Monday, March 9, 2020

On the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Dr William Weinberg- Lessons on Democracy and Its Discontents- Written Almost a Cenutry Ago

The Future Cardinal and the Future Rabbi
( Excerpted from my book, Courage of the Spirit)

Prologue: It is getting close to 100 years since my father worked on his doctoral thesis on the pending collapse of democracy in Europe. His warnings about the distance between the citizen, the parties and delegates represent him or her, and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy behind the state still speak to us today.

Doctorate Diploma of Wilhelm Weinberg

In 1928, a future Cardinal put his signature on the doctorate of a future Chief Rabbi, and within a decade, the world would be in flames.

When the idea of that was inconceivable, however, and the world was still full of promise in the optimism of the 1920s, my father, known as Willi,  and his brother Munio finished gymnasia and went on to higher learning at the University of Vienna.

My father, William Weinberg, as a young student

My father recognized that he needed to build an intellectual and professional platform for himself, and because of his active involvement in Zionist politics, he enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the University of Vienna, where he did his studies in Staatswissenschaft—Political Science. His thesis supervisor was Professor Ernest Schwind, who had served as rector of the university a few years prior and had published the Lex Baiwariorum (The Law Codes of the Medieval Bavarians) and Ausgewählte Urkunden zur Verfassungs-Geschichte der Deutsch-Österreichischen Erblande im Mittelalter (Selected Documents of the Constitutional History of German-Austrian Hereditary Lands in the Middle Ages).

While his supervisor’s field may have seemed arcane, it provided my father a good grounding in the evolution of the political systems in Europe from antiquity to his time, and this study became the core of his dissertation.

He also had to check his personal politics at the door of the university. There was a Jewish adage of the previous generation, which posited, in the words of Y. L. Gordon, “Be a Jew at home and a man on the street.” This certainly was true of academic research. Among the faculty were two opposing schools of thought: fascist/nationalist and Marxist/socialist. To the fascist/nationalist professor, one skewed one’s answers to that way of thinking. To the Marxist/socialist professor, one tilted the answer thusly. There was no room in between for discussions of Zionist Labor, Cultural Zionism, Revisionism, or any of the myriad other Zionist political theories popular at that time. Thus, my father turned his focus to the larger scheme of things—the question of how the European states had governed themselves from the middle ages to the present.

Keep in mind that when my father first typed his thesis, Hitler had just recently come out of Landsberg prison and had not had a single electoral victory. His Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei had barely scored a few seats in the Reichstag. Nazism was at this point so insignificant that my father did not mention it in his thesis. It was the Goldene Zwanziger (Golden Twenties) in the Weimar Republic and the Roaring Twenties in the United States, and the world economy was solid. For the most part, Woodrow Wilson had succeeded in his goal: “The world must be made safe for democracy.”

Only in Italy, a fascist state under Mussolini, and in Russia, a Bolshevik state under Lenin, were the nascent democracies of post-World War I Europe overthrown. Democracy was safe—or so it seemed to everyone—but not to the highly observant student of political science, William Weinberg, who was just twenty-five and very astute when he typed his thesis in 1926, which he titled “Parliamentarism: System and Crisis.”

In his thesis, he traces the origins of parliamentary democracy from the ancient Germans, Greeks, and Romans to the post-War period. He is full of belief in the value of democracy, yet he describes the theoretical and actual flaws in the system that existed in his day. He discerns the threats to democracy and proposes solutions to the crisis, without which civilization as the modern world knew it would collapse.

He finished his studies and successfully defended his thesis, and on November 14, 1928, he received his signed doctorate. The date was significant: it was ten years, almost to the date, of the armistice on November 11, 1918, that ended the Great War to “make the world safe for democracy.” Ten years later, almost to the date, the opening act of the genocide of the Jews, Kristallnacht, Night of the Broken Glass, would occur on November 9, 1938.

Ten years after defending his thesis as an optimistic graduate student, my father, William Weinberg, as a newly ordained rabbi, would be fleeing for his life from Austria, and would end up halfway across Asia before he found safe haven.

The doctorate was signed by the rector of the university; that year it was the turn of a Catholic scholar of the Bible, Theodore Innitzer. He would become Archbishop of Vienna, and then Cardinal.

Cardinal Theodore Innitzer

Unlike other Catholic leaders of his day, he actually served as a cabinet minister. Ten years later, as Cardinal Theodore Innitzer, he would sign a declaration to welcome the Anschluss, the swallowing up of Austria by the Third Reich, and would add to his signature the words Heil Hitler. The cardinal lived to regret it.

Democracy had fallen, just as the young Weinberg had warned.

Parliamentarism: System and Crisis

Wilhelm Weinberg

The full text of this thesis is viewable on the website of the Center for Jewish History, posted by the Leo Baeck Institute.


