The Hungarian Republic and Weimar?

I wrote earlier about András Nyerges, calling attention to some of his early reminiscences. However, long before then I was fascinated by his weekly column "Színrebontás" (Color Separation). The theme of the column was right-wing Hungarian journalism between the two world wars. Nyerges is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to this subject. Knowing something about how time consuming it is to check dusty and crumbling newspapers, I can only admire Nyerges's scholarship. He often found articles by famous writers who later, during the communist dictatorship, were considered to have been in the forefront of the struggle against the extreme right before 1945. The truth is that these articles, appearing in right-wing publications, showed their admiration for Hitler, Szálasi, and the extreme right.

Today I want to focus on a piece he wrote for the March 6 issue of Élet és Irodalom. His topic is the Weimar Republic and the early 1930s when, like now, the world experienced a very serious economic crisis. Nyerges begins his piece by saying that every time he tried to draw a comparison between Weimar and the pitfalls of a democracy that is too democratic to defend itself from its enemies he was told that he exaggerated. One doesn't have to fear such a development because today there is no political party that would be able to overthrow democratic institutions. Moreover, the situation then was unique: a financial crisis, high unemployment, middle class misery. In these circumstances Hitler's empty populism worked. Today, even if there were a Hitler among us, it wouldn't.

Nyerges thought for awhile that perhaps his critics were right. Perhaps he was worried with no reason. But then, he continues, he found an article in Magyar Hírlap (February 7, 1933) in which he happened upon the following sentence: "Hitler is not thinking in terms of a dictatorship. He changed his mind and he is willing to be a man who obeys the constitution." After all, Hitler himself announced that "it is not true that I want to govern without parliament" (Nemzeti Újság, March 13, 1932). After the elections in Germany, Magyar Hírlap announced the results with these optimistic words: "So Hitler will be the chancellor for four years. That is the only result of the elections."

Chancellor Heinrich Brüning had been hoping for a joint effort on the part of all political parties to combat the economic crisis. But the national socialists, the largest opposition party in the Reichstag, didn't play ball. In fact, they increased their attacks on Brüning and the government. For example, Hjalmas Schacht, former chairman of the central bank whose sympathies lay with Hitler's party, questioned the published results of the German mark and accused his successor of a falsification of data.  Brüning was puzzled. He couldn't imagine that an "expert" could make false statements because of his political sympathies. He was ready to make compromises to appease the opposition. The social democrats were willing but not the national socialists. Hitler and his party instead demanded "the immediate dissolution of parliament and early elections" (Népszava, October 17, 1931). When a vote was taken and the national socialist proposal was voted down 320 to 252, "the national socialists in the midst of a noisy demonstration walked out of the chamber."

Brüning realized that his opponents had no constructive plans to solve the economic problems of the country. To quote Brüning: "It is becoming clearer and clearer every day that the propaganda of the right is really void of any ideas. They can't even give answers to the most obvious questions like how to mobilize the mark or whether we should have inflation. In the fight against the government the right wingers are not coming out with a clear program. These people want only power" (Ujság, March 10, 1932). In April 1932 Hitler gave his answer: "It is not the world economic crisis that brought about German poverty but the wicked political leaders who don't keep in mind the the vital interest of the German people." Meanwhile the crisis was deepening and the government proposed new measures like extending credit to employers in order to provide jobs. The parliament again voted for the proposal (283 to 256). The national socialists were outraged. Herman Göring, then a member of parliament, announced that the Brüning government must resign because they are bankrupt. The greatest sin was that "Brüning is running the country with the traitors, the social democrats."

Göring addressed a few words to the minister of the interior Wilhelm Groener who wanted to ban the Nazi storm troopers (SA). Göring claimed that by banning the SA "the government is disarming the German people's desire for freedom." Pesti Napló (May 11, 1932) reported that the national socialists explained that there is a need for the SA because of the impending attack by the Polish army. Groener's answer was that if the Poles attacked not the SA but all German citizens would have to defend the country.  Hitler, however, had a more narrow view of who was German: "not only are Jews not considered Germans but also those who are not nationalists" (quoted by Aurél Kolnai in the 1932/34 issue of Századunk). President Paul von Hindenburg lent credence to Hitler and his party by asking Groener why he wanted to ban the SA and not the left-wing Reichsbanner since both are dangerous.  Groener's answer was: the Reichsbanner is not unconstitutional while the SA is. That apparently didn't make a dent and the idea was dropped in the name of democracy.

Day after day the national socialist caucus made sure that there was some scandal in parliament. They walked out en bloc or, if they stayed, they made such a ruckus that it was impossible to conduct business. When this wasn't enough, four members of the caucus beat a journalist in the corridor of the Reichstag building. The four were expelled for a month; when they refused to obey, at least the police barred them from entering. Nyerges adds that the German national socialists didn't remove the cordon like the Fidesz members of parliament but they could have because everybody knew that more than 50% of the German judges sympathized with the national socialists. "It was enough to compare decisions involving the communists and the fascists" to draw the necessary conclusion (Ujság, May 26, 1932). Joseph Goebels wrote in his diary (April 14, 1932): "I believe that at no time has there been a movement so sure of its success as we are. We are talking about personnel changes as if we were already in power." Hitler made it quite clear what life would be like once they succeeded. In a letter written to Brüning he wrote, "if we get into power legally we will be the ones who decide what is legal and what is not" (December 13, 1931).

In March 1932 the police searched the offices of the national socialist party and found evidence of plans for the SA to surround Greater Berlin. Hitler called the evidence "left-wing provocation." The national socialist party warned the police not to dare to use nightsticks or firearms against the national socialist troops. Apparently the Nazis decided that if they didn't win at the elections and Hitler wasn't the new chancellor "in the next twenty-four hours the storm troopers would move into action and stage a coup d'état."

Finally, Nyerges quotes Győző Gergely in the periodical Szocializmus (1932). Gergely pointed out that "the parties of the Weimar Republic were not forceful enough in trying to prevent the murders by the right-wing groups and they didn't count on the supporters of these groups sitting as judges." Gergely concluded that it is "a widely accepted view that a democracy must put up with the enemies of democracy. In fact, it has to open its bosom and wait for the final deadly stab straight into the heart."

Clearly, Nyerges doesn't think that he was exaggerating. One can debate the issue, but one must admit that there are a lot of similarities between Germany in the early 1930s and post-2002 Hungary.

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Drawing historical parallels can be as misleading as it can be revealing. Because of what happened afterwards the Weimar Repbulic has become ingrained in popular memory as a kind of worst case of the collapse of democracy, and where it can lead. For this reason raising the parallel either raises alarm bells (on one side), or be dismissed as utterly ridiculous (by those on the other side of the political divide). The first point to make is that although some events have a resemblance to past events, nothing ever happens in quite the way it has done before. Therefore any parallel is going to be of limited value. And, by being too led by the parallel it is always possible to draw the wrong lessons from the past. The second point is that parallels can be drawn with Weimar in the 1920s and 1930s, but they can with another of polarized polities in inter-war Europe. We might talk about Austria between 1918 and 1934; Spain in the 1930s; France in the 1930s with the rise of fascism and the popular front; Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s (which stabilized in the shadow of a civil war in the 1920s). Not… Read more »

The storm troopers are here, only on the wrong side: