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Germany's 1930s collapse suggests Angela Merkel will get her coalition

The historic echoes reflect Merkel's tarnished election victory and Germany's slipped halo as Europe's anchor of liberal stability

Patrick Donahue | Bloomberg 

On New Year's eve, Merkel declares Europe top priority for new government

Across the cobbled square in the city of where Germany’s national assembly met in 1919, plans to mark that first, stumbling attempt at a democratic government have taken on greater significance in recent weeks.

The new center for events dedicated to the short-lived Republic is due to open in 2020, but it’s already a timely reminder of the past as the country struggles with political gridlock and the rise of the far right.

The upheaval that preceded World War II and the need to avoid any repeat have cast a long shadow since was re-elected in September with no obvious coalition partner. While no-one is predicting a return to fascism, the unexpected threat of instability at the heart of Europe's biggest economy has alarmed business and political leaders alike.

“We couldn’t have imagined that the issue of the danger to democracy and the Republic would become so contemporary,” Weimar’s mayor, Stefan Wolf, said at his office overlooking a square flanked by the 16th century St. Peter and

The historic echoes reflect Merkel's tarnished election victory and Germany's slipped halo as Europe's anchor of liberal stability. But also serves as a powerful reminder of Germany's sense of collective responsibility to ensure the lessons of the descent into and war are learnt by each new generation.

The current dilemma stems from the erosion of support for Merkel's Christian Democratic-led bloc and the Social Democrats, which have governed together for eight of her 12 years in office. As backing for the two main parties ebbed, a wrench has been thrown into coalition-building, with the anti-immigration Alternative for a prime beneficiary: it swept into parliament for the first time last year with almost 13 percent of the vote.

The Social Democrats, who saw their support plunge during tie-ups with Merkel, initially ruled out a return to government. Merkel is seeking to break the deadlock in a new round of talks this weekend to convince them to rekindle their alliance for the good of the country.

The appeal for responsibility helps to explain the public skepticism that greeted the Free Democratic Party's decision to pull the plug on talks with Merkel, ending a four-week effort to form a multi-party government. FDP leader blamed intransigence on the part of others, but his party and personal ratings have taken the biggest hit in polls since.

According to a detailed account in the Zeitung, Merkel invoked to her party colleagues, reminding them of the reasons for the collapse of the grand coalition under Hermann Mueller in 1930 in an attempt to steel them for compromise.

Former Wolfgang Schaeuble, now Bundestag president, also recalled the need to remember the lessons of the Republic, whose collapse led to ramming through dictatorial powers three years later. “Too much polarization -- meaning a competition for who’s the best anti-fascist combatant -- ultimately only strengthens the right,” he said in an interview with published on December 27.

Authorities in the eastern German city have been converting what is now the into the Haus der Weimarer Republik. The failed republic, now synonymous with hyperinflation, running street battles and political assassinations, began after the abdication of in 1918. It ended with the rise of the in 1933.

Mayor Wolf sees the parallels in today's need for political stability. As a Social Democrat, he personally feels opposition would be better for his party. “But I fear at the moment there is no other alternative for Germany,” he said.

Less than a 10 minute walk from Wolf’s office, the iconic statue of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and presides over a teeming ice-skating rink next to a market on a chilly December day. Adjacent is the city museum that houses a long-term exhibition on the Republic.

Alf Roessner, the museum’s director, shows off a collection of World War I Prussian helmets, portraits of leaders including the republic’s first president, and images of the black-red-gold tricolor that was first adopted as the national flag in

Having grown up in communist East and taken part in protests before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Roessner said he’s particularly attuned to the lessons of and the value of democracy and stability.

“What we’ve learned is that democratic education is important,” he said over coffee at the museum. “You have to recognize that democracy doesn’t simply fall from the sky.”

--With assistance from and Alan Crawford

©2018 Bloomberg LP

First Published: Fri, January 05 2018. 15:26 IST
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