The Weimar Republic, Germany’s flawed experiment in democracy in the 1920s, has become today’s paradigm for the failure of state and society. By the end of Weimar, the government seemed to have lost control — vigilantes from the political extremes claimed they were keeping the streets safe while beating up vulnerable minorities, above all Jews. So it is shocking when citizens in Germany and France — and elsewhere in Europe — increasingly cite Weimar when discussing their society today.
The European Union now does sometimes resemble a replay of Weimar’s combination of institutional perfection with violent and nationalist forces aimed at tearing down the “system.” Though Germany’s 1919 constitution, written in the city of Weimar, was widely viewed as a model document, throughout the 1920s the constitutional dream seemed ever more disconnected from public life.
The political leaders of France and Germany today deplore anti-Semitism and make striking gestures of solidarity with their country’s Jewish population, but the gestures seem helpless. The number of anti-Semitic incidents, as tracked by such bodies as the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, is on the rise. Many Jews in many European countries, but above all in France, are contemplating leaving because they believe their homelands have become so unsafe. The political establishment tries to reassure them with the argument that the parallels with 1933 are really too much of a stretch.