As the January 6 hearings are about to resume, it is unlikely that our basic understanding of what happened between the 2020 presidential election and the attack on the Capitol will significantly change. That is a testament to the crucial work the Committee has already done and to which we owe much of our detailed knowledge of the weeks long, multi-level coup attempt and the evolving strategies of those involved in this deliberate campaign to nullify the election results, prevent the transfer of power and end constitutional government in America.
And yet, the Committee’ job is far from done. It still has an important role to play in determining the meaning and role of January 6 in US history. Was the attack on the US Capitol a failed, desperate, last-ditch effort by delusional extremists? Or will it be remembered as a milestone in America’s accelerating descent into authoritarianism – an assault on the system that didn’t succeed initially but played a key role in democracy’s demise? The answer to these questions is not decided by facts and past events. In a very real sense, January 6 isn’t over yet, and the success or failure of the Trumpian coup attempt will be decided by what happens next.
If that sounds counter-intuitive, it is helpful to examine how the meaning of another infamous historical event to which January 6 has often been compared – the Beer Hall Putsch, Adolf Hitler’s failed coup attempt in November 1923 – changed significantly over time.
Hitler and his Nazi Party wanted to emulate the “March on Rome,” which had resulted in Benito Mussolini rising to power and installing a fascist regime in Italy in October 1922. The plan was to unite far-right factions and the military in Munich and then march on Berlin and establish a new government under national-socialist lead. Hitler and his allies were certain that the Weimar Republic, which had been founded just five years earlier in the wake of the German Empire’s crushing defeat in World War I, was ripe for the taking. This remarkable democratic experiment had indeed been under pressure from the start, never more so than in 1923, when a French and Belgian military occupation of the Ruhr area, Germany’s industrial center, hyper-inflation, economic collapse, and a steep rise in unemployment all contributed to a deep political crisis.
The Beer Hall Putsch, however, was unable to capitalize on this situation – it was a rather dilettantish affair. The Bavarian Right did not unite behind the attempted coup, the military did not join, and the march of about 2,000 supporters on the Feldherrenhalle in Munich’s city center on November 9 ended quickly when police forces opened fire, leaving four police officers and 16 putschists dead.
In the context of the current political situation in the US, what happened after the Beer Hall Putsch seems to serve as an important warning. Hitler was arrested and charged with high treason. But because the judges were rather sympathetic to his political project and inclined to lend credence to his version of the events, in which he presented himself as a true patriot who tried to save the nation, he got off easy: he was sentenced to just five years in prison and was granted significant comforts and privileges.
Due to good conduct, he was set free before the end of 1924, having spent less than nine months behind bars. It was during his time in prison that he dictated the first volume of Mein Kampf. Just a few years later, on January 30, 1933, Hitler was installed as Chancellor and immediately started dismantling what was left of the Weimar democracy. As America is debating what to do with Donald Trump, the message seems clear: this is what happens when extremists who attack the republic aren’t held to account.
From a historical perspective, it is important to emphasize that there are rarely any clear-cut lessons to be learned from the past, and presenting past events as perfect analogies is always reductionist and problematic. Twenty-first century America is not Weimar Germany, history doesn’t repeat itself, and it doesn’t unfold according to abstract, generalizable rules. While it may sound like a cliché, context really matters.
However, it is still instructive to examine the dynamics that shaped and, most importantly, changed the meaning of the Beer Hall Putsch. Initially, it very much looked like it was going to be a cautionary tale – for extremists who believed they could take the republic down with little effort. So disastrous was the failure that the far-right political project was significantly compromised for years, Hitler and his party disappeared from the scene.
Most importantly, the Weimar Republic stabilized after 1923. It always remained in a somewhat precarious state, but there is no direct line from 1923 to 1933, or from Hitler escaping serious punishment to his rise as dictator. What brought Weimar down was not the sins of 1923, but the completely changed political and economic landscape in the wake of the Global Depression in the early 1930s.
Hitler was allowed to rise to power in 1933 because a significant part of Germany’s conservative elites was all too willing to make common cause with the Nazis in order to keep the Left in check. And when this happened, the Beer Hall Putsch’s role in German history changed.
Yes, it had clearly failed initially, but it still played a key role in Weimar’s fall, as it had contributed to the mystique surrounding Hitler, and the subsequent trial had allowed him to build his national profile, to propagate the idea that he was defending the true nation. The meaning of the Hitler Putsch wasn’t determined by the facts of 1923, but by democracy’s fall thereafter.
What is the meaning of January 6? There are signs that the attack on the Capitol might ultimately play a crucial role in galvanizing the pro-democracy forces in America, in getting more people – starting with the leaders of the Democratic Party – to grapple honestly with the anti-democratic radicalization of the Republican party, in sparking a mobilization of civil society in the defense of constitutional government. In this scenario, January 6 could mark an important moment in an intensified push towards finally realizing the promise of egalitarian, multiracial, pluralistic democracy.
There is another scenario, however – one in which democracy does not hold. In this scenario, January 6 didn’t accomplish its immediate goal, but still served as a catalyst for the radicalization of the Republican party, a rallying cry for the Far-Right more generally, and a milestone on the path towards democracy’s eventual downfall.
This scenario does not just hinge on what happens to Donald Trump personally, but also on whether or not the party that first elevated and then stuck with him will actually have to face electoral consequences. January 6 has undoubtedly accelerated the process of ostracizing everyone who is not on board with openly embracing the authoritarian assault on the political system from the Republican ranks, and we must expect a significant shift towards the conspiratorial Right in Congress after the mid-term elections.
The result is a Republican party that is fully committed to the core principles of Trumpism and, specifically, to the idea that Democratic election victories must never be accepted, that Democratic governance is fundamentally illegitimate. If a party defined by Trumpism (with or without Trump) is allowed to entrench its power on the federal level and potentially take the presidency in 2024, then January 6, the ideology behind it, the political project of maintaining established hierarchies and white Christian patriarchal dominance by whatever means, ultimately succeeded.
What is the meaning of January 6? What is its place in US history? We don’t know yet, because January 6 won’t be over for quite some time. For now, it is crucial that America’s pro-democracy forces grapple with the fact that we are quickly running out of time to force the answers we desire.
Thomas Zimmer is a visiting professor at Georgetown University, focused on the history of democracy and its discontents in the United States, and a Guardian US contributing opinion writer