Lessons from the Weimar Republic

Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_01 Aug. 24 17.31 I decided to become a political scientist in the spring of 1976, while I was attending the Stanford-in-Berlin overseas study program. I had already declared an International Relations major, but was trying to decide between going to law school (the supposedly safe option) or pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science (looked risky). While in Berlin, I took Professor Gordon Craig's course on German history, and one lecture — on the role of intellectuals in the Weimar Republic — finally tipped the balance for me.

In that particular class, Craig argued that one of the many forces that doomed the Weimar Republic was the irresponsible behavior of both left-wing and right-wing intellectuals. The German left was contemptuous of the liberal aspirations of the Weimar Constitution and other bourgeois features of Weimar society, while right-wing “thinkers” like Ernst Junger glorified violence and disparaged the application of reason to political issues. So-called “liberal” intellectuals saw politics as a grubby business unworthy of their refined sensibilities, and so many just disengaged from politics entirely. This left the field to rabble-rousers and extremists of various sorts and helped prepare the ground for Nazism. (You can read Craig's account of this process in his book Germany 1866-1945, chapter 13, on “Weimar Culture”).

The lesson I took from Craig's lecture was that when intellectuals abandon liberal principles, disengage from politics, and generally abdicate their role as “truth-tellers” for society at large, it is easy for demagogues to play upon human fears and lead a society over the brink to disaster. So I decided to forego a legal career and get a Ph.D. instead, hoping in some way to contribute to more reasonable discourse about issues of war, peace, and politics.

Whether I succeeded in that aspiration I leave for others to decide, but I've been thinking about that episode as I contemplate the current state of American political discourse.

More here.