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History Germany

The Death of Democracy

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

by (author) Benjamin Carter Hett

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2019
Germany, Fascism & Totalitarianism, 20th Century
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2018
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2019
    List Price

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A riveting account of how the Nazi Party came to power and how the failures of the Weimar Republic and the shortsightedness of German politicians allowed it to happen.

Why did democracy fall apart so quickly and completely in Germany in the 1930s? How did a democratic government allow Adolf Hitler to seize power? In The Death of Democracy, Benjamin Carter Hett answers these questions, and the story he tells has disturbing resonances for our own time.
To say that Hitler was elected is too simple. He would never have come to power if Germany's leading politicians had not responded to a spate of populist insurgencies by trying to co-opt him, a strategy that backed them into a corner from which the only way out was to bring the Nazis in. Hett lays bare the misguided confidence of conservative politicians who believed that Hitler and his followers would willingly support them, not recognizing that their efforts to use the Nazis actually played into Hitler's hands. They had willingly given him the tools to turn Germany into a vicious dictatorship.
Benjamin Carter Hett is a leading scholar of twentieth-century Germany and a gifted storyteller whose portraits of these feckless politicans show how fragile democracy can be when those in power do not respect it. He offers a powerful lesson for today, when democracy once again finds itself embattled and the siren song of strongmen sounds ever louder.

About the author


  • Winner, Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature

Contributor Notes

BENJAMIN CARTER HETT is a Canadian historian and the author of three previous books: Burning the Reichstag, Crossing Hitler, and Death in the Tiergarten. He is a professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and holds a PhD in history from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Toronto. He grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and now lives in New York City.

Excerpt: The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic (by (author) Benjamin Carter Hett)

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.

Editorial Reviews

A Fareed Zakaria book of the week

One of The New York Times Book Review Editors’ Pick
“A timely book”
The New York Times Book Review
“A fast-paced narrative enlivened by vignette and character sketches…Hett reminds us that violence was at [the Nazi’s] core.”

“Hett’s tale does not so much change our view of demagogues as it highlights the crucial role of those who would halt their progress. Faced with jingoist politicians who resort to poisonous lies, his book fairly proclaims, the forces of democracy can prevail only if they muster courage, resolve and cooperative spirit.”
The Washington Post

“Hett's brisk and lucid study offers compelling new perspectives inspired by current threats to free societies around the world…It is both eerie and enlightening how much of Hett's account rings true in our time.”
—E.J. Dionne
“Careful prose and fine scholarship…fine thumbnail sketches of individuals and concise discussions of institutions and economics.” 
Democratic Underground
“With a wealth of telling detail, a keen eye for human character, and a talent for gripping narrative, Benjamin Hett analyses the end of the Weimar Republic and the inauguration of the Nazi regime.  It is a chilling and warning tale, for he shows that Hitler’s victory was by no means inevitable. Rather, it was the result of human folly, greed, selfishness and, on the part of those who invited him, an unwillingness to confront the true meaning of Nazism and a willful insistence that they could use Hitler.” 
Margaret MacMillan, author of The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914

Other titles by Benjamin Carter Hett