consciousness among the German people. In October 1945 the temporary council of the German Protestant Church published what is now known as the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. One of its key sentences reads: “By us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries.” German Protestantism, particularly German Lutheranism, had done much in the past to help solidify the authoritarian state. In 1945 it showed us another Lutheran tradition: the willingness to confess one’s own guilt.

The Stuttgart Declaration encountered widespread resistance, from former Hitler sympathizers as well as from within the Church. The declaration was criticized by many for appearing to endorse the Allied doctrine of German collective guilt. In retrospect, however, this document marked the beginning of a long and paradoxical process of rethinking. To borrow a term from the philosopher Hermann Lübbe, a “communicative silence” dominated Germany in the 1950s. People didn’t speak about what they did during the Nazi period; and they said as little as possible about what their neighbours did. In 1960, a new generation emerged and treatment of the past became increasingly self-critical. Though it confessed German guilt, the Stuttgart Declaration did not specifically mention the extermination of the Jews. Not until after the Historikerstreit– the 1986 controversy about the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide – did the view of the Holocaust as the central event in twentieth-century German history become widely accepted.

The Allied attempt to democratize Germany would hardly have been successful had there not been a German attempt three decades earlier. Bonn did not become Weimar because it had the chance to learn from Weimar. The Western Allies found in Germany an important, albeit small, “back-up army” of politicians who had experienced the Weimar Republic and learned from its mistakes. The first Federal President, Theodor Heuss, belonged to that group, as did the first Federal Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and the first postwar leader of German social democracy, Kurt Schumacher. Joining the democrats who had remained during the war were returning emigrants likewise shaped by the first German Republic.

When the Bonn Parliamentary Council drafted the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany in 1948 and 1949, they made sure to avoid the systematic shortcomings of the Weimar Constitution of 1919. The result was a functional representative democracy that took on its opponents with foresighted and effective constitutional parameters. Never again should a democratically-elected head of state become an ersatz-legislator who deactivates the parliament. Never again should a parliament topple the head of government without having to elect his successor. Never again should enemies of democracy legally seize power. It required the experience of the first democracy and its downfall to inoculate the second against such crises. Had the Germans not learned from their own history, the Western Allied “reeducation” would have failed.

While West Germany cultivated “anti-totalitarian” principles in reaction to its recent past, the Soviet occupation zone, later to become the German Democratic Republic, had to limit itself to “anti-fascist” tenets. The “anti-fascist” position served to legitimate a new dictatorship mainly modelled on the Soviet Union. The GDR didn’t receive democratic legitimation until much later when, as a result of the “peaceful revolution” in the fall of 1989, it received its first and last freely-elected parliament on 18 March 1990. The People’s Chamber used its newly won freedom to pass a resolution approving the GDR’s merger with the Federal Republic of Germany. Hence, even after 1945 the process of German democratization remained non-simultaneous. Germans who lived in the West experienced a second attempt at democracy in the municipal and state elections of 1946 and 1947. For the Germans in Soviet-controlled territory, the local elections of 1946 were the last elections with any degree of freedom. The East Germans did not enjoy a secure democracy until four and a half decades later.

It should not be forgotten that the oft-invoked West German “success story” also owed much to the longest sustained period of economic growth in the twentieth century, a boom that began in the early 1950s and lasted until the middle of the 1960s. In ironic allusion to the Weimar Republic, the economic historian Knut Borchardt named the German “economic wonder” the “back-up constitution” of the second German democracy. High rates of growth allowed the swift integration of expellees from the former Eastern provinces and refugees from the GDR; they eased the balancing of social and confessional antagonisms; they were essential in reducing membership of radical parties on both sides of the political spectrum; and they contributed to the transformation of the two major democratic parties – first the Christian Democrats and later the Social Democrats – from sectional parties to people’s parties.

Without the economic boom, Adenauer would have had much greater difficulty in garnering majority support for his policy of Western integration. The same can be said for the intensely debated issue of rearmament. As prosperity increased in West Germany, so did the need for security. With regard to external security, this need could only be met through close alliance with Western powers. The joint opposition to communism and the Soviet Union formed a bridge between West Germany and the Western victors. The more the West accepted the Federal Republic of Germany as a political partner, the weaker traditional German reservations about Western democracy became.

It helped the Federal Republic’s military integration into the West and the consolidation of Western Europe that a conservative democrat like Adenauer was their champion; and it helped Adenauer that he didn’t have to defend his foreign policy to a radical right, but to a moderate left led by the Social Democrats. The largest opposition party at the time placed more emphasis on the reunification of Germany than on the Federal Republic’s integration into the West. German politics had, from the perspective of the Weimar Republic, reversed themselves. In the first German democracy the right was nationalist and the left was internationalist; in Bonn the moderate right supported supranational politics while the moderate left earned themselves a patriotic image.

