Learning the Wrong Lesson from Weimar

It’s not the size of the state that matters, but the willingness of state actors to defend their independence.

President Paul von Hindenburg and Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany en route to a May Day celebration in Berlin, May 1, 1933
President Paul von Hindenburg and Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany en route to a May Day celebration in Berlin, May 1, 1933 (Bundesarchiv)

Tyler Cowen argues in Politico that fascism cannot happen in America because its government is too large and too complex:

No matter who is elected, the fascists cannot control the bureaucracy, they cannot control all the branches of American government, they cannot control the judiciary, they cannot control semi-independent institutions such as the Federal Reserve and they cannot control what is sometimes called “the deep state.”

Cowen then bases his argument on the size of government relative to the economy, citing estimates that Weimar Germany taxed and spent about a third of GDP.

I think this is misguided.

Weimar Germany was a big state, too

It’s not the size of government that matters so much as the distribution of power, the independence of institutions and political actors’ willingness to defend their power and independence.

Weimar Germany was a big, complex state, too, with many political parties, powerful state governments (Bavaria and Prussia) and strong economic interest groups.

It succumbed to Nazism not because the Nazis were able to infiltrate all of those power nodes (although they did eventually), but because many of them (right-wing political parties, Prussian elites, West German industrialists) tolerated their rise, underestimating the danger, and then refused to act when it became clear (with the Enabling Act and the Night of the Long Knives) that Hitler had no intention of working within the system.

That is why scholars of fascism are so perturbed by the Republican Party’s surrender to Trump and why they are encouraged by the refusal of the courts and the media to bend to his will.