Back in early 2003, I was walking with a New York friend through an exhibit of Weimar-era German paintings at the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side. After a while, she said, “You can almost hear the trains to Auschwitz coming in the distance.” Her point was that the despair and restlessness captured by those beautiful, disturbing paintings telegraphed the coming cataclysm.
The reporting over the weekend about the white nationalist neo-Nazi confab in DC made me think, naturally, of the Weimar Republic. I sometimes use the term “Weimar America” to describe our country today. Some readers don’t get what I mean by that. Let me explain.
The Weimar Republic was the short-lived experiment in German democracy between the great wars of the 20th century. It emerged from Germany’s loss in World War I, and was brought to a crashing end by the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. The Weimar period was marked by political, economic, and social instability, and intense cultural creativity as well as decadence. Weimar was time in which the center did not hold, and extremism took over the imaginations of many Germans, especially the young. When I speak of “Weimar America,” I’m not saying we are exactly like inter-war Germany. Plainly we are not. But parallels there are, and it’s useful studying the Weimar period for clues as to why things are the way they are in our present American moment, and how the fate of post-Weimar Germany might be avoided.
Yesterday I checked out from my local library The Weimar Republic, a short history by the historian of modernity Detlev J.K. Peukert. It’s a very dry scholarly analysis, mostly focused on economic and political facts. A few things stood out to me, though
The story of Weimar Germany is in many ways a story of the pressures faced by its young adults. Even before the Great War, Germany, like every industrialized nation, was struggling to contend with the forces of modernity shaking the foundations of Western life to the core. Had the war never happened, the young would still have found themselves cut off from their roots by modernization, in the sense that the answers the older generations lived by, and offered to them, didn’t make a lot of sense. But the war did happen, and it thoroughly discredited the old order. German youth were left with a gaping spiritual hole in their soul, and nothing with which to fill it.
That is, theirs was a crisis of meaning. The emerging liberal democracy of Weimar Germany could not resolve it. Weimar Germany struggled famously with economic crisis. Youth unemployment was through the roof. Young adults in Germany at the time had grown up in a popular culture that celebrated youth in an extraordinary way. They have been conditioned to think of themselves as special. Now, because of the war and the subsequent economic crisis, as well as the unavoidable ways that modern industrialization was breaking down stable economic order, they were faced with the disillusioning fact that there would not be a place for many of them in the economic order. The “cult of youth” in prewar Germany had filled the young with a sense of entitlement, and of high hopes for their future. Young men and women who had done all the right things as prescribed by German society now found themselves without hope.
There was also in this a crisis of masculinity. Lots of young German men died in the war. Many men who came into adulthood during the Weimar years grew up without fathers. Plus, the rapid liberalization of family and sexual mores, driven in part by nascent feminism and, in Berlin at least, the normalization of homosexuality and transsexualism, left a generation of young men confused about their purpose and identity in the emerging new society. Political extremists of the Left and the Right stepped in to fill the void of meaning, and to give young men who felt they had no power over the direction of their lives a renewed sense of potency, of agency.
The culture war of the 1920s had political ramifications, writes Peukert. The parties of the Right and the Center strongly reacted against modernizing cultural mores, which were popularly associated with Americanization. The parties of the Left considered the resistance to social liberalization to be an intolerable attempt to restrict individual rights and liberties. Neither side was willing to compromise with the other. When they did compromise on legislation, neither side was satisfied, and kept the fight going. The elites ended by being totally discredited in the eyes of many Germans, making way for extremists.
Finally, Peukert concludes that there is no simple reason to explain the rise of Hitler, but one can make the general diagnosis that he came out of Germany’s failure to deal with the crisis of modernization. Peukert says that every other major Western industrialized nation was dealing with the same crisis in that period, but it hit Germany especially hard, because of various historical reasons (the war and its effects, hyperinflation, etc.). In other words, any Western nation could have gone Germany’s route, but other nations had the internal resilience to manage the passage into modernization better than Germany did. One example of how helpless Germans felt, compared to other Western industrial powers: in 1932, the US had 85 suicides per one million inhabitants. Great Britain and France, which had been savaged by the Great War, had, respectively, 133 and 155. And Germany? It had 260 suicides per million.
So, what does this have to do with us?
Ross Douthat wrote a very strong column over the weekend in which he called the present situation a “crisis for liberalism” . Excerpts:
Much of post-1960s liberal politics, by contrast, has been an experiment in cutting Western societies loose from those foundations, set to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No heaven or religion, no countries or borders or parochial loyalties of any kind — these are often the values of the center-left and the far left alike, of neoliberals hoping to manage global capitalism and neo-Marxists hoping to transcend it.
Unfortunately the values of “Imagine” are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer.
Sound familiar? And this, from Philip Rieff in 1966: “The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.” Think of German Christianity in the Weimar period. Why had the churches lost their power to speak meaningfully and counterculturally to the young? What happens when a nation’s Christianity doesn’t offer real answers to the crises in the lives of real people, but has turned itself into intellectual abstraction, empty formalism, or feelgood-ism?
