How do democratic countries get to the point where they give up on self-rule? Under what circumstances do demagogues capture large audiences through irrational, emotional appeals unmoored from fact, logic or morality? When do politicians responsible for maintaining a democratic system surrender to dictators?
These questions are more pertinent to us in the early twenty-first century than we would wish. In the 1990s, democracy was thought to be on the march. Now, we worry that the international tide is turning toward autocracy and authoritarianism.
This is why Benjamin Carter Hett’s “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic” should join your summer reading list.
Hett is a professor of history at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He joins the company of distinguished scholars, notably Richard J. Evans and Ian Kershaw, who have shed light on the social and political forces that brought a murderous regime to life through a democratic system.
But if this is an oft-told tragic tale, Hett’s brisk and lucid study offers compelling new perspectives inspired by current threats to free societies around the world.
“In each era, we see the past differently, according to how we see ourselves and our own experiences,” Hett writes. “One era will notice things about the past that another will not. This is one reason why history is, and has to be, constantly rewritten.”
It is both eerie and enlightening how much of Hett’s account rings true in our time. Consider this declaration from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist: “Certainly we want to build a wall, a protective wall.” There is this dolorous observation from the socialist Ernst Toller: “The people are tired of reason, tired of thought and reflection. They ask, what has reason done for us in the last few years, what good have insights and knowledge done us.”
As Hett notes, “The key to understanding why many Germans supported Hitler lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world. ... Hitler could give voice to this flight from reality as could no other German politician of his time.”