Confronted with the title of this book, one could conclude that it is about the political scene in the United States. The elected head of our Republic has set the news agenda every day since he assumed office. The Washington Post displays the slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
Hunter College history professor, Benjamin Carter Hett, writes about the death of a different democracy–Germany. The Death of Democracy (Henry Holt & Company) tells of the rise of Hitler, but in a different way. Instead of focusing on the step by step growth of the Nazi movement and its consolidation of power, Professor Hett writes about the step by step disintegration of the political institutions which could have blocked Hitler.
Benjamin Carter Hett
In a flowing and comfortable way, Professor Hett writes about the political personalities, the social movements, and economic forces which operated during the era of the Weimar Republic. He shows how the political parties and their leaders failed to unify against Nazism. Some leaders collaborated with the Nazis, while others turned away from challenging the Nazis.
Part of the problem was the Weimar Constitution. It was too democratic, yet too autocratic. It provided an unworkable hybrid of a presidential and a parliamentary system. The parliament (Reichstag) was elected by proportional representation. If a party won a third of the popular vote, it was assigned one third of the seats in the Reichstag. A series of unstable coalition governments was the result of proportional representation. Meanwhile, the president had the power to suspend the Reichstag and govern by decree, which President Paul von Hindenburg did.
After reading Professor Hett’s book, I am assured that “it” can’t happen here. Our political parties, civic institutions, and our traditions of citizen activism and dissent are too strong to prevent a totalitarian takeover of our country. Notwithstanding their faults, the drafters of our Constitution did it right.