So where religion atrophies, family weakens and patriotism ebbs, other forms of group identity inevitably assert themselves. It is not a coincidence that identity politics are particularly potent on elite college campuses, the most self-consciously post-religious and post-nationalist of institutions; nor is it a coincidence that recent outpourings of campus protest and activism and speech policing and sexual moralizing so often resemble religious revivalism. The contemporary college student lives most fully in the Lennonist utopia that post-’60s liberalism sought to build, and often finds it unconsoling: She wants a sense of belonging, a ground for personal morality, and a higher horizon of justice than either a purely procedural or a strictly material politics supplies.
Thus it may not be enough for today’s liberalism, confronting both a right-wing nationalism and its own internal contradictions, to deal with identity politics’ political weaknesses by becoming more populist and less politically correct. Both of these would be desirable changes, but they would leave many human needs unmet. For those, a deeper vision than mere liberalism is still required — something like “for God and home and country,” as reactionary as that phrase may sound.
It is reactionary, but then it is precisely older, foundational things that today’s liberalism has lost. Until it finds them again, it will face tribalism within its coalition and Trumpism from without, and it will struggle to tame either.
If there’s one thing that Trump has accomplished, it’s the undermining of the political elites of both parties. It has been clear for some time that the GOP elites crumbled before him. This election proved that the Democratic Party elites — the embodiment of which was Hillary Clinton, in ways beyond the mere fact that she was its standard bearer this fall — have also been discredited. If the GOP elites had been sound, Donald Trump would never have gotten anywhere in the primaries. If the Democratic elites had been sound, Hillary Clinton would have beaten Trump to a pulp at the polls.
Again: sound familiar?
Douthat’s column brought to mind this piece from The New Yorker, profiling the self-described “Dirtbag Left” of the Chapo Trap House, an increasingly popular podcast by three Millennial lefties in Brooklyn. Excerpt:
At the Genius office, as people set up chairs on the floor below us, Menaker described the generic Chapo fan as a “failson”—which Biederman, who is twenty-six, defined as the guy that “goes downstairs at Thanksgiving, briefly mumbles, ‘Hi,’ everyone asks him how community college is going, he mumbles something about a 2.0 average, goes back upstairs with a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, and gets back to gaming and masturbating.” As for the women fans—who make up maybe twenty to thirty per cent of the audience, they guessed—“they all seem to be success-daughters,” Menaker said. “They’re astrophysicists or novelists, extremely on-point and competent people.”
Christman saw a political lesson in the show’s fan base. “The twenty-first century is basically defined by nonessential human beings, who do not fit into the market as consumers or producers or as laborers,” he said. “That manifests itself differently in different classes and geographic areas. For white, middle-class, male, useless people—who have just enough family context to not be crushed by poverty—they become failsons.” The “Chapo Trap House” guys are sincerely concerned with American inequality; at the same time, their most instinctive sympathies seem to fall with people whose worst-case scenario is a feeling of purposelessness. “Some of them turn into Nazis,” Christman continued. “Others become aware of the consequences of capitalism.”
Failsons. That’s a chilling neologism. Again: sound familiar? Dylann Roof and his tribe are also failsons, many of them the offspring of faildads and failmoms, though not the comfortable middle-class failsons who subscribe to Chapo Trap House. The white working class failsons are growing into adulthood as part of a class that has shockingly high mortality rates. Their families are falling apart, their moral structures are in collapse, and their economic prospects are diminished. Read your Charles Murray. Read your J.D. Vance.
Read your Weimar history.
Sooner or later, somebody is going to find a way to radicalize those failsons. Some of the middle class failsons will gravitate to the Weimar Brooklyn worldview of the Chapo Trap House. Many other middle class white failsons, I suspect, will gravitate to the intellectualized neo-Nazism of Richard Spencer, highly educated and articulate son of Dallas’s posh Park Cities. The point is: watch the failsons, who are being failed by families, by the church, and by a hedonistic and individualistic society that does not know how to manage this phase of modernity.
The United States is one major economic crisis away from something very, very ugly taking power. It is hard to see what our enervated American institutions — government, academia, families, churches, and the like — can do to stand up against it effectively. Nothing is determined in advance, and, as the late German historian Peukert points out, every Western industrialized nation in the 1920s and 1930s faced the same challenges Germany did. Most of them did not lose themselves to fascism or communism.
Still, we are headed for a tumultuous period of American history, and you’d have to be a fool not to see that, and to prepare. For orthodox Christians, my own tribe, we must hope and pray that we never face a situation like that faced by Martin Niemoller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other German Christians who resisted the Nazi state’s takeover of German churches — a takeover supported by many German Christians, it must be said. The time is now to ask ourselves what it means to be a faithful Christian today, and what kind of personal sacrifices we must be prepared to make to stand in opposition not only to some potential far-right or far-left government, but to the post-Christian, indeed anti-Christian, consumerist, hedonist, rootless culture in which we live. Don’t wait. Prepare. Decadent bourgeois Christianity of the left and the right is not going to survive. Nor will Lennonism.