Which theories of democratisation best explain why democracy failed in the Weimar Republic?

This essay was part of the course work for Politics 1B 2016-17 University of Glasgow 

Modernization and liberalism are often linked to explain the success or failure of consolidating democracies. Subsequently, one of the most prominent approaches to democratization is modernization theory, first pioneered by Lipset, which links economic development directly with the sustainability of democracy (Wucherpfennig and Deutsch, 2009: 1–2). However, while the link between economic development and democratisation has become a “conventional wisdom” (Wucherpfennig and Deutsch, 2009: 1), the German Weimar republic presents itself as a case which requires to separate modernism and liberalism (Fritzsche, 1996: 631-632). Therefore, to explain the failure of the Weimar republic, an approach is needed which does not ignore economic development as a variable, but neither makes it the centre of its theories. The historical sociological approach, also known as structuralism, aims to explain political changes by looking at how the relationship between classes and the state changes (Grugel, 2002: 52). More generally speaking, sociological approaches consider the structure, the history and the people of a society to gain a deeper understanding about it (Mills, 1999: 6).

This essay suggests that this approach is well suited to explain why democracy failed in Weimar, by looking in particular at Huntington’s “waves of democracy” (Huntington, 1991) and Moore’s “three routes into modernity” (Grugel, 2002: 53). To explain the most important aspects of Weimar’s failure, the essay adopts findings from a recent research by Diskin et al. (2005) and applies them to the Weimar case.

The term “democratization” does not describe the study of democracy as such but rather focuses on regime change (Huntington, 1991: 34). At the most simple level it involves the analysis of the “end of an authoritarian regime, the installation of a democratic regime and the consolidation of democracy” (Huntington, 1991: 35). However, democratization is a somewhat troublesome concept, as it has become overdetermined, i.e. there are multitudes of plausible theories as to why democratization happens and validating these theories poses a challenge (Huntington, 1991: 36–39). The root cause of this over-determinism are the many variables which can impact democracy, Berg-Schlosser for example identifies 63 variables in seven categories while already applying abstraction (Berg-Schlosser, 1995: 6). To overcome the challenges of theoretical diversity, Diskin et al. have combined the most common approaches, i.e. socio-economic and politico-institutional theories, and isolated eleven variables within four areas (institutional, societal, mediating factors, foreign involvement) and then assessed 30 collapsed and 32 stable democracies (Diskin et al., 2005: 2-6). Their key finding is that the simultaneous presence of four out of five negative factors, namely cleavages, unfavourable history, malfunctioning economy, governmental instability and foreign involvement, almost inevitably leads to failure of democracy (Diskin et al., 2005: 304).

Judged by Diskin et al.’s standard, the Weimar republic then never had a chance to consolidate democracy.  Germany at the time was still a young nation state which had been united only in 1871, industrialization started late and was coordinated by the state “from above” rather than through an empowered bourgeoisie, and as a former parliamentary monarchy Germany had no experience of parliamentary sovereignty as exercised in other contemporary democracies, e.g. the United Kingdom (Sodaro, 2004: 444–445; Pikart, 1962: 32). Parliament before 1918 was confined to counsel and sanction legislation mainly introduced by the executive (Pikart, 1962: 15), but had little or no power to actually hold government to account as the Reichskanzler was responsible to the Kaiser, not to parliament (Sodaro, 2004: 443–444). The pre-1918 constitution also made no provisions for parties to gain power, therefore they never were forced to concentrate in an endeavour to enter government (Pikart, 1962: 20). All in all, the constitutional set up immediately before the Weimar republic lead to a general atmosphere of mistrust of members of parliament towards the executive – a resentment which carried on even after 1918 (Pikart, 1962: 18). The fragmented party system and the lack of liberal democratic culture then quickly lead to government instability. Between 1919 and 1932 Weimar saw 22 governments, many of which were minority governments (Sodaro, 2004: 448). This proved ultimately fatal for Weimar’s procedural democracy (Kesselman et al., 2011: 45) as the ineffectiveness of government rapidly eroded the support for democratic parties and polarised the party system (Sodaro, 2004: 447–449). The view that democracy had become a liability rather than a value was then strengthened when the fragile German economy, which had already been burdened by reparations imposed by the victorious powers and subsequent hyperinflation, felt the effects of the Great Depression in 1929/1930 (Fritzsche, 1996: 634). Additionally, economic crisis eroded the middle class and made it indistinguishable from the proletariat (Berman, 1997: 415–416). The competition for resources and the protection of socio-economic interests (Berman, 1997: 415–416)  deepened social cleavages within society (Fritzsche, 1996: 634) which the weak national political structures failed to overcome (Berman, 1997: 409–410).

Clearly, Weimar fits Diskin et al.’s theory perfectly, though it only explains under what circumstances a democracy fails, not necessarily why. The fact that Diskin et al. also point out that societal variables generally proved of high statistical significance (Diskin et al., 2005: 304), makes a strong case for the historical sociological approach to explain why democratic failure occurs.

