How stable is democracy? This became a key question in U.S. politics in the aftermath of the events of Jan. 6. The voluntary abdication of people power in favor of strongmen in countries such as Turkey, Hungary and Russia has prompted similar questions.

By contrast, postwar German democracy appears rock solid. As we watch Angela Merkel’s long reign of 16 years come to an end following the elections in September, we marvel at the calm, even boring, nature of the transition of power in Germany. Yet, this picture is incomplete. By taking a longer view of German history, we see a rockier picture of democracy – one that may help us better understand its fragility in our time.

Before 1871, there was no Germany. The German “nation” – the idea that people across multiple states constituted one collective entity – only existed in the minds of intellectuals and the rising middle classes. Each of the 39 distinct German states in central Europe had its own ruler, all of whom were unwilling to compromise power and position for the abstract concept of national unity.

But when the fiercely conservative aristocrat Otto von Bismarck became prime minister of the largest German state, Prussia, in September 1862, his kingdom was in turmoil. Popular nationalism mixed with rising liberal notions of democracy into a heady cocktail of ideas. The cry for monarchs to be yoked by an all-German constitution and, by extension, the will of the people eventually became too loud to ignore.

Democrats and liberals had long pushed for reforms and modernization, while the old elites clung to power. Bismarck, a known hard-liner and ruthless problem solver, was summoned to Berlin, Prussia’s capital, to help his king win the battle against the increasingly vociferous progressives.

Instead of resorting to bloodshed, however, Bismarck recognized that democracy could be harnessed to preserve the old regime within the construct of a new nation-state. A wave of revolutions had swept through Europe in 1848 and very nearly succeeded in toppling existing monarchical structures. Bismarck used the existential fear this caused among the nobility to push the notion of national unity. A series of Prussian war victories against Denmark, Austria and France made it clear who would lead any future German union.

And so, on Jan. 18, 1871, a troublesome child was born into the family of nation-states, a new German Empire made up of the 39 states, sitting uneasily in the center of Europe amid fragile alliances.

The German Empire of 1871-1918 was led by a kaiser, but he could not pass any legislation without the consent of a parliament elected through universal male suffrage. There were no barriers of social class, wealth, religion or ethnicity; all male citizens above age 25 were eligible to vote, making the first German parliament one of the most democratic of its age.

The country also had a fairly free press, which frequently aimed biting and witty criticism at the government. When cartoons in the satirical magazine Simplicissimus mocked Kaiser Wilhelm II to the point that he tried to have the editors arrested, it only served to increase the circulation of the publication. Even the monarch, whose position of power was affirmed in the new constitution, was helplessly exposed to public opinion.

This first German constitution set up a young and immature democracy with many autocratic elements and inherent faults – but, crucially, the will of the people could no longer be ignored.

But it didn’t last. This semi-democracy would abolish itself in 1914. Its institutions faltered at the outbreak of World War I. The German press, for example, began to self-censor. It refrained from criticism of the kaiser and began to support the war effort. Similarly, the German parliament, dominated by antiwar socialists and liberals from 1912, agreed to sign an Enabling Act in August 1914 that practically turned the country into a military dictatorship for the war’s duration.

The first German democracy died because it did not trust itself in times of crisis and few people deemed it worth defending. Its ultimate demise came in 1916, when the two military leaders Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff took over almost all aspects of government, including foreign policy and the economy. Democracy in Germany would be restored only in 1919 under significant pressure from Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. president – although that too would soon falter with the rise of Adolf Hitler’s despotic and genocidal ideology in the 1930s.

The German democracy we understand as rock solid today doesn’t sit easily within this origin story. Germans therefore prefer to view their own history in two halves. The second part, the country’s history after World War II and the defeat of Hitler, is an astonishing success story. That Germany subsequently was divided for more than four decades after the war is conveniently blended out in this narrative, in which anti-communist West Germany alone becomes the nation’s throughline of continuity. In this way, the (West) German economy was reborn from the smoldering ruins of World War II like a phoenix from the ashes, and brought prosperity and political stability to the heart of Europe. Germany is now the fourth-largest economy in the world and has rebuilt its reputation.

It’s a reassuring story that Germany has now established itself as one of the most stable democracies in the world, an anchor of prudence holding the European ship steady while the choppy seas of partisanship seem to rock the West.

By contrast, the first half of Germany’s history as a nation-state is portrayed as the country’s dark origins in nationalism, monarchy, empire-building, war and genocide – despite the fact that the picture is far more complex than that. Germans themselves have found it difficult and painful to look back at their first attempt at setting up a functioning democracy. The 150th anniversary of the foundation of Germany on Jan. 18 this year came and went without fanfare. Germany’s founding father, Bismarck, is confined to the annals of history. Admitting a degree of continuity would be to admit the fragility of what has been achieved since.

The country’s postwar system has never been stress-tested in the way that the German Empire was. Germans felt just as safe in 1914 as we do now. They lived in a prosperous country, enjoyed some of the highest living standards in the world and had not seen war in decades.

What if the first German democracy wasn’t doomed to fail, but was lost in 1914 because nobody cared to protect it amid the clamor of nationalism? What if people willingly sacrificed it for what they saw then as the greater good?

Today, as a number of Western democracies have begun to flirt with criticisms of the democratic process itself, studying the failures of democracies in the past provides vital lessons. The German Empire was a half-democracy and should be taken seriously as such, rather than be treated as a proto-Nazi regime. And its history helps demonstrate the hard truth that democracies are not invincible.


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