Allegation 1

Allegation: Direct democracy should be rejected because it lends itself to abuse by despots and demagogues, as shown by historical experience.

Direct democracy is accused of lending itself to abuse by authoritarian governments and all kinds of dictators, from Napoleon to Saddam Hussein. It is said, that despots (and demagogues) are tempted by popular votes “partly just because they can get themselves a fig leaf of additional legitimacy by manipulating the political agenda.” In Germany and elsewhere, a common pretext for rejecting direct democracy has been to associate it with Hitler and bad experience in the Weimar Republic. It was alleged that because of the Weimar experience direct democracy was excluded from the German constitution (Grundgesetz) of 1949.

Comparing referendum, initiative and plebiscite (see DD and Minorities) it becomes evident, that only plebiscites are susceptible to manipulation by the rulers. Only plebiscites allow democratic governments and dictators alike to determine everything, how to formulate the proposal, whether or not to present alternative proposals, to choose the voting date, to decide, if possible, whether the vote will be binding or only consultative, and at the very beginning, whether it is worthwhile to take the risk of not achieving the desired outcome and initiate the procedure at all. How much scope there is for manipulation depends, among others, on the legal design, which for plebiscites is often rather loose. Significantly, Hitler abolished direct democracy but kept the plebiscite, which was used four times by his regime. More generally, plebiscites are compatible with dictatorship and tyranny, they are designed for top-down use, while referendums and citizens’ initiatives are not.

Today, the argument that the German constitution of 1949 did not include provisions for direct democracy because of bad experience in the Weimar Republic is no longer credible. Research has shown (Schiller 2002, 73-82):

(1) The rejection of direct democracy cannot be based on the Weimar experience. “In practice direct democracy (Volksbegehren) was not a main arena of political struggles. Elections on the federal (Reichstag) and state (Landtag) levels and presidential elections offered much bigger opportunities for agitation and mobilization than most of the direct democracy procedures” (Reinhold Schiffers; see e.g. 2000, 2002).

(2) The reference to the Weimar experience was merely a cover for the real reasons that led to this rejection (e.g. Jung 1994).

By the way, Hitler’s Nazi Party (NSDAP) never won a majority in elections. Hitler was appointed Chancellor not by the people but top-down, by President Hindenburg, who could have chosen otherwise. And it was Parliament (Reichstag), surrendering under massive threats, that gave him dictatorial power by passing the Enabling Act; the Social Democrats alone voted against it, while the Communists were banned from participation.

The refusal of the Founding Fathers in Germany (Bonn) to implement a referendum in the constitution of 1949 resultet from a guilty conscience: politicians who had co-authored the constitution – for example Theodor Heuss, who then became the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany -, as members of parliament, had made Hitler dictator (…) by adopting the “Enabling Act”. (…) It is a lie to claim that the German people is politically not mature enough for “being allowed” to have a referendum: during the Weimar Republic the people have never caused nearly as much damage as the parliamentarians, which were responsible for Hitler’s ascent to power.”

Rolf Hochhuth. 1994. Wessis in Weimar. Szenen aus einem besetzten Land. München: dtv, S.111

The quoting of bad experiences with plebiscites, often done in a ritual and repetitive manner, is not a valid argument against direct democracy. On the contrary, the fact that all kinds of dictators have used the plebiscite to justify their use of power ought to be a warning to us that plebiscites can be used to turn democracy into its opposite.

The defamation of (direct) democracy by associating it with Hitler and tyranny continues, despite better knowledge. It is meant as a warning that too much democracy encroaches on individual liberty and may result in despotism. It constitutes a rejection of the egalitarian values originating both in ancient Athens and in the French Revolution.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejects direct democracy using the Weimar experience as a pretext

“The mothers and fathers of the constitution decided not to expand the possibilities for popular consultation. The reason for this were the bad experiences with direct democracy (Volksentscheiden) in the Weimar Republic. The authors of the constitution wanted to exclude that emotionally loaded issues would become objects of direct legislation by the people.”

Source: Angela Merkel’s response to “Germany a Sham Democracy” [de]

However, my argument is not, that plebiscites should be abandoned because they are and were misused by dictators; elections too are misused by dictators and this is hardly an argument for rejecting elections as such. My reservation about plebiscites is that they are tools to concentrate power and not to democratise power. Of course, plebiscites carry the risk of not achieving their goal and occasionally they misfire. In addition, the use of plebiscites in a strong democracy is less problematic than in a weak one or, worse, in an authoritarian regime. However, plebiscites are designed to strengthen the powers that be, not the people; in a well designed and well working democracy there is no need for such tools, both normatively and in practice.

Failing to distinguish between democracy and dictatorship is a fatal error. Real democracy – activating democracy (AD) – hardly allows tyrants of Hitler’s ilk to flourish. On the contrary: dictatorships and totalitarianism can only flourish where democracy does not exist or has ceased to exist. Germany at the time of Hitler’s accession to power is a striking example of this.


Jung, Otmar. 1994. Grundgesetz und Volksentscheid. Opladen.

Schiffers, Reinhard. 2000. Schlechte Weimarer Erfahrungen? In: Hans Herbert von Arnim (Hrsg.). Direkte Demokratie. Beiträge auf dem 3. Speyerer Demokratieforum vom 27. bis 29. Oktober 1999 an der Deutschen Hochschule für Verwaltungswissenschaft Speyer, Berlin 2000, S. 51 – 65.

Schiffers, Reinhard. 2002. „Weimarer Erfahrungen“: Heute noch eine Orientierungshilfe? In: Theo Schiller/ Volker Mittendorf (Hrsg.). 2002. Direkte Demokratie. Forschungen und Perspektiven. Wiesbaden, S. 65 – 75.

Schiller, Theo. 2002. Direkte Demokratie. Frankfurt/Main: Campus.

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