|When Democracy Failed:
The warnings of history
"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat
it." -George Santayana
The 70th anniversary wasn't noticed in the United States,
and was barely reported in the corporate media. But the Germans remembered
well that fateful day seventy years ago - February 27, 1933. They commemorated
the anniversary by joining in demonstrations for peace that mobilized citizens
all across the world.
It started when the government, in the midst of a worldwide
economic crisis, received reports of an imminent terrorist attack. A foreign
ideologue had launched feeble attacks on a few famous buildings, but the
media largely ignored his relatively small efforts. The intelligence services
knew, however, that the odds were he would eventually succeed. (Historians
are still arguing whether or not rogue elements in the intelligence service
helped the terrorist; the most recent research implies they did not.)
But the warnings of investigators were ignored at the
highest levels, in part because the government was distracted; the man who
claimed to be the nation's leader had not been elected by a majority vote
and the majority of citizens claimed he had no right to the powers he coveted.
He was a simpleton, some said, a cartoon character of a man who saw things
in black-and-white terms and didn't have the intellect to understand the
subtleties of running a nation in a complex and internationalist world. His
coarse use of language - reflecting his political roots in a southernmost
state - and his simplistic and often-inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric
offended the aristocrats, foreign leaders, and the well-educated elite in
the government and media. And, as a young man, he'd joined a secret society
with an occult-sounding name and bizarre initiation rituals that involved
skulls and human bones.
Nonetheless, he knew the terrorist was going to strike
(although he didn't know where or when), and he had already considered his
response. When an aide brought him word that the nation's most prestigious
building was ablaze, he verified it was the terrorist who had struck and
then rushed to the scene and called a press conference.
"You are now witnessing the beginning of a great epoch
in history," he proclaimed, standing in front of the burned-out building,
surrounded by national media. "This fire," he said, his voice trembling with
emotion, "is the beginning." He used the occasion - "a sign from God," he
called it - to declare an all-out war on terrorism and its ideological sponsors,
a people, he said, who traced their origins to the Middle East and found
motivation for their evil deeds in their religion.
Two weeks later, the first detention center for terrorists
was built in Oranianberg to hold the first suspected allies of the infamous
terrorist. In a national outburst of patriotism, the leader's flag was
everywhere, even printed large in newspapers suitable for window
Within four weeks of the terrorist attack, the nation's
now-popular leader had pushed through legislation - in the name of combating
terrorism and fighting the philosophy he said spawned it - that suspended
constitutional guarantees of free speech, privacy, and habeas corpus. Police
could now intercept mail and wiretap phones; suspected terrorists could be
imprisoned without specific charges and without access to their lawyers;
police could sneak into people's homes without warrants if the cases involved
To get his patriotic "Decree on the Protection of People
and State" passed over the objections of concerned legislators and civil
libertarians, he agreed to put a 4-year sunset provision on it: if the national
emergency provoked by the terrorist attack was over by then, the freedoms
and rights would be returned to the people, and the police agencies would
be re-restrained. Legislators would later say they hadn't had time to read
the bill before voting on it.
Immediately after passage of the anti-terrorism act,
his federal police agencies stepped up their program of arresting suspicious
persons and holding them without access to lawyers or courts. In the first
year only a few hundred were interred, and those who objected were largely
ignored by the mainstream press, which was afraid to offend and thus lose
access to a leader with such high popularity ratings. Citizens who protested
the leader in public - and there were many - quickly found themselves confronting
the newly empowered police's batons, gas, and jail cells, or fenced off in
protest zones safely out of earshot of the leader's public speeches. (In
the meantime, he was taking almost daily lessons in public speaking, learning
to control his tonality, gestures, and facial expressions. He became a very
Within the first months after that terrorist attack,
at the suggestion of a political advisor, he brought a formerly obscure word
into common usage. He wanted to stir a "racial pride" among his countrymen,
so, instead of referring to the nation by its name, he began to refer to
it as "The Homeland," a phrase publicly promoted in the introduction to a
1934 speech recorded in Leni Riefenstahl's famous propaganda movie "Triumph
Of The Will." As hoped, people's hearts swelled with pride, and the beginning
of an us-versus-them mentality was sown. Our land was "the" homeland, citizens
thought: all others were simply foreign lands. We are the "true people,"
he suggested, the only ones worthy of our nation's concern; if bombs fall
on others, or human rights are violated in other nations and it makes our
lives better, it's of little concern to us.
