This play is pretty straightforward, and the difference between ordinary political battles and the rise of a dictatorship is a matter of degree. All political parties try to discredit opposing parties. In American politics we see it all the time: Democrats are baby killers! Republicans want to teach creationism in schools! But these characterizations are usually based on specific policies offensive to a party’s base. As often as Democrats are called baby killers or Republicans religious wackos, Americans still vote for both Democrats and Republicans on a regular basis. In American democracy, parties will moderate to some extent in order to win votes from the center. To create a Dictatorship from a democracy, a would-be Dictator has to make the opposition look radical and dangerous to the national interest while making himself a savior. This reduces the support of the opposition to its fringes and leaves the center with no other choice than to support authoritarian effectiveness. To see how this is done, we pay a visit to our friends in the Weimar Republic, the doomed constitutional democracy that was destroyed by the Nazis it elected.
The Weimar Republic was founded on November 9, 1918 under the leadership of the Social Democratic Party. Two days later, it signed the Treaty of Versailles, ending the First World War and subjecting Germany to crushing reparations (Historians and all other rational people now think reparations were a Bad Thing). The Social Democrats, or SPD, in the Weimar era were a moderate party advocating social welfare reforms. They introduced, or re-introduced, reforms like healthcare, unemployment benefits, public housing and support for trade unions. In principle, their policies were not so different from those pursued by FDR under the New Deal. They were not extremists, and they were wedded to the Weimar constitution, so much so that in 1930, they formed a coalition with more conservative parties opposed to their values to try to save the Weimar Republic and stave off the rise of National Socialism. As Hitler began his rise, the SPD was the largest political party in Germany, and therefore his most potent opposition.*
After the war, a lot of veterans felt betrayed by the Versailles Treaty signed by the SPD, and that’s where Hitler got his start. He referred to the SPD as the “November Criminals,” alleging that by signing the treaty, they betrayed their countrymen. As the 1920s progressed, he began to link the SPD to radical socialism, and to lump them in with the German Communist Party. He called them all “Marxists,” a political philosophy most Germans didn’t like.* By repeating the term again and again as the Nazis gained popularity, he began to link the SPD to an extreme, widely disliked ideology (as well as a hedonistic urban culture and art scene socially conservative Germans detested). By doing so, because the SPD was the greatest defender of a democratic system, he was able to link constitutional government itself to an extremist ideology.* As Germany entered the Great Depression, the Nazi Party was able to convince more and more Germans that the “November Criminals” had hoodwinked them into adopting an ineffective, radical system from which only Hitler could save them.
The critical point that the SPD was not radical. The Nazis were able to identify who was defending the institutions supporting the constitutional regime, brand them as advocates of the most extreme elements of their party ideology, and then declare the entire regime a failed organ of oppressive extremists. This process was relatively gradual, but in the three years of the Nazis’ rise to power from 1930-1933, their drive to discredit the centrist parties helped drive polarization on both sides. The elections of 1932 saw not just radicalization of the Right, it also saw significant gains for the German Communist Party. After all, if the people were convinced their institutions were corrupt and broken, why not vote for the most radical party available?
So how do we identify a regime deliberately discrediting the opposition? Well, we need to ask ourselves what government institutions does the regime want to undermine? Who is defending them? Is he trying to paint them as radical? How will his statements affect the political center? If the answer is that he is linking an opposition party to the core institutions of democracy then branding it as radical, you may have a would-be dictator on your hands.
*These sections are sourced from volume I of Ian Kershaw’s excellent biography of Hitler https://www.amazon.com/Hitler-1889-1936-Hubris-Ian-Kershaw/dp/0393320359. Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris.New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999, pp.192;286-87.