Uncivil Civil Society

Revisiting “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic”

Editors’ Note: Sheri Berman continues HistPhil’s forum on “Uncivil Civil Society,” revisiting her seminal article, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic” in World Politics.

In 1997 I published an article entitled “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic” that challenged a growing consensus on the part of academic and non-academic observers that, as Robert Putnam, one of the most influential and perceptive contributors to this literature, put it, “Democratic government is strengthened, not weakened, when it faces a vigorous civil society.”[1]

Civil society’s advocates argued that participation in associations contributed to democratic success because of their “internal” effects on individual members as well as their “external” effects on society. Internally, participation in civil society associations teaches leadership, organizational and other skills necessary for democratic citizenship.  Externally, civil society associations articulate and aggregate interests and provide the foundation upon which the collective action, political mobilization and social collaboration that democracy requires is built.

That observers of democracy believed that civil society was key to “making democracy work” in the 1990s is understandable. Civil society was seen as having played a crucial role in the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and other transitions to democracy during the so-called third wave of democracy that occurred at this time and the United States, the Cold War’s victor and the world’s most powerful democracy, seemingly exemplified the connection between a vibrant civil society and a successful democracy. Indeed, since at least the publication of Alexis de Toqueville’s classic study of Democracy in America in 1835, theorists linked the propensity of  “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition [to] forever form associations,” to the strength and robustness of the nation’s representative institutions.

We are currently living, of course, in a very different era today: democratic decay rather than the inevitable forward march of democracy is what occupies us now. Despite the changing Zeitgeist, the lessons to be learned from an examination of the role played by civil society in the collapse of the Weimar Republic remain as relevant as ever.  Perhaps the most relevant one is that civil society is neither good nor bad, but rather dependent for its effects on the wider political context. When societies are deeply divided—as the interwar Weimar Republic was and the United States has increasingly become over the past decades—and civil society reflects and reinforces those divides, democratic stability is likely to suffer. If however, associational life bridges existing divides, providing a context within which cross-cutting connections and cleavages can thrive, civil society is likely to be a crucial factor in making democracy work.

Civil society in Germany

Like the United States, late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany was characterized by a very vibrant civil society. Indeed, the extraordinarily vigorous associational life of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany was frequently commented on, so much so in fact that contemporaries talked about the Vereinsmeierei (roughly translatable as “associational fetishism” or “mania”) which beset German society and joked that whenever three or more Germans gathered, they were likely to draw up by-laws and found an association. The German passion for forming organizations was so characteristic that it became the butt of several well-known satires, including Kurt Tucholsky’s classic poem “Das Mitglied,” “The Member.” Perhaps German society’s most perceptive analyst during this period, Max Weber, took note of his countrymen’s predilection for voluntarily joining together in groups; recognizing the significance of this phenomenon for political development, he urged his colleagues to study German organizational life in all of its manifestations, “starting with the bowling club [!]…and continuing to the political party or the religious, artistic or literary sect.”  Germany’s democratization after World War I triggered a renewed efflorescence of the country’s civil society: the number of local voluntary associations grew throughout the 1920s, reaching extremely high levels from both a historical and comparative perspective.[2] 

Unlike in the United States, however, German Vereinsmeierei was directly linked to another salient political characteristic: its deep political cleavages. From its founding in the 1870s, German society was profoundly divided in myriad ways. Most obviously, Germans were divided over the way unification occurred—via wars and led by autocratic Prussia. Left liberals and especially socialists (members of the SPD, the Social Democratic Party) were opposed to the nature of German unification and the semi-authoritarian state that emerged from it. These divisions were deepened by Bismarck who referred to those opposed to the new Germany as “enemies of the Reich.” Bismarck took particular aim at the SPD, which he demonized and passed restrictive legislation against. This led many Germans to view the SPD as a threat and further alienated what would become Germany’s largest political party by the early twentieth-century from the existing order and other political parties. Bismarck also took aim at the country’s Catholics, questioning their loyalty and pursuing a Kulturkampf (“cultural struggle”) against them. More generally, the nature of German unification and the new German state, Bismarck’s policies, and the insecurities of a new nation helped spur the growth of a virulent strain of nationalism, heavily intermixed with radical anti-Semitism, that served to further deepen divisions and resentments among German citizens. These divisions and resentments worsened after the First World War when right-radical charges of a stab-in-the-back by the SPD and other democratic forces layered new divisions and resentments onto old ones.

In this situation Germany’s vibrant civil society did not strengthen or promote democracy. Indeed, the opposite was the case; rather than reconciling the interests of different groups or bridging the cleavages in Germany society, civil society reinforced and deepened them. Socialists, Catholics, nationalists, and so on joined their own hiking groups, bird-watching clubs, and community organizations, contributing to the formation of what one scholar called “ferociously jealous ‘small republics’”[3]—or what we would today call social “bubbles” in German society. By helping to lock in social divisions and animosities, German civil society contributed to the weakening of the Weimar Republic, leaving it easier prey for the Nazis during the Great Depression.

