Russia: Avoiding the Perils of Weimar : Yeltsin: In Germany after World War I, the bright promise of a new democracy descended into the horror of fascism. Is Russia on this path?

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<i> Gaddis Smith, a historian, is director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies</i>

The chaos in Russia evokes echoes of an earlier tragedy in this century. In 1914, Imperial Germany was the world’s greatest military power. Four years later, after the carnage of World War I, Germany was militarily defeated and psychologically humiliated. The kaiser abdicated and fled into exile, and there soon emerged a struggling democratic government, based on a constitution written in the town of Weimar (hence: Weimar Republic). The Weimar regime represented the dream of a stable, peaceful, prosperous Germany participating in a cooperative world order, a world “safe for democracy”--in the phrase of Woodrow Wilson.

The Weimar dream--after a decade and a half of economic, political and cultural turmoil--turned into the nightmare of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Nascent democracy was replaced by a dictatorship of terror. Diplomacy gave way to aggression. Before Hitler’s Germany was defeated, tens of millions were killed in battle, murdered in death camps or succumbed to disease and starvation. Historians have asked what went wrong with Weimar. Could different decisions in Germany and different treatment of Germany by other nations have preserved democracy and prevented World War II?

Today, as many observers are noting, there are parallels between post-communist Russia and Weimar Germany. Russia, like Weimar, is heir to a defeated and humiliated military empire. Russia, like Weimar, has thrown over an authoritarian political system and has not discovered the path to stable, nonviolent democracy. Russia, like Weimar, is undergoing severe economic dislocation in which millions have lost the personal economic security they once took for granted and a few are growing rich--often by questionable means.


Moscow, like Berlin in the Weimar era, has an iconoclastic artistic culture exciting for the young but decadent in the eyes of older people. Crime and self-indulgence appear to have replaced order and community. In Russia, as in Weimar, there is a political underclass with extreme ideologies, promising a totalitarian spiritual and military rebirth--and eager to eradicate all liberal tendencies in government, the economy and culture.

The differences, for the most part, place Russia today in a more perilous condition than Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Germany had the excellent schools, good medical services, high managerial talent, a modern industrial plant and efficient systems of communication and transportation necessary for economic revival. Germany was not plagued with discontented, potentially separatist regions. And the leap from the quasi-democracy of old Imperial Germany to the institutions of Weimar was easy compared with the leap from the pervasive control of the Communist Party to the uncertainty of Russia today. Germany had lost some territory and overseas colonies after suffering defeat, but these losses were minuscule compared with the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Only in one respect is Russia in a more advantageous position than Weimar--and therein lies one hope for a constructive, as opposed to a Hitlerian, outcome of the current turmoil. During World War I, President Wilson had called for a peace settlement based on healing and reconciliation within a democratic framework. The Germans made a sincere effort to establish democracy but they were, nonetheless, subjected to a humiliating peace. Allied troops remained on German soil for three years after the end of the fighting; Germany was excluded, until 1926, from membership in the League of Nations, and economic punishments contributed to the devastating inflation of 1923.

Democratic Weimar Germany was treated as a second-class nation. All Germans felt the pain. Hitler offered a solution, terrifyingly effective in the short term, appalling in the long term. Finally, after 1945, the United States and its Allies, as occupiers, were able to order democratic and economic reforms and welcome Germany within a decade as a full international partner.

Such an approach to the Soviet Union after the Cold War was unthinkable. The Soviet Union was not defeated in direct combat and even had she been, outside occupation of a country so vast could not have worked as it did in Germany and Japan after World War II. Though largely defeated by internal corruption, repression and mismanagement, the Soviet Union suffered the ultimate consequence of defeat: destruction as an empire.

The United States and other Western powers could have responded with vengeance and punishment, gloating in the dissolution of the Soviet empire, beating the Russian remnant with economic and political sticks rather than holding out carrots. But to their credit, Western leaders have approached Russia with sympathetic concern, trying to assist in its political, economic and military reforms. The failure of Western assistance to produce miracles in Russia is a testimony to the size and complexity of the difficulties, not to a lack of goodwill.


But goodwill from the victors does not remove the pervasive sense of humiliation and loss of great-power status. If the United States and other outside powers now say, “The hell with it--Russia is hopeless,” chances are that appeals roughly parallel to those by which Hitler destroyed Weimar Germany could become frighteningly effective in Russia. The possibility of a peaceful, stable Russia cooperating with other nations in the international realm could be lost.

President Boris N. Yeltsin has many immediate problems in bringing off credible parliamentary elections; campaigning fairly in the presidential election; dealing with potentially violent opponents without destroying all political freedom, and freeing the economy from its shackles. He has been frustrated by the paralysis brought on by his opponents’ ability to exploit a badly written constitution; and has wobbled between the impulses of dictatorship and second thoughts let he destroy all possibility of democratic reforms and lose popular support. Despite his--and the world’s--concentration on the struggle in Moscow, the vital international dimension must never be forgotten.

Yeltsin, or any other leader, has to deal with the underlying sense of national humiliation and with the connected need to maintain military security. The temptation to abandon cooperation and arms reduction and trumpet Russia’s unilateral determination to protect its interests and restore its status is great and dangerous for the world. Remember the ghost of Weimar and Hitler.

Yeltsin’s problem is to find a way to restore Russia’s sense of pride in international affairs without abandoning the path of cooperation. He must maintain the military power legitimately necessary for national security without having that power used to destroy democracy, dominate neighbors or restore the empire by force. It is in this arena, more than in direct advice on democratization or economic assistance, that the United States and other concerned nations can be most helpful.