He introduces his paper with the pronouncement of how the parliamentary democratic system is deeply embedded in Europe.

Citing Wilhelm Von Blume, he states that the various forms of expression of the will of the people in this “parliamentary idea” evolved out of a principal concept: the people of a nation choose to have a marked influence on the manner and the norms by which they will be ruled. This is carried out in the leadership of the state through the representatives. “This concept is as old as European Civilization and will express itself as long as the civilization exists,” was Von Blume’s contention.

Ancient representative councils were described in antiquity, not only in Greece, but in Rome and Germany as well. He continues in his thesis to describe the history of the parliamentary system in medieval England, France, and other European states, down to the forms it took in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unitary and dualist systems, multi-party and two-party systems—the workings of parliamentary democracy are all laid out. Ultimately, even the monarchies, once controlled by parliaments, are but a sham, and the parliamentary state is de facto a republic (res publica—the public domain).

Now, the thesis comes to its crux: if parliamentary democracy is the chosen form of government, what has happened to it? This is covered in the second half of the thesis in the section titled “Crisis and Downfall of Parliamentarism”:

Among the many difficult and serious problems that have come to the fore in recent years in the public life of Europe, none is as pressing and serious as that of the crisis of parliamentarism. In the past 200 years, the parliamentary system has become the standard form of political life in the civilized world. All the great political struggles of modern times have as their goals the shaping of parliament. The Parliamentary system attacked and broke monarchy; it is identical with the victory of Democracy—Freedom, the rule of the people in all lands.

We are so proud of the result of the creation of our modern culture, and we have become so accustomed to see in the parliamentary system the last word in political culture that we have hardly recognized that it has begun to degenerate, that it is losing its original purpose, till we have come to this time when the parliamentary system has become the topic of debate, in which its flaws are widely known, and the whole world is speaking of a crisis of the parliamentary system.

The signs of this crisis can be found in all European states, not only Italy and Russia, where new political systems instead of parliamentarism are being created. We have in mind those countries with strong parliamentary constitutions—France, England, Germany, and the smaller states. Overall, we find an inability of the parliamentary system to guarantee a proper and stable leadership and create a good and lasting government and provide a beneficial and orderly administration.

The impotent manner of all parliaments, at the outbreak of the War, during the War, and at its conclusions, as well as its powerlessness in the follow-up to the so-called peace agreements, have created a serious breach in sight of all the world. As a result, there has been an all-around failure of belief in the system. The masses see how the parties tear and throw at each other, as the members of parliament speak and speak without end and achieve nothing concrete. They have become disillusioned and mistrusting, and seek other forms of political leadership, so that the idea of a dictator is today popular in many European states. Parliamentary rule is evermore unpopular; its existence is in danger. Many political thinkers, historians, and philosophers of history see its imminent demise.

What are the causes of the crisis?

The origins of this decline go to the origins of the parliamentary system.

The parliamentary system has two key foundations. The first foundation is the principle of democracy: the people alone determine their own fate. The second foundation is the principle of representation. Since it is impossible for each citizen to be directly and constantly involved with all political questions, he chooses a representative who is appointed and makes decisions in his name.

Parliamentarism is therefore a representative democracy. It is in this very principle of representation from its beginning that there is a danger. The classic philosophers of history and political science of modern Europe, Montesquieu and Rousseau, in their time already foresaw this danger and recognized the contradiction between the democratic and representative principles.

The will of the people cannot truly be expressed only through their elected representatives, they pointed out. The representative must, willingly or not, twist and falsify the will of the people. The true democracy, declared Rousseau, is possible therefore only in the small states, more likely city-states, as it was in the Greek republics, and in parts of Switzerland, where the number of citizens is so small that they can all control and affect their political affairs.

These prophecies of the theoreticians of modern democracy have shown: the more that the parliamentary system has developed, and the greater the State has become, so more rich and complicated has the political life become; more and more, the parliament becomes independent, absolute, and unaccountable to the people, a world to itself.

Politics has become a science with its unique discipline, methods, and secrets. Today, it is so complicated and twisted that the common man with average reasoning ability cannot find his way in it. All questions and problems in the political world become part of a completely new system, and its solution no longer depends on the real necessities, but rather on the laws and tendencies of the immediate moment.

The politician has become a new entity. He is no longer the representative of his thousands of fellow citizens; no longer the fighter and the spokesperson for the others.

He is rather a man for whom politics is his calling, who has become an expert in the wisdom and secrets of the hidden science of politics.

It must also be added that the legal framework today is no longer managed by the parliament; instead, it has become completely a matter of the state bureaucracy. This happens, naturally, when one thinks of what degree of knowledge and expertise that today is necessary to shape a law.

