How will our grandchildren view the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, the first physical assault on the nation’s capital since the 1814 British invasion of Washington?
The historical perspective of a similar attack on Germany democracy a century ago offers some unnerving similarities — and some ideas to preserve American democracy today.
When looking at key events in the German descent from democracy to dictatorship from 1918 to 1933, most commonly cited are the 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch and the 1933 burning of the Reichstag, the German parliament. In the former, rabble-rouser Adolf Hitler failed to overthrow the government. In the latter, newly appointed Chancellor Adolf Hitler used the destruction as an excuse to impose martial law and end democracy.
More alarming today than Hitler’s failed 1923 attempted coup are the parallels to the rise of the German “stab in the back” myth. Former president Donald Trump and his supporters continue to attack the legitimacy of the Nov. 3, 2020, elections and rewrite what actually happened on Jan. 6. The Dolchstoss was a similar — and tragically successful — falsification of history that promoted German ultra-nationalism and, ultimately, Nazism.
In spring 1918, the German army unleashed a major offensive, hoping to end World War I before large number of American troops arrived. The attacks failed. By early fall, facing an imminent invasion by Allied armies, the German military Supreme Command told the imperial cabinet it had to become a parliamentary cabinet, an Allied demand, and seek a ceasefire. The Social Democrats were invited to lead the new government — and then promptly told they had to surrender.
Defeats need explanation — how could our side lose? Historically, blaming outside agitators or internal traitors has proved a good way for leaders and governments to deflect blame from their failures. German army commanders such as Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff quickly claimed the army was “stabbed in the back” by Home Front pessimism, strikes, and, more malevolently, unpatriotic German Jews and left-wing Social Democrats. Betrayal, not bad leaders, explained the German surrender. This Dolchstoss myth proved very politically attractive to many Germans.
In 1919, the Reichstag began investigating alleged German war guilt to prevent similar Allied trials. A subcommittee held 104 formal hearings and published eight volumes on the country’s military and internal collapse, but it took eight years. The subcommittee moved so slowly that an emerging anti-democratic coalition of monarchists, Annexationists, anti-semites, and anti-Weimar far-right conservatives hijacked it and set the political and public perceptions. Thus weakened, German democracy proved unable to handle the shocks of the Great Depression and succumbed to a Nazi dictatorship in 1933.
The primary lessons for democracy’s defenders today are to act quickly, openly, and thoroughly to document and publish the truth of what happened Jan. 6. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has been diligently seeking information and soon will hold public hearings. Those hearings will form the framework how contemporary and future Americans will view the attack. Consequently, expect efforts to delegitimize the committee from white supremacists, anti-semites, and other right-wing extremists.
We should call Jan. 6 what it was: It was not a riot; it was an “attempted dissident coup” according to the Coup D’état Project at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The project based its disturbing conclusion on its worldwide study of 943 coups (426 successful, 336 attempted, and 181 conspiracies) since World War II.
Let’s also dismiss “whataboutism” claims equating the protests, marches, and riots sparked by George Floyd’s killing with Jan. 6. Black Lives Matter protests mostly were spontaneous and local, not centralized and not led by the president, and 93% of them were peaceful. Even with those that became violent, rioters in Portland and Kenosha did not bring nooses and threaten to kill Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other elected officials. They did not storm into the Congress, urinate on its walls, damage statues, and try to disrupt the constitutionally mandated ceremonial counting of election ballots. They are irrelevant to what happened on Jan. 6.
Not just the bipartisan Congressional committee, but all of democracy’s defenders need actively to challenge lies and disinformation. As historians George S. Vascik and Mark R. Sadler wrote, the effectiveness of the Dolchstoss myth grew from “unchallenged narrative written by the radical right” because “the quality newspapers abrogated their duty to provide their better-educated readers with information that they could use to put partisan distortions into context.”
Finally, Americans must realize that fighting pernicious myths is a long-term struggle, not a single battle. The real impact of the stab-in-the-back lie occurred not in 1918 but in 1933, when the Nazis, a group that did exist 15 years earlier, finally extinguished democracy in Germany.
Jonathan Coopersmith teaches history at Texas A&M University.