Playing on this new nationalism, and exploiting a
disagreement with the French over his increasing militarism, he argued that
any international body that didn't act first and foremost in the best interest
of his own nation was neither relevant nor useful. He thus withdrew his country
from the League Of Nations in October, 1933, and then negotiated a separate
naval armaments agreement with Anthony Eden of The United Kingdom to create
a worldwide military ruling elite.
His propaganda minister orchestrated a campaign to ensure
the people that he was a deeply religious man and that his motivations were
rooted in Christianity. He even proclaimed the need for a revival of the
Christian faith across his nation, what he called a "New Christianity." Every
man in his rapidly growing army wore a belt buckle that declared "Gott Mit
Uns" - God Is With Us - and most of them fervently believed it was true.
Within a year of the terrorist attack, the nation's
leader determined that the various local police and federal agencies around
the nation were lacking the clear communication and overall
coordinatedadministration necessary to deal with the terrorist threat facing
the nation, particularly those citizens who were of Middle Eastern ancestry
and thus probably terrorist and communist sympathizers, and various troublesome
"intellectuals" and "liberals." He proposed a single new national agency
to protect the security of the homeland, consolidating the actions of dozens
of previously independent police, border, and investigative agencies under
a single leader.
He appointed one of his most trusted associates to be
leader of this new agency, the Central Security Office for the homeland,
and gave it a role in the government equal to the other major
His assistant who dealt with the press noted that, since
the terrorist attack, "Radio and press are at out disposal." Those voices
questioning the legitimacy of their nation's leader, or raising questions
about his checkered past, had by now faded from the public's recollection
as his central security office began advertising a program encouraging people
to phone in tips about suspicious neighbors. This program was so successful
that the names of some of the people "denounced" were soon being broadcast
on radio stations. Those denounced often included opposition politicians
and celebrities who dared speak out - a favorite target of his regime and
the media he now controlled through intimidation and ownership by corporate
To consolidate his power, he concluded that government
alone wasn't enough. He reached out to industry and forged an alliance, bringing
former executives of the nation's largest corporations into high government
positions. A flood of government money poured into corporate coffers to fight
the war against the Middle Eastern ancestry terrorists lurking within the
homeland, and to prepare for wars overseas. He encouraged large corporations
friendly to him to acquire media outlets and other industrial concerns across
the nation, particularly those previously owned by suspicious people of Middle
Eastern ancestry. He built powerful alliances with industry; one corporate
ally got the lucrative contract worth millions to build the first large-scale
detention center for enemies of the state. Soon more would follow. Industry
But after an interval of peace following the terrorist
attack, voices of dissent again arose within and without the government.
Students had started an active program opposing him (later known as the White
Rose Society), and leaders of nearby nations were speaking out against his
bellicose rhetoric. He needed a diversion, something to direct people away
from the corporate cronyism being exposed in his own government, questions
of his possibly illegitimate rise to power, and the oft-voiced concerns of
civil libertarians about the people being held in detention without due process
or access to attorneys or family.
With his number two man - a master at manipulating the
media - he began a campaign to convince the people of the nation that a
small,limited war was necessary. Another nation was harboring many of the
suspicious Middle Eastern people, and even though its connection with the
terrorist who had set afire the nation's most important building was tenuous
at best, it held resources their nation badly needed if they were to have
room to live and maintain their prosperity. He called a press conference
and publicly delivered an ultimatum to the leader of the other nation, provoking
an international uproar. He claimed the right to strike preemptively in
self-defense, and nations across Europe - at first - denounced him for it,
pointing out that it was a doctrine only claimed in the past by nations seeking
worldwide empire, like Caesar's Rome or Alexander's Greece.
It took a few months, and intense international debate
and lobbying with European nations, but, after he personally met with the
leader of the United Kingdom, finally a deal was struck. After the military
action began, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the nervous British
people that giving in to this leader's new first-strike doctrine would bring
"peace for our time."
