Weimar Germany was a tremendously sophisticated and creative place. In my own field — law — it produced some monumentally important works, notably Max Weber’s later legal sociology and Hans Kelsen’s “pure theory of law,” which was ultimately a decisive influence on H.L.A. Hart and with him the entire course of legal philosophy in the twentieth century. Weimar was also a deeply, deeply sick society, and we know where it ended: Hitler, National Socialism, the death camps, and the rubble of bombed and divided Berlin.
In many ways Weimar was a world of profound nuance. It was a world were a lot of people were very good at seeing both sides of the issue. They understood that behind the shibboleths of liberal democracy there lurked a great deal of hypocrisy. They knew that certainties could lead to horrific violence. After all, these were the men (and women) who had lived through the assaults on Verdun and who had repulsed the British at the Ypres salient. Hence, when a vicious barbarism arose in their midst they let it fester. After all, the barbarians had many legitimate grievances, and even barbarians aren’t all bad. Herr Hitler might do some good things for the country, even though we realize that he is really rather crude and rather crass.
It seems to me that one of the tricks of tolerant public discussion is to figure out the point at which you are living in the Weimar Republic. Sometimes we live in a world with great evils, and we ought to be skeptical about the ability of graduate-seminar style discussions to meet them. As it happens, I love the seminar room. (Although, when nuance becomes mushiness I can’t help but feel that the ethos of the seminar room has been deeply violated.) I am loath to believe that I am living in the Weimar Republic. Unfortunately, on this — as on most issues — I am fairly certain that I am frequently wrong.
Nuance can be moral rot as well as intellectual sophistication. Pointedly, Hitler was stopped by a man who — blessedly born out of time — brought those oh-so-obnoxious Victorian certainties into the middle of the twentieth century. Churchill was a man who believed in grandiose generalities, and he had the faults of a man with such beliefs. He also saved the world.