Increasingly, the politician loses the common interest of his constituents, and less and less does politics arise from the realistic needs and wants of the people. Its key issues of contention have nothing to do with real life, and it becomes purely tactical politics for its own sake.

The parliament has ceased to be a suitable apparatus for dealing with the public good, resting on the most possible broad foundation; it stands upon artful electioneering mathematics. These delegates no longer represent the people against the state authority and its bureaucracy to adopt policies necessary for civil life; they fail to act as a vent for individual initiative and freedom of the soul. The delegates’ legislative effectiveness is identified with the will of the state and its political activity and his attachment to the influence of the party organization; he restricts himself to the influence of the party leader.

It is no wonder that the people are disappointed and indifferent to parliament, to the parliamentary politics, which then loses their loyalty.

Therefore, in different countries people are looking for a new political form to inherit the role of the parliamentary system. In Europe, there are now two such systems: Fascism in Italy and Sovietism in Russia.

Fascism is not new. The name is new, but the system is old: dictatorship. What the advocates of “just dictatorship” intend is the application of extraparliamentary means to achieve political demands. It is understandable that those who have a far and wide view and can move above the needs of separate groups can, seeing the hardship of the totality, see this machine that makes much racket and much of little good, and therefore they are dissatisfied. They think of the dictator [as someone] who can lead the people by stark will over all difficulties.

Parliamentarism and dictatorship are contradictions. That which is negotiated in the parliament is commanded in the dictatorship.

Fascism arose from disappointment in the democratic principle. Mussolini screams that democracy is dead and has outlived itself. He creates what all degenerate democracies have led to—a return to dictatorship. This is not new; the idea of the dictator is as old as history.

There is another authoritarian system, the Catholic Church, which served as a paradigm for political rule. The pope is the highest authority, and he delegates power down to the cardinals, bishops, and priests, to the people, rather than in reverse. The key and crucial difference is that the pope is himself a representative of God, and as a result, is bound to a higher principle, which is beyond the pope. The secular dictator, without a God-concept, a key fundamental principle other than his own self, is but an episode, which must collapse at the demise of the dictator. Italian fascism therefore cannot outlast Mussolini.

The other challenge to democracy is the Soviet system. This system provides the great concept that is missing in fascism. The Soviet state is established upon a new foundation: the economic basis of means of production derived from the Marxist concept that economy is the central force of history. The Soviet system organizes life so that the individual can find his purpose fulfilled to the highest in the productivity of the factory under the control of the workers. Production becomes the source of new breath for the organization of the State.

This concept itself, which has nothing to do with the dictatorship of the proletariat and terror, is without a doubt a fruitful concept. It is not limited to the Bolsheviks, but is also found in modern Syndicalism and in other political theories in Germany and other States.

Its failure lies in the overestimation of the significance of economics. A people cannot establish their political organization on the basis of economics alone. It is also too fully subject to industrialization.

The thesis contains additional chapters (not included here) that describe in detail how Italian fascism and Russian Bolshevism succeeded in taking over the reins of power step by gradual step.

The multi-party system inevitably leads to splintering, so that, at the time of this thesis, in the last election in Germany, thirty-one parties had representation in parliament; there could be no common agreement among the splintered parties.

Furthermore, there are key contradictions in the present form of representation. The representative is supposed to represent the people; in fact, he becomes a representative of a party, and subject to the party organization. The representative is presumed to be an independent figure, following his own judgment; in fact, he is subject to his party and to the rules of parliament, in which, very often he cannot even open his mouth. He is supposed to be efficient, knowledgeable, and honest, but the parliamentary world has fallen in esteem, and is a matter of mediocrity.

The thesis continues with a discussion of various attempts at reforming the system and adopting methods of direct democracy by the initiative process, which had become part of American polity by then, and by stating the value of more direct voter choice of the representatives, as in the British system. The ideas of plebiscites and referendum return rule to the people, not the party machinery.

He concludes his thesis:

No sooner has the parliamentary system become the key form of political organization than it has given rise to a powerful reaction against it. On the one side, the labor organizations bend parliament to their will; on the other, the corporations back nationalist movements, such as Awakened Hungary, fascism, Orjuna in Yugoslavia, and the Ku Klux Klan in America, which press on parliament. In cases, as in Italy and Russia, it has been taken over completely.

He envisages vital reforms being enacted, and the formation of a three-level parliament: an economic parliament, a cultural parliament, and a political parliament to bring together the interests of the various districts of the state and to interact with other nations. This would be a three-fold basis for an all-encompassing parliament that could fully address all needs of society.

Nevertheless, he concludes, it is to be presumed that the parliamentary system of necessity has to survive, as it is still the one essential and necessary form of a structured society. This makes the need for reform even more vital to prevent the demise of parliamentary democracy.

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