Thus Hitler annexed Austria in a lightning move, riding
a wave of popular support as leaders so often do in times of war. The Austrian
government was unseated and replaced by a new leadership friendly to Germany,
and German corporations began to take over Austrian resources.
In a speech responding to critics of the invasion, Hitler
said, "Certain foreign newspapers have said that we fell on Austria with
brutal methods. I can only say; even in death they cannot stop lying. I have
in the course of my political struggle won much love from my people, but
when I crossed the former frontier [into Austria] there met me such a stream
of love as I have never experienced. Not as tyrants have we come, but as
To deal with those who dissented from his policies,
at the advice of his politically savvy advisors, he and his handmaidens in
the press began a campaign to equate him and his policies with patriotism
and the nation itself. National unity was essential, they said, to ensure
that the terrorists or their sponsors didn't think they'd succeeded in splitting
the nation or weakening its will. In times of war, they said, there could
be only "one people, one nation, and one commander-in-chief" ("Ein Volk,
ein Reich, ein Fuhrer"), and so his advocates in the media began a nationwide
campaign charging that critics of his policies were attacking the nation
itself. Those questioning him were labeled "anti-German" or "not good Germans,"
and it was suggested they were aiding the enemies of the state by failing
in the patriotic necessity of supporting the nation's valiant men in uniform.
It was one of his most effective ways to stifle dissent and pit wage-earning
people (from whom most of the army came) against the "intellectuals and liberals"
who were critical of his policies.
Nonetheless, once the "small war" annexation of Austria
was successfully and quickly completed, and peace returned, voices of opposition
were again raised in the Homeland. The almost-daily release of news bulletins
about the dangers of terrorist communist cells wasn't enough to rouse the
populace and totally suppress dissent. A full-out war was necessary to divert
public attention from the growing rumbles within the country about disappearing
dissidents; violence against liberals, Jews, and union leaders; and the epidemic
of crony capitalism that was producing empires of wealth in the corporate
sector but threatening the middle class's way of life.
A year later, to the week, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia;
the nation was now fully at war, and all internal dissent was suppressed
in the name of national security. It was the end of Germany's first experiment
As we conclude this review of history, there are a few
milestones worth remembering.
February 27, 2003, was the 70th anniversary of Dutch
terrorist Marinus van der Lubbe's successful firebombing of the German Parliament
(Reichstag) building, the terrorist act that catapulted Hitler to legitimacy
and reshaped the German constitution. By the time of his successful and brief
action to seize Austria, in which almost no German blood was shed, Hitler
was the most beloved and popular leader in the history of his nation. Hailed
around the world, he was later Time magazine's "Man Of The Year."
Most Americans remember his office for the security
of the homeland, known as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt and its SchutzStaffel,
simply by its most famous agency's initials: the SS.
We also remember that the Germans developed a new form
of highly violent warfare they named "lightning war" or blitzkrieg, which,
while generating devastating civilian losses, also produced a highly desirable
"shock and awe" among the nation's leadership according to the authors of
the 1996 book "Shock And Awe" published by the National Defense University
Reflecting on that time, The American Heritage
Dictionary(Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983) left us this definition of the
form of government the German democracy had become through Hitler's close
alliance with the largest German corporations and his policy of using war
as a tool to keep power: fas-cism (fbsh'iz'em) n. A system of government
that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the
merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent
Today, as we face financial and political crises, it's
useful to remember that the ravages of the Great Depression hit Germany and
the United States alike. Through the 1930s, however, Hitler and Roosevelt
chose very different courses to bring their nations back to power and
Germany's response was to use government to empower
corporations and reward the society's richest individuals, privatize much
of the commons, stifle dissent, strip people of constitutional rights, and
create an illusion of prosperity through continual and ever-expanding war.
America passed minimum wage laws to raise the middle class, enforced anti-trust
laws to diminish the power of corporations, increased taxes on corporations
and the wealthiest individuals, created Social Security, and became the employer
of last resort through programs to build national infrastructure, promote
the arts, and replant forests.
To the extent that our Constitution is still intact,
the choice is again ours.
Thom Hartmann lived and worked in Germany during the
1980s, and is the author of over a dozen books, including "Unequal Protection"
and "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight." This article is copyright by Thom
Hartmann,but permission is granted for reprint in print, email, blog, or
web media so long as this credit is attached.