When Democracy Failed:
The Warnings of History
by Thom Hartmann
CommonDreams.org, March 16,
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 display.
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 terrorism.
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 competent
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 sewn. 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 coordinated administration 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 departments.
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 allies.
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.
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 into 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
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 with democracy.
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:
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 Press.
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 nationalism."
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 prosperity.
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.