Russia Viewed as Weimar

By Benjamin Schwarz

10 June 1992 Christian Science Monitor


IN arguing for aid to Russia, pundits and administration officials invoke the “lesson” of Weimar Germany. George Bush, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former President Richard Nixon see the problem of assisting Russia largely through this historical prism.

They believe that America failed catastrophically in its unwillingness to help alleviate the economic depression in Germany after World War I, which, they contend, paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power. Informed by this paradigm, they press for United States assistance to Russia, arguing that unless America helps Russia out of its economic chaos, the result could be a resurgent and aggressive Russian nationalism detrimental to American security.

This argument, however, misunderstands the forces that propelled Hitler’s ascendancy, and its proponents overestimate the potential for American influence in both the Weimar Republic and today’s Russia.

Since the American crash, heralding the advent of a worldwide depression, occurred in the autumn of 1929, and support for the Nazis ballooned from 800,000 votes in 1928 to 6.5 million in 1930, it is commonly assumed that the depression was responsible for Hitler’s march to power. But this explanation is incorrect.

In 1930 Germany was in recession, not in depression. Despite the sudden drama of the New York stock-market crash, the Great Depression infected world economies gradually over several years. Nobody was suffering much during the initial Nazi surge except the workers, and they remained true to their traditional parties. While the Weimar Republic had its economic ailments – although no more severe than those of the other industrialized states – its mortal illness was virulent nationalism.

The German elections of 1930, in which the course was set for Hitler’s rule, were dominated by foreign, not domestic policy, as extreme nationalist ambitions were advocated across the political spectrum. To explain the factors that produced Hitler and his expansionist policies, one must look not at temporary economic conditions, but to 1,000 years of German history and culture.

American experts claim that, just as Nazis exploited economic discontent to seize power in Germany, so “fascist elements” in Russia could take advantage of economic misery to win power and embark on nationalist, expansionist policies. Unless the US helps ameliorate conditions in Russia, they warn, American security interests will be threatened. This is dubious.

THE German people, in a strictly constitutional way, chose Hitler as their leader not because they were in despair over economic conditions, but because they liked what he had promised to perform on the world stage. Germans enthusiastically supported all Hitler’s “ultra-nationalist” actions, from the remilitarization of the Rhineland through the Austrian anschluss and the rape of Czechoslovakia to war with Poland and her allies.

The notion that, lest the West aid Russia, her people will turn to aggressive nationalism is profoundly insulting to them. Like Hitler, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the extremist head of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, has made clear how he would conduct his country’s external affairs; Russians understand better than most the full implications of choosing such a man as their leader. If they do so (and there is little indication that they will), it will be because they accept the risks and want the rewards hi s policies promise. This decision is irrelevant to the issue of American aid.

President Bush asserts that history teaches that the West should not “stand by and watch” Russia’s economy and democracy fall, as it did Germany’s in the waning years of Weimar, for fear that a similar threat will result. It is reassuring to believe that pathological nationalism can be cured by foreign financial and technical remedies, but what could the US have done in the 1920s and 1930s to exorcise the demons possessing Germany?

Arguing from the Weimar experience that assistance to Russia should be seen in terms of American national security is wrongheaded.

Defending the US by containing, deterring, and fighting a country is one thing, attempting this defense by fundamentally influencing that country’s internal political processes is quite another. When the US has tried to do so in the past, the result has been spectacular failure.

There are many good reasons to help Russia. But just as no set of aid policies from the West could have prevented Hitler, so the course of Russian nationalism will be driven by internal forces too fundamental to be shaped by outside assistance.

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