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Framing political violence as patriotic is even more dangerous than it sounds

Protesters supporting President Donald Trump break into the

Protesters supporting President Donald Trump break into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington. Credit: Getty Images/Win McNamee

A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 66% of Republicans do not consider the Jan. 6 insurrection to be an attack on the government. While widely condemned by Republicans at the time, over the past nine months, Donald Trump and his allies have doubled down on false claims that the 2020 election was illegitimate, asserting that whatever happened on Jan. 6 was, at minimum, an overenthusiastic outburst of loyalty to America and, at maximum, a patriotic attempt to protect the nation against its enemies.

The facts show a different story. The ongoing investigation by the Select Committee to Investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to uncover evidence regarding the links among Republican politicians and the people who breached the Capitol to threaten the lives of Capitol police, members of Congress, congressional staff and employees, journalists, the vice president and others in the building that day.

Nevertheless, a narrative has taken hold in mainstream GOP politics rewriting political insurrection as patriotic resistance. We have seen this before. History shows us that the result can be an escalation of political violence, the undermining of democratic institutions and the eventual collapse of republican government.

Defeated in World War I and collapsing in the face of popular rebellion, the German Empire lost its emperor Wilhelm II on Nov. 9, 1918, two days before the Armistice. A coalition of liberal and centrist parties, including the moderate Catholic Center Party, liberal parties of the middle class and the Social Democrats formed a provisional government, wrote a new democratic constitution, and, after winning a strong majority in parliamentary elections in January 1919 and again in June 1920, took charge of the new republic.

From its start, the Weimar Republic faced opposition that frequently resulted in political violence. The right made attempts to overthrow the Weimar Coalition and the republic it led to establish a dictatorship. On the other side, the left sought a Bolshevik-inspired workers' republic. Assassinations and street clashes remained endemic to the country through the late 1920s.

For the right, political violence built on rhetorical violence. To them the republic was a "traitors' republic," an unlawful usurper. As one anti-Weimar judge argued, the new republic was illegitimate because it had been born of an unlawful revolution and the "Stab-in-the-Back" legend, which vilified the republic as a deal made by liberals, Catholics, Socialists and Jews to destroy the German people. The legend built on existing prejudices among conservatives and arch-nationalists in Germany and was a core element in the Nazis' "Big Lie" — that Jews and their allies were to blame for all German woes and a threat to the nation's future.

Believing that the Weimar parties had struck first against the German nation, the right wing associated violent resistance with patriotism, framing it as the duty of ostensibly loyal Germans. Between 1920 and 1922, a group of right-wing terrorists identifying as the "Organisation Consul" acted on this belief and assassinated hundreds of people, including Catholic Center leader Matthias Erzberger and Jewish foreign minister Walther Rathenau, a liberal. The "Consul's" mission statement proclaimed its "spiritual aims" to be the cultivation and dissemination of nationalist ideas and terror to overthrow the "anti-nationalist" Weimar constitution.

Such sentiments burned strong among the emerging National Socialists and among traditional conservatives in the military, the bureaucracy and, importantly, the judiciary. Indeed, most German judges put these beliefs into action in their courtrooms, ultimately tipping the scales of justice to support those "defending the nation" against the Weimar Republic. For example, in March 1920, a group of arch-nationalists, monarchists and members of the German military launched an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the republic by seizing Berlin. The government's efforts to prosecute those involved in the "Kapp Putsch" (named for Wolfgang Kapp, one of its leaders) were notably ineffective. Only one of the 705 civilian participants was found guilty, and of 775 courts-martial against military participants only 48 officers were removed from their posts.

Time and time again, those engaged in right-wing political crimes for "patriotic" reasons received a slap on the wrist, while those found guilty of left-wing political crimes, even when those crimes were minor, suffered more severe punishments. For example, in 1923, communists in Hamburg attempted to seize power in that city. The police responded with violent tactics, in contrast to the Kapp Putsch. More than 1,000 people were arrested and 443 were tried in a special court. The vast majority were found guilty and received sentences of between one and five years. This response stood in clear contrast to the police and judicial response to right-wing political crimes.

The most famous example of this was the judgment rendered against Adolf Hitler and his associates after the "Beer Hall Putsch" in Munich. On Nov. 8, 1923, approximately 2,000 Nazis attempted to seize control of the southern German state of Bavaria by force. Hitler and his right-wing allies hoped to use Munich as a base from which to seize control of all of Germany. Defeated in brief but deadly clashes with the Munich police, Hitler and his co-conspirators were arrested and put on trial.

Hitler was convicted of high treason for his leadership in the attempted coup, which left 20 people dead. Although a common punishment for treason was (and still is) death or a hefty prison sentence, Hitler received neither. The future Führer got "fortress confinement," that is, house arrest. The light sentence reflected the opinion of trial judge Georg Neithardt that Hitler had honorable motives even if they were misguided. Neithardt also dismissed the option of deporting Hitler back to his home country of Austria, saying the relevant laws could not be applied to a man "who thinks and feels so German as Hitler" and shows such "pure patriotic spirit and noble will."

The failure of the Weimar judiciary to adequately punish serious political crimes had a deep effect on support for the republic. Weak enforcement of laws encouraged right-wing opposition to liberal democracy and tacitly endorsed violence as an appropriate expression of political views. Meanwhile, voters — especially communists opposed to the "bourgeois republic" — saw in the failures of the judiciary clear evidence that the republic and its systems of justice were broken. So voters on the left turned against the republic, too, frustrated by a legal system that seemed unwilling to stop the terrorist violence rising on the right.

Under the Weimar Republic, right-wing traitors to the government were treated as patriots, and that spelled doom for the republic.

In short, many German conservatives wanted to see the Weimar Republic fall — and actively worked to undermine it. The question is whether political leaders in our own time want to see the American republic fall? Politicians are wrong to diminish or excuse violent attempts to change political outcomes. If they classify events like those of Jan. 6 as misguided expressions of patriotic loyalty, then they put the legitimacy of the American republic at risk. It happened once before in another place. We can only hope that Americans will see the peril before us and recognize "overzealous" patriotism as no excuse for political violence.

Jeremy Best is assistant professor of history at Iowa State University.

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