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The Death of Democracy

The Death of Democracy

Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic
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Excerpt

1.
August and November
 
Prince Max von Baden spends most of the day waiting impatiently for news from Kaiser Wilhelm II.
     Prince Max is a trim man who seems to look into every camera lens with the baleful expression of someone who has seen a lot, been impressed by little, and bears few illusions about his fellow men and women. He has an unusual reputation as a liberal German prince. This was why he was named chancellor of the German Reich in October, at the age of fifty-one. Later, he will record his experiences in a dry tone, betraying irritation with almost every one he had to deal with: the Kaiser, the generals, the moderate and radical socialists.
     Prince Max’s problem is that the Kaiser—Germany’s hereditary emperor, whose family has ruled from Berlin since the fifteenth century—cannot make up his mind to abdicate the throne. Germany is falling further into the grip of revolution and every minute counts. Max’s repeated phone calls to the Army’s headquarters at Spa in Belgium, where the Kaiser has gone, are met only with stalling. The prince wants to save what he can of the old order. He knows that the revolution is winning. It can’t be “beaten down,” but “it might perhaps be stifled out.” The only thing to do is contain the revolution by naming Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the moderate Social Democrats, as chancellor by royal authority.
            Ebert will soon be chancellor one way or another, Max reasons, if not by royal appointment then by revolution in the streets. “If Ebert is presented to me as the Tribune of the People by the mob, we shall have the Republic,” he tells himself. A still-worse fate is possible. If the mob makes the more radical in de pen dent socialist Karl Liebknecht chancellor instead of Ebert, “we shall have Bolshevism as well.” But if, in his last act, Kaiser Wilhelm names Ebert, “then there would still be a slender hope for the monarchy left. Perhaps we should then succeed in diverting the revolutionary energy into the lawful channels of an election campaign.”
            Prince Max doesn’t know about the drama playing out at the Kaiser’s headquarters. At Spa, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the supreme commander of the German Army, understands two things clearly: the Kaiser has to abdicate, and Hindenburg himself must escape blame for pushing him to this realization. The Kaiser is toying with the idea of leading his army back to Germany to crush the revolutionaries. Hindenburg under-stands that this will lead to a disastrous civil war. He does not want to be responsible for such a thing. But Hindenburg is also a monarchist, and he knows that other monarchists might blame him for not standing by his king. Hindenburg is the hero of Tannenberg, one of Germany’s few great victories in this lost war. He cannot let his reputation be tarnished now.
     He solves the problem by giving the job to his second in command, First Quartermaster General Wilhelm Groener. Groener tells the Kaiser bluntly that the army will return peacefully to Germany under its commanders, “but not under the command of your majesty, because it no longer stands behind your majesty.” Hindenburg quietly begins arranging the Kaiser’s escape to neutral Holland, where he will be safe.
    These events set a pattern. More than a decade later, Hindenburg will still be wrestling with the problem of potential civil war. He will still be trying to find a way to keep the army out of domestic strife while preserving his own reputation. He will still be unloading unpleasant tasks on his subordinates.
     With no decision from Spa, Prince Max runs out of patience and decides to take matters into his own hands. He will announce Wilhelm’s abdication himself. Prince Max summons Ebert and asks if he is prepared to govern in accordance with “the monarchical constitution.”
     Ebert is an unusually conservative Social Demo crat and would have preferred to retain the monarchy, but events have gone too far. “Yesterday I could have given an unconditional affirmative,” he tells Prince Max. “ Today I must first consult my friends.” Prince Max asks him about considering a regency, someone to serve as placeholder for a  future monarch. Ebert replies that it is “too late.”  Behind Ebert, as Max’s jaded pen records, the other Social Demo crats in the room repeat in unison: “Too late, too late!”
     Meanwhile, Ebert’s colleague Philipp Scheidemann stands on a balcony of the Reichstag and calls out, “Long live the Republic!” This is taken as a declaration that Germany has in fact become a democratic republic, although Scheidemann will later say he meant it only as a “confession of faith” in the idea.
     At the royal palace, a half mile or so east of the Reichstag, the radical Karl Liebknecht declares Germany a “socialist republic.” By this time, the Kaiser has finally abdicated as emperor of Germany.
     In the late afternoon, Prince Max has a final meeting with Ebert. Ebert now asks the prince to stay on as “administrator,” a regent by another name. Prince Max replies stiffly, “I know you are on the point of concluding an agreement with the Independents [the more radical Independent Social Demo crats] and I cannot work with the Independents.” As he leaves, he turns to say one last thing: “Herr Ebert, I commit the German Empire to your keeping!”
            Ebert responds gravely, “I have lost two sons for this Empire.”
            It is November 9, 1918.
      Two days later, an armistice negotiated between German politicians and Allied military officers goes into effect. The First World War is over. For most Germans, defeat comes suddenly and shockingly. Among them is a wounded soldier convalescing from a poison gas attack at a hospital in Pasewalk, a small Pomeranian town about seventy- five miles northeast of Berlin.
     “So it had all been in vain,” he writes. “In vain all the sacrifices and deprivations . . .  futile the deaths of two millions who died . . .” Had Germany’s soldiers fought only to “allow a mob of wretched criminals to lay hands on the Fatherland?” He has not wept since the day of his mother’s funeral, but now the young man staggers back to his ward and buries his “burning head in the blankets and pillow.”
      His name is Adolf Hitler, Private First Class.

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