Lessons from the Weimar Republic

Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_01 Aug. 24 17.31 I decided to become a political scientist in the spring of 1976, while I was attending the Stanford-in-Berlin overseas study program. I had already declared an International Relations major, but was trying to decide between going to law school (the supposedly safe option) or pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science (looked risky). While in Berlin, I took Professor Gordon Craig's course on German history, and one lecture — on the role of intellectuals in the Weimar Republic — finally tipped the balance for me.

In that particular class, Craig argued that one of the many forces that doomed the Weimar Republic was the irresponsible behavior of both left-wing and right-wing intellectuals. The German left was contemptuous of the liberal aspirations of the Weimar Constitution and other bourgeois features of Weimar society, while right-wing “thinkers” like Ernst Junger glorified violence and disparaged the application of reason to political issues. So-called “liberal” intellectuals saw politics as a grubby business unworthy of their refined sensibilities, and so many just disengaged from politics entirely. This left the field to rabble-rousers and extremists of various sorts and helped prepare the ground for Nazism. (You can read Craig's account of this process in his book Germany 1866-1945, chapter 13, on “Weimar Culture”).

The lesson I took from Craig's lecture was that when intellectuals abandon liberal principles, disengage from politics, and generally abdicate their role as “truth-tellers” for society at large, it is easy for demagogues to play upon human fears and lead a society over the brink to disaster. So I decided to forego a legal career and get a Ph.D. instead, hoping in some way to contribute to more reasonable discourse about issues of war, peace, and politics.

Whether I succeeded in that aspiration I leave for others to decide, but I've been thinking about that episode as I contemplate the current state of American political discourse.

More here.

Like what you're reading? Don't keep it to yourself!
Share on Facebook
Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Share on Reddit
Reddit
Share on LinkedIn
Linkedin
Email this to someone
email