[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), March 28, 2006 at 9:46pm] Trackbacks
Promoting Democracy and Individual Rights III: The German Experience:

Many critics of efforts to promote democracy in the Muslim world claim that the successful occupation of Germany after WWII is not a relevant precedent because postwar Germans, unlike modern Arabs and Afghanis, supposedly had a strong cultural affinity for liberal democracy. As one of my commenters put it, Germany was "the land of Kant" and therefore (it is implied) highly receptive to liberalism and democracy. This claim is largely a myth.

The truth is that Hitler and Goebbels were much more reflective of German opinion in the immediate post-WWII years than Kant. According to a series of surveys conducted by the US occupation authorities in 1951-52, 41% of West Germans saw "more good than evil" in Nazi ideas, compared to only 36% who said the opposite. In a 1949 survey, 59% of West Germans said that National Socialism was a "good idea badly carried out," compared to only 30% who said that it was wrong. 63% in a 1952 poll said that German generals held on war crimes charges were innocent and only 9% said that they were guilty. Well into the 1950s, large numbers of Germans rejected liberal democracy and expressed sympathy for various forms of authoritarianism. By the time the 1951-52 surveys, were conducted, West Germany had been occupied by the Allies for 6 years, and had had its own democratic government since 1949. Thus, German support for authoritarianism and even for many aspects of Nazism was quite deeply rooted. For these and other survey data from postwar Germany, see Anna J. Merritt & Richard L. Merritt, Public Opinion in Semisovereign Germany (1980).

Indeed, Iraqi and Afghan opinion today is probably more pro-democracy than German opinion in the 1940s and early 50s. For example, a December survey shows 57% of Iraqis expressing support for a democratic form of goverment, compared to 14% who endorse an "Islamic state" and 26% who support "a single strong leader."

Nor was it the case that Allied occupation forces were highly popular in German eyes, another distinction that critics of today's democratization efforts try to make. To the contrary, many Germans hated the Western Allies for the understandable reason that Allied bombing had flattened virtually all of Germany's cities, killed some 300,000 civilians, and left 7.5 million homeless. Whether or not strategic bombing was morally justified, it certainly didn't endear the Allies to the average German. Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, the US has not done anything comparable in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Obviously, German opinion changed over time and today Germans are as supportive of liberalism and democracy as most other Westerners. But it was not German affinity for liberal democracy which led to its successful imposition. Rather, it was the success of liberal democratic institutions that gradually led Germans to support them - an important historical lesson that we would do well to learn.

This is not to say that there aren't any relevant differences between the democratization of Germany and today's efforts to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, in Iraq (and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan) we face a stronger insurgency than existed in Germany, and Iraq and Afghanistan have so far failed to produce democratic leaders as effective as Germany's Konrad Adenauer. However, it is a mistake to argue that German democratization succeeded because German political culture supported it, while today's democratization projects are doomed to failure for lack of such support.

UPDATE: Many (including some of my commenters) also argue that Germany was better prepared for democracy because of the experience of democracy under the Weimar Republic. Given that the Weimar Republic was a disastrous failure and was perceived as proof of the undesirability of democracy by the vast majority of Germans (including many moderates and leftists), it was probably at least as much of a liability as an asset to efforts to implant democracy and liberalism in Germany after WWII. For what it's worth, Iraq had similar brief and unsuccessful experiences with democracy in the 1920s and 1950s. No one contends that they "prove" that democratization will succeed there.

UPDATE #2: I am aware that this post fails to systematically distinguish democracy from the protection of individual rights. To do so would have made it even longer! But the plurality of Germans who in the 1950s continued to express sympathy for Nazism very likely were not too fond of either democracy OR individual rights. Thus, the evidence cited has implications for both democracy promotion and the promotion of liberal values.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Promoting Democracy and Individual Rights III: The German Experience:
  2. Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights II:
  3. Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights: