A little over a year ago, Wolfgang Ischinger, German Ambassador to the United States had this to say about the attempt to install a parliamentary system in Iraq: "As older [i.e. European] societies, we tend to think of ourselves as more experienced in the way societies evolve, and we tend to be skeptical of Americans who seem to think that if you believe hard enough, and you muster enough resources, you can change the world…[D]on’t think transformative change will work according to mechanistic rules. This is very complicated. Changing the way people think often has to do with religious and cultural issues–we tend to think of them as long-term, and Americans think, Let’s solve the problem in the next four years!"
I thought of this as I read the following two paragraphs, from an essay the great German sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about terrorism in Germany in the 1970s. Elias, whose specialty was the study of how social norms develop and change, had the following to say about the Weimar Republic:
The transition from the still-halfway-absolutist regime of the Kaiser and King to the parliamentary regime of the Weimar Republic came very suddenly. For large parts of the public, it came totally unexpectedly, and was joined with extremely unpleasant associations — the loss of a war. Basically, many Germans had contempt for a form of government which was based on struggles, negotiations and compromises between parties. They hated the "talking-shop" of Parliament where — so it seemed — delegates did nothing more than debate and deal. Freedom or no freedom, people longed for the comparatively simpler form of government in which all important political decisions were made by the strong man at the top. People could leave it to the man at the top to worry about the welfare of Germany. It was enough to concentrate on your own private life. From the very beginnings of the Weimar era many men and women actually did yearn for the man at the top — whether prince or dictator — who made decisions and gave orders. They yearned for him like a drug. They were addicted to him, and the withdrawal came very rapidly.
The unique characteristics of the adjustment to a parliamentary regime are easy to miss when, as often happens, one looks through an ideological lens at the advantages this form of government organization has in comparison to dictatorships. Very few people are actually aware that the weaning societies away from an order of things in which a symbolic ruler-figure bears responsibility for his subjects to a situation which requires the individual to exercise a limited form of responsibilty is a process of very long duration, which requires as crisis-free circumstances as possible, which lasts for at least three generations. European history provides many examples of the difficulty of such a re-orientation. One of the few countries in which the structure of parliament and the structure of the individual personality are relatively adapted to one another is England. And in the history of England one can well perceive the long process during which the adjustment took place. It occurred, in fact, extremely slowly, since the time when the son of a puritan dictator was required to give the reins of power to a newly-installed king who himself had been required to cede considerable powers.
[Norbert Elias, Studien Ueber die Deutschen, pp. 380-381; my translation].