The Social Democrats came to power only after they accepted the political reality of the alliance with the West. The Ostpolitikintroduced by Willy Brandt, the first Social Democratic Federal Chancellor, supplemented, rather than neutralized, Adenauer’s Westpolitik. The policies of the social-liberal coalition government between 1969 and 1982 aimed to expand the Federal Republic’s options in the East and make the reality of a divided Germany more bearable. Reunification remained an official goal of the Federal Republic, yet it was seen as unobtainable by most of its citizens and politicians so long as the East-West opposition continued. Consequently, the Federal Republic no longer saw itself as something provisional. In contrast to its early years the Federal Republic’s self-image was, as the historian and political scientist Karl Dietrich Bracher wrote in 1976, increasingly that of a “post-national democracy among nation states”.

By the 1980s, Western integration had ceased to be a bone of contention between political parties in the Federal Republic. Indeed, one witnessed the emergence of something like a posthumous Adenauer Left, whose intellectual spokesman was the philosopher Jürgen Habermas. During the Historikerstreit, Habermas delivered the following verdict:

The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the major intellectual accomplishment of the postwar era, of which my generation in particular can be proud. The only patriotism that doesn’t alienate us from the West is a constitutional patriotism. Those who want to restore a conventional form of German national identity destroy the only reliable foundation for our integration into the West.

Four years later, the event took place that no one in the 1980s thought possible: after negotiations between the Federal Republic and the GDR as well as with the four former occupying forces, Germany was reunified. The third of October 1990 meant nothing less than the solution to the postwar German question. The Two Plus Four Treaty – the legal basis of the unified Germany – determined the new Federal Republic’s borders, with the Oder-Neisse line stipulated in the Potsdam Agreement being a necessary requirement for reunification. In respect to European security, the Two Plus Four Treaty sanctioned Germany’s membership in Nato. Put differently: the Soviets accepted a solution to the German question on Western terms.

There is also a larger historical context in which 3 October 1990 must be seen. The German question of the nineteenth century concerned the relationship between unity and freedom. Reunification brought with it that which the liberals and democrats had been constantly striving towards but had reached neither with the Revolution of 1848 nor with theReichsgründungof 1871: unity in freedom. On the day of German reunification, at an official ceremony in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall, the then-Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker summed up the historical significance of the reunification in one fitting sentence: “For the first time in history the whole of Germany has found a lasting place in the company of Western democracy.”

By way of conclusion, I would like to return to the question with which I began: Does the successful postwar democratization of Germany (or, more accurately, a part of Germany) allow us to draw the general conclusion that a country can be brought from dictatorship to democracy by means of external military force? Or should Germany’s success be attributed to particular historical factors? My answer, which emerges from the material here, is as follows.

Though the Germany of 1945 needed Allied liberation, West Germany was able to make the transition from liberation to freedom only because it could fall back on and re-establish its own liberal, constitutional, and democratic traditions. Culturally, Germany was a country of the Old Occident, connected with Western democracies through common legal traditions based on the rule of law. Germany became a nation state later than France and England and a democracy later still, but the liberal forces of the nineteenth century did much to help the authoritarian state on its way to becoming a constitutional one. Bismarck’s empire was a constitutional monarchy with all the characteristics of a constitutional state, including a parliament of democratically-elected representatives. The Weimar Republic – Germany’s first political system based on majority-rule – failed not least because it was widely considered to be a form of government imposed on Germany by the victors. But the Parliamentary Council in Bonn learned its lessons from the shortcomings of the Weimar Constitution: the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) it passed in 1949 laid the constitutional foundation for the Federal Republic’s success.

The young democracy of Weimar – whose voters ultimately elected parties calling for the abolishment of democracy – taught Germans that there is more to democracy than majoritarianism. Democracy also relies on a political culture of peaceful dialogue. Along with differences of opinion, this means, according to the political scientist Ernst Fraenkel, establishing a basic consensus on values and institutions that are held to be worth defending. It is for this reason that the Parliamentary Council declared the essential provisions of the Basic Law inalienable.

If there is something to be learned from German democratization for the democratization of Iraq or other states then it is this: the decisive impulses must come from within. The only improvements sustainable in the long-run are those that find support in a country’s own past experiences. Reforms seen as imposed entirely from without will be undone sooner or later. There is nothing that stands more in the way of an opening to the political culture of the West than nationalist or religious resentment. There is nothing more conducive to such an opening than the development of a pluralistic civil society.

Successful democratization is based on societal and cultural requirements that cannot be brought about through external force. Those who want to help other countries with democratization can at most help those countries help themselves. Those who appeal to historical analogies often exploit history so that it reflects their own wishful thinking. By invoking the German example of 1945 to justify taking out Saddam, the proponents of the war in Iraq did just that. Without further reflection, they argued that what worked for a Western country with a tradition of constitutional government and a developed parliamentary culture would also work for a non-Western country that does not know, or only barely knows, those traditions. The members of the neoconservative “warring party”. the Kriegsparteiso to speak, could pursue this line of argument only because they refused to acknowledge the historical facts that spoke against their undertaking. Q.E.D.

Published 29 June 2006
Original in German
Translated by Dominic Bonfiglio

© Heinrich August Winkler / Einstein Forum / Eurozine


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