But German civil society contributed to the Nazis’ (NSDAP) success not only by helping undermine the social cohesion and unity necessary to make democracy work. Civil society also directly aided the NSDAP by providing the foundation upon which the organizational infrastructure and electoral coalition necessary for enabling the party to come to power could be built.

Up through the mid-1920s the NSDAP was a marginal force in German political life, attracting few voters and facing serious financial difficulties. The situation became so dire by 1926 that the party decided to shift course. It had previously focused its attention on urban areas and workers, but during the late 1920s it reoriented its appeal towards the middle-class, non-voters and farmers—groups that were particularly aggrieved by the reigning political order and were alienated from Weimar’s existing political parties.

In order to attract new supporters the NSDAP focused on capturing civil society organizations to which these individuals belonged. The party encouraged its supporters to join a wide range of organizations and eliminate potential opponents from positions of power within them. The party also paid particular attention to attracting “joiners” and activists with many associational memberships and broad social networks to the cause. The NSDAP exploited these individuals’ organizational contacts and local knowledge to gain insight into the fears and needs of particular groups and to tailor appeals to them. These and similar methods enabled the Nazis to successfully capture a wide range of national and local associations that catered to middle-class, rural and other voters by the early 1930s. The Nazis used their role in and control over these associations to build a strong-grass roots organization and to attract new voters to the party. Had German civil society been weaker and less-segmented, in other words, the Nazis would have found it harder to develop the political machines and electoral coalition that enabled them to win elections and gain power when the Depression hit.

The relationship between civil society and political development in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany should obviously make us question the view that there is a direct and positive relationship between a rich associational life and a stable democracy. Clearly, under certain circumstances, a vibrant civil society and democratic stability can be in tension with each other. Relatedly, many of the consequences of associationism stressed by neo-Tocquevillian scholars—providing individuals with political and social skills, creating bonds between citizens, facilitating mobilization, decreasing barriers to collective action—can be turned to anti-democratic ends as well as democratic ones.

If we want to know when civil society will have democracy-promoting rather than democracy-undermining consequences, we need to turn our attention away from civil society to the larger political context. If a country’s political institutions and structures are capable of channeling and redressing grievances and no major groups accordingly feel alienated from the existing political regime, then associationism will probably buttress democratic stability by placing its resources and beneficial effects in the service of the status quo. This is the pattern Tocqueville described. 

If, on the other hand, the existing political regime is perceived to be ineffectual and illegitimate, citizens are divided on fundamental questions of political life and hived off from each other, and associations reflect and even deepen these divides, civil society can further undermine democratic stability, by deepening cleavages, furthering dissatisfaction, and providing rich soil for extremist movements. 

This latter pattern fits Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the contemporary United States. Over the past decades, Americans have become increasingly divided—politically, socially and economically. Our political parties are more homogeneous and more “sorted” today than at any time in the recent past.  Up through the 1980s, the Republican and Democratic parties attracted supporters with different racial, religious and regional identities, but gradually the Republicans became the party of white, evangelical, conservative and rural voters and the Democrats became associated with non-white, non-evangelical, liberal and metropolitan voters. Changes in communication technology and geographical sorting have contributed to and deepened this process. More people are getting their information from obviously partisan sources than in the past and living in areas where they very rarely come across people who differ from them politically. As one recent study concluded, “most Democratic and Republican voters live in partisan bubbles, with little daily exposure to those who belong to the other party.”

The current United States is not as divided as the Weimar Republic, but that should be small solace to those concerned with promoting social unity and democracy today. Social scientists have long recognized the necessity of cross-cutting cleavages for healthy democracy. In his classic study, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy,” Seymour Martin Lipset, for example, noted that “the available evidence suggests that the chances for stable democracy are enhanced to the extent groups and individuals have a number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations.” More specifically, research has linked cross-cutting cleavages to toleration, moderation and conflict preservation. In short, if we want to help re-create a healthy society and democracy in the United States today, a crucial task needs to be creating ways for citizens of different political, social and economic backgrounds to come together in quotidian ways. Civil society can provide a setting for this, but it often does not. Figuring out how to promote the types of networks and associations that can help Americans bridge their current divides is something philanthropists in particular and those concerned with democracy more generally should be focused on today.

-Sheri Berman

Sheri Berman is Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles on European politics and political development, the left, fascism, populism, and the fate of democracy. Her latest book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (2019). She has also published in a wide variety of non-scholarly publications, including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Vox, The Guardian and Dissent.


[1]Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 182.

[2] William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945 (New York: F. Watts, 1984); Peter Fritzsche, Rehearsals for Fascism: Populism and Political Mobilization in Weimar Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Rudy Koshar, Social Life, Local Politics and Nazism: Marburg, 1880-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986).

[3] Fritzsche, Rehearsals for Fascism, p. 232.

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