Arendt: Parties, States, and the Lesser Evil Campaign

This week we’re looking at the 1932 German election season. It’s pretty crazy – at least, the campaigning seems really backwards. I feel like we’re slowly getting further and further away from theology – although this isn’t bad material. It’s a pretty great read, and I think it says something about the political process. It’s often easy to dismiss politics out of hand as a pack of lies and deceit, but I think there’s a point where we still have an obligation to get informed and involved. 

So we’re in Germany, the First World War has just ended, and the party system isn’t really working. At the time, the Continental countries had multiple parties representing quite diverse social interests, while countries like the UK and America have a two-party system. The two-party system is nice, because typically the two big parties alternate government every couple of elections. It means you don’t have to worry as much about what one party are doing, because the other lot are about to be in charge. You either are the state, or you’re about to be. By contrast, on the Continent, there’s a whole bunch of small different parties with different social and economic interests. They’re working for particular niche groups – so you never really get one party winning a majority. Because everybody’s tiny, parties don’t see themselves as ‘the state’ when they get elected – they’re just part of the whole.

Because these Continental parties see themselves as part of the whole, the state is theorised as something above the parties. Where the two-party system has two halves that alternate acting as ‘the state’, the Continental party system has many little parties under the larger umbrella of ‘the state’. Even when they’re in government, they’re not identified as ‘the state’. This distinction is important, Arendt argues, because it means that to some degree all the Continental parties seem self-interested. They aren’t the state, and they aren’t looking out for everybody – they’re out for the interests of their particular social/economic group. This means that a) nationalist sentiment has to be stronger to counter-act this issue of individual interest, and b) “each group that claimed to present something above party and class interests and started outside of Parliament… seemed more competent, more sincere, and more concerned with public affairs.” Enter the Nazis and the Communists: both groups who started outside Parliament and offered something above mere party politicking (kinda like Trump).

Both the Communists and the Nazis stoked up hatred of the party system among Germans, playing off unrest and political dissatisfaction (most of which actually existed before the horrors of the war) in order to fuel their own political engine. Arendt writes that the Communists and Nazis were so successful that within a few years, all the traditional parties were reduced to being “either anti-Fascist or anti-Bolshevik or both.” She continues: “By this negative approach… the older parties showed clearly that they too were no longer able to function as representatives of specific class interests but had become mere defenders of the status quo”. We end up at the 1932 German elections with three main groups: the Communists and the Nazis, who are both out to wreck the state and the party system, and then the traditional parties, who all jump in line together behind Hindenburg in the spirit of self-preservation. Hindenburg’s a hugely popular guy, he’s considered to be a war hero who carried Germany through the war, and he’s also seen as the epitome of German-ness. He’s also 84, but never mind that. So Hindenburg’s seen as the symbol of the status quo, the symbol of the nation-state and the party system, and against him you’ve got Hitler and the Communist guy, Thalmann, both of whom are fighting to be “the true symbol of the people”.

This is where things get hilarious: this whole election is conducted in negatives. Obviously all the traditional parties range through the whole political spectrum: left to right. They reconcile themselves to Hindenburg with the logic of “Well, better him than the other guys.” The left wing campaign slogan is “Voting for the Communists supports Hitler”, because the Communists were going to lose anyway, which meant that not supporting Hindenburg was tantamount to supporting Hitler. Notice that they don’t even bother mentioning Hindenburg though! Similarly, the right-wingers said “Don’t vote for Hitler, because his goal is the same as those dirty Communists.” Of course, at the same time, the Communists have campaign posters saying “Voting for Hitler is just as bad as voting for Hindenburg”, and the Nazis have posters saying “Voting for the Communists is just as bad as voting for Hindenburg”. It’s this massive campaign where all three candidates try to make themselves look better by comparing their major opponent to the third party, who everybody hates. Arendt writes that both the Communists and the Nazis were “threatening their voters with the menace of the status quo in exactly the same way their opponents had threatened their members with the specter of the revolution”. The whole situation sounds bonkers.

I suppose I should probably tell you how the election came out, given that I’ve spent all this time banging on about the build-up. Hindenburg won with 53% to Hitler’s 37%, and the Communist guy Thalmann got like 10% or something. However, as we mentioned before, Hindenburg was 84 and only really in the race because he hated Hitler and didn’t want to see him end up as President. Nevertheless, the Nazis ended up with the most seats in Parliament, Hitler became Chancellor under Hindenburg, and then Hindenburg died in 1934, leaving Hitler in control of the country. The rest, as they say…



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