Huntington offers a rather broad theory on democratization primarily based on historical observation. He suggests that democratization happens in waves, that means developments away from authoritarian systems towards democratic regimes do not happen isolated but rather in groups of transitions (Huntington, 1991: 15). He chooses the metaphor of the “wave” because every wave comes with a high and a low, therefore these group transitions can also take the reverse direction, from democracy towards authoritarianism (Huntington, 1991: 17). Huntington till present has identified three waves of democratization, according to his outset, the failure of the Weimar republic happened during the first reverse wave of democratization (Huntington, 1991: 17). Only four of the seventeen countries which adopted democracy between 1910 and 1931 were able to maintain it throughout the 1920s and 1930s, among others Weimar, Japan and Italy (Huntington, 1991: 17). While the dates for peaks and lows differ depending on the data sets used (Kurzman, 1998), Weimar is always part of a reverse wave. Sodaro (2004) points out, that actually, Italy and Japan faced similar historical challenges like Weimar and similarly failed to consolidate democracy (Sodaro, 2004: 444–445). So Weimar was not an isolated case but rather was subject to a broader trend of the time which particularly hit less established democracies.

Huntington helps us to put Weimar into historical context and to recognise similar cases, but still it falls short of deeper explanations for its failure. As mentioned previously, though Germany was an industrialised nation, it rather contrasted the United Kingdom and other well established democracies and much more resembled developments also found in Japan and Italy. Moore’s  theory of “three different routes into modernity” offers a sociological explanation why equally wealthy countries are not necessarily equally successful in consolidating democracy (Grugel, 2002: 53). His focus is on the class system of a society (Grugel, 2002: 53), he thereby follows the Marxist scholarly tradition (Skocpol, 1973: 1).

According to Moore the transition from an agrarian society to an industrialized society is shaped by the interactions between the peasantry, the landed class and the bourgeoisie (Grugel, 2002: 52). The possible outcomes of these interactions are  “bourgeois revolution”, “revolution from above”, or “revolution from below” (Grugel, 2002: 53; Skocpol, 1973: 5). “Bourgeois revolution” means the realignment of upper-class interests towards commerce and industrialism, therefore reducing the peasantry class and dependence on the landowning class (Grugel, 2002: 53). The bourgeois revolution then leads to capitalism and democracy, as for example in the USA or the UK (Grugel, 2002: 53). If the emergence of commercial agriculture and a commercially-minded landed class does not occur, a “revolution from below takes place” in which the peasantry survives numerically and culturally along with a weak landed class in an absolutist state (Grugel, 2002: 53). Such revolution leads to the establishment of communist dictatorships, as for example in Russia or China (Grugel, 2002: 53). The case of the Weimar republic presents a case of “revolution from above”. Here the emergence of a strong bourgeoisie is hindered by developments of capitalism being combined with state-direct change, which then leads to the survival of a significant peasantry, a commercially-minded landowning class and a centralised strong state (Grugel, 2002: 53). “Revolutions from above” ultimately lead to industrialisation and fascism (Grugel, 2002: 53). In brief, Moore’s theory is summarized as “No bourgeoisie, no democracy” (Moore, 1966 in Wucherpfennig and Deutsch, 2009: 2). As mentioned earlier, Germany before 1918 had not subscribed to liberal economy but was industrialised through state directed measures (Sodaro, 2004: 444). This prevented the emergence of a strong bourgeoisie and the Weimar descending into fascism in the 1930s appears to confirm Moore’s theory. However, his theory has been criticised for assuming economic development as a national process and for focusing too much on internal relationships of a society while falling short to fully consider how economic factors impact these (Skocpol, 1973: 33).

In conclusion, it appears to be impossible to identify a singular approach or theory to fully explain the failure of the Weimar republic or any other case of democratization. As argued above, the theories on democratisation are manifold and all have their merits, therefore, the best theories for one particular case can only be identified by looking at the defining features of that case. The dominance of historical disadvantages and societal struggles in the Weimar republic suggest a historical sociological approach, and though naturally Huntington’s and Moore’s theories cannot fully explain its failure, they do well in putting Weimar into context and to deepen our understanding of it.


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Berman S (1997) Civil society and the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Diskin A, Diskin H and Hazan RY (2005) Why Democracies Collapse: The Reasons for Democratic Failure and Success. International Political Science Review/ Revue internationale de science politique 26(3): 291–309.

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Grugel J (2002) Democratization: A critical introduction. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, New York, N.Y.: Palgrave.

Huntington SP (1991) The third wave: Democratization in the late twentieth century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

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Pikart E (1962) Die Rolle der Parteien im deutschen konstitutionellen System vor 1914. Zeitschrift für Politik 9(1): 12–32.

Skocpol T (1973) A Critical Review of Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Politics & Society 4(1): 1–34.

Sodaro MJ (2004) Comparative politics: A global introduction. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Wucherpfennig J and Deutsch F (2009) Modernization and Democracy: Theories and Evidence Revisited. Living Reviews in Democracy 1: 1–9.

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